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Bill Gordon

A Flight From Jersey City

Mickey Bonner came from a big Irish-Polish family with seven or eight kids. They were each born no more than ten months apart, and they all looked exactly alike—filthy blond hair, pointy chins and noses—so it sometimes seemed like there were thirty of them. But Mickey had the best skin.

His brother Jimmy once stabbed a man on the Kearney Avenue railroad tracks — or so people said. They also said that the man gave Jimmy a blow job, or tried to. Some even said that Mickey was there; that he stuck the knife in, too; or that he held the guy down; or whatever. I doubt much of this was true, but still, I stayed away from Jimmy, and when I talked with Mickey, I never asked.

Mickey was in love with me. He had no idea—maybe—and probably still doesn't. But he was.

I went to visit him once at the Benmore Bowling Lanes on Communipaw Avenue —when the pins got stuck in the electric stacker, it was his job to pull them out—and he took me around back to watch him work. In between pulls, he sat down next to me on a sticky vinyl bench. His fingernails were black, his thumbs and palms were callused. He noticed me staring at his hands, so he held his against mine for an up-close comparison.

"You've got the hands of a nun," he said—which was true, compared with him, anyway. When he leaned over to say it, his face almost touched mine, and he paused for a minute or so, our lips no more than two inches apart. He wanted to kiss me, I could tell. Or punch me. He was always on that line. Instead, he just held still for another minute, then he pushed me off the bench.

I think he only washed on Sundays, because Monday morning was the only time he really looked clean. He smelled best around Wednesday—all tobacco and sweat. Not sharp. Just kind of raw and masculine. The smell of protection; he never let anyone hit me.

I used to dream about him, the smell of him, mostly—strong and salty. He'd come down on me, hot breath and anger, and hold me in place. That was the dream, him on top, me on the bottom, lots of warm air—and no one else around. In school, I'd stand next to him and breathe in deep to bring back the dream.

We were in the same math and English classes at Our Lady of Victories—in the "A" group for "accelerated" kids. Me, because I was supposedly "gifted"; him because this was his third time in the sixth grade. I was eleven, he was thirteen.

No one ever said Mickey was stupid; they wouldn't dare. But they didn't have to—it was assumed. He was not stupid, though. He just couldn't say things.

"Miss Conley has a head like a Vicks cough drop," I once told him, and the next day there was a note, written in marker, on my desktop. It said "vapor action."

After school, he'd be standing on the corner of Ege and West Side with his friends: Peter Callahan, John Russo, Tommy McBride, and the rest. All of them older, left back, bored and ready to crush someone.

"Watch this," he'd say to his friends as I walked by. Then he'd yell to me. "What's up?"

"Nothing," I'd say, as dryly as I could—curling my lips, exhaling, so the word just hung in the air.

"See, I told you," Mickey would say. "He's crazy."

Crazy was good. Crazy meant I was on to something— something they knew, too: Nothing was ever up; why pretend? Crazy meant I was funny, and Mickey liked me, and they wouldn't chase me home—and, if I wanted it, they'd sell me a joint.

The first time I smoked pot was with Mickey. It was recess, and we snuck into an alley between two candy stores. We got stoned and thought it was lunchtime, so we came back a half hour late. We got sent to the principal's office and spent the rest of the day in her waiting room. We spent a lot of days in that waiting room—for chewing gum, shooting spitballs, one stupid little offense or another. We weren't always stoned, but we usually were.

Mickey had a dog that he liked to talk about—a German shepherd that his uncle bought him. He showed me a picture once of the dog and his uncle. His uncle was bald, he was holding a puppy, and behind him, in the photo, were three or four teenage boys.

"Are they your cousins?" I asked.

"No," he said. He told me that his uncle was single, that the boys were just friends.

"He owns a guest house in Florida—Key West," Mickey said. "That's where the dog is. I can move there anytime I want."

"What about your parents?" I asked him, and he said: "Look, there's plenty more where I came from."

We both laughed for a while. And then it died off.

"Florida sounds nice," I told him.

"Florida's great," he said.

I asked him if he liked his uncle, and he didn't answer. Then he said it "didn't matter"; that he might visit anyway—"just to see the dog."

I don't remember how we wound up on the roof—not the first time, anyway. Just that he said something about going up, always up, because the smoke goes up. And there we were. The O.L.V. roof didn't have much of a wall around it, just a little one—maybe two feet high. "It's not a wall, it's a parapet," Mickey told me. (His father worked in construction.) We walked right to the edge and looked over. You could see the basketball court, the statue of Mary, and the tops of the two trees outside the schoolyard fence. What stood out most was the broken glass. There seemed to be more of it when you looked from up there—almost every inch below was covered. A green sports car went speeding up the street, and we both knew it was Mrs. McVeigh. She was a teacher—an ex-nun who got married and left for a while to have a baby. She was always speeding someplace. The week before, she'd run over a first grader. Mickey said he was glad she hadn't slowed down, and I said, "Yeah." We walked over to the other end of the roof, the one at the back of the school, and we looked down at the bridge: it was a walkway covered in glass and it connected the third floor of the school with the third floor of the convent. But the convent had closed down—the nuns had left years ago, or got married and rehired like Mrs. McVeigh—and the convent had been turned into an office building. If you looked close, through the glass cover on the bridge, you could see where the door on the convent side was boarded up. I wondered if there were any nuns left—maybe in a room in the back that nobody knew about, a room that got boarded up. I'd seen a movie called Bad Ronald, about a boy who lived in a secret compartment—even after his house was sold. I told Mickey about the movie, and he said, "That's just TV." Then Mickey found a Coke bottle and told me to throw it. "Hit the glass with the glass," he said. "See if either one breaks." I threw it and missed. The bottle shattered on the cement below, and we hurried off the roof. That was all that happened that day.

The next day he took me up there again. Didn't ask me, didn't tell me, just started walking up the stairs. And I followed. This time he lit up right away.

So there we are. We're on the roof smoking a joint, leaning over the parapet, and that's when he asks me: "You dare me to jump?"

"No," I say.

"You dare me to push you?"

"No," I tell him. The "no" should be obvious, I think. He's only joking. The "no" should come fast. But it's not and it doesn't.

So he asks again: "You dare me to push you?"

Again, the "no" takes a minute or so.

He opens his pack of Marlboro and lights a cigarette. I don't smoke cigarettes—not yet, anyway—so I just sit there and watch him while he smokes.

The next day, he takes me up on the roof again. This time he tells me to stand near the edge—alone. I do. I don't know why, but I don't even hesitate. I just do. He comes up to me, his chest is almost touching mine, and, like yesterday, he asks: "You dare me to push you?"

"No," I say. But again, it takes so long to say it. It's almost like the dream, but we're standing. He's breathing in my face, and he's staring hard. All of a sudden, he zeros in on the scar above my right eye.

"How'd you get that?" he asks me.

"A waitress smashed into me with a tray," I tell him. "You know that."

"I know that's what you told me," he says. "Tell me the truth." He wants me to make up a story. We've done this before. Sometimes he likes my stories. Sometimes not. I try to think of a good one, and it takes a minute. But he doesn't want to wait, so he grabs my arm and starts to twist it a little. It hurts when he twists. I wish he hadn't grabbed me there. I try not to make a face.

"Come on," I say. "Let go. I'll tell you if you let go." I'm trying not to plead.

But now he grabs the arm with both his hands. Then he starts to rub—each hand in an opposite direction, an Indian burn. He's laughing. It hurts so much I can't stand it. I collapse into him. He sees that the arm hurts more than it should, and he pulls up my sleeve. My wrist is swollen, and I pull it away before he can get a good look. But he pulls up my other sleeve—quick. He sees the bruises. He sees the puffed-up wrist bone, the cuts.

"Who did it," he asks me.

"Nobody," I say. "Let go." But he won't. I can feel the tiny roof wall against my calves. He's forgetting that I'm on the edge.

"I know who," he tells me. He's realizing this as he says it—at least I think so. But that's not how he says it; he says it like he's remembering something; like this is all something that slipped his mind. And he's angry—furious that it slipped.

"I walk by your house," he says. "You think I'm deaf?"

"You walk by my house?" I ask him, "When?"

He tells me I should learn to fight for myself. That he won't always be around to protect me. When he says this, he leans into me, and I lose my balance. He grabs my shirt, quick, but for a minute, that's all he has—a handful of cloth and buttons. The rest of me is dangling. I can feel the air between my chest and his hand. A button pops. Then he puts his other hand on my back, just in time, and guides me in.

"Don't let me take you up here again," he tells me. I promise that I won't.

For a week or two, he wouldn't even talk to me. But then he started up again: he'd look at me in class, yell something, throw something; I'd do the same; we'd both get asked to leave.

We'd walk past the door that led to the roof, and look at each other—but we never stopped, not even for a smoke.

"Meet me tonight," he'd say, the two of us alone on the principal's couch. "I'll be in the Number Thirty-Three courtyard. Ten o'clock." He'd squeeze my arm, not the wrist but the upper part, near the biceps, until I'd say yes, maybe, I'll try.

I never went. I'd look at the clock every night around ten. One time, I even snuck out of the house. I walked as far as my corner. But I never went. I was afraid of his friends. He couldn't stay with me every minute. What if he left me alone? I couldn't invite him anywhere; I didn't go anywhere. He'd look mad in the mornings —then disappointed, hurt even, because I hadn't shown up. We'd have to start all over again. I knew he'd eventually stop asking. He did.

One night, during that summer when school was out, my parents dragged me across town to the Marion section—the old Italian area—for the Mount Carmel feast. There were Ferris wheels hooked up to the backs of trucks, and lots of stands that sold sausage, peppers, zeppolis, everything and anything you could deep-fry. Somebody had built a temporary stage, and a local high-school class was performing Godspell. They all wore bright pastel bell bottoms and let their bodies flop around like rag dolls as they sang. One girl had a pretty, high-pitched voice that flew up above the others and, after a while, I didn't mind being there.

Then I saw Mickey. He'd been staring at me, staring at my parents. Around him were his friends; I didn't say hello. He walked by, with them, and started heading for the small space— less than a foot—between my mother and my father. I could tell he'd bang into one of them, and I waited to see which one. I wanted to see if he really had been listening; if he really knew which one it was. He banged into my mother, knocked the soda right out of her hand. He knew. My mother huffed as she wiped off her dress, and Mickey said, "Sorry, lady." As he walked away, she mumbled something to my father about how "you can't have anything nice in this city," and "what a little slob" Mickey was. I pretended to watch the show, as his back disappeared slowly into the crowd.

I kept dreaming about him all summer. In the dream, most times, we'd be on the roof. I'd say "Go ahead," and he'd push me. But he'd fall too, and we'd both fly around for a while—over the basketball courts, the trees, over Mrs. McVeigh and her baby. Sometimes, Mrs. McVeigh would be back inside her car, still pregnant, and Mickey and I would land on the hood, right next to the first grader. Mrs. McVeigh would step on the gas and we'd screech up the block. When I'd go to the bowling alley, I'd ask if he was working, and even if he wasn't, I'd imagine it was him back there fixing my pins. When he saw me, he was never alone, and neither was I. He'd just nod and walk by. At night—on the nights when things got really bad at home—I'd look out my bedroom window to see if he was there. There was never any sign. I found an empty pack of Marlboro one morning, near our side door, but they were 100s, not regular.

In the seventh grade, he got moved to the "slow track," the "C" class. Then there was a fire, a small fire in the boys' bathroom. Mickey got blamed, they asked him to leave; I didn't see him much.

A few months later, he started dating a girl on my block—a friend of mine. Doreen was her name. She was a year older than I was, and Mickey hung out with her big brother Peter.

"Mickey's dirty," I told her.

"I don't care. Long as he's clean when he's with me."

"He washes for you?" I asked her.

"I guess," she said.

He used to pick her up on a minibike, the kind he and all his friends rode around on. It was too small for the two of them and they both looked stupid. I only watched them from the sidewalk. Sometimes he'd look back. I could tell he had started to shave.

Doreen's parents kept their money in the freezer—just like my parents did, just like everybody's parents did.

One day, Doreen's mother pulls out her box of waffles. She looks inside, goes to take out a twenty, and her envelope is empty. The money is gone. All of it. "Hundreds of dollars. Maybe a thousand." She blames Mickey, and Doreen's father wants to "press charges; send him to jail." Doreen doesn't tell me the story. My mother does. By the time the police go to Mickey's house, he's already left for Florida. My mother tells my father that Mickey's a rotten kid, that the whole Bonner family is rotten; that our neighborhood is falling apart.

"He'll never come back now," Doreen says when I finally see her. "Not now." She's crying. She tells me that they had a fight; that she knew he was going away; that she never got to say good-bye. Then she tells me that she knows it must have been him who stole the money—but she doesn't care.

I don't tell her that he came to see me; that he was waiting in my alley when I got home from school; hadn't said a word to me in a year—and there he was; that he had the money—some of it anyway. Two hundred dollars in an envelope. He told me that he didn't steal it; that it was stolen, and he'd probably get blamed— he knew that—but it was his money; somebody owed it to him. Then he stuffed the envelope in my hand. "What for?" I asked him. He said he didn't need it; that he was going with his uncle; it was his parents' idea—"One less kid for the summer."

So I walk Doreen to McDonald's and buy her a Coke.

"Don't worry," I tell her. "He'll come back. He hates his uncle."

"What uncle?" she asks me.

He never showed her the picture.

Eve Plumb was in a TV movie that fall. She was Jan from The Brady Bunch—all grown up—and she was playing a hooker. It was called Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway, and everybody talked about it at school. Right after that, she was in another movie: Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn. It was about her boyfriend—the one from the first movie—Leigh McCloskey. This time he was a hooker. I never knew boys could be hookers, but it didn't take long to make sense. The boy had an older man who sent him out. He wore a leather jacket and was always getting in and out of cars—in and out of jail. I thought about Mickey, and the picture of his uncle. I thought of the boys standing around the uncle in the photo. I thought I should feel sorry for him, but I didn't. I pictured Mickey with his hair slicked back like the boys in the movie. He looked shiny and great. Then, at the end of the movie, the hooker cried. He told the judge in the court that he just wanted to go home. It ended at an airport, or a train station, or a bus depot, with Eve Plumb putting her arms around him.

I'd already spent almost half of the money he left me—a lot of it on Doreen. I almost gave it to her once; it was the night her parents found her brother's needles in his minibike helmet. After that they threw Peter into rehab, and they told my parents—they told everybody—that they were glad they never filed a report against Mickey. Poor Mickey. They even went to Mickey's house to apologize, but his parents weren't home. They were never home—and they told everybody that, too.

After that night, I saved the rest of the money. I waited for Mickey to come back. I thought he'd come back soon. He didn't.

The next year I went to high school. I got a job as a busboy and his one hundred and thirty-six dollars didn't seem like so much. I kept it, though—tucked in the back of my top drawer, behind the socks and underwear. Still in the same envelope from the freezer, the one with the brown lines from where the ice melted and the water made stains.

My mother got better. Then she got worse. But I was bigger than she was now. Everything got bigger. My father sent her to a hospital. But just for a while. Things went on like that: better, worse, hospital, back. Doreen found a new boyfriend. I kept working at the restaurant. I hardly ever dreamed of Mickey, and when I did, he looked like the boy in the movie: first shiny, then crying. But only sometimes. Other times he was back on the railroad tracks— before I met him, with his brother Jimmy, and the man, and the knife.

The dreams faded off. High school ended.

The next time I saw him, I was in college. I'd come home to Jersey City for the holidays and was visiting some friends. We met at a local corner bar called K-nots. In the back was a counter with a chalkboard menu above it. Behind the counter was Mickey. Just there, all of a sudden, like that day in the alley. We said hello. I felt awkward. He seemed short. He had the same face—bony and almost beautiful—but his hair was clean and so were his clothes. I couldn't bear to see him that way. He didn't much want to be seen. He told me that he'd just moved back. I told him that I'd just moved away. "I know," he said. I wanted to tell him something—that I still had the money, maybe—which I did; that I was sorry for what must have happened with his uncle—if it happened; that I'd waited, even though he never asked me to, and I'd waited for a very long time. But I couldn't say a word. So I just stood there and stared. He looked so harmless, so scrubbed-up, so old. Finally, he said: "Your order?" and he pointed to the chalkboard.

"I'll have fries," I said. Then I walked back to my table.

It's been ten years since I last saw Mickey. I've heard that he didn't stay in Jersey City for long; that he moved back to Florida; that the whole Bonner family left town. I've never asked about him. Not directly. But sometimes, I run into people and they bring up his name. One person told me that he went to jail. Another told me that he got married. I was on a business trip, once, in Chicago, and I ran into a guy I grew up with: Sean. We started talking about the city, the school—the Bonner family, eventually. Sean told me that Mickey was dead. Then, a few drinks later, he said, "Wait a minute. Did I say Mickey? I think it was Jimmy."

I could find out more, I suppose—if I really wanted to. But I know what I know. For one thing, I still have the envelope. For another, I hear a voice sometimes—after I've had too much to drink, or I'm tired, or really depressed. "I'll come to you," it says, "in the middle of the day or the middle of the night, I'll come to you." It never says I'm so and so, or what it will do—kiss me maybe, kill me, take me away. It just says it will come.

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