I GOT OFF THE PLANE at Maguire, and sent a telegram to my dad from the terminal before they loaded us into buses. Two days later, the Air Force made me a civilian, and I walked toward the gate in my own clothes, a suitcase in each hand.
I was a mess. A twenty-three-year-old bum with mixed-up German and English in his head, two suitcases full of garbage, no plans. It felt fine.
I was at Manhattan Beach Air Force Station. That’s in Brooklyn, southeast end, not far from Coney Island. Farther than hell from Manhattan.
I went through the gate and the snowtops didn’t look twice, and then I wasn’t in Manhattan Beach Air Force Station any more, I was on Oriental Avenue. Ahead to my left there was an asphalt oval by a field, where the buses turned around. There was a bus standing there, green. I went over and got aboard and asked the driver to let me off by a subway stop, I wanted to go to Manhattan. He said he would, and I sat in the sideways seat right behind him.
There were two airman thirds aboard, toward the back, and a Negro nurse, that’s all. Then another guy with two suitcases came on, and he and I kind of avoided looking at one another. I’d never seen him before, but he was another new civvy. We acted like we’d both just been circumcised, and if we talked to each other everybody would know.
It was a Tuesday afternoon, and July hot. It was only the twelfth, and my discharge date wasn’t till the twenty-third, but the Air Force just gets you back the right month and lets it go at that. Outside, the blacktop was baking. You could see footprints, and in the distance there were rising shimmers. Car chrome gleamed for miles. The field between the bus and the Atlantic Ocean looked like dry brown hair.
After a while, the driver put his News away and started the bus. He swung the rest of the way around the oval, his arms moving as he turned the wheel, and his gray shirt was black with perspiration in circles below his shoulders. When he straightened the bus out and headed into the shimmer, a small breeze came in the open part of the window beside his elbow.
At one stop, he said, “There’s your subway, over there,” and pointed at steps going up to an el.
I thanked him, and toted the suitcases off. He called, “Good luck, soldier.”
I smiled, but I didn’t like him. I wasn’t a soldier, I was an airman. On that route, by the base and all, he ought to know better.
The hell with it, I wasn’t even an airman any more. I was a civilian now. I’d forgotten.
It was the Brighton Beach stop of the Brighton Beach Line. Coney Island was three stops to the left, end of the line. Manhattan was forever to the right. By the time I got the suitcases up the stairs, I was tired. I got two tokens, just in case, and went out on the platform.
There were some kids on the train, maybe fourteen years old, writing on the posters and screaming about it. I kept looking out the window, down at the neighborhoods. After a while it was all crummy residential–stone buildings, four and five stories, lots of windows, baby carriages and old kitchen chairs and Baby Ruth wrappers on the sidewalk. Then it went down into an open trench, and there wasn’t anything to see. The kids got off at a stop called Newkirk. Then a little later it went underground all the way, and I read the ads above the windows. There was one I couldn’t believe; a drawing of a hand with spread fingers, and sur-printed over that in green block letters BELCH. Underneath, it said something was three times faster with stomach gas.
The train went over the Manhattan Bridge, with cars and trucks along a roadway right beside us. I felt like in a picture in a kid’s geography book, and there’d be a DC-3 flying overhead and a tugboat underneath the bridge, and down at the bottom there’d be three lines of talk about transportation.
On the other side, it went underground again, and I took out the paper with the address Bill’s wife had given me. I’d thought Bill was coming into town to get me, but when I called to check, his wife told me no, Bill was up at Plattsburg on a fleet sale deal with some trucking company, so Dad was coming down. She gave me the address of the hotel.
That was yesterday I’d called. It felt funny talking to her. My brother’s wife. I’d never even met her. He’d met her himself six months after I got sent to Germany, and they got married eight months later. They were almost two years married now, and I’d never even met her.
Three years was a hell of a long time. I knew that now, in my bones.
Her name was Ann.
The paper said the hotel was at the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 52nd Street. The Weatherton. I got up and looked at the map down at the other end of the car. There was a Lexington Avenue Line, and it made a stop at 51st Street. That looked like the one.
I traced things out with my finger, figuring out where I was. I should change at Union Square for the Lexington Avenue Line.
It was the second stop after the bridge. I wandered around, looking at signs, carrying the suitcases, people bumping me. Then I saw a sign that pointed the way out, and I took it. The hell with it. Upstairs on the street, in the sun again, I waved at a cab and told him, “Lexington Avenue and East 52nd Street.”
It was seventy-five cents on the meter. I gave him a dollar, and a bellhop took my suitcases in. There was a green awning out over the sidewalk, and a doorman in green and gold.
I told the guy at the desk that I’d come to join my father, Willard Kelly, Sr. Two bellboys and half a dollar later I was at the door of his room. “I’ll knock,” I told bellboy number two. “This is a reunion.”
“Yes, sir.” He pocketed the quarter and went away.
I knocked on the door, and Dad opened it. He grinned at me and said, “Ray. You son of a gun.”
I grinned back till my cheeks hurt. I went into the room, with the suitcases on the ends of my arms, and he punched my shoulder and said, “You wrote you were gonna make Staff Sergeant. How come? You goofed up?”
I’d made Airman First with minimum time-in-grade all the way. There’d been time left on the enlistment for me to make Staff. Only I’d made it clear I wouldn’t re-enlist. There’s no sense wasting a rocker on a short timer. “I made civilian instead,” I said.
“By God, Ray,” he said, “you look great. You’re taller, aren’t you?”
“I don’t think so. Wider, maybe.”
“My God, yes. Look at the shoulders on the kid. Listen, wait till you see Betsy, five months old now.” He grinned some more. “How’s it feel, to be an uncle?”
“I don’t know yet. I talked to Ann yesterday, on the phone. She sounded okay.”
“She’s a good girl. Bill’s settled down, she’s good for him.” Then he shook his head and blinked, and came over to wrap his arms around me and pat the back of my head with his palm. “My God, boy,” he said, and his voice broke.
I’d been trying to keep it in, but then I couldn’t. We cried like a couple of women, and kept punching each other to prove we were men.
Then I wanted to go out for lunch and a beer, and Dad acted reluctant about it. He didn’t want to leave the room. He looked okay, so I figured he was just tired from the driving, and the heat. The heat was bad, and the room was air-conditioned.
We ate at a place, and then Dad wanted to go right back to the hotel. I wanted to wander around a little and look at things, but it was three years, so I went back with him. But I kept looking around on the way back. I was born in New York, but Dad and Mom moved out when I wasn’t even a year old yet. I didn’t remember a thing about the city. Or much about Mom. She died when I was two.
In the afternoon, we sat around the room in our undershirts, with the air conditioner on. There were two wide beds, wider than singles but not as wide as doubles. I sprawled all over one of them, head propped up by a couple pillows. Dad wandered around the room, picking up ash trays and glasses and phone books and then putting them down again. I didn’t remember him so nervous.
Otherwise, he was the same. It didn’t occur to me he should look different. It was as though three years hadn’t happened at all. He was a guy, maybe fifty, with red-gray hair and a middle-aged paunch and plastic-framed glasses with old-fashioned round lenses. Same as always. I wore T-shirts, but he still wore the old kind, thin knit undershirts with just narrow shoulder straps, leaving the upper arms and shoulders bare. He had thick meaty shoulders, stooped a little, freckled.
We spent the afternoon filling me in. My big brother Bill was twenty-six now. He had a wife and a kid, and he was working for Carmine Truck Sales, and he got his driver’s license back over a year ago. Uncle Henry was the same as ever. Like everybody, the same as ever.
When we went out for dinner, Dad wanted to go right back to the room again — talked about getting a good night’s sleep for the drive tomorrow — but I said, “Look, it’s only seven-thirty. Come on, Dad, this is my only chance to look at this place. We’ll get back to the room by midnight, I promise.”
So he shrugged and said okay, and we looked at Times Square and some other places, and I was disappointed. I’d expected something unique. Like Munich, that was unique. When I first got there, I looked at it, and I’d never seen anything that looked like that. But New York was just Binghamton bigger, like a little photograph put through an enlarger. It’s all bigger, and you can see the grain and the bad spots better.
We got back to the hotel before midnight, and the next morning we checked out before nine. The breakfast eggs stayed with me, their taste, and made cigarettes taste awful.
Somebody brought the car around from the hotel’s garage. It was an Oldsmobile. Dad always bought Oldsmobiles. But I’d never seen this one before. It was last year’s, black. When I’d been shipped to Germany, he had a two-tone blue.
The suitcases were loaded into the trunk, and Dad took care of the tipping. Then we got in, and pulled away, heading west crosstown on 53rd Street.
I started to roll the window down, and Dad said, “No, leave it up. Watch this.”
I watched. He pressed a button on the dash, and I heard a whirring. Then a little chill breeze hit me in the forehead from a vent just above the door.
“Air conditioner,” Dad said. “Three hundred dollars extra, and worth every penny of it. Changes the air in the car completely every minute.”
“Lawyering does pretty good,” I said.
“Chased a lot of ambulances lately,” he said. He grinned at me, and slapped my knee. I grinned back. I felt good, to be in the states, to be with my father, to be a civilian. Great.
We went up the Henry Hudson Parkway and over the George Washington Bridge. We took the lower level and Dad said, “This is new.”
“This part of the bridge? It looks nutty.”
We went up 9 to 17, and then west on 17 toward Binghamton.
Thirty-eight miles outside New York City, when we had the road to ourselves, a tan-and-cream Chrysler pulled up next to us, and the guy on our side stuck his hand out with a gun in it and started shooting.
Dad looked at me, and his eyes were huge and terrified. He opened his mouth and said, “Cap,” in a high strange voice. Then blood gushed out of his mouth, like red vomit.
He fell staring in my lap, and the car swung off the road into a bridge support.
Copyright © 1962 by Donald Westlake