Three Flash Essays
Up and Down
Thelma, your mommy, is crying. She wants to get out of the tiny goddamnit! bug-infested apartment, but she doesn’t have anywhere to go, and she doesn’t have any money to go there. You’re four years old. She puts your coat and shoes on you and takes you for a walk. She’s wearing a black dress, a mink coat she brought from Wales and a fancy hat with a feather. She looks like a bug.
You like the smell of the fruit stand on 8th Avenue as you walk uptown. Thelma holds your hand and keeps walking. 20th Street. 23rd Street. 27th Street. You’re getting tired. You’ve never walked so far in your whole life. At 34th Street you turn and walk more. You go into Macy’s. You don’t like the smell of the perfume. You go on the elevator. Thelma talks to the man who drives it. You ride up to the top floor and down to the bottom. The man asks her where she got that funny accent. She keeps talking. Up to the top floor and down to the bottom. Talking. The man stops asking her questions. Up and down. Up and down. Thelma stops talking. Just stands there holding your hand, up and down. Up and down. Finally the man says, “Ma’am, you and the boy need to get out now. Why don’t you do some shopping? It’ll make you feel better.”
You leave the elevator and leave Macy’s and walk back to 19th Street. You start to climb the stairs, but you’re too tired. “Carry me, Mommy. Carry me,” you cry. She picks you up and carries you up the six flights to the top floor. And when you get there, she goes into her bedroom and closes the door.
Your parents, Eddie and Thelma, had taken you and your big brother Paul on the Long Island Railroad to Lake Ronkonkoma. You try saying Ronkonkoma, but your tongue gets mixed up. You stay at Angelo’s Guest House which is next to a baby ocean that Eddie calls a lake. You and Thelma sleep in one bed. Paul and Eddie sleep in another.
At breakfast Thelma drinks tea. She always drinks tea. She loves tea. You love Thelma so you drink tea too. But that morning at Angelo’s Guest House on Lake Ronkonkoma your tea is different, you don’t know why. It’s hot and milky and sweet like tea, but it’s darker and smells funny. You sip, and everything in the world gets brighter and more beautiful. You take another sip. You didn’t know anything could taste so good. You sip and sip until there’s nothing left to sip. The sun is shining. You and Paul swim in the lake. The next morning you sip the funny tea again. Thelma is sad. She is always sad. When you say, “Mommy, this makes my tongue happy,” something beautiful happens. Thelma smiles. And you’re happy that you make your mommy smile. When you return home to 19th Street, Thelma is sad, and you never see her smile again.
The next year, living with your Nanny in Howard Beach, you ask her if Mommy is in heaven, and Nanny says, “Yes, your Mommy is in heaven with God and the saints.”
You ask, “Is Mommy with Saint Peter and Saint Paul?”
Nanny says, “Yes, she’s with Saint Peter and Saint Paul.”
“Is Mommy friends with the angels?”
“Yes, Mommy is friends with all the angels.”
At breakfast you think about your mommy and her friends, the angels, as you sip your tea, but it isn’t real tea. It’s the funny tea you had at Angelo’s Guest House. You ask Nanny what it is, and she says, “Coffee.”
“Coffee,” you say, as you sip it, your tongue happy for the first time in a long time.
Patty McShithead pushes two little boys into the hole they dug in the soggy ground between the Howard Beach train tracks and Idlewild Airport, which in a few years will be renamed for the assassinated president.
Patty McShithead throws rocks at the boys as they climb out and run away to the roar of a jet engine so loud you can’t hear yourself yell, “Patty, leave them alone!”
Patty McShithead runs when the little boys return with their big brothers who carry sticks and stones, and one of them a gun he points at your chest as the two little boys protest, “Not him, the one running away!”
As the brothers shove you along the Belt Parkway, their gun cocked against the back of your neck, it occurs to you that the God you believe in and love and obey is punishing you for another boy’s sins.
But then a car slows down and stops, an ordinary-looking car, driven by an ordinary-looking man who must have seen the gun, seen what’s going on and circled back.
He opens his door, steps out and says, “Son, do you need a ride?”
You lunge into the back seat next to two crying children while their mother fumes in front, never turning to look at you or ask if you’re okay as the man pulls into the flow of parkway traffic and drives away.
Peter E. Murphy is the author of eleven books and chapbooks of poetry and prose. His work has appeared in The Common, Guernica, Hippocampus, The New Welsh Reader, Rattle, The Sun, and elsewhere. “Up and Down,” “Funny Tea,” and “The Gun” are adapted from his memoir, Once Upon a Time You Lived in a Castle, which is seeking an agent. Peter is the founder of Murphy Writing of Stockton University in Atlantic City. You can find out more at www.peteremurphy.com.