Even earlier than Charlie across the street, Jack headed for the postal facility in North Philadelphia in his ‘61 Dodge Polara—the only good thing he ever got from his old man although it was ugly as sin. He had a grimy but trouble-free drive right past where he grew up in Roxborough, a town he was no longer welcome in. Good riddance, he’d think. Miserable fucking place full of miserable fucking people. Twenty minutes later, at 5:30, Charlie backed out in his Mustang and headed eighteen miles up the pike to Atlas Plastics in Pottstown.
Jack and Charlie were thirty years apart, but both were sorters, directing the mail or rolls of plastic into the distribution chain. Both had coffee on board and had taken aspirin, both listened to Mitch Finnegan, who read through the Philadelphia Inquirer’s headlines and made jokes about Washington or sometimes expressed sympathy for local families that had children shot or sometimes mocked Frank Rizzo, mayor of Philadelphia, questioning whether he was the worst man on earth or only the next worst: “Decide for yourself, but Frankie’s a contender.”
After work, Jack prowled around the living room ostensibly helping Susie, his fourth grader, with her arithmetic and civics and so forth. With one eye he’d watch his wife, Janna, prepare dinner in the kitchen and with the other he’d look across the street at Charlie’s house on its little hillside, waiting for Charlie’s mother-in-law, Moon, to show up. “Here comes the Moon!” he’d whoop. Somehow Moon married three well-off guys, all dead (probably from trying to keep up with her), and even now, in her early seventies, she’d pull up in her Buick with some new flame and go into Charlie and Sunny’s house and stir things up. Sunny was Moon’s daughter, a good-humored cackler who cooked A-plus stuff and who, like her mother, wanted to get something out of life, every minute of it.
Jack ate Janna’s saggy, overcooked dinner and rushed through the chores she had listed on the refrigerator. She was one hell of a good Catholic—confession, mass, rhythm method, et cetera—though marrying a Catholic is what ultimately got Jack banished from Roxborough. To Jack’s family Catholics were micks, fish-eaters, mackerel-snappers, priest-fuckers and wops. Janna wouldn’t allow a can of beer in the house, which only added to Jack’s itch to get over to Charlie’s each night.
“Knock, knock!” he’d call, already in the front door, laughing his hoarse loony laugh.
In the winter, people would be in the rambler’s small living room or sitting on stools at the passthrough to the kitchen. In the summer, they’d be out back on the screen porch.
Either way, Charlie would say, “Let me get you a beer,” as he did for everyone, or he’d fix mixed drinks, depending on what Moon and her beau wanted. But for Jack it was a few cans of beer, and they’d spend an hour discussing what Mitch Finnegan had said that morning and adding their own two cents.
Unbelievably, Moon was still a babe—wow up top, wow down below—and she gave the losers she brought along a hard time. If they weren’t losers, she made them look like losers. Jack and Charlie exchanged glances over this. The wise let Moon do her thing. If she got too schnockered, she’d spend the night with Mr. X. in Charlie’s spare bedroom. Charlie didn’t like that. He told Jack he was glad he fell asleep fast and was out of the house before the two of them started crowding the rambler’s single bathroom.
He’d slip out, see Jack’s Polara already was gone, put on Mitch Finnegan, and watch the speed limit. Why hurry? You didn’t know what it was to work in a plastics factory until you pulled a shift. Then you knew. Forever. First, monitor the pouring, then the cooling, then the rolling, then the stacking and forklifting and the drive to the loading dock…then over again… then over again. While you were at one stage, someone else was ahead of you and someone else was behind you, and you never talked because of your mask with its walrus tusk canisters. So you signaled, and snafus were wicked. Men jumping in every direction, fending off rolls of plastic with their feet, heaving them up like pillars and waving frantically for help before they were pinned against the wall. A shift took everything Charlie had. He was sixty. Always had a headache from the night before. Always had to piss from the night before because he always needed water to wash out the booze.
He’d come home and shower and soap obsessively until Sunny yelled at him to stop. Then he’d dress as if he were going out, combing his sparse silver hair nicely, slapping on some Aqua Velva, and smelling whatever Sunny was getting ready—cutlets, burgers, spaghetti, pot roast, pork chops—before going in for his first beer and saying, “Wonder if the Moon’s coming tonight,” and Sunny saying, “Moon, not ‘the moon.’ ‘The moon’ is different from Moon.”
He liked Moon despite everything. He also liked his passthrough counter between the kitchen and the living room and he loved his screen porch in the back where the world had no way in. Charlie had his lot planted heavily in evergreens, with the corner dominated by a live Christmas tree, a blue spruce, he’d put in twelve years ago that now stood forty feet tall, almost ridiculous but beautiful. The lot sloped to the north. Down at the bottom by the forsythia he put up a four-foot pool for his daughter Angie that she never used but that Sunny would dip into on a hot summer night, buck-naked, and just rest there, her breasts floating, smoking a last cigarette. One more firefly, though orange, not yellow.
“And Jack will have something to say about Mitch Finnegan,” he’d say.
“I’m sure he will.”
“The kid could have been a Mitch Finnegan himself.”
“He’s thirty-five, no kid, and it’s just wisecracks he picks up at the post office. He repeats what he hears. He’s not that smart.”
“I’m not saying Mitch Finnegan is that smart, either, but like he says, he’s a contender.”
They’d both been married to someone else a long time ago. Two mistakes. Now they fit. Their three-bedroom rambler was tight but perfectly set up and in order. Sunny was an office director for a realtor and saw lots of opportunities to move, but why? If they moved, let it be to Florida, not somewhere else in Pennsylvania, hot in summer, freezing in winter.
One night Jack was glancing out the window and saw Moon pull up in front of Charlie’s and head his way, right at him. “Hey, here comes Moon,” he called to Janna, hooting his laugh. “This ought to be rich. Am I going to be her boyfriend tonight?”
Moon said she had a little refrigerator in her trunk and she wanted Jack to carry it around back to Charlie’s screen porch so he didn’t have to get up all the time and run into the kitchen for beers.
“But, Moon, he likes that. Gives him a chance to piss,” Jack said, laughing some more.
“I won it in a raffle. What would I do with it?”
“You don’t have no one with you tonight?”
She gave him the smile that had felled a hundred men. “No, I’m settling for you. Go around back while I go in the front door.”
Janna could hear this from the kitchen, but she didn’t come out. She would have had more children if Jack didn’t drink so much. Usually he fell into an odorous sleep, reeking of beer and cigarette smoke. In the morning she had to shove him to get him out of bed. “What’d I do? What’d I do?” he’d ask. “Not what did you do, what will you do?” she’d say, watching him sideways from her pillow as he put his hand on the wall and leaned forward to make sure he hit the toilet. Then he’d take his aspirin, brush his teeth, and groan through getting dressed and heading to Philly.
Jack hoisted out the refrigerator. He made a big show of staggering as if he’d fall under the weight, crying, “Oh, my God! Oh my God!” Then he snuck through Charlie’s evergreens and circled to the back porch, crouching low so as not to be seen out the kitchen window where Sunny was making her potato salad.
Along with the swimming pool and the evergreens, the refrigerator eased life for Charlie, not physically, but mentally. He also valued his multi-band Grundig radio that had more buttons than an accordion and his yellow Mustang convertible, which was just a car, but looked fun. If he was particularly morose—and that was Charlie at times—he’d think of standing on a destroyer deck in World War II and scanning the sky for kamikazes. Over the years this memory went from making him afraid, to making him proud of having downed a few, to making him think that there were worse things than where he’d ended up. Another semi-plus probably was Jack, who would say he had no father after marrying Janna, but he had Charlie, a better man than his old man ever was. This flattered Charlie but made him uncomfortable. No one could be your father except your father. If you didn’t know that, there was something wrong with you.
Charlie also could see Moon particularly liked Jack and Jack, after a few beers, liked her back despite having a pretty wife right across the street. He’d dance with Moon sometimes or hop up to refill her glass or light her cigarette. The refrigerator was a symbol of their closeness, the way they conspired to surprise Charlie with it, and maybe also the way Jack used it to snatch a few more cans of beer as the evening’s frolics progressed. Sometimes Jack walked Moon back out to her car, and she might, one shadowy night, have given him more than a little kiss. Standing in the front door, Charlie saw that with his own eyes. What did the two of them think they were doing? On the nights when Moon had one of her admirers along, Jack toned it down, letting Moon lead and Sunny bite into the conversation while the poor guy probably wished that he could move on to a tavern with Moon or maybe install himself permanently in her apartment in Raponikon.
Sunny wondered what Moon saw in them.
“You’re asking me?” Charlie said. “She’s your mother.”
“My father was a loser, the rest of them…losers.”
“Her husbands all had money. That’s not losing in my book.”
“My Wayne”—Sunny’s first husband—”was a loser. Cheating on me. What for? We had sex, we went to parties, we were okay.”
Charlie didn’t touch the subject of Wayne.
“You never want to talk about him,” she said.
“No, I do not.”
“You were married before, too, remember.”
“More than twenty years ago I met a girl right after I was discharged, and I didn’t know who she was. I still don’t.”
“It was just sex? I think sex is overrated.”
Charlie stayed off that subject, too. You did it, you didn’t talk about it. If Jack wanted to bitch to him privately about Janna in the sack, for instance, Charlie made the umpire’s signal that he was out—thumb back over his right shoulder. Then Jack would apologize and dig into himself for not appreciating what he had. Janna was sweet, Janna was pretty, only problem was she was a papist. “A what?” Charlie asked. “Follows the pope, papist,” Jack said. They did kibitz like that on occasions, just the two of them. Unions. Taxes. Bugs in the lawn. Sometimes daughters, though Charlie’s Angie was sixteen and Jack’s Susie was nine. “An entirely different set of questions,” Charlie would say. “I’ll bet,” Jack would say. They both had been teenage boys; no one had to tell them what Charlie faced or Jack was looking forward to. In a way, their silence captured the paradoxical mystery of things, the glissando of moments when certainty and uncertainty intertwined in a fleeting dance—companionship in the chaos.
When Moon died of a heart attack, Charlie and Jack and a couple of Moon’s stoutest boyfriends were her pallbearers. The lid had been closed on a rouged woman in a red dress wearing a pearl necklace and pearl earrings who really looked like she’d open her eyes and ask for another vodka tonic, except for the severity of her closed lips, which Charlie knew had been sewn or glued shut, something no one but an undertaker had ever managed.
They buried her beside her first husband, Raymond.
“Of all people,” Sunny said, “but he was my father.”
In her grief Sunny wanted to move to Florida right away. Charlie didn’t see how. Moon managed to leave them zip. He was five years from his pension. But for months Sunny went on about Florida, east coast or west coast, house or apartment? Although personally he hated looking at the sea, Charlie would like to take her there. He’d like to do a lot of things. Maybe get a ham radio operator’s license and talk to someone new. Definitely see Angie marry some guy with a future. But all he could count on for five more years was the rambler in the subdivision, the screen porch, the Grundig, the good food, the drinks, Mitch in the morning, Aqua Velva and beer at night.
“What if you pulled overtime?” Sunny asked.
He gave no indication of how angry that suggestion made him. Stillness.
“We could set your extra pay aside and speed things up,” she pressed. “I just don’t like it here anymore. I’m sick of it. All we’re going to do is die here like Moon.”
“I told you: We can go to Florida when I get my pension.”
Sunny gave him a disgusted look. “I can’t get overtime but you can. Would it make that much difference, a few extra hours a week?”
Charlie didn’t know how much they could get for their rambler, he didn’t know what things in Florida cost, and he missed Moon, too. Her and her oozy buddies. Losing her had made him mistrustful. Like a snafu at the plant or kamikazes in the oceanic sky, and what were his defenses? A few evergreens and the screening around the back porch.
Charlie said, “I wouldn’t know how to tell you how much I hate that plant. Sometimes I get to the parking lot after my shift, and I have to sit there smelling my goddamn sweat. I don’t trust myself to get out on the road.”
“Why not?” Sunny asked.
“Why not?” Jack intruded, pretty loaded on Charlie’s beer. “Because when we leave those places, it’s not like coming out of some office. You hurt everywhere from hauling bails and bins over and over again. Paper ain’t plastic, but I wish the world would shut up, I wish the world would stop sending letters, stop advertising, Jesus Christ, I hate Christmas. I wish the son of a bitch had never been born.”
“Better not say that around Janna,” Sunny said.
“Don’t I know it? Why do you think I come over here?”
“But it’s not the same without Moon,” Sunny said.
So true. Now that Moon was gone, it was as though Sunny were expanding, exploring her emptiness, grabbing at vacant space as if somewhere out there she’d find a handle. Some of Moon’s old beaus actually dropped by, and Sunny welcomed them as though she were happy to see them. Was she happy? Charlie didn’t know. Some were better guys than you might think now that they didn’t have Moon calling the shots. Others were just moochers. What Sunny and Charlie never stinted on was food and drink. That didn’t stop with Moon’s passing. Pretzels, cheese, cold cuts, any kind of drink, French fries, hot dogs, hamburgers, you name it.
Sunny began to ask Janna to come over. She needed a friend. Charlie had Jack. Sunny needed someone, too.
Janna wouldn’t do it. “I’m really sorry, but I don’t like seeing Jack drinking, and I know if he’s at your place, that’s what he’s doing.”
“You can’t stop men in certain ways,” Sunny counseled.
“You can stop yourself, though,” Janna countered.
“I just wish life were better, but I’m not sure I even know what that means. We might sit and rot in Florida the way we sit and rot here. How many times can you walk the beach and collect seashells?”
Janna had no answer.
Charlie began doing overtime. Some days he wasn’t sure he could make it. The mask had caused arthritis in his neck, but stronger pain pills gave him a swimming sensation, and he couldn’t afford taking his eye off things. A roll of plastic slamming into your chest would knock you to Timbuktu. When he made it to his Mustang, he sat longer and longer. Three years at this rate would kill him, but they could actually go. When he showed Sunny the numbers, she said he was right. “Of course I’m right,” he said. “That’s what I just said. What’s wrong with you, Charlie?” “What’s wrong with me?” He had to stop himself; he didn’t dare answer that question. Too upsetting. My life is a yo-yo in a Mustang up and down the pike, he thought. My life is a mask that makes my neck throb. My life is what happened at the plant after lunch today that I don’t want to discuss. My life is no Moon. My life is no sex. My life is beer. My life is not wanting to leave this rambler behind, the screen porch, the crickets on summer nights, the little patch of invisible sameness in house after house for a square mile, everyone settled in front of the television or listening to the Phillies lose on the radio on their own screen porches. My life is my aching muscles, my shoulders, the small of my back, my knees. But give up sitting in the dark next to the little refrigerator, looking at Sunny’s shadowy figure disappear down the hill to the pool, having something that at least stayed put where no one argued with you, overcharged you, prescribed medicines you couldn’t take? Leave the only place that gave him peace?
He came in one night late, showered, dressed, and entered the kitchen.
“Jack coming over?” he asked.
Sunny said, “I think he’s already been here. You’re so late all the time.”
He went out to the screen porch. The fireflies flickered. The lawn smelled rich and moist. The evergreens set their tang on the air. He thought he’d have a beer from the little refrigerator. It was empty.
“Hey, no beer,” he called to Sunny.
“Jack must have got it before I came home. I went shopping for new shoes.”
“What do you mean Jack got it? He came and took it when we weren’t here?”
Sunny didn’t seem to get Charlie’s point. “If there’s no beer, who else would have taken it?”
“I had three beers in there.”
“Go to the store. There’s time.”
“Did he just take them or did he sit here and drink them by himself?”
“Janna won’t let alcohol in the house, so I guess he sat there and drank them by himself.”
Charlie looked out into the scented darkness. The shadowy sentinels of his useless evergreens. The fireflies.
“Do you think that’s right, Jack coming over here and making himself at home when we’re not here?”
“Charlie, he must have drunk a hundred cases of beer here over the years. What do three more cans matter?”
Charlie walked out into the yard and around the house and looked across the street at Jack’s place. He went over and rapped on the door. Jack answered.
“Yo, Charlie, you’re back! I came looking for you.”
Charlie held on, but it was very hard. “You help yourself to a couple of beers?”
Jack made one his rubbery, childish faces, and whispered, so Janna couldn’t hear him, “Oops, guess I did.”
“I never invited you to do that.”
Jack pushed open his screen door to wave Charlie in. Charlie wouldn’t come in. He stood there staring at Jack as if Jack weren’t his closest friend, almost his son. This upset Jack. He waved at Charlie to come in again. Charlie, again, didn’t move.
“Charlie, it was only… Hey, man, I’m heading out right now to replace them. Bring you a whole case. What do you want? Michelob?”
“I don’t want anything.”
“Charlie, come on, I’m sorry, but I was thirsty and I thought you were there.”
“My Mustang wasn’t there, how could I be there?”
“Yeah, but in the garage.”
“Since when do I put it in the garage?”
“Charlie, look, I’m sorry. I go over there, and I’m not thinking. With this overtime of yours, you and me, we’re off schedule. What can I say?”
“Don’t say anything. I don’t want you visiting us anymore. Keep off my property whether I’m there or I’m not.”
“What? Over a few cans of beer?”
Janna came up behind Jack. “Charlie, is there something wrong?”
Jack answered. “No, no, it’s me. I just…It’s a misunderstanding. Charlie, hey, please, I don’t want us pissed over this. I’m sorry. How many times do I have to say that? I’ll do it. Hail, Charlie, full of grace… How’s it go, Janna? I’ll say it a thousand times.”
Jack’s eyes began welling up. He could see he wasn’t getting anywhere, and he could see himself sitting on Charlie’s screen porch drinking those beers and wishing he had a screen porch like it, but even if he did, Janna wouldn’t let him enjoy it. He drank one and got another. Charlie and Sunny’s house was quiet behind him. Angie stuck her head out and said, “Oh, hi Jack,” and went her way, like teenagers did. So finally there was one more beer left, and he thought it would be worse than none, leaving Charlie only one. Anyway, he drank it and then had to piss and didn’t think he should go use Charlie and Sunny’s bathroom with only Angie in the house—the girl was growing up—so he went across the street and drained his goose and forgot the whole thing until Charlie showed up like this.
“You’re like my dad for Christ’s sake. I told you that!” Jack pled.
Charlie saw no point in rebuffing Jack any further; he was a louse and a dope and you could still see the beer fuzz in his weepy eyes. So he turned and walked across Jack’s lawn and went to his back porch and sat down. Sunny asked him what happened. He told her. She said he was overreacting.
“First we lose Moon, then Jack? I can’t stand it! He lives directly across the street. We’re neighbors.”
Charlie asked her to leave him alone. She wouldn’t. He had no choice but to get up and go to their bedroom and shut the door and lie down. Didn’t even take his shoes off. He was so angry, so fed up, so furious, that he trembled. Sunny came in and lightly stroked his head. He pushed her hand away.
“Oh, Charlie, please, it was an innocent mistake. Don’t be this way.” Now she was crying. “We’ll get through this. Forget Florida, forget everything, let it all go. No more overtime. It’s too much.”
It took Charlie months putting things on a new footing, getting used to the quiet in the house, Angie out with boys all the time, Moon not there, her boyfriends not there, Jack not there, just quiet music from the Grundig and whatever Sunny fixed for dinner and then some TV or reading National Geographic and on weekends yard work or shoveling snow or having the oil changed in the Mustang and smelling the grease and gas as he waited in the service station office, eating stale peanuts out of the machine and studying the free maps, following the highway system to Florida, Texas, the Midwest, California. Where he might go. Where he might not go. Never go.
For his part Jack had no option but to stop on the way home to have a few beers. He made some friends at a tavern in Blue Bell, a little out of the way, but not that far. Sometimes he went to a spot in Jenkintown where there was a card game in the back. Just a few beers, some laughs, chuckling over what Mitch Finnegan said on the radio that morning. And a girl, then another, you could get it pretty easy in these places. Began coming home later, you’d have to say soused. Heard it from Janna. “Blame Charlie!” he’d say. “I’d have been here hours ago if I could pop over there the way I used to. Not safe drinking and driving. I know that. These suburbs stink. We never should have moved out here. In Roxborough at least we used to be able to walk home from the bar.”
One evening he came home and the house was really dark. Not a light on. He fiddled with his key and let himself in and flipped on the ceiling light. Nothing there. Just the black tile floor in the living room and the places where the pictures had been and cracks he’d never noticed before. He called out for Janna and Susie. No answer. He went into the kitchen for the phone, but it had been taken clean off the wall.
He burst through the front door, took two steps toward Charlie’s and Sunny’s to see what they knew and stopped. Forget it. He knew where Janna and Susie were—had to be at Janna’s parents. But he couldn’t go after them, not loaded like this. What was he supposed to do? His knees buckled and he splayed himself on the warm hood of his Polara as if he were hugging it, determined not to let it get away, too.
That’s where Charlie saw Jack sleeping the next morning as he left at 5:30 for Atlas Plastics. He thought about beeping his horn to wake him, but the whole neighborhood was as still as a snow globe long after being shaken, and somehow Jack fit in right as he was.