Joe Scalia, twice divorced, is the father of four grown children and grandfather of five grandchildren. Born and raised in Borough Park, Brooklyn, he lives in Farmingdale, Long Island, where he taught English and Creative Writing for 33 years to reluctant junior and senior high school students. He has published five books: the novels Freaks and Pearl and three short story collections, No Strings Attached, Brooklyn Family Scenes and Scalia vs. The Universe or My Life and Hard Times.
Dear Janine, Ian, Jesse and Mikki,
Before lunch, Mrs. Higgins, the owner, introduced me to her son, Junior, who had just returned after a morning “doing chores” with his father. Junior, 13, was kind of geeky and by my standards hardly cool, but we hit it off okay and I was glad to have somebody almost my own age to hang out with.
It was Mr. Higgins who promised to make that an unforgettable summer for me. He was tall and thin, wore a straw cowboy hat and drove a beat-up pickup truck. He lived in his faded jeans and denim jacket. His hands were strong and hard and callused, and his face leather-lined. He smoked Lucky Strikes, and he let the cigarette hang in the corner of his mouth when he talked. He never said much, but when he did, his tone had a quiet toughness. He smelled of tobacco and the sweat of hard work. He was a real man, the father any 14 year old would want. Junior had to be the luckiest kid in the world.
My parents saw little of me that whole week. Instead, I got up early every morning to tag along with Mr. Higgins and Junior. I helped with chores. I raked hay, fed chickens and cleaned out stables. I worked harder that vacation than I ever worked at home. Afternoons I bounced around the rutted fields in the back of the pickup, while the smoke from Mr. Higgins’ cigarettes blew past me in the wind.
My father watched me from the area reserved for guests. “Be careful,” he called whenever I rode by, standing in the open truck. “Hold on!”
Labor Day morning, before we left for home, Mr. Higgins came out of the house holding two old .22 rifles and a box of shells. “Why don’t you boys run off and see what you can shoot,” he said, handing a rifle and some shells to each of us.
I had never seen a real gun before. My parents were opposed to guns. My father refused even to let me have the Daisy B-B gun I wanted to order from the back of my comic books.
We ran off into the trees and down the path. There, we pumped a few shots into the back of an old abandoned car wreck rusting away in the bottom of a ravine.
“Come on,” Junior said, “let’s go down to the creek” — crick he pronounced it — “and shoot some frogs.” He led the way to the little stream where guests sometimes went to swim. We could hear the frogs croaking in the brush and the shallow water on the other side of the creek.
We had been shooting in the direction of the sounds for half an hour without hitting anything. The guns made lots of noise and our shots kicked up water like little geysers. I was loading up when I saw my father coming down the path toward us. I could feel my face getting red with annoyance at his intrusion as he approached.
“Mr. Higgins told me you were out hunting,” he said eyeing the guns. “And I was worried . . .”
I pulled the trigger and the sound made my father flinch.
“That’s really loud,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be so loud. I could hear the sounds all the way back at the house.”
Another loud pop made him blink again. “Mind if I try?” he asked.
That really surprised me. I handed him my gun and held it tentatively, as if it might turn on him at any second. He lifted his glasses to the top of his head and sighted down the barrel, pointing at the water. Then he pulled the trigger, but nothing happened.
“Take the safety off first,” I said, feeling a little superior, knowledgeable in the face of his ignorance.
“What are you hunting for?” he asked, locating the safety and slipping it off with his thumb.
“Bull frogs,” Junior said.
Then, as if on cue, we heard a loud croak from across the creek. My father turned and shot in one smooth motion. The bullet made a splash in the water twenty yards away and a surprised frog plopped against the far bank, most of its insides on its outsides. Its legs twitched wildly as it tried in vain to hop away. Junior’s jaw dropped open in admiration. I was in disbelieving awe at his perfect shot. And then I turned and looked into my father’s face. He had put the gun down on the rocks, and tears welled up in his eyes as he watched the struggling frog.
Junior looked from the wriggling frog to my father’s tearing face and then to me and laughed. The rage boiled up inside of me. I kicked at a bunch of stones and rushed past both of them with my head down. Like my father, I was crying too, but for very different reasons.
I stormed back to the room and sulked, sullen and silent, until a taxi finally arrived to take us to the bus depot. I left without saying good-bye to Junior or Mr. Higgins. My mother asked what was wrong, but I kept my mouth shut, and my father just stared out the window. The ride back home was nothing but silence.
P.S. – Please see part 3 tomorrow.