Strange how I can still remember the feel and sound of the stroller wheels over the broken sidewalks. Bernie had babysat me since I was a baby, so with this memory comes the image and sound of him—rambling and gentle and always there—a thick, crumpled figure in a blur of summer’s blues and whites.
Bernie had suffered from polio as a child, giving him a limp on the left side of his body. I remember listening to him talk with my mother in our kitchen. Through the streams of smoke from my mother’s cigarettes, I could make out his towering height at the table. He spat out his t’s and licked his hairy upper lip.
“Yeah I’m a catch! No, don’t nobody pay attention to me and that’s just fine. My hair turned white when I was only sixteen.” He smiled at me through ancient teeth. “Yeah, girls never interested me much, ‘course they din’t like me neither. But I think sex, sex is gross. It says in the Bible about Adam and Eve and I just don’t understand that part–that part about the forbidden fruit Eve took, but they musta had sex ‘cause otherwise we wouldn’t be here. My mother, oh my mother she always liked reading the Bible and to go to, to go to church and stuff like that, but I didn’t. I never liked church. My sister, Peggy, now Peggy–she always went to church with my mother but told ME that it ain’t true. She’ll burn in hell for that. Where does she think we come from? I just don’t get it. Some people are just so stupid.”
He looked at me as he said, “But you ain’t no stupid kid, are ya, Tony? My sweet little Tony!” He patted my cheek and beamed. I’m certain I was his favorite.
My sisters and I spent much of our childhood at Bernie’s. We were there when our mother worked or went through divorces. We didn’t mind because Bernie had nothing but time for us. His four-room house smelled like fire, wet dog, and reheated macaroni. An old dankness came from the “davenport”–what Bernie called his couch. His dogs, Duke and Scar, scared the shit out of us from their roost on the davenport. If we didn’t bother them, they wouldn’t bother us–and if anyone was caught picking on his dogs, we would go without a meal until our mother came.
Man, we could piss Bernie off. That was the thing, though–he never stayed mad and never pretended to be happy. In the winter, we’d lie around on the flat carpet coated in dog hair and get cozy by his wood stove. He’d do puzzles with us or teach us card games. I’d battle the Heman and Skeletor that he’d bought me, and Julie and Kayla got Barbie dolls that they’d play with for hours in the spare room. One day, not so long after they were new, Heman disappeared. Bernie was helping me search for him, and we walked right in on Barbie and Ken in a miniature purple shower–an explicit plastic love scene. Bernie’s voice boomed, “What are you doing? What the hell’s the matter with you guys?”
Dumbstruck, Kayla said, “They’re getting’ a divorce, Bern.”
Bernie threw Ken in the garbage. Mortified, my sisters put the other dolls away.
“Bernie, can we have a push-up?”
“Sure.” And he’d hobble out to the freezer in the front, digging and digging in that icy box, leaning on his good leg, until he found what we wanted.
There were many times my mother couldn’t pay Bernie, so we drove him around on his errands instead (Bernie never learned how to drive). When our mother would come to pick us up, her face was often puffy from crying. Through a crabby sob, she’d say, “Get dressed.”
Crammed into that old tin box of a station wagon, Kenny Rogers’ “Through the Years” blared from my mother’s tape deck as we slid through slushy avenues, bundled up in dirty jackets, our red noses running. Bernie patted her shaking shoulder as she moaned with Kenny’s lyrics, each word hitting her like a power surge. We knew all the words to that song, and we wanted to impress them with our talents. We sang with every ounce in us, competing to see who could sing the loudest. I had had to hit Julie–she was winning. She’d started crying after pinching the tiniest amount of flesh on my hand, making my eyes tear.
“Goddammit you guys! Knock it off! Tony, leave your little sister alone!”
“She started it, Ma–”
Bernie whipped around in his seat, “Don’t sass your mother! Shame on you, I’ll put soap in your mouth!” It was generally hard to take him seriously, but when he was mad, you shut your mouth. We all fell silent behind the fogged windows, listening to the signature sign-off of Kenny’s skipping-over-the-gravel voice. Enter the violins and cellos, another man had left. Who had that been? Patrick? Wes?
When I was a teen, Bernie was the only one I felt comfortable talking to. We didn’t see him much then unless he stopped at our house, which was several blocks away. Maybe it was because I trusted he’d never repeat anything I told him, because that wouldn’t be right.
“So your voice cracks, big deal! ‘Least you don’t have gray hair. And at least we don’t gotta go through what girls do–yucky stuff and that kinda stuff. I was watching this show, my Soap, but anyway, the lady in it now, see she got pregnant–”
“But Bern, what about–” I lowered my hilly voice to a whisper, “what about, uh…hair.” I turned my pupils south.
“Ugh, Christ, Tony,” my mother said, passing through the kitchen.
“What? Leave the boy alone, Claudi. Of course he’s gonna have questions–who the hell else can he ask? Maybe if you’d a kept a decent man around–oh geez, forget it!” Bernie gave her a disgusted glance and turned back to me. “Tony, every boy goes through it.”
I felt bad for Bernie when he was at our house and company came. As the kitchen would fill up with aunts and uncles or neighbors, my mother’s side of the conversation with Bernie ended and she made coffee and smiled for everyone. Of course that didn’t stop Bernie.
“—and I don’t want nobody coming to my funeral!” Bernie laughed and I watched as long white hairs trailed into his black coffee as he sipped. He sucked the coffee in through his teeth, “I figure—if you can’t come see when I’m alive, why would you wanna see me when I’m dead? Funerals are icky, and I’ll never go to a nursing home like my mother did—no way. I’ll die in my house, I don’t care.” He kept laughing when my mother didn’t respond.
“Bern, don’t say that,” I said to him. He smiled and turned to me, “Well it’s true.”
Aunt Judy walked in. “Oh…hi, Bernie. How are you? Claudia, I brought you the paper. Are you still going to teach Catechism this year?” –cluck-cluck-cluck, and Bernie would sit there in silence and stare at his hands. Once, when I found him out at the picnic table, he whispered to me, “I don’t think your mother likes it when I’m here and she gets visitors. That’s why I don’t come around so much no more. Her and that Lori-lady pretend I’m not even here and you know that sort of hurts my feelings but oh well I don’t care, she’s busy.” I never knew what to say, but he was the only one I preferred talking to—he gave things to you straight.
“Nah, I’d better get going. I love ya, I’ll see ya later.” And he’d get up and limp back down the avenue to his little house. I imagined it was lonely there, now that we were all grown up, all too busy.