|The Gift: A Novel
by Pete Hamill
Him: That young man, standing there in the cold, the pea-jacket collar pulled high against the bald neck, the hat cocked saltily over the eye, the sea bag frosted with rain: that young man, seventeen years and six months old, out there at the entrance to the Jersey Turnpike, the world hammered flat and cold by the rain, a world empty of light, the tar of the road glistening and slick. I: him: five-foot-eleven, one hundred and sixty-seven pounds, chin tucked down like the fighters in the gym at home, wishing his shoulders weren’t so blocky and square, wishing they sloped more, like Paddy Young’s, staring out into the emptiness, watching the car lights
|grow from double tackholes in the dark to blurred sheets fretted with rain, the drivers stopped for the toll, paying it, and then moving on, snug containers of warmth, heading for New York, while he waited with the large man in the raincoat, under the entrance, in custody, and not caring, and thinking of steam. I: him: that young man who once was me, so strange now and distant, heading home, after a long time away.
It began somewhere else, in some other year, in a place thick with steam. I was sure of that. I slept on a couch in an aunt’s house in Bay Ridge, eight years old, and it was the first time I had ever seen a radiator. The stream sprayed itself upon the windows in the deep winter night, and when I awoke, I thought it was the snow come at last, the White Christmas that Bing Crosby had promised, or the Christmas of horse-drawn sleighs, trees with serrated bark, children with heavy wool mufflers bundled against the cold, and all the fine-drawn English faces I had seen in the dank-smelling bound volumes of the St. Nicholas magazine in the public library on Ninth Street. But mine was no greeting-card Christmas, and there was no snow; only steam, forced from the radiator, glazing the window of that strange house, like the breath of an old and very fat man. Standing on the Jersey Turnpike, I remembered that Christmas, my mother gone to the hospital, and no word from my father, no touch of his rough beard, his slick black hair, his hoarse voice.
“It should be along any minute now, sailor,” the trooper said.
“You think I can get on it?” I said. “It might be crowded.”
“I’ll put you on it, young man.”
The windows of the tollbooth were opaque with steam, and I remember wondering how many hours the man inside had actually worked, and whether he lived nearby, and how much he was paid. He was a fat, sloppy man, furiously smoking Camels, and looking at a Philadelphia Bulletin. I didn’t like him. The cop was all right; he was doing his job, and part of his job was to stop people from hitchhiking on the Jersey Turnpike. But the fat guy in the booth was cloaked in steam, reading the paper, and chain-smoking his weeds, and I made him for a guy who cut his toenails and left the parings on the floor. I wondered if they had linoleum on the floors in Jersey and whether the guy had lived his whole life with steam heat.
“You comin’ up from Bainbridge, son?” the trooper said.
“During the warthe big war, the last warmost of the kids around here went up to that Great Lakes. I had a buddy went there, matter of fact. Up near Chicago. Bainbridge, that was later. You like it?”
“It’s all right,” I said.
“Watch your ass in that Korea.”
The man in the booth leaned back, and the headline in the paper said MARINES BATTLE REDS AT CHOSIN.
“Hey,” the trooper said. “Here it comes now.”
Away off, two saucer-shaped lights were approaching in the darkness. The Greyhound panted up to the tollbooth, wheezing and protesting, smelling of hot rubber and burnt gasoline. The windshield wipers slapped away rain as the trooper waved and the doors opened. The guy in the tollbooth nodded, and went back to his paper.
“I got one for you, Jerry,” the trooper said.
“No problem,” the driver said.
I shouldered the sea bag and moved to the door.
“Try not to hitchhike on the turnpike again, sailor. It’s only a mess of trouble.”
I started to get on, and the trooper touched my arm. “You got enough money, son?”
I looked at him: he had a kind face, and I liked him. “Enough.”
I stepped on, but when I turned to tell him thanks, the trooper was gone.
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