“I did not know Daddy lit the fuse for those riots when the city burned for two days and nights.” A short story where the regrets and actions of a father reverberate into the life of his daughter…
by: Jayson Carcione
Daddy takes me to the old neighborhood. He wants to show me where he killed a boy.
Leaves fall from the shedding trees in the nearby park and decay in the gutters of the avenue. A sharp taste of October catches the back of my throat. The yuppified tenements and brownstones shimmer with dusk light. I like the sound of leaves under my feet and I know Daddy does too. He always visits this time of year. He misses the autumn, the change of seasons, a vanishing world.
Daddy has never looked better. Life in Sicily has been good to him. He wears a tan-colored suit over a v-necked forest green cashmilon sweater. A light breeze plays with his ocean of silver hair. He looks like an elder fox in chestnut brogues. He moves like one too, sleek and sure-footed through the streets he cannot forget, even after fifteen years in Sicily.
I plod at Daddy’s side, arms folded across my belly. I haven’t told him about the miscarriage. My back burns, my womb is broken. I’ve put on some weight, but Daddy is too kind to say anything about it. He asks about my wife and mentions his enlarged prostate. It’s nothing serious but the doctors are keeping an eye on it.
I am surprised Daddy asked about my wife. He has never shown any interest in her before and never asked for her during our semi-annual Skype calls or monthly emails. I came out when I was twenty. That was the year everything happened. I told him I liked women the way he liked women and he cried. He took early retirement from the force, divorced Mamma, and moved to Sicily a month later. I don’t think it had to do with my coming out. For two years I heard nothing from him. For two years, he restored his grandparent’s old farmhouse in the Nebrodi. For two years, Mamma fought the cancer that killed her. He came back for the funeral and has visited me every year since. We always meet in the city. I come in from the north shore, from a ramshackle colonial house overlooking Peconic Bay. He stays in an art deco hotel near Grand Central Station. He likes the anonymity, the novelty of staying in a hotel in the city he once called home. He calls Sicily his true home now. He is anxious to return and check on the olive trees outside of his farmhouse. I have never been to Sicily. Every year, Daddy invites us and every year, I make up an excuse.
Daddy strokes his cheeks, his skin the color of his suit and smooth like saddle soaped leather. He lays a finger on his upper lip. His mustache is long gone but I still see him with it in my little girl’s mind. I used to call him Daddy Walrus. His gaze lingers on street lights, parked cars, shopfronts, and darkening doorways. I know he still sees the city through a cop’s eyes. He still expects to find a body in a dumpster, hear gunshots in the night. He thumps the bulge under his jacket. For a moment, I think he’s packing, but he’s just making sure his wallet is still there. We stop and Daddy grabs my arm. He is caught in imaginary headlights. A senior moment, he calls it. He was sure the Italian bakery and the bodega would still be here. The strip club is long gone, replaced by a hipster coffee joint by day, wine bar by night. Evening stirs. I watch the first shadows creep over the rooftops, rise from manhole covers. I wish I was back with my wife watching the sun set over the bay.
The wine bar has a powder blue tin ceiling with a black rose pattern. It’s the first thing Daddy notices when we enter but I find it overwhelming. It makes my head ache. The walls are paneled in stained oak, each table glows with a green shaded banker’s lamp. Rows of copper industrial lighting drip orange light. There are a few customers, most of them caught in the glare of their phones. Daddy looks at two men holding hands at the bar. One man is clean shaven, the other wears Daddy’s old mustache. He nuzzles the ear of the clean shaven man. Daddy watches them laugh and looks at me. I don’t know why. I watch the woman working the bar. She sits on a stool under a rainbow flag and a neon light shaped like a martini with a blinking olive. She wears a purple tank top, arms the color of Daddy’s suit. The neck of her tank top is deep and I stare at the tattoo across the ridge of her cleavage. It’s a riff on Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, except God is a bare chested woman with silver hair and Adam is a naked woman with a medusa’s head. Their fingers touch in the middle of her sternum. Daddy can’t take his eyes off her but he manages to order a bottle of red and a cheese board.
We sit at a round table near the window. Shadows walk by through the frosted glass. The banker’s lamp throws green light over his lip and I want to call him Daddy Walrus again. Lines deepen across his forehead in the light, crow’s feet scratch around his eyes. Daddy savors his wine, ignoring the cheese board. He shows me pictures of his olive trees on his phone. He talks about catching a Yankees game, stocking up on books. He has no friends to visit. I show him a selfie of me and Lupe on a beach last year. We stood under the ruins of Tulum, not far from where Lupe grew up in Mexico. We were positively aglow. We had just found out I was pregnant. After months of trying, the donor sperm finally took inside me. The promise of that day stretched beyond the shimmering horizon. I was so very happy.
I sip my wine. It is bitter. I want to spit it out. Daddy polishes off a third glass and finally stabs a meaty slab of provolone. He leans into me, looks around me to make sure no one is listening, and whispers. “I still see the boy.”
Daddy sits back. The wine glass trembles. He grips the stem to steady it. He drains the glass as the color drains from his face. His eyelids twitch. I think he is going to cry but I have never seen him cry. I stare through the empty wine glass, his mouth is distorted on the other side. Daddy sighs and loses a hand in his impeccable hair. I imagine the bar goes quiet, which of course it doesn’t. There is music, laughter, the dull hum of chit chat, the rumble of cars along Pleasant Avenue. No one cares we are here. No one cares what he tells me.
He was the prince of the neighborhood, so proud to be walking a beat where he ran wild as a boy. Everybody knew him, everybody liked him, even the Puerto Rican families. He loved being a cop, loved tapping his baton against his shining badge for the kids. He liked the chaos of the neighborhood. There was an order to it, a balance and he saw himself as the fulcrum. He ignored the men shooting craps and running numbers but he wasn’t above shaking down a drug dealer or two or letting his palms get greased over parking tickets. We were across the river in Queens then but Daddy’s parents still lived on E. 118 street and he visited them every day. Mama and I visited them every weekend for dinner. That was all I really knew of the neighborhood, that little dead end patch of the cobblestoned street where we ate eggplant parm on Sundays.
It is high summer, when anything can happen. The air is thick and sultry. No breeze from the river. Occasional claps of thunder break the night sky. Rolling blackouts are the norm. People see the stars for the first time. Daddy is nearing the end of his shift. Evening brings no comfort, heat rises from the stinking streets. He has a slice at Patsy’s and a couple of beers before knocking off. What’s the harm? He downs the frosty mugs.
He struts down Pleasant Avenue. The punishing heat keeps his head in a vice. He steps over a dead pigeon on the sidewalk, hisses at the cat slinking away, its mouth full of feathers. He gently slides the pigeon into the gutter. Across the avenue, old Mrs. Pellegrini beckons and he helps carry her groceries to her dingy apartment. Back on the avenue, he is sluggish. He can’t face the commute back to Queens and decides to spend the night with his parents. He buys a six pack of Schaefer from a bodega, flirts with the girl behind the counter. He knows he looks good in his uniform and he makes the most of it. Young men loiter outside. He doesn’t know them from the neighborhood and that makes him suspicious. They are laughing. They are bare-chested, brawny, flush with victory from a recent game of basketball. One of them swaggers into the bodega. His skin is tight. All muscle. Daddy remembers when he looked like that. He seems younger than the rest. He says something to the girl in Spanish. Daddy is sure it is about him. He goes outside, cheeks burning. The boy’s buddies stop laughing. Daddy eyeballs them and drops his hand to the baton hanging from his waist belt. He makes sure they see it. Daddy nods and turns. He is halfway down the street when he hears an eruption of laughter from outside the bodega. A street light flickers into life overhead. Footsteps behind him, fast and furious. Daddy turns to find the boy from the bodega nearly on top of him. Daddy lunges out of the way and the boy keeps running at a lightning pace. Daddy shakes his head and mutters a string of obscenities under his walrus mustache. He shouts at the boy but he does not stop. Daddy shouts again and takes his gun from the holster. The boy stops but does not turn around. Daddy sees something in the boy’s left hand. A flash of metal? Daddy is sure it is a gun. The boy raises his left hand but does not turn. Daddy raises his weapon and shoots the boy in the back. People scream on the avenue and take cover. Daddy empties the chamber of his gun into the boy. He runs over to the twitching body, smoke rising from the burning muzzle of his gun. He stands over the boy. Sirens draw closer. He stares at the open palm of the boy’s left hand. He cannot take his eyes off the cherry red popsicle. It is the same color as the boy’s blood on the pavement.
Daddy is telling me this and I see everything happening in slow motion.
Daddy closes his eyes. His chin stabs his chest. He cannot look at me. I pour him another glass of wine. I don’t know what else to do. He lifts his head. His eyes are dry but I am weeping. I remember the riots that happened after the shooting. I remember Mama turning off the TV whenever the images flashed on the screen. I was not allowed near newspapers. I never knew why I stayed home from school for weeks. Why Daddy was transferred to a desk job on Staten Island. Why we moved to New Jersey. I did not know Daddy lit the fuse for those riots when the city burned for two days and nights. I did not know Daddy was a murderer. He was never charged with shooting the boy. His buddy from the precinct put a .32 in the boy’s hand. Cops didn’t go to jail back then.
Daddy points out the window and says it happened there, across the avenue. His hand is steady but my knees are shaking under the table. I excuse myself and go to the restroom. It has the same powder blue tin ceiling above the drinks area where Daddy is sipping his wine. I throw up in one of the gleaming toilets. The rim of the toilet bowl smells like lemon. I return to the table and Daddy has paid the bill and left a generous tip. I sit across from him but I long to escape and run back to my wife. I want us to try again. I know Daddy wants me to say something but I fish an ice cube out of a water glass and drop it into my mouth.
“I see him every day,” he whispers. “Oh I do regret it. I regret so many things. But I can live with my regrets in Sicily.”
I wait for him to cry. I so want him to cry.
“So many regrets…” he says again. I shove another ice cube into my mouth. I wince as it touches a molar filling.
“…but that poor kid shouldn’t have been in the neighborhood. Trouble was bound to happen. That’s just the way it was then.”
I bite down. I don’t know if it is the ice that has cracked or a tooth. I taste blood on my tongue. I stand up. Daddy buys a round of drinks for everyone in the bar and follows me out into the autumn night.
“It’s all alright,” he whispers into my ear. His voice is cracked as he leans in for a clumsy farewell. “My prostate will explode soon.” He kisses me on the cheek and I feel the scratch of his long lost mustache. He says he will email me when he’s back in Sicily. He pulls away, turns and blows me a kiss before the night swallows him. I text my wife. I tell her how much I love her. I cross the avenue and stand in the spot where my father killed a boy. There is nothing here to mark his passing. I expect to see the boy’s ghost but it is Daddy that haunts me, his shadow stains the pavement. Maybe he can live with his regrets, but I can’t.
I want to ring Lupe but I am ringing Daddy. I never said goodbye. I let the phone ring twice before hanging up. I cannot say goodbye. How do you say goodbye to a murderer?
Born in New Jersey and raised in New York, Jayson Carcione now lives in Cork, Ireland, where he works for the Irish Examiner newspaper. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Forge, Lunate and Pigeon Review. His work was also highly commended in the 2020 Sean O’Faoláin International Short Story Competition. He was awarded a Munster Literature Centre Mentoring Fellowship (Fiction) in 2022.