Chick Ernest had been chatting with other parents when his son nearly died. The basketball season ended around Thanksgiving and the Sharks went to Kat’s Kradle, the name on the T-shirts. Coach Taylor made a speech in which Chick, assistant coach, finished his sentences. Everybody got a trophy (they’d won zero games).
When Gene Tarantino—Taro—held his aloft and declared, “We suck!” no one disagreed, and even some rah-rah parents laughed. Chick’s smile brushed the floor.
The pizzas’ arrival sparked bedlam and Chick ordered the boys to move to the last two tables in the place. The teammates jostled away, happy to fart, burp, and talk about sex and showing—finally!—their competitive sides.
This is what Chick learned later. Jason’s choke cranks up quickly, from what might be clearing of the throat to a full-throttle gag eliciting “ewws” and “stop sprayings” from his teammates. Jason raises his hand, signally that he’ll be right back and pivots around the corner to the bathroom.
When Taro immediately starts counting down from 10, the others join in even though they are perplexed about what game had begun. At zero, Taro races to the bathroom finding Jason slumped against the wall, wheezing, face blue.
Adrenaline, everybody agreed later. Taro is smaller than Jason, but he lifts Jason to his feet and begins the Heimlich maneuver. One kid screams “help!” and grownups bump tables and knock over chairs hurrying back. Too late, it turns out. Too late to save Jason, because he’s already been saved. The pepperoni that had lodged in his throat had been launched and though still choking, it is the sound of recovery, not desperation. His face looks almost normal.
Karen slobbers over him; exactly the wrong thing for a boy who hates attention, and Jason will resent it later. Right now, he cries into the crook of his mother’s neck, and the two shuffle awkwardly through the pizzeria and out the door.
Now a reporter from the local newspaper happens to be at Kat’s and that woman gets the story from one of the delivery guys and even talks to Taro for a few minutes. As she Smartphones the scene she inquires—seemingly in a distracted way—about Jason.
“Wife took him to the emergency room,” Chick says. And when the woman’s focus intensifies he quickly adds, “Only as precaution. He is fine.”
One of the moms, a nurse, corroborates.
Chick warns the reporter, “Do not go to that hospital.”
“I’ve got three of my own,” the woman says, handing Chick her card. “If you or your wife or Jason want to talk to me….” A flick of the hand, as if shooing a fly. “If not, that’s fine. I get it, believe me.”
Chick throws her card on a table, but she keeps smiling. The mom who’s a nurse tells Chick later that the hospital got a call from the reporter about two minutes after she’d stepped out of Kat’s Kradle.
The next day’s headline reads: “12-Year-Old’s Quick Action Saves Friend’s Life.” The jump page features a boxed quote from the police chief. “Thirty more seconds and that kid dies. Boy who saves him? Hero.”
Dude wasn’t even there.
For the next day or two, you turn on the news and there’s Taro and, once, a quick shot of Jason. Karen phones the TV station and in her just-between-you-and-me voice threatens to sue everybody involved. (It never bruised Chick in the least that lawyer Karen makes more money; but now that he’s out of work….)
“Let me handle this,” Chick demands, but no action’s necessary. Jason’s photograph doesn’t appear again.
“What are Grace and Pel thinking?” Karen asks.
Chick blocks Karen’s inclination to heart-to-heart their neighbors while it’s still just impulse.
“You can’t tell them what to do with their kid,” Chick insists.
“But do they even know? They may not be aware. Every freak in the world now recognizes Taro.”
Chick knew this was coming and scoops the Danville Ledger off the coffee table. It’s a throw-away weekly; junk mail. The cover features a photo of the Ravens, the team that ran away with the championship. (They were slaughtering the Sharks 43–0 in the first quarter, triggering the mercy rule, thank God.)
Karen’s about to counter, but Chick calls time out. He turns the Ledger to page three, which features the winner of the Rockland County Children’s Beauty Pageant. She’s all of 7.
“Maybe we’re the weird ones,” Chick says, “the overprotective ones, the helicopters.”
Karen sighs, grabs the remote.
Meanwhile, Taro’s fame grows. He’s featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer and makes an appearance on one of the local television talk shows, and the story even goes national on cable. For a few glorious weeks, the world cannot get enough of Gene Tarantino.
Until, suddenly, it can. Somebody in Western Pennsylvania left a waitress—a single mother of three about to be evicted—a $50,000 tip. Taro is old news.
“You were probably getting tired of all that anyway!” Karen says when Taro visits one afternoon over Christmas break. “All that laudation!” It’s Friday, she’s working from home. Chick’s sending out resumes, surfing job sites. Karen likes pitching vocabulary, but Taro doesn’t ask what “laudation” means.
“Back to being a normal kid, I guess, Mrs. Ernest,” he says.
“Let me tell you about childhood movie stars sometime, Gene,” Chick says.
Jason says, “Taro, Dad. It’s Taro. Nobody calls him Gene.”
As has been the case since kindergarten. Everybody calls him Taro, even Pel and Grace. Even the new teachers learn by Halloween. The kid prefers “Taro.”
“I might get the good citizen award this year,” Taro says. “At school.”
Jason says, “Dude, could you be any more in love with yourself?” and punches his friend on the arm.
There had been prelude. About a half hour earlier, Chick had looked out his bedroom window at the driveway where the boys where playing basketball, and you could tell there was no ref. The fouls kept landing, until Jason just knocked Taro to the ground. Normally, Chick would have yelled down, broken it up, mostly because if he didn’t cap it first, Karen would, and then that—normal boy-crap—would have spurred introspective family discussion, the kind that made both father and son hive-out.
Jason wags his finger at the supine Taro, then sticks his thumb into his own chest, making his point.
Do not kick him when he’s down.
Instead, Jason helps Taro up and the game resumes. Back to being besties.
Jason now asks: “Can you drive us to the movies, Dad?”
Damn! Can’t Pel take them this time? This being-out-of-work bullshit builds up a thirst. I need my beer.
Chick says: “No problem.” He’ll watch the tube until then; his day’s officially done. Karen won’t barrel out of her office for another few hours. She’s holding some client’s hand, no doubt; there’s always a spooked client somewhere in the world.
So damn important, my wife.
Chick figures he won’t get his first beer in until about 10; a hellish slog of sobriety awaits. The minutes crawl. And crawl. And crawl. And Chick drifts until:
“Dad! Wake up! Remember? The movie? Dad!”
Well, sleep’s one way to bend time.
Chick stretches. “You want the keys to the car?”
“Come on, Dad!”
As they walk into the dark December afternoon, a neighbor’s Christmas lights blink on.
Something else I need to do.
How did he get so much done when he worked? All the extra stuff, the errands and home repairs and, yes, putting up holiday decorations had been wedged into spare time. Now they’re the main tasks and deadlines always nip. As he’s about to get into the car, Chick pauses, breathes deliberately. Winter fine-tunes his senses, chases anxiety.
Chick prepaid for the tickets, a good thing because the line for the sci-fi movie spills out the mall’s doors.
“Remember what I told you,” Chick calls after them as they tumble out of the car.
“Yeah, Dad. We’ll be gentlemen.”
When Chick gets home, Karen cross-examines: “Gentlemen? To whom?”
“Girls? What do you know, Chick Ernest? You’re guessing.”
“I was once 12.”
“Times have changed.”
“Not that much.”
“Inform me, Obi Wan.”
That tone again, and it’s not Chick’s imagination. Karen, who tells him that getting fired might have been the best thing to have happened to him at this stage. Karen, who insists that he not settle in his job hunt. Chick’s in his barcalounger; she stands before him arms akimbo. Some sort of Christmas decoration—a combination of ribbons, cord and bells—slung over her shoulder. He’s curious, but not dumb enough to ask.
Chick explains: “Those looooong showers.”
“You don’t think.”
“You remember Ronald the rat from work, right?”
“Such a nice man.”
“He told me that once he was drinking beer and eating Cheetos and watching the tube and fell asleep. Woke up next morning with an orange penis.”
“Such a nice man. And why is this relevant?”
“These days guys talk about jackin’ off the way they talk about pissing. Seems like there’s no shame attached to it any more. I was a kid, you didn’t admit to it because of shame. And some boys started late because of shame.”
“Shame,” Karen intones robotically, looking into some middle distance.
“Shame gets a bad rap these days,” Chick says, his volume rising.
Snap out of it!
Karen touches her forehead with an index finger, closes her eyes. “Yipes! STDs. Drugs. Guns.”
“Karen, stop. You’re on one of those things again. He’s growing. He’ll live to be a hundred.”
“I wasn’t ready for girls this soon.”
“He’s not going to get somebody pregnant.”
“Give it time.”
“He’s into girls. It’s normal and now they can meet them since Taro’s a big man on campus. A hero.”
“That poor kid,” Karen says. “Grace and Pel. ‘Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.’ F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
Stuck in lawyer mode, again.
“Leave it,” he says.
Karen’s right, though. Emerson: “Every hero becomes a bore at last,” and when Chick picks the boys up, they’re woebegone.
“Doesn’t seem like you had much fun.”
“The movie was great,” Jason mumbles.
“And the mall?” They’d asked him not to come for them right away, give them an hour or so to just hang.
“Pretty good,” Taro says.
They’d been stood up. Welcome to the club, youngins’.
Chick asks, “What kind of pizza you guys want?”
“Not pepperoni, that’s for damn sure,” Jason says.
The boys huddle, ask if they can have cheesesteaks instead. Then, mostly, quiet. Two faces staring out opposite windows.
“I wonder why?” Taro asks at one point. Did the car lights trafficking by somehow hypnotize him? Such monotone.
“Why what, Taro?” Chick asks.
“The aliens. They never come.”
For just the slightest moment, Chick weighs his answer. So un-Chick like. Should I even get into this? But what boy doesn’t like talking about outer space? Mr. Spock. ET. Luke Skywalker. To a kid these are more real than teachers or parents, and certainly cooler.
“Mathematically, it seems very possible,” Chick says finally.
“But they never come,” Jason says.
“Sentient beings destroy themselves,” Chick says.
“Great, more vocabulary,” Jason says.
“It’s science, Mr. Wiseass,” Chick says. “A sentient being. Us. Humans. Beings that are aware of their own existence.”
“Don’t dogs know they’re alive, Mr. Ernest?”
“Hmm. Maybe, but not the same way we know. Or” and Chick motions to the heavens, “they might know.”
“If a lion could talk, we couldn’t understand him.” Who said that?
They’ve hit road construction, so what the hell, Chick tells the story of Enrico Fermi, a physicist who’s one of Oppenheimer’s boys. It’s 1950, and Oppenheimer’s team goes to the same diner everyday for lunch.
“Imagine that? Some of the great minds of that century rubbing elbows at a diner,” Chick says. “Anywho, one day talking about the possibility of aliens. And Enrico looks up from his Reuben’s reuben and says, ‘Where is everybody?’ And his friends laugh their fucking asses off.”
Oops. The F-bomb. Karen would be pissed.
The boys don’t seem to notice.
“But it’s not funny,” Jason points out.
Chick says, “Enrico is saying that given the high probability that there are thousands, maybe even millions, of planets in this universe much like Earth, we should have been visited by ET, not just once, but thousands of times. Mathematics, it is.”
“Still not funny,” Jason says.
“But Mr. Ernest if that’s true, then why?”
“We don’t really know, Taro. There are several schools of thought.” Schools of thought. Chick glances in the rear-view. Did he lose them? No, actually they’re attentive.
Try the deep-dive.
The fine-tuning it took to put sentient beings on earth might be impossible to replicate, Chick explains. Or, the size and the distances in space are so great that we’ll never really know.
“And then Enrico says that highly intelligent civilizations have a tendency to destroy themselves before they can master interstellar travel.”
“What is it again, Mr. Ernest?”
“Sentient beings destroy themselves.”
Taro sort of hiccups, but that’s merely pre-launch as suddenly his laugh crowds the car. “Scented beans, scented beans, the magical fruit,” he chortles.
“That’s not funny either,” Jason says, but he’s laughing as well, because Taro’s laugh takes over. It’s high-pitched, and so full of joy that everyone except the most constipated souls need to join in. Chick’s laughing, for instance, and notices the tears rolling down the boy’s face. Taro, the laughing Buddha.
They’re about over it by the time they turn into the Tarantino’s driveway, and the child gets out. He’s still giggling, but Taro’s giggle is a poor relation to his laugh. Grace comes to the car, stepping as if on a runway, tight white sweater, tighter black jeans, one long leg delicately placed before the other. Hubba, hubba. Pel and she have been partying. Sex, and then drinks.
How long for me and Karen?
“Well, they certainly had a good time,” Grace drawls, and Chick can almost lick the chardonnay off her breath.
“Appears that way,” Chick says, glancing at Taro going inside. The light of a three-quarter moon massages Grace’s features. She leans into the car. Cleavage.
“You guys need to come over, you and Karen. Have a grownups night. It’s been a while.” The exchange is this side of flirtatious and Grace must suddenly realize that, because she shakes her attention loose from Chick and toward the backseat. “Jason,” she says, “did Mrs. Johnson….” And some involved question about a school project that Chick tunes out.
From the tracks across Muscle Road, a train whistle moans.
“A freight train,” Grace decides, standing again. “That’s one god-awful lonely sound.”
Chick remembers all of this later as he searches for signs of absolution in the glare of a school psychiatrist’s glasses. She doesn’t sit silently waiting for you to figure things out, this stranger who was seated on the edge of the oak rocker in the den. Her short, gray hair helmeted, and the long skirt and oh-too-sensible shoes made her look Amish. She’d just spoken to Jason in Karen’s office for a good hour. He’s napping now.
“Jason might blame himself,” she tells them. “It’s important for you to reinforce that nothing he said or didn’t say would have changed anything. That’s your job, Mom and Dad.”
Chick begins telling her the story of that sentient being conversation, but the shrink waves him off.
“I had a parent yesterday telling me that he’d mentioned to the boy about the suicide of a nephew who’d fought in Iraq. That parent was feeling guilty, too.”
“Chick, whatever you said didn’t make Genaro kill himself.”
“Taro,” Karen says.
The shrink nods.
“Taro,” she concedes. “Let’s focus on Jason. Don’t let him blame himself, which is one of the cruelest legacies of suicide.”
Karen says, “Cruel? Taro?”
The shrink holds up her hand, stopping Karen.
“Jason wonders why his friend didn’t come to him.”
“We know that,” Chick says.
Taro died ugly. He jumped in front of a SEPTA train on New Years Day. The obit: “Genaro Francis Tarantino, 12, suddenly.” The second paragraph in the police blotter talked about Taro’s 15 minutes, reminding readers about the young hero so recently celebrated, and now cruelly taken.
Chick could barely look at Pel and Grace at the funeral. Scratch. He could only look at Pel and Grace at the funeral unless they happened to glance his way. Then, he felt like he sometimes did at work walking behind a girl with a sweet ass and, when she flicks her hair, he goes eyes-to-the-ground. Did he fool any of them?
It has been abominably hard on everybody, this event. The school held a memorial service, and on the night of the wake, the road from the funeral home to Pel and Grace’s had been lighted with luminary bags. The goal, of course, was not closure, for there isn’t any. Ever. That point kept being stressed. The goal was to get the community through grief that blows in like snow riding a nor’easter. Mourning that blinds you.
Now, the shrink says: “Tell Jason that everybody close to”—and she still finds it difficult to say—“Taro wonders the same thing. Everybody, especially the parents. Obviously, that includes you. Nothing that someone said influenced events.”
Chick says: “But doctor, you read all the time about teens being bullied and killing themselves. Or somebody killing themself over a broken marriage, or a lot of things. Or nothing. Suicide doesn’t come on like a cold.”
“All I can tell you is that in this particular case, what someone said to the boy had nothing to do with his ultimate gesture.”
The kid getting famous and suddenly unfamous did it, but she can’t say that.
Karen has said it (of course, she would) but as far as Chick can see, Pel and Grace haven’t made the connection. Hell is portioned out through the denial stage, apparently.
Karen leans over, grabs a few Kleenexes. Sobs for what must be a full minute as Chick stiffly rubs her back. She leans over again and grabs the entire box.
She shrugs, and the three of them laugh. Chick hears Jason: “But it’s not funny.”
Chick begins: “This closure thing….”
“Grieving thing,” the shrink says. “There’s….”
“Right, no such thing as closure. Jason wants to see the spot. I mean the exact spot where Taro jumped into that train.”
“As he told me.”
The therapy pause, first of the session. Nobody says anything and it becomes a test of wills.
Chick says, “From what you say, it’s OK.”
“I understand your concern. Karen. Chick. The whole copycat thing. I don’t see any red flags in your son. But therapists have been wrong before. Tragically. But many in my position would tell you to let him see it.”
“The 9/11 memorial. Cemeteries. Funeral services. All of it’s a process. If, God forbid, Jason…. Remember this: Taking him to that spot was one of the things that worked against his killing himself.”
“I am going to be ill,” Karen says.
Chick pulls her closer, but she bends the other way, so it’s almost as if he’s trying to lift a sack.
When did we become such awkward couple?
But they do go to the exact spot that exact day—a family outing. They walk it. The train track is a half block from their home. Chick recalls that when they’d bought the house, the noise bothered him for a while, but closed windows and heat and air conditioning fixed that and then over the years he’d begun to like the noise, sometimes. Just like he liked the sound of the high school marching band playing in the distance on sunny autumn afternoons.
Traces of yellow cop tape still cling to parts of the rails, but if there’s any doubt as to the location, the small shrine that had been erected on the side dispels it. There are bouquets, a big picture of a smiling Taro, trinkets, some baseball cards, a yearbook—meaningful clutter. There’s also a blown-up headline: “12-Year-Old’s Quick Action Saves Friend’s Life.”
No train is coming, but Chick slowly and pointedly looks up and down the tracks, making sure Jason understands. Then they step onto tragedy.
“Right here, buddy,” Chick says.
A nasty wind stings their faces, making them bury their hands in their pockets. Thirty-four degrees, everything hard and unforgiving. Jason looks at his feet. The rust on the tracks reminds Chick of old blood.
“Can we get the hell out of here, now?” Karen asks after about 10 seconds.
He’d told his son this morning that it was OK to cry and it must have been one too many times the kid had heard it because he snapped.
“I know!” Jason yelled.
Still, Chick has to restrain himself from saying it yet again.
All the unanswered questions will need to be addressed somehow. All the rock-hard grief will need to be chipped at, and it will take lifetimes.
Taro killed himself at around 12:30 on New Years Day. He must have awoken already having made the decision.
He did not communicate with Jason at all that morning.
And the text messages and Facebook back-and-forths after midnight, with the pots and pans clanging and fireworks coloring the sky, were the carefree sort that 12-year-old boys exchange when they’re allowed to stay up late, and don’t have to think about school for another few days. Nothing dark or foreboding. Only one strange thing: the sign-off. Taro wrote, “You know I luv u, bro!”
Jason would usually just leave it at that but this time—thank God—he answers sincerely. “We will always be bros! Bro-hug!!!” He didn’t use the L word, but it was understood.
That should help, maybe. But Taro had to walk right pass their house to get to the railroad tracks. Jason knows this. Taro was supposed to visit New Year’s Day, but instead decided to step into the abyss. That’s what worries. That.
Chick and Karen don’t sleep much that night. Chick decides to stay downstairs, surrendering to a weird urge to guard the exits. He pulls the lever, unfolding the recliner so that a dentist could get a good look. He mutes the television. As the occasional train rumbles by, he imagines its high-beams tunneling the dark.
The sounds the house makes at night come out, creeping through drywall and flooring. Every bump, knock, sigh of the heater. Ice dropping in the refrigerator. Karen getting up once and checking on Jason. Chick hears her hesitate at the top of the stairs, debating whether to call her husband to bed. She pads back to the bedroom. So, Chick waits. He’s good at it.
Most of parenthood is about waiting.