Do Days by Vito J Racanelli
The first few weeks after it happened, I came home from St. Sebastian’s School and looked across the street at Steven's basement window. The last time I’d seen him, Steven burst out of that window, the glass exploding into an otherwise quiet June day. He was gone now, but I still expected him to do that each time I passed by. Steven was like that.
He was fourteen and I was one year younger by age, but a lot more if you counted things differently. At the time, the people I knew outside of school were generally limited to my cousins. That was the way with my family. No dinners at friend’s houses or sleepovers. Never owe anyone anything, my mom said.
Steven and his father, Jerry, lived in the cellar of the two-family home across from ours in Sunnyside. The house was owned by Steven’s mom's sister, and she let Steven and his Dad live there. Steven slept on the couch in the living room. There were just three rooms in the basement, which was actually a finished apartment with small windows just above ground level. They gave little light so it was mostly dark in there. Most of the windows faced the side driveway but a bigger one faced front.
Steven always said Aunt Audrey didn’t want them there but that she felt she had to, because of what happened to his mom. He didn’t like her, and neither did Jerry, I figured. He didn’t look at his Aunt Audrey when he spoke to her.
I never really got to know Jerry Pastore, only his son, Steven. Steven was alone in the house a lot. I remember going over and finding only him home, time after time, which is why we got in some trouble eventually.
About the only times I saw Mr. Pastore was when he came home from work and that was usually late, after 8 pm, which meant I’d been over Steven’s house too long and missed dinner, so I’d get a whipping from my mother when I got home.
Steven’s mom wasn’t around. He never really told me why and I kind of felt sorry for him, not having any mom. I couldn’t imagine what things would be like at my house, with five kids, without my mom. I realized even then that although it seemed as if she spent 99% of her time either yelling or whipping us, she did other stuff.
All of us knew that and so the smacks were tolerable. There were plenty of kisses too. Anyway, like I said, Steven’s mom wasn’t around, at least not in the six months that I knew him.
Audrey had some kids, two, who were younger than Steven and me, and we didn’t like them anyway. But they told me that Steven’s mom had thrown herself in front of the 7 train, for some reason, about two years ago. If that was true, I couldn’t imagine why, but, like I said, Steven never said.
After they told me that, I thought maybe that was why Mr. Pastore always seemed sad. He had olive skin, deep set eyes and dark circles that rimmed them, with jet black hair that he pomaded. He was pretty short as fathers went, and he had a limp. He wore weird shoes too.
Well, one was weird and one was normal. The weird one was bigger and had a very thick and high sole. I’d never seen shoes like that before. Steven just said they were special medical shoes, for people with clubfoot. I’d never heard of that before and I never saw Mr. Pastore with his shoes off.
He’d come in the front door after work, put down his leather satchel, and the first thing he’d say was “Steven.” Nothing else. It wasn’t a question or a command. Just ‘Steven.” And then Steven would say, “Hi, Jerry.”
That was one of the amazing things about Steven and his dad. Steven called him Jerry, just like that. If I’d called my dad John or Johnny, there’s no telling when I’d have been released from the hospital. Anyway, the fact that he called his father by his first name was strangely liberating for me. It seemed, in the way they spoke to and treated each other, that Steven was more his friend than his son. Steven was his kid but they didn’t act that way.
So Steven would say, “Hi, Jerry.” Then I’d say, “Hello, Mr. Pastore,” and then Jerry would smile at me, a half smile that maybe meant he thought it was cute that I called him mister. I don’t know. It surprised me. Maybe it surprised Mr. Pastore then.
I haven’t seen Mr. Pastore since the day Steven jumped through that window, but I’m certain that if I did, and if I addressed him as Mr. Pastore, he give me exactly that same lazy smile, a “yea, sure kid” smile.
I guess it was all connected, Steven’s jumping through the window and the way he and his father acted together, because the thing I liked the most about Steven was that he pretty much did as he pleased. Every kid I knew before him was from my school, the CatholicSchool. Steven went to public school though, even though his family was Catholic, too. So he used to make fun of my school clothes, especially my blue clip-on tie, which had SSS on it. He’d say that meant all us kids were little Nazis. Little storm troopers, he said. I sort of understood and sort of didn’t. Steven had read a lot more than I had.
When I asked him why he didn't go to the CatholicSchool, he said his dad hated the church. But I didn’t believe that. When I asked why again he just shrugged his shoulders and said it had to do with the way the church had treated his mom.
Anyway, in my school we learned mostly what not to do from the sisters, a long laundry list of “Don’ts” followed by a description of how deeply in hell you’d end up in if you did. Don’t talk back to adults. Don’t masturbate. Don’t think of your private parts or anyone else’s. Don’t lie or steal. Don’t make faces behind Father McGinn’s back, don’t try to make people laugh at the funerals where you were one of the altar boys. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.
Every day was a Don’t Day.
For Steven it always seemed like every day was a Do Day.
Let’s do this. Let’s do that. Let’s look at his dad’s Playboy magazines. Let’s call people out of the white pages and make believe we were taking a survey and ask them personal questions. Let’s grab the stepladder and look in the bathroom window when Aunt Audrey was taking a bath. Let’s put dog shit in a bag, light it on fire, leave it on somebody’s front steps and ring the bell.
Let’s steal money out of his father’s wallet. We joined the Columbia record club, got 15 records for free—he liked Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin—and never paid for the ones that started coming every month. Since he got the mail before Jerry got home, his father never knew what was happening. The collection agency calls came later, just before Steven hurt himself.
Let’s shoplift at Woolworth’s. I liked that in particular. That was the point in my life when I liked putting together Revell models, like Pontiac GTO replicas, or Sherman tanks, or little battleships and Spitfires. Once I’d learned how to shoplift, there was no stopping me. I’d filled our living room with replicas of American battleships and muscle cars. It was actually pretty easy. I’d meet Steven in Woolworth’s after school. I’d have on my blue and white SSS uniform so the store employees just ignored us. At first anyway. Steven would stand at the head of the aisle and keep a watch out.
I had my giant school book bag. I’d just open it up and shovel in a couple of boxes. The very last time we did it, though, we got caught. All I remember was a tall, fat man in an apron cursing us as Steven flew by and grabbed my arm.
“Get the fuck out of here. Now!”
And I ran for all I could. We ran for about three blocks along Roosevelt Avenue, under the El, and found an alley at 48thStreet where we sat down and had the biggest laugh of our lives. We even got the last two models but we could never go back in Woolworth’s again. Two days later at school, there was an announcement over the loudspeaker at homeroom time from the principal, Sister Evelyn, that if any student was caught stealing in Woolworth’s he—and she said he—would be expelled and go straight to hell.
My mother never said much about the models, though they clashed with the plastic wrapped Italian provincial furniture we had. But she was proud of me for making them. She said she’d never seen those kind of toys in her little town when she grew up. That was during the war. Her English was pretty bad so even if the Woolworth’s man had followed me home, he wouldn’t have been able to make her understand what I did. And anyway, she just figured that I was making enough money from my paper route for all that crap.
About the only thing that Steven liked to do for its own sake was swimming. If he wasn’t in school or at home, he was at the school pool. He was the best diver in PS 21. His medals glinted darkly on the walls around their apartment, but it was often not bright enough down there to read the small inscriptions. I think he liked it because he could be alone. No one could bother him while he swam.
Eventually, when Jerry got wise to Steven’s wallet thieving, Steven got me to take money from my mom’s purse. That lasted for a little while, well, at least until he got hurt and then we weren’t friends anymore because Jerry and he moved away.
One day Steven took me to the 65 St subway station and we snuck in under the turnstiles. He said let’s go down the tracks. I stopped at that. Didn’t seem like a good idea to me, even though Steven was pretty much batting 1000 on good ideas. He called me a faggot. I watched him as his form disappeared down the tracks. Then a train came roaring in and I was sure he was dead.
After the train pulled out I kept yelling “Steven,” but there was no reply for a long time. He did it on purpose. After a while, he started laughing and I knew he was ok. Then I saw him running across the tracks back and forth, jumping over the third rail.
“Steven, that’s stupid. Don’t do that!” I screamed. He kept doing it and trains would come in and out of the station. Finally, I gave up. I just left.
But somebody had seen us, a friend of my mom’s. And then my mom told Jerry, because later that day, when Jerry came home, and Steven and I were on the couch, like usual, he came in differently.
Jerry was on Steven like a tiger. Grabbed him by the collar without a word and started smacking him, left and right. On his arms, his face. Then he took his bag and hit Steven on the head. Jerry wasn’t much bigger than Steven but he was a man and had caught Steven unprepared. I just watched with my eyes bugging out. I thought maybe he’d hit me too, but he didn’t.
After a minute, it stopped. Steven was crying on the floor and Jerry was out of breath. Then Audrey came running down the stairs. She didn’t even knock, just burst in.
“What’s going on,” Audrey said.
“Nothing,” Jerry replied. “You ought to knock before you come into my house.”
“This is my house,” Audrey yelled. “And that’s my nephew you just beat the shit out of.”
“Mind your business,” Jerry said. He went over to the sink and washed his face.
Steven got up slowly and I could see by his eyes that it wasn’t over.
“Fuck you, Jerry,” Steven said.
Jerry froze at the sink. Audrey put her hand over her mouth.
“You know why mom died. Because you’re a nothing,” Steven said.
Jerry hunched over the sink.
“Yeah. You’re a freak and you couldn’t even support us. All you can do is fix typewriters. Shit. You didn’t treat her right. You never let her do anything. Look where we’re living. A fucking dank basement,” Steven said.
“Steven, stop,” Jerry said as he turned to face us. “You know nothing of it. Your mom was not well. Unhappy all her life. She stayed unhappy for reasons none of us could figure out. Me, the doctors, the priests…and then he turned and said snidely, “the fucking priests.”
Audrey took her hand down from her mouth. “Don’t talk like that, in front of the boy and strangers,” Audrey said.
“Shut the fuck up, Audrey. You’d be happy to see our backs. You think I don’t know that”
Audrey didn’t say anything.
I sat there not believing what was going on. My parents fought about money mostly.
Steven moved backwards to the wall behind him. “I hate you,” he said to Jerry. “I hate all of you. You killed her. You drove her to it!"
“No,” Audrey yelled. She put her head in her hands and began to cry.
Then Jerry ran at Steven from the kitchen.
Steven had enough time to turn around and jump up on to the couch and spring forward. It was as if he were on his diving board at the pool. He just crashed straight through the window. Then we heard a horn honk loudly, followed by screeching tires and a heavy thump.
Jerry and Audrey looked at each other and then Jerry scrambled out the door, which gave out onto the driveway. Through the little side windows, I saw his legs running, which was difficult for him because of the funny shoes, toward the street. Audrey told me not to move and ran up the stairs.
Months later, I’d heard that Steven was ok…well generally ok. He’d been in the hospital for weeks, in something called traction. Audrey said he wouldn’t be able to swim anymore but that he would probably learn to walk fine and go back to school.
Right after that happened, she asked Jerry to move out. So I never saw Steven again, but for a while after, as I’d get home, I looked over to the basement window. Like I said.
Now sometimes, I think of him and his funny walking Dad when I’m on the 65th street platform and an R train comes rushing into the station. And the thing is, I’m still hoping that maybe…maybe when the car doors slide open, Steven will come bursting out, grab my arm and say, “Paulie, where you been? We got stuff to do.”
© Vito Racanelli, 2015
Vito J. Racanelli, whose short stories have appeared in The Literarian and The Boiler Literary Journal, is working on a collection of short fiction. He recently completed a novel about a terrorist attack that took place 30 years ago in Italy, where he lived for several years. His story “A Ride to the Forest” was a Fish Publishing 2013 Flash Fiction Prize finalist. He will read at the Boundless Tales Series in June.
Do Days was read by E James Ford on 4th February 2015 for Entrances & Exits, and recorded for broadcast by the BBC. The YouTube trailer below was produced by production company Heavy Entertainment while recording on location in New York.