By Z.Z. Boone
Featured Art: Vase of Flowers by Odilon Redon
Nobody was really surprised when Rosemary Villano turned up pregnant. It was like my dad said at dinner the night Bernadette Fischer, a receptionist at Staten Island Physician Practice, walked across the street and dropped the news.
“The girl had it coming,” he said.
This was in August 1995, when Rosemary was eighteen. She was my buddy Chegg’s sister, and had quit high school in January in order to work full-time at Frosty’s Italian Ice Creamery in the mall. Some genius had stuck her in this short, skin-tight beige uniform, and it seemed the area’s male populace—my dad included—had all of a sudden developed this insatiable craving for spumoni.
Rosemary had been dating this oversized pinhead named Eddie Dowd ever since her freshman year, another dropout who thought nothing of punching a kid like me in the stomach, or shoplifting liquid Tylenol from CVS, or talking about Rosemary with his fellow goons and saying stuff like, “This girl could suck the bark off a maple tree.” He drove around in a white van that had an amateurish painting of Daffy Duck saluting the American flag painted on the side, under which the words, “Where the Women At?” were printed.
I know. It made no sense.
The thing was, I’d been infatuated with Rosemary Villano since her family had moved on the block a year before. I was used to Catholic girls, and although Rosemary was Catholic, she was a different kind of Catholic. She was a year older than I was, also a junior, but at Tottenville High, a.k.a. “Attica’s Waiting Room.” She stood at least four inches above me, had this mess of wild red hair that almost made it look like her head was on fire, and carried a more than respectable set of knockers. Her clothing was short and tight and she chewed gum with ferocity. She never, as far as I knew, went to mass. I made friends with her younger brother Chegg, not because I liked him, but because he offered me some proximity to Rosemary.
The problem was, Rosemary looked at me in roughly the same way somebody might look at a pimple: it was there, it was annoying, and it would probably go away if you didn’t squeeze it.
I realized we were a less than ideal match. I was constantly on the honor roll at Monsignor Farrell, an all-boys school bulging with adolescent virgins. I was college bound with eyes on Fordham or St. John’s or Loyola. Rosemary read romance novels and found it difficult to unfold a beach chair. No matter. To me she epitomized why smart people do dumb things. She was that damn desirable. At night, I’d lie in bed and fantasize. Rosemary attacked by rabid wolves, Rosemary pinned under the rubble of a building collapse, Rosemary being physically abused by a drunken Eddie Dowd. Each of these fantasies ended in roughly the same way. I’d save Rosemary at the cost of my own life, and just before I crossed over, as she cradled my head in her arms, she would realize the sexual hunger that she’d always had for me, and that now it might be too late. “Just hold on a little bit longer!” she would bellow as her fingers fumbled to undo the buttons on her blouse, at which point my eyes would slowly close and I’d be gone.
The Villanos—the name itself sounding like some masked Mexican tag-team— were (with the exception of Rosemary) freaks. The dad, Larry, lived in the attic because he no longer wanted to be married to the mom. I actually saw the place one time when Chegg was home by himself, and there was nothing but an aluminum cot, a battered dresser, and a bar hung on chains from the exposed joists and used as a closet. Mr. Villano worked as a roofer and his clothing seemed to be divided into two categories: new and unworn, and—as we were used to seeing him—covered with tar.
His top priority, it appeared, was pornography. There was a stack of paperback books on the dresser with titles like, Cum to Daddy and Orphanage Sluts, and in one of the dresser drawers was a rubber-banded deck of playing cards that showed women and animals engaged in acts I hadn’t—up until that point— thought possible.
“Those are nothing,” Chegg said, and he went to his knees, reached under the cot, and slid out a flat piece of painted plywood. “Look at this.”
It was a penis, with testicles attached, which measured at least four feet when stood on end.
“What do you think that’s used for?” I asked.
“I think people hang it out when they’re having orgies,” Chegg said.
If Mrs. Villano was bothered by any of this, she gave no outward indication. She tipped the scales at around three hundred—probably twice what her husband weighed—and spent a healthy portion of her day sprawled out on the couch watching TV. Her house was messy—the ironing board was always set up, never in use—her refrigerator and cabinets filled with frozen pizza and Pepsi and snack cakes. She also had a foul mouth and she didn’t care who was around to hear it. In mixed company she would refer to her husband as “dribble dick,” and “Mr. Softie,” and according to Chegg she once wrote an angry letter to the elementary school principal beginning it with “Dear King of Shit.”
“Why go all the way to Madison Square Garden to see the circus,” my dad asked, “when the real show is going on two houses down?”
Like I said, I wasn’t even that crazy about Chegg, whose real first name was “Chuck,” but had been mispronounced by some moron when he was a baby. He was a few years younger than me, just getting ready to start high school.
“Aren’t there any kids your own age?” my dad would ask about every five minutes.
“I like Chegg,” I’d lie. “He’s cool.”
In fact, Chegg was the opposite of cool. He liked to do these stupid, immature things like ride bikes and hide from people and tap you on the back and then pretend it wasn’t him. He had no interest in rock music or girls. I avoided going out in public with him, afraid that I—a soon-to-be senior—would be spotted with a freshman. This was fine with Chegg; a fun day for him consisted of hanging out in his room. The place was small—it barely fit a twin bed and a desk and a chest of drawers—and the walls were covered with tacked-up drawings of bloody soldiers in combat, and oversized trucks, and a skull with a giant screw coming out of the eye socket, and a cardboard box of kittens on fire.
I asked him one time where the drawings came from, and he shrugged and said, “Somewhere.”
It was in this room that Chegg liked to line up his Beanie Babies and have me quiz him on the information provided on the attached tags. I’d hold up this asinine-looking stuffed frog and Chegg would study it like an archeologist. Then he’d pace, shake his head, stop and declare, “His name is Legs. Born April 25, 1993.”
I’d applied for a couple of summer jobs—one working at the public library and another pumping gas at Hess—but I was in competition with about a million other kids looking for something—anything—to do. In July, after school let out and before Rosemary’s condition was common knowledge, I would go over to Chegg’s house around eight o’clock every weekday morning. Mr. V had left for work, his wife was in the living room, horizontal, watching QVC and pounding down something in the jelly doughnut family, and Chegg was still asleep. Rosemary, always wearing an old pink terrycloth robe that showed plenty of real estate, would be at the kitchen table drinking instant coffee and spreading cream cheese on a toasted bagel.
That’s where I’d settle as soon as she opened the front door, and this is what our conversation, every morning, would be like:
Me: Working today?
Me: How’s Eddie?
Rosemary: You want me to go get Chegg?
Me: (shaking my head) I’ll wait.
Rosemary: Suit yourself.
I continued to follow this routine, hoping that one morning she would smile or compliment my posture or say they needed summer help at Frosty’s if I was still looking. But our exchanges seldom varied, and it was at that “Suit yourself” point that she’d get up from the table, offer me a good shot of her chest as she reached to pick up her coffee and bagel, and go upstairs. I’d stay seated at the empty kitchen table—my libido as stoked as an overloaded coal furnace—until Chegg finally came down, or Rosemary left for work, or Mrs. Villano waddled in and made me eat something.
Then there was Eddie Dowd.
One Saturday evening back in December, my mother had driven me to the mall to look for Christmas gifts for my dad. We split up once we got there, she heading for the tool section in Sears while I combed through all those junky kiosks, checking out cell phone cases and karate lessons and vibrating armchairs.
I saw them before they saw me. Rosemary had apparently just gotten off work—you could see her uniform under her ski jacket—and she was walking with Eddie the way an animal trainer might walk with a trained bear. Slightly behind them was one of Eddie’s friends, Sal Faschetti, another knuckle-dragger who looked as if he still had a few steps to go on the evolutionary ladder.
“Hey, isn’t that your brother’s faggot friend?” Eddie asked as soon as he spotted me.
Rosemary started to say something, but her boyfriend didn’t wait for an answer.
“Hey, sonny-boy,” he called. “Come over here. I have a question to ask you.”
The last thing I wanted to do was give the appearance that I was running away from this nitwit, so I walked right up to him like I wasn’t afraid.
“I’m just curious,” he smirked. “I wondered if you ever been with a girl.”
Sal grinned at this, showing a mouthful of teeth that resembled niblet corn.
“Yeah,” I told him. “I’ve been with a girl.”
“And how far did you get?”
“Yeah,” Sal echoed. “How far?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“French kissing, finger fucking, dry humping, what?”
Sal laughed at this and hopped from one foot to the other as if he was standing on a hot stove.
“Eddie, people can hear you,” Rosemary said.
“See this?” Eddie asked, pointing to Rosemary. “In about half an hour I’m gonna be plowing this like a Canadian farm boy.”
“Good for you,” I said.
Rosemary grabbed him by a leather coat sleeve and started to pull him away. Sal, like Dr. Frankenstein’s Igor, followed. Past the glare-reducing driving glasses, past the remote-control racing cars, past the monogrammed Christmas stockings.
“You’ve probably never even made out with a girl,” Eddie shouted as they vanished into the crowd.
A day or two after word spread through the neighborhood, Rosemary lost her job at the mall. Maybe the news had gotten to her boss, or maybe she was now unable to fit into her uniform without the help of safety pins. I don’t know. But on Saturday, when I went down to hang out with Chegg, I could see her sitting on the flagstone patio in the back yard, next to the round aluminum pool that nobody used anymore. She was wearing sunglasses and a red two-piece bathing suit with a beach jacket covering her slightly swollen stomach, and just kind of staring off.
Her parents, though, seemed elated. Mrs V. was standing upright and dusting things in the living room, and when she saw me she stopped, wiped at her brow with a meaty forearm, and said, “Got to get it shipshape in here. Few months and we’ll have a cute little motherfucker tearing up the place.” Larry Villano, who’d come down in clean clothes to walk among the living, came in from the kitchen and put his arm around his wife.
“Like the monkey said when he got his tail caught in the lawn mower,” he said, “it won’t be long now.”
“Jeez,” I told Chegg when we were sitting in his room playing Chinese checkers. “That’s really something about your sister.”
“You mean with Eddie’s rubber breaking?” he said.
His terminology surprised me until I remembered who his mother was.
“Yeah,” I said.
“So marry her if you feel so bad,” he said.
“She doesn’t even like me.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “She’s desperate.”
Apparently good old Eddie, whom no one considered “father material,” had quit his job at Jiffy Lube, slithered into his van, and left the area. His father, a man invested in keeping the “town drunk” legacy alive, told people his son was off to join the Peace Corps, but we all watched America’s Most Wanted every Saturday night, expecting to see some poor actor dramatizing Eddie’s worthless, feeble life.
The following Monday, when I went over to Chegg’s, his mother told me he’d left for this five-day-long sleepover camp in New Hampshire. I had no idea. She said it was for kids with artistic ability, kids who could draw and sculpt and photograph stuff, and I never thought Chegg was into any of that until I remembered the drawings on his bedroom walls. I guess he was the one who drew them, I don’t know, I didn’t ask.
When I left, instead of going home, I snuck around the side of Chegg’s house where Rosemary was seated in her plastic webchair looking out toward New Jersey. It was kind of cloudy and not all that warm, but there she was, like some sunbather waiting out the weather.
“Hey,” I said.
She turned her head, pushed her sunglasses up to where they nested in her hair, squinted and said, “Chegg ain’t back here.”
“I know,” I said. “I was just wondering if you were okay.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
Rosemary flipped her sunglasses down and continued patrolling the horizon.
“I hear you’re going to be a mom,” I finally said.
“Do you want to be a mom?”
“Well I ain’t killing a kid just because I messed up,” she said.
I nodded, not knowing what else to do.
“All right,” I said, starting away. “Let me get going.”
“I heard you wanna marry me.”
“My brother told me what you said.”
I felt myself blush, then cleared my throat.
“Well I didn’t actually say—”
“Whatever,” she said. “No sweat.”
“I don’t even think I’m legally old enough,” I laughed.
“Different states have different rules,” she said.
“Yeah, well, you know, I haven’t even finished high school.”
Rosemary continued to look away.
“If you change your mind,” she said, “let me know.”
That night I had this weird dream. Me and Rosemary had gotten married and I moved in with the Villanos and there was this baby that looked like a shrunken version of Eddie walking around in a diaper, and in the kitchen Rosemary was making a bagel and I could see she was pregnant again—real pregnant—and in the living room Mrs. V. was eating a pizza that she hadn’t even bothered to slice.
From up in the attic I could hear noises like somebody rapidly waxing a wooden banister, and when I looked around for Chegg I couldn’t find him anyplace. So I went back into the kitchen and now Rosemary was breastfeeding little Eddie, and I asked her where her brother was and she said, “Chegg is dead. Don’t you remember? He went away to art camp and there was this explosion, so we replaced him with you.” And then she said, “Do you know if there’s any cream cheese?”
I sat up in bed, fully awake, four hours before the sun even began to creep into the mostly overcast, yellow-tinged sky.
So there I was, home without anything to do and without anybody to hang around with. My mom, a very sympathetic woman who hated to see me going through life looking all dejected, offered me a job painting our house. Fifty bucks for an eight-hour day, lunch included. We lived in a small ranch-style place—you could get on the roof using an eight-foot ladder—so it wasn’t exactly like building the pyramids.
Anyway, the afternoon following my nightmare I was painting the house— brown over brown—when I heard somebody come up from behind and go, “Hey.”
When I turned around, it was Rosemary standing on our front lawn, her hair surrounding her head like a halo in a holy picture. She was wearing a pair of white shorts, leather flip-flops, and a very low-cut peasant blouse embroidered with roses. And for some reason I thought of this T-shirt some kid wore to Monsignor Farrell under his regular shirt that said “I Love Every Bone in a Woman’s Body. Especially Mine.”
“What’s up?” I said.
“I just wanted to say bye.”
Great, I thought. Rosemary Villano finally comes by and here I am wearing the worst clothes I own, covered in splotches of brown paint like some ninety-year old with liver spots.
“You going someplace?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she nodded. “Need to clear my head.”
She shrugged. “Awhile.”
“All right,” I said. “Have a nice trip.”
Neither one of us said anything for a few seconds, and then she walked right up to me, put her hand on the back of my neck, drew my face toward hers, and kissed me on the mouth. Her tongue slipped between my lips and gently passed over my teeth. I just stood there. Like a fool. Bucket of paint in one hand, dripping brush in the other.
“Now if anybody asks,” she said, “you can honestly say you made out with a girl.”
And then she left.
I figured she’d be gone for a couple of days, a week. I thought there was a chance that she might come back, no longer pregnant. But when I went over to Chegg’s the following Saturday to welcome him home, Rosemary was still missing in action. I also noticed that the entire mood of the house had changed. Larry had retreated back into his pornographic crow’s nest, and Mrs. V. was sprawled out on the living room sofa drinking a beer at eleven in the morning.
“So what do you hear from Rosemary?” I asked.
“Who?” Mrs. Villano said without even sitting upright.
“You must be mistaken,” she told me. “There’s no Rosemary that lives here. Maybe you’re confusing that bitch with the wrong family.”
“She ran away with Sal Faschetti,” Chegg told me later in his room. I was sitting on his bed while he lined up his Beanie Baby collection in alphabetical order. “Man, I missed these little guys,” he said.
“Hold on,” I said. “You mean she’s not coming back?”
“I’ve already said too much.”
Chegg indicated the army of stuffed animals that I had already grown to know too well: Chocolate, Cubbie, Flash, Legs, Patti, Pinchers, Splash, Spot, and Squealer.
“The walls have ears,” he said.
As far as I know, for the following year Rosemary was never mentioned within the Villano family. My friendship with Chegg disintegrated shortly after school started and he found kids his own age to hang with. After graduation, I went to college in California, got my degree in finance, landed a pretty decent job as a consulting actuary working out of the Santa Clara region. I get home occasionally where everybody has grown older and a bit harder to understand. I hear from my folks that Chegg joined the navy and has decided to make it a career. His parents continue to live apart, one on top of the other, Mrs. V so overweight that a home health aide has to come by to wash her. I picture whoever that poor individual is whenever I start feeling sorry for myself, and it helps snap me back.
I’ve been unsuccessfully married twice, once to an extremely intelligent college professor who never loved me, and a second time to an unassuming bank teller who loved me too much.
Now I travel. My job calls for it.
And once, in San Antonio, while I was eating lunch outside on the Paseo del Rio, I thought I saw her. Rosemary. This girl with flaming red hair pushing a baby carriage beneath the warm September sun. Of course I realized it couldn’t be—time would have to have stood still—but the resemblance was strong enough that I threw a few bills down, left my table and walked over to her.
“Hey,” I said.
“You wouldn’t happen to know somebody named Rosemary Villano?”
She shook her head. “Sorry,” she said.
I looked into the carriage where a kid with skin the color of cinnamon candy slept. “Well that’s a cutie,” I told her.
The red-haired woman glanced down at the baby and smiled, and at that point any resemblance to Rosemary Villano faded.
I watched her go and for some reason I had that same feeling I’d had that afternoon I was painting the house. Drop everything. Run after her. Take a chance and see what happens. What’s the worst?
When I got back, I noticed my wild mushrooms with polenta and herb-smoked salmon tacos were gone, that my table had been cleared, and that a young man in a black western shirt with pearl-colored snaps and white piping had taken my place.
Z.Z. Boone’s fiction has appeared in Berkeley Fiction Review, Smokelong Quarterly, PANK, Pithead Chapel, and other places. He is the author of Off Somewhere, a 2015 Indie Award nominee for Best Short Story Collection.
Originally published in NOR 18: Fall 2015