On the night of the long hard day when their son, Jason, abandoned by his wife, returned home with his two sons, Peggy Gorey came downstairs from preparing the boys’ bedroom to announce that she’d lost her engagement ring.
“You’re wearing it, Ma,” Jason said, pointing to her left hand where, sure enough, was the gold double-band, the one nearer her heart sporting the small diamond flanked by two tiny ones.
“That’s not the ring she’s talking about,” Leon said with a laugh that sounded forced even to him. “I know which one she means. Don’t worry about it.”
Ever since early afternoon when Jason arrived with Tyler and Wilson, Leon had been trying to lighten the atmosphere, for himself as much as anyone else. He knew that his employees considered him a cold, unfeeling bastard, but he thought of himself as an emotional man—his mother’s Italian blood coming out in him—and he had a hard time hiding his dismay at the misery his son was undergoing. The grandsons, too, of course. Eight and six, Tyler and Wilson were old enough to understand what had happened but not old enough to marshal any emotional defenses of their own. Before the catastrophe, on their too infrequent visits to Grans and Gramps’ house in Rockaway, when “the wrecking crew” came through the door, Leon would say to himself, It’s a house of joy once more. Now, though . . .
“So what’s this other ring, then?” Jason asked.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s nothing. A piece of trash—quite literally,” Leon said.
Peggy gave him a hard look. “So it’s trash to you? That’s nice to know.”
He laughed again. It bounced off the walls like a thrown rock. He decided to forego laughing for a while.
“Aw, come on,” he said. “Don’t make a big deal out of it, Peg. Besides, how could you have lost it? It’s not like you go around wearing it.”
“Probably it got tossed when I was having a clean-out. It’s nothing but trash, after all.”
“Hey, Ma, Pop, no fisticuffs now,” Jason said with a grin that looked as phony as Leon’s laugh had sounded. His son reminded Leon too much of himself sometimes.
“So are you going to tell me about this other ring or not?” Jason said to his mother, but she looked away and said, “It’s nothing to me. Let him tell it if he wants to.”
“Not much to tell. It wasn’t any Romeo and Juliet thing,” Leon said. “Just something from back when we were dating, ’68 or ’69, somewhere in there.”
Peggy broke in to say, “1970.”
“Right, 1970. Anyway, after a few too many beers, I pulled the tab off a can and handed it to your mom and said, ‘Will you marry me?’ I was drunk, right? The real thing,” he said, nodding in Peggy’s direction, “came months later. I had to save up money working on a sanitation crew at Riis Park all one summer, then on top of it borrow more from your Uncle Mark to make it official.”
“That’s funny,” Peggy said, still not looking at either of them, “I always considered us engaged from the moment you put that piece of trash on my finger.”
Jason, obviously desperate to defuse the tension, said, “Hey hey, hey hey, so I still don’t get what this other ring was. You what, broke the tab off a beer can?”
“I didn’t have to break anything off. It was a pull-tab.”
“I don’t get you.”
“You’re kidding,” Leon said. But then he thought, Jason had been a late baby. He was still only thirty-three. Even if he’d started drinking years before he turned twenty-one, that would put it in the twenty-first century!
“You’re a babe in the woods, kid. Look, the first beer cans you had to use an opener on. A church key, we called them.”
“I’ve heard of that.”
“Sure. Then came the pull-tab cans. You’d pull the tab right off, give it a toss like a cigarette butt, or some people would stick them into the can and drink away. Not a good idea when you’re drunk, as you might imagine, and—” Peggy got up and left the room. For a second, Leon forgot what he was saying. Then he picked up the thread of his history of beer cans. Jason pretended to be fascinated. They talked some more about drinking beer. Leon asked if he’d like one, but Jason said, no, he was exhausted.
When Leon got upstairs, Peggy had already put the boys to bed and was just climbing in to bed herself.
“Well, all that talk about beer cans, at least it took Jason’s mind of things for a while. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?”
Peggy turned off her light.
The next day Leon stayed home from work to “be there” for Jason. He had a little office on Beach Channel Drive, but as long as he had his flip-phone and access to his computer files, he could oversee his four auto parts stores scattered across south Queens and Brooklyn from just about anywhere.
Jason seemed in worse shape today than yesterday. He mostly sat on the sofa looking on as Peggy and Leon tried to entertain the boys, an expression on his face like someone watching a foreign movie without subtitles. Only when his mother went up to the attic and came back down with his old Nintendo set did he perk up a little.
“The boys will like that,” he said. “Nintendo is making a comeback. It’s really popular again.”
He took over for Leon, who’d been fiddling around at the back of the TV without effect. In a minute he had the Nintendo going, and then Tyler and Wilson and the Super Mario Brothers were in action.
“It’s good to see those reprobates smiling again,” Leon said.
“Yeah,” Jason said, then gestured for Leon and Peggy to follow him.
They went into the kitchen.
“Look, I want you to know I’m not coming home hat in hand. I intend to pay you room and board.”
“Are you out of your mind? We’re not going to charge our own son room and board. You’re welcome here as long as you want to stay,” Peggy said.
“I expected you to say that, but I intend to pay anyway.”
“How long are you thinking of staying?” Leon asked.
“Leon! What jackass kind of question is that?” Peggy said. “My son can stay here as long as he wants.”
“Absolutely, of course, that’s not what I meant. I mean I just, you know, I was just wondering what the situation was, how long Jason thought it’d be before he and Bree worked things out.”
“Pop, we’re not going to work things out.”
“Of course you say that now, but all couples go through rough patches, and—”
“Right now Thad Urban is probably on his way to my house on his lunch break, and when he gets there he’ll be fucking my wife. He and Bree like to fuck on his lunch break.”
Peggy covered her ears. Leon sat down on a kitchen chair. He held on to the edge of the table.
“We’re not getting back together. If the boys and I are going to stay here, we’re paying room and board.”
The rest of the day was grim and the next day not much better. Leon stayed home from the office again and mostly shuffled around the house like someone had died. How could Jason—no ball of fire if you wanted to be brutally honest about it—be lucky enough to find a woman like that again? And it wasn’t only Jason who’d lost someone special. Leon had adored Bree, too, with her big blue eyes and hair so blond it almost looked silver. She called him Pop like Jason did, but it sounded so cute when she said it. She’d come up behind him, ruffle what little hair he had left, and say, “How’s my favorite bottle of pop?” That’s what they called soda in St. Louis where she was from. Now, she and that Thad guy, that Thad . . .
Jason spent hours playing Nintendo with his sons, and when they got tired of it and went on to something else, he kept on playing by himself.
After dinner he insisted on washing the dishes, and then later, after the boys were in bed, he said to Peggy, “Ma, if it’s all right with you, I think maybe Pop and I will go out for a beer.”
They went to Tubridy’s, a hangout of Jason’s from back in his college days.
“Beer tastes better in a bar,” Leon said even though he couldn’t remember the last time he was in a bar and in fact didn’t much care for beer. He took a sip of his Bud Light, resisted a grimace.
Jason watched him a moment and then said, “Pop, I’m worried.”
Leon reached across the table and gave his hand a squeeze.
“I know you are son. Give it time. You’re only thirty-three. You’re a pup. You have your whole life ahead of you.”
“I’m not talking about me, Pop. I’m talking about you and Ma.”
Leon was taken aback.
“What do you mean? There’s nothing wrong with us. We’re fine.”
“No, you’re not fine. I’ve only been here two days, but that’s enough to tell that things aren’t good between you. I don’t sense much warmth, much love.”
“Hey, there’s love, plenty of love. As for warmth, hell, we’ve been married over forty years. Wait’ll you’ve been married forty years and then—”
He realized he didn’t want to go there. He took a drink of beer and smacked his lips. “Damn good,” he said.
“If you don’t recognize there’s something wrong, Pop, that’s a problem right there. Like the other night, that ring business.”
“What ring? Oh, you mean that pull-tab thing? That was nothing.”
“It was something to Ma. It obviously had great sentimental value to her, and you pissed all over it.”
Leon tried to laugh it off, but then reflected, yes, Peggy had been acting funny. Had she said a word to him the last two days? They’d never been big on heart-to-heart talks, but two days and not one word?
“Well, I guess I haven’t been too high on her list of favorite people lately. I’ll make it up to her, though. Maybe I’ll buy her some flowers.”
“You bring Ma flowers and she’ll die of a heart attack.”
“You’ve got a point. But don’t worry, I’ll think of something.”
“You don’t have to think of anything. You know what she wants. That ring.”
The pull-tab? But it was lost, Leon said, and Jason said then find it for her, and Leon said be serious, if Peggy couldn’t find it, what chance did he have, and Jason said true enough there.
“If you can’t find the original, get her a new one to replace it.”
“How am I going to do that? I told you, they quit making pull-tab cans decades ago.”
“Go online. You can find anything online. Try EBay.”
“By golly, I’ll do it!” Leon said, trying to sound enthused although the thought of searching for anything online depressed the hell out of him. He used the HP a lot for his business but almost entirely to keep information on employees and parts inventories in Word files organized in some Byzantine manner comprehensible only to Leon. Bobby Rojas, the manager of his Howard Beach store, tried to teach him how to use an Excel spreadsheet, but after fifteen minutes Leon told him that if he ever said the word “spreadsheet” of “Excel” again in his presence, he’d fire his ass.
Leon took another sip of beer, grimmaced.
His online quest to find a pull-tab can didn’t last fifteen minutes.
“Let me show you, Pop,” Jason said, but Leon, backing away like the HP was five sticks of dynamite with a clock attached, said, “I’m not getting near that thing.”
For the first time since he’d returned home with the boys, Jason laughed.
“OK, Pop, OK. I’ll do it for you.”
But he didn’t. Three days passed without Jason mentioning the beer can again. Leon was relieved not to have to face the horrors of online searches even vicariously, but he was bothered by what he suspected was the reason Jason hadn’t done anything. Jason had no joy, no enthusiasm, no will for anything. Once or twice a day he’d rouse himself enough to play Nintendo with the Tyler and Wilson, but he’d seem grateful when that chore was over with and he could go back to watching TV, whatever channel it happened to be tuned to when he turned it on. At night after the boys were in bed, he’d go out by himself and return a couple of hours later “with the smell of beer on his breath,” Peggy said, scowling.
“What, are you a Baptist now?” Leon said.
“Jerk. Go ahead, make a joke out of everything.”
It was the closest the two of them had come to a conversation since the pull-tab debacle. Leon had come around to his son’s opinion: there was something wrong between them. He was almost worried enough to try the online thing again. Instead, he bought Peggy a small bouquet of flowers in the Waldbaum’s floral department. When he got home, though, sitting in his car in the driveway, he thought, naw, he and Peggy weren’t a giving-flowers kind of couple, not Ozzie and Harriet. The whole thing would probably just embarrass Peggy, maybe even irritate her.
He stuffed the bouquet under the front seat.
Friday night after the boys were in bed, Jason said to Leon, “Come on, Pop, let’s head out for a beer.”
“Sounds good,” Leon said. He didn’t so much as glance at Peggy, but he’d bet good money on what her expression was.
Jason drove them to Duffy’s Tavern just past 116th Street on Rockaway Beach Boulevard.
Inside, Leon headed for a table, but Jason said, “Let’s sit at the bar, Pop. I’ve got something I want to show you.”
There were more people at the bar than at the tables, but a little guy sitting between two empty barstools scooted over without being asked, and Leon and Jason sat down next to each other.
“So, you said there was something you wanted me to look at,” Leon said after the bartender had served them a couple of drafts. He expected Jason to take something out of his pocket or wallet. A photograph, maybe.
But Jason nodded toward the ranks of liquor bottles on the counter behind the bar and said, “What do you see?”
Leon squinted at the bottles, trying to read labels. It wouldn’t have meant anything if he could have read them. He didn’t drink much beer. Liquor, never.
“No, not the liquor bottles. Look up higher.”
Then he saw it: a narrow shelf up above the bottles running almost the length of the bar. It looked a little like Peggy’s spice rack except it held beer cans, dozens of them, an index card thumbtacked to the bottom of the rack for each one. On each card a year was written in black magic marker, beginning with 1956 on the far left and ending with the current year on the right.
“Ah, I get it,” Leon said. He located the 1970 beer can. Some of the other brands were unfamiliar to him, but he recognized this one.
“The only one to have when you’re having more than one,” the man next to him, the one who’d moved over so he and Jason could sit next to each other, said.
He was short and slight with a bullet-shaped head. He wore a filthy sweater—grayish brown now, but it was impossible to say what its original color had been—so frayed at the cuffs and neck that it looked like it might have been deliberately done for some bizarre stylistic effect. The sweater’s condition was less noteworthy—Duffy’s clientele not exactly the cream of society—than the fact that the man wore a sweater at all, it being a warm August night.
“Right, ‘the only one to have.’ I’d about forgotten the motto,” Leon said, trying to edge away, which was hard to manage sitting on a barstool.
He turned his whole body so that he was facing Jason.
“I get it, a 1970 can. No doubt a pull-tab, but so what? What am I supposed to do?”
“Make the barkeep an offer for it.”
When he finally caught the bartender’s attention, Leon asked him about the beer can collection. “Why 1956?”
That’s when his dad had bought Duffy’s, the bartender said. One beer can for each year it’d been open since then. His dad was dead now, but the bartender kept up the tradition. There were years it’d been a little difficult to find an appropriate beer because his dad’s rule was, never repeat brands. With all the microbreweries, now, though, it was a synch.
“Go ahead, ask him,” Jason said when Leon seemed about to let the bartender get away.
“Well, the thing is, I’m really interested in that 1970 Schaefer’s. I’d be happy to pay you whatever you think is a fair price.”
“Sorry. Not for sale. It’s got sentimental value. My dad put it up there himself.”
“Give you a hundred dollars for it.”
“I said it had sentimental value, Bub,” the bartender said, moving off.
“Wow, a hundred bucks. You must really want that beer,” the little guy next to him said. “I’ve been there, my friend. Many’s the time I would’ve given my last dollar for a drink. Like right now, in fact. Problem is, I don’t have a dollar.”
Leon figured the easiest way to shut the guy up was to buy him a beer to suck on, so he caught the bartender’s eye, tapped on the bar, and said, “Beer for this gentleman here.”
“You’re a prince among men,” the guy said. When he got the beer, he took one long drink and then set the glass down. Turning to Leon, he said, “So, a 1970 Schaefer’s. What’s so special about it?”
“Well, it’s kind of personal. Something for my wife.”
The man held his hands up liked he was surrendering.
“’nuff said. A man will do anything for his wife. Correction. A man should do anything for his wife. I had a wife once. A good woman. Way too damn good for me. I loved her more than anything in the world—anything except this here,” he said, lifting the glass of beer.
Leon glanced at Jason, and Jason gestured behind them, toward the door. Leon had just started to slide off the barstool when the man grabbed his wrist.
“Do anything for that wife of yours, my friend, anything. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
The man looked up at the rack of beer cans.
“So, the Schaefer’s is special to your wife?”
Before Leon could answer, the man suddenly vaulted up onto the bar, leaped across to the counter and stepped into the sink where the bartender washed glasses and mugs, lost his balance, reached up and grabbed the end of the beer-can rack pulling it loose from the wall, and when he released his hold as he crashed to the counter, the rack sprang back up and catapulted beer cans in all directions.
There ensued something like a rugby scrum around and on top of the bar.
“I’m calling the goddamn cops!” the bartender, somewhere in the middle of the mad scramble, bellowed.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Jason said.
They got in Jason’s car, parked on 116th Street. Leon started to laugh.
Jason, who’d obviously been shaken by the melee and had kept looking back over his shoulder as he rushed Leon away from the tavern, leaned back in his seat, chuckled, and said, “Yeah, I guess it was pretty funny.”
“It sure was. But you want to see the funniest thing?”
Leon reached under the tacky Hawaiian shirt he’d put on for his night on the town and pulled out the beer can.
“The only one to have . . .”
“ . . . when you’re having more than one!”
When they got back home, Peggy didn’t even wait for them to close the door behind them before she charged past and said without turning around, “I’ve got an errand to run. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Jason went upstairs to check on the boys, and Leon went into the kitchen, pulled the tab off the Schaefer’s, and poured the beer down the sink. Then, the pull-tab on his pinkie, he went into the living room and waited for Peggy to return.
Fifteen minutes later, she still wasn’t back. He went up to their bedroom. That’d be better than the living room for presenting her with the ring, anyway. More privacy.
The note was lying on the throw pillow on his side of the bed.
I’ve found the ring. I’m taking it down to the beach to throw it in the ocean. That’s where we always dump our trash in New York City.
Leon headed for the beach.
They lived at the Boulevard end of a beach block, so it took him only a few minutes to get to the pedestrian gate in the sea wall, where he paused.
He hadn’t been to the beach twice since Jason was too small to go down by himself. He hated sand, hated the gritty feel of it on his neck, between his toes. But he had to find Peggy, so he struck off across the beach and within two steps felt sand pouring into his loafers.
The beach wasn’t crowded like it would be in the daytime, but there were plenty of people around, mostly teenagers huddled under blankets by twos, making out, or gathered in larger groups drinking beer. They eyed him warily as he passed since drinking alcohol on the beach was illegal. Did he look like a cop? Leon Gorey, plainclothesman, oldest active cop in Queens!
He finally saw Peggy standing at the edge of the water some distance from their beach block, almost down to where the boardwalk began.
“Hi, Peggy,” he said when he was still twenty feet away. He didn’t want to startle her by walking right up behind her.
She turned, and he fluttered the fingers of his right hand, then extended his pinkie, the pull-tab attached.
“Look what I got you.”
She frowned. “What’s that?”
When he got close enough for her to see clearly, she turned back to the ocean.
“I threw the real one in the water.”
It wasn’t until that moment that it occurred to him why she’d come here, to this very spot, to throw away the pull-tab. In those days it wasn’t illegal to drink on the beach—or if it was technically, it wasn’t enforced. Kids would come down on summer nights and build fires and drink beer with couples sneaking off for more intimate moments under the boardwalk. Leon had never indulged in the latter—even back then the thought of rolling around on the sand would have been repulsive to him—but it was right here that he’d drunk a bit too much and given Peggy the “engagement ring.”
Now, he held out the pull-tab to her.
“This is a real one, too, Peg. It’s just a different real one, that’s all,” he said, and then before Peggy could say anything—something sarcastic, probably, because she was good at that—he hurried on, “Men can change, just like rings, Peggy. I’ll try to be a better man.”
Wow, what a great thing to say, what an inspired thing to say, like something from a movie. Leon was proud of himself.
Peggy didn’t say anything sarcastic, but she looked doubtful.
“Where’d you get it?”
He told her a version of the escapade at Duffy’s Tavern, embellishing and revising just a bit. There wasn’t any little guy who’d leaped across the bar and tore the shelf down. That’d been Leon himself. He’d grabbed the beer can out of the air as he fell, sending liquor bottles crashing to the floor. Cops were called in. When he told them why he’d done it, though, they realized that he wasn’t drunk or crazy but just a guy on a quest for his lady love. They decided, with the bartender’s acquiescence, not to pursue the matter. Leon had to pay for the spilled booze, of course.
“I don’t believe a word of it,” Peggy said.
“It’s true! Wait’ll you see the bruise on my hip from when I fell.”
“I have no intention of looking at your hip, bruised or otherwise,” she said but at the same time reached for the pull-tab.
She wouldn’t let him walk beside her on the way back to the house. Every time he tried to draw even with her, she’d pick up her pace enough that she remained a step or two ahead of him. It was easy to do because she was not only younger but was in much better shape. She watched her diet and took weekly yoga and Zumba classes at the Y.
She carried her flip-flops. Her feet were bare. Her ankles and calves were bare. Her feet, ankles and calves looked like they could belong to a teenager. Her hips swayed as she walked like a woman’s who was conscious of a man following her, looking at her.
Back at the house, Peggy went on inside while Leon dumped sand out of his shoes, took his socks off, then hosed off his feet and dried them as best he could with his handkerchief. By the time he got up to their bedroom, Peggy was already in her nightgown.
She held up her hand like a cop stopping traffic. “I think I’d rather you slept on the couch tonight.”
He felt his elation from the walk back from the beach fade, but then she added, “Just for tonight, anyway. We’ll see how it goes tomorrow night,” and he felt a little better about things. Sleeping in the same bed with Peggy, that was mostly symbolic anyway, wasn’t it? All that side of married life, that bedroom stuff, it was a little silly to make too much out of that at their age, wasn’t it?
He went downstairs. He’d forgotten about Jason. He was sitting in the den looking at the TV, which didn’t happen to be on.
“Still up, I see.”
Jason looked up for an instant but then back to the TV, then down at his hands.
He’d seemed in a pretty good mood after their bar adventure, but not now.
“Look, son, I know you’re in a bad place now, but you won’t be down long. Just hang in there. Look at your mom and me. We’ve had a rough last few days, but things are OK between us now—or at least heading there. You can do the same thing. I’m betting you’ll have Bree back real soon.”
“Who said I wanted her back?” Jason said to his hands.
“Of course you want her back. Otherwise you wouldn’t be so down right now.”
“She said I was a cold fish. I bored her.”
“Come on, that’s just women. They bore easily.”
“I heard her. . . . All the way from the back door to the bedroom, I heard her in there with him, grunting like a sow.”
Leon looked away, turned and took a step toward the hallway, turned back.
“Here’s the bottom line. You have to ask yourself if you’d be happier with her or without her. I think we both know the answer to that. Look, I never said it’d be easy. You’ll have to fight for her. A man has to do that sometimes for a woman, do whatever it takes, hell, lie, steal, whatever. I’ve learned that. Just don’t . . . if you do go back and fight for her, just don’t do anything really crazy. We have to watch that sort of thing, you and me. You’re just like me, emotional, a man of passion.”
Jason seemed surprised to hear it.
About the Author
Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with essays and stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including Modern Literature, River Styx, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was published by Et Alia Press.