Bluffing

by Robert Rubino

              Do you know where babies come from?

            The question from Eddy’s father was short, blunt. Just like Eddy’s father.

            Eddy’s father didn’t stop there.

            Do you know the facts of life?

            The birds and the bees, chirped Eddy’s mother, unhelpfully.

            Eddy’s giggle was cut short in mid snort by his father’s demand for an answer.

            Forget about birds and bees. Do you know about sex?

            Eddy was 12 and had yet to play poker but instinctively adopted a poker face. Instantly formulated his bluff. He didn’t want to confide in his parents that he had only the vaguest notions of sex or that his fanciful vision of childbirth was a mother’s swollen belly shedding its skin, eventually revealing an emerging infant, a sort of serpentine Caesarian.

            He didn’t want to be standing before his father-as-inquisitor and fretful mother in the living room that doubled as his parents’ bedroom (the shabby couch nightly converted into a lumpy bed) in their three-room fourth-floor walk-up apartment in the East Village. He didn’t want to be indoors taking a sex quiz from his parents on this gloriously hot and humid Fourth of July eve. He wanted to be out playing stickball or stoopball or punchball or any other creative variation of baseball that still thrived in the city’s streets and playgrounds in the summer of 1959. He wanted to be out and about, finding out which of the neighborhood’s older kids had the best illegal Chinatown fireworks — eye-feasting Roman candles and ear-splitting ash cans.

            Eddy looked squarely into his father’s coal-colored eyes, his father just home from the butcher shop, no longer in his red-stained apron but nevertheless smelling of blood and guts. Only a second had passed since the question that had discombobulated him.

            Yeah, I know about that stuff, he answered, so confident, so nonchalant. He had no idea where this improvisational acting ability, this bluff, this skill at deceit came from.

            But Eddy’s father called his bluff, Eddy’s father who had played thousands of hands of poker and still played most Thursday nights, sometimes right there in the apartment, he and other fathers from the neighborhood — a baker, mechanic, traffic cop and printer among them — at the kitchen table drinking cans of Ballantine beer and smoking White Owl cigars while the radio played Mel Allen’s mellifluous descriptions of a Yankees game.

            OK, Eddy’s father said. Then tell us. Tell us where babies come from.

            In the instant before Eddy had to decide whether to somehow keep the bluff going or meekly fold, his mother played her hand.

            Oh, please, come on, Rudy, she said to her husband. If he says he knows, he knows. He’s not going to lie to us. Don’t embarrass the poor kid.

            Eddy could have taken that cue and fled with his dignity intact, although that would have been hiding behind his mother’s bright flower-patterned mid-calf housedress, and how dignified would that actually be? Instead, he stood there, looking respectfully but squarely at his father, giving his father the choice of dropping the subject, in effect to be the one to fold, or actually telling his son the details, in plain English, about where babies came from, which Eddy might have appreciated. Either way was fine with Eddy.

            OK, Eddy’s father said. But how do you know where babies come from? Who told you?

            From here and there, Eddy said. From random comments made by his friends but mostly from listening to the older teenagers in the neighborhood, and from looking up certain words in a public library dictionary that looked like it had the size and weight of a side of beef. Then he began rattling off some of those words: pregnancy and childbirth and umbilical cord and placenta and other words were tossed in, too, just for the cheap thrill: breasts and nipples, sperm, egg, penis, testicles, vagina. He thought about tossing in the word virgin, for its Catholic cache, but thought better of it. The coup de gras was when he said the words period and menstruation, words with a dictionary definition which Eddy could recite but couldn’t quite understand, not really, couldn’t completely grasp.

            Ok, Ok, enough with the words, Eddy’s mother said. Lord in heaven, what words. He says he knows, Rudy, so he knows.

            Eddy could have recited other words, too, words he had heard from the older teenagers in the neighborhood, words such as knocked up and prick and balls and cum and pussy and cunt and tits, but those words wouldn’t help pay for his release from this prison.

            Sure, Eddy was bluffing. But he wasn’t lying. He had in fact consulted the hulking dictionary, and he had listened to the street slang, trying to find out about sex. But he was convinced his peers knew as little as he did, and his scholarly research and the street talk of older teenagers satisfactorily explained neither the sex act nor precisely where babies came from, at least not in terms that made sense to Eddy. To him, the bookish explanations smacked of smart-ass smut and the street slang was uselessly titillating, laughable, like sleazy science fiction. It all left Eddy feeling queasy.

            And Eddy’s father, looking for an instant as if he were about to press on, finally folded. A minute later Eddy was out in the dusk-shrouded street, free of sex talk and without a mote of practical sex knowledge, blissful in his ignorance once again, imagining he possessed the coiled power of Mickey Mantle as he swung a sawed-off broomstick and smacked the spherical Spaldeen dead solid perfect, the finest feeling in the world, sending the pink rubber ball soaring over the traffic at the intersection of Prince Street and Second Avenue and bouncing high on the still-simmering asphalt, bounding in the general direction of the murky East River.

Robert Rubino has published creative nonfiction in Hippocampus Magazine, fiction in Elysian Fields Quarterly and poetry in The Esthetic Apostle. For more than 30 years he was an editor and columnist at daily newspapers.

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November 2018

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