It was coming around 6:30 when I found myself standing in front of Roger’s door. I took my life in my hands with a cabby who smelled like he went a couple rounds in a distillery, but I was in no mood for an uptown train to Hell’s Kitchen. That’s where Roger called home. It’s where I used to call home too when I was a kid. 47th street was our old block for as far back as the memory reel played in the back of my aging head.
When pop didn’t come back from the war, Roger became man of the house and took the job seriously. He never left. Moved his wife in, an Irish nag from the other side of town, had two little squirts and kept my mother around till she joined pops about 15 years ago. Now it was Roger’s place and his two kids slept in the same room Roger and I did. Only difference was they were both girls.
I put my fist up to the old green door and right as I was about to knock, I heard Millie’s muffled siren going off: “Roger the trash! You gotta take it out now! It smells something awful.” That detective nose I had smelt liver and onions from the top of the stairs. And it did stink. Knowing Millie, I’m sure she cooked it so well it could’ve doubled as a dress shoe at Gimbals.
I knocked. “Now who the hell is that?” Her slippers beat against the floor with such fury you thought Lucifer himself was breaking out right through them to raise Hell on Earth.
The door swung open and there she was in her pale blue housedress and yellow slippers. She really was a vision: Her mess of red hair down and everywhere when it should’ve been up and her little green eyes she just shooting fire right at me. It was like her witch heart told her it was me at the door. “Oh for Chrissakes, Tobias, don’t you telephone?” She was hot, you could tell by the beads of sweat collecting under her eyes. That place always held in the heat. I could remember a couple of nights during heat waves Roger and I would sleep out on the fire escape to just feel like we weren’t suffocating in her beds.
“Lovely, as always, to see you Millie.”
“What do you want? Dinner’s over. Kitchen’s closed.”
“I’m not here to have my stomach turned inside out. I’m here to talk to Roger.”
She threw her head back, “Roger I got something else for you to take out with the trash.”
Roger came up behind Millie and smiled at the sight of me. “Toby!” The only man alive to call me Toby was my brother. I wouldn’t stomach it from anybody else.
“Roger, please make up for your wife’s lack of manners by inviting me in and giving your poor kid brother a scotch.”
She sucked in her teeth and turned to walk back inside. “I can’t with you tonight Tobias, it’s too damn hot out.”
“Tell me about it sister. You ain’t wearing a shirt and tie.”
“And you didn’t slave in front of a stove for two hours you monkey.” She said now further down the hall. “But if you’re staying, I’m taking a bath so I don’t have to look at you.”
“It’s a pleasure to be received in the court of Queen Mildred the Great.” I said yelling down the hall.
Roger rolled his eyes, “Come in Toby. Take a load off.” He grabbed my arm and pulled me in. I took off my hat and put it on the hook I remember pop putting up when I was nothing but a knee-high little troublemaker. “It’s hot as hell again tonight. Let me get you a drink.”
“Thanks.” I walked down the long hallway into the kitchen where I half expected my mother to be standing at the stove, all smiles, insisting I sit down and eat something because I was wasting away. She was a true mother to the bone, that woman. Cared not a bit for herself, but only for her boys.
I heard little scampering footsteps run into the kitchen both sets of which belong to my little princesses, Dina and Celeste. Roger’s girls. “Uncle Tobias! It’s you.” Dina said throwing a bear hug around my left leg. “I had a dream about last night.” They were twins. 12 years old, the most beautiful little things you’d ever want to be an uncle to. Roger and Millie had them a little late, but lucky for them they got two out of the deal.
“A good one I hope?” I said picking her up and smothering her with my arms.
“She says you were on a submarine.” Celeste said. “She’s been listening to too much of the radio momma says.” Dina was the daydreamer type and Celeste was the pistol.
“You were and your were going over to fight in the war and I was scared I would never see you again.”
“Well lucky for you sweetheart, your Uncle Tobias ain’t going anywhere. I’m too busy here at home.” What I didn’t want to admit was that I was too damn old to fight in the war.
So Celeste did it for me: ”I told her you were too old to go into the service.”
“You’re too smart for your own good, Celeste.” I could tell Dina was trying to get me to move further down the hall to the sitting room where she could really sink her teeth into me. Roger had gone down in there to get my drink and the girls where hoping this was a social visit where I would tell them tall tales of my narrow escapes with nasty hooligans. I, of course, made the stories sound more heroic than they actually were. But I couldn’t let down my two biggest fans. Roger, being a cop himself, refused to talk about work with his girls. He had them convinced he was a traffic cop so they didn’t worry their pretty little heads about him. But Roger was far from something as plain as a white glove waving on traffic.
Once we came into the sitting room, Roger handed me a scotch and grabbed both his daughters by their arms, “Come on my little kittens into your room. Uncle Tobias and daddy need to have a talk.”
“About what?” Celeste asked.
“Can we stay and talk too?” Dina pleaded.
Roger looked to me for the cue because he knew I was the type of guy who liked to talk to in private. “Why don’t you two go scram for a bit so I can talk to daddy. Then I’ll come and tuck you in.”
“Oh poo,” said Celeste with a frown the size of 10th Avenue.
“You heard him. Get!” Roger grabbed both their little shoulders and pushed them on down the hall.
“They get sweeter every time I look at them.” I said with a grin.
“You gettin’ soft?” Roger said walking over to pour himself a little something from the tiny bar in the corner of the room.
“Maybe. I’ve always had a soft spot for a little girl and then you go and have two of them.”
“And they love their Uncle Tobias. Dina talks about you constantly. Almost everyday. Drives Millie up the wall.”
“Good. Something has to. Glad it’s me.” I took a seat on mom’s old plaid sofa. As kids we couldn’t sit on it any of this stuff unless it was a holiday. It was easy to see that those days were over.
“So what’s up? You must need something from me to come over unannounced like this.”
“Am I that obvious? You’re the second person to tell me that today.”
“For you to come over here in this heat, yes. What’s shakin?”
“When pop left for the war. Do you remember him writing about a guy called Jasper Vander Dunk?”
Roger’s face went still. Like he saw a ghost: ”Don’t you remember? He came to this very house. Toby, he was the guy who told us pops was killed.”