‘The roofs are going to give,’ Fred said. ‘You’ve got two feet of snow up there. Where’s it going to go?’ Fred popped an olive in his mouth and rolled it into his cheek. ‘People la-di-da this shit, but they don’t think about things like that.’ Fred helped himself to more wine and poured a glass for his wife, Arlene, who measured her hand halfway up the glass.

‘I like the snow,’ Arlene said, as if this matter had been bugging her for years, and she had finally come to terms with this issue. Harrison agreed with Arlene and said that the only time people were nice in South Philly was when it snowed. He corrected himself and said that people were always nice, but when it snows, they were helpful nice.

Harrison and Michelle had lived in the neighbourhood for almost five years. This was their first blizzard, and it was the first time anyone from the street had come over for dinner. Harrison looked at Michelle. ‘I guess it’ll melt, right?’ Harrison said.

‘Where’s the fucking snow going to go up there?’ Fred said. ‘The roofs are flat.’

Arlene told Fred to watch his mouth.

Fred apologized, but reiterated his question. ‘Where does the snow go? Does it go down the drainpipes? Not if they’re clogged – then boy, you better start crossing your fingers. You better start wishing for something, because that’s a couple tons of water up there and if you got a weak spot or crack in the sealant, it’s going to open right up.’

Harrison could tell Fred was the type whose worldview gazed through a shadow of things that could go wrong, like most of the South Philly lifers. Then again, they lived down the block from Bomb Bomb, a restaurant that had earned its moniker from being bombed, twice.

Michelle said she hadn’t thought about the roof. The snow had started early that morning, before dawn, and the eight inches that were supposed to arrive by evening had turned into twenty, and a second front charging down through Canada had taken a sharp turn towards the Eastern Seaboard and was all set to dump another round the next day.

Nobody’s thought about what’s up there, on their roof,’ Fred said. ‘That’s my point. Nobody thinks about anything, until something happens, and then that’s all they talk about. The snow comes in and all the teenagers are out shoveling the shit – sorry – stuff. You got tar up there? When’s the last time you checked the tar? I’m retired. I’ve had it with this shit.’

‘Doesn’t everyone have tar?’ Harrison said. ‘Isn’t it a law or something?’

‘Harrison hasn’t been on the roof,’ Michelle said, as if this had been on his to do list for years, and now was the time to pay up.

‘Nobody’s been on their roofs,’ Fred said. ‘That’s part of the problem. These row homes – you can’t get up there, unless you want to risk your life and limb.’

Fred believed with a religious conviction that once one receives their membership card to the American Association of Retired Persons, they were absolved of all life’s difficulties. Harrison imagined Fred at home each night, all two hundred and thirty pounds and artificial knees of him, squeezed into the tub, candlelit mist illuminating his face in a numinous glow, repeating the phrase over and over like some sacred incantation: ‘I’m retired, I’ve had it. I’ve had it with this shit.’

Fred and Arlene had two sons, a cop living in Jersey and an older son, not much younger than Harrison and Michelle, serving time in Iraq. For several years Harrison and Michelle had caught glimpses of Fred and Arlene across the street in their living room when the blinds were open. Harrison would be drinking a cup of coffee in the morning, facing the street, and he would look up, and suddenly Arlene would shut the drapes quick-like, as if Harrison had been standing there watching. In fact, Harrison could see the Eagles game on their widescreen clearer than on their own television. Whenever Harrison saw Arlene outside, she always hurried indoors, and he could hear her lock the door from the inside. It was South Philly, you locked your doors, but there was a haste about it that rubbed him the wrong way.

That morning Fred had driven Harrison to the emergency. A headache had attacked him while he was cooking an omelet – a searing flash of blue light followed by the sensation of a butter knife prying open cranial fault lines. One quick stab, the blue light, the foetal position. His vision filled instantly with little golden dots and his tongue and gums tasted like liquid aluminium. A good omelet, with shiitake mushrooms, fig jam and a splash of white wine and olive oil. While Michelle ate, Harrison punched the symptoms into the Internet. Blue light, flash, searing, pain, nail, headache: stroke. He walked straight back to the kitchen sink and vomited.

Harrison packed a bag of ice, pressed it to his head and knocked on the door of their neighbours, an elderly gay couple. (He wasn’t sure what he expected the neighbours to do. One was dying of lung cancer and had fallen down the staircase in a morphine-induced haze, and his husband had taken the swan dive into dementia.) Harrison turned around and saw Fred looking at him from the sidewalk. ‘What the fuck happened to you?’ Harrison told Fred that he might have had a stroke. The next moment, Fred was peeling down the I-76 emergency lane, horns blaring as they passed, his hand held outside the window, with middle finger extended, tyres churning up brown salt and slush until Fred’s Mazda found itself fixed thick in the centre of a jam. Fred tried to wedge his way to the left side, then the right, then proceeded to nudge forward yard by yard until they came to a stop. The two waited, the car lodged on 76, the Schuylkill River to their right, blackened against the snow and whitened cityscape. The traffic gave another yard then again came to a halt. Harrison looked at Fred and said, ‘So. What do you do?’

‘I’m retired,’ Fred said. ‘I’m a grandfather. You?’

‘Designer,’ Harrison said.

‘What do you design?’

‘Furniture,’ Harrison said. ‘I design furniture.’

‘You design furniture?’

Harrison said that actually he was not a furniture designer any more, but that the design world was moving further away from designing actual things to designing ideas.

‘What the fuck does that mean?’ Fred said.

‘Well, we design models. Ideas. Plans. Systems. We design theories.’

‘I still don’t know what that means.’

Harrison said that he had loved designing furniture, but then you reached a point with furniture that you cannot make something any more ergonomic. It reaches its plateau. Its peak. Once a piece of furniture is purely ergonomic and made to last, you have completed the objective, and there is no reason a customer should replace an aesthetically timeless object that is perfectly tuned to the human body. ‘Where do you go from there?’

‘So now you design things that are not things.’

‘Basically,’ Harrison said, and the pain hit him again, like a nail gun held an inch above his ear and blasting one straight into his cerebral cortex. Flash. Blue light. Aluminium. When he came to seconds later, Fred was explaining to him that once those vessels pop, they pop. ‘If you do survive, it’s big boy diapers and a bib. Do me a favour, if I ever have a heart attack and don’t make it, I want you to go in my bedroom, pick up my gun, and stave off those godforsaken EMTs until my ass is having a powwow with St. Peter. If Arlene makes a move, take her out.’

Harrison found himself hyperventilating and he wondered if he was crying, or if the tears and breathing were just a result of the pain and fear. Fred implored Harrison to calm down and he began talking. Fred talked about staying awake and making it to Christmas and staying lucid. ‘You do not want to fall asleep,’ Fred said. ‘Falling asleep is the worst thing you can do. You fall asleep, you may not wake up.’ Fred told Harrison about his son in Iraq, and how he and his regiment were stuck in a traffic jam a hundred thousand times worse than the one they were in. ‘Days. Heat like the Devil himself could not imagine. locals with automatic weapons. Hand grenades. Thirst. Hunger. Donkeys. Desperation at its most critical distillation, the life and death drive of every crazy motherfucker in the whole crowd on overdrive. Iraqi assholes waving around empty water jugs over their heads as if that’s gonna solve the problem.’ As Harrison continued hyperventilating Fred continued telling him about his son’s buddy, who jumps out of the Hummer – fed up to the core – ‘with a concussion and a bruised fucking tympanic nerve. The guy starts directing traffic. He’s shouting and pointing and motioning and everybody starts to settle down, and then without any warning, everybody turns on him. The guy is literally, in a hundred and thirty degrees, fighting these pissed off ragheads with one hand, while brandishing his machine gun like Rambo in the other, and he is taking them down. He shoots a couple of random rounds. At one point, he is under a dog pile of Iraqis. Eventually, the Hummer finds its seam and picks him up and they get him out of there. Inside the Hummer, the interpreter is in hysterics, nearly grieving with laughter.’

Fred tells him that his son’s buddy, this guy directing traffic, none of the time was he aware that his hand movements were instructing an entire legions of infuriated locals to go home and copulate with their mothers.

When they finally got to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, the nurses checked Harrison’s vitals, tested him for symmetry, coordination and speech. His hunger had returned so Fred fetched him a bag of hash browns and an egg bagel from the cafeteria, but Harrison found a hair in it and could not convince his esophagus to accept the mouthful. The two sat with coffees and were forced to watch both Jurassic Park and Rudy in their entirety in the waiting room. Arlene made intermittent calls to Fred, delivering the scoop on the weather. More snow was on the way. Michelle and Arlene were glued to the television back home, bracing for the worst, flipping between the news and Lifetime. ‘Sounds like our better halves are having a real hoedown. They’re watching Dr Oz and filling the tubs in case all hell breaks loose.’ Harrison could see them locked in for the weekend. He didn’t know how long it took for cabin fever to set in, but he assumed that it could happen in a matter of hours. ‘Don’t worry,’ Fred said as if reading his mind ‘I’ve got a pool table and a keg.’

A nurse informed him that he did not have a stroke, and a doctor looked him over and said it was no big deal at all. There was no close call. He suffered from what the they referred to as ‘ice pick’ headaches, the name denoting the sensation of the headache. Did he want a CT scan?

After dinner, Fred and Harrison agreed to wake up early and clear up the snow from the second storm. Fred reminded everyone that if you leave the snow to get compacted down by all the jerk-offs walking around in the snow, scraping it off would be like peeling concrete off of concrete. Harrison watched Fred and Arlene walk across the street, back to their house, then went back inside. When Michelle fell asleep on the couch, Harrison washed the dishes, pots and pans, then packed a bottle of wine in a backpack and tried to get on to the roof while carrying a snow shovel in one hand. He climbed the four-foot cinder block wall separating the two back courtyards, then propped himself on the awning, then hoisted himself to the second story bedroom window where he could make it if he used both hands. He took the shovel and tossed it javelin style and heard a knock and immediately regretted his whimsical effort. He foresaw returning inside to see the tip of the shovel poking through the bedroom ceiling, but when he made his way to the top, he found that he had only bent the television antennae.

From this vantage point, the Christmas lights in neighbouring blocks illuminated the streets from below like a still frame of footage from some urban attack. Little blossoms of light, the stadium darkened under the moonlight in the distance. He could hear conversations from down the street. It was nice up on the roof, and he wondered why he had never bothered to come up before for a couple of beers, maybe read a book or listen to a baseball game without anybody hassling him.

Harrison guessed that if the US were ever to be invaded by a foreign country, South Philly would be to America what Sadr City is to Iraq. The great mafia dons from the Golden Age would rise from the dead, teenagers would skirt the tops of the row houses with automatic weapons and basements would be turned into safe havens. They might lose, but not before they fucked a whole lot of people up. He saw a cop car driving along slowly and he could tell that the officer was looking for people shovelling snow into the street. He lifted a shovelful of snow waist-high and got in position; bending with his knees and visualizing the cop car moving down the street. When the cop pulled within a few doors distance, Harrison heard a voice below, and he dropped down out of sight. He heard the voice again, and peered over the edge to see Fred looking up. ‘Harrison,’ Fred yelled. ‘Come down. Come on down.’

‘I’m shovelling.’

‘Do you know which points are about to give? You know where the weak spots are?’

‘No,’ Harrison said. ‘Won’t the weight distribute pretty evenly across the whole thing? If it’s icy, it’ll be a little more stable, right?’

‘You want to test that theory?’

Harrison said that he wanted to start cleaning before it built up.

‘How many times do you want to go to the hospital in one day?’ Fred said. ‘Get down from there. We’ll pay some asshole teenager to clean it up in the morning. Come over for a game of pool.’

‘Sure,’ Harrison said, immediately regretting his response. What was wrong with the word ‘No?’ Had he used that word, the awkward rejection would have lasted five seconds at the most. His disappointment was justified when he racked the balls and Fred broke, popping the balls apart like a gunshot. Harrison could not have sunk the eight-ball faster. He racked the balls again. When Harrison broke, Fred told him not to break like a pussy, but break it. At his table, you have to break. They drank beers from Fred’s keg, installed in a refrigerator on the bar.

Fred walked behind the bar to get fresh glasses from the refrigerator and he returned with a wooden Padron cigar box. ‘I want you to see something,’ he said. ‘Take a look.’ He opened the box slowly, as if he were about to show him his secret lump of kryptonite. Instead, inside was a blackened twig and a brownish stone, disk-shaped. Harrison looked at Fred, who raised his eyebrows. ‘That’s a finger,’ Fred said. ‘That’s a kneecap. A real honest-to-God fucking kneecap. Believe that?’

‘Is that your son’s?’

‘Jesus Christ!’ Fred said. ‘What’s wrong with you?’

‘I thought –’

‘He picked it up in the desert.’

‘He found it?’

‘What do you mean, found it?’ Fred pulled a beer from the keg. ‘He’s up there near the border between Jordan and Syria. A mile of no-man’s-land, and they come across this family, the most decrepit-looking wind-rotted people you can imagine. Rags and sores on these people. They start talking to the interpreter. They had been wandering the desert for twenty-five years. But just as one of my son’s buddies says okay, pile them in, we’ll take them across the border to Jordan, one of them takes off, makes a run for it, and they all realize how close they came to being toast, and without even thinking about it, without even a hesitation, they open fire, and you would not even believe what those machine guns do unless you’ve seen it. You can shoot an Iraqi in the asshole and that bullet won’t come out until it’s reached his shoulder, spinning through the entire body and just tearing the shit out of everything.’ He looked at Harrison, then back at the cigar case. ‘Believe that shit? You fucking believe that shit? That’s how close they came to being toast.’ Fred drew in an open mouthful of beer the way most people draw in yawns. ‘I told my son he should’ve put these little souvenirs on sticks, along with his head, to give everyone out there fair warning. You know. Don’t fuck with us. I told him he should wear this thing like a medallion.’

It was difficult for Harrison to determine if the finger was that of an older child or a young man. The kneecap was startlingly thin, much smaller than he would have expected from a human patella. It reminded him of the good luck charms they sold on family vacations to Florida when he was a kid. Sea beans that fit in the palm of your hand, right square in the centre, and if you walked around rubbing it all day it brought you good luck. You kept it in your pocket and what does it do? Does it ward off evil spirits? Does it fend off disease?

‘This close,’ Fred said. ‘That’s how close they were.’

‘Maybe the kid thought he was going to be taken prisoner,’ Harrison said.

‘Hell, no,’ Fred said. ‘What are you thinking? The kid ran. He ran.’

They played a few more rounds of eight-ball, then shot a few two-out-of-three matches of nine-ball and screw-your-neighbour. Harrison came within shots of beating Fred, but when games got too close, Fred kicked it up a notch and finished him off. They repeated the cycle, then worked their way back to eight-ball, where Harrison felt that he might be able to at least win a game by accident, when they heard Arlene pounding on the ceiling from above. ‘Better practice while I’m gone,’ Fred said.

Harrison played a couple games of eight-ball with himself as the role of an imaginary opponent, then pulled another glass of beer and sat in the chair across the room. He looked at the CD collection behind the bar, then pulled half a beer, then a full mug. He had left his cell-phone across the street. He listened for sound of footsteps from above, but nothing. He used the downstairs toilet and waited then did something he did not expect of himself. He opened the cigar box, inspected the souvenirs and slipped the kneecap into his pocket. He sat again in the chair and waited for two minutes, then walked upstairs and left.

In the morning, Fred knocked on his door and they shovelled a path on the sidewalk from the day care on one end of the street, all the way to the hair salon. Fred chastized him for using the wrong kind of rock salt. Eventually, once they dug out their cars, Fred stabbed his shovel in a mountain of snow like a clumsy oversized dart and said it: ‘That’s it. I’m retired. I’ve had enough of this shit,’ and they went inside to join Arlene and Michelle for cocoa. It occurred to Harrison, the whole time, and even later that summer, especially at times when they make you empty the contents of your pockets, at the DMV or airports, how odd it must be to have your sea bean travelling around in someone else’s pocket, tumbling about with somebody else’s keys, somebody else’s change, somebody else’s subway tokens.


Photograph by neverbutterfly

How We Got Mother Back
Patrick French | First Sentence