From my bedroom window I could see the Fowler’s old Victorian house where my childhood friend Artie lived with his podiatrist father Frank, mother Wilma, and his little sister Veronica. They would sit outside during the summer months on their covered porch, each one of them reading a book for hours at a time.
Artie had some kind of affliction, but in those days the nuns didn’t care and expected him to function. In fourth grade he cracked open his cartridge pen and drank the ink; Sister Helen Richard walloped him with her thick ruler and told him to do his work. Things didn’t get any better for Artie over the years, especially in high school.
Many years ago when I came home from college after my freshman year, I knew something had happened. Ronnie, the beautiful redheaded girl with freckles with whom I fell in love when I was 15 was not sitting on the porch with her family.
“Hey, Mom, what happened to Ronnie?” I asked running downstairs and smelling the wonderful aroma in her kitchen.
Mom kept stirring her sacred sauce. “Ronnie ran away.”
Right before I left for college, Ronnie said, “I’m gonna run so far away from here, maybe to Texas or even Timbuktu.”
“Timbuktu? Really?” I asked, and she nodded her head.
I held her closely as we looked over the cemetery fence at rusting subway cars parked in the Brooklyn rail yard. The setting sun glistened in tears on her freckled cheeks as we kissed; I’d have liked to go away with her, but I’d made promises to myself I had to keep.
As I got out of the taxi when I came home after finishing medical school, Artie and his father were outside reading, and Artie waved to me. I put down my suitcase and jogged across the street. Artie’s teeth were worse than in his ink drinking days, and he looked medicated.
“Hi, Doctor Pete?” Artie said.
“Is it pediatric surgery, Peter?” Dr. Fowler asked.
“Thank you, sir.”
“We recently had a heartbreak when my Wilma passed.”
“Please accept my condolences.”
Artie held A Wrinkle in Time against his chest. “She had the dementia real bad.”
“It’s a blessing, really,” Fowler said, looking down at my feet. “Any reoccurrence of that plantars wart?”
I wriggled my toes in my Birkenstocks. “Not since you treated me when I was 15.”
“Remember, it’s better to wear closed shoes, Peter.”
“Yes, sir, I remember.”
When I went into my house Dad sat in his chair reading the newspaper. “I was just talking to the Fowlers.”
“What’s left of them,” he grunted.
“It’s sad about Mrs. Fowler.”
He looked up at me. “She died falling down the basement stairs. Your mother heard Artie pushed her when he went off his meds.”
“That’s true,” Mom said walking into the room drying her hands on her apron. I kissed her and she touched my cheek with her damp hand. “Oh, Peter, I’m so glad you’re home.”
“I’m here a few days before I go to London.”
“I wish you could stay longer,” Mom said.
“Sorry, my job starts next week.”
Dad lifted the newspaper and said, “Let the good doctor go save the world, Carol.”
Eight years later after Mom’s funeral, Dad sat in his chair with the newspaper folded on his lap. I peered out the window on a glorious spring day and saw Artie sitting alone on the porch. “No reason to go to any Mets games this year,” Dad said.
“What?” I asked, processing his words and watching Artie staring down at a book.
“We always went to games together,” Dad sniffled. “I can’t go alone now.”
“We could go before I have to leave,” I said.
“No offense, son. Your mother and I went to Brooklyn Dodgers games when we were courting, then Mets games, and fifteen years ago to the seventh game of the World Series against Boston. It’s not the same without her.”
“I understand, Dad.”
I took off my dark suit, dressed in shorts, T-shirt, and sandals, and went across the street to see Artie.
He looked up from Mr. Popper’s Penguins and arched an eyebrow. “The prodigal son returns home, I see.” All his teeth were gone. “Ronnie’s not here now; she’s sweet on another boy.”
I walked up the creaking steps. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry about your Dad.”
“He was so old,” Artie said looking back at the book. “He died with a smile on his face. I never saw him smile before.”
“Are you okay here all alone, Artie?”
“Sure.” He didn’t look up at me. “You really should wear closed shoes, Peter.”
I looked down at my feet. “Yes, I know but…”
“My father always said that. He knew feet, you know.”
“Yes, Artie,” I said, “he really did.”
When my father passed away in 2014, I came home from London to attend the funeral and settle the estate. As I got out of the taxi, I noticed a For Sale sign on Artie’s lawn. The four reading chairs seemed ready to be crushed by the collapsing awning and the generally dilapidated house.
Our elderly neighbor Mrs. Flynn came outside saying, “Sorry for your loss, Peter.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Flynn. Do you know what happened to Artie Fowler?”
“Was hit by a truck a few months ago. His sister came to take care of things.”
“Ronnie?” I asked, wondering how that red-haired girl looked now in her fifties. I was tempted to call the real estate listed on the sign and inquire how to be in touch with her, but decided against it.
I went into my house and breathed deeply, hoping for one evanescent whiff of Mom’s sauce. I couldn’t imagine selling the place. An old medical school friend kept asking me to join his staff in New York. I’d bring Penny and the kids here. I thought, It’s time my boys went to a Mets game.
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