By Susan Buttenwieser
The bars are open all up and down North Street, doors ajar, and as Sonny drives past, he can just about taste the cold beer. It’d be that cocoon of weekday afternoon quiet. With only the gentle hum from some ballgame on a wall-mounted TV and random words from the few customers scattered around stools.
But he’s late. The kind of late his mother will remark on. So Sonny turns right at Pleasant Ave. towards the familiar back streets of triple-deckers. When he was growing up, this neighborhood was filled with families tending to their yards on weekends and street hockey and kids roving on bikes. But heroin and crystal meth brought overgrown grass poking through crumbled pavement, plywood covered windows, pit bulls behind chain link fences.
Finally, he reaches a blue wood-framed building with gray and white trim. Home.
Last night when he called from Charlie’s Tap, his mother said to be there for lunch, which she served at noon. He’d been following the movement of the waitress’ legs descending from her mini-skirted uniform while his mother described her Deviled Egg recipe. After lunch, his mother suggested, he could take his daughter to Crane’s Beach. She might be willing to go there with him. Alone. There was no mention of his ex. If she would be at this lunch, or not.
Sonny looks up at his childhood home on the second floor. Nobody is at the window watching for him. Licking his fingertips, he smoothens his cowlick in the rearview mirror and tries a smile. Reflecting back are teeth stained with tobacco, coffee and not much dental hygiene. He hunts through the Arby’s wrappers, coffee cups, empties and crushed packs of Camels covering the back seat. Eventually he locates the plastic bag with the kite in it.
It had been an impulse buy. He was going to pick up smokes from Cumberland Farms and next door was a toy store. The kite was right there, in the middle of the window display. Shaped like a butterfly, it was blue with yellow and purple streamers. Sonny thought his daughter liked those colors. Or maybe it was butterflies.
Bells on the door jangled when he opened it, announcing him. The woman behind the register had a soft, loose neck and she looked at Sonny too long when he asked about the kite.
“It’s for my kid. That okay with you?” It came out angrier than he intended. But Sonny was tired of people’s looks. It was just some facial scars and tattoos. What was the big deal?
He left the toy store, kite in hand and was almost to the car before remembering about the cigarettes.
Sonny holds the kite and waits for his mother to buzz him in, climbs the carpeted stairs that creek with each footstep. He can’t remember the fraying wallpaper ever being replaced.
When he reaches the landing on the second floor, his mother is in the doorway. The year has aged her and he hugs her gently as if she might break. He apologizes for being late.
“Marnie,” she shouts down the hallway, instead of hello. “He’s here. Finally.”
Sonny’s daughter emerges from the back of the apartment. A scruffy black and white dog trots behind her. His mother sent pictures from Christmas, but Marnie looks much older now.
“Baby!” Sonny feels something from Arby’s rise in his chest. Marnie won’t make eye contact, stiffens when he embraces her. “I brought you a present.”
He glances at his mother for some sign of approval, but she’s busy fussing, looking for Marnie’s sweater, the dog’s leash. Marnie takes the kite out of the plastic bag, turning it over as if unsure what it is. She hugs her grandmother goodbye, holding on until she’s extracted.
“Alright luv. It’s alright. Promise,” she whispers to Marnie, patting her back. She turns to Sonny, her only son, her only child. “Two hours, we agreed. If she’s not back…”
“I get it!” Sonny doesn’t want to hear what else his mother has to say.
Marnie trudges down the stairs, concentrates on the ground when he drags open the passenger door for her. The dog settles in her lap.
“How does ice cream sound? After the beach?” Sonny asks once they’ve pulled away.
Marnie shakes her head. They don’t talk for the rest of the drive.
Sonny used to party at Crane’s Beach most weekends. Now though, all the old landmarks are gone. He takes the wrong exit and they end up winding along Route 1A before coming upon it. The sky is the same gray color as the water, the line of the horizon and the ocean blending together. Except for a couple walking a black dog and three men in lawn chairs with fishing poles and a red Igloo, the beach is deserted. The air is thick with the smell of seaweed.
The woman in the toy store said the kite would be easy to fly. Sonny has his daughter hold the string while he tries to get it airborne. But the kite is flimsy and the wind ripping off the water batters it onto the sand. He tosses it again and again, and each time, it torpedoes straight down. Then, he tries running while he throws it into a gust, the dog barking at his feet.
This time the kite stays up. Sonny lops back to Marnie, showing her how to work the string so the kite remains in the flow of the wind. Soaring higher and higher above them, it becomes more than just a combination of nylon, sticks, ribbons and a stabilizing tail.
A blue butterfly slices through the dull sky with a yellow and purple tail dancing behind. Sonny and his daughter hold tight to the taut piece of string connecting them as the kite dips and curves, dips and curves with the currents of the wind.