The hood of the car creaked as Tommy popped the latch and pushed the rusting sheet of metal above his head. As he snapped the thin prop rod into place, he wryly thought he should just leave the hood up permanently; the car rarely ran anymore, anyway. He hunched over, ran his hands back and forth over his ripped jeans, and let out a long breath. His knowledge of the workings of a car engine were limited to what he’d learned in auto shop back in Sayreville High School a handful of years earlier – when he’d bothered to show up. He moved his head from side to side, wiggled a hose, flicked at the radiator cap. There had to be some way to get the car to run; he just didn’t know what it might be.
Not like he had anywhere to be, really. He hadn’t worked in more than six months, not since his union went on strike and his job went along with it. He pulled a stained rag from his pocket and wiped at some leaking oil and thought about the last time he’d earned a regular paycheck. To say money was tight was a joke. It was almost nonexistent, and he had the pile of bills to prove it.
The car might as well stop working, he thought. I can’t pay to put gas in the tank.
Disgusted, he slammed the hood and walked toward the house he shared with his wife, Gina. Not even a proper house but a trailer, and not even a double wide. They were lucky to have the trailer, a gift from Gina’s parents when they realized he couldn’t take care of their daughter. Tommy kicked at a rock, mindlessly wondering how to spend the rest of another long day. He never thought he’d miss leaving his house to go to work every day, waking early to spend ten hours at the dock alongside guys he’d known forever, guys like him, guys he knew from high school, guys who hadn’t been smart enough to make a plan and join the Army or go to college – to get out, once and for all.
He’d had a plan, of course he had. He was going to be the biggest rock star to come out of New Jersey since Southside Johnny. Bigger than Bruce; hell, as big as ol’ Blue Eyes himself. It was all he’d ever wanted since he was twelve years old and his parents bought him his first guitar. He’d played whenever he had time, and he’d played whenever he didn’t. He sacrificed school and homework to play that guitar. He wrote lyrics on his bedroom wallpaper, serenaded his parents with his newest tunes. His folks believed in him. They looked the other way when he broke curfew and stayed out until the wee hours of the morning, playing at clubs he wasn’t even old enough to legally enter. They woke him for school, nudging him gently and whispering good morning as he rolled out of bed and grabbed the dark sunglasses he wore to cover his exhaustion as he went through the motions of another school day.
By Senior year, he went to school for one reason: Gina LoCarro. She was the girlfriend of a friend and, thanks to the alphabet, she wound up sitting next to him in sixth period History. At first, his interest grew out of pure necessity; Gina was a decent student, and he made friends to get his hands on her copious notes. But later, when he realized that she was not only smart but also beautiful and funny, his goal became something else altogether. He played it cool, and by the time Senior year wound down, they were dating exclusively. Tommy loved everything about Gina: her long, dark hair woven with thin strands of copper; her coffee-colored eyes; her laugh that seemed to come from the very bottom of her soul. More than that, he loved who she was and how she made him feel. Gina wasn’t like the other girls at Sayreville High. She didn’t play games, and she didn’t suffer fools. She had no interest in pink puffy dresses or wrist corsages, so they skipped prom for a night at the boardwalk. She was comfortable with herself, and she felt no threat from the other women who tried to catch his eye at the nights he played at the clubs. She let him know, ever so subtly, that other guys would be happy to have her, and that made him never take her for granted. They married young – just a year after graduation – in a small ceremony in her parents’ back yard. Gina wore a short black dress and big silver earrings, and Tommy wore Chuck Taylors and a suit he borrowed from his dad. He and his band supplied the music for the party, though he made sure to steal a few dances with his new wife. It was the happiest day of his life, a life he assumed would be full of many, many more happy days, all with Gina.
Just as he’d seen in his mind’s eye, their first year as husband and wife was happy. He worked during the day at his friend’s music shop, fixing guitars and giving lessons to little punks with big dreams. At night, he played. He and his band worked all the clubs: the Stone Pony, the Fast Lane. They played weddings and bar mitzvahs and high school dances. They didn’t care; an audience was an audience and cash was cash. They limited themselves to just a few beers a show and managed to scrape together enough money to make demo tapes, which Tommy dutifully delivered to every record company executive in Manhattan. No one bit, but Tommy didn’t worry. It would happen . . . someday. It would just take time. And he had plenty of time.
And then Gina got pregnant. They wanted kids – lots of them – but he didn’t want to be a kid when he had them. And that’s what he was, a twenty-year-old kid suddenly thrust into the role of father. When the pregnancy test registered two pink lines, he and Gina didn’t even think twice. They’d made their bed, they’d lie in it. They would keep the baby. Tommy gave up his job at the music store and took a full-time shift working for a shipping company down at the waterfront. He unloaded boats, mindless, mind-numbing, backbreaking work. He hated every minute of it. But it was a union job and it paid the bills. Or, well, it used to.
The moan of the screen door snapped Tommy back from the docks. He watched as Gina stepped onto the small wooden porch and gently pulled the door closed behind her. She was dressed for work, her pink and white polyester diner uniform neatly pressed, her long, dark hair tightly tucked into a tight bun – a look Tommy hated. He loved when she wore her hair down, just like she used to do when they drove up the coast, windows open, radio blaring. But she rarely wore it like that these days; the baby liked to tug it, which drove Gina crazy. So she pulled it back into a neat ponytail or a serious bun. It doesn’t matter, Tommy thought, kicking the car tire, it’s not like we can take a drive up the coast.
Gina walked down the steps and tilted her head back toward the house, her tiny stud earrings glinting in the sun. Tommy hated those, too.
“Baby’s asleep,” she said. “I’ll be home after the dinner shift.” She leaned over and kissed Tommy’s cheek. “I’ll try to get a ride from Renee.”
Tommy waved goodbye. He hated this. All of it. He hated living in a trailer. He hated surviving on Gina’s paycheck and her measly tips. He hated that he couldn’t even drive her to work, that she had to bum rides from co-workers or else take the bus, which she walked toward now. He felt like a failure. He wasn’t playing music and he couldn’t even take care of his family. Here he was, standing in his tiny gravel yard, while his wife went to work another long shift at a crappy truck stop. It killed him inside. Gina never complained, not once. But, sometimes, at night, she woke up crying. Tommy knew why. He’d hold her close and whisper, “It’s okay, Gina, it’s okay. Things will get better. We’ll make it.” Someday, he’d think. Someday. The thought of those nights made him want to scream, to punch something, to shake his fists at the sky and curse the Universe and shake out all the rage he felt, all the fear.
Instead, he walked toward the trailer and quietly opened the door. He didn’t want to wake the baby, so he didn’t bother to turn on the old TV set his parents had given them. There’d be nothing on, anyway. They couldn’t afford cable, so he’d have a choice between the screaming breeders on Maury or else a roundtable of middle-aged shrews on one of the other channels. No thanks. Bored and frustrated, he grabbed a notebook. He’d write a song, his favorite way to manage his emotions. His only way, really, now that he’d had to give up his guitar. The baby had gotten sick a few months earlier, and they didn’t have the money for the doctor’s bills, so he brought his beloved Les Paul to the local pawn shop. It broke his heart. He used to make that guitar talk, but now it sat silent in the store window. And he sat silent in his aluminum living room, holding it all in.
He found a working pen and flipped to a clean page. He chewed the cap until inspiration hit. And then he wrote:
Tommy used to work on the docks, Union’s been on strike, he’s down on his luck. It’s tough. So tough.
The words started to flow, and he scribbled faster:
Gina works the diner all day working for her man, she brings home her pay for love . . .
Tommy could barely keep up with the words as the filled the page. He scribbled furiously, tapping out a simple beat with his right Chuck Taylor. He wrote the last word as the baby started to whine and fidget and let him know she was awake. Tommy stuck the pencil behind his ear, closed the notebook, and slid it under a worn couch cushion. He headed toward the crib, singing, as he walked, “We gotta hold on to what we got, doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not. We got each other and that’s a lot . . . “
He scooped the baby up from her crib and kissed her forehead. He felt good after getting his words out on paper. He couldn’t play them on his guitar, but he could sing them, and he did. He sang them to his daughter, the one with Gina’s big, dark eyes. He danced her around the tiny trailer, his cheek pressed to hers. The baby giggled with glee, and Tommy laughed. He gave her another kiss and walked toward the bedroom to look for the Snugi they’d gotten from Gina’s sister. He strapped the baby to his chest and walked toward the door.
“C’mon kid,” he said. “You’re smarter than me. Maybe you can figure out how to fix the car.” He let the screen door slam behind them as he stepped down the stairs, walked to the car, and again popped the hood. He crouched down and whispered into the top of the baby’s head, “So, what do you think? Is it the carburetor? Or is it the starter?” The baby kicked her legs and squealed with delight.
“The alternator, you say? I hadn’t even thought of that.” Tommy looked around at his little yard, his boxy trailer, his creaking porch, the rusting car. He looked down at his little daughter, his healthy, perfect child. For a fleeting moment, he considered his beloved guitar, standing in a window a few blocks away. And he thought about the notebook, now tucked into the sagging frame of the hand-me-down couch. He knew he’d get back to his music, just as soon as he could get the money to get his guitar out of hock, as soon as he caught up on bills and built a little nest egg for him and his little family.
It will happen, he told himself . . . someday.
“Alright, kid, let’s go find my toolbox and give this a shot.”