from At the Cut

by Peter Anastas



I had a dream the other night about the steps to our front porch on Perkins Road. I saw the centers of the two bottom planks worn to the grain, the random blisters of gray paint on the porch itself, jig-sawed edges of the steps where they fit snugly up against the granite foundation of the gray and white duplex. Waking up, I wanted to get out of bed and drive across town to my old neighborhood. I wanted to see if the porch was still there, if it looked the same way. I wanted to determine if my dream was accurate or if it was only a fabrication, compounded of memories of porches in other places I had lived or only dreamed of having lived in.

As I lay in bed reflecting on the dream, I realized that fifty years had elapsed since I had last lived in that house. I recalled the raised threshold of our front door next to my Aunt Helene's, who lived on the first floor. I remembered that my brother and I could look through one of three glass panes in the upper part of the door to see if my mother was on her way downstairs to let us in once we had knocked.

After all these years I couldn't imagine that the same steps would be there, although I knew the house still existed, having occasionally pointed it out to my children as we drove past the entrance to Perkins Road on our way to Stage Fort Park. I had seen the house; it was now painted a darker shade of gray. But somehow I had never had the urge to get up close to it. Perhaps I hadn't needed to.

Now it was a different story. The steps had come to me in a dream, had become detached from the dream. I couldn't remember what else had occurred in the dream. The story had spun itself out, leaving only an afterimage of the porch steps, which remained with me throughout the morning as I struggled to suppress my urge to drive over to Perkins Road.

It was then that I remembered Joey Siragusa. I remembered how he had stood on the second step of my porch with a red and blue beanie on his head, a beanie covered with Kellogg's Pep Super Hero pins. He had stood up suddenly from where we were sitting reading comic books, flexed the biceps of his short, thick arms, and said, "I'm Superman!"

From this distance I can only imagine what seemed so remarkable about that, about Joey's rising spontaneously in front of Barry Clute and me—the two of us in second grade, Joey probably in third or fourth—in that illuminated moment when we were all so full of the stories we had been reading. But then there was something mythic about Joey, something other- worldly, even though to me, today, his actual presence seems as obdurate and as irrepressible as it ever was.

Joey appeared in the neighborhood just about the time we were starting school. He really didn't live on our street or in the immediate vicinity of Perkins Road or Centennial Avenue, the two roads which, along with the Boulevard at the head and Newell Stadium at the foot, demarked the block. Joey lived in a brown-shingled bungalow behind a tenement everyone called the Beehive on Lloyd Street, directly across Centennial Avenue from the main gate to Newell Stadium. You walked past the Beehive to get to Joey's house and beyond that through a field we called "the short cut" because if you used it on the way to school it completely circumvented Gaffney Street and put you right on the corner of Gaffney and Hampden streets. From there you took the smaller hill of lower Hampden, turning right at Jake's Variety, which got you onto Granite Street.

A left turn onto Summer Street had you at school, unless you took yet another short cut—we always did—which, by means of a foot path, led you from Blynman Avenue, at the point where it merged with Granite Street, over to Orchard Street, which bordered the school yard of the Hovey School.

I'm at pains to point this out because, like the block of our neighborhood and the adjacent neighborhood where Joey and his friends lived—many of them in or around the Beehive—the geography is important. It was very real to us; just as the boundaries we were forbidden to transgress became warnings of punishment from our mothers, who didn't want us hanging around the Beehive or even taking the short cut past it on the way to school.

Those were the immediate parameters. The farthest one, what you might call the very "Pale" beyond which none of us ever dared venture, was up past the high school, beyond the meadow that led to it along the Blynman Canal and ended at Done Fudgin' beach in the shadow of the Boston and Maine railroad trestle. There, behind the high school, surrounded by a grove of oaks was yet another tenement where the Duerdon family lived, just before you crossed over Emerson Avenue to get to the Poor Farm. There were maybe 10 or 12 kids, all blond, a year apart at most, crammed into that tenement with other families, too, and animals in the yard—chickens especially, running wild—living under what seemed to us the most remote and mysterious condition as though out in the country. The Duerdon's house was the ultimate frontier. We knew no one who had gone beyond it or could report to us what you might expect to encounter there.

When Joey appeared on Perkins Road I think there was some consternation on the part of our mothers. And it really was an appearance, like I say, because one day he just showed up in that way objects, dogs and people suddenly occur in your life when you are young, trailing after them no history, no antecedent know- ledge. To your parents they might—that is, if they knew or had heard of their parents and could "place" them in some neighborhood or family relationship. But to you they were suddenly present. One day you're playing and some new kid shows up, someone who probably just moved into or near the neighborhood. The person is there. Perhaps there is some initial maneuvering or juggling, some territorial or personal negotiation. Beyond that you simply continue doing what you were doing or start something new with the exception that in this case Joey would now be a part of it.

I do recall clearly, however, that our mothers referred to Joey as one of the "tough" kids they disapproved of, although the Siragusas were a perfectly kind family. Joey's sister Serafina was in my class. She had long dark hair which she wore in braids until the sixth grade. She sat across from me in fifth grade and I can recall to this day the shock of putting my hands on her bony hips when we were learning how to do the Fox Trot. Miss Courant, our teacher, had us all in couples practicing the steps in the tiny aisles that bordered the desks of our second floor classroom. I had never felt anything as strange as Serafinas's hips—the result, of course, of her being a tall, lanky girl. That sensation remains as vivid to me as the picture of her brother standing on my porch step, a smile on his face, unaffected pleasure in his voice: "I'm Superman!"

Joey was an active kid. He led us on expeditions around Rider's Rocks. From their summit you could look down across the stadium and the high school to the Annisquam River or out to the inner harbor and beyond that to the breakwater. On a particularly clear day you could see the skyline of Boston.

It was wartime and we were almost always commandos in the European or Pacific theaters. Sometimes we wore uniforms made up of souvenirs our uncles had sent home from their army or navy duty—American battle helmets, captured German or Japanese bayonets. We had our own cap pistols and BB rifles, and of course we thought nothing of spanning time and history by adding cloth capes or wooden swords to our equipage. It was easy for us to jump from a foxhole, where we were holding off a nest of German submachine gunners, and begin dueling with pirates or Saracens the way Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. would have done in the Saturday matinees, where Sherlock Holmes was suddenly transported from Baker Street to Washington, helping the United States fight fascism, and Abbot and Costello had miraculously been drafted into the U.S. Navy.

It all came together, like it did in the comic books where Batman and Robin sometimes crossed over into the domain of Captain Marvel and Superman was joined by Superboy, both of them leaving behind the dazzling heights and depths, the Art Deco facades of Metropolis, to appear behind enemy lines in Germany or in the deserts of Africa as Rommel was thrown back by Allied Forces. It came together in the same way that it was possible for Joey to be Superman and for Miss Parks, our second grade teacher, to be cutting out pictures of the war from Life magazine and having us pin them to the bulletin board in the back of our classroom to remind us to buy savings stamps, which would lead eventually to the acquisition of a War Bond.

For that was the world then. At night the air-raid wardens patrolled the neighborhood with searchlights, tapping on people's doors whose window shades threw slashes of light out onto the harbor for German submarine periscopes to pick up. That was our world, and it was real. Enemy submarines had been tracked off Thatcher's Light in Rockport, off the Isle of Shoales, Portsmouth and Cape Elizabeth. In all the workplaces of Gloucester were posters with Japanese faces on them and the warning—"Even the walls have ears!" And at night, in the dark of our bedrooms, with no streetlights brightening our way from bed to bathroom, anything could happen. So you stayed well under your covers after you turned the radio off and the last shouts of the Lone Ranger's "Hi-ho, Silver, away!" faded into your dreams.

That was our larger world—the war, the comics and the movies, and their intersection in our fantasies. Of our other activities, there was simply and always play, especially in winter. We harassed old Sotiros Vrachos with his horsedrawn wagon, as he tried to get around the neighborhood to sell fruit and vegetables to our mothers. We pelted his ancient drayhorse Billy with snowballs and we crouched down behind snowbanks and leapt out to the wagon's tailgate, which we hung onto, letting it pull us up Centennial Avenue on the smoothpacked snow until we could roll back off, down the hill, down past the stadium gate, past the Beehive, right down to the foot of the hill where Perkins Road ended next to Moonie Matson's house, where his father came out to shout at us for making noise or Moonie himself, a stone mason, slouched home drunk in winter twilight in woolen cap and patched brown suitjacket, muttering to himself in Finnish as we stood in awe of his wide face—hence Moonie—and uncomprehending gaze. No one dared try him with a snowball.

Joey was always central in those winter games, many of them played out of school because of snow, day after day of it to such an extent that my memory of that time of is a continual winter of literally months of nothing but snow—snow on the ground, snow about to arrive, snow in drifts everywhere. Could it have really been so?

Behind Moonie's house, perpendicular to Centennial Avenue and leading up to the foot of Rider's Rocks, was a dirt road with a few houses on it. It was a hill leading down from the moraine of Rider's and Hovey Street, a perfect hill for sledding. And it was also the place for the most spectacular of Joey's actions.

It was generally safe there, even though sledding down the hill led us directly onto Centennial Avenue. For one thing, hardly anyone drove in winter. For another, the gas rationing was in effect and people simply didn't use their automobiles unless there was an emergency. Consequently, few cars came past the bottom of the hill, and we could slide down with little concern even though our mothers, ever attentive to the world's dangers, were always warning us to be on the look out, to station someone at the foot of the hill to alert the sliders if a car or truck should happen along.

One day, after a night of particularly solid snow, we were all out sledding. Joey was everywhere, twice as large and long as his tiny Flexible Flyer: coasting, jumping, leaping. It was a reckless day—another of those sudden schooless ones—and Carol Wallace, older than we were and generally more cautious, took Faye Sawyer's longer sled and proposed that she, Faye and Eleanor Deering all sit on it together and with a push from us, do the entire length of the hill and be propelled down it and around the corner by the momentum as far out along Centennial Avenue as they could go.

We cheered them along, helped them get settled one behind the other on the sled, and gave them a shove. We remained at the top of the hill. As they approached the bottom, moving faster than usual because of the triple weight, we saw a Department of Public Works truck with a big orange snowplow in front of it approaching on Centennial Avenue. The girls were heading right for it, and it looked as though the sled would either cross directly in front of the blades of the plow or would flash between the truck's enormous tires, covered with huge grinding chains. Kids shouted at the truck. The girls seemed paralyzed. They were probably so terrified they didn't think to roll off the sled. We screamed. It was one of those frozen moments of panic in which you can only watch the disaster because you have no ability to affect its course.

No one in the truck seemed to see the sled or hear our shouts. The snow was probably banked up enough to cut off any view. The sled plummeted faster toward the truck, the tires ground their chains into the hard-packed snow. Those who could, held their breath. Soon it would be over... My only memory is of the careening sled and the noise of the truck, the back of the last girl in dark snowsuit, a trailing scarf or ski hat.

Then there was Joey. How he got all the way down the hill we didn't know. He flew across the snow, he danced on the tips of his toes. He reached the sled just as it seemed a few feet from the road and the DPW truck. He touched it with his foot as he slid around in front of it, deftly avoiding the runners and catching himself so that he too didn't fly under the wheels of the truck. His touch turned the sled to the left. It toppled into a snowbank, the girls tumbling out in the snow and Joey himself landing on his side, rolling not onto the street in front of him but to the right, directly into the opposite snowbank. He was safe, the sled was stuck in the snow; the girls had tumbled free and the truck went on as though nothing had happened.

I don't have a clear picture of anything after that. Somehow, in our inexperienced way, we must have acknowledged Joey's consummate act. Kids went screaming home and mothers got on the phone to each other. For a long time after that Joey was the hero of the neighborhood. Parents warmed up to him, teachers praised him in school, kids idolized him. I have just one fleeting image of him then in mind—maybe I invented it. It is of Joey with stocking cap, a suppressed smile and bright face, maybe even a grin held back or kept in check by a certain humility. I can't be sure.

What I am certain of is that Joey suddenly dropped out of sight. He was out of school for what seemed weeks, as the winter dragged itself out. His sisters were tight-lipped; they merely said he was sick. Someone heard he had "ammonia." Our mothers were no help. They explained the illness as though it were a cold that took a long time to get over, with an endless fever that kept you in bed. They used Joey's illness as a stick to beat us with, warning us that we had to bundle up in the cold and come in from playing if we got wet with snow.

One day Joey's sisters didn't come to school. We heard that Joey had been rushed to the hospital. Later that afternoon we heard that he had died. On the way home we saw a piece of black cloth pinned to his front door.

When word got around that Joey had died and was at home, laid out in his living room, and that the kids were going to see him, my mother absolutely forbade me to go. I'm not sure if it had to do with the fact that she didn't want me to experience death at such an early age, although I'd seen Barry Clute's grandmother in her coffin in their parlor across the yard from us and it had simply looked like any old lady asleep in a narrow, pillow-lined bed. It occurs to me now that it might also have had to do with the fact that the Siragusas were Catholic and, as Greek Orthodox, we were not allowed to enter the homes of our Catholic friends.

I went anyway. The kids were stopping in on the way home from school. The funeral mass, which they would not attend because of school, was the next morning, so I joined them. The house was small and dark, and Joey was in a casket in the living room. There were flowers all around the casket, and his sisters and his mother, along with his grandmother, all sat across from the casket in kitchen chairs, crying and praying. His aunt let us in. I didn't know what to do, so I did what the other kids did. They crossed themselves the Catholic way when they kneeled down in front of the casket, I crossed myself the Greek way. The room was full of people and the only light I think there was came from a floor lamp near the coffin.

Joey was dressed in a little black suit I had never seen him wear. He had a white shirt on with a necktie. His hair was combed in a way he never combed it and in his hands, suddenly so small, were rosary beads. He looked like he was asleep, his cheeks flushed, probably with the color of make up. He looked like if you shouted he'd wake up and that "angelic" look would fall away like a mask and the old, quick, devilish Joey who was so fast on the draw would wake up, ready for the next round of cutting Mrs.Anderson's clotheslines or routing a nest of German machine gunners up at Rider's.

I use the word "angelic" because it was a word I heard in his house that day for the first time. His aunts kept saying that he looked like a little angel and that he was going up to God. But—and this I swear—I knew differently.

It wasn't Joey in the casket, at least any Joey I could recognize. And even though I couldn't have been in more than the second grade when I looked at what used to be Joey lying there all combed—no beanie, no knickers, no sly grin, no funny, squeaky Italian-intonated voice: "Youze got your underwears on?"—I knew that Joey wasn't going to heaven or any other place.

I knew, moreover, or intuited, as I stood in the darkened parlor, with the casket to one side and the wailing women on the other, that after the funeral and the closing of the casket lid, which my eye caught early on with its taffeta lining, that it was going to be all dark for Joey. For just an instant I had an image of a light bulb possibly going on in that casket after the lid was closed and sealed forever and Joey was in the ground where I also knew he would be.

Briefly I had that picture of the light going on like the reverse of a refrigerator light when you closed the door, but I knew it wouldn't happen. It might happen in a comic book, in some tale from the crypt, but it wasn't going to happen to Joey, as much as I might have wanted light there for him in that way you want your mother to turn on the bedroom light after you've had a nightmare and screamed yourself awake and she's run in to comfort you.

No, there would be no light. And as I stood there, knowing I should not have been there, expecting punishment if anyone found out I had sneaked in to see my dead friend on the way home from school, wanting both to stay and to look and yet to get out, to escape, I had a very deeply felt sense that it was all unreal. Yes, there was a coffin and the body was definitely Joey's, or in some way it looked like Joey asleep; and his family was there, at least his mother and his sisters and his aunts were. But that was it.

I stood there before I left, before I nearly ran—which I finally did so as not to appear too late at home—and it came to me for the first time in my life that Joey was not going to heaven because there was no heaven. With that realization it seemed like I had transgressed some boundary, like leaving the neighborhood or going beyond where my mother usually let me go. But it didn't matter because I felt I'd gotten hold of something. I'd seen something that lay beyond Gaffney Street or the high school, beyond the Duerdon's even, or Done Fudgin' and the Poor Farm. It had suddenly come to me like a boundary crossed or a frontier opening up that there was no heaven because there was no God, because Joey had died like that—so suddenly, so inexplicably, so uselessly—and from this house Joey was going into the cemetery and under the ground, and the only Joey I would know after that was the Joey who had stood on the second step of my front porch on Perkins Road, the worn step I had dreamed about, with the gray paint flaking from the edges of the rubbed places, the Joey who cried out, "I'm Superman!," flexing his muscles, his face all alight, his eyes shining and his hair in a tangle.

And now I knew why the steps had been bare in my dream, why there was no one standing on them, because after Joey died and was buried, there was no one to read comic books with on those steps anymore, at least no one like Joey. From then on the steps would always be bare in my mind, purely utilitarian, that is, for getting on and off the porch and for no other conceivable reason or use.

Return to Peter Anastas Survey
Return to Light and Dust

Copyright 2002 - 239 pp.
Dogtown Books
Gloucester, Massachusetts