This is Part I of a book I’m writing called “Steaming Toward Wildwood.” It’s all in that messy, first-draft stage right now.
The early morning darkness felt like a blanket to Silvio Moschella, the kind of blanket that warmed his heart as much as his body. He’d turned eight years old just two weeks before, but the bitterness he harbored toward life might have made him much older.
The light inside the house was deep-yellow, almost orange as it struck the windowpanes, in stark contrast to the dark-grey cloud that hugged the house from the outside.
Silvio knelt on the threadbare couch that backed up against the house’s living-room picture window and stared at a mimosa tree’s feathery leaves as they swayed with the breeze. He allowed his mind to imagine those leaves as the shadows of birds dancing through the sky on the way to an unknown but happy destination, unworried by wind or weather.
Until he felt his mother’s hand slap hard across the back of his neck, stinging the still-warm flesh she’d reddened the night before. “Get moving, Silvio. No time for dreaming. Your father dreams enough for all of us, and I’m not raising you to become another one of him.”
Silvio moved quick away from the window, stifled the yelp that crawled upward from inside his belly and touched the tip of his tongue, slid his small body off the couch and headed for his bedroom. Inside the room filled with the cool but humid air of waking children Silvio found his younger brothers, Martin and David. They were sitting on the edge of the twin-sized bed where they slept together each night.
It was three o’clock on a Saturday morning in late August 1958. Martin and David were still wiping sleep from their eyes as they waited for their turns to enter the small house’s one bathroom. Silvio listened to his dad singing a nonsense rhyme from behind the hollow-core door as he shaved. Dad was always in a good mood when the family was about to take a railway trip to Wildwood to visit his wife’s stepmother, Mama Mae Previti.
Mother, on the other hand and on each of these occasions, expressed nothing but misery, anger and resentment. She insisted, rather than suggested, that the boys hurry out of their pajamas and pile their fresh changes of clothes — neatly, always neatly folded and pressed — into the one brown-leather suitcase, seamed threads fraying at the corners, that the boys owned. She walked the house in repetitive circles, slamming her feet on the floorboards, checking and rechecking light switches, gas knobs on the stove, windows closed the night before, and refrigerated food that she’d sealed and resealed to prevent spoilage during the course of a two-day-long voyage.
Silvio understood that to his mother this trip was work, a job she considered her responsibility; and responsibilities, she implied, never contained even a note of pleasure. In response to Mother’s frantic nature, and so as to maintain her apparent approval, Silvio smiled only on rare occasion. Instead, he donned what he considered a serious expression and assumed the role defined for him by his mother, that of eldest son.
“Turn down the thermostat,” yelled his mother. Silvio could just about reach the dial where it hung on the hallway wall, and then only if he stood on tip toes. But he knew that although the air inside the house felt chilly at this hour, turning down the heat was yet another way of saving money the family didn’t have. So he complied, even as he shivered in his underwear.
“Frank, are you going to be finished in there anytime soon?” Mother yelled from her perch in front of the mirror that hung above her dresser in the small master bedroom. “The train leaves at 6:13, and your sons haven’t even brushed their teeth yet.”
The bathroom door opened. Silvio breathed in deep the aroma of his dad’s Barbasol brand shaving cream and Old Spice cologne. “Come on, boys. Silvio, you’re first. Your mother’s right. Your mother’s always right. Ain’t that right, sweetie? Come on in and brush your teety teet teet.”
“Will you quit the silliness, please?” his mother said. But what his mother called silliness was to Silvio a reason to love his dad more than he could ever love her. His dad enjoyed playing. Singing silly songs that he composed on the spur of the moment was a child’s game, and Mother never played games.
Silvio pressed his hand against his brother Martin’s back and nudged him forward into the cramped bathroom. Next, he grabbed David’s pudgy hand and pulled him forward to stand beside the toilet. Martin stood before the sink waiting for his older brother to reach for the faucet that his own arms weren’t yet long enough to touch. Silvio opened the metal tube of Colgate toothpaste and pressed a dab of the white cream onto Martin’s brush. Martin stretched his lips to reveal his teeth, and Silvio guided his brother’s hand so as to start him moving the bristles back and forth against his teeth.
“You have to go again?” said Silvio to David. David, not yet quite articulate at age four, was busy bending forward, his tiny hand pressed to his tummy, his face clenched and wrinkled with discomfort.
Silvio pulled down David’s underpants, then held him under his armpits and lifted him onto the toilet seat. “Up you go, Davey. Good boy,” he said.
After he’d seen to caring for Martin and Davey, Silvio shooed them back toward the bedroom that all three of them shared and whispered that his brothers should get dressed. Then he brushed his own teeth, humming the same melody his dad had hummed earlier as he watched toothpaste foam splatter onto the mirror.
An hour and a half flashed by, and by 4:30 a.m. the family of five stood on the house’s front porch. Mother turned the key inside the lock and listened for the click and tumble that announced the beginning of their weekend trip. The sky still held on to darkness. No sign yet of sunlight, as Mother directed them as to who would carry which parcel, package or piece of worn luggage. Silvio held the brown-leather suitcase he’d earlier filled with fresh underwear, socks and summer shirts in his right hand. He clutched Davey’s right hand with his own left hand, who in turn grasped Martin’s right hand with his left, so that the three young boys formed a line that stretched across the sidewalk’s full width. Behind their three sons walked Frank and his wife, Florence, who never held each other’s hand.
They would travel approximately two miles on foot — they were the only family on their short block who owned no automobile, this a sore spot for Florence — before they reached the railroad bridge that crossed above and over a marshland home to summertime mosquitoes and greenhead flies. On several Saturday mornings each summer season, his dad would take Silvio with him crabbing along the edges of the bay-water creeks that ran through these same marshes. Silvio had come to love the smell of the swamp’s oily mud and the pinch of tiny bones that poked into the flesh of his hands as he split open the fish heads that he and Dad used as bait. Beside each opened fish head, Dad had taught Silvio to tie a ripped piece of red rag to the rusty cage. “We let the crab traps rust, so the crabs can’t see them under water,” he told Silvio. “But when the current washes away the fish heads’ blood, they’re fooled by seeing the red rag into knowing food is there for them.” Silvio wasn’t sure that he believed his dad’s story, but he loved him for the telling of it.
When they reached the bottom of the railway bridge, they re-shuffled luggage, so as to rest their muscles for a few seconds, and then began the climb up the tall staircase. At the top of the stairs Silvio looked at the wooden benches, sheltered from rainstorms by a length of roof. Sunlight was breaking through the clouds, just enough to reveal the cuts and chips of dark-green oil paint that covered the wooden structure. Silvio felt the deep-down-inside of his belly begin to float upward toward his lungs. He loved the start of this adventure. As he thought about his Mama Mae, he could almost imagine living with her, forever after free from the tense atmosphere of his family’s home. Silvio was plenty smart enough to realize that by this trip’s end, the feeling inside his belly would sink down once again, but he was, as well, imaginative enough to stave off that end for as long as possible.
Silvio felt something knocking into the left side of his hip. He looked down to see that Martin was punching at him with one hand and pointing off into the distance with his other hand. Hanging with the lightening clouds was a moving plume of dark smoke that signaled the eventual arrival of a steam locomotive. When the engine’s whistle sounded, Davey clasped his hands around his ears and squeaked his voice in imitation of the train.
“Remember, boys, to stand back when the train stops. The steam can burn you if you’re standing too close,” said their dad.
“Hold their hands, for God’s sake,” said Mother. “Talking to them won’t do any good. Why can’t you understand that?”
Dad reached for Silvio’s hand. As well, he used his other arm to hold back Martin and David, who were already backed against the station’s bench. “They’ll be all right, Florence. I know what I’m –”
Silvio stared at his mother’s mouth and saw that once again she was yelling at his dad. Wrinkles appeared on her forehead. Spittle flew from between her between her lips. But the deafening sound of the now arrived train muffled her voice, and Silvio felt glad for the unusual opportunity not to listen to whatever she was screaming.
The train’s conductor appeared, climbing down from the passenger car’s short run of steps to stand on the pavement. “All aboard,” he called. “Next stop, Atlantic City, then on to Avalon, Wildwood Crest and Wildwood.”
Silvio stepped onto the train first, then turned to help his brothers up. His mother followed them, frowning as she climbed, lugging her suitcase, muttering about the weight of it all. Dad followed the rest of his family. He nodded in the conductor’s direction. Dad worked for the railroad, Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Line, and he seemed to feel close to all the men who worked for the same line, even to those whose names he didn’t know.
The passenger car’s seats were stuffed, high and heavy, covered with a brocade pattern in dark maroon. Silvio helped his dad swing the back of one long seat so as to face the seat opposite. He felt proud that he could handle the seat’s weight. Dad told Silvio to take a place close to the window, then he nudged his own body close to his son’s. Mother took the seat opposite Silvio. She reached across the space between them and snatched at the collar of his Sunday shirt, straightening it and knocking her knuckles roughly against the underside of his chin as she did so. Silvio ignored her as best he could. He turned his head and stared out the train car’s window.
He felt the earth tremble as the train began to move. He enjoyed the shivered sensation inside every part of his body. For a short moment he closed his eyes and thought of Mama Mae, sitting at her dining-room table, waiting for them to arrive, a box of powdered jelly doughnuts still closed, a quart bottle of Iron City Beer sweating cool droplets of water on the brown glass, a crystal tumbler in her hand, orange liquid inside the tumbler, white foam glistening on her lips.
Mama Mae was a fat woman who smelled of soap and baby powder and yeast. She wore floral-patterned dresses whose sleeves wrapped tightly around her soft upper arms. Her teeth were almost bucked in front. A coarse, black, single hair grew from a mole just to the left of her upper lip. This hair poked into Silvio’s cheek whenever she kissed him, but she felt like a big, soft pillow when she gave him a hug; and she never frowned; and she never slapped him on the back of his neck.
“Where did you go this time?” the voice said. Silvio awoke to see his mother’s face close to his own. Her breath felt hot, and as usual her eyes looked angry. He didn’t answer her. With two stiffened fingers she touched his chin and jolted his head sideways. “Dreaming again, just like your stupid father,” she said. “Nothing I say means anything to you, does it you little brat?” she said. Silvio stared hard at her, and with all the power at his disposal he conveyed his hatred. She thinks I’m like Dad, he thought. But I’m much more like her. I can despise people better than she can.
Silvio Moschella turned his head toward the train car’s window again. Outside the sun had risen. The yellow light was bright. Meadow reeds, topped with fuzzy cattails, moved only slightly as the train cut its way through them. Soot-covered locomotives sat on spur lines, their tail ends sticking out from maintenance shacks. Tall smokestacks pushed trails of white and black smoke out from their top ends and into the sky.
Silvio heard Davie whimpering from where he sat sandwiched between their mother and Martin. Whenever Mother grew angry enough to strike his oldest brother, Davie became frightened.
“We’ll be there soon with Mama Mae, Davie,” said Silvio. Don’t worry. We’ll have fun. I’ll help you gather figs from Mama Mae’s tree. Then Dad will take you and me and Martin for a walk, won’t you Dad?” His dad nodded yes and smiled. “I promise, Davie. We’ll have a good time,” said Silvio.
Mother shrugged her shoulders, pushed her head back against the seat’s cushion and pretended to sleep.
To be continued . . .