The carriage room was beyond the reach of sunlight so even in the middle of the day, until I found the fraying string that turned the feeble ceiling light on, it was black inside, impossible to take a step without bumping into a handlebar—some of them level with my neck—or the bonnet of some 100-pound baby carriage. The place smelled like subway dust and a faint combination of sour milk and dirty diaper. I’d been sent to find my brother Billy. The carriage room was one of the places he’d sneak off to smoke.
When I was eight, the carriage room was a very scary place. We lived in the basement apartment of a six-story building in the Bronx and it was down at the end of a dimly lit hall whose floor and walls and ceiling were made of gray cement, uneven and rough to the touch. The carriage room was locked—at least it was supposed to be—but we had the key because we were the superintendents, a fancy term for people who got their rent reduced for hauling twelve metal garbage cans out to the curb and washing the halls with Pine-Sol strong enough to burn the lining of your nose.
The stale smell of cigarette smoke was ubiquitous in those days, but I could always tell when my brother Billy had been in the carriage room, because his Camels left their trail. I suspected right away that he’d stolen the wheel off Mrs. Marra’s baby carriage. When I pulled on the light, there it was, listing forward, its yawning mouth agape. The pacifier and rattles left inside had slid down to the bottom of the padding. Billy needed the wheel for his go-cart. He was the undisputed champ. Nobody for blocks around could beat him, mainly because he was insane. No curb or wandering toddler or oncoming car could slow him down. His wheel broke when he swerved, head bent low, to avoid a hotdog vendor gaining momentum as he barreled down the street. Later, that’s how I imagined him in Vietnam, striding forward, head down, feet hurting, ready to take things out on anyone in his path. He returned home silent, even more sullen. I asked him about Mrs. Marra once, but he looked at me as if all memories, good or bad, had been erased. He didn’t seem to hold on to things or stay with them long, especially girls. They’d turn into movies he’d seen before, and he’d walk out on them before it was over. When he got tired of the Army, he went AWOL. Agents came to question us. When my turn came, I pretended this was so unlike him. But I wondered if his escape wasn’t his way of playing dead in a game where the pawns got lined up to be killed.
Mrs. Marra didn’t like Billy, which is no doubt why he chose her carriage to disable. She had a habit of stuffing her garbage into cans that were already full, so the lid wouldn’t fit back on. When Billy helped my mom and dad put the cans out to the curb, the wind would take the lid halfway down the block. Mom asked Marra more than once not to do that. She’d glance down her nose at Mom—who was barely more than five feet tall—and turn away, as if she were just another can. Billy didn’t like that. So I knew it was only a matter of time before Marra got what was coming to her.
Mrs. Marra complained to my parents about the missing wheel, said she was going to talk to the owner of the building. Mom told her she’d do everything she could to find out who did it and would make sure the room stayed locked. You’d swear she meant it. But when she saw that Billy had propped the carriage up with a garbage can lid, so it would stay put against the wall until the new wheel came, she just grinned.
I guess Mrs. Marra didn’t think it was funny. She must have complained to the owner, because he told my mother if he got another complaint he’d have to make other arrangements. No doubt moving us to an apartment we couldn’t afford. Food was scarce sometimes, so we were a skinny bunch—four girls and three boys—with bad skin and moody Irish faces. The older ones stayed out as late as they could. Billy came home with candy sometimes, or Devil Dogs. When he needed favors, he’d share.
When the replacement wheel arrived, Billy offered to put it on the carriage. Marra agreed, but she stood over him the whole time, arms folded as if he might decide to convert the whole buggy into a power cart. We got to keep our apartment, but the cost of the wheel set us back and my mom missed the third electric bill in a row. So we had no power till we could come up with the money. We had to use candles. Billy told me later he didn’t remember it being so bad, but that’s not true. He’d escape to his friend Charlie’s house whenever he could, and bring his records with him. Mom was afraid Dad would knock a candle over when he came home shit-faced. That never happened. But one night Billy let the wax dry on his face and held a flashlight under his chin outside the living room window. Scared the hell out of us. He loved it. Later, even Mom laughed about it. But mostly we ate cold cuts and I’d read my library books by candlelight.
It’s not unusual for years to go by without seeing Billy. But he showed up for my son’s birthday party, a box of Devil Dogs tucked under his arm. “Sorry I’m late,” he said, as if that was unusual. “Traffic coming down from Boston.”
“Perfect time to be up there. The leaves must have been beautiful.”
“This is the peak of the season there. For the leaves changing.”
“Nah. I was up there for Neal Sullivan. He’s pretty sick.”
“The guy you served with? What’s wrong?”
“They don’t know for sure. Probably that Agent Orange shit. He’s not gonna make it.”
“Forget it,” he shrugged. “He was gone years ago.”
“Yeah. Anyway the traffic was a bitch.”
I pictured him in his go-cart on the thruway and it occurred to me that the carriage room might have been the perfect name for an upscale restaurant somewhere out in the country near one of those New England towns that gets swarmed by glorious leaves and wide-eyed tourists every October. Maybe a place where they could eat dinner by candlelight and think it’s romantic.