He heard the sisters giggling across the driveway. His bedroom window was
directly facing their bedroom window, so he ventured a peek.
Toni, Nina and Janine Bozza were having a pillow fight. Toni, the oldest, was home visiting from City Island. Her grease-monkey husband Anthony, pronounced “Ant-knee,” was watching the kids while she escaped to a carefree vacation into sisterhood. At nineteen, Toni was an old married lady in need of a breather. Nina, seventeen and a senior at Saint Helena’s, was brainy, with bad skin and a huge behind. Janine, who insisted everyone call her Bozza, she hated her first name, was fourteen, a raven-haired beautiful tom-boy and a skinny malink eighth-grader at Saint Dominic’s.
He was in love with Bozza and she knew it.
Toni saw his shadow silhouette in his window and froze. A wide grin grew across her face and she pointed and called out to him. “Ian Greengrass, you naughty boy. What are you lookin’ at?” she teased in her heavy Bronx accent, causing her sisters to collapse on the bed, laughing.
His thirteen-year old face burnt with embarrassment, but he managed to squeak back, “I’m lookin’ at you, Lollabrigida.”
“Nah,” Toni barked. “I’m more of a Sophia Loren,” and turned around and wiggled her hips. Nina and Janine howled with laughter and imitated their big sister.
“Don’t make a mess over there, Ian!” Nina hissed and giggled.
“Yeah,” Toni chimed in. “Or we’ll have to come over and change your diaper.”
The sisters continued the pillow fighting and wrestling after they got bored with busting his horns.
Janine leaned out the window and called low to Ian. “Hedge” was all she said.
That was his signal to meet her at the corner of Lydig and Matthews in the shadow of the big hedge in front of the dentist’s office in five minutes. They met there nightly to smoke a Marlboro Red she had stolen from her old man.
Marius Bozza was a silent man. His wife had just left him and was living near Toni on City Island on a houseboat. Like Ian’s father, Marius awoke at four in the morning to drive a milk truck. Ian’s old man pushed a cab. They were always tired.
For the time being, Janine and Ian were unsupervised. Ian’s mother was doing a stint in the Bronx State Hospital. The cops had to take her away. Schizophrenia got the best of her. Doing time on the psyche ward would hopefully reduce her agitated state of mind.
Tiptoeing down the front steps, Ian squinted into the darkness and saw a small red ember glowing like a beacon at the corner. Bozza had started their cig. He padded towards the light in the shadows. An Indian summer full moon peeked out from behind a cloud and lit Ian’s path down the maple tree-lined Bronx street.
Ian’s father had sensed his son was fearful of the night and counseled him well. “Sonny boy,” he had said in his Russian-Yiddish accent, “if you are ever lonely walking home at night, ask the moon to walk with you, and you’ll have a friend to be with.”
The smell of Bozza’s French inhales and smoke-ring exhales grew stronger as Ian stepped into the shadows of the hedge.
“What the fuck took you so long?” Bozza demanded to know, in between puffs.
“I hadda get dressed,” Ian meekly explained.
Bozza’s eyes narrowed and her mouth stretched wide in a Mafioso grin.
“You was naked while you watched me and my sisters?” she teased.
Ian’s mouth was suddenly drier than Orchard Beach sand. His pulse quickened with embarrassment and he tried to answer cleverly, but could only manage, “N-n-no. I was in p-p-pajamas.”
Bozza burst in a loud, deep truck driver guffaw and retaliated with, “B-b-bullshit.” Bozza saw Ian’s sweet face redden in the moonlight. She giggled and jammed the cig between Ian’s lips, and instructed, “Here, Hugh Hefner … suck on this.”
Ian inhaled and coughed wildly, as Bozza laughed silently, her skinny body shaking in hysteria.
As Ian’s choking and Bozza’s laughter subsided, she leaned in and said, “I’m cuttin’ tomorrow and going to City Island, and you’re comin’ with me,” she stated flatly.
”What about school?” Ian whimpered inquisitively.
“Fuck school!” Bozza stated with finality.
“We’ll visit the mothers.” Bozza looked straight in Ian’s eyes and he knew the conversation was over. Her large almond eyes cast a hypnotic effect on Ian.
“Meet you here, 8:30,” she announced firmly, grabbed the cig from Ian, hooked her arm in his and whispered gently, “C’mon, numbnuts, walk me home.”
Arm in arm in the darkness, Ian used every ounce of self control to conceal the joy soaring through his entire being.
Promptly at 7:45 AM the next morning, Ian stepped out of the shower, trying to calm himself. He had meticulously laid out his clothing the night before, having saved up his New York Post paper route money. He eyed his purchases on the bed. A madras windbreaker, crisp white button-down collar shirt, light blue brush denim trousers, off-white almost yellow tennis socks ... and the coup de grace, a brand new pair of dark oxblood penny loafers already loaded with two gleaming 1965 copper pennies that shone like twin auburn headlights.
He’d get Itchy the Chasid kid on Wallace Avenue to cover the route for him today. Itchy was hungry for money, with eleven other siblings, so Ian knew he had a pinch hitter on deck. One quick phone call and everything was ready. He’d already forged the absentee note for his homeroom teacher for the next day. All systems go!
He double-locked the front door like the old man had requested and, trying to act cool, slowly strided to the corner to meet Bozza.
Standing practically in the hedge, eyes darting like a Poe Park junkie lookout watching for cops, Bozza was tense.
She greeted Ian with, “Take your time … my clothes are starting to go out of style over here.” She did a perfect imitation of her father for Ian, and she loved making him laugh.
They nervously hotfooted it to Pelham Parkway South and fell in with the crowd of older kids walking to Columbus High School. Ian eyeballed Itchy across the street on his way to his storefront yeshiva. Itchy saw Ian and gave him the “thumbs up” sign. No worries for the patrons of the New York Post this crisp autumn morning.
As the crowd crossed Pelham Parkway towards the high school, Bozza and Ian kept straight ahead up the parkway past Bronx House and simultaneously burst into laughter. “Free at last, free at last!” Ian mimicked the famous Negro reverend he’d seen on TV, and he and Bozza slapped five. They jaywalked defiantly across the service road and headed east towards City Island, the Blind Home on their left, the Peabody Home on the right. The parkies had just cut the grass and the smell was intoxicating.
“Sol the Fag” was the neighborhood pedophile who never got caught in the act. He had never been right in the head since returning from Korea. A war hero who got an honorable discharge, word on the street was that he had been caught fondling “gook” orphans over there. He lived with his grandma and collected disability. Daytime was his cruising shift.
Sitting on a rock across from the Blind Home, he scoured the stragglers on their way to Columbus High’s early session. He had tried to hit on Ian before, which resulted in being clocked on the side of his head with Ian’s saxophone case.
Sol obsessed over the “hard to get” kids. He had the key to a carriage room on Wallace Avenue where he stashed beer, reefer, slot cars—whatever booty he needed to attract a naïve boy. Sol held gold medals from long-distance Bronx intramurals when he had attended Clinton. He was a natural runner and still had the gift.
Like a stalking coyote, Sol slipped off his perch on the ice-age rock and started following Ian and some plaid-skirted girl accompanying him. Sol followed them, keeping a fifty-yard distance and winding his way through the piles of red and yellow leaves at the foot of the maple and birch trees.
Bozza was motor-mouthing a mile a minute, covering every subject from her sisters hogging her hairbrush to how bad she missed JFK. Whatever she spoke about, Ian was mesmerized. He was thrilled to be spending the day with the string bean Italian dynamo. In his eyes, she was a goddess, and there wasn’t too many goddesses running around the Bronx.
Earlier that morning, she had gulped half a pot of coffee that her old man had left on the stove. She seasoned it with Breyer’s ice cream and followed it with a Marlboro, breakfast of champions. Nature was now calling and her young bladder needed attention. “Wait here,” she commanded Ian, and she sprinted across Pelham Parkway to use the ladies room in the Sinclair Station. Ian looked at the big green dinosaur logo and grinned. He’d loved all things prehistoric since his first class trip to the Museum of Natural History. He remembered all the models he’d made of his favorite predator, the tyrannosaurus rex. Lost in his Cretaceous reverie, he never heard Sol creeping up through the birch trees.
Sol prided himself on his stealth, his ability to be quiet and invisible like the Siwanoy Indians, who tread through the Bronx hundreds of years earlier.
Like a striking serpent, Sol’s right hand shot around Ian’s face, clamping on his mouth. His left hand yanked Ian’s left in a painful hammer lock. Sol’s blood was up, adrenaline surging as he yanked Ian silently and quickly into a cluster of fir trees.
The world went silent as Ian gasped for air, his body in shock, muscles spasming, head getting light from lack of oxygen.
Sol exalted in his power. He felt ten feet tall and invincible. He wanted satisfaction this morning, without having to be clever, seductive or tricky. He was hungry and in a take-no-prisoners mood. These boys were always flaunting themselves in the streets and schoolyards, tempting him, making him do bad things. This boy ignored Sol … ignored him … ignored a war hero. This brat would pay for that. They were all going to pay.
Ian tried to scream as he felt Sol’s iron claw start to reach for his belt buckle.
There are certain sounds in life that stay with you all of your days above ground. None was so terrifying for Sol as the bellow of Janine Bozza as she banshee-howled, “Motherfucker,” and commenced beating Sol from head to toe with a discarded stick-ball bat she found in the garbage at the Sinclair station.
The former broomstick was a formidable weapon in Bozza’s hands, and she brandished it and delivered fungo home-run swings all over Sol Greenbaum. She was relentless. Sol screeched like a wounded street dog as he crawled away and finally got to his feet and ran back towards White Plains Road like a sprinter headed for the finish line.
Panting and wild-eyed, she turned back to Ian and, with Herculean strength, pulled him to his feet and hugged him like he was her long-lost child.
Try as he might to keep them in, tears poured out of him in a few deep wails. She held him even tighter. A breeze went though the trees and the hum of parkway traffic seemed to re-emerge.
“You ok?” she inquired softly. He nodded into her shoulder.
“Don’t worry … he didn’t do nuthin’. I got there and he didn’t do shit to you. Should I call my Uncle Louie?”
Bozza’s uncle was a detective with the Forty-third Precinct. Every Italian Ian knew in the neighborhood seemed to have an uncle who was a cop. Ian shook his head. Bozza made a mental note to get this Sol the Fag later on with a call to her uncle. She was quite a vendetta-oriented Bronxite.
She put her arm around Ian’s shoulder and whispered, “C’mon, I copped some change from the old man. Egg creams and pretzels … my treat.”
Bozza put her arm in Ian’s to help restore his manhood, and they crossed the parkway to find a candy store on Williamsbridge Road.
“One of the great pleasures in life is observing the proper making of an egg cream—two squirts of Ubet Chocolate syrup, a shot of milk followed by a stream of seltzer, which must hit the base of the long-neck spoon before colliding with the black and white sediment. The stirring can be clockwise or counter-clockwise, as long as the result is a large foam head at the top of the glass. In order to consider oneself an aficionado, a large pretzel with salt nubs of gargantuan proportions must be imbibed to complete the experience.” Ian raised his glass in a toast.
“I agree, indubitably!” Bozza clinked glasses with Ian and they drank and ate voraciously.
Vito, the proprietor of Vito’s Fountain, stared at Ian through two half-closed Robert Mitchum eyes and commented, “If yaw so freakin’ smart, why ain’t you in school?”
“Late session,” Ian quickly retorted, in a fast-thinking lie.
Vito stared at the crest on Bozza’s blazer and hissed, “St. Dominic’s only got one session. That’s a fact. My daughter Theresa goes there. What’s your excuse?”
“Doctor’s appointment,” Bozza responded.
“What … you’re allergic to education?”
Bozza leaned in towards Vito and with a hard stare and in a low voice for a girl whispered, “Female problems.”
Vito backed off, blushed a little and worked his rag down the counter, his mouth twitching with discomfort.
Bozza was happy to see Ian recover from Sol’s attack so quickly. She was not surprised. She had seen Ian cover up his feelings when the cops hauled his mother away. She wondered what he did with the pain. Her emotions always seemed to rise to the surface in fits of anger.
The two hooky-players exited Vito’s Fountain and got back on Pelham Parkway. Ian’s pace was a little slow. Bozza grabbed his hand and whispered in his ear, “C’mon, Professah, let’s go visit your Ma.”
Hand in hand, they headed east on the parkway.
The sandstone towers dotted with smoky dark windows of the Bronx State Hospital cast a tall and ominous shadow across Eastchester Road. The grounds had huge manicured lawns and a red clay basketball court. A few patients milled around a tall black attendee who ignored their chattering. He systemically shot from the foul line as his charges chain-smoked and stared into space.
Bozza caught on to his lack of involvement with the wandering patients and hissed like a snake, “Some job this douche bag is doing. Fuckin’ moolie.”
Ian winced from her prejudiced remark and made a mental note to discuss it with her sometime in the future.
The double doors made a whooshing sound as Ian and Bozza pushed through and headed to the elevator. The lobby was full of uniform-wearing personnel—nurses, doctors, janitors, ambulance drivers, candy stripers and cops.
A Puerto Rican security guard near the elevators was busy flirting with a pretty Asian woman in a lab coat as Bozza and Ian slipped past them and into an empty elevator.
“Fluuu-oooor pullleeez,” Bozza mimicked in a nasal twang, and Ian responded, “Seh-ven!” like a craps player.
As the numbers lit their way across the panel above the door, Ian felt himself tensing with apprehension. He never knew how his mother would react to anything. She was unpredictable. He loved Mae Greengrass, and she loved him back, but her personality disorder was difficult for him to deal with.
Bozza could read Ian like an open book. She sensed his discomfort and lovingly held his hand, allowing him to breathe and drop his shoulders.
The elevator doors parted on seven as the hooky-playing duo exited and headed to the security guard’s desk to get signed in as visitors. Ian immediately recognized the couple chatting with the security guard. Nate Glover and Annie Macpherson were a crisis intervention team from Bronx State that visited his house when his mother was an outpatient. Nate was the first black person who ever stepped foot in the Greengrass’s household, and showed interest in Ian’s saxophone playing. Annie was a beatnik type with the work shirt/puka beads attire. Ian saw an opportunity, used his street smarts, and with Bozza beaming from his smooth move, talked Nate and Annie right through the ward to his mother’s room. Nate and Ian rapped back and forth about Charlie Parker. Bozza noticed a certain twinkle in Nate’s eye. She felt certain Nate knew he was being hustled, but enjoyed Ian too much to put a stop to it.
Anne and Nate shook hands with Bozza and they excused themselves—patients to meet with, groups to lead—and they headed down the corridor.
Janine Bozza had never touched a black person. This handshake dispelled all negative rumors, and Ian wondered if she regretted her “moolie” comment now.
The hall was empty. Most of the patients were in the day room now, smoking, staring, chattering, watching TV, playing bumper pool and board games.
“Knock, for Christ’s sake,” Bozza whispered. Ian peeked through the door’s small window and saw a shadow on the floor. Ian knocked rapidly.
A sweet female voice chimed, “Come in,” in a Bronx accent. Ian breathed a sigh of relief. He could hear from her tone that his Ma was not agitated.
The two visitors entered and Mae Greengrass looked quite healthy and serene. Quite a contrast to the wild-eyed exit she made into the patrol car two weeks earlier with a cop holding her arms so she wouldn’t hurt herself.
Mae wore a pink cardigan sweater, a floral housedress, new corduroy slippers, a Breck-girl hairdo and red lipstick. She greeted the two with big hugs and kisses, shtupping them with candy she’d saved from her canteen visits.
Ian sensed his mother was a little slow in her speech and suspected she was on some new medication. Mae almost seemed tipsy. She was in great spirits, her bed was perfectly made, a few plants around to brighten things up.
Ian felt his throat constrict with a deep sadness, even though his house was less chaotic with his mother’s absence. He missed her terribly. He fought the urge to cry. He wished he could fall apart into her arms. He steadied himself and asked her about the food, if the TV got good reception. She answered and stroked his forehead lovingly.
The room got very quiet, almost uncomfortable with the air thick with unsaid declarations and feelings. “Cabbages and Kings” floated into Ian’s head as he was struck with a Lewis Carroll moment.
“You’re a bar mitzvah boy now!” Mae declared ecstatically.
“You missed it.” Ian was sorry the second he responded. His mother had been hospitalized in April and could not attend her youngest child’s entry to Jewish manhood.
“Oh, that’s right … I forgot,” Mae whispered despondently.
”You sang beautifully, that I’m sure of!” Mae chirped, trying to remain upbeat.
The room got quiet again as Bozza’s eyes transformed into two mischievous twinkles.
“Why don’t you hum a few bars, Caruso?” Bozza teased.
Mae brightened and beamed at her baby. “Yes, honey … Ian, let me hear some … like you used to rehearse in the attic,” Mae pleaded.
There was not enough shit in the entire borough of the Bronx to satiate Bozza’s grin.
The one thing in life Ian knew deep in his soul was the confident spirit he felt when singing or blowing his alto with Bird’s recordings.
Ian took a deep breath, filled his abdomen with oxygen and commenced his haftorah from memory.
“B’orucho es adonai hamvorach …” and on and on… letter perfect, perfect pitch, a touch of vibrato here and there, not too schmaltzy, a few phrases influenced by Bird and the Chairman of the Board.
When Ian finished, his forehead was damp, face flushed, and sixteen minutes had passed on the psyche ward wall clock.
Bozza and Mae stared. Mae’s face was tear-stained, Bozza’s eyes a bit misty.
Mae stood and hugged her son, not like a baby, but like a young man. Bozza stood and began clapping. The sounds of applauding echoed through the ward.
Nate, Annie and several patients peered through the small window and smiled and applauded more.
Mae waved to them to come in, and in they came, with congratulations, a few mazel tovs and back patting.
“This is my son Ian,” Mae announced with such glee and pride, the whole room laughed appreciatively.
After things calmed down, and the patients went back to the dayroom, Ian hugged and kissed his Ma goodbye, and promised to visit tomorrow.
Mae proudly escorted her son, Bozza and Nate to the day room.
As the two young visitors headed for the elevator, Nate leaned into Ian and whispered, “Don’t worry, Bird, your Mamma’s coming home very soon,” and patted Ian on the shoulder.
The shiny new elevator descended on air to the lobby. Bozza’s sly grin made Ian smile back.
“You’re a regular Perry Como,” Bozza teased.
“Hey, when you got it, you got it, “ Ian mock-boasted.
Hand in hand, the two kids from Matthews Avenue headed down Eastchester Road, hung a right on Pelham and hopped the number 12 bus to City Island.
Tim Duffy’s dad and granddad had been ferry captains off City Island. He had hoped to follow in their footsteps, but when the boat lines were shut down, he joined the army and served as a military advisor in a small country called Vietnam. Back in the world, he was satisfied ferrying the number 12 bus for the New York Transit Authority.
Bozza and Ian got a suspicious stare from Tim when they presented their bus passes. Tim knew he had two AWOL students on board, but chose not to bust horns. He had been a parochial school escapee many times, and caught hell for it. Tim presumed this was par for the course, and they both seemed happy to be running free. He gave them a nod to move to the back, and they got the message.
The Matthews Avenue desperadoes giggled with glee as they took a seat on the empty bus. Tim’s hard face softened into a slight grin. They sounded like his kids laughing, and his hard urban mask melted away.
The bus was making good time. The middle of the weekday had minimal straphangers. Each stop was empty. The kids got excited as they passed Freedomland on the left as the number 12 bus crossed a canal bridge. Cy’s Riding Academy was on the other side of the canal, and Tim made a hard right, steering his four-wheeled ferry to the City Island Bridge. The pop-pop sound of explosives filled the air as the bus was passing the NYPD shooting range.
City Island became visible down the road. Small buildings and boatyards dotted the horizon. It resembled a New England village, a foreign port in the Bronx. The bus crossed the iron grating on the City Island Bridge, making a rumbling echo that bounced off the water.
Tim’s bus zipped down City Island Avenue, passing mom and pop groceries, bait and tackle shops, the Black Whale Ice Cream Parlor, and then Tim announced, “Last stop,” with a big smile.
Bozza and Ian exited the back door and yelled out, “Thank you,” reviving Tim’s faith in the younger generation.
The Lobster Box restaurant was the last building on the left at the very end of the island. Situated next to a rotting dock was the sweet spot where Ian’s Uncle Harry brought him every summer to go fishing for fluke, the summer flounder.
The kids stopped and gazed out across the Long Island Sound and took long, slow, deep breaths of salty air. Ian stared intensely at the rippling water. He hoped for a sighting. Two years ago, a “lost” Russian submarine had emerged, prompting TV crews and a lucky kid with a Brownie Kodak to shoot a picture that made the cover of the Times, News and Post.
No enemy crafts in sight. The duo instinctively climbed down to the shore and began skimming flat rocks sidearm across the surface of blue-green tide. Bozza shot a six, six bounces. Ian hit an eight and they slapped five.
The afternoon sun gleamed on the water and the louvered windows of the Lobster Box, causing reflections that made the kids hood their eyes with one hand, like Indian scouts.
“Sweetner?” Bozza inquired.
“Let’s do it, “ Ian answered.
Ian and Bozza held hands and headed inland and up City Island Avenue to the Black Whale. A day of hooky required a continual flow of sweet treats.
The autumn afternoon breeze blew gently across City Island, making the red and orange leaves of the tall maple trees rattle. The air smelled of seaweed, motor oil and fish. The sun was strong and soothing. The sound of Frankie Valli’s falsetto in “Walk Like a Man” echoed out of every radio, whether in a car, apartment or grocery store.
Bozza and Ian had a good stride going as they stopped at a few shops to peek at the tourist junk left over from summer, but their funds were for chow and transportation.
Approaching the Black Whale, Bozza turned to her boyfriend-for-a-day and said, “I ain’t hungry anymore. I really wanna see my Ma. You mind waitin’ till we get back to the neighborhood? We can get a slice at Gloria’s later.”
“Ok.” Ian was always willing to make Bozza happy, even if it was a major sacrifice … passing on a hot chocolate from the Whale.
On they trudged, back towards the northern tip of the Island. Bozza knew her Ma’s houseboat was next to the Evinrude building’s back dock. Still a few more blocks.
Dolores Bozza had been her father’s servant growing up, and her husband Marius expected the same. She snapped one day and left. She couldn’t stand another minute. She knew her escape was only temporary. Dolores already told her oldest, Toni, that she was going back to her daughters real soon. She sat on her lover’s lap on the deck of the houseboat and they watched the sun begin its afternoon descent.
Ian and Bozza tiptoed down the dock, making the occasional creaking sound from a loose or aging plank. Ian sensed something in his friend. Her body went rigid like a hunting dog making a sighting. Twenty yards off the dock, Ian saw Bozza’s Ma in the arms of a muscular black man. They kissed and hugged, entwined as if they were one.
Janine Bozza fell back on her rear end. She collapsed as if her legs were rubber. Her face was pale, eyes bugging like one of the Bronx State patients on his mother’s ward. Ian tried to think of something to say. He was tongue-tied. Janine started breathing hard. Ian attempted to pick her up, grabbing under her arms to lift her off the dock. She struggled and wrestled him away. Then she stood up fast, turned and bolted full speed back towards City Island Avenue. She made a fast left, heading for City Island Bridge.
In a panic, Ian ran after Bozza, gulping air, pumping his arms and legs as he had done in the seventy–yard dash at the track meets at Rice Stadium in Pelham Bay Park.
They ran and ran, Ian’s heart pumping from the exertion and fear. Like his Ma, Bozza was unpredictable, and scaring him now as she picked up more speed with the bridge fifty yards away.
Tim Duffy sensed something was wrong. He saw the two kids from earlier heading to the bridge in a sprint, and he hit his horn trying to get their attention. Maybe a junkyard dog was after them, or they stole something. His hands gripped the steering wheel till his knuckles whitened. His chest felt a pounding as he helplessly watched the girl scramble up the bridge railing and throw herself over and into the canal. Hot on her heels, the boy stopped at the rail and then lunged up and over after her.
“Motherfucker,” Tim said out loud, shocking his only passenger, a nurse on her way to the swing shift at Jacobi Hospital. She had long silver braided hair, high Native American cheekbones, reddish-brown leathery skin, and one brown eye and one blue eye. Tim hit the brakes, slapping the hazards button, and ran across the street to the bridge.
Instinctively, Tim’s training as a lifeguard at Orchard Beach reactivated in his muscles as he sprinted to the railing. His summer job between junior and senior year at Cardinal Spellman was about to be called upon. Tim got to the rail, quickly surveyed the situation, saw the girl’s bubbles and the boy’s feet kicking to the distressed young lady and Tim was up and in the air, arms spread out to stop him at the surface of the canal, the perfect lifeguard’s leap.
Within seconds, Tim had the girl in one arm and hollered to the boy to follow. They kicked and stroked to a flat rock at a pile-on, and in another ten seconds, Tim administered mouth to mouth. The boy scrambled up next to Tim in time to see Bozza cough and spew about a quart of the Long Island Sound.
Like many young Bronxites, Bozza never learned to swim. Ian was a graduate of Castle Hill Pool, and swam like an urban otter.
Tim Duffy gathered Bozza up in his massive arms, directed Ian to grab the back of his belt and lead the ascent up the boulders to the dry land of City Island Avenue.
A small crowd had formed. Tim hustled the kids to his bus, and shut the doors. The nurse on board had her coat around Bozza in seconds, and Tim hit the heat button to high, turned to the boy and in a gruff Bronx accent said, “Start talkin’.”
Through chattering teeth and wrapped in the bus driver’s light coat, Ian tried to explain.
Tim Duffy drove the bus across the bridge to escape the nosey lookey-loos. About a half a mile down, he pulled off the road under a weeping willow tree to gather his thoughts.
The boy continued bullshitting, which inwardly amused Tim, but he kept a cop expression on his mug.
In his heart, he thought these kids were so sweet, and he felt the smiles of his father and his grandfather beaming down on him through the afternoon clouds. He felt connected to his nautical heritage and it felt pretty damn good.
Ian whispered to him that if they could just get home, everything would be fine. Tim turned to look at the girl being hugged by the nurse in the back of the bus.
“Everything all right back there, Carmen?” Tim inquired. He knew most of the regular passengers by name.
“No problema. We talk girl talk. You boys stay up front,” she instructed.
Carmen Acevedo worked with children, and she held Bozza and talked low and soothingly and dried her with an extra cotton sweater she had in her plastic shopping bag.
Tim leaned into Ian. “Where to?” he asked, like a cabbie in a 1930s black and white movie on Channel Five.
“Matthews and Pelham Parkway South.” Tim switched the sign to “Out of Service” on his bus display window, knocked off the interior light, turned the ignition, hit the accelerator and in true Bronx fashion, left a little rubber as he jetted back to Pelham Parkway.
Dark clouds began to form over the East Bronx and made the daylight disappear early. Tim Duffy’s number 12 bus hauled ass down Pelham Parkway, making only one stop, to drop off Carmen at Jacobi Hospital. She hugged Janine and kissed her forehead goodbye. The nurse mouthed silent Santeria prayers as she waved to Tim and exited the back door of the bus.
Tim asked Ian for his address, which he finally gave after a hard stare from Tim. Tim hung a hard left on White Plains Road and another left on Brady as the roof of the bus began to echo with the pounding of raindrops.
As the bus approached Matthews Avenue, Tim pulled his number 12 under the train trestle and turned to Bozza. He opened his top two buttons of his shirt, and exposed his neck, revealing a thick scar.
“Hey, little girl. This is where a bullet entered my neck and almost took my life. I stood up in a firefight because I wanted to die. I wanted to escape what was upsetting to me. I gotta tell you, I’m glad to be alive today. Life is so precious and fragile. I feel every day above ground is a good day, and I’m now grateful for that, no matter what happens. This crazy life is a gift. Please don’t take it for granted. Especially when you’re so young and got your whole life ahead of you.”
Tim nodded towards Ian. “Your buddy Greengrass here thinks you’re quite special. I got a feeling he’s right. I’m gonna give you my phone number. I want one of your family members to call me by nine o’clock tonight to tell me you’re ok. And gonna be ok. Otherwise, I gotta report this incident.”
Tim motioned to Ian to bring Bozza up to the front of the bus as he re-buttoned his shirt. Ian put his arm around Bozza’s shoulder and guided her slowly.
Tim smiled at them both and in a whisper to Bozza said ever so quietly, “Please don’t ever do nuthin’ like this again. It’s a sin. And you got your friend next door. I ain’t got much money or property, but I’m the richest guy in City Island, ‘cause I got great friends.”
Tim gently stroked her cheek, and for the first time in their childhood, Janine Bozza cried. Tim Duffy hugged and comforted Bozza and turned to Ian and said, “Take your friend home, Private Greengrass, and make sure I get a call by nine. Capische?”
Ian nodded affirmatively, as the two wet hooky players exited the bus. The sky opened up with a torrential downpour. They held hands and ran the half block home.
They stood under the maple tree in front of Ian’s house and just looked at each other. “Nina’s gotta call the bus driver by nine, ok Janine?”
Bozza flinched at the sound of her first name for a second. Then a small grin widened her lips.
“OK, Ian,” she said, and planted a kiss on Ian that he would remember for the rest of his life.
They ran from the tree to their respective homes.
Ian’s cat Tuffy meowed from under a parked car and followed Ian into the house.
The old man was watching Douglas Edwards yap about the news of the day on their Sylvania TV and turned to Ian.
“Finished your paper route just in time, eh?”
“Yeah,” Ian answered.
“You hungry?” his dad inquired.
“Naa … I got homework.”
“You change your mind, lemme know, ok?”
“Yeah,” Ian stated flatly.
The old man looked at Tuffy and then back to Ian.
“Again with the stinkin’ cat?” his dad asked, half-serious.
“It’s raining,” Ian said.
“Make sure you show him the door in the A.M., ok?”
“Ok, Pop.” Ian picked up his cat and went upstairs to his room.
Ian gave Tuffy some Friskies in his bowl and looked across the driveway to see Nina and Janine hugging and quietly crying. Ian decided to give Nate Glover a call first thing in the morning regarding Bozza’s suicidal deep-water plunge. This would piss Bozza off, that sometimes a man has to do what a man has to do.
He watched them for awhile, then felt like he was intruding, so he kept the lights out, changed into his pajamas and got into bed under the covers.
Tuffy hopped up and walked up Ian’s chest and plopped down under his chin, purring like a lawn mower.
Ian listened to the raindrops on the slate roof above his bedroom.
Ian licked his lips to see if he could still taste Janine’s kiss as his eyelids fluttered, and soon both he and Tuffy drifted off to the Land of Nod.