Me and Paulie
On the walk over from the Lincoln Memorial, all you see at first is a crevice cut into the green expanse of The Mall, people milling around on the grass, families standing in little clusters near the entrance. Our son Stephen walked between Andrea and me, each of us grasping one of his hands. He was almost six, would be starting first grade in the fall. The law firm I worked for had sent me to Washington for a seminar and we decided to extend it into a family vacation. The morning sun was hot, a soft breeze barely stirring the humid air, his hand warm and sticky in mine.
As we drew closer, we saw a small frail woman in a black dress staring silently at the wall, her ghostly silhouette reflecting back at her from the shiny black stone. An elderly man, in a uniform now two or three sizes too small, stood perfectly erect in a stiff military salute, weeping openly. The first tablet was just a wedge, close to the ground, only a few names etched on it. As we continued along the wall, the tablets grew taller, the collective weight of the names pulling us deeper into the ground. There was a trough along the bottom of the wall, littered with arrangements of flowers, single roses, carnations, framed photographs, stuffed animals, letters with their pages faded from the sun, the ink blotched and running from yesterday’s rain.
I paused in front of a panel about a third of the way down. It was the one I was looking for. I broke away from my wife and son, stepped closer. My eyes scrolled through the names, finally coming to rest toward the bottom left-hand corner. I crouched down so my fingers could touch the letters. I traced every straight line and every curve cut so flawlessly, so permanently into the stone. “PAOLO COLANGELO,” it read.
“Why does Daddy look so sad?” I heard Stevie ask. I turned and saw Andrea gently lifting her index finger to her lips. Stevie looked puzzled, concerned. In the cab on the way over, Andrea had tried to explain to him what the memorial was all about. Now Stevie looked like he was on the verge of tears. I motioned for them to join me.
“That was my cousin Paulie,” I said softly. “That was his name.”
“Was he a hero?” Stevie asked.
* * *
Me and Paulie were like brothers when we were growing up. We all lived in an old brownstone on President Street, my family on the top floor, Paulie and his parents in the apartment right below, my grandparents—before they died—on the parlor floor. I remember me and Paulie going downstairs in our pajamas on Saturday mornings, watching cartoons while our Nonna made us cinnamon toast and hot chocolate.
Paulie was the starting quarterback for John Jay High his senior year, a co-captain. He was almost four years older than me, tall with curly black hair as dense as a Brillo pad, a big toothy smile, dark radiant skin. He was brash and self-confident but not in a way that anyone took offense to. One Saturday, he let me tag along for a game against New Utrecht. He wore his uniform pants and jersey on the city bus, his shoulder pads and the rest of his gear stuffed into an equipment bag with the school logo on both sides. He let me carry his gold helmet. Everybody smiled and told him good luck. I was proud just to be sitting next to him.
“C’mon, little cousin,” he said when we arrived at our stop. “Time to go kick some ass.”
Paulie enlisted right after graduation. Aunt Rose wanted him to go to college instead, but Paulie said he wasn’t the college type. He told her he needed to go and do his duty. Uncle Frank had been in the Pacific at the end of World War II. He agreed with Paulie. My father did too. Paulie told me in private that he was dying to see some action. I walked him to the subway the day he left. I wanted to be the last one to see him off. He shook my hand, gave me a salute with a goofy grin on his face, then went through the turnstile and disappeared down the stairs.
* * *
A year went by before he came home on furlough. I was leaning out the window, my forearms resting on a pillow I had laid across the sill, my transistor radio tuned to a spring training game down at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg. I was hopeful that 1967 would be the year the Mets would finally break through and climb out of the cellar. A Checker cab pulled up in the street, its brakes squealing as it came to a stop and Paulie hopped out. He pulled a huge duffel bag out of the back seat of the cab—bigger than his John Jay equipment bag—and slung it over his shoulder. I hadn’t seen him since he shipped out to ‘Nam. He looked different now: older, thinner, his skin almost black from the sun.
“He’s here, “ I yelled, as I bolted for the door. “Paulie’s home!”
My mother rushed out of the kitchen and untied her apron before following me out into the hallway. Uncle Frank and Aunt Rose were already on the stairs, one flight below us. Paulie dropped his bag and peeled off his green aviator sunglasses as he stepped into the foyer. Aunt Rose dove into his arms, buried her head in his chest and began to sob.
“My Paulie,” she said over and over again.
Uncle Frank waited patiently until she was done, finally shaking Paulie’s hand and giving him an awkward half-hug. My mother was next. Paulie kissed her quickly then walked over to where I was standing.
“Look at this guy,” he said.
I had grown quite a bit since he left, let my hair grow out almost to my shoulders. I was wearing ratty jeans with patches on the thighs, a t-shirt with a large peace sign stenciled over the chest. He looked me up and down.
“What’s the matter, the barbers on strike?” He elbowed me aside and started up the stairs. Aunt Rose took off after him.
“You must be tired after such a long trip.” She turned and looked down at me as if this offered an explanation.
“Once he gets some rest and some good solid food in him, he’ll be back to his old self,” my mother assured me when we got back upstairs.
* * *
“He sleeps all the time,” I heard Aunt Rose tell my mother. It was Tuesday afternoon; I hadn’t seen Paulie since he got home on Saturday.
“Give him time,” my mother told Aunt Rose.
“If he’s not sleeping, he’s sitting there staring at the television. He don’t talk to us.”
“He’s been through a lot.” There was concern in my mother’s voice.
“I thought when Karen came by he would perk up. But, no. He didn’t have much to say to her either.”
Paulie and Karen had been dating since his junior year, right after she started as a freshman at John Jay. She was small, pale, had cautious green eyes, straight blonde hair that fell all the way down her back. She was Irish, so Aunt Rose was skeptical at first—that American girl, she called her—but after a while she became part of the family. She would stop by when Paulie wrote from ‘Nam, sharing his letters with Aunt Rose. She read them aloud, no doubt to edit out the more intimate passages.
“It’s been hard on both of them, him being away,” my mother said.
“And how! She was so looking forward to seeing him. The poor kid. She was almost in tears when she left last night. As if he even noticed.”
“Let him rest. I’ll make us a nice dinner Saturday. We’ll have Karen over too.”
* * *
When I came up the stairs later that night, the door to Paulie’s apartment was open. It was almost midnight. All the lights were off, but I could hear the dull drone of the television. I poked my head in and saw Paulie slouched on the sofa, a row of empty Pabst Blue Ribbon bottles lined up neatly on the coffee table in front of him. I knocked twice on the door jamb.
“Hey. Sal,” he said softly.
“What are you watching?”
“I love those guys. Especially Norton.”
“Yeah, me too.” His voice was flat, distant, but he didn’t seem mad at me anymore. “Sit.” He nodded at the recliner next to him.
“Good to be home?”
“I guess. Though I feel like I’m raining on everybody’s party. They all want to hear war stories, but I don’t feel like talkin’ about it, ya know?”
I was disappointed. I wanted to hear about the war too. Paulie stared at the television. Ralph Kramden was apologizing to Alice over another get-rich scheme that had gone wrong. She forgave him as usual, then the credits rolled.
“Where were you anyway, out so late?”
“Just hanging out with my girlfriend.”
“You got yourself a girl?” He looked over at me and broke into that easy smile I always remembered.
“I’m glad to see you finally grew yourself some balls.” Paulie laughed. “Remember that chick you had the hots for a couple of years back?”
It was my freshman year in high school. My parents didn’t want me to go to John Jay, they said it wasn’t safe anymore.
“Paulie goes there,” I said.
“And he’s gettin’ out just in time,” my father replied. “A different element is moving in. They’re taking over.”
They sent me to an all-boys Catholic school on the other side of Brooklyn, ten stops away on the GG train. I would see her most mornings, sitting in the front car when I got on at the Carroll Street station. She had frizzy hair, a small round face that looked like it had been scrubbed to a shine. She wore the standard Catholic school uniform: purple and black plaid skirt, knee socks, scuffed oxfords. A crucifix hung out over her white blouse. She got off four stops before I did. I didn’t know her name, but I thought about her constantly. I wanted to talk to her but I didn’t know how, so I asked Paulie for advice.
“This is what I’d do,” he said. “When you get on, you slide in and sit down right next to her. ‘Hi, how ya doin’. I been watching you for a long time and I really dig the way you look.’ You know, lay it on real thick. By the time you get to her stop, you’ll have a date booked and the rest’ll be history.”
He made it sound so easy, but I was shy back then.
“You never did get up the nerve to talk to her, did you?” he said now. I watched him as he drained another bottle of Pabst.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Your parents in bed?” I asked.
“Couple hours ago.”
I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out a joint. My friend Mello had a connection up on Atlantic Avenue and we would scrape up a few dollars whenever we could and buy a nickel bag. I heard that pot was everywhere in ‘Nam but still my hand shook as I held it out to him.
“Well, I’ll be damned. My little cousin Sally is turning me on.”
He took the joint from me and rolled it in his fingers. He got up slowly and headed toward the back of the apartment, motioning for me to follow. He opened the kitchen window and we climbed out onto the fire escape. Most of the apartments across the backyard were dark, only a nightlight or the gray flicker of a television set visible in a window here or there. He lit up and took a pull, holding the smoke in for a long time before slowly releasing it through his lips and nostrils. He took another drag and handed it back.
Now that he seemed relaxed, I decided to give it a shot.
“So, what’s it like over there?”
“It’s so strange, Sal. I thought the Army would be like a football game.” His voice had an eerie, hollow ring. “You know, go out there and drive the other guys down the field? Vince Lombardi stuff. But it’s not like that at all. You don’t even see them. They’re like ghosts. You hear a noise—pop, pop, pop, like fireworks on the Fourth of July—and, all of a sudden, your buddy is lying on the ground with his gut split open. And he’s staring up at you with this look in his eyes like you’ve never seen before because he knows he’s gonna die. And you feel guilty. You feel so guilty ‘cause you know it could have been you.”
He looked at me for the longest time. I didn’t know what to say. He took one last pull then pinched the roach between his fingers to snuff it out.
“So how long you been goin’ with that girl of yours?”
“A couple of months.”
“Couple of months? You don’t know for sure?
“Is she a fox?”
“She’s cute. Short, dark hair, dimples.”
“So, you doin’ the deed with her?”
I tried to play it cool. I laughed, shrugged my shoulders. “You know. Everything’s good.”
“Everything’s good.” He said it in a mincing, high-pitched voice. “Which means you ain’t got jack shit off of her. That’s what Paulie thinks.” He sneered, his lips parting slightly, his teeth flashing in the dark.
“We’ve gone pretty far.” It was all I could muster. He had turned on me so quickly, it felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.
“Pretty far? You shittin’ me, man? Pretty far! I take back what I said before. You still got no balls. You’re just a little mama’s boy, like you always been.”
“It’s not like that with Andrea.” I knew, even back then, that she was the one. I was willing to wait if that’s what she wanted. I told myself that it was what I wanted too.
“Bullshit. It’s always like that. You gotta take what’s yours, Sal, that’s the way it is in this world of ours.” His eyes were burning through me. “If you don’t, pretty soon somebody else is gonna come along and take her off your hands for you. She’s gonna give it up some time or other; it might as well be you.
“I’m not in a hurry.”
“The hell you ain’t. You want it. You know you do. You’re just scared to make your move.”
“I’m not scared,” I said, even though there was some truth in what he said.
“You say she’s a real piece. Bring her around some night and maybe I’ll take a crack at her myself. It sure don’t sound like you’re up to the task.”
He got up, went to the window and climbed back inside. I sat and stared at the black sky for the longest time, traced with my eyes the path of the last few planes making their descent into La Guardia, listened to the compressors on the roof of the A&P down the street cycle off and on. I wondered whether Paulie had always thought of me that way, as weak, a mama’s boy. That hurt, but what hurt more was what he said about Andrea. I would never forgive him for that.
* * *
I was out late again with Andrea on Thursday night. We never did much, usually just hung out on her stoop or walked over to Carroll Park and met up with Mello and his girlfriend Val. Sometimes Mello would be able to sneak some beer out of his father’s refrigerator and we would take turns sipping out of a brown paper bag. Then we would split up, each of the couples finding a bench in a dark spot where we could make out in peace. But most nights, Andrea and I just talked. I could talk to her for hours, about almost anything.
The streets were quiet as I walked home, except for the buzz of the streetlamp arcing over the cars parked in front of our house. I took the stoop two steps at a time and, as I entered the vestibule, I could see shadows through the frosted glass panels of the door that led into the foyer. When I stepped inside, I saw Paulie sitting on the big mahogany bench. He had a bottle of whiskey in his right hand and his arm was wrapped around the waist of the girl sitting in his lap.
The girl gasped. “Shhhh!” Paulie said. They both laughed.
The door squeezed shut, setting off a loud echo as the latch caught. Paulie’s shirt was unbuttoned and his dog tags jingled as the girl rubbed his bare chest. She had long legs, dark hair. It wasn’t Karen. She looked up at me with a dismissive smile.
“So?” Her voice was a throaty whisper. I must have been staring.
Paulie took a long swallow, handed the bottle to the girl and wiped his lips on the back of his hand.
“Beat it,” he said.
* * *
Karen came for dinner on Saturday. My mother put her best linen tablecloth down, covered it with plastic, then set the table with her good china, the stuff she only used for holidays. I smelled the sauce bubbling in the cast iron pot all afternoon, heard eggplant sizzling in the frying pan, saw steam fogging the kitchen window.
Karen sat beside Paulie at dinner but they barely spoke. My mother and Aunt Rose tried to fill the awkward silence.
“Do they give you enough to eat over there?” my mother asked.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“It’s not like your mother’s cooking, I bet.”
“It’s C-Rations,” my father interjected.
“Look at him, he’s all skin and bones,” Aunt Rose said.
“We’ll fatten you up good before you go,” my mother continued. Paulie would be home for two weeks. “How are the boys in your troop?”
“Men, Millie,” my father said. “Men, not boys.”
“Any colored boys?”
“Jeez, Mom,” I said. My parents’ prejudices were maddening. “What difference does it make?”
“I’m just making conversation, that’s all.”
It went on like that. My father and Uncle Frank mostly kept their heads down, focused on their food, their dentures clacking as they chewed.
After dinner, Karen went to the kitchen to help my mother with the dishes while Aunt Rose swept the floor. My father and Uncle Frank cracked nuts and finished their wine. Paulie spun the cap from his beer bottle on the table with his index finger over and over again. My father finally broke the silence.
“So, Paulie,” he said. “You’re gettin’ out in, what, eight, nine months? You been doin’ any thinking about what you wanna do after?”
Paulie stared at my father briefly then went back to spinning his bottle cap.
“They ain’t hiring down at the shop right now, but Mr. Cheever, he said I could let him know when you were getting out and he might have something for you by then. He likes hiring the vets.”
“Who says I’m coming home?”
“Paulie! What’s this?” Aunt Rose said, her voice hoarse, tremulous. My mother crept in from the kitchen, Karen following close behind her.
“You stay out of this,” Uncle Frank said. “This is between me and Paulie.” He stood up and lifted his chin in Paulie’s direction, demanding an explanation.
“No! God, no!” Aunt Rose made the sign of the cross with her right hand. I looked over at Karen. Her eyes were cold. She already knew.
“You’ve done your part. Let somebody else’s son take their turn now.” Flecks of spittle sprayed from Uncle Frank’s lips.
Paulie knocked over his chair as he got to his feet. He stared across the table at his father, his arms tensing at his sides, his fists clenched.
“There’s a war going on. My buddies are getting their heads blown off. Don’t you people understand? Uncle Vince wants to get me a job with him at the plant. Good old Squibb. Aunt Millie, she asks me about the food like I’m eating at some fucking restaurant, asks me if there are any coloreds in my platoon. Hell yeah, and they’re getting chewed up just like the white boys. Karen, she expects us to just pick up where we left off like nothing ever happened. I can’t do that!”
He looked at Karen. She turned away and walked back into the kitchen.
“Then there’s my cousin Sal. He’s running around with his long hair and he’s got his shirt with that fucking peace sign or whatever you call it. Peace! He just wants the war to be over, so he can save his cowardly little ass.”
“It’s just a shirt,” I said. “Everybody wears them.”
I didn’t really have a position for or against the war; not yet anyway. My friends talked about the draft, about going to college to get a deferment. Some of the older guys said they were thinking of running off to Canada. Still, the whole thing was more of an abstraction to me. I was barely sixteen. My tee-shirt wasn’t a political statement, it was just a cool thing to wear, like ripped dungarees or love beads.
“Just a shirt? Is that all it is? You little punk. Tell them what kind of cigarette you brought me the other night. Go ahead, tell them, you little pothead.”
“And you tell Karen what you were doing the other night when I came home.” The words just slipped out of my mouth.
Paulie walked over, grabbed the broom out of Aunt Rose’s hand and snapped it in two against his thigh. He edged toward me, brandishing the jagged top half of the handle.
“You think you’re a big man now, huh?”
“Paulie. No,” Aunt Rose said, but she didn’t move. No one did. The room went silent. I could hear Paulie’s labored breathing, smell the rancid sweat pouring out of his skin.
I got up and backed cautiously toward the door. Paulie matched me step for step, stalking me like a hunter. He swung the broom but missed as I darted out the door and ran down the stairs.
“Go on you little coward. Run.” He hurled the broken broom handle. It sailed over my shoulder, skimmed the wall, bounced down the steps before coming to a rest on the landing below.
The old Italians have a saying: he’s dead to me. Not in the literal sense; the subject was still alive but had given offense of some sort. The offense was often trivial, but the grudges ran deep, the offender treated like he no longer existed. After that night, that was how I felt about Paulie. When he left a week later to go back to ‘Nam, I didn’t bother to say goodbye.
* * *
“Hey! Watch where you’re going.”
Uncle Frank was on the stairs between the second and third floors on his way up. He squeezed against the wall to let me by. I was meeting Andrea at the subway station. I was late. We were headed for the beach where we had escaped as often as we could. The summer of ’68 was hot, chaotic, combustible. First King was assassinated, then Kennedy, there were riots in the streets, everyone’s nerves seemed to be rubbed raw. The cops in Chicago were beating up the kids protesting at the convention. All my friends were against the war now. So was I.
As I ran down the stoop, a brown Oldsmobile was backing into a parking space across the street. Two young guys with sunglasses were in the front seat. I didn’t pay much attention. I was in a hurry. Summer was running out.
I told Mello that we would be meeting up with him and Val at our usual spot on the boardwalk. As we walked past one of the arcades, we saw an attendant handing a big purple stuffed hippo to Mello over the counter.
“What the fuck?” I laughed, petting the hippo like it was a puppy.
“Knocked down all the pins,” Mello said proudly.
“What are you gonna do with it?”
“I won it for Val.”
Val rolled her eyes.
We found an empty patch of sand and laid down our towels. Mello draped his shirt over the stuffed animal. “Hippos burn easy,” he said. We stripped down to our bathing suits and doused ourselves with baby oil. Val pulled out a sun reflector—a hinged piece of cardboard covered with silvery foil—and held it under her chin.
We bought knishes and orange sodas from one of the vendors who roamed back and forth across the beach. “Get your cold drinks,” they barked. “Hot knishes… Franks… Cold drinks.” The knishes, wrapped in wax paper, were soggy and lukewarm. I could feel fine grains of sand in my mouth as I chewed. After a while, I nudged Andrea. She got up and followed me without a word.
“You kids behave yourselves,” Mello called after us.
We walked together across the scorching sand and slipped under the boardwalk. The sand was cool under there, littered with straws, candy wrappers, crushed styrofoam cups. Footsteps rattled on the planks above our heads, children running, their mothers calling after them. Andrea’s lips were dry and chapped from the sun, her skin salty when I peeled back the top of her bathing suit. The tension had been building all summer but she would only let me go so far.
Paulie was right, I did want it, but I didn’t push it. Part of it was inexperience. I had no idea what I was doing, neither did Andy. We were both trying to figure it out as we went. And part of it was fear, like Paulie said it was—fear of getting caught; fear of getting Andy pregnant; since I still considered myself a good Catholic, fear of committing a sin. Andrea insisted it would be that much better if we waited until the time was right. I assumed she meant our wedding night. It was torture.
* * *
It was almost five-thirty when I got home from the beach. The house seemed unusually quiet as I made my way up the stairs. My father was standing by the open door to Paulie’s apartment. As I made it to the landing, he turned and walked inside, nodding for me to follow. When I stepped into the dining room, I found my parents, my aunt and uncle, two neighbors and the parish priest gathered around the long table. Father Sullivan got up and moved toward me.
He wore the same sorrowful smile I had seen when I came home from school in third grade to find that my grandfather had suffered another stroke. Back then, Father Sullivan’s hand had felt warm and reassuring on my shoulder as he explained that Papa had gone to heaven. Now his smile seemed thin and insincere. Then I saw the framed photo of Paulie in the middle of the table.
“What? Something happen to Paulie?”
Aunt Rose moaned. She was already dressed in black. Uncle Frank looked on with a somber, detached expression like he was watching a sad movie.
It was my father who spoke first. “Paulie’s dead. The soldiers that came by, they said they got him and a bunch of his platoon in an ambush. Goddamn Commie bastards.”
“Vincent!” my mother gasped, looking anxiously at Father Sullivan.
“Sorry, Father.” My father slammed his fist down on the table, got up and strode out the door.
“You’re entitled to your grief, Vincent,” Father Sullivan called after him. “You’re entitled.”
I suddenly remembered the brown Oldsmobile. I could picture the two soldiers getting out of the car, tall, erect, stern-faced. I could imagine them putting their hats on and looking across the street at the numbers on the houses, heading toward the one with “114” stenciled in the glass above the doorway. I could almost hear the whimper that leaked from Aunt Rose’s throat as they entered the foyer and came into view at the bottom of the stairs, the rhythmic cadence of their feet on the risers, how she clutched Uncle Frank’s forearm as they slowly climbed to where she was standing on the third-floor landing.
“I know this is going to be hard for you,” my mother said. “I know how close you and Paulie were.”
“Paulie was already dead to me,” I said.
There was silence, then Aunt Rose started sobbing again. My mother did too. Father Sullivan made the sign of the cross and bowed his head. I felt nothing. The sand lodged inside my cut-off jeans was chafing at my skin, the damp bathing suit I had on underneath was soaking through at the seat. All I wanted was to go upstairs and take a shower.
* * *
I had seen a segment on the evening news when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated back in the fall of ’82, Walter Cronkite somberly narrating over a video montage. My friend John made a visit a short time later. He had lost a brother in the war. He asked me if I wanted to go with him but I told him no, so he drove himself all the way down to D.C. just to see the name on the wall, then he turned around and came back home the same night.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “How emotional it was. It gives me the chills just thinking about it.”
We had been at John’s house for dinner. Andrea slipped her arm under mine as we walked home that night.
“I think you should go,” she said.
“To Washington. To visit the memorial. I’ll go with you.”
“Nah. I don’t think so.”
“It seemed to really make an impression on John.” His eyes had a haunted look as he described his visit, his voice was barely a whisper, a single silvery tear rolled down the side of his face. “It might give you some closure,” Andrea said.
“I don’t need closure.”
“It might help with your family. If you went to pay your respects. It might help heal some of the wounds.”
Aunt Rose and Uncle Frank had never really forgiven me. They never said so to my face, that wasn’t their way. They didn’t need to, their formal, stony politeness made their feelings clear. Even worse, the whole episode seemed to create an unspoken rift between them and my parents.
“How would it heal anything?” I said. “What was said was said, what was done is done. I moved on.”
“What are you afraid of?”
I snapped, “I’m not afraid of anything. I’m not going. Okay? I just don’t see the point.”
“How can you be so cold? It’s not good. Maybe you should consider seeing someone. You know, get some therapy?”
“I don’t need therapy. I’m just fine.”
I slept on the couch that night. She apologized the next morning. We had tried our best to avoid the subject ever since.
Not that I didn’t think about it from time to time, about making a trip to Washington, about trying to repair the damage with my family, about Andrea’s suggestion that I see a shrink. I wondered if she had a point, although I would never admit that to her. My official position remained that Paulie had been dead to me long before his body was delivered back from ‘Nam. The reality, of course, was more complex, the emotions more conflicted.
I brooded about my flippant reaction to Paulie’s death, how it must have stung my aunt and uncle, their grief so raw and new. I regretted the way it had altered the family dynamics. But none of them—Aunt Rose, Uncle Frank, my parents, even Andrea—knew the whole story. I never told any of them what Paulie had said to me that night out on the fire escape, the last time he had been home.
Andrea would raise the issue from time to time, about visiting the memorial. I always had an excuse. I was preparing for triaI, trying to ramp up my billable hours in my final push to make partner. We had a toddler to take care of, bills to pay.
* * *
For three years, I stayed away. Then, one morning, a brochure came in the inter-office mail, describing a three-day seminar in Advanced Trial Tactics. Attached to the brochure was a note from Richard Miles, the chair of the firm’s litigation department: “Sal, I think you would find this beneficial to your professional development.”
It felt like some kind of omen. Andrea believes in such things. I usually don’t, but when I saw the note it made me wonder whether it might finally be time.
“You’re going to be gone three days?” Andrea said when I told her. “When is it?”
“End of June.” I paused.
“Washington, D.C.?” She stopped, looked at me. “School is going to be out. Why don’t me and Stevie come down at the end and spend the weekend.” She spoke slowly as if she was choosing her words with caution.
“Sure. He’s old enough to appreciate all the sights.”
“Maybe we can visit the memorial too.” It was the reaction I had anticipated, the one I had hoped for, but I didn’t want to be the one to suggest it.
“I guess. Maybe we can.”
Andrea took both of my hands in hers. “I think it would do you good. You can’t avoid it forever.”
* * *
I took an early train on Wednesday, getting into Washington in plenty of time for the first session at noon. Andy and Stevie came on Thursday afternoon. He was excited about spending his first night in a hotel, sleeping on a roll-away cot with a paper-thin mattress. The two of them visited the National Zoo on Friday then we all set out together early Saturday morning to see the sights.
It was almost noon when we got to the memorial. I began to feel jittery as we drew near. I was barely holding it together when I found Paulie’s name on the wall. Then Stevie asked me whether Paulie was a hero. I struggled to frame a response. What could I tell him?
I could tell him about the game against New Utrecht, how Paulie had led the team onto the field, how he had thrown four touchdown passes, how the cheerleaders had chanted: “Paulie, Paulie, he’s our man. If he can’t do it, no one can.” He was a hero that day, at least that’s the term that has come to be used to glorify even the most mundane athletic achievement, a practice I had grown to detest.
The soldiers who had come to the house told Uncle Frank that Paulie had died in a valiant but doomed effort to save one of his buddies, running back into the line of fire to try to help him after he went down. What could be more heroic than that? I could show Stevie the medals and the neatly folded American flag that Aunt Rose kept on the dresser in Paulie’s old bedroom, physical proof of his heroism.
I wouldn’t tell Stevie about Paulie’s darker side. I wouldn’t tell him about the girl on his lap in the hallway, how he had stalked me with a splintered broom, what he had said about Andrea. How do you explain all that to a six-year-old anyway? And what Paulie had said, was it really all that bad? Maybe he wasn’t even serious, maybe it was just his usual locker room bravado. All those years later, my reaction seemed excessive.
“Yes, he was,” was all I could think to say. “My cousin Paulie was my hero.” It wasn’t a lie. Not really.
Ralph Uttaro has recently retired from a career in law and real estate development. His work has previously been published, among other places, in The Cortland Review and The Saturday Evening Post. “Me and Paulie,” like many of his stories, is set in the neighborhood Brooklyn, New York where he grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. After graduating from Duke University School of Law, he settled in Upstate New York where he still lives with his wife Pamela.