Grasping, hoping, “How’s about tonight? Can I see you tonight?”
“Nah. I’d really like to, but, uh, we’re packin’ and I gotta help my folks.”
“Oh. Oh, well. Gosh, Ina, I’m sorry.”
He’s sorry again. “Yeah, me, too. Well, if we ever move back, maybe I’ll see you sometime.”
“Yeah,” disappointed. “Well, bye, Ina.” Breaking the connection, sitting back, looking at the phone a moment, Mitchell peeled the dark frosting off one of the cupcakes and, slowly, savoring the chocolate, ate it, then, taking another scrap of paper from his wallet, dialed Frank Rizzo.
A youthful, feminine voice answered, “Hello.”
“Uh,” picking on the frosting of the second cupcake, “this the Rizzo residence?”
“Yes. Who’s calling?”
“Is Frankie home?”
The line silent a moment, “Who’s calling?” the young woman asked again.
Breaking the frosting, putting half into his mouth, “Mitchell.”
“Mitchell? You a friend of Frankies?”
“Yeah, we went to military school together, during the war.”
“Oh, that Mitchell!” Her voice sounding oddly flat, “This is Cynthia, Frank’s sister.”
That Mitchell? “Oh, yes, Cynthia! I visited your house….” thinking, God, was it two years ago? “…two years ago. Frankie wanted me to meet you, but you were away, at school or someplace.”
“Retreat.” Assuming he knew she meant, “I was away at retreat.”
“Oh.” Having no idea what Cynthia meant by retreat. “Oh, yeah. Your mom’n’dad, they’re okay?”
“Mitchell, when’s the last time you talked to my brother?”
“I don’t know.” He did, though. It was two years ago when he got on the streetcar and he and Frank said goodbye. Picking the second half of the frosting off the cupcake, “It’s been a while, I guess.”
“Yeah, I’ll say it’s been a while… Frank’s dead.”
“My baby brother,” her voice catching, “is dead.”
“Cynthia, I, I…” Dead? How can Frankie be dead? He’s only a kid! Stunned, his fingers opening, the frosting dropped to the floor. “Dead! Cynthia, Frankie’s a kid! How can he be dead?”
“Yeah. Well that kid joined the Marines and got sent to Korea.”
“How? You’ve got to be seventeen, at least!” Remembering that Frank was, almost a year older than himself. “Oh, my God! Cynthia, I’m so sorry! What happened? Uh, if you want to talk about it.”
“He stepped on a land mine. A pal of his called when he got back to the States and told us. Thanks be to Jesus it happened fast and he never knew what hit him.”
“Cynthia, I…” feeling his throat thickening and his eyes burning, he didn’t know what to say.
“Please, tell your Mom and Dad I called and that I’m sorry. Oh, God, I’m sorry… Goodbye, Cynthia.”
Replacing the receiver he stared at the wall a few moments, then, as if in a trance, walking to the sofa, folding his legs beneath him, resting his chin on his crossed arms on the back of the sofa, staring out the window, seeing nothing, How can Frankie be dead? Kids don’t die. Kids’ friends don’t die!
No one he knew had ever died. Death, to Mitchell, was a complete abstract. Death was something detached from himself. Death was something that happened to Nazis, Japs and bad guys in movies. Death was something that happened to faceless voices on the radio. Dead! To be gone! To never see or talk to again! Never! Too inconceivable to comprehend. I’ll never see or talk to Frankie again? Slowly, the realization sinking in, No! How can that be?
Sounds in the hall.
The door opening, Walter, Lawrence and thirteen-month-old Morton, in Myra’s arms, came into the apartment.
Trying to keep his emotions under control, Mitchell went to his family.
Seeing his bloodshot eyes and the look of terrible sadness on his face, grasping her baby tighter, frightened, her voice high-pitched, “Ma?” Myra asked. “Pa?”
Unable to speak, shaking his head no, for the first time since he was five, going to his father, putting his arms around his neck, laying his head on Walter’s shoulder, Mitchell cried.
Living with Mitchell, seeing him every day, Walter hadn’t seen him grow nor noticed how tall he’d become, now, being held in his embrace he realized that his son was taller than himself and, being held in another man’s emotional embrace embarrassing him, his arms hanging awkwardly at his sides, “Mitchell, what’s wrong?” he asked.
Sitting Morton on the floor, going to her eldest son, “Mitchie,” putting her hand on his shoulder, “tell us! What’s the matter?”
Crying, barely able to speak… “Frankie.”
Spotting the piece of chocolate frosting on the floor, crawling to it, Morton shoved it in his mouth, and a brown, frothy drool dribbled down his chin, onto his light-blue spring jacket.
“What’s wrong with Frankie?”
Moving his face from Walter’s shoulder, “Mom, he’s dead.”
Shocked, but at the same time relieved that it wasn’t her mother or father, taking a deep, relaxing breath, “What happened?”
Attempting to speak, Mitchell gulped air.
Walter barely remembered Frank Rizzo, and only because this was affecting his son so badly did the death of this one person affect him more than that of any stranger.
“Mitchell, calm down.” Moving him from his shoulder, holding him at arms length. “Tell us what happened.”
Forcing himself to stop crying, “F-Frankie joined the Marines. Got shipped to Korea, and got killed by a land mine.”
“Oh, Mitchie, I’m so sorry!” Turning him in her direction, putting her arms about him, “I know he was a good friend.” Trying to console him, “What a shame. Shhh.” Patting him on the back, “Shhh.”
Hissing, “Bastards!” in her ear. “Fuckin’ bastards!”
“What?” Not sure she’d heard what she knew she heard, shocked, Myra looked at her son. “Mitchell, what did you say?”
Breaking from his mother’s arms, “Fuckin’ bastards.” Speaking softly, venomously, looking from his mother to his father to his six-year-old brother. “Fuckin’, gook, commie, bastards!” Speaking faster, louder, “He was right! Martinez was right! He said we ought’a drop the fuckin’ A bomb on the whole fuckin’ country and kill all those fuckin, sonsabitchin’, commie bastards!” Catching himself, remembering where he was and whom he was with, stopping suddenly, he tried to calm himself.
Holding his hand to his mouth, “Ohhh,” Lawrence said, “Mitchie said the ‘F’n’ word, a whole bunch’a times.”
Seeing the shocked look on his mother’s face, “Mom, I’m sorry, but they killed my friend.” Turning from his family, rushing to his room, Mitchell slammed the door shut.
Myra began to follow, but…
Seeing his pain, a sudden sense of empathy causing a bond Walter hadn’t before felt for his son. “Wait.” Stopping his wife, “Give him a while to calm down and I’ll go talk to him in a few minutes.”
When the sound of sobbing stopped, “Mitchell,” knocking on the door, “can I come in?”
A deep sigh coming from behind the door, “Yeah, Dad.”
Opening the door, Walter went into the room.
“Okay to sit?”
Moving aside, making room for his father, “Yes. Sure.”
“Mitchell, I know we don’t talk much…”
“Yeah,” forcing a smile, “the last time you told me about the birds and the bees.”
“Yeah. Well I think it’s time I told you about the other side of the birds and bees story. This may sound strange to you, but the other side of the story is that everyone who’s born has got to die. Thing is, we all hope to die in our proper time. Problem is, no one knows when the proper time is and we all want it to be some other time. Bubby and Pa have lived long lives and, unless something bad happens, when they die it’ll be their proper time. I hope your mother and brothers, and you and me, too, are as lucky as Bubby and Pa and we die only after long lives, and in our proper time.”
Feeling the tightening in his throat again because, though he knew they would, he’d never allowed himself to think of life without his parents, to think of his mother and father dying. Then again he’d never thought that a friend of his would die either.
“Thing is,” going on, Walter said, “sometimes we do die at a time that doesn’t seem proper, like your friend, Frankie. It’s a real bad thing that he had to die, but who knows, maybe, if you think about it, maybe it was Frank’s proper time to die… You understand what I’m saying?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“I guess, to make it real easy, when you talk about dying, what you’re really talking about is living, too.”
Slightly confused, “Death,” Mitchell asked, “that’s life?”
“You got it.” Smiling, reaching to him, doing something Mitchell could not remember his father ever doing, tousling his son’s hair, Walter said, “That’s life, kid.”
A “Becoming” Excerpt.
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