“Cranford is only four square miles,” Joe’s son said in the kitchen.
I sipped the coffee.
“Everyone kind of knows everyone,” Joe said in his matter-of-fact tone.
Joe and I stepped outside his home and we both smelled the April air, felt the warm wind with only a slight bite left to it.
“It was a long winter,” Joe said. “Never seen it so cold for so long.”
After driving from Florida, I needed to have the car checked since it was running hot the last 400 miles. He drove me across town to hang out at a coffee shop until my car was looked at and offered me two spots “the big coffee chain or the local spot. The big one is new to town. Big news around here.”
“I’ll take the local spot.”
“Good choice,” Joe said, then sped off to work after dropping me off.
I could see the cheerful look on the Cranford faces. Freed of hats and scarves and long-collared coats, the men rolled up their sleeves and women wore their favorite shoes again.
One of the five chairs that were set up in a semi-circle were open, so I sat, plugged in the computer and sipped from the wide cup among three 40ish men who were talking animatedly with each other and a lone woman in her early thirties.
After ten minutes of overhearing the men talk about home renovations, local taxes and the current state of the Garden State Parkway, an old man waddled in.
“Hi Hal,” one of the men said.
Hal’s face lit up, “Oh, uh…”
“Michael,” Michael reminded Hal of his name. “Sit here, we were just leaving.”
“Oh uh,” Hal was confused, wanted to say two things at once, yet nothing could be heard accept “uh, oh I’m uh…”
“Don’t worry, Hal,” Michael said. “It’s all you, we were just leaving, right guys?”
And out they went before Hal got a chance to say hello or goodbye.
Sitting next to me, I could smell that Hal carried the musty aroma of a man who didn’t often change his clothes. The perspiration in his shirt and sweatpants from many months of continual use. The scent of the homeless.
“I can’t remember your name,” he said to the woman in the corner chair.
“Janette,” she responded.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” he said dejectedly. “I can’t seem to remember names anymore. I think it’s the depression, really. It’s just turning me inside out.”
I smiled inside and felt sorry for him at the same time, then peeked at the woman who was cordially grinning, but didn’t respond.
“Janet was it?” Hal asked a few minutes later.
“Janette,” she said simply.
Through the corner of my eye I could see Hal felt let down that he couldn’t coax Janette into talking with him. He then looked at me deliberately, turned himself in the chair.
“Do I know you?”
“No sir,” I said with a little grin, half cordial, half amused.
“Oh,” he said, looking down.
I went back to my computer.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Well, I was born in Long Island, New York but I…”
“I’ve known many people from there,” he interrupted, then stopped himself to ask another question. “Why are you here?”
“Well, I did a reading at the local library last night where…”
“Are you a writer?”
“What do you write?”
“I wrote a book about the Irish in…”
“When I think about the Irish, I think about the potato famine that happened,” he said.
“Yeah, that was a big event,” I agreed, keeping my sentences shorter than I wanted.
“I was an orphan in Jersey City, you know.”
I could hear a slight sigh from Janette, “Oh really?” I asked.
“I was a kicker for USC in college too.”
“Yes, but I only kicked three field goals in two years as a player.”
Two men walked in and one touched Hal on the arm as he was passing by and said hello.
In a delayed reaction, Hal looked to the side but the man was behind him already.
“Who was that?” Hal asked me.
Amused, I shrugged. Janette sat quietly without contribution.
Sitting up in his seat, he attempted to turn his neck but couldn’t quite get it all the way around and eventually quit, awaiting the man’s return.
“I forgot your name again, is it Janice?”
“Janette,” she responded without looking up from her computer.
“I remember when you were a child, now you’re taller than most men.”
Watching a girl walk passed him, he commented, “You know, I don’t like these tights that girls wear today, they’re not becoming.”
“Well, they are called leggings and I’m wearing them now,” Janette said.
“Oh! That’s different.”
“I mean… you look good in them.”
She rolled her eyes and smiled sarcastically, “thanks.”
The two men came back around with to-go cups of coffee when Hal noticed one of them, “John!”
John stopped in the doorway, slowly turned around.
“Was that you that said hello to me?”
“Yeah Hal,” the man said. “My name is James though.”
“Oh, this guy is a writer,” Hal told him, pointing at me.
Unimpressed, the man nodded at me. I nodded back somewhat embarrassed.
“Uh…” Hal thought, turning to me. “What is the name of your book?”
“What is your name?” Hal fired another question as James waited in the doorway. “Did I already ask you that?”
“Well I gotta go Hal, good seein’ ya.”
“Oh no,” Hal said. “Well uh… have a good…”
James had walked out the door already.
Hal looked down, then suddenly remembered he had a coffee and turned to grab it with both hands and sipped on it to make sure it wasn’t too hot. Then gulped half of it down. Looking over at me, “Did I ask you your name already?”
“I can’t remember names, so I’m sorry… Eamon?”
“I have this depression and it gets me all… Eamon?”
I smiled and nodded.
“The only thing I ever think about, with this depression is… death,” he announced with both hands in the air.
I didn’t say anything, but wanted to.
“I used to be able to run. I was a great athlete, I played football for USC, you know. It happened when I turned 80. I couldn’t run anymore.”
“Did you hurt your knee or have a surgery or something?” I asked.
“What? No, I just couldn’t run anymore. It hurt too much. Before that, I ran everyday until I just couldn’t.”
I thought about the terror of having the ability to do something for eighty years, then quickly losing it from one day to the next.
“I’m sorry, did you say something about… What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh yeah, yeah… What do you write? Books?”
“Yes,” I handed him a copy of my current book.
“Wow,” Hal said holding it in his hand. “This is amazing.”
I smiled at the thought of someone still thinking it a great accomplishment to write a book.
“I can’t even read anymore,” Hal said squinting at the words. “How much does it cost?”
“Oh, well it retails at sixteen dollars.”
“Oh,” he looked down dejectedly, then said under his breath. “I bet Gerry Cooney would love this book.”
“Gerry Cooney? The boxer?”
“Yes, nobody never said a bad word about the man. Gentlest man you’ve ever met,” Hal explained to me with the book in his left hand, eyes ablaze in wonder. “I talk to him quite a bit. He calls me on my birthday every year.”
I nodded an impressed nod.
“He’s from Long Island too you know, but he lives around here now… And he’s Irish too… Boy he had a left hook.”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“He had Holmes on the run,” he assured me. “I remember it to this day. Cooney got knocked down once, I think it was the third, but after that Cooney was all over him. The belt was coming home, we all shouted. It was the time of my life, that fight was. Never forget it. Gone to history, but I’ll never forget it.”
A minute later and I pulled the video of the fight up on my computer and showed him.
“Oh my God!” Hal guffawed. “How did you do that?”
Watching the video, I said, “at least he got the chance.”
Hal then looked at me seriously, “Have you ever seen the movie On the Waterfront?”
“Listen,” Hal said, putting my book down on the table and clearing his throat. “‘It wasn’t him, Cha’ley, it was you. Rememba that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and ya said, ‘Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.’ You rememba that? ‘This ain’t your night’! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brotha, Cha’ley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money… Oh I had some bets down for you. You saw some money…. You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contenda. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Cha’ley.’”
I smiled all the way through the dialogue and in the middle of the local coffee shop, I applauded Hal when he finished. Janette tried as best she could to keep her eyes on the computer and the baristas and patrons gave simple, polite smiles.
“Now that was amazing, Hal,” I said. “Spot on.”
“Eamon, yes,” he said, fixing himself in his chair. “Can you look me up on that thing?”
“The computer? Sure, what’s your last name?”
“Kitchna, Hal Kitchna. That’s not my real name, you know. I was an orphan in Jersey City, but look up me up, I was a player at USC on the football team.”
I did a search and quickly found his name mentioned in a book covering the 1959 USC game versus Notre Dame where in the third quarter, Hal Kitchna converted an extra point. I showed him.
“Wow, I’m in a book?”
“You sure are.”
“You know, if I had a better childhood, I coulda been somebody. I was lucky to get in at USC, you know. Everyone was smarter than me though. Well, not really smarter, because I was very smart, but, I don’t know, raised better, I guess. Nothing can replace a mother’s love.”
“I think you turned out just fine, Hal,” I said.
“I’m going to get somebody here to buy your book for me, then I’m going to give it to Gerry Cooney,” Hal said, and before I could laugh or remark, he turned to a man that walked in the door. “Jeff Deerfield, come here.”
The man seemed surprised, “This guy is an author.”
Jeff Deerfield smiled and kept walking.
“Don Smith,” Hal said to the next man walking in. “He’s an author, he has a book.”
Don Smith congratulated me, and walked on.
Meanwhile, my phone rang. It was the mechanic working on my car. My attention was pulled away from Hal. The car was finished and ready for me, so I then called Joe, who said he’d be over in twenty minutes or so to take me to the auto repair shop.
“Here he is, here he is,” Hal said pointing at me.
A short man stood in front of me but did not shake my hand, “You’re the author?”
I smiled, “Yes.”
“You write about the Irish?”
“I went to Ireland once,” Hal seemed happy sitting next to me as the man spoke. “It was the best trip I ever took. The people there are so nice. I went to the Guinness Brewery also. You know, it tastes better there then anywhere else in the world, because that’s where they make it.”
“Yes, they do.”
“Okay, I gotta go,” the man said.
“Steve,” Hal said. “Do you want to buy his book?”
“Goodbye,” Steve said smiling as he backed his way out the door.
Hal put his hand on his forehead and looked as though he might cry. “It’s time for me to catch my bus now,” he said downcast.
“My ride is on the way too,” I said.
We shared a quiet moment together as Janette had entirely blocked us out by now.
“Everyone deserves a chance,” Hal mumbled under his breath.
A few minutes later and we were both waiting outside in the April sun on the curb. I hadn’t realized how bad his legs were until we walked out the door together. Hal shuffled and apologized. He told me again about his depression and how he used to be able to run.
“The only thing I ever think about is death,” he said.
“All we really need is hope in this life, I think,” said I.
“It really is.”
“I want you to have this, Hal,” I handed him my book.
“But I can’t pay for it.”
“It’s a present from me, can you give it to Gerry Cooney?”
“He’ll love it!” Hal said. “He knows a lot of people, you know. Everyone loves Gerry Cooney, nobody never said a bad word about the man. Do you believe me, that I’ll get it to him?”
“I know you will.”