The Sunday morning bells from Holy Name echoed along Ninth Avenue, signaling the start of their weekly trek. That is when he decided to follow them.
Her name was Eliza, but he called them Small Smile and her Sunday Buddy, a daughter and father. That was all he could guess until later, after he had become more than friends with Eliza that summer and had fallen in love with her.
Or at least what a seventeen-year-old boy thought was love. Over time, he came to know more about their lives and what these journeys they took were all about.
They walked together every week. She had a smile on her face like a person listening to someone whispering a joke to which she had been privy too many times before—or a smile denoting a secret she had and would not share. He had a limp that caused him to swing his left leg out straight.
Jet-black hair and blue eyes gave a hint of the beauty she would grow up to be. Right now, she was a gangly, not quite teenaged, girl in her Sunday go-to-Mass dress. White gloves, ankle socks, and the infamous, reflective patent-leather shoes the nuns at Holy Name always warned against.
His walk was a hitch-step, a twenty-three-year-old gift given to him on a beach at Anzio, where a German machine gun stitched a perfect line down from his hip to his foot, shattering the bone.
They lived across Fifteenth Street from him, in a block of identical tenement apartments. All with railroad rooms. The buildings ran up to the Circle in one direction and down to Eighth in the other, where Loretto’s Barbershop stood nearby Joe’s Candy Store.
Joe, the resident bookie, took bets all day from the neighborhood men in between making ice cream sodas and egg creams. The crowd gathered at 9:00 p.m. every night to await the delivery of the Daily News. They would read the racing results and either whoop with delight or mutter to themselves, cursing, with their papers under their arms.
Her father would sometimes take his place in this gathering of men and talk with those of them who also fought. Older now but young again as they reveled in memories about where they had been and what they’d done, and his limp, an honorable thing among them.
Small Smile and her Sunday Buddy made their march down the long blocks, past the iron doors of the armory. The harsh odor of diesel gas from the deuce-and-a-half trucks still hung in the air, down to where Germain’s Department Store sat.
Aiden’s people never shopped at Germain’s. This place was for the people who made their home below Ninth Avenue. Down toward Seely and Sherman Streets—the lace curtain Irish as opposed to the shanty Irish who made up most of his neighborhood.
Their store was John’s Bargain Store, with its battered boxes of hand-me-downs splayed across the sidewalk, all the items jumbled together. You would purchase sneakers when the cardboard you used to cover the holes in your old ones wore out. You could get dish towels, cheap plastic dishware, and other merchandise more suited for the poor, who—as the saying went—had neither a pot to piss in, nor a window to throw it out of.
Moving westward through the neighborhoods, they came upon the first one peopled with old Puerto Rican men in their wifebeater undershirts, their bottles of Malta Hatuey sweating in the sun. Dominoes clacking, and the aroma of cooking chorizo. The cerveza would come later as the hot day and the arguments over the game got steamier.
Sometimes, they would stop to see the domino games. He would buy Small Smile a quesito from a cart in the street. With a smile and a thank you in Spanish to the vendor, she’d make a little bow to the man, and he would smile back. Their goal was—and had always been—a small bench by the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. There they settled down, deep in conversation. Small Smile’s father occasionally pointed out a ship slipping into the lower bay. Gazing out towards the water she would answer.
They witnessed the sinking of the bridge’s caissons. The slow, steady growth of the piers on the Brooklyn shore. Had seen the work of the cable spinners, small dots high in the distance, beginning their laborious and dangerous ballet, weaving a spiderweb of steel. Present for the opening ceremonies in 1964, now, three years later, they continued to go every Sunday to sit and talk.
So, all during the summer of being more than friends, Aiden confessed to her he had been witness to their weekly expeditions. She laughed, but he learned from Small Smile that with each trip, they both were building something between them.
Small Smile would tease out details from her father about what he had been through in the war. How he came back to raise their family. Worked long and hard to make her and her mother and siblings a home. His triumphs and failures were awarded equal footing and only made Small Smile have a deeper love for her father.
Her father, in turn, would ask her what her dreams were. What she wanted to do in life and what her plans were for the future. He would give advice. More often than not, he would just listen and nod in assent.
This sharing became the norm for them where each moment was a cornerstone on which their relationship was built. Aiden had never had anything even close to it in his life.
It was true in his feelings for Small Smile as she was a person who would take the time to build this thing they had, and he hoped it would be the same between them.
All the while they walked and talked, the span in the Narrows would take shape before their eyes. Both would sit until the Sun set in the late afternoon where Aiden would leave them.
Aiden would make his own way back to the neighborhood, where he sat down on his stoop to think and to write this story. He was so engrossed in thought he never paid attention when Small Smile and her Sunday Buddy returned home—he with his hitch-step, she still with her small smile.
J.A. McNally served as a medic in the United States Air Force Medical Service. He went on to a forty-five-year career in the health care field. He has traveled extensively in the United States and Europe.