Thursday, August 23, 2012

Playing For Tommaso - an excerpt from THE COLD INSIDE

Playing For Tommaso

an excerpt from



Saturday November 5, 1994

The sun was lost behind the crowded Albany skyline but its pale yellow illumination lingered on, radiating between the buildings and through the crowded streets. It was getting cold again, that last bit of autumn before winter. It wouldn’t be long before coats gave way to parkas and sneakers gave way to heavy boots but at least for a few more weekends Adelphos would be able to ride his brother’s bicycle home. He rode fast, slaloming from the sidewalk to the road and back again, racing through the shadows that pooled around the buildings.

Homework and dinner leftovers were waiting for him. Adelphos would finish both off tonight because his Sunday was already booked. His father gave him Saturdays off but Sundays, and every weekday after school, his ass belonged to the family business.

A decade ago Adelphos’ father had bought the WEST ALBANY PAWN AND ANTIQUES from its ailing owner. It wasn’t much to look at, a dingy hole in the wall located in one of Albany’s rougher neighborhoods. Most of the Chavez family thought Camilo was crazy to squander his savings in such a way but Camilo knew better. Right away he started making changes, downplaying the pawnshop aspect of the store and concentrating on old books and antiques. He stocked the shop with merchandise he’d been acquiring for years. Adelphos’ father had always had a nose for antiques; each piece he found he restored as best he could. Bargain-hunters and antique-hounds alike began to notice. Within the first year the store had changed so much that Camilo decided to change the sign as well, his eldest son Tommaso picked a name that the whole family thought was perfect; TRASH AND TREASURES.

TRASH AND TREASURES became the focus of the Chavez family’s life; Camilo worked there from open to close on the weekdays with Adelphos, Tommaso and their mother filled in whenever time allowed. Every weekend Adelphos and his older brother were left in charge while Camilo went out hunting for fresh collectables at garage sales and flea markets.

Over the course of four years the business thrived, eventually expanding to the point where it could afford to move to a better location. TRASH AND TREASURES now occupied a large storefront in one of Albany’s more trafficked shopping plazas. It’s inventory was one part antiques, one part used books, one part old videos and CDs and a little bit of everything else.

Adelphos paused at a busy intersection and waited for the light to change. A cop car slowed as it drove past him but didn’t stop or give him any trouble. Thank Jesus for that, getting patted down once a year was just fine by him. The light changed, he started pedaling again.

Memories of minding the store with Tommaso always made him smile. Most of the time he’d wandered around straightening shelves and keeping watch for the sticky-fingered neighborhood kids. He let his brother man the cash register. Between every customer his nose was buried in a book. Tommaso always loved books, any kind of book; science fiction, comics, horror, true crime, history, even those cheesy romance novels. He would read it and he would read it fast. He could devour one of those thick Stephen King books in two days.

It was one of the benefits of having a genius IQ and that wasn’t just bragging, all the tests and retests made it obvious that Camilo’s oldest son was headed for glory. Adelphos wasn’t jealous, he was proud.

It was growing darker, yellow daylight giving way to purple dusk. Already the moon and Venus were visible, soon the constellations would reveal themselves in all their pale glory. The Big Dipper, Orion the Hunter and all the rest, Tommaso had taught him how to recognize them on a camping trip years ago.

Crossing the street on his brother’s bicycle Adelphos kept a wary eye out for traffic, his goal nearly in sight. He’d dawdled too long at Greg’s but it had been a great game of Dungeons & Dragons and great games always made the group talkative. They would reminisce about past adventures and scenes from books and movies they loved. Sometimes Adelphos found it sad that for Warren, Rich and Drew some of their fondest memories of adolescence were going to be of things that never happened.

High school had been rough on his brother as well. The public school was a disaster area, vandalism was common, fire alarms were pulled almost monthly and the brainy kids were objects of derision and abuse. It had always been hard for Tommaso, his slender build and gentle nature set him aparts, made him a target. As he grew older it only got worse. At first he’d wanted desperately to be accepted but as the years ground on he simply wanted to be left alone.

The Chavez family did what they could, Ramona consoled her oldest son and Camilo tried to teach him how to fight, but Tommaso was no fighter. Complaints were made to the principal and vice principal countless times but both men seemed to view the whole situation as a waste of time. Their only advice was to encourage the boy to stay quiet and keep to himself, to try and blend in.

“Damn.” Adelphos whispered angrily as he pedaled the last few yards. The front gate of the cemetery was already closed. “Too late.” Too late to use his shortcut this week. Straddling his brother’s bicycle he stared through the bars of the tall wrought iron fence.

Slowly, over the course of two years, Adelphos watched his brother wilt away. Tommaso became a wraith-like figure, going to and from school, going to and from work but never looking up, never speaking in complete sentences. Finally, one day he reached his breaking point.

Once news of his brother’s leap from the rooftop of an Albany office building got out there were assemblies, grief councilors and a whole page set-aside in the yearbook but it was all for show. Tommaso’s classmates never really cared about him. He was nothing more to them than a punchline; The skinny spic from the honor roll that thought he could fly.

Adelphos ran his bare hands along the icy metal fenceposts and thought to himself how much he’d like to run into one of those jerks now. He had never been one to walk away from a fight. When he reached high school the year after his brother’s literal and figurative fall, he would see kids getting picked on because they were too meek, too skinny or too smart and he couldn’t stand for it. Six fights in one semester got him expelled from his brother’s old high school. Five more got him kicked out of a different high school a year later.

That was when his father decided to send him to Blessed Heart, to try and ‘Straighten him out’. But all Adelphos found at the fancy school was that rich kids could be even bigger jerks than poor kids could. He could have sat at any table he wanted, the Pretty Boys invited him to join their ranks, and Linda Kaspary invited him to one of her parties. But Adelphos could see how fake their smiles were, he knew he was just a novelty. He found himself gravitating towards the kids they called Smudge, Graveyard, Tubbo, Sadam Jr., and Dick Head.

It was almost night now. The glare of headlights, streetlights and neon signs made the constellations seem pale and washed out. Adelphos started pedaling again, taking the long way. He was opening the store tomorrow, his father would be by during lunch. Maybe they would talk, but probably they wouldn’t. His father didn’t talk that much any more.

The last part of the way home was up a steep hill. Adelphos switched gears on his brother’s bike and pushed hard against the pedals. He remembered his childhood, how he and Tommaso would spend whole summer afternoons on this hill, riding their bikes all the way to the very top and then zooming back down to the bottom again. It had been like having their own private roller coaster.

Halfway there the heat began to build in his muscles. It felt good, it kept him from thinking. He focused on his breathing and before he knew it he was there. The first house at the top of the hill was his home. Gliding into his yard he carefully parked his brother’s bicycle in the garage. His mother’s car wasn’t there, but his father’s car was. A familiar weight settling onto his shoulders Adelphos made his way up the long ramp that lead to his front door.

His father was already in bed. Classical music was drifting in from Tomasso’s room, filling the house. Adelphos recognized it as Brahms. He shouldered out of his backpack and removed the hardcover Dungeons & Dragons books, Tommaso’s books. He’d always been into these kinds of games, it seemed like he had one of every kind on his bookshelves, but he’d never been able to find anyone to play with. Occasionally he would run a game for his younger brother but Adelphos hadn’t never seen the point.

Adelphos stepped into his brother’s room thinking Now I play. Now I play for both of us.

The shelves in his brother’s room were crowded with books, a card table with medical supplies was up against the window. The Brahms was issuing from a state of the art stereo system, a recent Christmas gift. Adelphos put the Dungeons and Dragons books back on the appropriate shelf and sat down on the edge of his brother’s bed. He smiled, “Hey buddy.”

Tomasso’s eyes flickered with recognition at the sight of his brother but there was no way he could get out of the massive wheeled chair to shake his hand, there was no way he could shout a greeting; he couldn’t even crack a smile. The fall had left his every movement a palsied struggle.

“It was a great game tonight. We ran late.” Adelphos continued, “My Ranger made eighth level and we finally raided the Lich’s tomb...”

1 comment:

  1. This is absolutely fantastic Al! You really pulled the wool over my eyes, making me think Tomasso was dead, but no, his situation is much worse than death. Now of course I must read the rest of the story. Thanks for posting this excerpt!