He’s Somewhere in San Francisco
The sidewalk glows with afternoon sun. Henry careens over the pavement, laughter rolling from his lips. Eat dust, Greg hollers over his shoulder.
Not this time! No, no. Henry would beat Greg this time. His big brother couldn’t win every time.
Storefronts for flower shops and bakeries fall past him, yellow and tan. People on the path, jerk out of his way, but Henry doesn’t notice. A wind rushes from the pier. The smell of fish climbs inside his nostrils. The rattle of street cars fills his ears. Greg cuts down an alley, sprints at a fence, jumps on the milk crate, clambers over top. Henry lowers his head, bunches his shoulders, rushes at the crate. Vault. Spring. His knee scrapes the edge of the fence on the way over. His hip lands on the concrete on the other side. Shake it off. Henry scrambles to his feet, runs after Greg for the street.
As he hammers along the sidewalk, a pudgy, middle-aged woman stepped around the corner and laid a hand on his arm. “Mr. Dubucki, you can’t go running through the halls, sir.” The nurse’s voice was kind, but exhausted from the many times she said this every day.
“I can run if I want to,” he said. No fun.
The nurse took his hand. She rubbed the top of her eyelids and bright blue powder stuck to her fingers. “Time for breakfast, Mr. Dubucki.”
Henry yanked his hand away. “I can walk on my own. I’m not crippled.” He shuffled down the hall, teeth clamped together. The white carpet glowed under the fluorescent light.
Damn woman. She always tried to hold his hand like he needed a walker or something. An unbalanced feeling flared in the side of his head but goddamn it he’d walk by himself.
He came to the dining hall slowly. The place was full of clinking forks and the smell of milk. Henry lowered himself into a chair at the breakfast table. George, Eddie, and Mark sat there, watched. George lifted a shaking fork with pale scrambled eggs to his mouth. Half the eggs were on the napkin in his lap.
“Toast’s burned today,” Eddie announced. “They never get it right.”
A nurse leaned over with a couple pieces of toast on a plate. “Here’s your toast Mr. Wallace.”
Eddie looked at the toast, then lowered his fist down on the table. Lowered, not slammed. Couldn’t slam it anymore. “What is this? I said I want my bread toasted, not this soggy crap. Where’s Martha? Martha does it right.”
The nurse sighed. “Martha doesn’t work here anymore, Mr. Wallace. Would you like your toast?”
Eddie thought about it a minute, then, “Give me my toast!” Eddie grabbed the plate and set it down on top of his spoon. The nurse moved his plate off the spoon and walked away.
George set down his fork and pointed a finger at Henry. “Do you…do you want to watch the Colts? The Colts are playing later today.”
“Playing who?” Henry said.
“They’re not playing today, George,” Mark said. “It’s May. They don’t play in May.”
George blinked at Mark. “Already? Are you sure? I saw it on Channel 10.”
“I saw it too,” Eddie said. “They’ve not been doing well.” He swallowed his toast. “May was Cheryl’s birthday. She was…” He started counting on his fingers.
A nurse shuffled by and slid a plate in front of Henry. “Your breakfast, Mr. Dubucki.”
Henry looked down at the eggs and bacon in front of him. “Thank you, dear.” He liked this one. She was nice to him.
The nurse pointed to the glass of milk. “And you milk, Mr. Dubucki. Please don’t forget to drink it.”
No tones with me, young man, his mother says. She wipes her hands on her apron. Now eat your breakfast before you’re late for school.
Henry rips the bacon in half and lets the plate clatter against the wooden table. Who cares if he’s late to trig? Wasn’t going to need it anywhere he was going. In the background, the radio buzzes, the static corroding the air like sandpaper. Whereas the successful prosecution of the war…to prescribe military areas…from which any and all persons may be excluded…
Henry. He looks up at his mother. Her hair piles on her head like a heap of brunette cotton balls. The hot air blows through the open window and tosses around the strays. Your father’s taking you fishing this weekend.
Henry shovels eggs into his mouth before he starts talking. But we’ve got the tournament, Mom. They need me on first base.
His mother bunches her apron together to wipe her hands, leaving a powdering of flour. Your father’s been trying to plan this for weeks.
Well, jeez, Mom. Why does it have to be fishing? It’s so boring.
His mother looks out the window, past the yellow curtains with red flowers. Henry follows her gaze to see what she’s looking at, but there isn’t anything there, only a couple seagulls flapping their wings in the neighbor’s yard.
All persons of Japanese ancestry…equipped to assist the Japanese population affected by this evacuation…provide temporary residence elsewhere…
His mother turns away. Her shoulders are shaking.
Mom, are you ok? The egg yolk drips off his fork.
She sniffs and turns around, dabbing her eyes with the dish towel. I’m fine. I’m sorry. But Henry, you turn eighteen next month.
Henry lets the radio fill up his ears.
And that’s it for the news. Now bringing you the newest West Coast blues from the Bay Area.
I know, Mom.
She swipes her finger along the bottom of her eye. I just wish you’d spend a little more time with your father, before…before you turn eighteen.
The steam rises off Henry’s bacon. He isn’t hungry now.
You’d better get going. Finish your milk before you leave.
“All right. All right.” Henry picked up the glass with a shaky hand and gulped down the last bit.
“Thank you, Mr. Dubucki,” the nurse said. “If you’re finished, would you like to go to the lounge? It’s board game hour.”
Henry blinked. The yolk dripped off his fork. His eggs were gone, nothing left but dull yellow stains on the white plate. He must have finished eating them.
The nurse pressed her lips together. Pale little worms. “Board game hour. We can play checkers or cards in the lounge.” She pointed to a door flanked by two potted ferns. “There will be lemonade.”
“Actually, Mr. Dubucki has a visitor now.” A different, washed out nurse leaned over his table. “Diane is here to see you.”
“Just her today. She didn’t bring the kids this time.”
“Hi, Dad. How are you?”
Henry looked up at her. “I’m good. I’m doing good.”
“Glad to hear that,” Diane said. “I’m sorry I haven’t been down in a few weeks. Lucas had a band competition.”
Lucas. With the freckles. His picture sat on Henry’s nightstand. “Oh, really? How’d it go?”
“Good. The band played really well. How was your breakfast?”
Across from the table, Eddie wiped his mouth slowly with his thumb. “Better than Eddie’s,” Henry said. “His toast was burned.”
Diane chuckled. “Oh, no. That’s too bad.” Diane laid a hand on Henry’s shoulder. “Dad, do you want to go to your room? We can talk until we go to lunch later.”
She leaned forward and her hair, deep brown combed with gray, splayed over her collarbone and falls down her shoulder, over her neck. Henry watches it instead of her face.
Henry, can you look at me, please?
He doesn’t want to see her face. He wants to drive circles through the sandbox with his firetruck, deeper, deeper, so deep the truck can’t get out. If he ignores her maybe she’ll go away.
She doesn’t, so he raises his eyes to her face, her bird-hooked nose. Sand grains crust under Henry’s fingernails.
Remember me? I’m Lisa. She points to her name badge with a bright pink nail. South Beach Pediatric is printed in the corner. Did he mind if they talked for a little bit?
Henry looks across the park, where his mother sits on the bench by the swing set. Her eyes look red and wet. They’re always red now. When she sees him, she smiles and gives a thumbs-up.
Henry presses the firetruck farther into the sand. Ok, sure.
Lisa perches on the edge of the sandbox. The green and pink flowers on her shirt glow in the sun. Do you like this park?
Henry glances at her sideways, trying to figure out what she wanted him to say. He nods.
She agrees, it’s a nice park, right next to the marina.
No, boats are stupid.
Stupid? I thought you liked boats.
Henry looks out at the sailboats bobbing, their empty masts clattering with rigging. There are so many of them, a forest of bare branches.
No, boats are stupid.
You used to like boats. You’d go look at boats on the docks. She scooches on the side of the edge of the sandbox. Wouldn’t you go look at boats on the docks with your family?
I don’t know, sure.
Yes, you went with Mommy and Daddy and…
Henry pushes the firetruck down, down. If he presses hard enough, maybe he’ll see the sandbox’s wooden bottom, push past that, through the earth. He has a storybook where people live at the middle of the world. Maybe he’ll go live with them, run away from Lisa and her questions.
Greg. Greg would come too, wouldn’t he?
The sun slices through the ocean, so bright Henry can’t look at it directly. He squints at the waves, the slices he sees through the masts.
What was that? She hadn’t quite heard him.
Henry wishes she’d just go away. They told him he didn’t have to go back to her office – the white, blank walls with grey photos and faded brown sofas and ferns like Brussels sprouts crouching in the corners, and where there’s nothing to do but look at animal magazines, flimsy and yellowed, and where they’d call him back when he tried escape to gaze at the colorful fish thank in the doctor’s office next door – but now she comes here, to his park. He doesn’t want to talk to Lisa at all. He knows she wants him back in that white and grey office.
No way were they getting him back in there. No way.
“No way of what, Dad?”
Henry looked up. Diane sat across from him on the sofa, with her brown and grey hair. She held a collection of pill bottles between her fingers and balanced a notebook on her knee. She checked the labels and marked in the book. The other bottles stood in rank on the coffee table. Brightened dust particles floated around them and around his room. His room. Right. They were in his room. His walker stood guard beside the brown and purple couch. Yes, he’d brought that here. Henry couldn’t remember what he’d been saying, so he changed the subject.
“So, how’s everything going then?”
Diane inhaled, exhaled. “Good. Football season is starting up so Lucas is really busy with band. He’s got to be at school by seven every morning now.”
Yes, Lucas. He’d talked about music before. “What is it that he plays?”
“The clarinet. He’s been practicing at home more this year, so Lizzie’s getting really annoyed.” Diane laughed.
“He must be pretty good.”
Diane set down a pill bottle. “He’s gotten much better. And Lizzie’s starting college in Boston next week.”
“Yep, she’s really excited.” Diane chuckled to herself. “Part of me still wishes she’d picked that school in Indianapolis so I could have her close, but she’ll like it there.”
Henry tried to scratch the back of his wrist, but someone had cut his nails too short. “Lizzy’s going to be in movies.”
“We’ll see,” Diane said. “It is a good acting program at Boston University.”
Henry glanced out the window. The sunlight had painted golden the bushes under his window. Henry rubbed the back of his hand with the pads of his fingers. “Gradey was from Boston. Michael Gradwohl. He moved into the neighborhood…in the summer.”
Diane laid her notebook down in her lap. “I remember him. He came to me and Charlie’s wedding.”
“Yes, he gave a bad speech.”
Diane smiled. “That’s right. He tried to give me marriage advice, but everyone called him out his three divorces. Remember that?”
Maybe. The speech was bad. He knew that for sure.
“He was a good guy,” Diane said. “I miss him a lot.”
Henry nodded, rubbed his wrist. “It was the summer when Gradey moved in. The week before we went back to school. In the summer…the summer they tried to kill the trolleys.” Diane’s face fell, while Henry rubbed his hand. “I was standing outside the ice cream shop. Murphy’s. And I was looking through the window and Gradey, he comes out with his cone of chocolate ice cream. It was this tall.” Henry paused to hold his horizontal hand over his knee. “And he walks towards me and…” Henry cut across the air with his hand. “Just like that. All over my shoes.”
Henry laughed, a nasal, coughing sound.
Diane’s mouth twisted around the edges. “It ruined your shoes, didn’t it?”
Diane leaned closer. “Your shoes. Last time you told me this, you said you had to get new shoes.”
He didn’t remember that. “I guess I did.” He leaned back, the chuckle draining out of him. Ruined his shoes. Weren’t even looking.
This one’s on you, friend, Gradey says. You startled me. Gradey glances down at the chocolate scoop melting on the pavement.
Gradey looks up. His blonde beard is clean and even, his hair short. Henry wishes he could get his beard that straight, but it never grows in right, makes him look younger than he is. Let me buy yours to make it up to you.
Henry shakes his head. It’s all right. I was only looking.
Then, let me buy you a drink.
Henry blinks. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon.
Henry glances down the sidewalk. A group of ladies carrying signs stands at the corner, chanting save the trolley, save the trolley, save the soul of our city. They’ve been at it for months now. Character over coins.
All right, sure. Henry extends his hand for Gradey to shake and they take off down the yellow street.
Gradey sways when he walks in a way that reminds Henry of someone. Where did you serve?
Henry pauses at the street. Looks both ways. A car motors past. Henry wants to get a napkin to wipe off the ice cream, but Gradey is already leaving. France. And you?
Pacific Navy. Whole war. You live in these parts, Henry?
Sure do. They pass between buildings and the glittering bay unfolds, laughing at their uphill plod. Piles of mist skate across the horizon shrouding Berkeley from view. The huge white sheets slide over the big, silver bridge, slow as silence.
Gradey turns the corner and the ground turns down. I just moved here from Oakland. You’ll have to show me around, show me the town.
Henry watches Gradey’s swagger, watches him skip up the hill. He walks like he’s gliding on air, like he can vault, spring.
Surprised to see the protestors when I came. Gradey thumbs at the marching ladies. Would never think they’d get rid of the cars.
Henry glances at the woman in felt hats with we want cable cars between their fingers. The cars are expensive and dangerous. That’s what my mom says, at least.
Gradey laughs, a loud, full guffaw that throws back his head. So is everything these days.
There’s something about the way Gradey laughs, something about the grin lounging in the corner of his mouth that makes Henry want to hear the next thing he has to say. Henry wipes the back of his hand, sticky with splashed chocolate and sugar. He rubs the ice cream with his finger pads, the paper thin skin.
“Dad, don’t rub your wrist like that.”
Henry looked down at his hand. Translucent skin stretched over the bones. Brown spots stared up at him. He frowned and put his hand back on the armchair.
“Have you been using that cream?” Diane pointed to a white bottle on the nightstand. There were so many of them. “Remember, the one that Dr. Crane gave you?”
Henry squinted. “Yeah.”
“You’ve been using it?”
“Thanks, Dad.” Diane picked up another bottle. The pills inside tinkled. “How’s your knee been?”
Henry’s fingers walked over his bony kneecap. He’d forgotten about that. “It still hurts.”
“Does it?” Diane scowled. “We’ll tell Dr. Crane next time you go in.”
Henry’s eyes wandered with his thoughts around the room. A football game hummed on the television screen. His dog tags and uniform hat hung suspended in a shadow box. An old, gold pocket watch set with an orange stone lay on the windowsill. Photos in tan and brown frames hung on the walls. The faces had faded a long time ago and a layer of dust coated the smiles of his children. His children. No, those faces belonged to Lizzie and Lucas. Lizzie and Lucas. Or maybe Diane.
He pointed to a picture of a smiling baby with brown ringlets. “That’s a beautiful girl, isn’t it?”
Diane turned to look. “Aw, Dad. Remember how Mom used to put me in all those frilly dresses?”
“You were just the most beautiful baby in the world, so your mother, she wanted to dress you up in all the nicest clothes.”
Diane laughed. “I used to hate it. That’s probably why I was such a tomboy as a kid.”
“Always ruining your shoes.” Henry rubbed his wrist. “Susan. She was a wonderful woman.”
“She was. I miss her too, Dad.” Diane watched her father for a moment, the pill bottles forgotten. “Remember those awful hats Mom used to put me in? Oh, they were so ugly.” She smiled, gazing into the distance. “But then, I did the same thing with Lizzie.”
Henry looked at the yellowed face of the curly-headed baby. “How’s Lizzie doing?”
Diane looked down at her lap, rubbed her thumb across her notebook before she answered. “She’s good. She’s starting school at Boston University in a week.”
“She’s going to be a movie star, isn’t she?”
Diane still didn’t look up. “Maybe. I guess we’ll see.”
Henry settled back into his chair.
“Dad, would you like to go to lunch?”
“Is it that time already?”
Diane stood up. “Sure is. Do you still like that Italian place?”
A vague recollection of pasta crossed Henry’s mind. He nodded.
Diane stood up. “Sounds good. I’ll pull the car around and then I’ll come get you. Ok? Just sit tight for a minute.”
Diane folded the notepad and stuck it in her purse. She leaned over and kissed Henry on the cheek. “I’ll be back in just a sec.”
Henry waved at her as she left. Waving goodbye. He leaned back into his chair and gazed out the window. Shapeless hedges lined the courtyard outside, but Henry looked right through them. He stared past the yellow and tan bricks that covered the ground, and the wooden benches crouched along the walls, past the pots without plants in them and past the great tree in the center. He saw only the yellow light, filtering into the square, the sunlight that streamed through the trees, through the branches and onto the pavement under his shoes, which patter against the sidewalk, the dropped change and bubble gum wrappers.
Henry lowers his head, puts his shoulders into it.
Greg glances over his shoulder. Just give up, already.
No way. You’re getting creamed.
Henry shoves forward. His pumping arms are right there next to Greg’s now. He’ll beat him this time. This time for sure. They barrel past shops, startling people, but Henry sees only the sidewalk.
They round the corner and there’s the comic book store at the end of the block. He’s going to make it, going to make it. Henry lurches forward. His foot connects with a crack and he slides onto the ground. Asphalt scrapes his knees.
“Mr. Dubucki! Oh my God!”
A gust of air flies past his face. Greg. From the sidewalk, Henry watches Greg’s feet above the curb, hovering there for an instant. Now he’ll win. No fair. Then Greg’s sneaker comes down sideways on the street. He tumbles down into the road, crumples over. Rattling fills the air. People are shouting. Runaway. Out of control. There’s a metal scream like a shrieking bird. Greg raises one arm. Then he disappears beneath the speeding cable car.
“Mr. Dubucki? Mr. Dubucki? Can you hear me?”
Henry tries to scramble up, falls, pulls himself towards the street. Not Greg. Please no. His palms scrape on the sidewalk.
“Dad! Oh my God!”
“Call 911. His head’s bleeding.”
Henry drags himself to the edge of the sidewalk and peers into the street. He can’t see anything. His eyes are too blurry and wet. The heat simmers off the pavement. The cable car’s metal screeches. And then Henry saw nothing else.
Keri Heath is a writer by trade and by education. She is a journalist who writes for the Galveston County Daily News, covering life on the island of Galveston. Keri received an MFA in fiction from University College Dublin in Ireland in 2017 and a BA in English and history from Wittenberg University. She has been published in journals such as Straylight, NEAT Magazine, and Line Zero.