By Mark Chiusano
You know, the Speaker said, leaning one arm on top of the podium, I saw a movie the other day, with my father, actually, when I was able to get out of work cutting a hard deal on the damn budget—15 firehouses saved, no teachers laid off!—an old lady in the back of the crowd gave a whoop—and I went to see a movie at Brooklyn College with my dad, and let me tell you it was a heartwarming movie, a documentary about a group of friends who themselves went to Brooklyn College years ago, and remained friends, and never left this great borough, and every Wednesday they have lunch together. Men who lunch, they call it. Some people laughed. And some days they go to Spumoni Gardens, and some days Grimaldi’s, and some days Junior’s, but every week they have something to look forward to, and that’s being together with their fellow New Yorkers, companionship, what we all need. At this the Speaker looked behind her. And I know my wife is gonna be kicking me out of the house on Wednesdays when I’m that age, just so she can get some peace and quiet! I know that’s what she wants! Because let’s be honest, we all know, me included, that one of the things I’ve been gifted with is a big mouth!
The Speaker gathered her notes and stood properly behind the podium, beaming. I want to thank Councilperson Lew Fidler, without whom there would be no center behind us today. I want to thank Borough President Marty Markowitz for always being the cheerleader that he is for Brooklyn, best borough in the world after Queens, just kidding. I want to thank Councilperson Peter Vallone and Councilperson Jumaane Williams for supporting Lew’s spearheading of this effort, my whole staff, Lew’s whole staff, Steelworkers United Chapter 57, who raised this thing from the ground, literally from the ground, my friends. And Bassett’s catering, whose wonderful Brooklyn food we’re all about to eat! The speaker put her notes to the side. Now, as my father says, even though he’s a regular mick and I don’t know where in heavens he picked this up, mangia! Piggy jumped up, and so did Jose, sitting in one of the back folding chairs, gesturing for the rest of the caterers to take their places. They pulled the tin-foil lids back. There was a general scraping of chairs as the seniors and dignitaries and cops rose—but as if it were church, and this the end of Mass, the seniors waited while Quinn and her people walked down the middle aisle, toward the food.
Red was standing, and he saw the three men who had approached the edge of the tables from the basketball courts down Fillmore. No stop and frisk, one of them said, first low, but then the man and the other two said it louder. The Speaker, walking toward the trays, heard it and stiffened, the seniors turning around. She motioned to her advance man and gestured, and he started walking toward them, clipboard in hand, palm outstretched. But the men said it only one more time and walked away, toward the street. The pin lady, back in the front row, took the opportunity to chime in. And ban fracking, she grumbled, but almost no one heard her. She stood up, too, to make her way toward the food. The Speaker’s smile was already relaxed again, and she continued down the line shaking hands. She picked up a Styrofoam plate when she got to the trays, and looked around for silverware. Let’s get some food going here, she said.
The advance man was next to her. The police officers were behind. Lew Fidler was at the drinks table, laughing loudly and holding his cup for another caterer to pour soda into it. Red and Piggy had their arms folded behind their backs as the Speaker came up to their station. Hello Madame Speaker, Red said, and looked to Piggy, but Piggy didn’t say anything. His mouth was open, in a mix of wonderment, shock and delight. Everyone was looking at them. Now I would just love me some linguini, the Speaker said, and offered Piggy her plate. Slowly Piggy took it, and he filled it up to the brim with pasta, thin and dripping with olive oil, cheap clams. He piled it high onto her plate, so that only with his whole hand balancing underneath could he possibly support it. The Speaker watched in anticipation. Piggy looked at her. He put the plastic spoon back in his tray. He locked eyes with the Speaker and together their smiles began to falter. Red looked at Piggy, and the color in his face told Red already that something was wrong. Piggy’s hands trembled beneath the Styrofoam. Red started to move toward him. But it was too late, because Piggy gave a little cry, a mix between a shout and a yawn, and threw the plate of linguini in the Speaker’s face.
It was left to Red, of course, to face the music. Or, at least, the less serious half of the music, because the police officers had immediately pushed Piggy to the ground and gotten handcuffs on him, stuffed his head into the unmarked black sedan. People around Red were saying they were going to charge Piggy with a hate crime, that the advance man had thought he heard a homosexual slur as Piggy threw the plate. Some of the seniors had heard the Speaker fuming, as she walked through the crowd to the second, last-remaining police sedan, the advance man following after her, handing her napkins, one at a time—Why do I even come to Marine Park, the Speaker said. Bunch of morons. Fidler tried to get in the car with her but she shouted, Out! The cars sped away, and it was just the seniors left with the food.
After he’d done his share of the cleaning, with Jose doing much of the heavy lifting, what with Piggy gone, Red drove the van down Quentin and dropped everything off at the office. He was about to slink out when Jose saw him walking and gestured a finger in his direction. Here, he said. Mr. Bassett wants to speak with you.
Jose opened the door onto a long corridor, and the corridor’s floor was covered with carpet, and there were framed prints from museums on the walls. He motioned Red in. On his left Red passed a formal dining room, the cushions of the chairs covered in plastic. At the end of the corridor an old white hand waved at him, and gestured him inside. Mr. Bassett sat behind a desk, in a room lined floor to ceiling with books. Red remained standing.
How long have you been in my employ? Mr. Bassett asked Red.
About a month, Red said. Bassett was wearing khakis and a button-down shirt, and there was a cane leaning against the desk, its handle worn. I’ve enjoyed it, Red added, because Bassett hadn’t said anything.
What’s the idea? Bassett asked him finally. You and Lester. What were you thinking of? Was this some kind of political statement? Were you trying to get in the papers?
Red had his hands stuffed in his pockets. It’s nothing like that Mr. Bassett, he said. I guess Piggy just snapped.
Bassett leered at him, his wrinkled mouth widening. Red couldn’t tell what he was thinking. I’ll have to fire the two of you, you know, he said. But I do appreciate young people who have some sense of politics. It’s good for the community. Bassett picked up the phone and said, Jose?
Red walked out of the office on Quentin. He didn’t have anything to take with him. He took his cell phone out of his pocket and it was full of missed calls from strange numbers, in addition to messages from his parents and various friends. Without checking them, he dialed Tonianne’s number.
What happened? she said, her voice verging on excited. You’re all over the news. They’re having a field day. Someone got a picture, and you’re standing right next to the guy. Was he some kind of psycho? Red had only said hello.
Red? Tonianne asked. How’re you doing Red? What’s up?
I got fired, Red said finally.
Tonianne paused. I’m sorry. I’m sure you could get it back. She paused again. But also, it’s just catering.
Red sat down on a stoop, the house’s lights all off, no one to bother him. It was midsummer in Marine Park, but dusk felt almost like fall. In the open air, he was reminded of school starting, Halloween, trick or treating, becoming too old for that. He knew only one thing—none of that would happen again. It was the only thing he knew for sure. It was July now, the beginning of the summer, really. There was so much summer left.
It’s fine, Red said. Really. It’s nothing at all. There was a crack in the air from a few blocks away, and a small illegal firework exploded, some kids shrieking, souped-up car alarms going off. There was laughter and somebody yelled, America!
Happy Fourth, Red said to Tonianne, and he saw it all in front of him. He would make plans with her for that evening. They would go to a restaurant, perhaps near her apartment, with candles and heavy tablecloths. They would talk about her work, about things they’d shared in the past, neighborhood things, their short lives. There would be no rush to leave. The fireworks over the Hudson only came after dark. Waiters would bring their food on wide white plates, elegantly, preening, the food steaming and sizzling as it got closer and closer to them.
Mark Chiusano’s collection of stories, Marine Park: Stories, was published by Penguin in August 2014. His stories and essays have appeared in Narrative, Harvard Review, and online at Tin House and The Paris Review Daily, among other places.