It was a sunny morning in May, and I sat at the table in our small dinette reading the paper, finishing my orange juice. In three days I would start my summer job. My sophomore year in college was one week behind me.
As I flipped the paper to the editorial page—another piece on the Kennedy-McCarthy primary contest in California—my mother came into the kitchen.
“Good morning, Alex,” she smiled, reaching for the coffee pot. As she poured, she glanced over at the table. Her eyes widened.
“Oh, that reminds me.” She nodded. “I saved something for you.” She set down her steaming cup and left the room.
The bright day was filtered through the same gauzy sheer curtains that had graced those kitchen windows for as long as I could remember. They warmed the space, softened it, dispersed the light across the gray Formica table.
My mother returned, setting before me a page she had cut from the paper. “I thought maybe you’d want to see this.” She stood back to watch as I picked it up.
There was a picture of a young man in uniform, posing sharply out from the page, plying his best James Dean-Bobby Darin squint-smile. Above the picture, across the two short columns of text, was the header “Local Soldier Killed in Vietnam.” I looked at the picture again, then back up at my mother.
“That’s Stevie Summers.”
She nodded slowly. “Yeah.”
“Just a couple weeks back.”
I read about Operation Delaware, in the Shau Valley of Vietnam near the border of Laos.
There was silence for a moment as the sun filled the window across from us, and a car pulled up to the stop sign at our corner.
“I thought you might want to see that,” she said softly. Then she touched me on the shoulder and walked out into the living room.
I didn’t know Stevie Summers all that well and hadn’t seen him for years, at least not since we had gone to different high schools, but there was a time ten years ago when…
We were on the back porch sitting on the old glider, listening to Bill Randle spinning the local and national hit records. Though we were both not quite eleven, we decided to call ourselves the ‘Teen Kings,’ creating our own top-ten list. I think we named it the ‘Teen King Top Ten Tunedex.’
He liked Elvis more than I did, and I was taken with a new group, Danny and the Juniors. I was miffed by his appreciation for Ricky Nelson, but we agreed that the Everly Brothers were our favorites and put “All I Have To Do Is Dream” in the top spot.
Stevie liked music more than my other friends; at least, he liked to talk about it more than they did. He was new and different. His family had moved onto Parkside one block behind us a year ago, and I was the only kid on Portage Street whom he had come to know.
He had come down to our house two or three times by then, but I had never been up to his. We thought maybe I might come over the next day, Saturday.
I had seen his younger brother and sister walking up the side street a couple times, and his mother was a teller at our bank in the shopping center down on Turney Road. She was very pretty.
I mean, it was almost as though she wasn’t a kid’s mother. She had shiny, honey-brown hair that curled up right below her jawline, bright green eyes, and a smile that seemed to dance across her face. I had only seen her a few times, but she always smiled at me, said “Hello, Alex,” and it made me feel good.
I had known my friends Mikey Richert and Billy Henson for about five years, had been over to their houses dozens of times and could not tell you the color of their mothers’ eyes though they were both very nice ladies. I knew Sharon Summers’ eye color after one glance. I remember it to this day.
But Stevie’s father was another story. I knew who he was before I had ever met his son; so did my other friends. Even though it had only been about a year, the folks along Portage Street and up onto Parkside all knew who Ralph Summers was.
He was the guy who at least three times a week stumbled his way home from the Lantern Bar down on the corner of Portage and Turney. Sometimes he’d mumble to himself; sometimes he’d sing. We all wondered if it started on the bus coming up from town.
Stevie Summers looked just like his dad.
We couldn’t agree that day just where to put, or even if we should include, David Seville’s “Witch Doctor” in our Tunedex and had a tough time seeing Perry Como’s “Catch a Falling Star” in the list, though we both secretly liked the song and hummed along with it when we heard it on our own, so we decided to keep both out and put The Champs’ “Tequila” at number two and closed out the index with The Contours’ “Yakety Yak.”
Just as we did that, Bill Randle reminded us it was almost four O’clock. Stevie perked up.
“I gotta go, have to be home before my dad.”
I nodded in some unspoken code I didn’t know I knew. “Sure, okay.”
“Maybe you can come by tomorrow to play some pool. He’s not going to be… maybe ten o’clock?”
I was still nodding. “Sure, yeah.”
“Okay,” he said as he rose and headed to the porch door. “I’ll see you tomorrow then,” and Stevie Summers disappeared around the corner of the house. He got on his old Schwinn bike and pedaled up the modest hill.
I turned off the radio and sat there on the squeaking glider, watching birds hop in the rows of my dad’s backyard garden. There was a slight, cooling breeze coming through the screens. I closed my eyes and stretched back.
I don’t think I fell asleep, but a sound from down the street startled me about ten minutes later. I looked to see the form of an individual who had just crossed Turney Road and was heading up our block. He was speaking as if to a companion and gesturing busily with his hands.
It was Ralph Summers.
As he wobbled past old man Kalewski’s house, the fastidiously tidy little brick bungalow where the eighty-year-old Polish immigrant usually sat on his front porch on summer afternoons, Summers waved broadly.
The old man scowled, as was his custom, and threw his arms toward the bobbing figure. He was saying something in his unique blend of Polish and English, now standing before his rusted metal chair.
Whatever it was, Ralph Summers smiled, or maybe he sneered, and forged ahead, weaving from one side of the pavement to the next, sometimes drifting onto the tree lawns, sometimes brushing against the maples that lined the length of Portage Avenue.
What I knew about him then was that he worked first shift at Rebold Steel down in the industrial flats south of town. He had been there for a dozen years or so.
As he approached our corner, I saw once again how much his son resembled him, his dark hair and eyes, his slender build, long arms. He was only thirty-eight but looked older, lined, weathered. Perhaps it was his job down at the mill where he worked close by the furnaces. Perhaps it was his habits. Perhaps it was something about which I knew nothing at all.
He turned up our side street. He had on the blue work pants and heavy matching shirt he wore at the mill, though both looked more disheveled now than even that labor should produce. He was quiet except for the noisy shuffle of his dusty black boots, and he seemed in hard focus for the one block walk up the hill to Parkside. I watched as he passed, sitting still so that the glider wouldn’t squeak.
At home his son took out the rusted red push mower and began to cut the small backyard. He was almost halfway through when his father came unevenly down the drive. He shuffled past the side door and stood at the corner of the house looking into the yard. He stood with his hands on his hips looking to be moved to and fro by the wind.
“Not done yet?” he spat out.
Stevie looked up, sweat just breaking on his forehead.
“Oh, hi, Dad,” he puffed.
“This should be done by now! What the hell!”
“I’ll be done in fifteen minutes.”
“Did you get… did you g-get…?”
“Yeah, I took the garbage out this morning, brought the cans back.”
Ralph Summers turned toward the front of the house, teetering.
“Did you g-g-get the weeds in… in the, in the front beds?”
The boy nodded. “Done.”
The man turned back, steadied himself.
“Well get this damn grass cut already, then. Jesus Christ!”
Stevie adjusted his blue ball cap and pushed off again.
His father walked to the side door and stepped up clumsily into the house.
About ten minutes later, as the boy was finishing the last pass along the driveway, he heard his mother’s voice through the screen of the window above the kitchen sink.
“Ralph, this is only $75.”
“Whaaaat?” his father’s voice responded as though from another room.
“There’s only $75 from your paycheck here.” There was a short pause. “How much did you spend at the bar?” she said, not loudly.
“As much as I damn well needed to,” Ralph replied, his voice rose, moving closer.
“Six or seven dollars? Hon, did you spend that much?”
“If that’s what it… it… comes to, then I guess th… that’s what I spent, all right.”
Stevie rolled the mower over to the garage and was setting it up against the side wall when he heard his mother’s hard sigh. He could imagine her look as she stared down at the pay envelope.
“That’s a lot, Ralph,” she said, moving closer to the sink.
“The hell it is!” he barked, and Stevie could hear his father stumbling off to the bedroom.
“I’m taking a n… nap. Call me when dinner’s red… ready.”
Sharon Summers drew a long, slow breath.
“I’ll call you,” she managed, then looked out to the back yard where her son was putting his bike into the garage.
“Seven dollars at the damn bar when I spend twenty dollars all week for food,” she said as much to the window as to anyone, to the small red clock that snapped off seconds on the wall above the sink.
I arrived at Stevie’s the next morning just as he was sweeping up the clippings from the hedge along the back of their property. His mother was hanging clothes that she pulled from a large blue basket.
“Hello, Alex,” she smiled, just like at the bank.
“Hello Mrs. Summers,” I offered weakly, not sure how it was that the sun worked with those colors, and the breeze coaxed that scent and sound that made me want to close my eyes and savor, better even than a Big Boy or a milkshake. It was one of those postcard moments that manage to stay with you despite all the big and great times you eventually have.
“We’re going to shoot some pool, mom,” Stevie summoned me from that moment.
Sharon Summers smiled again, lifting the corner of a sheet on to the line.
“Okay, enjoy yourselves. There’re a couple bottles of pop in the ice box if you’d like, Steven, back behind the milk and orange juice.”
“Thanks, Steven,” I smirked a minute later as he handed me a coke.
“Just rack the balls, Alexander, and prepare to get your ass whooped.” And the game was on, twenty-five-ball straight pool from one kid who played maybe once a month at a friend’s house or at Turneytown Lanes after bowling against another who had a table in his basement and looked like he used it.
I didn’t realize that Stevie was left-handed until he started to snap shots in from all over the table: long, short, a couple combinations. I was duly impressed, but it wasn’t until he sank a long bank shot in the third game that I had to ask him.
“Jesus, Stevie! Who taught you how to shoot?” I managed it more as a compliment than a question, but he didn’t hesitate to answer.
“My dad.” He didn’t look up from the six-ball run that he was producing. “He played all the time as a kid. I think he even hustled for money a little bit.”
“No kidding?” I was impressed, and my voice showed it.
“Yeah,” he crouched down to line up a long shot down the rail. He snapped his left wrist, and the ball slid along the cushion until it plopped into the pocket. “He came up here from West Virginia when he was seventeen.”
Stevie could sense my surprise.
He stood up straight, chalking his stick, and looked at me with what I could only call a mix of admiration and anger.
“His old man kicked him out of the house or just about. Dad was the oldest of eight kids, and he was told it was time for him to be about his own business, and he just left.”
“Jesus,” I muttered.
“So he came up here to stay with a cousin until he could catch on somewhere.”
Stevie crouched into a shooter’s stance again and fired off another bank shot that rattled at the pocket and rolled away. “Damn!” he muttered.
I chalked up and eyed a dead three ball in the corner.
“So he did some part-time stuff and hung around the pool halls until he got something down at Rebold.
I snapped off a shot that glided into the pocket, nodding at what he had told me once before.
“He got pretty good at it, so he kept on playing pool, mainly at the bowling alley down on Broadway.”
I know where he meant. My dad had taken me there a couple times.
“And that’s where he met my mom.”
“Shooting pool?!” I looked up from my next shot.
“No, genius, at the snack bar. She was working a summer job at the counter there.
I missed an easy shot in the side.
“Thought you had that one,” Stevie said charitably.
“Yeah,” I smirked.” So did I.
Stevie walked around the table, turning his head to imagine shots.
“So, did they get married right away?”
He chalked up. “No. Hell, they almost didn’t get married at all.” The green six rattled into a pocket.
Stevie stood up. “My mom said that her dad hated him. After he came over the first time, he told her she couldn’t see him again.”
“He said he was a dumb hillbilly, that she could do a whole lot better.”
Stevie scratched on a long rail shot and handed me the cue ball. “But they kept meeting on the sly, I guess, until about a year later when my dad’s father died in an accident in the mine, and he went back to Beckley.”
I lined up a shot.
“He was there for a few months helping grandma get things together with the other kids and all, and when he got back up here, he found that mom had a couple of ‘set up’ dates with some college kid, the son of her dad’s insurance man I think. Her old man almost crapped when old ‘hillbilly Ralph’ showed up at the front door asking about his daughter.” Steve shook his head. “That’s when they had it out, my dad and grandpa Calletto.”
I looked up. “Had it out?”
“Oh yeah,” Stevie nodded. “ So, Dad says, ‘well, I know you think I’m just some damn yokel, but I ain’t, and I’ll show you that I ain’t.’”
“Damn,” I muttered, “just like in the movies.”
“I know, right?” Stevie nodded.
“So what happened?”
“He joined the Army is what happened.”
I cocked my head, squinted. “The Army?”
“It was 1942, Alex.”
Just as Stevie spoke, we both saw the wheels of a car pull up in the driveway.
Stevie looked up, startled.
“That can’t be my dad. He wasn’t supposed to be back until 1:00. Mr. Kunicki picked him up to go bowling right before you came. It’s barely noon yet.” His voice grew progressively higher with each word as he looked toward the window.
Stevie turned back. “Yeah, yeah, so what, right?” He sounded suddenly nervous. “So, whose shot is it?”
“Uh, mine, I guess,” but as I crouched to draw the stick back, I saw Stevie fidget with the chalk, step toward the stairs, looking up at the back door.
All at once, there was a thumping at the door, and I could hear Mrs. Summers walking from the living room across the kitchen, calling out “coming.”
There were two more thumps, and then her feet appeared in the space at the top of the stairs. Light shot into the basement as the door swung open.
“Sorry, Sharon,” said a man’s voice that I had never heard.
By then I was standing beside Stevie at the base of the stairs.
“I guess he’s had a little too much,” the voice came again. Then a second voice, one that I had heard before, if only at a distance, grew louder as if coming from the other side of the car.
“Like hell I have, Kunicki.”
With a heavy step, the figure of Ralph Summers entered the house unevenly.
“I’m fine. I’m just fine, hon,” he said, stepping toward his wife. As he did, he looked down the stairs, shook his head and leaned forward. “Who’s that down there?”
Stevie took a small step in front of me.
“It’s me, Dad.”
Ralph Summers squinted.
“Who’s that with you down there?” He went to take a step forward. His wife reached out like a gate.
“Hon,” was all she said.
“It’s Alex, Dad. It’s my friend, Alex Allen.”
“Alex? Who the hell?” His eyes flared. “You guys playing on my table down there!” his voice ascended.
“Hon,” Sharon said softly, still gating.”
“Ralph,” George Kunicki added.
“Who the hell told you… you could… Alex? Who the hell is Alex?” His voice grew agitated.
“Alex is Stevie’s friend, Ralph. I told them they could shoot some pool….”
“You!?” he glared at his wife. “You told them… now ain’t that just…” He looked back down the stairs.
“Did you do your damn chores?”
“Yes, Dad,” a weak voice escaped from Stevie.
I felt a building fear unlike any I had ever felt before.
A clumsy foot boomed on the first step as Sharon Summers’ gate failed.
“The hell you did, you been…”
The head of George Kunicki appeared behind Stevie’s father.
“Hey, Ralph,” he said in a firm tone, “whattya say we go up and have some coffee?” He looked at Sharon, and she nodded vigorously. “Yeah, hon, let’s have a cup of coffee and maybe some of that sweet roll you like so much.”
Ralph Summers withdrew his second step before it landed. George Kunicki’s hand appeared on his shoulder. “Come on, Ralph. Let’s go.”
Stevie’s father looked back at George and then at his wife.
“We… we got some of that sweet roll left, really?”
“Yeah, hon, the one with the frosting and the nuts. I’ll put on some coffee.” And the first step was withdrawn. As the three turned toward the kitchen, Ralph Summers took one more glance down the stairs.
“Alex? Who the hell is Alex?” he muttered.
And the trio disappeared and morphed into the sound of steps above the ceiling.
I drew a deep breath, and tapped Stevie on the arm.
“I think I’ll head home,” I said quietly.
He just nodded, still looking up the stairs.
“Yeah, sure, okay,” he virtually whispered. And I walked up and out as quickly as I could.
Except for a couple times when he was on his bike to the store, I didn’t see Stevie Summers for about a month. After that, he came over twice to listen to some music, but it wasn’t the same. We’d talk about the Indians and the Browns, the new girl with us in the seventh grade, but we never became the Everly Brothers like I one time thought we might. We never said a word about his dad.
One time when my mother asked about Stevie, wondering why she didn’t see him over any more, I told her that I thought he’d caught on with the kids up on Parkside and McAllen streets. She said that it was too bad, that she thought he was a decent kid. I just shrugged my shoulders.
A couple years later, after Stevie went off to McKinley High School, and I went to St. John’s, I mentioned something about him, and my dad asked if I knew about his father, beyond the Lantern Bar and all. I had no idea what he meant.
“Ralph Summers fought at Luzon at the end of the war.”
“I knew he was in the Army.”
“Well, he served in one of the fiercest battles in the Philippines, and he was awarded for bravery.”
That was the first I ever heard anything like that.
“How do you know that, Dad?”
My father wasn’t in the service. He worked for a defense contract plant on the east side of town. Two of his brothers were in the Army.
“There’s a fella down at the plant, Billy Shenkel, who came to work right after the war. He was in Ralph’s unit in the Philippines. He told me about it a few years back when he heard that Ralph and the family moved out our way.”
I wondered why Stevie never told me.
“Shenkel said that Summers’ squad got ambushed while on patrol. Three of them were killed, but it would have been all of them if it weren’t for Summers.”
Any number of war movies and TV shows came to mind, but it was hard to think about them as real with a kid’s father and all.
“Apparently he was wounded pretty bad, spent a long time in the hospital before he came back. I guess he got married right after.”
I must have smiled big enough for my dad to notice because he looked at me funny.
“Oh nothing,” I shook my head, thinking of something Stevie told me once.
It was later that day in May, and I found myself out on the back porch sitting on the same old squeaking glider once again, looking at the clipping. It was strange how heavy it felt for such a small piece of paper. Stevie was maybe nineteen when they took that picture, right about the time I was halfway through the walk of my sophomore year, firmly holding the hand of my student draft deferment.
As the glider squeaked its familiar chant, I saw a figure cross Turney Road onto Portage. The man walked uneasily though quietly up the block, his blue shirt and pants dusty in the late afternoon sun, his thinning hair disheveled.
I sat forward to watch.
The man turned, looking at the small front porch where Paul Kalenski used to sit and monitor the summers of his world. Now, though, there was nothing there but a ceramic planter and a new spray of petunias.
Ralph Summers didn’t sing; he didn’t talk. He just labored with his balance one step after the other. As he turned up onto our side street, he seemed to be looking at the house, at me. He didn’t stop, but his bloodshot eyes caught the sun above the roof. He looked older than his years, not quite fifty, and tired, as tired as I’d ever seen a person look.
He couldn’t see me in the shade behind the screen, but I could see him. And as he continued his slow walk up the hill, I saw him like I’d never seen him before.
I folded up the small piece of paper I was holding and put it in my wallet. I have kept that piece of paper in every wallet I have ever had since.