Chapter 9 – Hudson School
Dad’s Coming, Really
(© 2020 SK Figler)
Chaz Rosewall kneels on the grass behind Matty Brams and makes like a table. Frank Forrester stands in front of Matty and shoves his shoulders. Matty tumbles back over Chaz and hits his head on the grass next to the sidewalk. A couple of kids who are in on it laugh, but most of them are running around playing tag and Mr. Livesey is busy breaking up a fight on the other side of the mob waiting for their parents to pick them up for the weekend. Henry squats next to me. He’s been jabbing a pencil into the grass since we came out after lunch.
Mr. Rapaport, the new phys ed guy, is talking to Miss Lenahan, Henry’s teacher. Before, it was Mr. Shapiro, who got canned. She must like phys ed teachers. He has one foot on the black driveway and another up on the gray sidewalk, lifting the toe of his shoe to touch her dress. She laughs, he laughs, and they talk more. They’re looking at each other, not the kids. Miss Lenahan is pretty, but she isn’t happy. I don’t think she likes being a teacher. Or maybe it’s just kids she doesn’t like. Henry told me about her taping his head and hands to the desk during nap time. That doesn’t seem right.
Mr. Rapaport is big, square-shoulders, and looks in mirrors a lot. He checks himself in windows, turning his head right and left. He’s always rubbing a thumb hard across the palm of his left hand like he’s rubbing the shine off a new baseball. Guys say he pitched for the Newark Bears, the Yankees’ top farm team. Miss Lenahan laughs again, and Mr. Rapaport laughs and rubs his hands together.
None of the parents have arrived yet. It would be great if our father came first, but I don’t expect it. Maybe he won’t come at all, which wouldn’t be too bad. More of Mabel’s fried chicken and catfish and sour greens.
“Is Mother coming for us?” Henry asks, looking up at me from his squat.
“I’ve told you a million times, she’s in Florida.”
“Far away. South.”
“I don’t know.”
“You do, too. It’s because she and Father argue.”
“So, why’d you ask?”
“I don’t know.” He stabs the grass again with his pencil. “She came up when you got burned.”
“That was different. I got hurt. She had to come up. Make sure I was okay and give Dr. Israel shit.”
“So, what if I get hurt?”
This isn’t going well. He needs a good answer. “Depends. If you get just a little hurt, there’ll be no need to come up. She likes it down there. If you get hurt bad, she might take us out of Hudson School and make Father take us permanently.”
Henry stabs the grass a few more times. “She couldn’t do that, could she? What if Father says no?”
“Then we’ll be out on the street like bums. Does that sound like fun?”
“No.” Henry stabs again, but the pencil breaks. “Living with Father doesn’t sound like fun, either.”
“So don’t get hurt, okay?”
Henry stands, points, and says, “Here comes a father. Is it him?”
“No, it’s not a Buick.”
A car pulls into the curving driveway. A little kid from Main House shouts, “Daddy!” and starts running toward the car, but Mr. Livesey grabs him, picks him up, and opens the front door. The father waves at Mr. L and smiles and drives away. I look down at Henry to find out if it’s one of his roommates, but he’s busy stabbing the ground again with the eraser end of the pencil.
A very long and tall black car comes and the moment it stops, the driver, who is wearing a black suit with a round black hat jumps out and runs around the back. He pushes in front of Mr. Livesey, who had stepped toward the car, and opens the back door, then stands at attention. Which seems strange, but not to the kid, maybe a third-grader, who marches toward the car and climbs in, not even having to duck, and plops down on the middle of the seat, staring straight ahead. No one else is in the car, which has RR on the gold hubcaps. I don’t know what that means. The driver closes the door gently and runs around and drives away. They haven’t said a word or even looked at each other, but everyone is looking at them, even Henry from his squat.
“Do you know him?” I ask Henry, who shrugs and stabs some more. There are so many holes in the grass that some of his stabs are into the old holes.
After awhile all of the kids are gone, Mr. Rapaport and Miss Lenahan are gone, even Mr. L is gone. Only Miss Thurston stays and isn’t happy about it. Her arms are folded tight and she’s staring up and down the road. Maybe Father won’t come. I wait for some kind of feeling, but that doesn’t come either. Or maybe it does, first the empty tummy feeling, then very quickly what grown-ups call relief. But the feelings are there and gone, like cancelling each other out, minus one and plus one, then nothing.
I hear a bunch of short honks. Miss Thurston turns to her left and jumps back as our father slides into the round driveway in a shiny dark red car with the top down. It’s a Buick and looks new. It has big whitewall tires and chrome stripes running low along the side and the front looks like an open mouth with about thirty teeth. The front fender slopes all the way back and down to the rear fender. I run my hand along that crease thinking it looks just like a racing airplane, when Father leans across and throws the door open which knocks me back onto the sidewalk.
“Where are my boys? I want my boys,” he shouts and laughs. He pats the seat next to him and says, “I want my boys riding up front right by their dad. Come on, don’t be shy. Henry climbs in on his knees. Father grabs the back of his belt and pulls him across and hugs him under an arm. “Get yourself in here, Jakie,” he yells. “We don’t countenance dawdlers in the Braun family.”
I get up from the sidewalk and brush off my pants and jacket. He honks again and waves me to get in. I do and pull the door shut. He reaches across Henry and rubs the Yankees cap on my head hard, knocking it to the floor, laughing.
Miss Thurston comes over and puts her hands on the door by me. I’ve never seen her this close-up but notice the wrinkles on the backs of her hands and the thin, spotted skin, though not as bad as Bubby Ida’s. Miss Thurston smells of sweet powder that makes me want to cough. Bubby Ida always smells of boiled chicken.
Miss Thurston says, “Mr. Braun, I need to talk to you about Henry.” Henry looks at her. Father says, “We’re on our weekend now, Missy. Call my secretary and make an appointment.” The car starts moving and Miss Thurston pulls her hands away in fright. Father gives a quick look in his side mirror and speeds out onto Quaker Ridge Road, tires squealing and kicking up a tail of dust.
* * * * *
“You have a secretary?” I ask Father over Henry’s Yankees cap. It’s flapping and Henry is holding it down. I take it off and put it between us on the seat. Mine is still on the floor where Father knocked it.
“More or less,” he says. He’s smiling at the empty road in front of us. He seems happy, but you never know about that, or how long it’s going to last.
When I got in the car I looked at the clock on the glove-box. It said 12:47 or 12:48. Now it says 2:20. We’ve been going through a tunnel of trees, the leaves starting to turn yellow. I think we’re going north. Father hasn’t said anything since we left Hudson School, or Henry, or me. Father tried to whistle a little, but he isn’t good at that. He’s coughed and spit out to the road several times. He’s very good at that. He gets big white globs that fly straight out until they’re suddenly pulled backwards. I try it once out my side, but it’s more like spray than a solid glob.
“Hey, last thing I want is my boy getting spit all over my new car. This is a Buick Super, 1942 model but brand new. During the war only the rich bitches and bastards could get a new car. This baby had only nineteen miles on it. From the factory to the train to a warehouse. She sat up on blocks for the duration, then to the car lot, then to me. Got a great deal. It pays to know people. You remember that. It’ll stand you in good stead.” He’s said “good stead” lots of times. I looked it up in the dictionary. It means useful, so I guess ‘bad stead’ means useless. Maybe. Sometimes dictionaries aren’t all that useful. Henry is asleep, curled on the seat between us. I’ll tell him sometime.
“Your old man is starving,” Father says. “I know this diner up the road. Best food in the world, diners. You remember that, all right?”
I nod, but Henry and I had a big breakfast only a couple of hours ago. He won’t be hungry either.
I haven’t said anything, but he says, “Good,” and floors the gas peddle, coming up out of his seat. The car jumps ahead and squeals around a curve one way, then the other way around an opposite curve. We pass a speed limit sign that says 35, then a sign that says Mahopac, then a white church with a police car waiting on the far side.
“Shit!” Father says, but the Buick is down to 40, then 35. I saw the policeman’s head turn to watch us. I look back, but Father reaches over Henry and snaps my head forward. “Never look back at a cop. Never look at them at all, unless you’re asking for directions.”
Today is the most advice I’ve ever gotten from him. Maybe he’s missed us these past months since Mother kicked him out and she put us in Hudson School. Lots of questions have piled up, but he’s happy now and questions could change his mood.
“At last,” he says, slowing and pulling into a parking lot where a shiny silver and red diner sits with a rounded roof, like it used to be on a train. “I could eat a whole cow,” he says. “Actually, I’d rather eat a whole pig, but don’t tell anyone.” I wonder who I shouldn’t tell.
“Wake up your brother,” he says, pulling up next to the diner. I can see a few people sitting at tables by the windows that go along the whole front. They’re all looking down at Father’s red Buick Super and smiling. Father hops out and runs up the concrete stairs, yelling back, “Got to take a leak. Get a window booth, not the counter. Only the best for my boys.”
* * * * *
Father has been reaching across the table to pick at the french fries Henry left on his plate. Half Henry’s cheese burger is sitting there, but Father isn’t interested in it. He had a Reuben sandwich, which is all gone. My tuna sandwich is mostly gone, more than I wanted to eat. After Henry pointed at the cheeseburger on the menu, Father laughed and said, “Why eat hamburger when you have steak at home?” I don’t know what that means. I never heard him say that before, but he looked up at the waitress and grinned. She walked away.
Henry pulls my sleeve down toward him and whispers, “Ask him what’s a divorch.”