Three generations of Jerome Porteras lived in one small Baltimore house, and all three — father, son, and grandson — shared the same nickname: “Romey.” The two elder Romeys, called Big Romey and Romey Jr., sat on the bench in front of their house watching Little Romey, now six, ride his two-wheeler, training wheels attached. A Saturday afternoon, the older Romeys, in shorts and white tank undershirts, sipped bottled beer while the boy sped up and down the block, taking his hands off the handlebars and yelling, “Look at me, Dadio! Look at me, Poppy! No hands!”
Romey Jr. watched the back of his son’s head, the wind caressing his dark brown hair, causing it to fly behind him.
“Hey, son, slow down and hold on, or you’ll end up killing yourself,” he yelled to the child who had already reached the pear tree that comprised his north boundary four houses down. “And don’t go past that tree.”
Watching the boy, feet spread apart, ready to spring into action if he took a spill, Romey Jr. sprang off of the bench to make sure the child did not pedal past the pear tree. He sipped his beer. Big Romey watched the boy, too, though he, relaxed, remained seated.
“Why don’t you take ’em training wheels off. That’ll slow him down,” Big Romey said. “He’s ready to ride without them anyways. By the look of it.”
“Too little,” Romey Jr. said. “He’d only get himself all scratched up. Break a bone even. Six ain’t big enough.”
“Bullshit. He’s taking his hands off the handlebars. If that ain’t showing he’s bored with that bike now, I don’t know what is,” Big Romey said. “It ain’t going to be the end of the world if he takes a fall or two, gets scraped up. Hell, he’s a boy. He ain’t no hothouse flower. All you and Ant do is coddle and baby him, sissifying him. He needs some scraped knees, for Pete’s sake.” Big Romey sipped his beer. “For his own good,” the old man added. “And you gotta learn to let go. Give the kid some kind of room.”
“Not at six, Pop,” Romey Jr. said.
Big Romey shrugged. “If you had another kid you wouldn’t feel that way because you wouldn’t have a choice.”
“Ant been talking to you again?” asked Romey Jr.
His wife — Ant, short for Antoinette — had been begging for another child for a year, saying her window was about to snap shut.
Romey Jr. remained ambivalent, both about the evaporating time frame his wife worried over and about another mouth to feed. He hadn’t wanted Little Romey, not really, but the boy, who looked as if Big Romey chewed him up and spit him out, had a funny way of growing on him, and now Romey Jr. found himself so attached, he worried about the kid’s future, paralyzed by an astonishing and endless array of “What ifs”:
What if the baby got a terrible disease and died; What if Romey Jr. himself got a terrible disease—after all, he wasn’t a young guy at 45 anymore — and died, then who would take care of the kid? What if someone stole the baby or, worse yet, molested and tortured him?
The thought caused Romey Jr.’s heart to pump furiously, turning his face and ears red, and he gritted his teeth, picturing the pain he’d inflict on the individual who’d dare harm Little Romey.
“Nope,” Big Romey said. “But I agree with her. You still refer to the boy as ‘the baby.’ He ain’t a baby no more. He’s ready to ride a two-wheeler. Without them training wheels,” his father said, pointing to the child now standing up and pedaling furiously toward them.
“Look at him. Blink, and he’ll be gone before you even know what hit you. Ain’t nothing pleasant about being alone, which is what he’s gonna be if you turn him into a mama’s boy.”
Romey Jr. regarded his father, his gnarled hands that once lay beautiful brick walls around a beer bottle, his dimpled cheeks, and soft brown eyes peering out from a face with thinning skin growing ever thinner, topped by a head of thinning gray curly hair.
“He ain’t going to be a mommy’s boy, and you ain’t alone, Pop.”
Big Romey shrugged. “I wasn’t talking about me being alone. Him being alone. My friend Pietro had a boatload of children, and to this day, his house is noisy. The kids all had kids, and every day every week Pietro’s got something interesting to do with a different person. You gotta admit, our house is a bit on the quiet side.”
“Whatta ya saying, Pop? I’m boring to you now?”
Big Romey — almost 73 and a widower — laughed.
“Not at all, Junior. Ain’t saying that at all.”
The old man had sold his house to move in with Romey Jr. It was Romey Jr.’s idea, a way to fill up the extra bedroom and keep an eye on his father at the same time. Much to his surprise, Big Romey went along with it without much protest. After Stella died, Big Romey banged around alone, alone in his own house where he’d had a heart attack and stumbled outside, knowing he needed help.
If it weren’t for Big Romey’s next-door neighbor, who heard a thump and the sounds of glass breaking when he’d fallen on the porch, Romey Jr. would have lost his father, too. Now the old man tended their backyard garden, a city garden, his gnarled hands covering the two fig trees in winter and planting cucuzzi vines in summer so that figs and squash came in abundance, along with plum tomatoes, basil, rosemary, and other herbs. He resuscitated the old rosebushes, too, and talked about filling half barrels with dirt to plant some flowers.
The old man had kept himself busy, too, doing odds and ends around the house, including Little Romey in whatever he did, bringing him to the neighborhood bocce courts where he taught the baby the game; they fed pigeons and wrens bread crumbs and seeds every Sunday morning.
Big Romey read the boy stories, telling him about Stella, about the old country, about growing up during the war, stories the old man told again and again, letting them out slowly like fishing line. The child took it all in like a sponge. Romey, Jr. was happy, his kid and his Pop had become buddies.
He never met his own grandfather, who stayed back in the old country, and missed having a grandfather around. Big Romey had never been much into tossing around a baseball or football, but the two of them had spent every Saturday and Sunday together, building a train garden in the basement, his father’s patient, thick fingers demonstrating how to make tiny trees using yarrow found by roadsides and then dipped into tiny vials of yellow and green paint.
Together they had fashioned tiny houses, lakes, beaches, movie theaters, churches, stores, and sundry buildings and topography that comprised a town with a railroad track. When not working on the train garden, they operated a ham radio out of the attic, their handles being “Big Romey” and “Romey One,” chatting up people all over the world, and they also built and flew fuel-driven, remote-controlled helicopters and airplanes.
Romey Jr. smiled, remembering their shared fascination with things that moved and his mother’s loud concerns over Romey Jr. being too young at age 10 to be around the gas, the airplanes, and especially the helicopters with their thwaping blades.
“Those blades can cut him to shreds if they fly off the model or if the thing crashes and falls on his head,” she’d said.
Big Romey had waved away her concerns with promises of being extra careful, while winking at Romey Jr., anxious to be with the men, his father, and the amazing models in the park.
“Your mother couldn’t have any more,” Big Romey sniffed. “Or you’d been one of a flock, a huge goddamn flock,” he said. “One child by himself ain’t good. We were lucky to have you. Why don’t you toughen up that boy and teach him to ride that bike without them goddamn training wheels?”
Romey Jr. placed his beer on the stoop. When the boy turned around at the pear tree and made his way back to the stoop again, Romey Jr. called him over. “How about you ride that thing without them training wheels? You wanna learn?”
Little Romey’s eyes lit up. “I can ride like the big boys,” he announced.
“Go sit with Poppy while I take off the wheels.”
Romey Jr. pushed the bike on its side and pulled his Swiss army knife out of his pocket before sitting on the pavement to unscrew the training wheels. He glanced up at his father and son and noticed that the old man and the boy resembled each other.
They both had the same color root beer brown eyes, the same thick curly hair, except Little Romey’s was the color of ink and his father’s gray, and they shared the same olive complexion. Romey Jr. resembled his mother’s family with fair skin, dark straight hair, and blue eyes.
Big Romey hoisted Little Romey onto his lap. “When you were a baby only this big, I used to wheel you around the neighborhood in a stroller, and now you’re going to be a big boy riding a big boy’s bike. Pretty soon, you’re going to be wheeling your Pop around in a car.” The old man laughed and stroked the boy’s head.
“When I’m bigger I want to drive a motorcycle,” said the boy, making vroom-vroom sounds.
“A motorcycle?” the old man asked and laughed. “We’ll see about that when the time comes,” he added and kissed the top of the boy’s forehead. “Meantime you’re gonna do good learning to ride the bike like a big boy, right?”
The boy shook his head.
Ant hadn’t been home from the hospital for one day before Big Romey and Stella brought clothes for the baby and pans of lasagna and chicken wings. They came daily, drawn to the baby like magnets. Stella had tidied the house, while Pop fed the baby, giving Ant a much needed rest and telling Romey to stay with his wife.
They’d run interference with the phone, kept the army of relatives at bay, and when they left each evening, a hot dinner waited for them on the stove. Stella massaged Ant and taught her how to bathe the baby and look for signs of cradle cap. When Ant regained her strength, Stella, who kept her job, visited once a week, but Big Romey, who’d been retired, arrived daily and strolled the infant around, beaming over his first and only grandson. When Stella died so unexpectedly, Ant went along with the idea of Pop living with them, almost as if it’d been her idea.
“Okay, sport,” Romey Jr. called his son. “Let’s have a go at it.”
Little Romey slid off his grandfather’s lap and bounded to his father holding the bike — now minus the training wheels — steady.
“I’m ready, Dadio,” the boy said. Fearless, he climbed onto the bike. Romey Jr. winced a little seeing that the child’s feet didn’t easily touch the ground.
“It’s a little too high for you. I’m going to hold the seat here in the back and you pedal,” Romey Jr. instructed and ran to keep up with the child’s pedaling. “You gotta steer right so you don’t go into the street.”
“I know, Dadio. I won’t go into the street. I’ll go around the block.”
“You can do it, I know you can,” Big Romey shouted from the stoop and waved.
Much to Romey Jr.’s surprise, the kid took off like a rocket, building enough speed that Romey Jr. couldn’t keep the pace and was forced to let go of the bike’s seat.
Little Romey didn’t notice that his father no longer held the seat, and though a bit wobbly, the boy, grinning widely, steered the bike around the corner at the top of the block, a busy intersection, which prompted Romey Jr. to sprint after his son.
Frantic that the bike no longer was under his control, Romey Jr. ran, praying that the kid would not lose balance and fall into the busy street.
At the top of the next block, 15 yards ahead, Little Romey faltered, and Romey Jr. could see the bike leaning right toward the street. Envisioning the child falling into oncoming traffic, his heart raced faster, and he sprinted faster to catch up to the child.
“Rooooomey,” he screamed, the sound coming out of his chest like the yelp of a wounded animal.
The bike fell and the child toppled over, but not into the street. Before he could reach Little Romey, the boy got up, wiped himself off, picked up the bike, mounted it, and took off again. Romey Jr.’s heart pounded in his chest and in his head, the beats echoing in his ears like a steel drum. The child’s confidence humbled him.
“Slow down, son,” he called. Little Romey didn’t hear, or pretended not to hear, and sailed onward toward the top of the block.
“Don’t forget to use the hand brakes to slow down,” Romey Jr. called, running behind the child on the bike. Little Romey didn’t look back. He nodded that he’d understood his father’s cautions about the hand brakes, and Romey Jr. could tell that the child had slowed some, but not much.
Romey Jr. chased his son on the bike, certain that calamity lay around the next corner, but the child steered the bike and rounded the corner like an expert, and all Romey Jr. could see was the back of his son’s head as he pedaled down Stiles Street now, past the old men on the bench who called, “Atta boy, looka at heem go!” and chuckled knowingly as Romey Jr. gave chase.
“You’re the one who’s got to slow down,” they called, laughing as old men do.
Around the last corner, son rode, and father ran, Big Romey, beer in hand, still sitting on their stoop watching for them to appear.
“Look, Pop, I rode all the way around the whole block. I only fell once!” The boy laughed, but neither slowed nor stopped, and continued on for another ride around the block.
“I told you, you could do it,” Big Romey said, smiling while Romey Jr., huffing and puffing, kept running behind.
On the stoop, Big Romey chuckled. “Junior, this is just the beginning,” he called to his son, whose legs pumped as if he were running the Baltimore marathon.
“One more time, Dadio,” Little Romey yelled without looking back.
Following his son, unable to breach the 15 yards between them, Romey Jr. ran and wondered what it would be like when he’d watch the kid ride into a different world, leaving his parents behind, and he wondered if another child would work like a set of hand brakes, slowing the flight away from home, or if he or she would be a gas pedal, speeding it to double-time.
© Rosalia Scalia
Rosalia Scalia writes both fiction and non-fiction from her home in Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood. Widely published, in 2003 she earned a Master’s degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her stories have appeared in the United States, Canada, and India.