24 Nov Patrick Trotti
In high school, my best friend was half Finnish. I had no idea that was what people from Finland were referred to until I entered it into the school computer. I just assumed it was “Finlandian.” My version sounded more like how I pictured the country.
His dad, who’d come here as a young man, was the only person I knew who had emigrated from there. Most of the families around here were Italian or Irish. He’d speak in his native tongue only when he was mad, which happened so often that it was all I heard when I was over at their house. He never really spoke slowly enough to allow me to even begin to try and learn the language, but I did notice certain repetitions. He would roll the letter “r” in a way that was the exact opposite of a New England accent. Because his mother tongue wasn’t as nasal as English, he sounded like he was whispering even when he was mad. I had no clue where one word ended and another started, as every other word seemed to contain different tongue-tying combinations of the sound akaka. The language was full of hard sounds, making it nearly impossible to differentiate his emotions. Their last name was difficult to pronounce and even harder to spell. And when he did speak English, it was with such a strong accent that I had to hold back from laughing.
My friend was nothing like his dad. They shared the same features, but their personalities were complete opposites. The old man would come through a room, all arms and legs, and block the television from almost every conceivable direction. He reminded me of the Brawny man, the cartoon mascot of the paper towel company who had a mustache, shaggy hair and an unbuttoned shirt to show off his chest hair.” No matter what the weather was, he’d wear his knit beanie that came down to cover half his ears and a t-shirt with jeans and boots. In the middle of a snowstorm, you’d find him outside in a t-shirt, his arms light red as the blood slowly left his extremities. But none of that made him as memorable as the day that he won a bet with his work buddy.
He took us along to watch. His son was always begging for him to let us come along on jobs and help out. He ran his own construction company. I could picture him securing a piece of wood by simply punching the nail in or bending drywall to fit the dimensions. We rode in the back of his pickup truck because the inside was full of tools. We didn’t know where we were going and he didn’t say anything.
He stopped at the park down by the edge of the river. Another guy was waiting there, leaning against his truck. He was big and scary too, but he looked more like me. They spoke for a while, shared a cigarette, and then shook hands. My best friend’s dad came back to the truck and kicked off his boots and yanked off his socks and pulled off his t-shirt. He dropped his jeans and picked everything up and threw it into the driver’s seat. He looked at us and then walked away, towards the water.
We followed along.
He walked in about knee deep and then dove in head first, like the professional Olympic swimmers did. We stood next to each other watching as he went in and out of sight with the waves. The other guy was standing next to us. He light up another cigarette.
“Your old man is crazy,” the man said.
“He said he could swim to the other end and come back without stopping.”
“Why?” my friend asked.
The man looked confused.
“Because I said he couldn’t.”
We stood there and watched as he shrunk in the distance. The wind had begun to pick up. All I could see was moving arms and a bobbing head. His friend had a pair of binoculars. He handed them to us. It had been more than an hour since he had first dived in.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” he mumbled to no one in particular.
He was on the other shore. In a different county altogether. He’d crossed without having to pay the five-dollar toll. He jumped up and down like he was doing jumping jacks. He wanted to make sure his buddy saw that he made it. The man took the binoculars back from us and put them down by his side. It was as if he wanted to hide any of the evidence that he was losing the bet.
“He’s still got to get back. And the current is pretty strong.”
“What if he needs help?”
The man let out a laugh.
“When was the last time your dad asked anyone for help?”
The three of us turned back to the water and found him struggling towards us. His pace had slowed noticeably. His head came out of the water just long enough to get a big breath before dipping back under. He was saving his energy for his legs and arms. He was maximizing every move.
Ten minutes later, he started to come into focus. It was weird: the closer he got, the less ground he looked to have covered. The river kept expanding. His friend was chain-smoking. Each cloud of smoke got bigger and came sooner than the one before it. He was trying to burn away his nerves. A few cigarettes later and my friend’s dad was within earshot.
“Come on dad!”
My friend got more excited as his dad came closer. He was tapping his legs, almost running in place. His excitement couldn’t be contained. Now he was shaking his arms out like a boxer standing in his corner waiting for the bell to ring.
The father finished with one last bit of energy. He swam all the way until the water was only a few feet deep. He came up onto the rocky pebbled beach like Tom Selleck did at the start of Magnum P.I. Only now he looked like a mix of a Norse God and the leader of a motorcycle gang. He was all chest hair, muscles, and tattoos. The water dripped off of his mustache and his biceps were gleaming.
He went right for the truck and put his pants on. He was still dripping wet when he came back to us. We hadn’t moved an inch since he came ashore.
“What’d you win?”
His father looked at him and said, “Respect.”
“And a thirty rack of beer,” he said with a smile. “And fifty bucks.”
“What if you lost?”
I looked to my friend. I wanted to know why he’d say such a dumb thing. He wasn’t even my dad and I knew better than to ask that question.
“Not a chance I’d lose. The only bets a man should make are the ones he knows he can’t lose.”
We stood there waiting for him to make the first move. He grunted as he got into the truck. He was mumbling in Finnish to himself as the truck took a few attempts to start up.
As we drove home, the radio was on full blast and the 30 case was sitting on top of the tools in the passenger seat. One was open in his hand as we rode up the hill towards Broadway.
When we got to the house, we jumped out and brought in the beer. We followed closely behind him as he gingerly made his way up the front steps to the house.
“What happened to you?”
“Nothing, don’t worry about it.”
“Honey, Jesus Christ! Why are you carrying the beer? What are the neighbors gonna think?”
We didn’t answer. My friend took the beer into the kitchen and put them in the fridge. He squirmed back between his parents without a noise.
My friend’s mom was still in her robe. She was a stay at home mom. I’d gotten used to seeing her with curlers in her hair and pieces of puffy cotton between her toes after she painted them. The way she waddled after painting her toenails was similar to how the dad was now walking.
“I don’t give a shit what they think! Enough already, I’m tired. Besides I got a prize for you too.”
He handed her the fifty-dollar bill. She smiled a bit.
“Don’t spend it all in one place,” he said.
“Who’d you get this from?”
“A buddy of mine. He owed me.”
“It’s probably fake,” she said.
My friend and I laughed at each other. His father shot us a look and we stopped instantly.
“Then use it out of town.”
“Just great. You finally do something right and I’m stuck with the mess afterwards. What if I get caught? Then what?”
My friend’s dad took a step towards her and then stopped. His right hand was tightened into a fist. He pointed at her and mumbled the words, “vedä käteen.”
My friend started to laugh. I stayed quiet. The mom went off into another room and the dad gave us a nasty glare before leaving the house.
“What’s so funny?”
“That last part, he said go fuck yourself.”