Mr. Crivello kept his shop spick-and-span. Not a tool out of place, not a speck of dust in sight. But when Marie stopped by on Thursday, packs of wrenches were strewn in aisles waiting to be shelved, and unopened boxes blocked the entry where the delivery man unceremoniously dumped them. The bell on the door tinkled gently as she pushed in past the boxes. A welcome blast of hot air from the radiator greeted her as she stepped inside. It was a frigid afternoon in Washington Heights.
Marie skirted past the boxes and looked expectantly to the register at her left. She needed to find the blackout paper. Usually, Mr. Crivello sat at the counter, reading his newspaper while the radio played. Today he was nowhere in sight. She made her way to the counter. The flag delivered by the officers last week lay among scattered photographs and papers. Then, Marie noticed the small box with Frankie’s full Christian name—Francis Crivello—neatly typed. She smiled at the thought of how much Frankie hated that name, and how it embarrassed him when his father would call him home for dinner.
Mr. Crivello was proud of his son. Frankie was “All-American.” With his mother’s fair skin and his father’s jet-black hair, he looked like Superman. All the girls in high school swooned over Frankie. He played football in the fall and baseball in the spring. He helped out around the hardware store on the weekends. He finished high school with honors and was accepted to City College. But when Pearl Harbor was attacked, Frankie dropped out and enlisted in the Navy. Marie picked up one of the photos. It was Frankie in his white dress uniform, arm around his father, big grin on his face.
Blackout paper forgotten, Marie gently lifted the lid from the box. Inside, a set of dog tags lay atop a dark blue military-issued wool sweater. She set aside the dog tags and lifted the sweater out of the box. Marie held it up and inhaled. The wool was softer than she expected. But no scent of Frankie was left. That hurt, and tears stung her eyes. Still, Marie pulled the sweater over her head and hugged it around her body.
The last time Marie saw Frankie, it was early May. He shipped out for training the next day. They sat in the warmth of sunset on the roof of their apartment building. Marie was a few years younger than Frankie, and he always treated her like a kid sister. Marie believed Frankie looked after her because they had both lost a parent—Frankie never knew his mother, and Marie’s father had been gone for ten years. Marie’s mother always had an eye on Frankie, and Mr. Crivello had a soft spot for her. Marie always suspected Mr. Crivello would have liked a daughter.
A light breeze ruffled Frankie’s superhero hair. “Look after my dad, Marie. He won’t have anyone when I’m gone.”
Marie laughed. “Your dad won’t take help from anyone, least of all a kid like me.”
Frankie snorted in agreement. “Yeah, but just keep an eye out. Maybe pretend like you need his help.”
They sat in silence, while the sun set over the apartment building skyline. Then, Frankie grabbed her hand and squeezed. “I’m scared.”
Marie looked at Frankie, the boy everyone thought invulnerable. Invincible. And she realized how much energy he spent trying to be the best. To make sure he and his father were accepted in the neighborhood. To be “All-American” so people would forget his father was an outsider with an accent.
Marie leaned over and kissed him.
Frankie smelled of spice and Ivory soap. She felt his hesitation, but then, he let go. All his fear, his anxiety—his need—came full force. She took all that pain, willing herself to free him from it and make him invincible again. In that moment, Marie tried to send a little of her own strength into his body—hoping it would carry him when he felt lost and alone.
After Frankie left, Marie stopped by the store a few times a week. She always asked if Mr. Crivello needed help, and he always said no. Then he pulled out a deck of cards from a drawer in the counter, and they played several hands of gin rummy.
As she would put her coat on to leave, Mr. Crivello always said, “You worry too much about me. Francis has put too much responsibility on your little shoulders.”
Marie walked behind the counter and pulled open a drawer. After pushing aside the loose screws and bolts, she found a deck of cards and made her way to the back of the store.
Mr. Crivello sat at his desk in the cramped office. He stared at nothing. In his hand was a letter. It looked like Frankie’s handwriting on the envelope.
“Mr. Crivello?” Marie hesitated at the doorway.
Mr. Crivello refocused his eyes. “Ah, Maria. I am sorry I was not at the front when you come. Come in, come in.”
Marie stepped into the office. Mr. Crivello noticed the sweater enveloping her and nodded. “Sit, sit, please. It is good you are here now.”
She sat on the small chair across from Mr. Crivello. He held up the letter. “You saw the box come from the Navy. It is Francis. What he kept. Pictures. Letters. Why they think I want the clothes?” He eyed Marie in the sweater. “You can keep.”
Marie tightened her grip on the sweater. “What’s in the letter, Mr. Crivello?”
He paused for a moment, then shook his head. “It does not matter now.” Mr. Crivello opened a desk drawer and, after placing the letter inside, shut the drawer with finality.
Marie pulled out the deck of cards. Mr. Crivello nodded. She shuffled and dealt a hand of gin rummy.
Andrea Watson-Canning is brand new to writing, though not to the creative world, as she received an MFA in dramaturgy from UC San Diego. At some point, she transitioned to education and earned a Ph.D. Currently, she teaches US Government online. She lives lakeside in Florida with her partner, Bill, daughter, Fiona, dogs Genevieve and Lulu, and cats Snowy and Whiskey.