February, 1965, Greenwich Village, New York
Saturday, 3:30 a.m.
I’m only eight, but even I know this not how most grown-ups live. I’m lying next to my mother on a stack of blankets piled together on the kitchen floor of the apartment where my mom’s sister, Mardi the drummer, and my uncle Howie, the piano player, live. Mom is sound asleep, snoring softly with her mouth wide open. Mardi and Howie’s dog, BeeJay, a big tan mutt, is sleeping on their bed across the apartment. Bee Jay’s head is lying on a pillow, just like a person. I’m wide awake because I know everyone will be home soon. My dad went with
Mardi and Howie to sing some songs with their band. My dad’s a really good singer. He sounds like Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin. We moved from Washington, DC to Wildwood, New Jersey so he could be closer to New York to look for singing jobs. During the day, he drives a truck for Charlie Chips.I like his job because he gets to bring home tons of potato chips and pretzels in these huge brown tin tubs with Charlie Chips written across the side. Mom is a legal secretary which is a lot more boring. On most weekends, we come into the city to visit Mardi and Howie so Dad can sing with them and do auditions. Mardi and Howie’s place is really small, much smaller than our apartment in New Jersey. I’ve got my own room there but here, there’s just one room and it’s not much bigger than our living room. You have to walk up 66 steps to get to it. I know because I counted them the last time we visited.
I like visiting Mardi and Howie. They’re funny and nice to me. I think Mardi’s beautiful. She and my mom look a lot alike but aunt Mardi has big green eyes just like my grandmother. Those eyes are really pretty, unless they get mad. Then they get big and scary.
BeeJay starts wagging his tail and it goes thump, thump, thump against the mattress. I can’t hear anyone yet but I know BeeJay’s ears are better than mine. Now, I can hear the footsteps coming up the stairs. I try to guess by the noise how many people are with them. They almost always bring back people after their gigs, usually other musicians. I give my mom a little nudge, “Mom, Mom, they’re home,” I say.
Mom snorts and says “OK, I’m awake.”
I hear the latches turn. There are a bunch of locks on the door so it takes a while to open it. BeeJay jumps off the bed, gives a big shake and paces back and forth in front of the door. Mom gets up and goes into the bathroom. I went to bed with my pants on so I grab my tee shirt off one of the chairs next to the little dining room table where I left it, and I hurry to get it on before they come in. I’m skinny and sometimes I get teased at school, so I don’t like to show myself without clothes on. I won’t even wear short pants, even though Mom and Dad say that’s silly.
After I put my shirt on, I kick the blankets under the dining room table to make more room for everybody. The door opens and it’s Mardi first. I can see Dad just behind her, then Howie and some other people I don’t know. Mardi squeals, “Hello, my Beejie! Hello Nickaroo!”
Mardi, Mom, and Dad call me Nickaroo. BeeJay’s excited and jumps up on Mardi as she and everyone else come into the apartment. Everybody smells like cigarettes and beer. I hate that smell, especially the cigarettes. When we lived in Washington, Dad had a job for P. Lorillard, a cigarette company, and sometimes I’d ride with him in his company car which always had boxes of cigarettes stacked in the back seat. In the winter, with the windows rolled up, the smell of cigarettes with the heat turned on high made me sick to my stomach but I was afraid to ask him to roll down the windows ‘cause I knew he didn’t like it.
“I know sweetie, you have to go out.” Mardi says to BeeJay, “Your daddy will take you out. Howie, BeeJie’s got to go out.”
“Alright, Mardi, just give me a chance to pee,” says Howie. Mardi was always asking Howie to do stuff. Mom says Howie is henpecked and that he’s too sweet and that Mardi nags him too much. Howie is Mardi’s fourth husband, but he’s the only one I’ve ever met. Howie goes to the bathroom door just as Mom comes out. I can tell she’s put on makeup, especially around her eyes. People always tell her she has eyes like Elizabeth Taylor.
“How was it tonight?” Mom asks Howie.
“Good gig, Yummer, good gig. Vance sounded great. You should have been there,” Howie says as he goes into the bathroom and closes the door. My mom’s name is Yvonne, but everyone calls her Yum or Yummer because her initials are YM. Mom goes over to Dad who is talking to the two people who came home with them. One of them is a short, skinny white guy and the other a big, tall black guy. The black guy is leaning against a giant stand-up bass case.
“So the gig was good?” Mom says to Dad. Dad turns around to face her. He’s wearing a white tuxedo shirt without a bowtie and some of the buttons are undone. He’s about the same height as Mom, maybe a little shorter. He smiles. He has very white, straight teeth. Mom says the first thing she looks at in a man is his smile. Then his teeth. She compares everyone’s smile to Frank Sinatra’s, who she says has the most perfect teeth in the world.
“Excellent gig,” says Dad. He reaches over and grabs Mom around the waist and pulls her towards him to give her a kiss. Mom pushes back against him a little and turns her face away so he can only kiss her on her cheek.
“Had a few, huh?” Mom says. Mom says she can tell right away if Dad has had even one beer, even over the phone. Sometimes, they argue about how many beers Dad drinks.
Dad ignores Mom’s question and says, pointing to the skinny guy “Yummer, this is Lenny. Lenny plays vibes like an angel. And this little guy is Earl, one hell of a bass man.”
Lenny and Earl shake Mom’s hand. I can tell by the way they look at her, they think Mom is pretty. Lots of men think Mom is pretty. I hear them whistle at her on the street and stare at her in our car. Mom told me she turned down a date with Mickey Mantle once because she didn’t know who he was. I asked her if she would have gone on a date with Frank Sinatra if he’d asked her instead of Mickey Mantle.“Honey, if Frankie asks you out, you go,” she’d said.
“And this,” says Dad, waving me over, “is my son, Nicky.” Lenny bends down and puts out his hand to shake mine. “Nice to meet you, Nicky,” he says. I shake his hand, but I’m nervous. I’m not comfortable around people I don’t know.
“Don’t stare at the ground, Nicky, say hello to Lenny,” says Dad.
“Don’t yell at him, Vance,” Mom says.
“I’m not yelling, he’s just being rude,” says Dad.
My cheeks feel hot and I start to sweat. “It’s ok,” says Lenny, “I was a shy kid, too.” The big black guy doesn’t wait to be introduced. He leans down and puts his big hand on my head.
“Hello, little man, I’m Ernie.” There is something about Ernie I like.
“Nice to meet you Ernie. My name is Nicky,” I say.
“There you go,” says Dad. “That’s more like it.”
Howie comes out of the bathroom and grabs BeeJay’s leash off the kitchen counter. BeeJay makes little squealing noises like a monkey and turns around in circles.
“Hold still, BeeJie,” says Howie, trying to attach the leash to BeeJay’s collar. He gets it finally and opens the front door. Mardi is standing in front of their dresser with the big mirror and is pulling her hair back, pinning it with black hairpins.
“Howie, how’s the booze? I could use a little snort and I’m sure everyone else could too. Except you, of course,” says Mardi to Mom. Mom doesn’t drink hardly ever except at holidays when she has a Kahlua and Cream. She let me taste hers once. It was just like ice cream.
“I gotta’ walk the dog, Mardi,” says Howie. He sounds annoyed.
“I’ll check,” says Dad. He walks over to the fridge and opens it. “Plenty of beer,” he says, pulling out a can of Schlitz. He opens the cabinet over the sink. “Looks like there’s something for everyone,” he says.
Lenny, Ernie, Mom and Mardi go over to the kitchen to get drinks.
“Nicky, how about a 7-Up?” Mom asks me.
“Sure,” I say. I wander over to the bass case to get a closer look. I’ve seen a stand-up bass a couple of times before when musicians brought them over to Mardi and Howie’s house. I think they’re really cool. It’s something about how big they are and the way they smell, like old wood. Plus, I love the low notes they make and the way people look when they play them, like they’re playing a whole other person. The case has a bunch of scratches all over it. I run my hand over the outside of the case and across the metal clasps that hold it closed.
“You ‘wanna get that out the case and fire it up?” I hadn’t heard anybody behind me and I jump back from the case and turn around fast. It’s Ernie, with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
“No thanks. It’s way too big for me,” I say.
“I think we can work something out,” says Ernie.
Howie and BeeJay get back from their walk and Howie heads for the kitchen and makes himself a drink.
“Hey Howie,” says Ernie, “you wanna’ jam some?”
“I’m game,” says Howie. Howie always says yes when someone asks him to do something. Howie walks over next to the bed where they have a little upright piano. He puts his drink on top of the piano and starts to play. “Come on, Nickaroo, you want to help?” says Howie.
“Sure,” I say. I like pretending to help Howie play. I walk over to where he is and slide under his arm and sit on Howie’s lap. He shifts me around some so I’m sitting on his left knee with my legs swinging down in front of him. Howie starts to play again. I lean back against him to watch. Howie doesn’t smoke and he smells like cologne which is sure better than that cigarette smell. I stare at his hands moving all over the keyboard. Howie told me his hands were small which meant he had to work really hard to play the piano, but he makes it look easy. I know this song. It’s “Bye Bye Blackbird.” I’ve heard Dad sing it plenty of times. From across the room in the kitchen, Dad starts singing: Pack up all my cares and woe, Here I go, swinging low . . . Mom and Lenny sit down on the sofa and light up cigarettes. Mardi sits down at the little dining room table. She takes out drum sticks from her case and starts tapping them on the table. I can feel Howie’s leg muscle tense up and relax when he presses the piano’s foot pedals. Bye, bye, blackbird Where my baby waits for me, Sugar’s sweet, so is she . . .
Howie stops playing and yells out, “Vance, got one for you: houseplant.”
Howie says my Dad’s like a musical encyclopedia. He likes to play this game where he calls out a weird topic to see if Dad can come up with a song about it. Right next to the piano is a big green plant in a pot. That must be what made Howie think of houseplant.
“High Hopes,” says Dad and he starts singing: Everyone knows that ant, can’t, move a rubber tree plant But he’s got high hopes, high hopes, high in the sky, apple pie hopes . . . I know this song, too. It’s from a movie called Hole in the Head. Mom, Dad, and I watch it every time it comes on TV. It’s about a little boy about my age who lives with his dad in a motel in Miami Beach. The dad in the movie is Frank Sinatra. In the movie, Frank Sinatra is a singer and a really fun dad, but he doesn’t have much money, just like us. The boy’s grandfather has a lot of money and comes to visit from up north. The grandfather in the movie is Edward G. Robinson. He’s really serious and strict, and he reminds me of my grandparents. Edward G. Robinson is worried that the boy is not being taken care of and wants to take him back North to live with them. The boy wants to stay with his dad and in the end they show Edward G. Robinson that you don’t have to live like everybody else to be happy. At the end of the movie the grandparents leave, and Frank Sinatra and the boy sing this song, “High Hopes.”
Howie stops playing and takes a drink from the glass he put on top of the piano. “An alcoholic,” he yells.
“Lush Life,” says Dad. Everyone laughs.
“Hey, little man, come over here,” says Ernie. I turn to look over Howie’s shoulder and see that Ernie’s taken his bass out of the case and he’s standing next to it, twisting the tuning keys and plucking the strings to get in tune. I slip off of Howie’s lap and go over to Ernie and the bass. My head only comes up to the bottom of the bass’ neck.
“I’m not big enough,” I say.
“Let’s get you bigger, then,” says Ernie. He reaches over with one hand and pulls one of the dining room chairs between him and the bass and taps on the seat. “Up here,” he says.
I stand up on the chair and now I’m almost as tall as Ernie.
“Be careful,” says Mom. I look at Ernie and roll my eyes.
“I’m ok,” I say. I don’t want Ernie to think I’m a momma’s boy. Ernie takes my hand in his and reaches it around the back of the neck of the bass.
“Reach your fingers around the front like mine,” he says. But no matter how I try to stretch them around, my fingers only reach to the first string. “That ain’t gonna’ work, little man,” says Ernie. “I got another idea.”
He lifts me off the chair with one arm and sets me down in front of the bass. “Now, when I point at the string, you pluck it,” says Ernie. “Howie, give me a slow blues in E.”
Howie starts to play. Ernie points to a string with his finger. “Hear the beat? And one, and two, and three, and four, and NOW.” I pluck the string too hard and it rattles and buzzes. I’m scared I broke something and I step back from the bass. Bernie laughs. “’Bout half that hard will do it, little man. Now try it again.”
Howie starts to play. “And one, and two, and three, and four, and GO,” says Ernie, pointing to the same string. I have my tongue stuck between my teeth the way I do when I’m concentrating really hard. This time, I pluck the string much softer and the sound is low, the way it should sound. “Now this one,” he says, pointing to another string. I pluck it; it sounds good with the piano. “This one, here,” he says. I’m getting it now. Ernie laughs hard. “You’re swingin’ little man. Swing!”
After I’ve plucked the string eight or ten times, I can hear where the music is going and don’t have to concentrate so hard. Mom, Dad, and Lenny are clapping in time with the music. Mardi is tapping her drum sticks on the table. Her head is bent down and she’s moving back and forth on the chair the way she does when she plays the drums. Howie finishes the song and everyone claps and laughs. Even BeeJay’s barking.
“You got a little Mingus here,” says Ernie to my dad.
“Way to go Nickaroo,” says Dad.
“That was excellent, Nicky,” says Mom. I get all red and hot, but I’m not really embarrassed; it’s because all the attention makes me feel really good.
“Now, how about a little song?” asks Dad. Right away, I stop feeling good. Please don’t ask me to sing, not in front of all these strangers, I think. Mom looks at my dad.
“Yeah, Nicky, why not sing something for us.” I know what they’re up to. They think that just because I played the bass, they can make me sing now. I won’t sing in front of anybody, especially not strangers.
Dad says to Howie, “Play “High Hopes.” Howie starts to play. I feel everybody looking at me and I hate that.
“Come on, Nicky, you know this song. Just sing a little bit,” says Dad.
Ernie says to Dad, “So you got a singer, too?” “Well, we don’t know,” says Dad, “we’ve never heard him sing.”
“Never heard him sing?” says Lenny,“Everybody sings, don’t they?”
“Not Nicky. I swear I’ve never heard him sing, not once, not one note” says Dad.
Now I just want to disappear or fly away like Superman. I am not singing, especially now that they made such a big deal about it.
“Sing along with him, Vance,” says Mom.
“Sure, come on Nicky, I’ll sing with you. Let’s go,” says Dad.
Howie keeps playing the song. “I bet you have a really good voice,” says Mardi who’s still sitting at the table with her drum sticks. I close my eyes and shake my head no. There’s nothing any of them can say – nothing — that can make me do this if I don’t want to.
“This is silly, Nicky,” says Mom, “no one’s going to make fun of you. I sing all the time and you know I’m tone deaf.”
She’s right about that. When she sings it’s a big joke. Everyone laughs at her.
“Nicky, just do it, just this once,” says Dad. I won’t look at anyone; my head starts to spin. I feel something heavy and warm on my head. I look up. It’s Ernie’ s hand. He leans down and puts his mouth near my ear. He says to me in a soft voice. “It’s okay, little man. You don’t want to sing, you just don’t sing.”He straightens up and says in a louder voice. “Hell, I won’t sing either, so don’t ask me. A man can only have but so many talents, right, little man?”
I look up at Ernie and shake my head yes.
“So, if we’re gonna’ jam, let’s jam,” says Ernie. He starts to play a song on his bass. Howie joins in, then Mardi, too.
“You thirsty, little man?” says Ernie, still playing, “You look thirsty. Why don’t you go get yourself something to drink?”
I stare at Ernie’s hands plucking the strings. Then, I look up at Ernie’s face. He smiles and winks at me. I smile back. I am thirsty. I walk over to the kitchen to get some more 7-Up.
“Hey Nickaroo, get me another beer too, would you?” says Dad.
“Sure!” I say. I’m so glad not to have to sing I’d bring him the whole refrigerator if he asked for it.
It’s sometime the next day and I’m the only one awake — wide awake. I’m squeezed in between Mom and Dad on the kitchen floor. Dad’s snoring really loud. Every few minutes, he moves a little bit and stops snoring. Then I can hear the ticking from the little alarm clock next to Mardi and Howie’s bed. Then Dad starts again. The snoring starts off really soft but ends up getting louder and louder until it’s just as bad as before. It really smells bad in the apartment, like cigarettes and stale beer. It’s cold outside, so the windows are shut, and the heat must be turned way up because it’s really hot. Once, I asked Howie where the thermostat was and he told me there wasn’t one, not in old buildings like this. The heat was on all winter no matter what. One of the radiators where the heat comes out is right behind my head. It makes a loud banging noise like someone is hitting it with a pipe. It’s been doing that all day. I guess it was doing it last night, but I didn’t notice it because of all the noise we were making.
I raise myself on my elbows and look around. There are rows of empty beer bottles up on the kitchen counters and on every table. I can see three ashtrays, one on the piano, one on the dining room table and one on the floor by the bed and they’re all full. I hate those ashtrays. That’s where most of the bad smell is coming from, the cigarettes. Even some of the half-empty glasses have cigarettes floating in them. I can see Mardi, Howie, and BeeJay on the bed across the room. They’re all sleeping on their sides, facing the same way, away from each other. Howie’s got his arm across Mardi and Mardi’s got her arm across BeeJay.
I’ve got to pee, so I slide out of bed really slowly so I don’t wake anybody up, partly because they might get mad if I wake them, but mostly because I’m just wearing my underwear and if somebody wakes up they’ll see me. I’m about half way to the bathroom when BeeJay wakes up, raises his head, and looks at me. I’m afraid if he jumps out of bed, BeeJay will wake everybody up. I stare back at him. His eyes look sleepy as he drops his head back on the pillow and makes a big sigh noise the way dogs do. Right next to BeeJay is a little table with the alarm clock on it. I can see it’s two o’clock in the afternoon.
On my way back to the kitchen I stop and look at all the people and cars through the small dirty window facing the street. I want to open the window just enough to get my head through it and breathe in the air. If I’m really careful, I know I can slide it up a little. I put my fingers in the holes cut in the bottom of the frame. The metal is cold and feels good against my skin. It won’t budge. I push on the bottom with the palms of my hands and pull harder. Nothing. I feel really hot now, hotter than before. Sweat breaks out on my forehead and I’m beginning to feel mad. Windows are made to be opened. Who would make a window that doesn’t open? I take a deep breath and pull harder. I’m not worried about waking anyone up now, or about them seeing me in my underwear. It’s a lot more important to open this window right now and feel the fresh air come through it.
Besides, it’s two o’clock, time for everyone to wake up anyway, isn’t it? I mean, all those people outside are up, aren’t they? I remember what Dad told me, always lift with your legs, not your back, so I pull even harder, straight up from my toes. I’m pulling so hard my arms are shaking and my back feels like it could snap, but this is what I want. Everything I’ve ever wanted is to open this window. Once, two older kids caught me on the basketball courts at home and gave me a pink belly. One of them held down my arms and the other sat on my legs and pulled up my shirt and smacked my stomach until it burned like he was holding a match to it. I tried to get loose but I wasn’t strong enough. I’m holding my breath and puffing out my cheeks. I must look like Dizzy Gillespie playing his trumpet.
I stop pulling and stare at the window. I guess I’m still not strong enough. I look across the room and see that Mom and Dad haven’t moved an inch. In fact, nobody’s moved, not even BeeJay. I don’t feel like getting back in bed again so I just stand there, still breathing hard from all the pulling, looking around the apartment, trying to think of something to do. Next to the piano, I notice the big green plant Dad sang about. Last night, it looked healthy, but now I can see its leaves are all dusty and that it’s wilted from not being watered enough.
Me and this sad, thirsty plant are both stuck in this smelly apartment. I look down at Dad. He’s snoring again, even louder than before. I bet if I took that poor plant and smashed it through the window he’d stop snoring. They made such a big deal about getting me to sing last night. Ever since I can remember, they’ve tried to get me to sing. So, what if I just started singing as loud as I could and woke then all up? No, I think, I’ve got an even better idea. I smile. In the softest voice I can, I start to sing: Everyone knows an ant, can’t, move a rubber tree plant But he’s got, high hopes, He’s got, high hopes High apple pie in the sky hopes . . .
BeeJay raises his head off the pillow. His eyes are all squinty, and he’s looking at me like he thinks I’m crazy. I keep singing, a tiny bit louder: So anytime you’re feeling bad, Get to feeling sad, Just remember that ant, Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant Ker-Plop! Dad stops snoring, gives a little grunt, and rolls over on his side. BeeJay drops his head again.
There, I think, they wanted me to sing and I sang. Too bad for them the only one who heard me sing — who’ll ever hear me sing — is BeeJay. I’m feeling better now, even a little tired. But before I try to go back to sleep, there’s one more thing. I walk over to the kitchen sink, pour the stale beer out of the biggest glass I can find, fill it with water from the tap, and bring it over to the plant. Real carefully, so I don’t hurt it, I push the leaves on the plant aside with one hand and pour the water into the pot. I smell wet dirt, just like at the park when it rains. I take a big, deep breath and hold it in.
Nicholas Garnett has attended writing workshops at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts and the Florida Center for Literary Arts in Miami, Florida. A native of Washington, D.C., he received his degree in Political Science and History from the University of Maryland. He now lives in Miami Beach, Florida.