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 din’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 He-man 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, He-man disappeared. Bernie was helping me search for him, and we walked right in on Barbie and He-man 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 fourteenth avenue to his little house. I imagined it was lonely there, now that we were all growing up, all too busy.
In my late twenties I had a sort of nervous breakdown. Yeah no shit. It happens when your third “dad” beats on you in more ways than one. It had never occurred to me to tell Bernie about it all back then. It had never occurred to me to tell anyone. A kid like me thought that kind of shit was normal. Yet I wondered what Bernie would’ve done had he known my mother let this go on in her house. I hated my mother and had no problem letting her know it. The way her lips pinched and whitened, the way she looked at me as if I were making a big deal out of nothing, she stuttered and busied her hands, and then with full conviction “How dare you defy me—your own mother! I did everything for you kids!”
One afternoon when I was driving down second street, breaking to take a right onto fourteenth, I saw Bernie stepping carefully across the broken sidewalks. Huge, wrap-around sunglasses covered half his face. His hair was all bed-head and he wore the same old 70’s polo shirt with the three brown bands across the chest. I stopped and rolled down my window as he made his way to my car. He waved at the cars that waited to round him.
“Hi my Tony how are ya?” his voice boomed, and in the same breath, “your mother called me crying why did you make your mother cry?” Somewhat accusatory I thought.
“Because Bernie, you don’t understand—you don’t know it all. She let a lot of shit happen to me—Scott used to beat the crap outa me and she let it happen and well its all crept up on me now and she’s denying it and being a bitch about—“
In a flash his arm shot through my window and he slapped me. Hard. Right there. On second and fourteenth.
I was stunned. Speechless. Ashamed. I’m sure my mouth hung open. Had anyone seen? In all our years, Bernie had never, ever hit me. There was no need.
“Shame on you for talking about your mother like that! After all she’s done for you’s kids!”
In that moment I saw my mother as Bernie saw her—a tired, aching, lonely woman breaking her back at two jobs to feed her kids. Food stamps. The Food Shelf. Donations. Tattered bathrobes. Carpets with paths worn thin. Welfare holidays. Dry knuckles. Old hands. Hands that swaddled and diapered and patted and washed. Sad eyes. A mother with few (and poor) choices, desperate and bitter. His best friend.
Bernie knew what Scott had done, that much I realized, and no one knew me like Bernie. He expected something from me—something tougher. I felt myself rise to the compliment. I felt, for the first time, what I was made of.