My Name is Joe

CREATIVE Nonfiction

👂 Click here to listen to Steve read this story on YouTube

Jimmy, Son
“My Daddy used to miss some games. He had to work in the city. Even on my birthday. And Christmas. Can I tell you something else? Now, I pretend daddy is in the bleachers, sitting next to mommy and my nonna.”

Rosa, Neighbor
“They buy last house, end of street. Then twins come. Ay Dios mio! So round, so happy boys! I babysit, I make platanos, big pot, nothing left. He love my Puerto Rican food! My back is no good. I never use a shovel for snow. Now, the twins shovel, like he use to. Good man, good man.”

Sherri, Wife
“In the morning, early, I’d hear his Bronco pull into the driveway. I’d let out a breath. You know, I think I held my breath our whole marriage. In the back of his Bronco is a big old truck tire and some heavy rope. Their next project was hanging a swing off the old maple tree out back. That Bronco is still sitting in the driveway. His marinara sauce and sausage meatballs are lined up in plastic containers in the freezer. Each one Sharpied with a date in his handwriting. He was showing the boys how to make the sauce, cutting up the tomatoes, the onions, garlic. His clothes are still hanging in our bedroom closet, but where do I put our dreams?”

Michelle, Waitress at Denny’s
“Most Sundays the whole family came in after church for a Grand Slam Banana Boat. Four spoons, four cherries. These days, the three of them come in, but . . . well, you know.”

Dan, Brother
“He was only six months away from retiring. After twenty years, six fucking months.”

Chen, Colleague
“Twelve years together, partners, side by side. More than once, he saved my sorry ass. After our shift I’d take him to my uncle Lu’s restaurant in Chinatown, up off Delancey. We only ate appetizers, his idea. Coconut shrimp, popcorn chicken, teriyaki boneless ribs, the works. We’d have a few beers. The job was getting to both of us. I’d tell him I was worried about his drinking, he’d tell me he was worried about mine. Come New Year’s we had a plan to check out an AA meeting together. Truth be told, he wasn’t supposed to be working that Tuesday, he was going to his kid’s game. No surprise he was one of the first to arrive.”

Sophia, Mother
“Dio mio! I never thought I’d be burying one of my boys. How can you have a funeral without a body? Figlio mio! Oh dio mio!”

Olivia, Hedge Fund Manager at Lehman Brothers, Lower Manhattan Branch
“I saw a woman jump out of a window, that awful burning smell, noise and dust, sirens, and screams, people crushing each other to get out of the tower, I made it to the mezzanine, I was crouching under some stairs, I couldn’t breathe, through the smoke all I could see was his badge as he leaned down towards me, I heard him ask, “What’s your name ma’am? Can you reach my hand? My name is Joe.”



👂 Click here to listen to Steve read this story on YouTube

City College, New York.
September 1971.
I was sixteen.
Turning seventeen in three days.

Chemistry 101. First day, first college course.
On the stage, Professor Mulvaney stood at his podium.
Steep auditorium classroom. Three hundred students.
My assigned seat: second row, center.

I already knew an engineering degree was not for me.
It was my old man’s idea, not mine.
He used to say: “You’re too smart to be a plumber like me. You’re going to college.”

From the stage fifteen feet away, Professor Mulvaney saw me snoozing, heard me snoring.
He plucked a card from the large seating chart in front of him.
“Miiiiister Bernsteeeeein,” he bellowed, Irish accent, long and drawn out.
“How many electrons does nitrogen have? Mr. Bernstein. Mr. Bernstein!”

Semi-awake, I heard my name.
Everything else was foggy.

My head rested on the shoulder of the student next to me.
Nice soft shoulder.
She elbowed me. Twice.
She nudged her shoulder up.
Up bobbed my head.

She whispered into my ear, gentle and soft.
A stranger. Was I still dreaming?
She kept whispering.
Warm sweet voice.
Close to my ear.

My mouth opened and closed like a fish.
Sounds came out, no real words.
“We can’t hear you! Louder Bernstein. How many electrons in nitrogen?”
Students laughed.

All I heard was a whisper, “Seven.”
Soft and sweet.

Awake now. And aroused.
Her warm breathy words an inch from my ear: “Seven. Seven. Seven.”

I stood up, turned, faced the class and spoke.
First softly, “Seven.”
Then louder. “Seven!,” I roared.
Students clapped.

“Correct, Mr. Bernstein. Thank you. You can go back to sleep now.”

I looked over at my angel. She was beautiful.
Suddenly, the lecture wasn’t quite so boring.

At last, Professor Mulvaney folded up his seating chart, gathered his books and announced: “Tomorrow’s homework, memorize the Periodic Table of Elements.”
He glared directly at me.
But I was focused on her.

She seemed familiar to me.
We gave each other the once over.
We smiled. Then we laughed.
And laughed.
And laughed.

“You used to pull my ponytail in the sixth grade at P.S. 82,” she said.
“I did. I liked it,” I said.
“I liked it too,” she said.

A year later, I got my plumbing license.
A year after that, Ms. Nitrogen and I got married.
We had good chemistry.

She’s gone


She’s gone.
She was gone yesterday.
She was gone the day before yesterday.
And the day before that.

The day before that, she was here, every day for five weeks this summer. Not only that, I suspect that she has been here summer after summer for six years.

We start our day together. Before we meet up, I make my breakfast: yerba mate tea, two pieces of sesame toast (one with avocado and one with crunchy peanut butter), a banana, a bowl of fruit with shredded coconut and a glass of almond milk. I pile it all onto a large wooden tray along with my phone, the morning paper and a small plastic container of supplements and vitamins.

I need both hands to carry the tray so I have to use my shoulder and elbow to first push open the door from the kitchen to the sunroom. Then, I push open the screen door to the patio and balance the tray as I go down the three cement steps.

As I set my tray down on the patio table, I start to get excited. Is she on the table hiding behind the citronella candle? Or, is she looking down at me from four feet up on the umbrella pole?

Google says she’s a gray tree frog. Her body is two inches long, not counting her legs. Her skin is mottled and lumpy and looks warty, but isn’t. Her throat is white–that’s how I know she’s a she. Yes, she’s a gray tree frog, but she’s not always gray. It really depends what she’s sitting on. She has yellow patches on the underside of her legs, which I can see when she’s up on the umbrella pole.

Google says she can live seven to nine years. That’s why I really believe she’s been visiting me all these summers.

It’s a good gig, for both of us. My friend can climb up the umbrella pole in the center of the table and perch on the wide round collar that connects the ribs to the pole. Or, she can shimmy down and hang out on the table and maybe catch a bug meal, usually ants which my breakfast facilitates. And, for me I get the greatest company ever. She’s quiet, cute, well-behaved and does seem to take a genuine interest in me.

A few weeks ago I had to crank the umbrella shut because high winds were expected.  Even as the umbrella started collapsing around her, she refused to move, which was not unusual because she slept in the umbrella, open or closed. The trick is not to squish her in the process. Rather than climb down the pole, she stepped onto the collar and rode it down like an elevator.

A few nights ago, anticipating rain, I put the chaise lounge cushions on the table under the umbrella to keep them dry. The next morning, as usual, I maneuvered my breakfast tray through the two doors, down the three steps and made it to the patio table. I picked up one of the large cushions to make room for my tray, put the tray down and then carried the cushion back over to the chaise lounge.

When I returned to the table, to my horror, I saw my little friend struggling. Her back leg was caught under the tray and she was trying to free herself. When I put my tray down, I just didn’t notice her. Unbeknownst to me, she spent the night in the small frog-sized gap between the cushion and the table.

I lifted the tray off her and she semi-hopped towards the umbrella pole, her lame leg dragging behind her. She got to the base and remained there. She looked up the pole and then her eyes shut. With each quick breath, her little body heaved in and out.

Google says frogs like shade. I grabbed a square ceramic flowerpot and laid it on its side, a few inches from where she sat, hoping she would see this small shaded house as a safe place to recuperate. After just a few minutes, she hobbled over to her new home. She went all the way to the back, turned around and sat facing the open end of the flowerpot. She shut her eyes.

We sat there together like that for a long time. I cried. I apologized over and over. I should have been on the lookout for her like I am now that she’s gone. These days I watch out for leaves and stones, anything that looks like her. I’m forever vigilant, looking for my friend.

First I got her something to drink. I poured some water into a plastic lid to give her a shallow dish to drink out of. I figured she needed something to eat but she was in no shape to go out hunting. I Googled gray tree frog diet. They like bugs, crickets being the optimum and, no matter what, the bugs have to be alive.

This is where I hit an ethical dilemma. As an animal lover, I love all animals, crickets included. Yet here I was considering buying one type of animal to feed to another type of animal. I got over that real quick.

I hopped on my bike and raced down to the farmers supply store. Google’s instructions were to estimate the space between her eyes and not feed her anything larger than that distance. I bought twenty live crickets, thirteen cents apiece. The crickets were small, about a half inch, just like the space between her eyes.

With a tweezer, I picked out one cricket from the plastic bag and placed the cricket inside the sideways flowerpot. A nano second is all it took for her to vacuum up that cricket with her tongue. The same with two more crickets.  

I put the rest of the crickets into a deep Tupperware container where they could roam around but not jump out. Google said crickets love lettuce so I stuck some romaine lettuce in the container.

That evening when I went out to feed her dinner, she was gone.

In the past, she would often come and go. That’s what I told myself was happening now. But she wasn’t at breakfast the next day, or the day after that.

The following day I freed seventeen crickets.

Love On the Line


Happy birthday sweetheart to my favorite daughter! I hope you have the best birthday ever, my most wonderful girl. The big 5-0, right? It’s a perfect summer day in Philly. Maybe it’s the same in Northampton and you can get out for a bike ride. I hope so! Looking forward to celebrating this weekend. Oh, and a quick question: chocolate or vanilla? If I’m in the garden when you call, I’ll call you back. The flowers are going crazy, the weeds too! Wait ‘till you see the garden! Love you, Mom.

Hi honey. I know you’re busy at work but I wanted to tell you . . . oh yes, yes, here it is. I was just looking at some old photos from when we went to Cape May. You were four and Michael was seven. Remember Sniff digging a hole under Dad’s beach chair until the hole caved in and then Dad’s chair would collapse? Every summer, she did that. And it was always Dad’s chair. The good old days, right honey? Dad has been gone so long now. Thirty-five years, or is it thirty-six? He would be so proud of you and Michael. I wish Dad was with us now. Okay, I’ll show you the photos when you’re here for Thanksgiving. Bye. I love you. 

Sweetheart, I guess you’ll have to do the driving from now on. I just heard from Dr. Howard. She called Motor Vehicles to get my license taken away. She said she had to and that it was lucky that nobody got hurt. It was only one of those big cement poles in the parking lot at Trader Joes. I know, I know. You and Michael will say it’s not the first time. Okay, I’ll stop fighting it. I’m tired. Even the house and the garden sometimes feel like too much. Okay, talk later. Love you, miss you.

Hi sweetheart. Louise wants to join us for dinner. She has the apartment across the hall. She’s the nice neighbor who stopped in to introduce herself when we were moving the piano into the new place, remember? You know what? I don’t miss having a big house. Anyway, are you free for dinner Thursday night, vegetarian night? 6:00? I hope you can come! You’ll like Louise. She moved to Northampton from Pennsylvania, too. Love you, mom. 

It’s so nice living close to you honey. Wasn’t apple picking fun this morning? If you make your apple pie, save me a piece! The quilt is coming along nicely. Glad we changed the border color. But I’m having a hard time lining up the squares. It used to be easy.  Maybe it’s time for new glasses. Oh well. Let me know when you can come over to take a look and then let’s go for a walk around the lake. Lots of love, mom.

Sweetheart, did you see my sewing scissors, you know the good ones? Hope you get out on your bike. I think it just might be spring. No more snow for us! Let me know about the scissors. Love you and miss you!

Sorry to bother you honey, but I can’t find my scissors, for sewing. Do you have them? Call me when you get home.

Do you have my good scissors? Call me as soon as you can.

Do you know where my scissors are? Call me.

Sweetheart, I waited for you in the dining hall. Weren’t we supposed to have dinner tonight? Or, was it Thursday? Wait, what’s today? Oh, well. We’ll pick a new date. Miss you!

Thanks for the postcard with those sleepy, sleepy puppies. What cuties! I forgot you are away for, for, for work or something. Give Dad a big hug for me. When you get back it will be warm enough to go for a swim in the lake. Lots of love!

Hi honey. I was wondering, did I miss my girl’s birthday?  It’s the end of July, right? 

Louise said she really enjoyed having dinner with you.  I didn’t know you two knew each other. Anyway, she thinks you’re the greatest. And I do, too!

I can’t find my sneakers, do you have them? Call me as soon as you can. They are taking us for a little walk today to see the fall leaves. Wish you could come with us sweetheart but I know you’re, you’re, you’re busy.

Hi sweetheart, oh, wait a minute . . . hold on . . . hold on, someone’s at the door. People are always knocking on the door, asking questions. I never know what they want.

Hi sweetheart . . . Oh, uh, never mind. I forgot.

Hi Brenda, this is Marie from Arbor Manor Assisted Living. I’m your mother’s weekend CNA. We met last weekend at the Sunday concert.  I noticed your mother trying to call you so I dialed the number for her. I’ll put her on. Just a sec. Mrs. Rivera, Mrs. Rivera, your daughter’s not home but you can leave her a message . . . Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, um, um, Margie, thank you. Hi sweetheart. Are you there? There’s nothing to do here. They said it’s too icy to go for a walk. I miss you. Come see me.  I’m tired. I just feel tired all the time. This is mom. Come see me, I miss you.

Brenda, Maureen here, your mother’s night nurse at Country Life Hospice. She’s especially agitated tonight.  She packed her suitcase and is waiting for your father to pick her up. She says it’s time. I think it would be a good idea for you to come over.

Hello Ms. Rivera, this is Robert Fox from Country Life Hospice. We met when we did the paperwork for your mother’s room. Can you call me as soon as you get this message? It’s important. I know it’s late but please call me as soon as you get this message, no matter what time. It’s about your mother.

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