All Stories, General Fiction, Short Fiction

Catholics by Alan Gerstle

I can whip Tommy Bryce’s ass, no problem. Everyone knows it, including Tommy. You can tell looking at him with those spaghetti arms sticking out from the sleeves of his chocolate ice-cream stained t-shirt. And that blonde crewcut. What’s he think? He’s in the Marines?

So I’m walking home from baseball practice, punching in my Rawlings glove when out of nowhere Tommy rushes past me, grabs the glove, and keeps running. He has a five-foot lead on me minimum when I start after him. But I’m faster, any day.

So I’m chasing him down Ocean Avenue, and he’s getting close to Foster Street. I need to catch up fast since once he crosses to the opposite corner, his house is only the fifth one in.  Tommy sprints against the light even with this car coming. The driver slams on the brakes, making an ear-splitting screech.  But the car hits Tommy. Bam!

The way he bounced off the car was like a football player getting knocked out of bounds after being tackled, the football flying from his hands. But Tommy gets up and keeps on running and he still has my glove.

The driver’s yelling at Tommy. Why? I’m thinking.  Maybe Tommy put a dent in it. The guy swings the door open, grabs the top of the doorframe with his hand, and pulls himself out, then slams the door shut. He’s burly and his lips are pressing down on a lit cigar, like he’s half smoking it and half chewing. He scratches his head while watching Tommy limp run down the block. That car looks dumb parked in the middle of the street. And forget about Tommy. He disappeared inside his building.

With Tommy gone, the driver turns his head like a searchlight in a prison movie. Then he purses his lips and half smiles, half scowls like The heck with that dumb kid. Then he stretches his arms like he’s getting out of bed, and practically strolls to the front of his car, where he crouches, and examines the bumper. A bunch of angry drivers stuck behind him are blasting their horns, but the guy doesn’t even acknowledge the sound as if he’s deaf. Then sound subsides, and for a few seconds, it’s quiet, as though all the drivers have paused to think Now What? But the honking starts up again, this time it seems just for the fun of making a racket, since they all have these goofy grins while they bang their horns. They must be thinking it’s Saturday, so it’s not like anyone’s in a rush, and it’s the afternoon, so they’re not waking anybody.

The driver slides his palm along the fender and the grille. I’m thinking he sure must like that car. I walk up to him (too late to catch Tommy), and act like I’m trying to help by examining the grating. The driver gives me this “What’s wit you?” look. So to get on his good side, I scowl and shake my head like all the fathers do when they’re thinking “What a jerk!” But I make sure the guy understands that I mean Tommy, so I point in the direction of his house.

Meanwhile, the line of cars backed up on Foster spills over into the middle of the cross street, Ocean Avenue, which goes both ways. This causes the opposing lanes on Ocean to stall because the Foster Street cars are stuck in the intersection. Three rows of cars bumper to bumper, all honking like crazed geese. The drivers stretch their heads out their windows, saying “What the hell’s going on?” and offering suggestions like “Get rid of that piece of crap!”

The cigar guy turns around and scans the cars behind him. He takes the cigar out of his mouth and extends his arms out in front of him like he’s saying, What am I supposed to do?  By this time, other drivers are standing in the street too, their doors wide open like police cars in the movies when there’s a shootout. Then the guy draws in his arms, and with elbows at his sides, palms facing upward like he’s checking for rain, hollers, “Damn kid smacks my car!” The guy closest to him—tall, thin, rolled up sleeves–nods like now he understands, says, “Damn kid!” and shakes his head. The skinny guy turns and with the same penguin-looking pose, announces out loud, “Damn kid hit his car!” to relay the news. The word spreads fast and every face seems satisfied, and they start yelling back and forth like they’ve all been pals forever.

Just then I catch sight of a patch of Tommy’s t-shirt in his doorway. I yell “See ya” to the heavy guy who gives me a look like “Huh, who are you?”, as I make out in Tommy’s direction. I reach his building, and open the entryway real slow. The lobby’s empty though, and boy, does it smell. Then right there on the grimy floor, shoved under a radiator, is my baseball glove. I pick it up. Luckily it’s OK, just dusty. Tommy’s apartment is right there on the ground floor, so I start knocking, ready to beat the crap out of Tommy. But Mrs. Bryce opens it, holding a baby. She must have ten. Once I asked my mother why. She said because they’re Catholics.

I act polite and smile and say, “Is Tommy in by chance?” Tommy’s sitting on a kitchen chair, gauze wrapped around his wrist, holding a math book with a catholic school crucifix cover that gives me the creeps. He’s only make-believe reading because I see his goofy smile. Mrs. Bryce offers me a seat. I can’t say no.

“Twinkies?” Tommy’s mother asks, and puts two packets on the sticky Formica table that’s got a split in the middle that I swear is wider by another quarter inch since last time I was there. “Thanks,” I say, and start pulling apart the wrapper and stuff a Twinkie in my mouth. Then I hear Tommy’s father walk by, and my heart begins to pound. That key chain clanging from his belt loop is a dead giveaway. He puts his hands on the table and silently shakes his head. Is he going to smack me for chasing his son? But it’s Tommy who talks first.

“Why you eating with your cap on?” he asks me, like he’s really interested.  Tommy’s father looks me up and down, and says, “Jews eat with their hats on.” I say, “No they don’t,” and pull mine off quick. What a dumb idea. Like there was baseball in the Bible?

Just then, zap, the TV crackles like somebody wacked it. And boom, thunder makes the walls shudder. Through the window, I can see the sky darken. Then the sun’s gone, and suddenly rain drives down hard like bullets. Tommy shouts, “Sun shower! Sun shower!” And he starts jumping up and down like a pogo stick.

Tommy’s father shakes his head like Tommy’s nuts. I shake my head too like What’s the matter with Tommy? hoping to get on his father’s good side. Then from the bedroom, a bunch of Tommy’s brothers and sisters start screaming. Tommy’s father shakes his head again, this time with a scowl like I can’t believe all these kids, and he’s off to quiet them down.

Tommy and I head towards the window and look out. “Did you ever see such rain?” Tommy says, like stealing my glove is ancient history, like it happened when people walked around in togas. Then suddenly the rain stops, and the sun burns away the clouds. I have my glove, anyway, so I say to Tommy’s mother, “Thanks for the Twinkie,” and head for the door. I’m about to open it when Tommy taps me on the shoulder, looks up at me and says, “Peace?” I think a second, then “OK. Peace,” and we give each other the peace treaty handshake.

Outside the traffic jam’s all gone. The streets have a sheen and the leaves on the trees all sparkle. I’m standing on the corner of Foster and Ocean, and no cars anywhere. So I start pounding in my Rawlings. It’s nice and soft and feels real smooth. I’m waiting for the light to turn, and since I’m staring at my glove, I didn’t see that facing me there’s a pretty girl with a St. Katherine School book bag on the opposite corner. She’s wearing a pleated plaid skirt, and she has straight blonde hair with a purple and yellow polka-dot bow fastened to it like a butterfly landed on her and decided to stay.  She’s wearing pink lipstick and I like the way it goes with the green. There’s a thin gold chain around her neck. I can guess what’s hanging at the end of it, but I don’t care. I stop smacking my stupid glove and adjust the brim of my cap. It’s a mystery why we’re waiting for the light to change even though there’s not a car in sight. She looks at me and then Oh Wow, she’s smiling. Then she stretches out her arm and points towards the sky. My eyes follow her finger, and keep going until I’m looking beyond the rooftops and over the trees. And there it is, a rainbow.

Out loud I say, “Wow that’s beautiful,” and shake my head in awe. But this time I mean it, and best of all, she knows I do.

Alan Gerstle

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7 thoughts on “Catholics by Alan Gerstle”

  1. This is sooo beautifully-written. I was going to pick out a few phrases I particularly like, but there are too many. Just great. Thank you, Alan and more, please!


  2. I enjoyed the pace and depth of your story. When I was a kid, Our Lady Star of the Sea had a girl who was their best player. Some wit in the crowd yelled, “sure you can pitch, but you’ll never be a priest.”
    Good work,

    Liked by 1 person

  3. *snip* – I act polite and smile and say, “Is Tommy in by chance?”

    I can just see the shit-eater grin on his face. I also know what that Rawlings mitt smells like when you hold it up to your face and I thought of that a few times. I remembered chasing a guy down Henderson Hwy – he took my hat (my glove was safe; hung on my belt).

    I really enjoyed the drivers relaying the message back along the line of cars. Also liked the Jewish-Catholic tension — like the beginning of a fifties WWII movie or comic book as we meet the Jewish guy, the Italian guy, the Nebraska guy, etc. This part is worth a re-read in your story cuz it goes deeper (10 babies, thin gold chain, etc) I think.

    Cheers – m

    P.S. – yer mudder wears army boots!


  4. Hi Alan,
    Differences and acceptances within people are always interesting topics.
    This was a very realistic account of people maybe realising that they are people first and foremost.
    A very easy story to read which took us to places that we may have all experienced at some time.
    Hope you send us more in very soon.


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