History for a Wedge
By Paul Martone
Inside the Fenton, Danny pulled a chair beside Riana at the table. He brought his lips to her mouth.
“Sweetie,” she said, shoving a hand against his chest. “I’m smoking.”
He removed the cigarette from her fingers and placed it in his mouth. “Sweetie,” he repeated with a raspy voice. He grimaced and coughed. “I’m smoking.”
Riana laughed. “Dickhead,” she said. “I don’t even talk like that.”
He handed back her cigarette and kissed her lips.
“What took so long?” she asked.
“We’re fucked,” I told her.
Danny looked at me like I was retarded. “We’re off schedule,” he said.
Danny didn’t say anything.
“All of it?”
He was tall, even in a chair, and raw-boned, his skin brown from all the time he spent dealing on the streets. He stared back at Riana, without expression, and reached for the cordless phone at the center of the table. “I’m gonna call Lenny,” he said and kissed her forehead. “Set the table for the game.”
Riana looked like she was going to cry. I considered cupping my hands together and lowering them beneath her chin.
Danny walked to the bedroom, the cordless in his hand, and shut the door.
Riana turned to me with wide eyes, a crazed look on her face. “Talk to me,” she said.
I avoided her eyes.
“You don’t get it, do you?”
“A ten thousand dollar brick of snow.” She settled her eyes on my face, waited for me to acknowledge her. “Ten thousand dollars and it wasn’t Danny’s. You know that much, right? Lenny fronted the whole brick to him, so if something went wrong, I mean if anything went wrong, someone’s going to get shot. You understand?”
In the other room, Danny turned on music. I couldn’t hear his voice.
“They’ll dump his body in the Hudson.”
“Stop it, Riana.”
“Maybe us, too. They’ll barge right in here.” She waved her hands. “They’ve done it before, you know. I mean, do you know what it’s like to have someone stick a piece in your face?”
“No one’s going to stick anything in your face,” I said.
“It’s happened before,” Riana said. “Did you know?”
I lowered my head, gazed at the cracked hardwood floor.
“It was Lenny.” She turned her fingers into a gun, pressed it against her temple. “He said, ‘You see this Danny? Huh? You see this? Is this your bitch, Danny? I’ll shoot this bitch.’” Riana slid her fingers over her purse, removed Newports. “Shit, man. I peed my pants.”
She lit a smoke, poured dice and plastic pies over the board. Green, red, yellow, orange, pink, blue.
Danny emerged from the bedroom. I reached for the orange pie and placed it at the center of the board. Danny uncapped his 40. “No questions,” he said. “Let’s play.”
Smoke curled off Riana’s fingers; she stared at the table.
“Same color?” I asked Danny.
I placed a green pie at the center of the board.
Danny squeezed the staple gun. “House rules in full effect.”
House rules were Danny’s rules. If you rolled the die and it landed off the board, you lost your turn. If you knew an answer to a question but not the full answer, you answered incorrectly. Finally, if you were asked a question Danny considered mad easy, something a kindergartener could answer correctly, he raised his staple gun to your head and squeezed the lever.
Danny rolled a five. “Green,” he said and moved to Sports and Leisure.
I lifted a card from the deck. “What kind of small, round crackers are often served with clam chowder?”
Danny appeared stunned by the question. “That’s Sports? How the fuck is that Sports?”
“It’s leisure,” Riana explained. “The category is Sports and Leisure, baby.”
I repeated the question. “What kind of small, round crackers are often served with clam chowder?”
Danny slugged his 40. “Do I look like I eat that shit?”
“Is that your final answer?” Riana asked.
“Clam crackers,” Danny said. “True?”
I checked the back of the card. “Oyster crackers.”
Danny lit a cigarette. “You can’t do any better on that category. C’mon, man, Sports and Leisure.”
Sports and Leisure was my weakest category, mostly because I knew nothing about sports. Every night I was the first person to fill all of my wedges, but whenever I
rolled to the center of the board, I remained there for hours while Danny fed me one sports question after another.
Riana said, “Isn’t Principal O’Donnell also the head football coach, Jed?”
“What’s that got to do with me?” I asked, and glared at Danny.
“Principal O’Donnell and Jed’s mom are just friends,” Danny said.
I reached for a smoke. “What else did Danny say?”
Danny kicked Riana’s foot, but I pretended not to notice.
“I don’t know,” Riana said. “Nothing.”
I rolled the die. “History for a wedge.”
“History for a wedge,” Danny repeated and reached for the deck closest to him. “Can you believe this shit? He rolls for a wedge, just like that. His best category, too.”
“It’s not like he cheated,” Riana said.
Danny removed a card and read, “What civil war general earned—” he paused. “How do you say this, baby?” he held the card out to Riana.
She reached for it and squinted. “Infamy,” she said.
“Infamy,” Danny repeated. “What civil war general earned infamy for supplying troops with prostitutes in 1864?”
I blew smoke to the ceiling and glanced at Riana.
“Hooker,” I said. “Joseph Hooker.”
Danny surveyed the back of the card. “Wrong!” he slapped it onto the table. “The correct answer is General Joseph Hooker.
“Ouch,” Riana said.
“What are you talking about?”
Danny shook his head. “It says right here on the back, General Joseph Hooker. Don’t blame me. Read the shit.”
I drank from my 40. “You’re crazy.”
Riana stubbed her smoke in the ashtray. “What’s crazy is that we’re sitting here playing games.” She sunk her elbows onto the table.
Danny leaned forward, tried caressing her, but Riana pulled back.
“Tell me what happened to that snow, Danny.”
He got on his knees and kissed her hand.
“I’m serious,” she said.
He pressed his lips to each of her fingers. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Lenny will call back.”
“Maybe we should get a motel,” she said.
“No, it’s good.”
Riana removed her hand from his embrace.
The cordless rang. All three of us stared at it until finally Danny took it from the table and disappeared to the bedroom. Riana wisped strands of black hair behind her ear, closed her eyes, and rocked back and forth.
“Please,” she said, knotting her fingers. “Please, God. Make it good.”
At nineteen, she’d already been through too much. Danny confided in me, so I knew things. Riana was an only child and her father, an army sergeant, kicked her out of the house when she was only sixteen. Danny told me that on the night of her thirteenth birthday, and many times thereafter, Riana’s father molested her.
In the other room, Danny cranked up the music.
“Talk about something, Jed,” she said. “Anything.”
I drained my 40. The only thing that came to mind was Trivial Pursuit. I said, “Remember last night when Danny got that question right about East and West Germany?”
Riana nodded. Her hair fell over her eyes.
“How did he know they reunited on October 3, 1990?”
She shrugged. “What’s your point?”
I lifted our empty bottles from the table. “You want another 40?”
She looked at me without answering.
I walked to the fridge and reached inside, the brown glass bottles cold on my fingertips. I placed them on the table, uncapped both, and slid one to Riana. “During lunch I asked him what he thought it must have felt like to be German and watch the Berlin Wall tumble back to the earth.”
Riana brought the 40 to her lips and swallowed.
“He didn’t know what I was talking about. He said, ‘Man, where the fuck is the Berlin Wall?’ I think he thought I was prepping him for a history test.”
Riana gave me a funny look. “So?”
“So how can you know East and West Germany were reunited on October 3, 1990, if you’ve never even heard of the Berlin Wall?”
“I’m sure he’s heard of it,” Riana said.
“Maybe,” I said. “But he didn’t know what it was.”
Riana sighed. “Look, Jed, here’s the thing. Don’t tell Danny I told you this, but when you’re not around he reads the back of the cards.”
“He studies the answers.”
“You’re kidding me,” I said. “He cheats?”
“It’s just a stupid game,” she said. “He doesn’t want you to think he’s dumb.”
I didn’t know what to say.
Danny emerged from the bedroom and placed the cordless back on the table.
“C’mon, Jed,” he said. “Sports and Leisure.”
Riana dragged her fingers through his hair and kissed his cheek. Danny placed his hand on her leg and reached for a card with the other. “What state did the New York Giants football team move to in 1976?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “New York?”
He reached for his staple gun and raised it to my head. “Tat! Tat! Tat!” he said, squeezing the lever. There were no staples inside of it.
Riana squeezed his arm. “Damn it, Danny! Tell us what happened!”
“Fucking staple gun question,” he said. “This kid’s lived in New York his whole life and doesn’t know the Giants.” He shook his head. “Weren’t you born in ’76?”
“Is Lenny going to shoot us?” Riana said.
Danny kept his eyes on me. “Is New York your final answer?”
I didn’t say anything. New York was my final answer and I didn’t want to get shot.
Riana shoved the board off the table. Wedges and pies spilled across the floor.
Danny stared at her. “It’s all good,” he said. “Lenny’s got the white lady, most of her.”
The cordless rang again. Danny picked it up.
“Oh hey,” he said. “How’s it going?”
Riana watched his face as he spoke, her mouth twitching.
“Yeah, sure, no problem,” he said. “Hang on a sec, he’s right here.”
Danny covered the receiver with his hand and looked at me. “Principal O’Donnell,” he said and handed me the phone.
“The situation’s changed for the worst—” O’Donnell was rambling, had already used the phrase “for the worst” three times.
“You’re there now?” I asked.
I hung up the phone.
Riana rose from her chair. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want anyone asking me questions. She pressed her body against mine. At the table, Danny thumbed through a Betty Crocker cookbook.
“What’s going on?” I asked him.
“We’re baking a cake.”
“I have to go to the hospital.”
“We’re baking a Swiss chocolate cake topped with red fruit and iced frosting.”
“We’ll give you a ride, Jed,” Riana said. “C’mon, Danny. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
“Look,” Danny said. He raised a picture of a chocolate cake high in the air. It looked delicious. It looked better than anything we’d eaten in a long time.
Outside of the hospital, neither Danny nor Riana spoke. The building loomed over us with flashing lights and dark crevices. I stepped out of Danny’s car and moved toward it, shielding my face from the wind.
Inside room 527, Principal O’Donnell rose from his seat and pumped my hand. He displayed a wide grin, unconscious of yellow teeth, and said, “That a boy,” as I edged around him and moved toward my mother.
She lay scrunched beneath bleached white sheets, skin wrapped too tightly against her bones. Her eyes moved in every direction.
When she reached for me, I stepped forward, preparing to kiss her cheek. Then I thought twice of it, conscious of the smell of alcohol on my breath. A few feet shy of the bed, I came to a sudden halt, and retraced my steps. I seated myself in a metal chair in the corner of the room.
She glanced at me, tears blurring her eyes. “What’s the matter?” she said. “Don’t recognize me?”
I lowered my head, mumbled, “It’s all right, mom.”
Principal O’Donnell placed his chair beside mine and lifted a newspaper onto his lap. “How’s the weather out there?”
I didn’t answer.
My mother nudged forward to reach a plastic cup on a tray stand near the bed. Principal O’Donnell and I stood from our seats, nearly colliding.
“Oh,” he said, stepping back.
I placed the cup in my mother’s hand. She brought it to her lips with trembling fingers and drank from it. I kissed the blue and white bandana on her head.
“There’s a winter storm approaching,” Principal O’Donnell said, reseating himself, and flipping open his paper. “Roger Murdock made the call.”
Roger Murdock was the weatherman on channel four.
“Roger Murdock,” Principal O’Donnell said again, his voice booming. “Now there’s a man you can trust.”
My mother coughed, as if there was something caught in her throat. She handed the cup back to me and clasped her fingers around the bed’s shiny railing. “It smells like smoke,” she said.
I moved away from her.
Principal O’Donnell reached to the floor for a Styrofoam cup of coffee, brought it to his lips, and slurped. He looked at me and said, “You think the Giants got what it takes to make the playoffs this year?”
Smudges of newsprint had settled on his cheek. “They’re playing smash-mouth football,” he said. “You gotta like that.”
“What do the doctors say?” I asked, sitting in the chair beside him.
Principal O’Donnell glanced in my mother’s direction, his eyes resting on the bag of liquid dripping into her arm.
“They’re switching doctors,” he said. “That guy we had, Dr. Whitford? He says there’s nothing more he can do.”
My mother stared dimly at the ceiling, as if we weren’t speaking of her.
“Now we’ve got this new guy,” Principal O’Donnell said. “What’s this new guy’s title again, Theresa?”
My mother didn’t answer.
“Pulmonologist, I think. I can never remember these things.” He shrugged. “That’s what happens when you get older, Jed.”
A smirk formed on my mother’s face. “Not Jed,” she said. “Jed remembers—”
“Mom, don’t talk if it hurts.”
Principal O’Donnell nodded. “That’s right,” he said. “That’s what the doctor said.”
The three of us settled into a discomforting quiet. I folded my arms and slunk in my chair. My mother closed her eyes. I longed for the floor in Danny’s apartment.
“Jed, you tell me what you think,” Principal O’Donnell said. “Honestly now, I’d like to know where you stand…the Giants got a hell of a running game this year, best I’ve seen since ’87. I know every statistic from passing touchdowns to field goals, go ahead and try me, every player’s jersey number, hell, I know their birthdays for Christ’s sake.”
“Good for you,” I said, looking at my mother. “Do you know which state the New York Giants football team moved to in 1976?”
“New Jersey,” he told me. “Everybody knows that.”
I laughed. I hadn’t meant to.
“My point being what do you think? C’mon, Jed. You think we can win it all this year?”
In his face I saw nothing but eager anticipation.
“Let me ask you a question,” I said, lifting myself. “Let me ask you a question.” I tried steadying my arms. “She’s got fucking cancer.”
My mother turned to me. “Stop,” she said. “Jed, you’re drunk.”
Principal O’Donnell flinched as I passed him. I did it quick. I walked out of the room without looking back.
Somewhere in the hallway, I heard a voice calling my name. I hit the button for the elevator a few times, but it didn’t open quick enough, so I took the stairway instead. Exiting the building, I tried humming. I tried humming the song I’d heard earlier that day, the song Danny played on the radio to keep Riana and me from hearing him talk. The lyrics were still in my head, but I couldn’t keep with it. The new, terrified voice of my mother pierced through everything.
We got back to the Fenton and snorted rails off the Trivial Pursuit board. Then Danny and Riana disappeared to the bedroom and left me alone on the table room floor.
I stared at the ceiling in the darkness, the room blanketed with the smoke of a thousand cigarettes. All I could think about was my mother. What if she died that night at the hospital? It was always a possibility, but I rarely allowed myself to consider it. In the morning she might be dead, and I’d be off eating breakfast with Danny.
Someone pounded the apartment door. I kept as quiet as possible, trying not to move, holding my breath. A light flashed on behind me. Danny came through the room in green and white boxers, black socks yanked to his knees. He had options: he could’ve snuck out the window and scaled the building. He could’ve reached for the phone and called the police. There were other things he could’ve done, the kind of things only Danny would think of. But he didn’t. I didn’t do anything, either. He opened the door and someone said, “What up, Danny,” and then a bullet burst through his face. I listened to his assailant flee.
Riana came from the bedroom and I grabbed hold of her. In the hallway, doors flung open and other tenants screamed. A few feet from Danny’s body, we huddled on the floor until paramedics arrived. They brought us back to the hospital. For the rest of the night, we moved in and out of that place, chain-smoking in silence, and every time we stepped inside, we stayed together. Riana buried her face in my chest, and I held her. If she had required it, I would’ve never moved my arms away. I would’ve kept holding her. I’d hold her now.
But without Danny, the bright light of my failure couldn’t be obscured. Even earlier that night, as we drove from the hospital, I began to suspect our escape routes were dead ends. Inside the car, Riana had fallen asleep. It was only Danny who fought to keep things simple and interesting.
“We’re gonna scratch the cake,” he told me. “Sleep in, big breakfast tomorrow at Jack’s.”
Jack’s: a greasy diner on Central, traditional American breakfasts, ninety cent mugs of bottomless coffee.
We rocketed between rows of unlit houses. Manicured lawns. Mailboxes, sleek and gleaming. Danny said, “Home-fries, scrambled eggs, chicken apple sausage—”
“What day is tomorrow?” I asked.
He singed an eyelash with his lighter. “Damn it,” he said. He lipped his smoke. “Wednesday, Thursday, I don’t know.”
He cranked up the radio; the bass slammed my chest.
I envisioned tomorrow: Danny and me on drugs, our stomachs full.
Riana woke up, turned the dial, and the music stopped. I heard air creeping through the windows.
“Jed,” she said. “Is everything all right with your mom?”
My mom? The words echoed through my head. What did she mean—is everything all right?
Danny tapped the steering wheel, the music still blaring inside him. Riana waited for me to say something. The oncoming lights of a passing car brightened her face.
“Everything’s fine,” I told her, my heart pounding inside me.
Danny said, “Flapjacks with maple syrup, black coffee, freshly-squeezed orange juice—”