On the bus ride home from my summer job, I couldn’t get the bank teller’s face out of my mind. The line had been long, but I’d stood there waiting on it anyway because I was out of spending money. Having nothing to read, I watched the tellers absently, but the dark-haired, dark-eyed woman at the first window seemed familiar, so after a minute I looked only at her. She seemed unsure of herself as she nervously counted money, and she only glanced at a customer for more than a second at a time. Even when it was my turn, I watched her from the next window, pretending not to. She peeked at me once, maybe sensing that I was staring, but didn’t look over again. There was a defeated slope to her shoulders, and sometimes she blinked rapidly for a moment, as though she were suddenly preoccupied.
I was twenty-two, and she seemed to be around the same age, maybe a little bit older. Her face stayed with me during my walk to the bus stop, and then while I waited. I knew her face, or a face like hers, and on the bus it came to me as I looked out the window at the passing stores, yards, fences, and trees along Route 25A.
When I was eleven, my grandparents lived in a two-story house in Queens. The family next door shared the same narrow ramped driveway, which my father loved to speed up and later back down again. I think he liked to show that since he’d grown up there, speeding up and down without hitting the wall on either side was easy for him. The side screen door of the neighbor’s house was in the middle of the incline, and I often winced as we blew past. But maybe the neighbors, including the kids, had been specially trained to look out the screen door for signs of hurtling metal on wheels, instead of bursting out a door without looking, as was my habit.
The neighbors were loud. The mother always seemed to be shouting at her kids in Italian. There were about six or seven boys, including the oldest boy, Eddie, who liked to wear sleeveless white tee-shirts and work on his souped-up cars or motorcycles. Then there was Rosemarie, my age, who liked to bother me.
On Easter morning, when we — my parents, sisters and I — pulled over into the left side of the shared parking area, Rosemarie burst out the front door to talk to me. I had gotten pretty good at brushing her off by that time, but I didn’t have to that morning. From the screen door, her mother immediately yelled at her in Italian to get back inside. I didn’t know Italian that well, but I knew that “qui” meant “here,” so I got the picture that her mother either meant, “Come here, please,” or more likely, “Get the hell over here right now!”
I watched my father’s reaction to all the yelling. He’d looked over, at least, unlike my mother who didn’t seem to notice at all. My father was always ready to take a picture of something, but he didn’t raise his camera to catch the mother’s screaming red face. My parents were generally pretty stoic about her yelling, in fact, maybe because they’d both grown up in that neighborhood among a host of screaming Italians.
There was nothing to do when I first got there, and the Mets game wasn’t on yet, so I planned to sneak down to the wine cellar after all the hellos and hugs and kisses were over with. I’d heard from my sister that there was an empty apartment towards the back, so I grabbed a few cookies and headed down, ignoring my cousins’ calls from upstairs.
My bus came to its first stop outside Huntington, and I watched some older women board. Three in a row looked tired. The last to board looked furious in her preoccupation.
When I was eleven, I thought Rosemarie’s mother was old and furious. Her husband had died years before, so she wore all black all the time. Whenever I went outside on the shared parking lot, I listened and watched for her.
As I stared out the window of the bus, I felt bad for her — losing her husband, stuck taking care of seven or eight kids alone. But when I was eleven she was evil to me, not someone to feel sorry for.
That Easter morning there were no signs of her anywhere, so I easily sneaked down the steps to the wine cellar. I looked around until I came upon the apartment towards the back, then flipped the switch on the wall.
“Turn that stupid light off.”
It was Rosemarie. She was sitting on a red cushioned chair at the kitchen table rubbing her eyes away from the light. My heart jumped but I didn’t move.
“I said turn it off.”
“What are you doing here?” I said. “Go home.”
“This is my home,” she said. “This is my home. I live here when I’m not home. And if you tell your grandpa I was here I’ll kill you. I’ll chop your legs off.”
I didn’t want my legs chopped off, so I moved back a little, but then remembered she was just a skinny thing who couldn’t get to me if she tried, so I walked up to the table where she sat.
“I’m just looking around,” I said. “What’re you doing?”
“Nothing,” she said.
I laughed. “Go do nothing at home then.”
“You’re not nice.” She curled her lip at me. “You’re not.”
“I’ll come back when you’re gone,” I said and turned to walk away, but she called after me to wait, to stop and wait, to just wait.
The bus pulled into Greenlawn station, one stop before mine. I thought of the woman in the bank again. The more I remembered her face, the more she became Rosemarie, even though she wasn’t. The same dark darting eyes, the same deep nervous frown.
When Rosemarie called me back into the kitchen, I stopped, looked to the ceiling, and turned around.
“Let’s play something,” she said. “Let’s — let’s play house. Let’s —”
“No, I don’t want to play any house,” I said.
“Let’s — come back, will ya? Let’s just play house for a little while.”
I went back to the kitchen where she still sat. “Play house,” I repeated. “Are you kidding me? Get a ball — we’ll have a catch in the lot or something.”
“No. Look. How about —” She stood up, nervous and excited. “I’ll be this lady, a really fancy lady or something, but my husband works for the Mafia, you know? And he tries to kill me over and over again, but I just barely escape every time. We can do that.”
I opened the refrigerator and looked in.
“And you’re — you’re a guy who just comes down the pike —”
I looked back at her like she was crazy, then peered into the refrigerator again.
“You — you come down the pike, and you see my husband giving me the brass knuckles over and over again.”
I saw some kind of huge piece of fruit and reached in the back for it.
“You give me — no, he gives me the brass knuckles treatment, and I’m screaming my head off, and you come by and tell the guy to put those knuckles down and knock it off and leave me alone.”
“Are these grapefruits?” I said, pulling out two. “They’re huge!”
“Listen, you tell the guy to put the knuckles down, but he hits you with the knuckles — and then with a bat — and you have to go to the hospital.”
I looked at her. “What? Who’s the guy then? Who plays the guy?”
“We’ll pretend the guy.”
“Did you see how big these things are? You want one?”
“No, listen, then you get better and we get married, but the Mafia guy — he’s mad at us and he wants revenge because you told him to drop his brass knuckles. So he blows you up in your car. But you —”
“I never tried one of these.” I sat down at the table and started peeling.
“Hey, then the Mafia guy, it turns out he didn’t kill you after all but just put you in the hospital again, and you’ve got tubes all stuck up in your nose, and then he comes into your room when you’re laying there and he sits on you and tries to suffocate you with a pillow.”
I kept peeling. “I don’t feel like getting killed.”
“You’re not killed. No, you come back and try to save me. And you’re just about to save me, but ― but a whole bunch of them beat you to a pulp with steel pipes and keep stomping on your head for a while, and I have to take you to the hospital.”
“You got me in the hospital again. I don’t want to do that.” I looked up. She had her hands squeezed tightly under her armpits.
“Just save me once. Just one time. There’s nothing else to do.”
“No,” I said, annoyed, and finished peeling. “You want some?”
Then she screamed — I don’t know what — and she reached across the table fast and belted me hard with her palm against the side of my head. My ear rang and my eyes filled as I gaped at her. Then I stood, knocking over my chair, and hurried away, gripping the peeled grapefruit and calling her a crazy little brat over my shoulder. She called for me to wait, that she was sorry, to wait, please, because she was sorry, but I got out of there.
Just as I burst out the door into the sunlight, my father called my name from above and snapped my picture from behind the railing. I yelled a protest just as he clicked.
“Got ya!” he said and laughed. “Sneaking in there again, huh?”
I trudged up the steps.
“Are you crazy?” he smirked. “What are you doing with a grapefruit? There’s cake upstairs.”
“I found it.”
“What happened to your cheek? It’s all red.”
That’s when Rosemarie’s mother came out of her house in her black dress, screaming Rosemarie’s name. I didn’t say anything, even as the she glared over at me accusingly. I looked up at my father who watched her calmly.
Rosemarie came out of the cellar and ran up the stairs to her mother. “Sorry, I was —”
The wallop the mother gave Rosemarie was like the one Rosemarie had given me, a full side-of-the-head clubbing with the heel of the hand. Rosemarie’s eyes were shocked at the initial wallop; then another look came over her face, and she ran wildly into the house. I didn’t understand that look at eleven years old. I was too busy being glad she’d gotten exactly what she’d given me — only a lot worse.
My sisters, cousins, mother, aunt and uncle came out of the house. We were all going to JFK airport to watch the planes take off and land. But we were only going to take one car — my father’s Rambler. We fit somehow, everyone on everyone else’s lap, some on a leg each. My father drove, speeding backwards down the ramp.
At the airport, my cousin Anthony, my age, somehow fell and rolled under a parked car. Crying, he got himself up eventually, but not before we all laughed and my father snapped a photo.
After looking at the planes for a while, we methodically refit ourselves into the car as people stopped to stare at us.
Rosemarie sat on her front steps, hands on cheeks, elbows on knees, watching us furiously as we piled out of the Rambler. The baseball game had already started, and I turned away from her glare and ran into the house to get upstairs and watch.
On the way home that night I felt at my cheek, which was sore but not really hurting. As my father drove up the ramp entrance to the Long Island Expressway, I found myself daydreaming a little about the Mafia guy coming to get me in the hospital. I pretended I was sleeping and grabbed him just before he could put the pillow over my face. I twisted his arm around his back and pulled up. “Drop the pillow,” I growled. “Drop it, now!” I took Rosemarie along with me and fought off two more guys, throwing the pillow at one and poking him in the eyes with two fingers, then taking the brass knuckles away from the other and giving him several uppercuts in a row with them until he finally fell back onto a hospital bed. The guy with the pillow came at me again, but I drove my shoulder into him, crashed him through the glass window, and tossed the pillow down after him. Rosemarie wanted to come with me, but I told her to get lost, that she was trouble, but I promised her that those guys wouldn’t bother her any more. Then I dropped off to sleep to the hum of the car’s wheels bumping lightly at intervals along the expressway.
When the bus rolled into my station, the bank teller’s face, which I hadn’t been able to place, was now Rosemarie’s, whose face I couldn’t shake out of my mind. Behind tightly closed eyes, I vividly saw the expression she wore when her mother clobbered her: a split second of surprise, followed by a sweeping look my way before she flew screaming into the house.
Header photograph: By redlegsfan21 (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons