You know how it is. You think you’re married, you’re married to Albie forty-two, what is it, forty-three years, so at least you know Albie. Right?
But one day, we’re upstairs, we’re lying in bed because it’s Saturday and it’s July and everybody else is out mowing grass, but we’re retired so what do we care? We’re lying there, and the phone rings. Albie, I say, get up and get it because it’s our daughter Chris and she’s going to ask me about the baby. (She’s forty but it’s her first, so she’s acting like she’s twenty, she’s acting like she’s three. “I felt a kick, I felt it here, I felt it there. You think the baby could be breech? You think the baby could be something else?”) Mother of God! I’ll give her a kick if she calls me again. Get up and get the phone, Albie. Get it downstairs so I don’t have to hear (which will never work in a thousand-million years because I’m lying there listening to Albie as he listens to Chris). “Oh Chris,” I hear him say, and I’m lying there, I’m thinking, Oh Chris what? I’ll split if I don’t find out. And then the house splits. BAM! It’s the furnace. It bangs when it comes on. BAM! BAM! BAM! I’ve been telling Albie for two years. I’m halfway down the stairs when I remember, it’s July, it’s hot, so it can’t be the furnace. It’s Albie. I can see him in the kitchen. He’s banging the phone on the wall. What’s he doing that for? I’m asking until he turns and says he can’t tell me; he can’t tell anybody. “Call Chris,” he says, but I tell him, how can I; you broke the f-ing telephone.
Excuse me. But you say what you have to say.
And you let your man cry. You let him cry at funerals, weddings, all the other stuff. Fine. I tell Albie he can cry, and then I tell him he can stop. That’s enough, Albie. You take what God gives you and do what you can. So who has it any different? “The amnio was positive.” He says it like it’s my fault. He says it like this time he can’t stop crying; he’ll never stop. So I tell him, so? So, the baby’s going to look funny? So, the baby’s going to act funny? So, the baby’s going to grow up and be a kid that people notice at the shopping mall? Aren’t you tough enough? Aren’t you man enough? I’m breaking up inside while I’m saying this, but I’m saying it because men get to work when they want and rest when they want and cry when they want. It’s been that way a long time and it’ll stay that way a long time more. There’s no point in starving, I say finally, and while he’s eating the breakfast I make, I’m calling from the phone in the living room, and the line’s busy, and it’s busy again, and then I’m talking to Chris, and I’m saying, “Chris,” and she’s saying, “Ma,” and I’m breaking up in places I never knew I had. I’m noticing every breath as I take it, and I’m telling her, you think you know, but you don’t know. You don’t know me. You don’t know your father. When this baby comes, we’ll give you whatever help, whatever money, whatever anything. Stop crying, I say, but I’m crying when I say it, and Albie, he never stopped crying. We’re playing ping-pong. I’m on the phone, he’s on the phone, me, him, me, him. We’re crying, and Chris is crying, and after a while, there isn’t any point, so we hang up and go to the kitchen and make a list. Things To Do To Get Ready. Number One: fix the telephone. Number Two: fix the wall. I’m saying it, and Albie’s writing it, and we’re looking at what we’re doing and we’re laughing, of course. We’re saying we’ve got the kitchen to paint, so we might as well paint the dining room, so we might as well paint the living room too. The dining room is peach, and Albie loves it, and I hate it, and the living room is parchment, and guess what? I love it, and Albie hates it. “Let bygones be bygones,” he says. “I can live with parchment. After this morning I can live with anything.” So we’re looking at a sheet from Home Depot, it’s got white, it’s got pale white, bright white, off white, every kind of white. It’s got a color that’s kind of half-peach, half-parchment, and guess what? It’s my sister. She’s on the telephone. She’s like radar, this one. She’s like something the government should put on a satellite. She asks me, what’s the matter? And I tell her about the paint but she can hear it in my voice. “You’re crying about paint?” she says. So I tell her, and she’s the oldest, so she tells me not to worry. “There’s all kinds of retards,” she says. “There’s bad retards and not so bad, and there’s retards you wouldn’t know were retards if you didn’t ask. There’s a retard on television, or there used to be. These days, they got retards doing everything.” My sister isn’t Shakespeare, but she’s a good f-ing sister.
Excuse me. But you say what you have to say.
And I do what my sister tells me. I call Chris. I tell her, you and Kenny, go some place, any place. Albie gives them fifty dollars, and they go to dinner or a movie. Maybe they stay home, I don’t know. But we see them at church the next morning, and one by one, people go over. They talk to Chris. They give her a hug, and they say a little something to Kenny, and you can see how much he’s changed in just a day. He’ll make it. They both will. It’s beautiful. Holy, that’s the word. And guess what? The next day is Monday, so Albie goes to work. He’s retired but he still goes to the shop on Mondays to see if he can make a little trouble. He stays a few hours and comes home, and I’m doing what I always do. Nothing. Oh, I might read the paper. I might watch television. Anyway, he comes home, and I’m watching Judge Judy. There’s a guy with two wives and the first wife is telling the judge and the second wife what a louse the guy was, how he never took her any place, and when he did, he made her pay. “Cheap date,” I say. And Albie says, “What do you mean cheap?” And I say, “I mean I’m watching the program and saying what the program says.” But he says, “You’re saying fifty dollars was cheap. You’re saying I should have given Chris and Kenny a hundred. Well, next time marry a Rockefeller. Doncha got a house? Doncha got food and clothes and that television? Doncha?” He’s saying the word like it’s a swear word, and I’m saying it back—I’m making a face while I’m saying it—and he’s saying I should do something to myself I won’t repeat. I might as well do it since you can’t do it anymore. (Mother of God, why do I say these things?) He’s yelling, and I’m yelling, and before you know it, the kids are on the phone—Marie, my oldest, and Carmine, my youngest, and Lucille and Anthony, and Chris, of course. She’s talking like Judge Judy. She’s talking like Oprah Winfrey. She’s talking like she’s never had a problem in her life. Oh no, not her. “Come on!” she says. Can you believe it? I hang up and walk to the door, and there’s Albie. He’s got his coat. It’s ninety-five degrees, and he’s got his coat and his hat, and he’s got his suitcase. He’s leaving for the ‘Y’ like he’s always leaving for the ‘Y.’ He’ll never do it because there are gays at the ‘Y,’ as if they’d waste their time on Albie.
“Get in here.”
“So, get in here,” I say.
And when I tell him Chris is acting like nothing happened, he says, maybe it didn’t: “A – B – O – R – T – I – O – N.” He’s looking at me and saying this. And it’s like peeing with somebody watching. I can spell but I can’t do it with somebody spelling right at me. I’m saying the letters and counting them on my fingers. “That isn’t spelling, that’s counting,” he says, and then I get it, and I’m walking to the kitchen. I’m looking at the kitchen table. I’m seeing the sheet from Home Depot. Home Depot. I say it like I discovered Relativity. I say it like he better do what I tell him or we’ll all burn in hell (which we would, by the way). I tell him to get the paint. I tell him he’s going, so Chris is going, so she can look at the patio chairs she needs but says she doesn’t. “Tell her I’m getting the chairs whether she wants them or not, so she might as well tell me what she likes. Tell her it’s a surprise,” I say. So we’re all set. Albie picks her up. They drive to Home Depot, and the rest of it I can picture. I’ve been there about a thousand-million times. They go to the Paint Department and tell the guy they want something between peach and parchment, and the guy gives them a look. He pulls out a color, it’s the color of raw hamburger. I’m serious. And guess what? Albie buys it to make the guy feel good. Eight gallons. Our house looks like it’s been inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Anyway, they can’t carry eight gallons, not the two of them. The guy gets a cart, and while they’re pushing it to Garden and Patio, Albie does what Albie always does. He sees some batteries; he puts them in the cart. He sees an extension cord. That’s right, in the cart. Two or three, why not? He’s got masking tape, duct tape, four bottles of Crazy Glue and a window shade—he’s got a doorknob. What’s he doing with a doorknob? He’s walking along, having a fine time until they get where they’re going and he remembers and he’s crying so bad Chris tells him to sit in a chair. It’s one of those tables with four chairs and an umbrella in the middle of the table, and Albie’s sitting in one chair and Chris is sitting in another chair (she’s pregnant, remember). Anyway, they’re sitting, and Albie’s crying, and one of the girls asks what’s the matter, and Chris tells her, and she says there’s a lady in Flooring who had a Down’s kid. “Eileen in Flooring, extension 406, Eileen in Flooring.” But Eileen isn’t there. Whoever calls says she isn’t working but there’s another guy. “Dave in Electrical, extension 406, Dave in Electrical.” And this guy comes over. He’s nice, I guess. He doesn’t have a kid with Down’s; he’s got a nephew with diabetes, but who cares? The girl sits with Chris, the guy with Albie. They’re sitting at the umbrella table like they’re having margaritas. And guess what? The manager comes along. “Get to work,” he says. “What the hell?” he says. He’s complaining until Chris tells him what’s happening, and then he feels so bad he tells Albie to just take the table and all the stuff in the cart—no charge—and he even helps tie the table to the car.
“What’s that?” I say when they pull in.
“It’s a table,” says Albie.
“What’s it for?”
“It’s for sitting at.”
And he shows me the chairs and the umbrella. He shows me the batteries and the window shade. He shows me a step stool. He tells me it’s for standing on and reaching things. I know all about stepstools. Did you ask her? “Ask me what,” says Chris. And that’s it. Chris is calling me a meddler, and I’m calling her a murderer, and Albie, he’s walking around with the umbrella. He gets it off the car, and he opens it, and he can’t get it closed. He looks like Mary Poppins; he looks like he might start singing or maybe dancing. And the Rizzos, they never miss a show. They’re sitting on their porch, and they’re watching until I walk across the street and take my shoe off like I’m going to throw it. I’m telling Patty Rizzo to keep her dog out of my yard. I’ll poison him if she doesn’t.
And guess what?
Five months later, there’s the baby. He’s got the funny ears, the funny eyes, the funny fingers—we’re a mess all over again.
But guess what else?
Bing-bong! There’s Patty with lasagna. There’s the Lawlers with a pie. There are people we don’t even know asking if they can do things. It’s like I tell Albie, you don’t know anything, Albie, not until it happens, Albie.
And Albie—we’re married forty-two, what is it, forty-three years, and Albie might have changed a light bulb. He might have opened a window if I told him I wouldn’t get up and do it for him. He paints, but I have to get it all ready. I have to clean it up at the end. The only time Albie helps is when you wish he was doing something else, so I tell him, Albie, we’ve got a baby here, go in the basement and find something to keep you busy, which he does. He’s down there a week, a couple of weeks. He’s down there so long I get to wondering. What’s he doing in the basement? “Nothing,” he says. What’s he doing at Home Depot? “Nothing,” he says. But he’s going there. He’s buying stuff. He’s got a list. It says 2×4’s, 4×4’s, this kind of nail, that kind of nail, every kind of nail. He’s got enough stuff to build a house. He’s got enough stuff to build every house on the street. What’s he building? “Noah’s Ark,” he says. But I know. It’s the table, the one with the umbrella in the middle. Chris doesn’t want it, and he can’t bring it back, and he can’t throw it out. “It’s new,” he says. “It’s nice.” So he’s making a deck to put it on. Once the weather breaks, he’s out in the back working until one day he asks me to take a look. So I ask him, what’s this? Where’d it come from? And when he tells me, I make like I don’t believe him. “Drop dead,” I say. “Drop dead yourself,” he says. So we get the table. We put it on the deck, and we get the margaritas. We sit there and drink until we’re stupid and one of these days, we’ll do it again. We’ll do it with the Rizzos and the Lawlers. We’ll do it with Chris and Kenny once the baby’s settled and life’s not so f-ing crazy.
Excuse me. But you say what you have to say.