|Excerpt - Chapter One
"Bet the house on this much: I came as a consolation, a baby waved in by the patron saint of pretzel logic to compensate for the loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers. And I was not alone. There were hoards of us, each sired in boredom and swaddled in commiseration—each proving by their own conception that baseball's long and distracting season ordinarily serves to limit our young, something especially useful… when you're Catholic.
It's damn poetic then, my earliest memory being stamped by baseball. I was a week in this world when the bedroom light first cut through the scum in my eyes. Wrestling through his closet, Harry's grunting lured me out of my infant darkness, and into a yellow blur, where I watched him dig deep for a box sealed in crackling package tape. Like a paroled offender, he pinned it to the bed and tore at it as if at a blouse, ripping tape and freeing from the cardboard, finally, exhaustedly, an old baseball jersey stained green by grass and red by infield. In front of a fogged mirror slanting on its nail, Harry held the jersey to his chest, sucking in his gut.
"Christ," he muttered, moving to my crib, breath malty. He ran his callused hands over my body and, draping the jersey over me, added, "You were going to wear this one day." It felt heavy, like an x-ray shield. I couldn't breathe. I went to move my lips, to utter some sound, but he dropped his finger on them and said, looking at the crack in the door, "Shhhh."
Flexing my spindly right arm, he moaned in disappointment, chased it with exhales of resignation, and peeled off the jersey, burying it deep in the closet. I would not see it again for many years, but I would feel its weight for all of them, just like his fingers on my lips."
For Christ's sake," he said, looking back over his shoulder. "There's ducks on the pond, Robin."
Robin. They gave me a curious name—curious in the sense of tragic, in the sense of what the hell were they thinking? Robin—a name that plots against you, sentencing you to spend the first months of your life disoriented and confused, not to mention silenced by a friggin' "shush." Whose joke was this, this name, this game of blind hermaphrodite's bluff, leaving me to figure it out by myself? What a damn kid needs in the beginning is a clue, a name that leaves no doubt—like Chuck. Was I a man, or, oh my god…
Okay, I shuddered at being a woman, but not because I dreaded cramps and indecision, though that's true enough. No, I had more immediate concerns, namely the stirrings I got whenever Agatha nursed me. Not tremors, not orgasms or anything, just, you know, stirrings—disoriented stirrings, sure-to-be-condemned-by-the-Pope stirrings. Forbidden, naturally they preoccupied me, pushing me to seek the truth about myself.
But I was a hideous baby, and Agatha refused to hold me naked before the mirror. It is handed down in Sisler lore that I resembled phlegm with legs. Not exactly Hallmark stuff.
And what mother wouldn't protect her child from seeing that, especially a challenged child, a child who had not uttered a single sound since the placement of the finger? "Shhhhh"—right, Harry?
The first truth took months to find. Slowly my hair sprouted, and jaundiced skin molted. My eyes moved outward and forward, and my nostrils, against formidable odds, migrated into place. Meaningless changes perhaps, except they scythed a moral path for Agatha, who on a thunderous day when the TV reception sucked, picked me up, and finally posed me in front of the slanting mirror, naked as the truth.
If you're paying attention, you learn to respect the omnipresence of irony early on. I learned that day I was a man, but not much of one, not two damn inches of one—and when the bedroom door blew open, and the breeze chilled me, even they disappeared. Strong prologue it was for the next twenty years—and a damn good day to be speechless.
I was the brother of Bernard, and the second kid of Harry and Agatha Sisler who, with Uncle Ray Sisler, got the hell out of Brooklyn just before the Schaefer Beer sign at Ebbets Field gave up the ghost. The Sislers now resided in the hinterlands of Suffolk County beyond, Harry figured, the shitty stench of the world. "Da bums went west; I went east. Up theirs!" Harry often raged without provocation.
Older, my brother Bernard oozed lethargy like a transit worker, drooping through those days as if Harry had smacked him one too many times in the head. One evening, when Agatha went to bingo and Harry went someplace else, the pre-set kitchen timer summoned Bernard to my crib to check my diaper. Certain that acrid pabulum shit was eating my flesh, I was glad to see him. He did not share the sentiment. Gagging, he ripped the fuming diaper from beneath me, spun it next to my head, and turning my face into it like a recalcitrant puppy, screamed, "Shit, Shit, Shit!" Then out of the garbled and shadowy reaches of my heretofore-silent throat, I made a sound, a familiar sound—Harry's command, "Shhhh."
At the breakfast table the next morning, I said it again. Agatha's hands rose to heaven. Harry, dabbing a shaving cut with toilet paper, nodded, as if to strike my name from the village idiot list. Neither was sure, though, they heard what they heard. I removed any doubt.
Before the morning was out, Agatha had summoned family from the far sides of the Belt Parkway and Kosciusko Bridge. They came carting stories of the old neighborhood, stale strudel, and cartons of cigarettes that "fell from the trucks" on Metropolitan Avenue. The living room swarmed with Sislers.
And they coaxed.
And coaxed me.
And by noon, I was treading fumes in a Winston hell, so weary, so deprived of oxygen, so tired of knowing only one friggin' sound, I gladly would have offered myself to whatever quieting flames lay below the smolder, if not for the intervention of a girl—a girl, of all things.
Perched on her mother's lap, JoAnne wore strata of pink lace that fluffed like a buffing wheel in a car wash, dwarfing her barley pigtails, but not the jay-blue eyes, which widened with curiosity until I could see myself in them. I squirmed on my back, looking up at her, wearily repeating "Shhhh" at each request, captivated, deeply—not at all by her reflective eyes, not at all by her poofy dress, and not even by her endless drool that puddled at my feet. No, it was the smell of her—the perfect and unmatched in this whole damn world smell of her, not a fragrance so much as a trance—somewhere between jasmine and neatsfoot oil.
"Sure, he can say, â€˜Shhhh,'" Uncle Ray offered in the waning interest of the smokers, "but can he add, â€˜-it'?"
"At his rate, that'll take another six months," Bernard said, smirking. Then he turned to Harry and added, "Hey, maybe he'll end up a poet—you know, one of those?"
Harry squirmed, to Bernard's delight.
"You've got to admit, it's kind of a miracle, right, Father?" asked Uncle Ray.
"In some circles, I suppose," Father McCann condescended.
A tall man, Father McCann's thin days had fallen in clumps, like his thin Mahogany hair. He spoke in a simmering stew of first generation Brooklyn and last generation Irish, garnished with a slight lisp. He and Harry (and Agatha, too) grew up in the old neighborhood in Sheepshead Bay, went through school together at St. Somebody's, and passed a lot of days playing stickball in the street. Harry assessed that â€˜Fourdy'—his nickname for Father McCann—played strictly one sewer, with hands like a friggin' girl. I felt those hands as he lifted me for a moment, looked deep in my eyes as if he had a question to ask me, kissed my forehead, and then thumbed on it the sign of the cross.
"Knock that shit off, Fourdy," Harry warned.
Father McCann set me back on the carpet, crossing his thumb secretly on my back while flashing his taxidermic smile. "Shhhh," right Father McCann? He left me to fend off the crowd alone, a crowd grown by two, one of whom was Cooney, a shameless mimic making a pathetic plea for attention—JoAnne's.
Cooney—Joseph Conrad by birth—was, Harry opined, "One of them wops with no vowels."
The heads from Brooklyn nodded knowingly.
Cooney mimicked my "Shhhh," even as his mother hushed him in whispered Italian. Each time she whispered, Cooney grew louder—his prodigious black eyebrows wriggling like anchovies.
"Shhhh," I answered.
Thankfully, the high sun of summer baked the asbestos siding of our Long Island ranch, broiling anyone who dared to linger. Seeking a breeze, the cars headed back to Brooklyn. Cooney left, peering over his mother's shoulder. And Harry elbowed Father McCann out with, "Time to make your rounds, ain't it, Fourdy?"
JoAnne? Well, all I cared about was the smell of her, anyway, and that lingered long enough to see me to sleep.