Part 1: THE FIRST person I lost along my route was Frank Stephanik. He lived two doors away from me, just him and his wife Leslie, and because he lived just two doors away and I’ve always liked to finish my route at my own house, he was the last person to get his paper. He died on New Year’s Eve and he was 48 years old. He died of a heart attack that had begun many years earlier.
My Aunt Millie and Leslie Stephanik were best friends — Nasty and Nastier, friends may have been too good a word for them. I don’t think they ever cared about one another except in the most selfish of ways, the way you might be friends with a mirror. Neither of the ladies had anyone else to talk to, not as far as I know, anyway. They were too nasty for anyone to want to be around them, and they were so stuck-up and superior about their nastiness — seeing nastiness as a kind of wisdom — that, even more than other people not being able to stand them, they couldn’t stand other people.
Really, Mr. Stephanik wasn’t much nicer than either Millie or Leslie. He just didn’t seem to get the same sort of nourishment out of nastiness that they did. Because of this — his inability to appreciate what he had, the way he seemed to feel so sorry for himself, the weight on his shoulders — they had little use for him and his weakness, either.
We were not a family for parties and neither were the Stephaniks. In fact, they were the only couple we ever had over. When the Stephaniks visited, the group of us would sit around the dining room table, under the chandelier, all night long — eating or not, talking or not, we’d sit and sit. In the way of get-togethers, these events felt less like parties and more like séances, the difference from a regular séance being that we weren’t calling up the ghosts of the dead to sob over their passing and ask questions about the next life, we called them up as phantoms, something less than spirits in my mind — old time movie characters, halfway between spirit and memory, more dead than spirit, more alive than memory — called them up to mock and shake our fingers at, fools and phonies that they’d been. Most of the times at these dinner séances, it would be five of us: me, the Stephaniks, Aunt Millie, and Millie’s 22-year-old son, Francis Victor, which is the name she called him: “Francis Victor, what is wrong with you today?” I was always happy to have Francis Victor there with us. He was ten years older than me, and we didn’t have much in common or much to say to one another—little when we were alone and nothing at all when were in that room — but I was happy to have another soul there. Even if it sank away in a different direction from mine, at least it was a soul not in so tight with the others. Francis Victor gave me someone to look at and some other world of thoughts to imagine.
Towards the end of last year, the Stephaniks visited twice — first the Friday night after Thanksgiving and then again on Christmas Eve. It might have helped get the séance-feeling out of the Holiday Season if our families drank, but no one did, not even Frank, not even Francis Victor, at least not around us — then again, the drinking just may have made them even weirder and more morbid. God knows what they would have gotten into. I don’t even want to think about it.
Instead, all the grownups drank was tea, pot after pot of it — drank tea and ate cookies and crullers, dunking now and then. My aunt and Mrs. Stephanik never drank alcohol, never had drunk it. “We don’t need any,” they’d say whenever the topic came up—which only came up because they had brought it up and brought it up in reference to someone who did drink, who drank too much, and that was always the case with anyone who drank at all. Mr. Stephanik, I found out that Thanksgiving Friday, used to be a drinker but hadn’t had a drink in over twenty years. Him? Well, him I think it could have done some good. He was a very unhappy person with a dark and knotted soul.
It had been Mr. Stephanik’s own decision to stop drinking, but still he treated it like something important had been stolen from him. Frank Stephanik, though, being as stubborn as he was grumpy, said he hadn’t been tempted once in all those years. At first, it was hard for me to understand how someone could miss something so much, resent not having it so much, and never once be tempted to go back to it, but the confusion didn’t stay on me long. All I had to do was take a good look at Mr. S. That was the way I was — sometimes I feel like I have eyes inside my head. The whole story was there in his meat and his shape, in his eyes and his shoulders and the way one hand worked the other, there like Braille for the sighted.
Before Thanksgiving Friday, I hadn’t known that he had had a brother. But by the time the Stephaniks left that night, I did. His brother’s name was Ray. He had come up in one of the “some people drink but we don’t” conversations, and what I assumed by the end of the night was this: that Ray was alive and living away somewhere so that Frank hadn’t seen him in a long while, and that there was not a lot of good feeling in their relationship. I understood that when Mr. Stephanik said “People never understood Ray,” he didn’t mean it as a compliment. And when out of the blue he added, “Me and Ray should have switched places, long ago, long ago,” he said it with envy, not guilt, and I knew the whole Ray thing was gnawing at his brain matter.
Then came Christmas Eve. At 9:00, my aunt and Mrs. Stephanik began talking about a thirty-year-old woman, Celia, daughter of Faye. Celia had just died. The topic was supposedly about the tragedy of someone dying young but that was just the starter used to crank them up, to bring light to their eyes and quickness to their jaws. The real topic was Faye, “the liar.” I got hypnotized by the ladies’ faces, and by not thinking about seeing too much, just drawing it all in, managed to watch them both at once, equal. I closed my eyes and saw just the same, saw the brightness falling from the chandelier, the blur around the room’s edges, and those two—one head to the right, one to the left, each face, Leslie’s and Aunt Millie’s, flesh coverings over busy black holes that wound deep and deeper into the fourth dimension.
You could see in the stony way he folded his arms across his chest and stared at the white table-cloth that Mr. Stephanik had gotten hooked on the subject of someone dying young. He began talking, more slowly and deeply than the ladies’ chattering, totally indifferent to them. Him and them were like two radios playing at the same time. Frank talked downwards — down, literally, like didn’t know or care if you were paying attention, down he talked, head tipped, eyes tipped, shoulders rounded. The white of the table-cloth was his audience, wooing, empty but crowded with voices, a millions miles deep.
To the tablecloth, “Celia’s daughter wasn’t the only one who died young. My brother Ray died, he was 20 years old,” he said, eyes hard with bitterness. Ray had been 20 and Frank, Mr. Stephanik, 23. “I been living with it 25 years. That should have been me in that car.” I thought I understood pretty good what he meant by “living with it,” but I had no idea why he thought it should have been him, and that left me a lot of room to imagine. I stared and let his words sink way deep. “’Died in a hot-rodding accident,’” Mr. Stephanik quoted some voice he carried around, shook his head. “Ray was no rebel, everybody knew that. He was more timid than me. And now posterity, twenty-five years.” I nodded agreement. Mr. Stephanik spoke without searching, simply reciting words he’d spoken a thousand times — or if he hadn’t spoken them a thousand times, I was sure he’d heard them a million. Though the words came out flowing, without hesitation, they still came out a beat behind the thought, more echoes of speech than speech itself. “At that time, I was like the James Dean of the family, only rougher. You couldn’t imagine it now.” I knew what James Dean looked like and he was right — even I couldn’t picture him. “I drag raced five nights a week for years. Years. Sometimes I was drunk pretty good, and I had a lot of near scrapes, too, but never a scratch on me.” Locked on the table cloth, his eyes began to bulge like the white cloth was sucking them from his head. I kept nodding, but I wasn’t sure if he could see me, so I gripped the table and began rocking it gently, nodding it, figuring that this would be an “Um-hum” he’d understand and that it would keep him talking. “How many times do I have to hear it? People have always gotten it wrong. Ralph wouldn’t have chanced it, he wouldn’t take a risk. He wouldn’t even stand up for himself. Now I’ve lived with it every day,” he said, his voice speeding up and rising before falling. “That should have been me. My God, sure it should have been me.”
Aunt Millie and Mrs. Stephanik sat frozen, their puss faces on, unhappy at Frank’s long, muttering interruption, impatient for him to be done. But Frank didn’t care or notice. He stared at the table cloth and I nodded at it, like together we had fallen into the same deep white. “I’m sick of it. Sick and tired, fed up,” he said. “I’ve had enough and more.”
Leslie Stephanik looked so bored and annoyed I thought her brains might pour right out of her eyes. “Can I help you clean off the table, Millie?” she asked my aunt. Well, it was obvious that this was just an excuse to get away from Frank. I was surprised they even went to that extent. Probably telling him to shut up would have required a rise in their voices and some churning up of emotion that neither wanted to be bothered with, would have taken more energy than the smiling lie, and so that’s what Mrs. S. went with. Witches, I believe, would have done that, responded angrily and, in their annoyance, laid some sort of curse on Frank, at least one to turn him mute. And even though I sometimes thought of Millie and Leslie as a pair of witches, I never thought of them like that for long. They were no witches, and I’ll bet any witch would have told you so. Witches weren’t just proud of their wickedness, they enjoyed it, too, and witches believed in things — in the power of darkness, in covens, omens, meanings, and spells. Millie and Leslie believed in Nothing.
“Sure,” said my aunt nodding. “That’s a good idea, Leslie.” I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but there was always some sort of joke when they said one another’s names: “Yes, Leslie,” “Certainly, Millie.” So Aunt Millie pushed back her seat and together the ladies stood. Mrs. Stephanik reached in front of me to take my tea cup and as her beige sleeve lifted away and fanned me, I caught the smell of her perfume — a flowery fragrance that put me more in mind of funeral homes and dried bouquets than it did of springtime fields. “Come with us,” said Aunt Millie. “Come on, Francis Victor. Stand up!” she ordered.
Me and Mr. Stephanik were left alone, the room rounded, soft-edged, floating. “I’m done. I’ve had enough and more,” he said and shut his eyes. I rocked the table. He shook his head and opened his eyes, but he wouldn’t speak any more. I tried again, got nowhere. He looked at me, really through me, to show the dumb nothing in his gaze. He folded his arms across his chest, closed his eyes, and sighed. I laid my arms on the tablecloth and rested my head upon them. Far away and lazily, I dreamed about Frank, in sentences not pictures: When Frank says “It should have been me not him in a casket,” he’s picturing someone up on a pedestal, not buried in the dirt. When he says, “I came out with not a scratch on me,” he’s saying something that is a source of hurtful disappointment, not something he’s proud of—like his good luck was bad. The “it” he had been living with had been born at the moment of his brother’s fiery death on Central Avenue, at the triangle of Washington Park and the Union-City line, but the grief beneath “it” was about the loss of something more personal than a brother. It was a deeper-inside-of-him thing that had been permanently taken away. “I understand everything,” I said to myself. I lifted my head: All these years since Ray’s death have been a limbo for Mr. Stephanik, a time of waiting in the gloom and nothing else, and he was done with it.
“I’m done with it,” he said and I nodded back.
The New Year’s Eve snowstorm began right around dusk, the snow a swirling mix of flakes, big and small, slow and fast, dangling clouds of petal-like flakes and powder suddenly spirited and whirled through space. Francis Victor was not at home, he was out “looking for something to do,” and, together, me and Aunt Millie sank deeper into the night, watching TV, waiting for Guy Lombardo’s Champagne Celebration to come on at 10:00, waiting not with any real eagerness, but more like a minute-by-minute version of x’ing out the days of a calendar.
With ten o’clock, the Champagne Celebration came on, and we went on, watching grimly. Then ten o’clock went and, doing the one thing we knew how to do, we went on some more. The only time my heart actually pumped, rather than leaked, was when I looked out the window, into the beautiful snowfall. In the deepest part of me, I was hoping for three feet, for thirty-six inches, a record they’d talk about for a long, long time. I was hoping that when I got up the next morning everything would be buried in unmelting snow. And that, slowly, front doors would be pushed open by people centuries old, that church bells would ring, that all heaven would go beautiful grey, and that, high in tree branches, brown birds, overseeing and as pleased as me, would stand atop foot-tall wedges of snow.
But moments later I was very sad when I looked out the window and it seemed like the snow was letting up. The wind had died down, the snow flakes were more scattered and slower, almost steady, barely falling at all — scattered and slow enough I could count them. Troubled, I sat down again. But soon again, very soon, I got itchy to look. Soon I was up again and at the window. My heart lifted when I looked out to see the storm more powerful than ever, tree limbs swaying — like not from the wind but by a rollicking anger inside them — throwing from themselves blocks of white that exploded into powder halfway to the ground. “It’s a real blizzard out there now,” I allowed myself to say, indifferent to whatever contrary reaction Aunt Millie would have, my lips so close to the window that I could feel first the glass’s cold then the returning warmth of my own breath, my words against the pane turned to a circle of fog.
Recently on our block, the old yellow tear-drop streetlamps had been replaced by whiter wafer-shaped lights, strong enough to cast shadows deeper than the ones the old lights cast and starker than those the sunlight did. With the snow reflecting the light, outside seemed whiter and brighter than day. Above us, the snowflakes fell from a grey-brown sky that faded into infinity. Gazing down at the street was like looking into a crystal ball.
Suddenly, two doors away, the metal gate in front of the Stephaniks pushed open. It carved an arc in the snow and out he stepped, Frank Stephanik. The sad saga that had been his last 25 years and his sinking sick-and-tired words, “I’ve had enough and more,” jumped to the front of my mind.
For a hat, Mr. Stephanik wore one of those snap-brimmed jobs like a lot of the old guys wear, guys much older than him. He wore black pants and had on shoe rubbers, not full boots — I could see his fluorescent white socks — even though the snow had already piled up to nearly a foot. He must have had on extra layers under his blue corduroy coat because he seemed all bloated and stiff, like he couldn’t have gotten his arms to fold. He was heavy and weightless at the same time, a helpless, over-filled blow up toy.
Since it was late at night, and New Year’s night, and we were still in the middle of the storm, not many sidewalks had been shoveled, the one to the left of our house being one that had, the one past the Stephaniks being another, both, though, with just narrow, nearly straight paths, a single snow-shovel in width. Okay, I figured, as he took his first digs into the glistening blanket. Okay, that’s what Mr. Stephanik is working on, too, a single row. He was maybe one-third of the way done when my aunt called to me, “Get away from that window, would you please. You’re making me nervous.”
I did, I tried, but my mind stayed there. The window was so much more alive and exciting than the TV that when I returned to my seat I felt like someone trapped in a cave, not allowed to look out. Aunt Millie or no Aunt Millie, I couldn’t stay in the cushy chair letting the aliveness poured into my by the snow and the lights and the cold wind get drained off by the TV. So I got up to straighten the curtain. I yawned and stretched, and I leaned back down on the window sill as though I was tired or like I had a bad back. I could feel her shaking her head behind me.
Mr. Stephanik finished his path, connecting it up with the next one past his house, his shoveled-snow piled up along the curb. Instead of knocking the snow off his shovel and heading into the house, though, he started right in on a second row, doubling the width of the path. “How come?” I wondered. My answer — that “he’d had enough and more” — came from nowhere, a lightning bolt from the grey-brown inside my own head, and my eyes lit up in excitement and fear and even joy.
Mr. Stephanik worked his way back towards me, digging his shovel under the thick snow, lifting and heaving, working rapidly, never pausing to catch his breath, not once until he’d completed the whole second row. Then he paused and huffed, in defeat not accomplishment. His body shrank as his muscles relaxed. He opened the top button of his coat, his back heaving. Holding himself up with both hands gripped to the handle, he rested. Aunt Millie muttered something behind me, but I didn’t make words from it. Then I heard shuffling sounds as well, and I felt darkness, but I didn’t turn around.
Mr. Stephanik let go of the shovel and flicked it with his fingers. The handle toppled into the snow, buried there. He turned, facing me. He blinked twice and took a couple of steps towards his porch, and I thought that the answer and the whole story I had concocted had been wrong. I was relieved that it was wrong, the story I had made up being so grim—I was a little disappointed, too, though, since I always think my imaginings are so right.
To my surprise, Mr. Stephanik didn’t continue into his house. He turned and, genuflecting on one knee, lifted the shovel from the snow. Then he wound up and smashed it against his gate post, metal to metal, loud enough that the sound reached me and the vibration tingled through the whole scene, cars and trees and window-glass and all. He smashed the shovel again and he smashed it again, each time with the same effort but less strength. My heart, pressed to the window sill, pounded so my fingertips could feel my pulse in the wood.
A minute later, he was back shoveling harder than ever. This time, though, Mr. Stephanik wasn’t working on another row, not a row at all. This time he was attacking the snow on either side of him, left and right, clearing off the whole sidewalk. When his shovel got stuck because it hit some ice or came up against a crack in the concrete, he’d lift the shovel over his head and smash it against the snowless ground like he was trying to axe his way to below.
He shoveled beyond his own house, the entire sidewalk cleared except for powdery spillback, and he kept on digging without a pause. But he didn’t go on for much longer before he did. Before he did pause. He straightened halfway up and staggered, one hand holding onto the shovel. He turned back, behind himself, shuffling his feet, and he stared into the uneven stacks of white like they had called to him. As he stared, the first snowplow of the night, a big mustard yellow monster, Jersey City Parking Authority across the door in black, came slowly clanging down the block, the driver, on the wrong side — on what in any other vehicle would have been the passenger side — leaning out the window, staring at the frozen Mr. Stephanik as he went by. Mr. Stephanik looked up and tried to wave. His elbow twitched but his hand wouldn’t leave the shovel and all he could manage was the slightest nod of the head. He held that position — forward leaning, one hand on the shovel — until the driver flicked his cigarette far into the snow and the plow wheeled around the corner, onto Congress Street and on down the hill. The shovel fell before Mr. Stephanik did. With the hand that had been holding the shovel, he took off his wooly hat, and with two hands he pressed it against his face as he fell forward into the snow, round, stiff, dead.
There was no need to call anyone. No reason to disrupt things, not yet. I watched time falling as snow. At first, the flakes dissolved as they hit Mr. Stephanik, then they began to stick, frosting him in white. I’m ashamed of the joy I felt, but I did feel it, I felt it deep.
When I turned back to the living room, Aunt Millie was gone and the apartment was black except for the fluorescent-green face of the clock on the TV. It showed that it was many minutes still before the new year, which meant that time had passed either very slowly or very quickly, but as I disappeared I couldn’t get straight which.
— Joe Colicchio was born in Jersey City and teaches there at Hudson County Comunity College. His previous novels include “High Gate Health and Beauty” (2000) and “The Trouble with Mental Wellness” (2004). He is a recipient of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Distinguished Artist Award. This is his second appearance in The American. The first was “The Trouble With Mental Wellness.