I stopped believing in angels when I was still a kid. Mother said we all had a guardian angel but that some had to work harder than others. She usually said it after Andy and I got into trouble for doing something we shouldn’t have. “You boys,” she’d say, then tousle Andy’s hair. “As for you mister, your angel is the busiest of all.” But that was a long time ago. A lifetime I guess you could say. Back when I did believe.
Stevie shook the side of my newspaper. “Grandpop. Grandpop!”
I glanced over the top. “What’s up, big guy?”
“He told me he knows you.” Stevie leaned over the arm of the chair and pressed his face close to mine, eyes blue and intent, with a smattering of brown freckles across the bridge of his nose and under his eyes. He was missing two of his bottom teeth, a vast gap when he smiled. He wore his Pinky and the Brain tee shirt that was a hand-me-down from his older cousin and one his mother didn’t approve of.
“Who knows me?”
“My imagine friend.” I raised my eyebrows at Ruby, seeking guidance. We were watching Stevie for a weekend while his folks had a get-a-way. I’d been placed under strict instructions not to tease him about his imaginary friend, what he called his imagine friend. Ruby had told me, “It’s a sign of creativity.”
“Is that how they explain it these days?”
“Leave him be. His parents don’t want him upset.”
I imitated the indulgent smile she’d perfected in her years as a grandma.
“So, your imagine friend knows me?” I said. “What’s his name?”
“You have to guess,” he whispered, his sweet warm breath a tickle in my ear. “It has to be a secret, just like before.”
“Okay.” I wanted to get back to reading about the Dodgers and my favorite player Mike Piazza. But instead I folded the paper in my lap. “Why don’t you tell me more about him and then I’ll guess.”
“He has dark hair and it’s curly.”
“Sounds like your daddy when he was little.”
He nodded, not because he agreed but because he had more to say. “And he likes to play baseball. He wants to be a pitcher when he grows up and he’s older than me, he’s nine.”
“Well, he sounds very interesting.” I picked the paper back up, but Stevie put the palm of his hand against my cheek and turned my head toward him, the way I’d seen his mother do. “Okay, what else can you tell me?” I said.
“He has freckles all over his face. Mom says freckles are angel kisses. She says angels come when you’re sleeping and leave kisses on your face. Did you know that, Grandpop? Did you?”
“Angel kisses.” I whispered the once familiar words.
He tapped his fingers on my cheek. “Grandpop, Grandpop. Guess who it is.”
“Is it Santa Claus?”
“The Easter Bunny?”
“Grandpop.” He giggled. “Make a real guess.”
“How about one of those Power Ranger guys you like so much?”
“You’ve got me stumped Stevie. I give up. Why don’t you tell me?”
He whispered even lower. “It’s Andy.”
I drew in a quick breath, a visceral moment of recognition and dread. Andy was nine when it happened. He loved baseball and he used to brag that when he grew up he was going to be a big-league pitcher. He had brown curly hair and freckles, tons of them. The living room window was open, and a breeze rustled the curtain bringing in the scent from the jasmine Ruby had planted outside. How long since I’d thought of Andy? I used to think of him every day, now I couldn’t remember the last time.
Stevie’s fingers pressed into my palm, but I ignored him. Angel kisses. That’s what Mother called them, right up until that one day, then I never heard her say it again, as if kisses from angels were all used up. Mother would kiss Andy and me and tell us that kisses for little boys only came from angels or mothers, then she’d tickle us.
Mother read to us every night, not little kid stories but adventure books. We were half way through Gulliver’s Travels. She cradled the book in her lap and traced her index finger beneath the words, stopping to point at the colorful illustrations. Andy got to turn the pages because he was older. I’d lean against Mother and she held me close with her free arm. When she finished the chapter, she always whispered the same thing, “My two precious boys.” Then she climbed off the bed and kissed me goodnight, once on the tip of my nose, once on each eyelid. Her soft hands smoothed my hair, then she tucked the blanket up to my chin. “Sweet dreams, number two son.”
When she bent over to kiss Andy he turned away. “Mother, I’m not a baby.”
“Is that so?” She slipped her fingers beneath his arm and tickled him.
“You think you’re too old for my kisses?” I felt her warm weight as she stretched across me; her free hand tickled me, too. “Look at all those angel kisses.” She smacked kisses on Andy’s cheeks and forehead. “I can’t let the angels beat me.” He wriggled and twisted as Mother tickled and kissed him. “I have to catch up in the kissing department,” she said.
“Angel Kisses,” I said.
Stevie put his arm around my neck. “That’s what Mom calls them.”
I tasted the memory, so bitter I needed to get fresh air. Andy, Andy, Andy. I used to repeat his name when I was afraid because just saying it had comforted me. When had I stopped? It had slipped away unnoticed, buried in my childhood, outgrown, moved on from. Andy. I stood quickly, and the folded paper knifed its way to the floor.
“Stevie, go sit with your Grandma for a minute,” I said.
Ruby sat in the rocking chair. Her knitting needles clicked together as her hands danced over the white scarf she was making, but she paused when I got up.
“Sweetheart?” She tilted her head to one side.
“I need a little air.”
Her eyebrows lifted and her needles stopped their soothing click-click. “Bring me a book Stevie and I’ll read to you.”
“But I want to...”
“Mind your Grandma,” I said, a clip to my voice I hadn’t intended.
I walked to the backyard, my breathing fast and sharp, like I’d been running in a race and had just crossed the finish line. My chest tightened the way it did when I was having an angina attack, though this was different. Not the heaviness of an attack, but an ache that went all the way through me. The weight of missing him was so powerful I couldn’t breathe. I sat in the Adirondack chair under the Jacaranda tree and stared through the lacy greenery to the cloudy sky. I took slow deep breaths like they’d taught me when I was doing cardiac rehab. I hadn’t thought of Andy in a long time, yet it felt like he was right there with me. The way it did when he came to see me at night, telling me not to be sad, staying until I fell asleep.
The leaves from the tree rippled shadows across my lap. The breeze was cool, spring fresh, what Mother called an airish day. “Andy.” I said it out loud and half expected him to answer. “I’m sorry,” I said, then added what I always did, “You were supposed to be here.”
Long Beach, California in 1932 wasn’t like it is in 1996. Back then it was a tight knit community and we knew all our neighbors. We lived in a two-bedroom bungalow; it was small and cramped but Mother made it nice. There was a parlor, a large kitchen, and two bedrooms. Off of the parlor was a tiny wood paneled library that Pops made into a room for my two little sisters. Mother and Pops used the smaller bedroom and the four of us older kids shared the larger one. It was big enough for two double beds, one for Andy and me, and the other for the big girls, Ella the oldest who was twelve, and Maddie who was ten. Mother had Pops hang a clothesline between the beds and pinned a sheet over it to give the girls privacy. Andy loved to lie across our bed and shoot spit balls over the top to annoy them. He’d tear off corners from his school papers, rolling them into little balls and stockpiling his arsenal until they were busy doing homework.
“Andy, you’re not supposed to do that,” Ella said after he launched his attack. The pffft of each spit wad hurtling over the sheet made me grab my belly to keep from laughing.
Maddie wasn’t as patient as Ella. “Stop it right now or I’ll tell.” Maddie’s threats never worked with Andy. Pffft, pffft, went each one. I snorted into my hand unable to stifle the laugh. He rolled onto his back, his chest heaving with mischief. “Pops,” Maddie yelled. “Andy is bothering us while we’re doing our homework.”
“That’s enough,” Pops called from the other room.
“Ohhh, Mad Maddie,” Andy whispered, but loud enough for her to hear.
“Pops, now he’s making fun of me. Get him to stop.”
“Andrew,” Pops said. And he stopped, for a while anyway.
Down the street from us was a duplex where Mother’s sister and her husband lived. We didn’t call them Aunt and Uncle like most kids, instead we called them by their first names, Junie and Mack. Mack and Pops were in the Great War together. They worked as handymen doing anything they could get paid to do. The Depression was on and there wasn’t much work. Once I asked Andy what the Depression was, and he laughed. “You’re such a lame brain, don’t you know anything?” But he told me it meant there was a big crash in the banks and all the money and jobs were gone. He acted like he was smarter than me because he was nine and I was only seven, but he still told me stuff.
Junie had no kids of her own and spent most days helping Mother with all of us. We were a big happy family, that’s what I remember best, how happy we were. Pops and Mack came home from a job laughing and slapping each other on the back, then they trudged down to the American Legion for a smoke and a game of cards. Junie was around to help Mother bathe the little girls or help us bigger kids with homework. They’d stand close while they folded clothes, layering them in the laundry basket while I sat at the kitchen table drinking milk and eating cookies.
“What did you say?” Mother asked. Junie whispered something I didn’t hear, her hands spun through the air as she spoke. “Junie! You’re so wicked.” Mother tipped her head back and laughed until she had to use the edge of her apron to wipe tears away. Every time they looked at each other one of them started to giggle. I loved watching them together.
The four of us older kids went to the parish school where the nuns taught. They were strict like Pops, but not frowny when they were upset, the way Pops got. They smiled and said it was important to behave and that all of God’s children were precious and loved. It was a five block walk to school and Pops rule was we had to stay together. But Andy and I didn’t like to walk with the girls. Instead we’d run ahead and wait at the corner for them to catch up.
“Arrggh,” Andy had hidden behind a bush and jumped out.
Mad Maddie yelled, “I’m gonna tell Pops on you.”
“Tattletale, tattletale,” Andy sing-songed. Our shoulders knocked together as we raced ahead to the next corner.
After school we’d do our chores as quickly as we could then tear out of the house into the backyard. There was always a clothesline full of diapers flapping in the breeze and we had to be a careful, if we got them dirty Mother would yell at us and maybe tack on chores or tell us we couldn’t play with Jimmy and Charlie next door. Andy was the unofficial leader of the pack, all of us boys did whatever he said. Since I was two years younger, I was lucky to be included.
One day Jimmy and Charlie showed up after our chores were done. We were in a hurry to play. It was early spring but warm, the beach sky milky and dense, perfect outside weather. “Where are we playing today?” I asked. We had three favorite places: first was the park with big climbing trees, next was the back-bay where we threw rocks into the brackish water. Andy liked to practice his fastball there. He was a lefty and said he was going to be the next Babe Ruth. The other place we liked was the stockyard, it stunk pretty bad but there was a lot to see. Mother didn’t like us going there because we’d come home smelling like cows and our pants would be dirty. She said it wasn’t a place for boys because it was where men worked, and besides, it wasn’t a playground. But that was exactly why we liked it. Plus, the earth there was good for digging.
Andy stood on the edge of the porch and pulled his shoes off, hopscotching on one leg to keep his balance. “Let’s go to the stockyard,” he said.
“Mother says we shouldn’t play there,” I said. I sat on the step and untied my shoes.
“No,” Andy said, his hands on his hips, “she said she doesn’t like it when we play there, but she didn’t say we can’t go.”
“‘Course if you’re too chicken you can stay home and play with Maddie and the little girls.”
The three of them laughed. “Yeah, go play dolls with the girls.”
Mother called from behind the screen door, “Boys, don’t get your school shoes dirty.”
Andy shouted, “Run!” And I ran off with them. I wasn’t going to be left behind.
At the edge of the yard we glanced over our shoulders to see if she’d come out to the back porch where we’d left our shoes piled by the door. Mother worried about how expensive new shoes were so it was easier to play barefoot. Just the day before she’d said, “Why can’t you boys be careful with your shoes the way the girls are?” Maddie had stuck her tongue out at Andy but made sure Mother didn’t see. She loved it when Andy got in trouble.
The stockyards had several fenced cow pens, each surrounded with a dirt path. We had to stay on the path or the men who worked there yelled at us, but otherwise they left us alone. We climbed the split rail fence and sat on top.
“Moo.” I said.
Andy cupped his hands around his mouth. “Moo, moo.” He stood on the highest bar of the fence, flapping his arms in the air like a bird and making faces. “Mooooooo.” I laughed so hard I snorted.
“Did you hear that?’’ Andy imitated me, and the other boys copied him. We leaned over the fence rails, laughing and snorting and making snorting pig noises and silly cow sounds. None of the cows bothered to look up.
“Let’s go to the dirt pile.” Andy jumped down from the top of the fence. “Ouch,” he said.
“What happened?” I asked.
He lifted his foot and rubbed the bottom. “Nothing.”
We followed him; the soft cool dirt of the path squished through my toes. Next to the barn was a big mound of earth, digging in it was my favorite thing to do. I pretended I was digging a foxhole like Pops and Mack told us they did in the army. Jimmy and Charlie worked next to me, but Andy sat cross-legged on the side and cradled his foot in his hands.
“Aren’t you going to help?” I said.
He scratched the sole of his foot. “I got something in my foot.”
“You better have Mother put that stingy medicine on it.”
“I hate that stuff.” He spit on a finger and rubbed where he’d been scratching. “And don’t be a tattletale and tell Mother or we’ll get in trouble for playing without our shoes.”
The last thing I wanted was for him to lump me in with Maddie. “I’m not a tattletale.”
“And don’t tell her we came to the stockyards either.”
The Adirondack chair creaked as I leaned back and closed my eyes. The breeze swayed through me just as the memories did. I felt the air against my face like when we ran to school in the morning, laughing at the girls, getting Maddie so angry she’d threaten to tattle to Pops. And I felt the too familiar guilt, the lonely emptiness of wishing to go back in time. If only we hadn’t gone to the stockyards that day, if only we’d worn our shoes. If only there were such a thing as do-overs. The day Andy got sick he woke up with a fever. Mother said he had to stay home and she’d scooted the rest of us out the door. “Off you go or you’ll be late for school.” Andy waved from beneath the bed covers, then rolled over so his back was to me. I never said goodbye.
Ruby came over to where I sat but I didn’t hear her until she was right next to me. She handed me the newspaper. “You dropped this,” she said.
“Are you alright?”
“Course I am.” I picked at the seam on my pants. “Told you, I just needed a little air. Got kind of warm in there.”
She pulled a chair close and sat. She nodded. Waited. Not much gets past my Ruby. She knew something was going on with me, and I knew that she knew.
“Caught me by surprise that Stevie’s imaginary friend is named Andy,” I said. “That’s all.”
“Surprised me too.” She leaned close, taking my hand in hers. Her warm fingers squeezed. “You never talk about him.”
“Nothing to talk about.”
“Darling.” She rubbed the back of my hand with her thumb, but I pulled it away, afraid of her comforting me. Buck up, buddy, that was how I preferred to do things.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“It must be terribly hard.”
“It was a long time ago.”
“A long time to be sad.” Embedded in her soothing words was a layer of controlled irritation. My reluctance to share that part of my past was a breach of trust neither of us knew how to navigate.
The Adirondack chair creaked again as I stood. “No point talking about something I can’t change. It is what it is.” Not a snowballs chance in hell, I nearly said, just like old Pops. He was never the same after Andy, always so sad. We all were. But worst of all, I was sure Pops blamed me. Even at age seven I was supposed to watch out for Andy as much as he did me, that was what brothers were meant to do.
Ruby looked up at me. The sun peeked through the shadows from the leaves and mottled her face. Her gaze was direct, her smile thin, sad or disappointed once again, I wasn’t sure. “Darling,” she repeated. “It hurts to remember something like that.”
I tucked the paper under my arm. “I don’t think about him.”
The lie was quick and certain. But the truth was slow, nagging and constant. So many times I’d wondered how different things might have been if we’d played somewhere else that day.
“Anyhow, thanks for bringing me the paper.” I walked to the house without looking back. I was Pops son after all.
The walk home from school took longer without Andy to chase around. I ran the last block, eager to tell him Sean O’Brian got in trouble and was sent to the principal’s office.
I flung open the kitchen door but instead of finding Mother, Junie and Mack were there. Mack straddled one of the wood chairs, holding a mug of coffee in his hand.
“Where is everyone?” I said.
“Your folks took Andy to the hospital,” Junie said.
Mack stared out the kitchen window. He didn’t smile or clown around the way he usually did. I knew it was bad, because Pops didn’t like to take us to the doctor. The year before he’d had to ask Grannie for money for medicine for the baby, that was after he and Mother had a big fight, when Mother insisted the baby needed to see the doctor and Pops got upset, saying taking money from Grannie made them look like a charity case.
The house was scary quiet. We sat at the kitchen table and waited. Junie made us do our homework. Whatever else we did I don’t remember. Mother and Pops didn’t come home that night. After dinner Mack got up from his chair. He kissed Junie on the cheek, patted my head then bent down between Ella and Maddie, one hand on the back of each chair.
“You big girls listen to Junie. I’m going to the hospital to check on things.” The kitchen was yellow from the glow of the small light dangling above the sink. The door clicked behind him.
I tried to get Junie to let me wait up. “Please Junie, please.”
“Oh no, slugger. It’s a school night.” She kissed my forehead. “Off you go.”
In the morning Mack was back at the kitchen table, a mug of coffee in his hands. Junie fixed us pancakes, something we never had on weekdays. We ate in silence. Ella kept her head down, but Maddie looked back and forth between Junie and Mack. When she saw me staring at her she narrowed her eyes and stuck her tongue out.
“Come on, kids,” Mack said, “I’ll walk you to school.”
“What about Andy?” I asked.
“He has to stay in the hospital.”
Ella held my hand all the way to school and Maddie was quiet for a change. The three of us stood to the side while Mack talked to the principal, Sister Mary Bernadette. Her black veil swayed with each shake of her head, and the rosary at her waist tinkled as she fingered it. She never looked at us, but she reached over and touched Mack on the arm. There were tears on her face.
Mack was there at the end of school to walk us home. I wanted to ask about Andy but was afraid to. None of us talked on the way back. Junie put the little girls to bed early that night and Ella, Maddie and I sat at the kitchen table. Junie was helping the girls work on a puzzle and Mack sat with the paper laid out in front of him. He’d handed me the sports page and I tried to read, but I couldn’t concentrate. Pops and Mother walked through the door just as the sun was setting. I looked past them hoping to see Andy, to hear him tell a joke about missing school or about me having to do all of his chores. Pops stood with his good hat pulled low on his forehead.
“Those damn stockyards,” Mother said.
She stepped across the kitchen to where Junie sat and fell to her knees. It was the only time I ever heard Mother swear. Pops leaned against the door with his hands crossed on his chest. He watched Mother, shifting his feet in a way that frightened me.
“Is Andy coming back tomorrow?” I asked.
“He’s not coming home,” Pops said.
“Oh, Junie,” Mother cried. “I’ve never seen anything so terrible. They said it was lock-jaw. He cut his foot on something rusty and it got infected.”
“You mean he’s…” I said.
Pops sliced his hand through the air, “Yes. That’s what it means.”
It had to be a mistake. Andy was fine just a few days earlier, poking at me on the way home for saying I liked my teacher.
Ella slid out of her chair and hugged Mother from behind. Maddie stayed where she was with her lips pressed tightly together, no tears, or mean eyes, only silence. The bill of Pops hat shaded his face, but his gray eyes focused on me. I’d known better than to go to the stockyards, but I hadn’t wanted Andy to call me a tattletale. I hadn’t told anyone about the cut on his foot because then Mother would know we’d gone where she didn’t want us to go. But Pops knew all that now.
Junie rocked Mother in her arms. “There, there,” she whispered.
Ella began to cry. “Oh no, Mother. No.”
Pops kept staring at me. I wanted to run to him, to bury my face in his shirt, to have his hand stroke the back of my head and pull me against his chest. To have him say, “there, there,” to me.
Junie scrunched her eyes closed and rocked back and forth with Mother just the way she did with a crying baby. “Let it out, sweetie.”
Maddie didn’t move or say anything. Mack pulled her onto his lap and wrapped his arms around her.
“He’s not coming home?” I asked.
Pops walked out, slamming the door behind him. I turned away from the sight of Mother buried against Junie’s shoulder, of Junie’s eyes squeezed shut and the girls crying. My eyes began to burn like I might cry but crying was for sissies. I ran to the backyard where no one would see. As I came around the side of the house, I heard Pops yelling.
“How could you let it happen? How?” He stalked across the back lawn flailing his arms with each shout. “Damn you. He was just a kid. How could you let this happen?”
It was almost full dark. The area was lit by the porch light, still I didn’t see who he was talking to. Pops good hat was on the ground. I flattened myself against the wall, out of sight, a terrible game of hide-and-seek. He’d taken a bunch of Andy’s toys and lined them up on the grass: the metal dump truck with a missing wheel, his leather baseball mitt, his cigar box, the one with funny lettering on the side that was filled with secret treasures. He’d let me see what was inside only once - an army medal with a frayed ribbon, a yellow cats-eye marble, several rocks, a coin from Mexico he found at the park, a bouncy ball. Next to the box was his red fire truck, the one Junie and Mack gave him for his fourth birthday. He used to zoom it across the floor saying, “If I don’t get to be a pitcher when I grow up I’m gonna be a fireman and drive the hook and ladder.”
Pops held Andy’s wooden baseball bat, choked up on the handle like a homerun hitter. He lifted it over his head and swung it down. The first swing smashed the dump truck. The next flattened the cigar box. But he saved his best swing for the red fire truck, cracking the back first, then smashing the cab loose. The sound of crushing metal is something I still hear. Each time the bat connected Pops shouted, “Damn you God. God damn you.”
I started to cry then, not caring if he heard. I’d never been scared of him before. When he smashed the last toy, he stood over the broken pieces. His shirt had pulled out of the waistband and his shoulders lifted with each raspy breath. He held the bat loosely in one hand, his fingers clenching and releasing like he was adjusting his grip for the next pitch. That was when he heard me, turning with wildness in his eyes like I’d never seen.
He moved fast, only three steps and he was in front of me. I pressed my palms against the bumpy stucco wall.
“Pops? I’m sorry.”
He lifted me from the ground and started to shake me, his breath warm and moist on my face.
“Stop crying. Stop, already. Be a big boy.” He shook me harder. “Grow up, damnit.”
“No, Pops.” My shoes scraped against the wall. “Please don’t.”
Mack appeared out of nowhere, grabbing Pops by the shoulder until he released me, and I fell onto my rear end. Pops threw a punch at Mack, catching him on the chin and sending him flying. Mack landed on his knees; his head bent to his chest as if ready for another blow. I didn’t know what to do. I bit my lip, afraid for Pops to see I was still crying, afraid to reach out to either of them, and afraid to run away.
“It’s okay, buddy,” Mack said.
I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or Pops. He stayed on his knees and didn’t get up until Pops reached a hand down and helped him stand. Mack picked me up and carried me away. I looked over his shoulder. Pops knelt in front of the shattered toys, picked up one broken piece and tried to fit it against another. His shadow extended beyond the circle of light cast by the porch light. I never saw the toys again.
I settled back into my recliner, the foot rest groaned as it extended. Stevie was sprawled in front of the TV watching cartoons. I unfolded the paper and started to read. The Dodgers had trounced the Giants the night before, but other than the headline proclaiming the win, the remainder of the column didn’t make sense and I reread parts of it several times before giving up. I didn’t even attempt to read the box scores. I rubbed the corner of the paper between my thumb and forefinger, the ruffling noise particular to newspaper. Andy and I used to sit at the kitchen table on Sunday mornings during baseball season and he’d read the sports column out loud as if he were announcing the game, “And he slides into home like a bat out of hell. ‘Safe’ beneath the glove of the surprised catcher.” He’d slap his hands on the paper and make the same crinkly sound. His antics made Mother laugh, and Pops shake his head. I was mesmerized by him.
I glanced out the window to our long expanse of front lawn, green and smooth, and pictured Andy on the scrubby uneven grass of the house in Long Beach, slapping his fist into his mitt and winding up like he was a pitcher. Hey batter, batter. I’d believed him when he said he was going to play in the big leagues when he grew up. God, he was the best. We were supposed to grow up and work together like Pops and Mack, to live down the street from each other. Sadness sliced through me. I wanted to remember and wanted to forget all at the same time.
Ruby came back inside, the rear door clicking behind her. She paused in the doorway and stared at me, maybe waiting to ask if I was okay, to reach out again, but I looked away from her and pretended to read the paper.
“Stevie, sweetie, let’s get a snack in the kitchen,” she said, helping him to his feet and leaving me alone, like I wanted and didn’t want.
The morning of the funeral Mother hugged me hard. “Don’t ever play without your shoes again. And no going to the stockyards.” I’d nestled my head against her neck and smelled the perfume she only wore to church. “I’ll never fuss at you about dirty shoes again, I promise.” I wanted to tell her that I’d told Andy we shouldn’t go to the stockyards, but if I did it was like I was tattling on him when he wasn’t there to tell his side. He’d cut his foot and I should have told her that too. But I chickened out when she kissed me on the forehead and said, “My sweet, sweet, number two son.”
A few years later Pops was helping me change the oil in my first car when he said, out of the blue, “It’s my fault about Andy. I knew the stockyards were dangerous. I should have forbidden you to play there.” It was the closest we ever came to talk about him. I took a deep breath, ready to finally confess everything but in the next moment he said, “hand me that box wrench,” and I missed my chance.
After the funeral Pops never went to church again. He said he didn’t believe in a God that took someone like Andy. A year later Mother had another baby, a boy. I wondered what we would call him and asked Ella, “Will we name him Andy?” I was thinking about how we did that with a kitty we got after our old tom died.
Ella said, “No, and don’t say anything or Mother will start crying again.”
It was hard to sleep alone in the big bed. I’d roll over and expect Andy to be there and when he wasn’t I’d start to cry. I missed him all day long and at night the hours of missing him stacked up and overwhelmed me. One night I woke and he was sitting next to me in bed. His hair was damp and smelled of shampoo, as if he’d just gotten out of the bath before climbing into bed. I rubbed my eyes with a fist and stared at him.
“Hey, squirt,” he said, his usual greeting. The light from the hall made his face shine. Freckles, I saw his freckles and remembered Mother saying they were angel kisses. “Don’t be crying all the time,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
“Otherwise kids will start calling you crybaby.” He whispered, “I’ve been practicing my fast ball.” I wanted to ask where he practiced but was afraid if I did he might disappear and I’d find out I was dreaming when he seemed so real. If it was a dream I didn’t want to wake up. He teased me too.
“You like Roseanne.”
“I saw you staring at her.”
He snuggled under the covers, pulling at the blanket like he always did, and I fell asleep listening to his soft snoring. In the morning he was gone. I rushed into the kitchen to tell everyone, but no one believed me. Instead Ella told me to shush and Maddie said to shut up and stop making up stories, mean like, and she stuck her tongue out at me, glad I was the one getting into trouble and not her. Through her tears that morning Mother said, “Sweetheart, Andy is a guardian angel now, watching over all of us.” It was the last time she said his name.
But he kept coming back. I never knew when he’d show up. Another time I woke, and he was on top of the covers leaning against the wall. He had a baseball that he threw up in the air and caught with his mitt, each toss landing with a thump. I worried the noise might wake up the girls and Maddie would yell to Pops that I was throwing the baseball around and talking to myself and he needed to make me stop.
“Shhhh.” I held my index finger up to my lips. “You have to be quiet.”
He ignored me and tossed the ball again. “You have to stop being afraid,” he said.
“I’m not afraid.”
“Are too.” The ball arced back, and he had to dive to catch it, the thump deeper than before. With the next toss the ball tapped the ceiling. Pops would think I’d been playing when I was supposed to be sleeping. And I couldn’t blame it on Andy.
I knew enough to know he wasn’t really visiting me, that it was a dream or my imagination at work. I’d turnover in bed and he’d be sitting there. One night he said, “I wish I could keep coming but I can’t.” He looked kind of sad but in the next second he smiled. “Squirt, all you gotta do is think of me, like I’m here now, and everything will be alright. I promise.”
“Are you my guardian angel? Mother said you are.”
“Yes, but don’t tell anyone I was here. Remember, it’s a secret.” He held his index finger up to his mouth. “Shhh.” He scrambled off the bed and the nubby blanket slid off into a neat pile. “I’ll come back if I can.”
I’m not sure why he couldn’t come back. I kept hoping he’d find a way. I tried to remember him, at least for a while, but there was no one I could talk to about him. So I started to forget, just like Pops.
“Grandpop?” I spooned mashed potatoes onto Stevie’s plate. “Did you have an imagine friend when you were little?”
I slid a napkin onto his lap. “No, I didn’t.”
“Then who did you play with?”
“Eat your dinner, son.” I buttered one of Ruby’s cheese biscuits and placed it on the edge of his plate. “Go on, eat up.”
Stevie squinted his eyes at me. “But who did you play with?”
“The boys who lived next door. And my brother.”
“I wish I had a brother. Or even a sister.” Stevie took a bite of the biscuit. “What’s your brother’s name?”
“William.” Which was true and false. William was born after Andy died. He never played with me and the boys next door and Andy was never part of his family. Ruby smiled at me, the closed smile of an acknowledged falsehood.
“Was he your big brother or little brother?”
“Little brother. You’ve met him, remember? Uncle Will?”
“Did he play baseball?”
I went for the deliberate detour. “Did you know the Dodgers won last night? And Piazza hit a homer.”
“Sweetheart,” Ruby said, “tell him about your big brother?” She gently pulled me back on track. Stevie owl twisted his head from Ruby to me.
“You have a big brother?”
“I had a big brother. His name was Andy.”
“Like my friend.” He clapped his hands. “I wish I had a real brother. Andy told me he had a little brother. He said he used to make him laugh.”
“That’s real nice,” I said. I pointed to his plate. “Back to eating your dinner big guy.”
He took one bite of his potatoes. “Sometimes Andy’d pretend he was a cow and go Moooo.” His laugh hiccupped into a snort. He cupped his hands around his mouth and repeated the sound. “Moooo.”
How did Stevie know about cows and silly moo sounds and snort laughing? He was telling a story I had lived.
“Have you ever seen a real cow, Grandpop?”
“Were you afraid of them?”
I shook my head. The cows never scared me, going to the stockyards hadn’t scared me either. But I hadn’t known there were things more dangerous than cows and stockyards, and dirt. “No, I’m not afraid of cows.”
“Andy said he isn’t afraid of anything and that I shouldn’t be either. Isn’t that right?”
Ruby reached over and tapped Stevie on his forearm. “Sweet boy, time to stop talking and eat your dinner before it gets cold.”
He slurped down two more bites. “Grandpop?”
“Are you afraid of things?”
“I’m afraid of the dark.”
“I used to be afraid of the dark when I was your age.” Mother always left the hall light on. She said it was so she could see when she got up with one of the little ones. But she knew I was afraid of the dark, and afraid to admit it.
He forked some green beans and held them up. “Because Andy says not to be afraid.”
“That’s good advice,” I said. “I think there’s ice cream for dessert, but only if you eat your dinner.”
“Just one more question.” He smiled at me, knowing he could push the boundaries a little with his grandpop. “What happened to Andy?”
It was the question I hated most, the reason I’d learned long ago not to mention him. Folks got upset when they heard. They’d look at me with that mix of pity and curiosity - people always want to know about death. I’d end up feeling like I had to comfort them. And I hated the pity eyes, the slow shake of the head, the sad half smile, and the awkward silence of the unasked follow up questions. It was better all-around not to mention him.
“He hurt his foot and it got infected.” I leaned over and cut his meat into smaller pieces. “It’s nothing you have to be scared about. Andy is right, you don’t have to be afraid.”
I glanced at Ruby. She’d stopped eating and was staring at me. I shook my head at her, knowing she wanted to hear more of the story I’d never told. She had asked about Andy a few times but when I evaded her question she’d stopped, hoping perhaps that I’d trust her enough one day to finally tell the story. But it was me I didn’t trust. I was afraid to think about that day at the stockyards and the terrible time after. It was more than toys that were smashed that day.
Before I even opened my eyes, I knew he was there.
He laughed. “Hey squirt.”
It was a strangely familiar thing for him to say. He looked like he always had with curly hair and freckles, Peter Pan, while I was an old guy with a wife and grandkids. “Shh,” I shrugged toward Ruby, asleep next to me.
He sat cross legged near my feet.
“Where have you been?” I whispered.
I squinted my eyes as if by blurring my vision I’d be able to figure out if he was real or if I was dreaming.
“I like Stevie,” he said.
“He said you’re his imaginary friend.”
Andy nodded. “He has a good imagination.” Did I dare ask if that meant he was real rather than something made up? “You know, you don’t have to be afraid.”
“Sure you are.” He smiled like when he teased me about liking a girl and laughing when I denied it. “You’re afraid it was your fault.”
“We shouldn’t have gone there.”
“Yeah, probably not.” He shrugged his shoulders. “It was an accident, that’s all. Accidents happen, isn’t that what Mother always said?”
“Does Stevie really see you, like I see you now?”
A sliver of light cut through the gap in the curtain and divided the bedroom into two, as divided as my mind, sliced into pieces of sorrow and guilt, and into joy and wonder, the satisfaction of having seen Andy, in a visit or dream, I wasn’t sure which, only that he felt real. I’d hung onto the sorrow and guilt yet buried them, the deep roots strangling out the happy times before he died.
Memories kept me from falling back to sleep: sweet memories, funny ones, and regular everyday ones like running to school or playing catch in the front yard. Ruby rolled over and, somehow knowing I was awake, reached for me.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I can’t stop thinking about Andy.”
She clicked on the bedside lamp and rolled to her side propping herself on her elbow so that one side of her face was shadowed. “Tell me.”
I rested on my back and stared at the ceiling. “He was a good brother. Everyone liked him.” I smiled. “He was always teasing people and making them laugh. You would have liked him.” I pictured him flicking the dish towel at me then laughing and calling me lame brain.
“I’m sure I would have,” she said.
“Mother said she should have named him Malarkey since he was always getting into trouble.” I went silent, as happy thoughts were eclipsed by reality. “It happened so fast. He cut his foot when we were playing at the stockyards. One day we were walking home from school and a couple of days later he was in the hospital dying from Tetanus.”
She placed her hand on mine and this time I let her squeeze without pulling away. “We weren’t supposed to go there. But he told me not to be a tattletale and that if I said anything we’d get in trouble. So I never did, even after he got sick.”
“You were only seven.”
“I knew everyone blamed me, that they wished it’d been me instead of Andy. Everyone loved Andy, everyone.”
“We weren’t allowed to talk about him. Like we were supposed to just forget. I was so lonely with him gone. I didn’t know what else to do so I went along. I pretended too.”
“Such an unimaginable thing to lose a child, to lose a brother.” She spoke in a soft whisper, slowly shaking her head.
Silence filled the room, so familiar and so blank. “He used to visit me at night when I couldn’t sleep.” I let the words rush out of me, a confession of sorts.
“How lovely,” she said, no hesitation, no raising of an eyebrow or a pity smile. No anger that I’d never told her even though I knew that she knew.
“They were real visits, not dreams.”
I paused a moment. “He was here tonight.” I waited for her to say I was being ridiculous or childish or maybe to get angry for making something up. “I suppose it was a dream, but it felt real.”
“Tell me about it,” she said. She let out a long slow exhale, the kind of sigh that came when someone finally told you the truth. I paused again. My inclination was to quickly dismiss what I’d told her, to play it off as a joke, wave my hand through the air to clear away the notion. Except I wanted to tell her, the same way I’d wanted to tell everyone when he first visited, when no one believed me, and everyone got angry.
“He sat right there.” I pointed to the end of the bed. “He was wearing an old pair of dungarees with the knees torn and frayed white.” She nodded. “He said it wasn’t my fault, that it was an accident.”
“He’s right you know.”
“You don’t think I’m crazy? Making things up or hallucinating?”
“No, neither. Just really, really sad. I’ve always wished you’d tell me about him, that maybe it wouldn’t hurt as much.”
“You kept your memory of him locked up, like the picture in the drawer.”
“You know about the picture?”
She clasped my hands in hers and lifted them to her lips. “Of course, I do.” Her thumb made circles across the back of my hand. “You know, it’s okay to talk about him. And it’s okay to miss him.”
I puffed out a long breath, afraid my words might catch in my throat, or worse I might cry. “I loved having him as my big brother. He was a good big brother. He included me in all kinds of stuff, most older brothers wouldn’t have done that.”
She snuggled close, warm weight and soft comfort as she rubbed my arm. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
“I wanted to talk about him.” I drew in another long breath. “But every time I tried to everyone got upset. Even Ella got mad. Mother would cry, and Pops would yell or walk out of the room.”
“It must have been hard for everyone. But never talking about him kept you from those good memories.”
“I didn’t want to make things worse.”
I rolled over and dug through the drawer of my nightstand to the framed picture buried there, a treasure I’d been unwilling to share. I held it out to her. “Pops took it of us the summer before he died.” I’d never spoken of it, but she’d known it was there all along and had waited years for me to tell her. I touched the surface of the silver and blue frame, ran my fingers down the glass, over our smiling faces.
I passed it to her and she cradled it in her hands. “Such a sweet picture. I can see how much you loved each other.”
The years of keeping it hidden meant I hadn’t looked at it in a long time. I’d kept it there, folded under an old tee shirt and the prayer book I mean to read from but never do. His arm is slung loosely around my shoulder and we are both grinning. My top front teeth are missing, and Andy’s smile is so big the sun is reflected off of it.
“It was under my pillow for years. Mother would change my sheets and I’d find it tucked back in place. We never spoke of it. It was our strange secret. She must have cried every time she saw it.” I touched the edge of the frame. “There were so many times I wanted to talk to her about him, to ask why it happened and whether it was my fault, but I knew not to ask, especially if Pops was around. When I went away during the war I left the picture in a drawer Mother had cleared for me. It was there when I came back, smoothed out and in this frame.”
“I like his freckles,” she said. She circled her fingers over the glass, as if she were touching him. “Angel kisses, such a sweet way to describe them. He looks like he was a good brother.”
“Yes.” I nodded, unable to say more. I missed him fiercely, but I also missed remembering him, and being able to talk about him.
Ruby handed the photo back and I put it on the nightstand. “There, that’s a good place for it,” I said.
“Perfect,” she said.
She turned the light off and nestled against my chest. I let out a long sigh, then another. I stared at the photo; the memory of that day was as imprinted in my mind as the picture. Ruby fell back to sleep, her warm breath soft and regular against my neck. And in the dark room the silver of the frame caught the halo of light from the front porch and helped me fall asleep.