The bathroom of the 7-Up plant in the Bronx is an artist’s canvas for pornographic drawings. A giant penis, balls with hair, vaginas, large-lettered dirty language. A perverse form of hieroglyphics. This new, raw world is a wonderment, far away from green suburbia.
My Uncle Charlie’s route is in Manhattan. The hookers in Midtown capture my attention. Long hair, long legs, lipstick. The harsh sunlight makes them appear banal. In movies set in the city, prostitutes always seemed part of a garish night, hanging around peep shows and seedy drug dealers. A few of these women watch me unload cases of soda from the truck and say, “Hey, cutie.” I blush. Their attention gives me confidence, a new identity antithetical to my 14-year-old life in the suburbs.
I navigate my hand truck through candy stores the width of a pencil, bodegas, restaurants, bars, hotels, supermarkets. In the Roseland dance hall, the manager makes me an ice cream sundae, which I eat at a table alongside an empty dance floor. Uncle Charlie tells me that he spent his bachelor days here dancing to big band music. That’s when people really knew how to dance, he says.
Uncle Charlie grew up in East Harlem when it was an Italian neighborhood. His education didn’t get beyond ninth grade. Before 7-Up, he worked on a printing press, which cut off half of his index finger. All the cousins used to joke that the rest of the finger ended up in a bottle of 7-Up because we didn’t know he had done other things before driving a truck.
We bounce through potholes in the truck. I leaf through dirty magazines, courtesy of the vendors. At a stoplight, a prostitute winks at me. I think about the dance at school coming up after the vacation and, for a moment, I think I might have the courage to ask out a girl in math who sits across the row from me.
My week on the truck ends. Uncle Charlie drives me back home on Saturday. He tells my father that he made me into a man. My mother has gone back into the hospital for more chemotherapy. The week on the truck was supposed to keep me distracted from her situation.
I hide the magazines in my tree fort in the woods.
In school, I have a hard time concentrating. I keep thinking about the prostitute who told me I had nice hair when I was in the bakery. She had a cast on her arm and had ordered a jelly donut, my favorite. I didn’t think she was a hooker until my uncle told me later. She was a blonde, my favorite hair color for a girl.
Two weeks later my mother dies. At the funeral, friends and relatives tell me that I’m the man of the house now and have to keep an eye on my younger brother and sister. For three days, our house is full of people and food, and then everyone is gone and it’s back to school.
One day I come home from school and see a fire truck in the neighborhood. There has been a fire in the woods. When the ruckus is over, I take a walk and see the pile of smoking wet rubble that was once my tree fort. I think about my magazines; I think about how those fantasy images were now pieces of ash floating away into a clear blue sky.