When my cousin, Tommy was nineteen he wore a black leather jacket and sunglasses, his hair combed back with great care and confidence. He drove his girlfriends around in a green, candy-colored Chevy. I liked those things about him. He also had a pretty good smile back then. I remember it made me feel safe one day. I was nine. I liked that best.
“Tommy! What are you doing here?” Mom acted surprised to see him standing in the front room of my other cousin Ronnie’s house, on the north side of Chicago, at noon on an already humid April day. But she knew as well as I did that he came all the way from the Great Lakes Naval Station just for me. I could tell she knew because she turned to me with that see-what-you’ve-done-Matty look.
“How’s New York treating you, Aunt?” Tommy greeted Mom with a kiss on the cheek.
“Fine, but it’ sure good to be back home again, even if it’s only for a week.” I agreed.
“You shouldn’t have come all this way,” Mom continued, her words directed at Tommy, but aimed at me.
“Where’s your Dad?” Tommy asked me.
“Yes, he’ll be sorry he missed you,” Mom said.
“How ‘bout that, your Dad brings you back here for a visit, then takes off. I think he just wanted to get rid of you.” Tommy winked at me. Dad would have enjoyed hearing Tommy say that.
Tommy knew Dad liked him. And that’s why his smile made me feel so good: it was the same one Dad received every time they shook hands and Tommy looked him square in the eye. Dad always liked that sort of thing, and I always liked Tommy smiling at me the same way he smiled at my father. I think Tommy knew that, too.
“Do you realize your cousin came a long way just to take you to this game?” Mom said. “He probably had to get a full day pass for this.”
Tommy had left the room for a moment, giving Mom her chance, but her words never reached me. That week we spent in Chicago, during Dad’s business trip, was also the week of my school spring vacation, and I was hoping to finally go to my first ballgame. Dad was gonna get tickets last year, but we moved during the summer. Then he started travelling in his new job, so this summer might not work out either. Besides, I was hoping to see the Cubs first; the Yanks and Mets could wait. This trip was my chance.
I had begged Mom to let me stay with Ronnie for the week, so he and I could play ball in the street like we used to before I moved away. I loved playing ball in the street. And I really loved those nights Ronnie and I used to sit on his front porch in our t-shirts and shorts and drink sodas and watch lightning crack the sky, way over the rooftops, while we talked about the Cubs. This time, though, we were going to do more than talk, we were going to go see them play! But Ronnie had school that week, and despite hatching a plan for him to skip so we could take the bus to Wrigley Field, Aunt Betty caught wind of it pretty quick and kept her eye on us. So off he went to school. And somehow, someway, someone called Tommy.
I raced to the bathroom to hurry Tommy along, certain he had stopped to comb his hair before leaving for the game. When I got there he was touching the side of his face, right where it met the hairline at the temple. He stood in front of the mirror, grimacing as if in some kind of sudden pain, his eyes watching every move his hand made. He looked suddenly different; his self-confidence seemed to be gone. In that instant he could have been anybody at all. I shuddered.
“Tommy?” He dropped his hand to his side and we faced each other. Then he smiled, little laugh lines pulling at the corners of his eyes. The person who had stood in front of the mirror a moment ago was surely somebody else, somebody different from the Tommy I knew. I believed this while riding all the way out to Wrigley, I believed it at the game, and later that week on the plane ride home. I wanted to believe it forever.
I liked being inside that Chevy with Tommy, just him and me. We didn’t talk at first as we headed out. I had hoped he would have had his navy uniform on, but that day he was dressed the way I was used to seeing him, and that was just fine; I was too busy thinking how important my cousin was anyway, probably the best guy they had at Great Lakes. I was feeling pretty important myself.
Tommy had thrown his jacket in the back seat, and he drove with his left hand on the wheel. He stretched his right arm across the top of the front seat. His fingers rested inches from my head. His arm looked smooth, the muscles relaxed, but I knew they could be tight as a rope at a moment’s notice. From the corner of my eye I saw the anchor tattoo near his right bicep. I wanted one. I wanted to be everything he was.
“Too bad Ronnie can’t make it.” Tommy spoke first.
“Yeah. His vacation is next week,” I said; “I’ll have to tell him ‘bout the game.” But the game suddenly didn’t seem quite as important at that moment. It didn’t matter where we were going. We were together and everything about Tommy was new to me. Sure, I had seen him before on other visits but I had never stood close enough to him to see how the tiny creases in his leather jacket looked just like those laugh lines around his eyes. I had never sat next to him in his Chevy either, or moved through the day with him, like a buddy. That day we breathed the same humid air, sweated in the same front car seat, and saw the crowded streets from the inside of the Chevy, together. Everything that was happening around us was happening to us. Together. I noticed all these things, and they were as good as going to any ballgame.
“It’s getting hot, Sport, why don’t you roll down that window,” Tommy said. We cranked down our windows. Street noise and hot air filled the Chevy. The air brought buckets of humidity with it, and soon Tommy’s anchor had beads of sweat all over it, as if he had just pulled it up out of Lake Michigan. Drops of water clung to my arm too.
“We’re getting close,” Tommy said, as the Chevy slowed and the sidewalks continued to fill. I could taste the hot dogs already.
The ballpark was packed, the air thick with the smell of cigar smoke and beer. As we took our seats in the left field stands, settling in under the quilt of afternoon heat, he must have been having a pretty good time, too, because I was trying to juggle a hot dog, my Cubs hat, and a Pittsburgh Pirates pennant when I noticed he was looking over at me and laughing. His laugh was quiet, private. He had stretched his arm across the back of my seat and hadn’t moved it when he laughed. He kept looking over at me. I didn’t see his eyes behind his glasses, but he looked relaxed. He didn’t even seem to care who saw him. I wished the whole ballpark could.
About the sixth inning, Tommy looked up at the large clouds beginning to peek over the grandstand roof. He said he had a headache and felt tired, and he suggested we’d better get going. The game wasn’t over, but I didn’t care. I had already gotten more than I had wanted.
As we came out of Wrigley and headed for the parking lot, the sky looked as black as Tommy’s glasses. Others had started leaving the ballpark too, and by the time we reached the Chevy everything seemed like it was in the shadows. Then the sky started to growl like a mean dog.
“Keep ‘em rolled up,” Tommy said as we got in and large drops of rain splattered on the car and the hot sidewalk outside. I could almost smell the dust through the glass. It didn’t take long for hail to follow, and all of a sudden it sounded as if someone had dropped a handful of marbles on the hood.
“I like a good storm,” Tommy said, and another private smile ran across his face, seemingly chasing his headache away. He turned his headlights on at three in the afternoon and drove, looking as happy to me at that moment as I’d ever remembered seeing him. The Chevy hissed over the wet pavement back toward Ronnie’s house, and I could almost feel the same peace that Tommy seemed to be feeling despite the worsening storm. I sank into my seat, seeing no reason not to fall asleep.
When we pulled up to the curb the lack of movement woke me. “Let’s go, the rain stopped,” Tommy said. We dashed up the sidewalk while thunder threw its voice across the sky. Tommy leaped each puddle easily; my heels caught them all. We entered the house. Ronnie must have still been at school, but Aunt Betty was home from work already; she and Mom were waiting on the couch.
“I didn’t ask for these, honest!” I said immediately.
“I’m glad you’re both alright,” Mom said, “Did you guys have a good time?”
“It was great!” I said, and ran to the bathroom mirror to see how I looked in my Cubs cap. I overheard Mom asking Tommy if he’d stay until the weather got better.
“Matty, hurry up, Tommy’s leaving!” Mom called out. I turned and started toward the front room, but I stopped when I saw Tommy’s profile down the hall. He touched his temple. Again. Maybe it was that new haircut.
“Matty!” Mom called again, “Say your goodbyes. Tommy has to go!” I didn’t move. I liked Tommy’s haircut.
“You sure you won’t stay longer?” Mom asked him, as he bounded out the door to beat another round of rain.
“Why didn’t you come say goodbye?” Mom said when I entered the room.
I slipped off the cap. “How come he left so soon?” I asked.
“He has to be back at the base tonight. Where were you?” Lightning filled the room. Mom, Aunt Betty and I waited for the thunder. Nobody moved until the last, low grumble faded, as if falling off a cliff.
“He’ll be alright, won’t he?” I asked.
Mom didn’t seem to know. I retreated to the bedroom. It was dark. I put my souvenirs on top of my suitcase and flopped on the bed farthest from the window. I didn’t want him to leave. You were safe around him. Maybe he should wait until the storm blew over.
I stared up at the ceiling. Tommy seemed to touch his temple a lot; his hand nervously tracing his hairline had made me uneasy. I shouldn’t have made him take me to the game. But he had smiled that first time I saw him touch his temple; it was probably nothing. I was sure he would make it back to the base. The storm would blow over. They always do.
I was lucky to feel such comfort. In a year it wouldn’t be there to stop my shivering. I would be curled up on my own bed, staring at the spot where Mom had been sitting when she brushed the hair from my forehead, telling me to be glad Tommy wasn’t in pain anymore, telling me his headaches were over. She would leave me to myself. I would wonder why he had to die from cancer. I would shiver.
But, not now. Though the sky still flickered, the storm didn’t bother me. I thought about Tommy and how calm he had looked driving through the storm. He would be fine. I turned toward the bedroom window. A purple vein crossed the sky. Then another. For a brief moment the sky, too, had a brilliance all its own.
John McCluskey is a writer and photographer with stories, poems and photos published worldwide (including photographs in The RavensPerch). His books are published to favorable reviews in Goodreads, a novella (A Moment of Fireflies), and a book pf poetry and short stories (I Will Listen If You Tell Me Who I Am).