‘Nose to Nose’


Brian and his dad, Rick, walked down Main Street, turned left and strolled along Belgrade Avenue. Triple deckers lined the streets close to the edge of the sidewalk. A pizza parlor and convenience store, run by the same Greek immigrant family, spilled out sounds of activity and warm smells. There was hardly anyone on the street beside them, which was just the way Rick liked it; he hated stopping for small talk with neighbors or smiling at strangers. Father and son were headed home from the YMCA after Brian’s karate class. Rick wanted to stop in for a beer at Kelley’s and to watch the Sox vs Yankee baseball game. He was bringing Brian along because he was babysitting today.

Usually Rick left the boy’s care to Ellen, his wife. But today she was at the doctor’s so he was taking Brian back and forth from his afternoon commitments. Frankly, he didn’t see why Brian couldn’t have just skipped his karate class and stayed with Ellen’s sister for the afternoon, but he hadn’t challenged Ellen’s request for his help. And Rick was bringing him home.

It wasn’t that Rick didn’t want to be with Brian, but he wanted to stay at home and be with him, not have to go out in public. Not that it was embarrassing to Rick, but he wanted to protect Brian from all the stares and questions that he got, especially from children.

Kelley’s scent of stale beer and French fries greeted them as they opened the door and walked inside. Brian hesitated by the door for a minute.

“It’s dark,” Brian announced.

“Yeah, it always is.” Rick led him to the bar by the sleeve of his Red Sox jacket and motioned him towards a stool. They sat down side by side. The bartender, KC, wrapped in a filthy white apron, smiled when he saw Brian. “Hey, big guy. What’s happening?”

Brian shook KC’s hand and then slapped him high five. “What’ll you have?” KC asked Brian. “The usual?” Brian guffawed, right on cue as he did whenever anyone paid attention to him, setting off that rocket of hate in Rick whenever anyone teased with Brian this way. The few patrons at the bar glanced over and nodded at Rick, then looked back at the TV and the baseball game.  

“Coke, please,” Brian said and smiled at his father, the drool slipping down his chin. Brian, like most small children, loved to be around people. Rick sometimes regretted that they couldn’t have any more children after Brian, but other times he felt glad that they didn’t have any others like him. Ellen had been told that any more children were out of the question after Brian. Complications. His life was filled with them.

“Who’s winning?” Rick asked KC.

“Sox aren’t. Why can’t we have a winning season from the get-go?” KC stood back from the bar, arms spread like a preacher at the pulpit. “I’m sick of watching the Yankees kick our ass.”

“Kick our ass.” repeated Brian as he picked up his glass to slurp through the straw.

Rick glanced at his son, “Don’t repeat things.”

Brian nodded. “Okay Dad. Sorry.”

Brian liked lots of crushed ice in his soda so he could crunch. Rick’s stomach turned as he watched the soda dribble out of the boy’s full mouth. He turned to the TV set. A tall burley man in a Scally cap and Irish knit sweater entered the bar. Rick turned and saw his high school friend framed in the light behind him as the door swung shut.

“How’s it going?” he asked Rick as he took the seat on the other side of him.

“Not bad George, not bad.” George nodded to K.C. who was already sliding a draft across the bar to him.

“Hey, kid,” George asked Brian, who was startled by the booming voice.

“Huh?” Brian turned his body to look at George and knocked over his glass. Coke spread across the counter. Brian began to whimper, trying with his hand to dam the liquid from spilling any farther.

“Jesus.” Rick reached across the counter to right the glass, but it was too late, the contents had emptied and were traveling on their own. “KC, sponge. Can’t take you anywhere.” He was shaking his head and muttering under his breath.

KC tossed the rag and Rick wiped up the soda, with a crying Brian looking on.

“No big deal, kid. It happens all the time in here. Why do you think it always smells like beer?” KC tousled Brian’s hair, who responded by smiling widely and cooing, tears drying up immediately.

George, with his usual frankness, motioned towards Brian and said; “Must be tough having a kid like that.”

Rick glared at him. “What would you know about that. Your kid is a big baseball star.” Rick shifted away from George. He could feel that all too familiar anger rising in his gut, an awakening volcano--feeling it was going to happen, and powerless to stop it. He did what he always did. He ran.

“Hurry up, Brian. We’ve got to go home.” Brian gulped down the soda, the overflow running down his face, and hopped up to join his dad who was halfway out the door. “See you.” KC waved. “Bye, Brian.”

“Bye-bye,” Brian said and waved back at the bartender, nearly walking into the door that was slamming shut behind Rick.

Once out into the sunlight, Rick felt the anger ebb. Rising and falling. There was no control over it beyond just getting out of the situation that made him angry in the first place. Not very efficient, but it kept him out of fights most of his life. Rick had not been able to talk about his anger even when Ellen could pinpoint exactly why he was angry. He wasn’t having any of that psychological crap.

“Mom home?” Brian asked as they began the climb up their hill. Montvale Ave. They lived at the halfway mark.

“Dad.” Brian shook Rick’s shoulder, trying to get his attention. “Dad. Dad.” Rick shook him off.

“What?” Brian stood nose to nose with Rick. It startled him to realize that.

“Mom’s home.” Brian began to lope up the hill towards the house. Ellen had parked in front of the house, never having gotten comfortable pulling into the steep driveway. As they rounded the turn, Rick had sharp and pleasant memory of last winter when Brian went sledding down their driveway over and over again. Every Saturday during the winter, Rick would shovel the snow back onto the narrow slope so that Brian could sled while Rick stood at the foot of the driveway to watch for cars. Sometimes Susana from upstairs would come out and join Brian, sledding on a piece of cardboard. Right now, Rick was anxious to hear Ellen’s news. He and Brian walked up the back stairs with Brian scooping up his cat, Poppy, from the bottom step and holding open the door for his dad.

Ellen was at the back door nearly as soon as they were. She wore a huge smile as she hugged Brian hello. They never took each other for granted. Every time mother and son saw each other after being apart, it was as if each was returning from a long trip. Rick got jealous sometimes. Not this time though. He was still trying to stop feeling angry for yelling at Brian and George in the bar. Next time, he wouldn’t stop in there. That stupid George always had something to say. Brian hung his jacket on his own peg right next to Ellen’s.

“What’s for supper, Ma?” he asked.

“Your favorite-macaroni and cheese.” She pointed to the blue box on the counter.

“Yea!” He ran off to the TV room.

“What did the doctor say?” Rick hung his own jacket.

“I need to have a minor procedure.” She looked out the window while she spoke.

“What kind of procedure?” Rick went to stand behind her and looked over her shoulder out the window. She was staring towards a pair of cardinals, feeding at the small cedar birdhouse.

“Something that requires me to stay overnight. I scheduled it for next Friday.”

“Friday!” She had said minor, but minor meant day surgery and this was overnight.

“Yes, Friday. I want to get it over with.”

“I’ll go into work late so I can get Brian off to school.” “I’ll leave him with your sister after school until I can get you home. You’ll be home on Saturday, right? Brian and I will come and get you first thing?”

“Should be.”

“What do you mean, ‘should be’?” Rick clenched the back of the chair. “What’s the doctor going to do anyhow?”