You can always smell the fresh seasons and mark them with symbols that will last as long as your time. Winter and jazz, autumn and Neil Young, summer becomes whatever starts or finishes sweat, exasperating under a hazy or clear night.
Spring however, licks everything with possibility making that stale St. Paddy’s day liver clean. It makes a session of catch a reality, puts a coat of vibrancy on things lethargic, let’s the sexy out of its dirty apartment.
I stepped into this particular spring on a Thursday after an ordinary shift at the “Rock.” Walking down Sixth Avenue is always a pain in the ass that time of day, but makes those first couple bottles of Bud that much more rewarding while waiting for whatever dinner was that night. It was a fine time to get a stool at Fiddler’s too. Right before the happy hour puke gobbled everything with their young bullshit. I can’t complain. More often than not I end up with one of their ladies.
It’s about a week before day light savings and there are no leaves on the trees yet, but the air has definitely changed thawing out the pavement, and the buildings and the gyro carts. Baseball just started (thank Christ) and I can’t wait to feel sore after the season’s first catch with my brother.
I bet the bark of the trees are still damp in Central park. I can always mark the first real day of spring by thinking of the trees in central park, and those days fused into one on the Soderquists’ porch across the street from my parents.
“Now, watcha gotta do is, make sure the plastic wrap is really tight around the bowl so, when the ole man sits down he can’t see it. So he starts to shit right?”
“He’ll be yelling so loud, oh man, I’d love to hear that.”
I was eight or nine when I started hanging out on the Soderquists’ porch. Mr. Soderquist worked for the city in Central park on the trees. He was thin in the face and his muscles bulged in his forearms that were attached to thick-birched hands. He slumped in his chair almost hiding in it like a sniper, and when he walked he glided slightly hunched. He never combed what was left of his grey strands, and sometimes he would shave, and sometimes he would have a beard but most of the time it was scruff. I remember he was always tanned and I could never tell what color his eyes were. My mother said they were a crazy gray yet, I always found sincerity in their beady, insane, mouse-like movements.
“Behave.” Mamie Soderquist would say laughing getting up from beside him to finish work she started hours earlier. Mamie, a little light headed naturally—though wise from what Irving, her children, and the years put her through—retained much of her attractiveness and traces of her youth. It was there in her laugh, large brown eyes and skin complexion.
I remember seeing pictures of her in her early twenties when Pete was two, and Danny boy was just born. She honestly could have been a model, instead, fell in love and had kids with Irving. One of the most generous ladies I have ever known, and she would tease and flirt with me about girls.
“See that cherry blossom there?” Irving pointed a stained finger to a white-blossomed tree smacking a tin of Copenhagen with the other.
“I stuck that in for Mamie in ’75.”
He took the stained finger, opened the shiny lid, and pinched thick dark mulch fastening it into a prepared space between his lips and gum.
“I had to get special permission and all that other horses ass shit. It’s even registered in her name. Helps when you know people. Remember that.”
He looked at me sharply padding the dip deeper with his tongue, then spitting casually over the white of the railing. “Wanna pinch?”
He leaned in extending the tin in my direction. I wanted a pinch. I wanted to spit and pad it down with my tongue. I could smell it’s distinctly fresh evergreen scent, and wanted to dive in to feel the brown of its dirty color. I leaned in cautiously.
“Goddamitt! Irving Soderquist!”
I tore back into my chair as Mamie holy helled through the door. Irving remained still, smiling holding the dip to me motioning to come get it.
“What? He’s a man. I’m being polite.”
“He’s eight you filthy bastard! Put the snuff away.”
He retreated as casually as he started, leaning back putting the tin into his shirt pocket, spitting another full solid bomb clear over the railing.
“Do you want the broth over the gravy?”
“Mix ‘em both, you know, over the potatoes and the vegetables like I like.”
“Yeah. Christ. Over everything.”
“Well? How the hell should I know?”
“How’d the zucchini’s come out?”
“Oh Irving, just wait till you see them.”
He nodded his head and put his foot on the patio table simultaneously scratching his crotch. Mamie gave a once through my hair and went back inside. It was where I first differentiated smells and sounds of spring, anticipation of summer and its nights. Where I was allowed to pick my nose and cuss because Irving did. I remember just him and I sitting there alone watching the street, begging every second for him to say or do something. He’d cough heavily, pound his chest, scratch the side of his face, and spit over the railing, all in uniformed, symphonic, movement.
As dusk approached the traffic got thicker, carrying a lazy energy mostly content. The wind sometimes would whip a wind of winter at the end of it’s gusts, and I remember always wishing to be warmer, then quickly putting it out of my mind glancing back at Irving with his marred green uniform opened to his naval, his pants un buckled and half zipped, showing the band of his boxers. Sometimes he would walk around like that in boots in the winter.
“Remember Dickey Sterkel?”
How can I forget the fat bastard with a worse mouth than Irving, in the gold Dodge pickup that had a plow on the front year round?
“Back before, shit, way back, this was back when him and I used to drink. Way back.”
The white aluminum door opened and latched, Mamie thumbed her hand down my cheek, and curled up into Irving shaking off a chill and smiling.
“Remember Dickey Sterkel?”
“Oh Christ Irving don’t.”
She rolled into a laugh covering her mouth while Irving grinned, cascading the mustard tint of his teeth, cocking his head, launching a brown bomb clear of Mamie and the railing.
“Please don’t Irving.” She begged playfully.
“You sure baby?”
“Oh how the hell would you remember, you were wrecked the whole time.”
“ ’78. Anyway, I sent him home after cards from up the…what the fuck?”
Mamie rolled her eyes, broke her smile and turned to me pausing. She cleared her throat with her hand over her chest, and then broke back into her smile.
“Dickey Sterkel, Irving, Tommy Mcmanus, and Roy James, or…”
“Nah.” He padded down the dip deeper into the left side of his mouth, and then pinched it into shape while he thought.
“Andrew Frank.” They said in unison.
“That’s right.” Mamie broke. “I always confused them because they both had two first names.”
“Frank owned the bar, c’mon.”
“That’s right, The Shrub Club. They named it that Davey because they used fertilizer that Irving took home from the park for the urinals.”
“Yeah, and ice, you know, for the pissers.”
“Anyways, Andrew always kept the boys later on Friday to play cards seeing as they didn’t have to work on Saturdays, you know.”
“Unless, we had overtime.”
“Drew used to lock us in, you know, after closing. He had this space in the back he used for parties and such, Fridays around eleven he’d give us the thumbs up or down.”
“Usually up.” Mamie stiffened, biting her lip.
“Anyways, the three of us would stumble around setting up cause, by this point, shots, beers, for four hours, we were pissed.”
“That means drunk Davey.”
“So we’d set up the table and chips, Drew would finish his shit, and we’d play cards till, you know, daylight.”
“Yeah, well, it’s a wonder you…”
“That’s what happens when you know cops right? You get away with shit like that.”
Irving opened his mouth, coughed violently for a few moments, hacking, pushing forward, and collecting the phlegm with the dip juice, launching it almost to the sidewalk. His arm remained around Mamie never disturbing her position. She curled into him sometimes, padding his chest, most of the time looking silently into the street.
“Anyways, one night, fucking Sterkel…”
“Watch your f-bombs Irving.”
“Sterkel gets out of his head. It wasn’t just booze either, his brother in law scored half…”
“It wasn’t just booze!!!” Mamie interjected.
“Anyways, he almost tosses the joint, and Drews had enough, I mean Drew let us stay because most of the time he’d take our money. But once Dickey started pissing in corners and throwing things at all the bottles because he hated his ex-wife, we roughed him up a little and sent him home.”
“You beat him up?” I dared to ask. There was a pause and Mamie cocked her head to Irving’s chin.
“Ga head, tell him.”
“Dickey started throwing punches. The jukebox, dartboards, the taps, just throwing fists. So, we had to calm him down.”
“And how’d you do that tough guy?”
“We set up like a triangle around him.” Irving configured with his hands looking at the space between as if it were something from Waterford, smiling dryly.
“Drew stepped up and hit him in the stomach. He was pissed. I just gave him a little Charlie horse to get him stable, you know, stop him from running everywhere. McManus cleaned his jaw ‘cause he was pissed at him for some money Dickey owed him, but more because he fucked the game. McManus loved those Friday nights. Thought he had a chance every time.”
“Irving, your language. C’mon! He’s eight and I don’t want to hear it from his mother. Watch your fucking f-bombs!!!” She realized what she said, and laughed.
“So…Drew decides to buy McManus and I breakfast at the Andropolis.”
“It was funny Davey, Irving would be there for breakfast, and sometimes we’d go there for dinner and have the same waiter.” Mamie proclaimed in a girlish tone.
“We sober up, the suns up, Drew catches a gypsy, I walked McManus to his car, I rounded just the corner right over there.” He pointed his stained finger at the corner I had rounded a million times, where things “happened” for every body in the neighborhood, and suddenly the corner took on deeper meaning.
“Swear to Christ, three feet of snow, I round the corner, stumbling, I get my balance and hear sirens, look up, Sterkel’s running at me, ass naked, with his wife and the fire department right behind him.
``“His lip was like a fucking balloon!!!” Mamie broke laughing.
“He ran past me holding his thigh screaming, ‘Help is on the way Irving! Help is on the way!’ His wife, fire trucks screaming past.”
It was the hardest I had ever laughed to that point. Mamie and Irving smiled and just for that fact of me being amongst it, felt like an adult at the ‘big peoples table.’ and not eight years old.
When the laughter cleared, Mamie wiped her eyes and Irving took the wet mulch from his mouth and flung it into the bushes to the left of the porch. He coughed twice and hacked up more phlegm, launching it onto the sidewalk beyond the short lawn. The three of us sat in silence for sometime, then I would break out into laughter thinking of Dickey, and that made Irving smile, and Mamie laugh and point affectionately.
“Davey honey how many girl friends do you have?”
“Yeah, have you gotten laid yet?”
“Shut up Irving.”
“You find the drawer with all the nudies, and goodies in it?”
She slapped him across the chest getting up quickly, scaring me, slamming the door behind her. I looked at Irving who was looking at me smiling, gesturing for an answer. I didn’t know what he meant at the time, so I just kept silent.
“Nah, Dickey’s a good a man though. Not many like him.” I knew what a good man was because everyone told me that my father was, but I never imagined him drunk or naked running up the street.
“They need more cherry trees in the city, out here. They’re indigenous to California. Pretty wood. Goddamn pretty wood. You ever see cherry furniture like a chest or dresser or any shit like that?”
“No.” I shook my head.
“Fuck California though. Fuckin’ people live in bubbles.”
I watched him move with authority and grace seemingly not moving at all. For as dirty as he was, or how people judged him, his image, his mannerisms and confidence shaped and stuck, just like spring.
“Cherry’s definitely my favorite. I wish New York had more cherry wood.”
“You don’t drink anymore?”
“Nah. Shit’ll kill you.”
“My mom says chewing tobacco will kill you too.”
“Yeah, a lot less slower though, least in my case.” He licked his lips and coughed.
“You play baseball yet?” He turned to me; I shook my head disgusted for not trying out yet.
“Start.” He said facing back to the street.
“It takes care of a lot of things. Even if you suck, play.”
The wind felt different coming off of fresh leaves. Cars’ tires sounded crisper, horns a little more abundant, a little more of women shown, school was almost finished, my head got slapped a bit more. It was before I discovered Yankee stadium and music, right when I discovered breasts and the women whom had them.
“You know what you should do? One night, late, shit in a plastic bag, sneak out, put it right in front of O’Brien’s door, set it on fire, bang on the door, run like hell.”
The door opened and Irving sat up. Mamie was holding a plate full of food that smelled similar to my mothers. She set it on the table in front of him, then handed him a rolled up paper towel containing a knife and a fork. She sat next to him handing a thick blue glass with lots of ice that he drank immediately. He gouged fork fills of dripping beef and mashed potatoes, and the muscles in his head flexed with intensity, and I sat silent, watching them both.
Just as always when I felt another story brewing and my closeness to them was drawing even nearer, mom would yell for supper, and the grown ups would wave to each other.
“Davey honey, safe home, careful on the street, sweetie.” Mamie would wave.
“ Yeah, make sure the wraps good and tight around the bowl.”
As I think of it now, all the laundry between them was washed, all their secrets forgiven, and kept between them. Though I was too young to realize it then, those afternoons held security that most people never achieve, confidence I fight for, survival, and the porch that enters my mind every first spring, right before dinner.