I had never heard about my cousin Boy until Mom started crying in the kitchen as she read a letter. I’d been in the living room listening to Uncle Don on the radio and went to her and saw a picture on the table of a little boy about my age. “Who’s that, Mom?”
“What’s his name?”
“Boy,” Mom said wiping her eyes.
“That’s his name?”
“Yes. He’s very sick and not getting any better.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
Mom sniffled. “When he was born the midwife dropped Boy on his head. He was baptized privately; no one was ever told his name.”
“That seems mean.”
“Well, there’s his sisters Velma and Emmy, and Uncle Jack said it would suffice that everyone in the family call his son ‘Boy.’”
Uncle Jack was my Dad’s brother, and I had only met him once when he came to the city for my grandmother’s funeral. When we went to the tenement on the Lower East Side, the coffin was in the kitchen next to the bathtub.
Pop’s other brothers and sisters were there, laughing and drinking beer while their mother lay in that coffin. I sat in the corner with my mother. “Why aren’t they sad, Mom?”
She hugged me against her. “I don’t know, Vinny.”
The first time I met Boy was when I was 9 years old. We drove up to Poughkeepsie for a visit, and I saw him standing in the garage holding the business end of a hammer, trying to bang a nail with the handle. Uncle Jack took the hammer away, and said, “Boy, do you want to hurt yourself?”
Boy stared down at his Buster Brown shoes, his cheeks turning all red. I took a baseball from my pocket and asked, “Do you want to play catch?”
Uncle Jack pushed me away and Pop stepped in saying, “Hey!”
My uncle backed up like he was afraid of Pop. “Sorry, Dave.”
We went inside and had dinner, but Boy was sent to his room. Later as we sat on the porch my cousin Emmy told me that Boy always took his meals in his room. On the way home in the car Mom cried. Pop shook his head and said, “It’s a damn shame, but Boy won’t get better.”
I didn’t see Boy again until we were teenagers, and he had grown tall and handsome but something seemed off in his eyes. He went to the local high school, apparently had some friends, but still Uncle Jack wouldn’t let him drive the car or get an afterschool job.
Boy was in the kitchen cooking a roast, mashing potatoes, and preparing a pie crust. I watched in awe as he worked. Aunt Alice put her hand on his shoulder and said, “Boy is a better cook than I am.”
Boy now joined the family but was quiet during dinner. After the wonderful meal I followed him outside. We walked silently across the road and down a slope through woods toward the Hudson River.
Boy looked up at me with a serious expression. “My name is Ernest.”
“I…I am sorry,” I said.
He turned and stared at the river. “I’m a senior too, but I’m not much for school.”
“I guess it’s tough for you.”
“No, not at all,” Ernest said. “I just don’t like school; the work is easy.”
“But I was told….”
He picked up a long branch and started snapping it. “I didn’t know my name until I went to school. Even after I learned to read and write, Dad treated me like a pet; never taught me to use tools or throw a ball.”
“Hey,” he turned and grabbed my arm, “I don’t blame Dad or anyone. The doctor came after the midwife dropped me, saying my brain was damaged and I’d never have a normal life.”
“Bastards!” I said, feeling anger I had never felt before.
Ernest let go of me and started snapping the branch again. “No, Mom and Dad just let fear get the best of them, but I can’t go on much longer.”
“What you gonna do?” I asked.
He stood up, brushed leaves off his pants, and pointed to the river. “Soon as I finish school, I’m going down there, get on a boat, and go somewhere else. That’s when I start my new life.”
“You have my address,” I said. “You can always come for a visit.”
“No offense,” Ernest said with a hand on my shoulder, “but your Dad is just like mine. They lived in that little apartment too long, slept with two other brothers in one bed, and nothing is ever going to change them.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
In 1940 I had a job at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and saw Ernest walking out of the Ford Pavilion wearing a fine suit. I ran over to him, and we shook hands. I asked, “What have you been doing?”
“I live in Manhattan now. I just opened a new restaurant.” He wrote the address on a piece of paper. “Please come down and be my guest.”
“Really? That’s amazing!”
“Yeah, well I worked in a diner for a few years, and the owner treated me like a son. When he died I inherited the place and started making menu changes. It got successful; I opened a few more places, and business just boomed.”
“Well, I guess all that cooking paid off.”
“You can say that,” Ernest laughed.
I took the subway into Manhattan to visit Ernest’s new eatery. When I turned the corner, I saw a large shimmering place with a big crowd inside and smiled upon reading the neon sign above the entrance. I anticipated a great meal and went in to congratulate Ernest on the success of “Boy’s Restaurant.”
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