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Against Gravity

Rating: PG-13

If you've been to my grandfather's barber shop, you know the sweet aroma of the Chiclets he keeps in the drawer to the far right. Ditto for the hair tonics and the talcum powder and the Royal Bay Rhum, bottles arrayed in green and blue on white shelves around the big mirror. The one with the beveled edges and the wispy silver streaks like ghosts.

Daddy D stands at the first chair -- for some inexplicable reason, there are two -- clipping the back of a head and chewing meditatively on a piece of gum, when he isn't berating the Yankees. "I like any team that can beat the Yankees." I've heard him say this more than once. He always snarls when he says it. I'm not sure what it is about the Yankees that he doesn't like.

I sit there with a magazine in my lap watching him clip away. Except for the single customer in the hydraulic chair, we're alone. The mark of a good haircut -- and he must have said this many times or I'd have forgotten it -- is that you can't tell the customer has had a haircut at all.

This is his last customer of the day. I'm going to help him sweep up when he's done. I want my grandfather to like me, and I know I'm behind my cousins Holly and Denny in that department. They're naturally sunny, naturally funny. Their father, my Uncle Floyd, has a droll sense of humor, and their mother, my Aunt Audrey, has a laugh like a medium-sized dog. So I guess they come by their dispositions naturally. I've been told I'm "serious," though I'm not sure what that means.

"Twelve!" the young woman on the Greyhound exclaims to my embarrassed pleasure. My twin sister, Dee, and I have just arrived in Rochester to visit our other relatives, Uncle Holland and Aunt Rozel and cousins Park and Peter. "But you're so mature." We'd been in conversation, the young woman and I, the sort of grown-up talk that sometimes is hard to negotiate. But I've learned to be careful of the soft ground and quicksand. My replies and comments are measured, crafted, calculated.

So maybe I do know what that word means: grownup.

Park and Peter, too, have a naturalness I lack. But they live far enough away that they don't pose any serious competition. And the funny thing is, I like them. I like them all: Park, Pete, Holly, and Denny. I wish I could be them, spontaneous. But I've always got something on my mind, something that gets between now and then.

Daddy D pulls off the white sheet wrapped around the man's neck and begins to flick at fallen hair with a soft white brush. Next comes the Royal Bay Rhum, which he sprinkles from its green bottle into the palm of one hand. His old hands make a dry sound as he brings his hands together, then rubs the customer's neck. The talcum comes last, its sweet dust rising in a mote of light streaking the big front window where the cardboard bust of a man sits smiling on a wide ledge.

Haircuts are more expensive now, and I watch change being made from a drawer. He's the best barber in town, though it's a small town and there are only two barbers that I know of. But that's what my mother has always says. "People will wait weeks to get a haircut if your Daddy D is out." When that is, I can't imagine. He's always working, always snipping. These days, a loyal following is more important than ever. Since his heart problem, he can't work as long as he used to. He's pretty old, too. So now he's forced to cut hair by-appointment-only, as the hand-scrawled sign in the door window says..

Even before the heart problems, however, Daddy D had to wrap his left leg with an elastic bandage. Varicose veins. They resemble swelling rivers of purple barely contained by the thin flesh. The leg is smooth and shiny down the sharp shinbone, and almost hairless.

When we walk home around five, the summer air is sticky and the smell of dead fish wafts up from the river. We cut across the Texaco station, where Daddy D waves at the proprietor with his free hand. In the other, change jingles in the sturdy bag with the drawstring at the top. Even now, Daddy D is a powerful walker, and I am practicing to be short, like my own father, by taking long strides. I remember the time my father marching in a parade formation at Ft. Knox. When the column of uniformed soldiers made a sudden right turn, and my father -- positioned at the end -- had to double step to catch up, his stubby legs working furiously against gravity. I think my mother laughed but I felt embarrassed. Or maybe I was glad to see him do something wrong for a change.

We are heading toward Riverside Drive, a long block away, when Daddy D says, "You're going to have to be the man of the family now," and he glances down at me from his six-foot height.

"I know." Though I don't.

I like his brown shoes. They're always clean and shined. His dress blue cotton shirts, too, which he wears tieless, showing a triangle of clean white tee shirt. The sleeves rolled up his forearms.

"It's a hard time for your mother."

I know this too. Wasn't I there the evening the old Western Union Telegram messenger arrived with his bad teeth and a yellow envelope? When my mother danced that jig and keened and wailed on the front porch: "Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!" Later, I saw the envelope, pulled out the cheap message paper, and read it: "The Department of the Army regrets to inform you . . . missing in action." I crumpled up the message and the envelope, but Daddy D took the papers from my hand and smoothed them out. "Someone might want this someday," he said, though I couldn't imagine why anyone would want to preserve bad news.

"Uh-huh," I say now. But I don't really know what "hard time" really means or what being "the man of the family" means. Maybe "serious" doesn't mean "grownup," after all. Because it's all a mystery or a secret that only grownups whisper to each other when the children are in bed and sleeping. But Daddy D doesn't explain, as if the secret has been revealed. As if the yellow envelope explained it all.

Nearing the corner, I can see the flat of blue water where the river washes against the public beach. Beyond the open boats of the fishing guides, beyond the sodden shore reeds, the surface of the river is broken into shards of light, as though a mirror had been shattered. It's a place where the unredeemable boys play on their rafts, their bare chests red from the sun and their voices high and shrill. They use swear words like spears chucked out into the bay. Headed for reform school or foster homes or somewhere you don't even want to know about. So say my mother and my grandmother, who warn me about playing on the river or "associating" with those boys.

We round the corner -- I skip to catch up -- and I think about my guilty secret, which is worse than anything the boys on the river ever did or said. Because I wished him dead. I wished my father dead. For spanking me in front of my friends. For dunking my face under the water tap of the laundry tub until I choked. For showing me his love only sometimes. And now he is, or as good as, dead. Which makes me wonder about the difference between the river boys and me. And I am suddenly hot and angry because it isn't fair, any of it. Why couldn't I have a father who was tall and funny, who didn't get mean drunk? Who sold life insurance or built highways like my uncles? Why couldn't I have a mother strong and resilient like my Aunt Audrey, or pretty and patient like my Aunt Rozel?

And, anyway, who cares if Daddy D doesn't like me as much as he likes Holly and Denny and Park and Pete? Who cares!

The smell of reheated roast beef greets us as we walk through the front screen door, and potatoes liberally sprinkled with pepper spice the air, with just a hint of the lemon Jello thickening on the stovetop. In the kitchen, my mother's face is red and beaded with perspiration, and perspiration marks darken the underarms of her summer dress. A sudden breeze through the open kitchen window, sliding in off the river, cools my face.

"Get washed up for dinner," she says. Then thinks to ask, "Did you and Daddy D have a good time?"

Nanny sits on her stool at the sink, crippled and bent by arthritis, commenting on the preparations and probably getting my mother's "goat," as my mother often says. "Nothing's ever good enough for that woman." I walk straight through the kitchen, out onto the back sun porch, out the porch door, down the steps, into the back yard overlooking the St. Lawrence. It's so wide, it might be the open sea. But there are islands in the middle distance, so your focus doesn't get lost.

I pick up small, hard, green apples that have fallen all around the apple tree, avoiding the really rotten, wormy ones, and begin skipping them off the roof of the boathouse just beyond the backyard wall, where there's a fifteen-foot drop to the river. It's rocky down there and tangled with river weed. I know, because I climbed down there once with my Uncle Herbert. The one we never hear from, out somewhere on the West Coast.

I skip the apples out onto the tarpaper roof, and they disappear into the river, where they will bob for a while in the open water before they collect in the tangle of rock and weed.

The sunlight is hard this time of day and makes me squint and sweat. Even so, I take my signal. I throw hard, fast. I am pitching for the New York Yankees, and my stuff is all working today against the Dodgers: fastballs, curves, sinkers -- as if charmed, they all slide past my opponent, who bangs his big bat against the home plate in frustration, raising a puff of smoke. Yogi Berra smiles from behind the plate, a high compliment. He flips his catcher's mask down over his face. Time to get serious.

Just one batter to go. If I get this guy out, Yogi and Mickey and Joe will carry me off the field on their shoulders. I squint at the signal and shrug it off. And another.

I want the fastball.