Air Conditioning

For a while there was only one air-conditioner in our house. It was in the living room, and we put it on during birthdays or the fourth of July. It covered the heat in the kitchen from my mother burning things, like the half-sausages, the hot ones, which had a black crust on the bottom from where they were touching the pan for too long.

The air-conditioner being in the living room was the reason that Lorris slept in my room during the summer, even though he had his own room, because mine had a ceiling fan. It had wooden slats with small holes at the edges so that in the winter we could hang our model planes and cars off the ends. After our mother had dusted the top of the slats, we would set the fan going on a low frequency and the planes and racecars would spin around, getting higher and higher with the centripetal acceleration, until the Lego ones started to break apart, and Lorris ran shouting from the room.

Our parents had been arguing in the living room with the air-conditioner masking the noise a little, and we were building Lego cars in my room, when finally I came and sat on the stairs and started reading a poem I’d written the week before about how cold the pancakes were that morning.

The pancakes, I said, were cold this morning. I was sitting with my knees together on the top step and Lorris was lying on his stomach clutching the two-by-two Lego piece I had asked him to find. I started over, The pancakes were cold this morning.

That’s enough of that, said my father.

I’m just trying to help, I said.

He’s just trying to help, said Lorris.

It’s none of your business, he said. This is an adult conversation. From downstairs we could hear

the kitchen cabinets being slammed shut. Conversation, he repeated.

One day my father came home carrying a second air-conditioner. He was carrying it the way

you carry Christmas packages, as if someone was about to stack more boxes on top. He had to put

the air-conditioner down to ring the doorbell, even though Lorris and I had seen him through the upstairs window, and our mother went to answer it, us behind her, her shoulder and neck cradling the portable phone. She put a hand over the receiver to say, I don’t even want to know.

My father was a driving instructor. He worked at the place on Kings Highway under the train tracks, where the storefronts grow on top of each other until one of them covers up the other. The office for the Kings Highway Driving School was on the second floor, and they were ignoring Department of Health requests to make it handicap accessible. They posted a sign that said, “For handicapped, please call up. Will come down and get you.” So far they’d never had to do it.

I was thirteen at the time, and taking any seconds in the car I could get. Technically I was too young, but if we went in the practice car and lit up the sign on top that said Student Driver, no one said anything. Everyone in our neighborhood was a cop, and they knew me and my father pretty well, so we always drove out to Gerritsen, by the Shit Factory where you could make the widest turns. Sometimes we let Lorris in the back, because he always begged to come, and he took his favorite HotWheel, the red one with the white stripe down the middle. It was always the fastest on our yellow racetrack. He held it in both hands, mimicking the turns and motions I made while I drove.

My mother didn’t like the idea of me driving, especially with my father, because she said thatsomeday we would get caught and it would go on my permanent transcript. That was the kind of thing she was always ragging about, things on my permanent school transcript. Even though I was about to graduate, and I was already in Midwood for high school. She thought that those kinds of things ride on your bumper forever, and maybe they do, but I try to ask as few questions as possible. She wasn’t around when we drove anyway, because she worked nine to seven as a school secretary.

My father lounged around most mornings, doing his shifts in the office three days a week, but other than that he stayed at home until four, when the first lessons were usually scheduled. Sometimes he’d paint the basement just for something to do, or sweep the stoop. I got off the cheese bus from school around three, which left almost an hour for driving. Some days if Lorris was late at after-school program we’d go pick him up. Our mother liked that the least. How could we explain ourselves picking a nine-year-old kid up at school and say this is still a lesson? She was mainly just unhappy because she thought that our father wasn’t a good driver, and that it was terrifying that it was him teaching the whole borough below Fulton Street. Technically she might have been better, but he was confident about it, and didn’t worry about hitting the brakes too hard or conserving gas. She was always stopping at yellows.

When he brought the second air-conditioner home it was April, but one of those hot Aprils that remind you what summer’s like, before it rains again. In Brooklyn that type of weather is always paired with thunderstorms, which is what we waited for. Once our father left for work and before our mother got home I’d get the key for the garage and open the heavy door slowly, hand over hand. Lorris would be drumming on the metal as it went up. We’d pull our bikes out, his fire-yellow, mine blue and white, and race down the sidestreets to Marine Park by the water. At that point in the afternoon you’d be able to feel the heat through the handlebars. We’d make it one lap around the oval, .89 miles, before we heard the first thunder, and then Lorris would yell and dart ahead even though he’d just gotten his training wheels off. The rain came down all at once then, and all of a sudden it would be cold, and this was the best part, when I pulled over by the water fountain and Lorris circled back to me. I pulled the two red and blue windbreakers out of my bike basket and we put them on, invincible against anything from above. We rode two more laps in the zig-zag storm until racing each other home.

Dad put the second air-conditioner in his and Mom’s room. It was just the bathroom and a

closet between their room and mine, and if we had the fan on low Lorris and I could hear the air- conditioning clearing its throat all night. That’s what it sounded like, like it was constantly hacking something up from deep down in its throat. Sometimes if I was awake after going to the bathroom in the early a.m., I could hear our mother wake up and walk over to it, and turn it down a few settings. It took them a long time to get the hang of how high they wanted it to be. It would be too warm when they went to bed, but then freezing by morning, unless Mom got up to fix it. We could tell when she hadn’t gotten up because when we went in before school to say goodbye to Dad, on the days he was sleeping there, he’d have the white sheets all wrapped around his head from the middle of the night.

A few weeks after we got the second air-conditioner it was so hot they started putting out weather advisories over Ten-Ten-WINS in the morning. Stay inside unless absolutely necessary. Mom took this to heart, and tried to get Lorris and me to do it too, but this was the best time for outdoor activities. School was winding down, especially for eighth-graders, so that we didn’t have homework anymore, even from Regents math. My math teacher, Mr. Perlson, had taken to sitting in the back of the classroom and spraying Lysol at anyone if they sneezed too close to him. This was in Independent Math, where we worked at our own pace. We took the tests when we got to the ends of chapters. At this point, everyone seemed to still have a few pages before being ready for their tests. Mr. Perlson didn’t mind. He was concentrating on staying ahead of the sickness wave which always happened the first time the weather changed like this.

It got so hot that the cheese buses broke down, and we had to walk home from school. Dad would have picked us up if we told him, and he did pick Lorris up, but I convinced him that we’d gotten some special buses shipped in from upstate, where the kids biked to school all the time because it was so safe. My friend Harold and I walked towards our neighborhood together, taking everything in.

One of those days, Harold told me that I couldn’t walk straight. I told him he was being ridiculous but it turned out he was right. I’d step with my left foot and fall two or three inches off my forward motion, and then readjust with my right foot, but four or five inches too far. Then I’d have to fix it with my left, but that came off the line a little too. I didn’t know it was happening. Somehow I got wherever I was going, but Harold showed me how, if he was standing pretty close to my shoulder, I kept knocking him, on every third or fourth step.

We were walking down 33rd, which comes off Kings Highway at a curve, and suddenly I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it all the way home. The more I thought about my feet the more inches I diverged right and left. Harold held my right arm and tried to force me forward, but I started breathing heavy and told him I needed a break. That’s when the station wagon pulled by, slowed up, and someone rolled down the window.

It was a high school kid, with a Madison Football sweatshirt and the chinstrap beard that everyone who could was wearing that year. Harold was pretending that the white tuft on his chin counted. The driver also had a Madison sweatshirt on, and I saw him use his right hand to put the car into park.

“Don’t you live on Quentin?” the guy in the passenger’s seat said. “You coming down from Hudde?”

Harold said yes.

“Jump in,” he said. “We’ll drop you off, it’s too hot to walk.” He leaned his arm out the window and reached behind to open the back door.

Once we were in the car the Madison kid in the passenger’s seat turned the music up, and it wasn’t that it was louder than in our car but it was thumping more in my chest. “You like Z100?” he said, smiling, leaning his left hand behind the headrest.

I was watching the driver while Harold answered for us. He was driving with two fingers, his index and middle ones on one hand, his other arm out the window. Somehow we were going just as fast as my dad always goes on side-streets, but we were getting the soft stops that only my mom, at 15 miles per hour, was able to get. At the stop sign on Avenue P, he jolted out to look once or twice, in exact time with the music. His friend was drumming on the dashboard with both hands.

Dad was sitting on the stoop when they dropped us off, and he stood up once he recognized me getting out of the car. The car waved away. I was able to walk again, the zig-zag curse gone. Harold said, “That car was disgusting, huh?” I was looking at my dad’s face. When I got up to him, he grabbed me under the armpit and dragged me up the stoop. Harold didn’t look away. We were inside with the air-conditioning on when he flat-palmed me in the stomach.

“Are you serious,” he said. “Are you serious.”

When Dad came home with the third air-conditioner it was still blistering out. There were tornados in Texas, more than they’d ever seen before, and in Earth Science Ms. Donatelli said it was what we had to look forward to: global warming in America. Someone in the back asked if this meant no more snow days, and she said, Maybe no snow, period.

He had the air-conditioner in the trunk of the driving instructor car. You don’t notice until you’re close to it, but those cars are a little skinnier than regular ones. Dad says it helps the kids who have a bad sense of hand-eye coordination. There’s more wiggle room when you’re trying to squeeze through tight spaces. He says that the first thing he asks a student when they get in the car is whether they played sports when they were younger, or if they still do now. If not, he’d know it was going to be a long day. You can’t imagine how crappy those kids are, especially the Hasidic Jews.

“Why’s that, Daddy?” asked Lorris.

“Because they didn’t play sports as a kid,” he answered, wiping his mouth with his napkin. I had set the table, and we used the white ones with blue borders that I liked.

“This is how you raise your kids,” Mom said. She was twirling her fork in her fingers. She’d gotten home late and he was back early.

“My kids, yeah?” he shrugged. “It’s just true.”

The new air-conditioner was bigger than the others, mostly because it had extendable plastic wings on the side that were supposed to be for fitting in a window. That afternoon before Mom got back from work he put it in the kitchen, balancing it above the heater and extending the wings so it sat snug. He got some blocks of wood out of the garage and pushed them underneath.

When she came back she had immediate problems. They had a session up in their bedroom where we couldn’t really hear what they were yelling. When they came down, she was pointing at the kitchen window. “How am I supposed to hang the clothes out now,” she said. I guess Dad hadn’t thought about that. The clothesline comes out the kitchen window. He moved it one window over.

That was the spring of people breaking their wrists. I had three friends who did, and at least two more from school. Everyone was walking around with casts on their arms and a permanent marker in their back pockets to ask you to sign. It happened to our next-door neighbor first—he was playing basketball at the courts by Marine Park and when he went up for a rebound someone kneed him the wrong way. He fell full on his knuckles. I wasn’t there, but Lorris had been riding his bike and said he saw him waiting for the ambulance, his hand doubled over and fingers touching his forearm.

The one wrist I did get to see was right by our house. Behind the house there’s a thin alley for the sanitation trucks to get the garbage. This way they don’t clog up the avenues in the mornings. Harold was over and Dad was showing Lorris how to skateboard. The alley has a little hill on each end and dips down in the middle. Dad had him getting speed down the hill and then showed him how to glide. Harold and I were on our Razor scooters, trying to do grind tricks off the concrete sides of the alley. Then, after Lorris beat his own glide record and Dad was giving him a high five, Harold decided to come down the hill backwards.

Dad wasn’t watching. He was pretending to shadowbox with Lorris, who was saying, I’m the greatest, I’m the greatest.

“Don’t do it, man,” I said. “They don’t even try that on Tony Hawk.”

“It’s gonna be sick,” he said, and gave it a little hop to get his speed up.

He made it all the way down before falling. I have to give him credit for that. But then he swerved

towards the wall and got scared and fell. He wasn’t even going that fast. All I heard was a squelch like the sound the black dried-up shark eggs make when we squished them on the beach at Coney Island. It was the same sound. His wrist looked bent sideways. He jumped up and was screaming, My wrist, my wrist, and my dad came running over, Lorris right behind, and that’s when the third air-conditioner fell out the window, crashing and breaking into pieces and my Mom yelling from the kitchen, Goddamnit you’re an asshole. Dad and I drove Harold to the hospital first but when we got back we swept up all the pieces.

It wasn’t long after that until it was my birthday, and to celebrate Dad took me out driving with him. It was a weekend, so we had plenty of time. Mom was home with Lorris playing Legos, because in a recent school art-project his portrait of the family had her smaller than the rest of us, off in the corner. She’d been at work a lot. I don’t think Lorris meant anything about it, he was always a terrible artist. But you could tell she was upset.

When we weren’t rushed, Dad liked to pull out all the stops in the driving. First he drove us to the parking lot in Marine Park, and let me drive around there for a few minutes. We pulled into and out of vertical spaces. Everybody learned how to drive in the Marine Park parking lot, and the cops didn’t mind as long as you were being safe. I’ve heard they’re much more careful now—they jumped all over the two underage kids last week who ran their mother’s car into a hydrant—but this was a while ago. We were particularly safe, of course, because we were in Dad’s driver instructor’s car. It had a problem with the wheel so that it lilted a little to the left if you didn’t correct it, but it was perfect and I loved it.

From there we pulled onto Quentin, rode that all the way down to Flatbush, which was heavy six- lane traffic. Dad took the wheel again at that point. I was still getting used to cars on both sides of me. He exaggerated all his driving motions here, the point being for me to observe. Hit the left blinker. Make sure you’re keeping up with traffic. Always check all three mirrors.

If you stay on Flatbush and keep going you hit the water, Rockaway and the Atlantic, twenty blocks from our house, but that’s getting onto the highway, and I didn’t want to deal with that yet. We made a right onto U, and Dad stayed in the right lane the whole way. Then, after passing the public library and the salt marsh where the watermill used to be, where you can still see the foundation coming out of the surface, we were in Gerritsen. Dad ceremonially pulled into an open spot and put the car in park and pulled the keys out and handed them to me when we passed each other going around the hood.

This was my favorite moment, using the key, the throat-grumbling the engine makes when it comes on, how if you do it wrong it kick-starts like someone laughing hysterically. Then the way the wheel shakes a little in your hand, your foot on the brake, everything ready to move.

I pulled out and Dad said, Good good, keep it easy, and I imagined the fake line in the middle of the road like he told me to, keeping a little to the left of it. I hit my right blinker and we were on a one-way street, and my turn came perfectly into the center. I accelerated a little and tried to ease off and onto the break at the red light, completely smooth. I navigated around a double-parked car without my dad saying a word.

When we were little, the only activity that Lorris and I wanted every night was wrestling with Dad. He didn’t like to hit us, Mom was the one we were afraid of, her slaps more damaging than any neighborhood scrape. Scarier too because she’d cry after, holding ice to our cheek, even though we told her it was okay and we didn’t need the ice. But wrestling was something that Dad knew how to do. He’d lie down in our living room on his back, and one or the other of us would run down the hallway and take a running leap and jump on top of him. Then the other would come from behind his head and try to cover his eyes or hold his legs. When we jumped, he made an oof sound like we had knocked the air out, but he always caught us, in midair, no matter what part of him we tried to jump on top of. He’d keep us suspended there for a few seconds, turning us back and forth like a steering wheel, and then pull us back down and wrap our arms in a pretzel. Mom liked to watch this from the kitchen, where she’d be cleaning the dishes, usually Dad’s job but she let him off the hook when he was up for wrestling with us.

Coming down a one-way street like that was the same feeling of being suspended in midair, the windows open and the air coming through, the radio off so I could concentrate, the car on a track, almost, so it felt impossible to deviate. I could close my eyes or shut off the driving part of my brain and the car would keep going forward, where I was willing it to go.

It was the corner, the one with two traffic lights, the one with the old storage warehouse on one side, and the Burger King, where teenagers go after the movies to sky the drink machines and not pay; with the Shit Factory on the other side, the green fence shaped like a wave on the top that goes on and on forever. There’s a gate in the fence with an entrance to the recycling dump. When Dad saw it, it was like he woke up from being asleep with his eyes open. He leaned forward and said, Make a right here, go into there. We’ve got to pick something up. Then the red Chevy came screaming up from behind us and crunched into the passenger’s side.

I sat in the driver’s seat. There were doors being opened and slammed shut. I think I heard the sirens immediately. Police cars are never far away. The Chevy driver went right over to Dad’s side and pulled him out and Dad lay on the floor, breathing heavy, on his back, looking up.

I was in the car. I was out of the car. I was sitting on the side of the curb. My dad lay on his back and groaned quietly, talking to himself. There were people all around him. He kept pushing theair in front of him, up and away. My mom got there. My dad was sitting up. She was screaming the whole time. Another fucking air-conditioner, she said. Driving with your fucking underage son. You’ve got some fucking lot of nerve. Dad was sitting up and laughing. He was shaking his head, I remember that. He’d just gotten a haircut, and you could see red skin beneath the gray. I remember when Dad came to say goodnight to us, later, later, he said, Your mother and I love each other very much. He had his hands on the side of the mattress. Don’t take things so seriously, he said.

It was hot that night and Lorris was in my room again. Mom pulled out the pullout bed. She smoothed the sheets. She kept her hand on his cheek, her other hand on my arm, her feet between the two beds, until Lorris told her that he wanted to turn on the other side. She went downstairs, and she put the television on, but we could hear her and Dad arguing. They were quiet. We only heard the sounds of their voices. It stopped soon and they turned the television off. Lorris got out of the pullout bed and stood in front of mine. He put his hand on the side, and I lifted up the sheet. I faced one way, and he faced the other, because I didn’t like when our breaths hit, but he kept his foot next to mine until four in the morning. Then he got up to go to the bathroom, and I had the bed and the sheets and the quiet room to myself.