THE CORNER OF NUTLEY AVE
Tito Angelini was asleep beside his wife, Francesca, when a loud banging, accompanied by a claw-like shaking on his arm, intruded on his dreams.
“What, what?” he muttered, floundering into consciousness as he freed his arm from his wife’s grip and blinked into what appeared to be floodlights beaming into their second floor bedroom.
“Wake up! There’s someone at the door,” Francesca hissed as Tito groped for the clock, knocking it to the floor, but not before he caught a glimpse of the time, 2:15 a.m.
He stumbled out of bed and grabbed his robe.
“Who is it?” he yelled, descending the stairs as quickly as he was able. When he reached the vestibule he peered through the frosted, oval window of the front door, but could only make out shifting shadows behind the glass.
“This is the Dunmore Fire Department,” a voice replied. “We’re evacuating the street.”
Tito cracked open the door to find three fire fighters haloed in the pulsing red lights of their trucks. UGI Utility vehicles lined the road, and from his narrow front porch Tito could see water gushing down Merrion Street.
“There’ve been reports of a gas odor,” one of the firefighters explained, his cheeks ruddy in the raw March air. “Buses are bringing residents to the Community Center.”
“Didn’t they just replace the pipes last September?” Tito asked. “They dug up the entire street—”
“We think a water main break might have caused a leak. Either way, sir, it’s not safe for you to remain.”
Tito peered down the road, clumps of people already congregating behind a blue wooden police barricade on the corner of Nutley Ave. It looked as though his street was the only one that was cordoned off, and he thought with distaste of having to call his son, Anthony, who lived two streets over. Thea lived a half hour away in Colcannon with her husband and kids, but she had to get up to go to work in the morning.
“Sir? We’ll need you to be out as quickly as possible. Ten, fifteen minutes tops.”
“Right,” Tito nodded. “Thank you.”
As the yellow reflector bands on their uniforms bobbed away down the street, Tito pulled his bathrobe closed and wondered if anyone he knew was out with the utilities tonight. For years it had been he who had been called when there was a downed power line or a blown out transformer. On a night like tonight the poles would be slick with condensation, the metal climber hooks biting cold on his bare hands. Turning into the house, he vacillated between calling Anthony or having to spend the rest of the night beneath the hanging fluorescent fixtures in the Community Center.
“Fran!” he called. “We gotta get dressed. There’s some kind of gas leak. The crews are out and we have to evacuate.”
Francesca stood on the landing in a pale blue nightdress, her hair flattened on one side. “A gas leak? Didn’t they just replace the pipes?”
“Those cast iron pipes lasted for almost a hundred years with no complaints.” Tito paused halfway up the stairs, giving his stiff knees a chance to rest. “Now that they’ve replaced them with plastic, people are calling and complaining that they’re smelling mercaptan.”
“That rotten egg odor.” Tito sniffed the air nervously. “Do you smell anything?”
Francesca flared her nostrils. “Maybe.”
“Come on, we gotta go.”
Tito followed his wife into their room, where the soft mound of bedding gave him an almost irresistible urge to go back to sleep. Instead he picked up the phone and dialed Anthony’s number. It rang and rang, until finally someone picked up, loud music playing in the background.
“Anthony,” Tito yelled, “turn down the music!”
…get back to you. There was a click, and Tito realized with chagrin that he had been talking to Anthony’s machine.
“Anthony, it’s Dad. Mom and I have to evacuate. Something about a gas leak. Where are you? It’s two thirty in the morning. If you get this, call me.” He hung up, picturing Anthony driving around in his souped-up Audi with his arm around some half-dressed girl.
That’s what they wear these days, Fran would shrug, as if, now that Thea was raised and settled, it didn’t concern her. The same way it didn’t seem to bother her that Anthony was twenty-five years old, and neither Tito nor Fran had any idea what he actually did for a living. With his gadgets and made-up job—something in “marketing”—Tito sometimes felt as though Anthony was living in a virtual-reality world. Unless it was Tito who had missed the memo. Maybe, he thought as he pulled socks, jeans and a flannel shirt from his bureau, the message had came through on a device he didn’t own or didn’t know how to use.
You’ve got to get serious about your life, Tito had said the last time he’d had a sit-down talk with his son. You’re too old to be hanging around the clubs all night.
Are you talking about Buskers, that dive? Anthony had scoffed. If I want to go to a club, Dad, I’ll drive to Philly or New York.
I guess Flanigan’s, that dive, was always good enough for me, Tito thought as he tried to hook his sock over his toe. He glanced at Fran, not wanting her to see that he was having difficulty, but she was buttoning her blouse. Matter of fact, he sighed, he wouldn’t mind a mug of Guinness right about now, chalky with an edge of bitter, meeting up with the guys from Local 537 before heading home to Fran and the kids. He was usually one of the first to leave; at least he tried to do the right thing.
“Are you coming?” Fran touched his shoulder. Her overnight bag, the one she used when she went to stay with Thea and the grandkids, lay open on the bed. After Thea, Fran had thought she couldn’t have any more children, but then along came Anthony. A time-of-life baby, the doctor had called him, and Anthony had been having the time of his life ever since.
With a final tug on his sock, Tito recalled one of the first times his boss, Joe Franconi, had stepped into the break room where Tito had been filling out paperwork.
Your wife’s on the line. Joe had watched Tito a bit too carefully, as if he could suss out whatever family embarrassment it was that would call Tito to the phone in the middle of his shift.
A half hour later Tito had been down at Dunmore Elementary, clomping into the principal’s office, where Fran jumped up when she saw Tito, and Anthony was sitting contritely on a molded plastic chair, his feet not quite reaching the ground.
“So, Anthony,” Principal McLaren had said, “would you like to tell your father why you’re here?” Beneath the sternness Tito could sense a flicker of indulgence sparking around the edges of the principal’s voice. It was a response, Tito had come to recognize, that seemed to trail after Anthony, a kind of photoelectric effect he had on people, and not only his mother.
“I put a frog in Louisa Delray’s desk,” Anthony mumbled.
Delray . . . Tito looked to Fran, who raised an eyebrow. So this must be Joe Delray’s daughter, Tito thought, the same Joe Delray whom Tito had gone to school with thirty years ago, and whose picture was in the local paper with his arm around the mayor. Joe Delray owned some kind of internet company before “online” was more or less the place where people lived. Even back then the company made Delray enough money to be building a brand new house up in Clarks Summit. Tito, meanwhile, had been going on three years without a cost-of-living raise.
“So no more frogs, okay?” Principal McLaren said as Anthony scooted off the chair. When he nodded, that quick dip of the cowlick, Anthony looked exactly like Fran. He even had the same smile, something Tito wished he could grab a hold of and keep, but it was moving too fast.
Eight years later Anthony’s date to the prom had been Louisa Delray.
Fran, meanwhile, was zipping up her carry case, and Tito was about to ask if he could throw a few things in as well, but he dumped his bowling ball on the bed instead and used the case to pack a change of clothes, his toothbrush, and shaver. On the way out the door he grabbed the cell phone that Anthony had given him at Christmas. He pressed the button on the side as multi-colored pixels bobbed across the screen. Frowning, he slipped it into his pocket.
“Double tap the message icon,” Anthony had said on Christmas morning as he talked about 3G versus 4G, SIM cards, data plans, and Wi-Fi.
Tito rapped the screen twice. Nothing happened.
“You have to tap it fast, like this.” Anthony took the palm-sized device and demonstrated, his thumbs scrabbling like mice over the minuscule keys that were really just pictures of minuscule keys.
When he held out the phone for his father to try, Tito’s fingers, which could install a conduit or thread a wire through the tiniest of openings, thumped clumsily over the glass. Anthony laughed, and Tito threw the phone on the couch.
“Dad,” Anthony said. “I wasn’t laughing at you.”
“Like hell you weren’t.”
“It’s just—come on. It’s kind of funny, that’s all. Lighten up.”
“What did you say?”
“Oh Christ. Here we go again.” Anthony reached for the remote.
“Maybe in my twenties I thought I had all the answers, too. But at least I knew what it meant to work.”
“Whoa.” Anthony held up his hands. “Knew what it meant to work, Dad? Where do you think I got the money to buy you the latest model phone?”
“I’m talking about union wages, not some marketing nonsense. I was nineteen when I joined Local 537, and by the time I was your age I’d already been promoted from Lineman to Supervisor. There were so many cave-ins from abandoned mines that the entire block south of Wiley, including all twelve homes on the street, collapsed in ’71, taking the electric lines down with them.”
“That’s great, Dad. Very impressive. I believe you’ve told me this story before.” Anthony unmuted the TV, and Tito felt blood rushing to his head, dots floating in his peripheral vision like pixels on a screen that was about to go black. He reached out to grab the remote from Anthony’s hand, but then the remote was on the coffee table and Anthony had stood up.
“Even if I wanted a union job, Dad, assuming I could get a union job, what do you think they’re paying the new hires these days? And there sure as hell wouldn’t be a pension waiting for me when I retired. You got out just in time.”
The problem, Tito thought as he juggled Fran’s suitcase in one hand and clutched the bannister with the other, was that Anthony made Tito feel stupid.
It’s nothing personal, Joe Franconi had said when he’d pulled Tito into his office before Thanksgiving. It’s about the numbers. He’d shrugged. I’d think you’d want to retire, Tito; you’ll still get your pension.
Three months later Tito had sat on the couch, sixty-five years old and surrounded by staticky pieces of silver tinsel, staring at a phone he had no idea how to use after having alienated his son who, even if Tito’s suspicions were correct, and Anthony did in fact wax his eyebrows, was still the one person who might have helped Tito learn.
So no, he’d thought, scrolling through the muted TV channels, he was not going to admit that he did not find the cell phone “intuitive.”
He locked the front door, the night air bracing and fresh. Francesca was wearing the knit hat that Thea had given her for Christmas, and as the generator lights cast shadows over her face she looked twenty years old. When was the last time, Tito wondered, that they had been out so late at night? It was almost festive with the flares and people milling around. He put his arm around Fran’s shoulder.
“Do you think we should call Thea?” she asked.
“No. She and Walter have to get up early for work.”
“Anthony will probably call back.”
“You’re too hard on him, Tito.”
“Why doesn’t anyone ever say he’s too hard on me?” Tito lowered his voice when he saw his neighbor shepherding all seven of her homeschooled children out onto their porch a few feet away.
“Hello Mrs. O’Kelley,” Francesca called across the alley. “Heading to the Community Center?”
“We’ll be staying with church friends,” Mrs. O’Kelley replied, the glassy eyes of her children reflecting the light like the gaze of raccoons.
“You don’t see those kids dry-cleaning their jeans,” Tito muttered.
“What are you talking about?”
“Our son, Anthony!”
“Tito Angelini, I believe you might be jealous.”
“Like hell I am.” The O’Kelleys stopped to gape at him. “What are you staring at?” he barked.
They turned in unison and continued towards their mini-van with the Come to Jesus, Come to Life! bumper sticker plastered on the back.
“I don’t understand you,” Francesca continued. “Aren’t you happy that Anthony is doing well?”
“Maybe, but neither of us has any real idea what he does. When you wire a circuit box you can at least point at it and see that it’s there. How well can Anthony be doing when he barely works?”
“You always say that, Tito, but things are different today. Anthony deals with people who work half way around the globe, in a different time zone.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I asked. Come on,” she said, starting down the porch steps. “Stop being so cranky.”
The slabs of the sidewalk were uneven and buckled by tree roots, and as Tito maneuvered over a particularly rough spot, a tinny melody emanated from his pocket. He pulled out the phone to see a lit-up photo of Anthony in a backwards Phillies hat, and he jabbed at the photo.
“Swipe it!” Francesca drew frantic zigzag motions in the air, but the instant Tito dragged his finger across the screen, the ringing stopped.
“Was that Anthony? Call him back.”
Tito stared at the screen, but it gave him no indication of what random series of pokes or prods would make the device function like an actual phone.
“Give me that,” Francesca sighed. After a few deft maneuvers she lifted the phone to her ear. “Anthony? You got our message? That’s okay. I’m sorry we woke you—yes, we’re going to the bus. Tito?” She turned to him. “Anthony’s on his way. Should we go back to the house, or wait—?”
Tito pointed towards the barricade. “Tell him we’ll meet him there—the corner of Merrion and Nutley.”
“Dad said we’ll meet you—” Before she could finish her sentence, though, an enormous, hollow boom reverberated through the air. Tito was thrown to the ground, and as the loose gravel embedded itself into his palm, he saw the cell phone skitter across the pavement, the Martucci’s blue spruce illuminated in an instant of garish, unnatural daylight. Tito scrambled onto his hands and knees, but then buckled and grabbed his elbow as an asphyxiating pain shot from the palm of his hand up his arm.
“Fran? Fran!” he groped towards her as a second blast shook the ground and a roaring filled the air. He looked up to see billows of gray smoke pouring from the O’Kelley’s home, his own porch just a few yards away. For an incongruous moment the smoke reminded Tito of the fur of the Connelly’s poodle.
“I’m right here.” Tito tried to help her up, but he only had the use of one hand, the pain in his wrist making him grimace whenever he moved it the wrong way. He could feel the heat from the fire against his cheek, while people ran in different directions, some of them, he realized, climbing over the blockade towards them. One figure in particular, with a loping, easy stride, looked familiar, a backwards baseball cap on his head as he emerged from the shadows.
“Ma!” Anthony cried. “Dad. Thank God—” He bent to help Francesca to her feet.
“Is this yours?” He nodded to Tito’s bowling bag. Pulling the luggage with one hand, he supported his mother’s elbow with the other. As they made their way towards the blockade, Tito recognized Anthony’s shiny, silver car pulled askew to the curb, the door open where he must have left it when the blast occurred.
“The phone.” Tito turned back to a street filled with blown-out debris, firemen aiming their hoses at flames that gusted through a dirty orange sky.
“Forget it,” Anthony said. “It’s not important.”
Tito, though, started to retrace his steps, searching through the broken glass littering the road.
“Hold on, Ma.” Anthony crunched over to Tito and put his arm around his father’s shoulders. “Dad. We have to go.”
Disoriented, Tito dragged his attention away from the mute, glittering asphalt, as if a giant screen had broken, and Tito had no idea how to fix it. He turned to his son as soot drifted over them like a curse, or a benediction, Anthony’s strong, young body braced against Tito’s own.
Tania Moore’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Madison Review, The Flexible Persona, St. Sebastian Review, Quiddity, Kestrel, The Other Journal: An Intersection of Theology and Culture, About Place Journal: A Retrospective of the Civil Rights Movement, among others, and she has been anthologized in Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers; Crack the Spine; and Siblings: Our First Macrocosm. Having earned her MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts, she teaches creative writing at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx and lives along the mighty Hudson River. Find out more at www.taniamoore.me.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #10.