When you’re the youngest child, especially one born into loud families the way Calvin and I both were, there are two options: either you speak all the more to ensure being heard or you shut up completely. I chose the first route. Calvin rarely spoke, and when he did, it hardly ever was more than a whisper.
We’d already made our respective choices by the time my family moved into the house behind the Federkos the summer before Cal and I entered third grade. My family’s move ensured the number of houses I’d live in remained greater than the number of grades I’d attended. I expected we’d only stay there a year or two, consistent with past practice, but I ended up living next to the Federkos until I graduated college.
I met Calvin the first day we arrived in La Crosse after Mom told her four boys to get out from under her feet. Bill and Tim fled in Dad’s car, leaving Mike and me to play in the backyard. We took turns hitting whiffle balls covered with duct tape, sending a number not only into the Federko yard, but against their home.
We owned the two largest houses in the area, with adjacent backyards and proximate corner lots, but the similarities ended there. The previous owners remodeled ours right before we bought it, while the Federko home looked as if it hadn’t been painted in a decade. Each time one of our whiffle balls hit the side of the navy-turned-gray home, it left a round mark on the spot of impact and rattled the worn shingles that appeared ready to fall.
To be honest, only Mike had the ability to reach the Federko house from our makeshift home plate. My primary contributions that afternoon included laying pitches in there for him to wallop and using my boyhood announcer’s voice to shout about his deep blasts.
Theodore arrived first to investigate Mike’s power display and my enthusiastic homer calls. Teddy had spotty facial hair that partly concealed and partly highlighted the pimples and blackheads that dotted his cheeks and neck. He should have been old and tall enough to threaten my brother and me, but neither of us could take the gangly teen seriously upon first sight.
Dolores, who went by Dolly, approached us after we’d shrugged aside her brother’s warnings and were ready to resume our game. To my surprise and disappointment, my brother stopped playing when the girl a year older than him spoke. I didn’t catch the words, but they must have been magical. I’d never seen anyone successfully disrupt Mike from any sport before.
Teddy and Dolly announced their forthcoming appearances with the smacking of a screen door prior to being seen, but Calvin appeared suddenly, silently. I first observed him standing beside me with a small notebook in his hand and a pencil inside its rings.
I stopped poking my brother with the bat and turned my attention to the possible substitute player. “Hey.”
Calvin nodded. He wore jeans that surely had formerly belonged to Teddy, but still appeared more comfortable in his skin than his siblings. He stood at ease while fidgety Ted and coy Dolly constantly sought attention.
Teddy picked up three balls in each of his large hands and shook them at us. “This is no way to act towards your neighbors.”
I hoped for Calvin’s sake he would not have to someday wear the ridiculously tight designer jeans or the kaleidoscopic shirt his older brother sported.
“Oh, shut up, they’re just playing.” Dolly wore a low-cut blouse that would have exposed the top third of her emerging mammaries if not for the semi-opaque white sweater she’d thrown across her shoulders and partially buttoned.
“Wanna play?” I asked Calvin.
“I don’t know how.”
Having been born into a family of athletes, I’d never met anyone—certainly not a boy my age—who claimed not to know how to play with a bat and ball. It seemed un-American, which I suppose was fitting. Calvin’s parents came to this country as children. They remained ignorant of many American customs, including our sports, and their offspring were largely the product of this ignorance.
Not that Calvin or his siblings could play soccer or any other sport, be it of European or other origins, either. They all lacked athletic ability, though Dolly took an immediate interest in one particular player, and Calvin would later help me prepare for my first games as an aspiring announcer by compiling noteworthy player statistics.
“What’s all the racket?” Alfred Federko was the titular man of the house, but bald, short, and squat, Alfie was anything but an imposing figure, and his question was only that, not a threat.
“The new kids keep smacking balls into our yard and against our house,” Teddy said.
“They’re just playing, Dad. They’re harmless and cute.”
Alfie took a minute to study his oldest two children, then his new neighbors, before responding. “It don’t matter.”
It don’t matter. That was the first of ten thousand times I would hear Mr. Federko utter the phrase.
He used it in a variety of situations, often contradictory. Sometimes the only thing that mattered was becoming successful. Developing a career. Making money.
And yet, none of that mattered either. It don’t matter was also a shortened version of the old Biblical idiom: for what shall it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?
But most of all, Alfie uttered the phrase whenever anyone tried to introduce a problem he didn’t want to face, or when responding to a question that would have required semi-considerable thought.
Alfie didn’t possess a monopoly on Federko catch phrases. Teddy’s always began: “At least I’m not as . . .”
He then referenced the intelligence, character or status of another. He relied on it whenever he was in trouble or feeling down.
In those early years when he was in high school, I heard him use the phrase to explain why he was not going to the prom or to college. Later, when he’d come home for a meal after losing his job, he’d point out that at least he wasn’t in jail, like one of his classmates.
Finally, when his marriage ended in divorce, he’d lost custody of his son, and he’d returned to live with his parents, Teddy uttered the phrase when he wandered close to me on a sunny autumn afternoon. The clattering of his keys against his belt buckle warned me of his approach while I raked leaves. I nodded because I didn’t know what to say in light of the recent events.
“At least I’m not as bad as those guys who end up shooting their exes.”
That was almost twenty years ago now, when I was still in college. Before I’d moved away and lived part of life elsewhere with different people closest to me. Before I’d learned that life smacks just about everyone around at some point and batters some people pretty badly. Before Mom died and I’d purchased her home from my brothers, who all thought I was crazy for wanting to remain in La Crosse.
No, with hindsight, I knew Teddy wasn’t the sort of guy who’d end up shooting his ex or anyone else, though, truth be told, I did consider notifying the authorities that fall day. I just didn’t know what he was capable of at the time.
Fortunately, Teddy’s arc would travel from insecure adolescent to something closer to a mentally unstable young man before sliding into a mostly awkward state, where he was comfortable, if not actually happy.
I give him credit. Whatever one has to say about Teddy and his shortcomings, when the time came, he made a good choice. He chose to fight his demons when giving into them might have been the easiest route. It’s not the sort of decision we as a society laud or even recognize, but maybe we should. If everyone could just refrain from harming others, we’d all be a lot better off.
Of course, I didn’t have any such thoughts as an eight-year-old. That afternoon, I stood puzzled because I didn’t know what to do with my new naïve neighbor or my brother, who was unable to look away from Dolly’s adoring smile.
When we first moved next door, Dolly smiled all the time. As a kid, you see that and presume the person is happy. Now I know that’s not necessarily the case.
Dolly conditioned her happiness on future events. She’d say: “It’ll all be different when… I’m in highschool, I go to college, I’m living on my own, Mike and I are together, we get married.”
All those things came to pass. But Dolly kept on wishing.
Mike never kissed or touched a girl until he kissed and touched Dolly. She probably represented other firsts for him too. But she never became his only, as he was for her. Once Dolly awakened him to a new world, Mike found other girls were also attracted to him. And he was attracted to them too.
In a family of athletes, Mike still far outclassed the rest of us. He was all-county in three sports. All-state in baseball. Good-looking, to boot.
Girls and then women threw themselves at him. And he took almost all of them.
At least until he got stuck. That was at AA in Shreveport, Louisiana. Seemingly a million miles from La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Mike had two paths to the majors—as a pitcher and as a middle infielder. The Giants wanted him to pitch.
Mike fared well in rookie ball and the A league, but blew out his arm in AA. During the time he should have been rehabbing, he took to booze and made one too many drunken calls to Dolly. She took his proposal seriously and was on a flight to be with him before he could reach her again in those pre-cell phone days. When she landed, Mike was too embarrassed and too afraid of future failure to renege.
They married and Mike returned to playing a year later as a second baseman. Unfortunately for Dolly, good news for Mike was bad for her. Hitting came back easily to him. When it did, Mike no longer needed Dolly. He found fawning women once more on the road. And then love.
Mike left Dolly after impregnating the first woman he ever loved. Dolly returned home, or close to it, in Winona, Minnesota.
I’ve never been a believer in the theory that good always comes from bad, but with Mike, it did. He’d always been a bit of a dick, and how he treated Dolly through the years was easily his biggest dick move. But divorcing her, or maybe falling in love with someone else while he was married to her, was also probably his last one. He’s now a loving husband and father and a nicer guy than he’s ever been. I finally like my brother again.
But I still feel bad for Dolly. The next time I saw her, while my own marriage was still intact, I apologized. She smiled and touched her former brother-in-law affectionately.
“I hope you’re okay.”
“Sure, it’ll all be different when . . .”
Dolly didn’t finish her sentence that weekend. Or for years to come. She finally did when she came to Mom’s funeral and told me she’d returned to school to become a nurse.
“It’ll all be different when I graduate.”
It wasn’t, of course. It won’t ever be. I think perhaps the only thing that could have made Dolly’s life different would have been her becoming pregnant during the one year she was married to Mike. Probably wouldn’t have affected their ultimate fate, but it might have delayed it some. In any case, it would have left Dolly with something other than a broken heart that would never heal.
“For crying out loud!” Mrs. Federko completed the family’s introduction that first afternoon.
Gretchen—Gretch the Stretch, as kids in the neighborhood called the six-foot-tall woman of Polish parents—stopped all activity with her shriek. She primarily directed her words towards her daughter, who’d removed her sweater and stood unnecessarily close to Mike.
Dolly took a step back and covered herself once more, holding the sweater across her chest, but not bothering to button it. Teddy tossed our balls to us and kicked dirt into our yard with his construction boots.
“It don’t matter.” Alfie shrugged and led his family back inside their home.
Calvin and I quickly developed into best friends. Our teachers called us The Quiet One and The Chatty One. I don’t know how we knew, but at an age when most people befriend one another because of similar interests, Calvin and I did so because we balanced one another.
Or maybe that’s just how it turned out. A lot of life’s events occur without planning, and we attribute reasons after the fact because we don’t want to imagine too much merely happening to us.
Calvin refrained from speaking at school almost as much as he did at home. Teachers who surely recognized how bright he was frequently sought to compel him to do so. Even then, I’d often have to interject, telling them what he’d told me about the book or science project on which he was supposed to report. In turn, Calvin would often read whatever work I was assigned and summarize it for me in case I didn’t make it through.
He excelled at activities that didn’t require him to speak. Video games. Chess. Art.
I talked smack in addition to providing play-by-play whenever we played the Atari I’d inherited from my brothers, but no matter what I said, Calvin sat there quietly with his joystick between his legs, his face focused on the television. Then he’d just smile to himself when he won, as he inevitably did, even though he had much less time to practice.
I didn’t even bother playing chess with him after our first few matches. As the years passed, he would play competitively for two or three hours without saying a word. Just a handshake to start and another when his opponent resigned.
And I’m sure it surprised no one when Calvin excelled at drawing even as a youngster. If ever I came to his house and was unable to find him while the rest of the Federkos talked to—or more often than not, yelled at—one another, I knew where to go.
The unfinished Federko basement had a large freezer, a rattling washer, a clunky dryer, and a warped ping pong table that was of little value located where it was because the ceiling was only eight feet high. Few rallies lasted more than a couple of hits before one player conked a ball off the exposed wooden beams overhead.
But Calvin found the locale ideal. He frequently sat on the cement floor with his legs crossed beneath the ping pong table and his notebook and pencil in his hands. There, he first drew landscapes and portraits, but by the age of twelve he’d already begun focusing on the caricatures that made him famous.
I like to think I played a small role in Calvin’s success. Besides the one people know about. I’m talking about his inspiration. Though now I wonder if that’s not something I should brag about.
After Calvin showed me some of his original drawings, I shared with him these clippings from The Daily News my father had collected and given to me during the time when we lived on Long Island and I first became interested in baseball. Something in Bill Gallo’s depictions of various Yankees and Mets caught Calvin’s eye.
He snatched the clippings from me and nearly shouted. “These are real players?”
“Players and managers.”
“They look like this?”
“Something like that.”
Calvin’s early caricatures depicted his family members. He drew them over and over again. Alfie as a capitalist and as a preacher. Dolly as Mae West and a southern belle. Teddy as a ferret; Theodore as a panhandler. Gretch the Stretch as a basketball player. Mrs. Federko as the town crier. All with extremely large,disproportionate heads and exaggerated features and gestures.
Calvin told me he didn’t draw me. I accepted his answer, though when I saw drawings of my brothers and our classmates, I had my doubts. He eventually showed me one. I didn’t get it at the time.
I’d like to think I would have found his depictions of me as funny and insightful as those of everyone else, but he probably was wise to withhold them to sustain our friendship. Calvin’s greatness—and it is a greatness in skill that developed through years of concentrated work more than a genius that was immediately present—is his ability to capture the strengths and weaknesses in individuals that one only perceives from a distance. His work accepts the flaws we all have more easily than we do ourselves. It embraces what most of us, especially those lacking in self-esteem, seek to reject. Likewise, it captures the good—the strengths—of people, without elevating their significance, as most of us tend to do.
The Federkos invited me to wait with them in anticipation of Calvin’s return for Easter weekend this past Thursday, but I politely said I’d stop by later in the evening. Family first and all. For better and for worse. Plus, I still didn’t know what to expect.
I knocked on the door at nine and found all of them in the living room, and everyone, except Calvin, speaking loudly. As if they were drunk even though I figured no one (save Cal and maybe Gretchen) had touched any alcohol.
“Here’s the neighbor. Let’s hear his opinion.” Teddy held his palm out to me as if he were handing me an invisible microphone.
“It don’t matter what he says.” Alfie held his arms tightly crossed against his chest, pretending to be secure.
“It’ll all be different now that a more thoughtful person has arrived.”
“For crying out loud, can you allow him to get inside before you drag him into your senseless arguments?”
Calvin put to rest any lingering uncertainty by holding out a bottle of scotch. I knew from across the room it was quality and that my friend had brought it with him. Our college-oriented town does not generally cater to sophisticated drinkers. I also knew a few sips would feel good. Easter was early, winter refused to let go, and I’d chosen not to wear a jacket when crossing through the yards to visit my neighbors.
He offered me his index and middle fingers. I slid mine over his then flipped them and allowed him to do the same. Our form of greeting that began nearly 25 years ago as an alternative to the high five and long before the introduction of the fist bump.
“Here.” Dolly offered the closest approximation to an appropriate glass the Federkos possessed.
“Maybe I will now.”
I filled her glass and then mine. When I handed the bottle back to Calvin, he tilted back his head and feigned pouring all the liquor straight down his throat.
“At least I was never as bad as that. I could pace myself.”
“For crying out loud, Ted.”
“It don’t matter. He’s sober now.”
“Yeah.” Teddy laughed uncomfortably, like a man who is uncertain in his ability to refrain when around those who partake.
“So what’s the argument about this time?”
Alfie, Dolly and Teddy all began speaking at once. As best I could understand, the Federkos were arguing about various hidden meanings in the Star Wars films and Star Trek TV shows, as well as the relative merits between them. I don’t recall who supported which positions. They probably couldn’t either. It was just important that they took opposing viewpoints so they could have something to shout about. The Federkos couldn’t stand the silence that came with universal agreement because then there was nothing left to say.
I hadn’t planned on getting drunk, but Cal kept filling my glass after every sip I took. His and Dolly’s as well.
“So what’s my no-good ex up to this weekend?” Dolly asked once her inhibitions had been lowered. “Spending time with his new family, I take it?”
“New?” Calvin uttered his line as if he were giving an aside on stage.
“He’s been married to her for almost ten years.” There was a measure of anger in Teddy’s voice, but I attributed it more with having to watch others drink without participating than the actions of my sibling.
Cal clanked my glass with his before topping me off, even though I’d yet to take a sip since the last refill.
“I don’t get the South.” Teddy placed his elbows on the table and rested his head in his palms.
“It don’t matter.”
“I mean are they still mad they lost the war? Would they reinstitute slavery if they separated today?”
“Seceded.” Calvin coughed the word into his hands.
“Yeah, if they succeeded.” Teddy nodded his head, not cognizant of his deadpan.
“I think the people there would say it’s more about the interference by the national government in their lives.” I tried to be helpful and was surprised to observe Teddy paying close attention. For some reason, he’d apparently given the matter a lot of thought.
“For crying out loud, can we change the subject?”
“It don’t matter. There are good people and bad people there like here.”
“I didn’t mind living there.” I watched Dolly’s eyes roll back in her head and imagined her recalling what she perceived to have been good times with Mike before she blacked out. Her head bounced slightly when her cheeks hit the table.
Teddy got to his feet and began counting Dolly out, raising another finger with each passing second.
“Ted.” Alfie lifted his daughter’s head and placed a worn, forest green potholder beneath it.
“Don’t worry.” Calvin whispered in his sister’s ear while he lightly petted her hair. “It’ll all be different in the morning.”
“For crying out loud, leave your sister alone.”
While I recuperated, the Federkos attended a Good Friday church service designed to reenact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Calvin always joked that his family suffered more than the Lord on that day because they were compelled to sit together in near silence for three hours. While the rest of the Federkos sat front and center, Calvin chose a pew in the rear and on the side so he could draw.
I never considered Cal’s actions to be sacrilegious, but, then again, I’ve never been religious. He inevitably captured the essence of a believer or church leader with his depiction, and those he drew this year were no exception.
I examined his notebook when he came over before dinner. “They’re really good. You could use them.”
“Want to go to the TV room or front porch?”
“No, it’s a day for austerity.”
We sat at the counter stools in my kitchen before a large island with a charcoal granite countertop. I’d had the kitchen remodeled shortly upon my return. I thought it was something nice to do for Mom after she took me in, but she became ill before the renovation was complete, so she never had the opportunity to enjoy it.
“So have you decided on your next big project?”
“Still trying to figure that out.”
“There’s always the newest celeb.”
I kicked his sneaker. “Hey, I’m sorry.”
“It’s not you.”
“Then what is it?”
“I’m almost 40.”
“We’re the same age.”
“That seems a little old only to be clever, don’t you think?”
“A lot of people love your work.”
“I don’t, not anymore. They’re caricatures of my caricatures. My life has become a caricature of my life.”
“So what do you want to do?”
“So do it. You can’t need money at this point.”
“I’m afraid I’ll become just like those guys.” He jerked his thumb toward his parents’ place. “And we all have our roles.”
“You allow me to verbalize.”
“The past’s the past, Pete.”
Yeah, the past was the past. Two years earlier, Calvin fired me as his manager. He’d claim I quit.
I first began working for Calvin as his press agent, for lack of a better term, while still in college. I considered it helping out a friend. But people took to Calvin’s work more than either of us expected, and he decided he needed a manager to maintain his schedule, book appearances, and communicate with the world, while he did his work in relative silence.
It wasn’t what I’d planned to do with my life, but I’d minored in marketing while studying broadcasting, so I thought I could help Cal until I got the opportunity I wanted. But working with—it eventually turned out to be for more than I envisioned—Calvin was fun at the outset, and he paid me a ridiculous sum because he was paid ridiculously. I happily flashed the golden handcuffs I wore to those I encountered.
But after some time it didn’t seem enough. In the eyes of others, or as I imagined them, I benefited from growing up next door to Calvin. I thought I needed to prove myself.
I should have pursued my original passion, but instead I started a company in which Calvin was not the sole, or even the most lucrative, client. I then worked nonstop to the detriment of my family and friends.
Depending on how I want to think about it, Calvin came to resent my success and the lack of time I devoted to him after a while, or maybe I just didn’t take him seriously enough when he said he wanted to take his career in a new direction. I recall making some unnecessarily negative comments about some work he showed me and to which I’m sure I did not give careful analysis, or only analyzed from a financial perspective.
One day, he didn’t show for an appearance I’d arranged and for which my company had accepted a substantial sum. Calvin claims I never told him. I’m sure I did.
During three progressively more frantic phone calls, I promised the promoter Calvin would show. He never did.
What followed were angrier phone calls, demand letters, lost business, and threatened lawsuits. Then I left. The business, my home, everything.
Everything wasn’t much at the time. My wife had already departed with the kids. That was a few years earlier. I came home and found a note. Can’t recall exactly what it said, but for some reason it made me recall the one drawing of me Calvin had ever shared: me as Peter Pumpkin Eater. After all, I’d had a wife and couldn’t keep her.
With nowhere else to go, I ran home to Mom. A month after my arrival, doctors diagnosed her with cancer. She barely survived a year. I like to think I provided some comfort, support and assistance during her difficult time, but I know she helped me far more than I helped her.
I promised her I’d keep the house and remain in La Crosse. She liked that.
She also wanted me restore my friendship with Calvin. Had she been well, I’m sure she would have intervened on my behalf, especially when Cal failed to return home to be with his family on Easter weekend last year for the first time ever.
A month ago, I told Gretchen I’d spend the week with Mike and his family so Calvin could return this year.
“For crying out loud, stay.” She showed me a text she’d received from her youngest son. “He wants you around.”
As a kid, I didn’t perceive anything unusual about the Federkos during the Saturday before Easter. While Mike and I played, they were loud and argumentative. Like every other day.
As I got older, I noticed a difference in tone. I came to understand the Federkos worked together while preparing for Sunday, the one day when things actually were different. The one day of the year Teddy didn’t declare he wasn’t as bad as someone else because he felt he was actually pretty good. The one day of the year Dolly didn’t have to imagine a time when things would be better because they couldn’t be. The one day of the year that truly mattered to Alfie. And the one day of the year when Gretchen didn’t become exasperated with those who shared her daily life.
Yesterday the Federkos moved about more frenetically than ever. You’d think with increased age and experience, they’d have slowed down, known what to expect, but through my window I observed Dolly attempt to beautify their home inside and out by straightening long-crooked hangings and moving real and artificial plants about; Teddy carry bag after bag of groceries and decorations from the car, dropping far fewer than normal; Alfie wave lists and check off various accomplishments; and Gretchen supervise and bark out orders.
Even Calvin was different. Sure, he was still quiet and often solitary. But for the first time I could remember, he didn’t carry his notebook and pencil with him as he moved about his home and yard. I couldn’t tell exactly what he was doing, but it was clear he, too, was preparing for something.
I knocked on the Federkos’ door at one. Truth be told, for hours already I’d wanted to run over. To spend as much time as possible with my neighbor family during the day of great joy.
I’d changed out of my normal jeans and long-sleeve T-shirt and wore khakis with a collared shirt. I brought with me bottles of water, wine, and cider.
Dolly greeted me at the door with a long, warm embrace. Teddy surprised me with a cup handshake and by bumping his shoulder against mine. I wondered if he’d practiced all night so he could pull it off.
Seated in the family recliner, Alfie patted the nearby sofa and requested I sit beside him, but Gretchen entered the room and said she needed to see me first. I followed her into the kitchen where the aroma of a bakery immediately hit me. She’d filled every inch of her limited counter space with breads, cakes and pastries.
“You have to be my taster. Tell me what’s working and what’s not.”
I sampled a series of delicious items. “They’re all wonderful.”
Gretchen kissed my forehead. “You’re sweet, but you’re also the only critical one around here, so you evaluate them fairly.”
“Oh.” Gretchen lifted her head and tilted it to the side like a confused dog. “I’m not sure. Don’t worry, he’ll show up.”
The phone rang. In the next room, I heard Dolly’s side of a conversation, or at least the emotions she expressed. First, excitement. Then, sadness and tears. Finally, warmth, acceptance, forgiveness. She never mentioned his name, but I knew who’d called.
For the next few hours, I had lengthy individual and group conversations with the four eldest Federkos. I felt like I was meeting new people, even though I’d known every one of them for most of my life. I wondered what it would be like to one day learn your family members were the ones you always wanted rather than the ones you’d always had.
The afternoon passed quickly. Suddenly, Gretchen was ready to serve dinner—ham and kielbasa; potatoes and yams; green beans and sauerkraut; breads and pastries. We all stood beside our seats in the dining room, our hands on the backs of our tall, wooden chairs until we realized something, someone, was missing.
They called him in alphabetical order.
“Are you sure he’s in the house?”
Teddy sighed. “You know where he has to be.”
“He can’t.” Dolly rocked her chair. “Not today.”
“I’ll go look.” I took a step but Gretchen cut in front of me as if to show the way, even though she knew I’d spent hours upon hours in her basement decades ago.
I didn’t see Calvin initially because my eyes first sought the ping pong table that was long gone. I then observed the changes Teddy had made to the room since turning the basement into his home. His handyman skills weren’t good enough to keep him employed except in the most dire of labor shortages, but they were sufficient for someone who didn’t demand perfection. Like Teddy.
He’d sanded and painted the room, so drops of paint stained the floor but not terribly. Rough edges had been smoothed, albeit not entirely. He’d accumulated random pieces of used furniture and an assortment of mismatched rugs to make the place livable, if one’s objective had just been to live. Light fixtures had been replaced and visibility had been greatly improved, for good and for bad.
Of course, Teddy’s skill set didn’t permit him to do anything about the low ceiling, so the feeling of claustrophobia still persisted. More so for me since the majority of the time I’d spent there had been prior to attaining my full height.
“For the love of God!”
I followed Gretchen’s words and saw Calvin near the far wall dressed in an old T-shirt and a worn pair of jeans, both of which were splattered with paint of many colors. He held a thin brush in his hand above his shoulder, frozen like a pitcher who’d stopped his motion after the ump granted the batter timeout.
Gretchen approached and hugged her son, unconcerned about dirtying her yellow Easter dress. She’d no doubt seen it before I did. Or she just recognized her son’s artistry first.
Calvin had painted two neighboring homes and eleven proportionally sized people who’d lived in them. All except one—the individual who was surely supposed to be Calvin—were elevated to varying degrees above the ground. My Dad who became sick and could no longer work a year and a half after we moved to La Crosse had risen the highest. Mom now approached him, arms extended.
I shuffled closer to the work, wanting to study all of its details. Naturally, I focused first on myself—the individual closest to Calvin—my mouth open, my eyes focused on my silent friend.
“Everyone’s got to see this.” Gretchen released Calvin and ran toward the stairs.
I stared in awe. Calvin tapped my elbow and directed my attention to the floor. I saw the piece of paper to which he’d pointed.
It was a drawing of my father heroically commandeering a scene where four boys ran wild. Calvin had signed his work in the lower right hand corner and written “Happy Easter” at the top.
“When did you do this?”
“Why didn’t you ever show it to me?”
“You were so sad and it wasn’t my style back then.”
It was a fantastic artistic work—not just a caricature, not merely the clever creation of some youngster. Seeing it, I wondered if my memory was purposefully or negligently faulty. Had I forced Calvin to work on the caricatures because I liked them better at that young age? Worse, as an adult, had I told Calvin his endeavors to produce high art weren’t very impressive because I selfishly wanted him to continue producing the caricatures that had made both of our careers and lives comfortable?
I struggled not to cry. I’d never done so in front of Cal. Not even when we were kids. Not even when my Dad died.
He shrugged his shoulders and turned back to the work he was now creating.
We looked at the mural together. I laughed when I recognized that Dolly was chasing Mike but could no longer suppress my tears. They streamed down my face as I realized Calvin had captured the essence of our humanity.
I opened my mouth, but no words would come out. I could only grunt and cough as I heard heavy footsteps descend the stairs.
Calvin leaned into me. “It’s okay, Pete. You got me here.”
I was so ashamed but the rest of the Federkos wouldn’t let me remain unhappy. They grabbed Calvin, they shook me. They bounced around the painting, pointing at themselves and others.
I smiled to myself and at Cal and realized everything we’d experienced had been for this moment. It had come.
Kevin Finnerty’s stories have appeared in Canyon Voices, Chicago Literati, The Quotable, The Rain, Party & Disaster Society, VLP Journal and elsewhere.