Friday, November 22, 1963
The President Is Dead. School Dismissed.
Rory Maguire thought this must be what it was like to have a death in the family. The only other time he'd ever felt this kind of hollow, awful feeling in his gut was the day last May when his father fell from the Prospect Expressway at work and got hurt bad.
But this was different.
He knew for sure that his mother was home crying her eyes out.
Miss Seltzer had been so distraught in typing class after Mr. Sears, the principal of Manual Training High, called her out of class into the hallway to whisper to her that when she came back in she couldn't get any words out of her little, always-pursed lips. So she'd grabbed an eraser, wiped off The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog, and chose a brand-new piece of chalk from a box, as if an old stub wouldn't be respectful, and wrote those words on the blackboard in big horrible letters.
Then she'd flopped in her chair -- the same one where nutso Lulu McNab once hid a whoopee cushion under her pillow -- dropped her small graying head in her arms, and began to sob. That started a chain reaction with all the other girls in class, even the ones Rory knew had Republican parents.
"Oh, my God," said one girl in the first row, her hand going to her mouth as she wept. "Oh, my God..."
Rory hurried down the school stairs holding back his own tears in front of the girls who passed each other hankies and Kleenex to wipe their runny noses and mascara.
Rory was the only guy in the typing class. So he had to be strong. When he'd asked Mr. Sears for permission to take typing Rory explained he needed to learn how to type to become a sportswriter.
An amused Mr. Sears had said, "Typing is for girls."
"Clark Kent types," Rory said. "Jimmy Cannon of the Journal-American types. Dick Young of the Daily News types. I read in a biography of Samuel Clemens that Mark Twain handed in the first typed manuscript in America. None of them're girls."
Mr. Sears laughed and said okay, he could take typing instead of a wood-shop class, but that he didn't want any fistfights in the hall if other guys called Rory a sissy. Or else he'd transfer him out and have him suspended.
A lot of the Manual High football jocks did bust Rory's chops. They called him a quiff for taking typing. Or they'd yell, "Maguire, take a letter!" "Exactly what type of homo are you, Maguire," asked one flabby lineman named Minogue.
"Someday you'll take it back when you read my interviews with Y.A. Tittle and Johnny Unitas in the Daily News," Rory said.
"Daily News?" Minogue said, standing amid his taunting football teammates. "My old man says your old man reads The Daily Worker. Like all the other draft-dodgin' merchant marines during the big war."
The jocks had a good laugh.
In school, Rory often took these rank-outs on the chin. In his freshman year the jocks were bigger and older than him and they stuck together like a lynch mob. Now that he was a sophomore, he'd grown to five foot nine, and weighed 165 pounds, with hard muscles from working his buns off in the butcher shop, pedaling his big bike about twenty miles a day, eating steak sandwiches and sausage-and-pepper heroes. Only the week before, Noonz, one of the butchers where he worked, said, "Mingya, kid, but you're gettin' huge like Charles Atlas."
Rory laughed and said, "You never know when I might have to punch one of these crew-cut football clowns right in the fat face."
Especially Minogue, Rory thought.
But Mr. Sears had warned him that if he got in any fights in school he'd take him out of typing and suspend him. That would go on his record and hurt his chances of staying on the honor roll, which was important if he wanted to get a scholarship to a good college. He needed a scholarship, because no way could Rory's parents afford to pay his way through college. His father didn't even have a job, couldn't work if he wanted to. The old man was still on crutches or parked in a wheelchair, fighting to get workmen's comp and disability insurance.
Besides, Rory'd learned to live with certain stuff. He spent half his childhood rolling in the gutters, having fistfights with big-mouthed kids, sticking up for his father who'd served in the merchant marines instead of the regular marines during World War II.
Rory's mother once told him, "Your father was a hero during the war. He sailed the treacherous North Atlantic on Liberty cargo ships that supplied the war effort, all the while being attacked by bombs, shells, sea mines, and torpedoes from Hitler's U-boats, the Luftwaffe, and Surface Raiders. Not to mention watching mates die from the cold and the sharks and the sea."
But as far as he knew, his father had no medals besides a Victory Medal and Atlantic Service Bars to prove it. And the old man would never even talk about his time in the war. Never. Ever. In fact, the only time his father ever lost his temper with Rory was when he pestered him for details for a school essay about his time in the merchant marines in World War II.
"Off-limits, damn it!" the old man had barked. "Case closed."
To make matters worse, his old man wasn't even a registered Democrat. And in that working-class Irish Catholic parish of St. Stanislaus (he was a Polish saint but it was an Irish neighborhood) not being a Democrat, loyal to "the Chairman" was like being a secret Protestant and snubbing the Pope. Because Harry Maguire didn't vote at all, people whispered that maybe he was a secret commie.
But all that seemed so stupid right now as Rory joined the stampede out of Manual after President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas. The girls from typing were still weeping as Rory joined them and blended in with other classes on the second-floor stairway, all heading toward the Brooklyn street.
As he descended Rory spotted Carol Sturgis a few heads in front of him. His heart jumped. At fifteen Carol was a junior and a full year older than Rory. Even from the back, he could pick Carol out of the rush hour crowd. She had hair like the gorgeous girls in the Prell commercials on TV, long and blond and bouncy with lots of that shiny stuff they called lanolin. She was so blue-eyed and pretty and walked with such shoulders-back confidence that she terrified Rory. She had posture, poise, class. She made his mouth dry and his palms sweat.
This was Carol's first term in Manual. She'd moved from the City, which is what Brooklynites called Manhattan. Her father, who was some kind of lawyer, bought a fancy brownstone with a backyard and a peach tree on Tenth Street. The house must've gone for at least fifteen or twenty grand. Instead of work boots and dungarees like most of the local fathers, Mr. Sturgis wore snazzy suits to work in the morning, like the father in Ozzie and Harriet. Instead of taking the subway, he drove his shiny Chevy to work somewhere in Downtown Brooklyn. Carol's mother was almost as pretty as Carol. She looked a little like that hot tamale Stella Stevens, and wore the kinds of clothes Rory never saw his mother wear. Clothes like ladies wore in movies about rich people from Manhattan.
They were different than other neighborhood families. Since they moved into the neighborhood in July, Rory had seen Carol and her parents in Freedom Meats, where he worked. Every Friday night, like clockwork, the Sturgis family came in around 5:30 to order their weekly meat order. That was weird all by itself, Rory thought. He couldn't think of any other family that shopped together. Most local wives shopped alone while their husbands went to the bars. Plus they ate meat on meatless Fridays and he'd heard Mrs. Sturgis tell Sal that they had a big deep freezer in the finished basement. So they ordered lots of special freezer-wrapped porterhouse steaks, ground round instead of chuck chop, center cut pork chops instead of shoulder, the $1.69-a-pound veal cutlets, and the best chicken cutlets and eye round roasts. Top-shelf. Nothing that was on sale. The same grade meat his boss Sal Russo ate. The only steak Rory had ever eaten before he worked at Freedom Meats was chuck steak. When Sal cooked him his first sirloin on the electric skillet in the back room of the butcher shop, slapped between two pieces of seeded Italian bread from Robestelli's bakery, it was so delicious that Rory felt like he was committing a mortal sin. He checked to make sure it wasn't a meatless Friday.
Every time Carol came into the store with her parents Rory hurried into the back room, ducked into the bathroom, and checked to make sure his hair looked good. It was getting longer every week, like those guys from Liverpool, the Beatles. He was convinced they were going to be a big huge hit when they first came to America and went on Ed Sullivan in February. Everyone was starting to grow mop tops, but Rory was ahead of them all, ahead of the Fab Four fad.
But right now everybody he met in school and the neighborhood busted his chops about his long hair. His parents, classmates, teachers, his boss, even his friends told Rory he needed a haircut.
"You look like Moe from the Three Stooges," said Timmy, one of his stickball pals from Eleventh Street.
The football jocks told him he looked more like a quiff than ever. Bad enough he was the only guy in typing. Now he was growing his hair long. But he'd seen a Daily News centerfold spread and all kinds of TV news footage about young chicks going ape over the Beatles so he hoped his hair might attract a sophisticated older girl like Carol Sturgis from Manhattan.
He'd been watching Carol now for four months, since she moved into the neighborhood, checking her out as he passed her on the street pedaling his big industrial delivery bike, the basket loaded with meat orders. Stealing glances at her in the butcher shop mirrors as he carried sides of beef or scraped the big butcher blocks or unloaded meat from the wholesale trucks. Or when he passed her in the hallways of Manual. A few times, he'd rushed ahead of her to hold open the lunchroom doors for Carol, just to be able to hear her smoky little Lauren Bacall-ish voice say "Thanks."
He'd always just nod and stare in those blue eyes. And his heart would do a Gene Krupa drumroll in his chest.
Even if a delivery took him in the opposite direction, when Rory was out on his bike from Freedom Meats, which was on the corner of Eighth Street and Seventh Avenue, he always went out of his way to pedal up Tenth Street, hoping he'd see Carol going into or coming out of her house. He saw her a few times in the summer in white short-shorts and almost crashed the bike. What a shape! Like Annette Funicello in Beach Party. Just looking at her made him want to run to confession. Thank God temptation wasn't sin, because every time he laid eyes on Carol Sturgis he had temptations worse than Jesus had in the desert.
And now here she was, a few feet in front of him, wrecked by the news about John Fitzgerald Kennedy, blotting tears and mascara from those gorgeous blue eyes. The way he knew his mother was probably doing at home right then.
"Why couldn't this nigga-lover get killed on a Mondee 'stead of a Fridee so we coulda got a whole week off," shouted a familiar voice from behind him on the stairs.
Rory saw a white blur in front of his eyes, like someone had just popped a flashcube in his face. He turned and there was Minogue. Trotting down the school stairs, wearing his football jacket, flanked by a few crew-cut teammates. His big round head reminded Rory of the pig heads he had to trim in Freedom Meats, pink and flabby and his hair cut into a Detroit-style one-inch flattop with a square back.
Rory dropped his books, which were bound with an elastic strap, climbed three steps, and all the insults Minogue ever threw at him about being a quiff and his father being a commie coward and a welfare artist just roared out of him like a Jules Verne volcano. He punched Minogue flush in the mouth. The big jock's head bounced back against the steel-plated wall. A few girls screamed as blood lashed from Minogue's mouth. Then Rory grabbed his lapels and slammed Minogue against the wall of the stairway because now this big fat pig was ranking on Jack Kennedy, who'd just been assassinated!
"Take it back!" Rory shouted. "Take it back, you fat son of a bitch, or I'll friggin' kill you!"
A shocked Minogue, blood leaking from a split lower lip, gaped in a dazed way at Rory. And then his eyes shifted to his teammates, who also wore Manual High football jackets. They seemed as outraged by Minogue's remark as everyone else. So did Mr. Sears, who appeared at the top of the stairs peering down, his silence an eerie approval of Rory's reaction.
"I take it back," Minogue whined in a half-crying way.
Rory let go of Minogue and turned to go down the stairs. Carol Sturgis stood in front of him now, her damp muddied eyes staring up into his dark eyes.
"Hi," she said.
"Oh...hi...um, sorry. Sorry I cursed in front of you like that...."
"It's okay," she whispered. "He's a real asshole."
They shared a small pained laugh and descended side by side. His mouth went dry and his palms dampened.
"I'm Carol, by the way," she said.
"I know," Rory said, handing her a clean tissue from his ski-jacket pocket. "Everyone knows who you are."
"Can it, Maguire," Mr. Sears said. "Take it out onto the street."
Copyright © 2003 by Denis Hamill
A Brooklyn Christmas Tale
A Brooklyn Christmas Tale
A nation mourns the loss of its president.
A young boy mourns the life his Irish-Catholic,
working-class father never had.
Rory Maguire is a fourteen-year-old boy looking for a better life for himself and his family in Brooklyn, New York. His father, Harry, had a terrible accident that cost him his job, his ability to walk, and his dignity. His brother, Dermot, is hanging out with a local gang called the Shamrocks, and his two little sisters are growing hungry in the Maguires' frigid tenement apartment. Rory's dreams of becoming a writer seem hopelessly out of reach, as does winning the heart of Carol, the daughter of a prominent Brooklyn lawyer. What Rory needs most this Christmas is a miracle -- and even though he can't bring his hero John F. Kennedy back to life, he might be able to give his father, an ex-merchant marine, the recognition he deserves...and offer his family the gift of hope, health, and happiness for years to come.
In Empty Stockings, Denis Hamill captures the romance, strife, and spirit of the urban Irish-American experience. A heartwarming tale for all seasons, it is a gift to treasure and behold.