On Top of the World- a Coney Island Story

Serena and her grandfather made a bet to see who would be the first to go to Coney Island. At seventy-four and a Bensonhurst native, Poppy had never rode the Cyclone or enjoyed a Nathan’s frankfurter. After serving in WW2 he kept busy traveling to universities across the country and speaking about the importance of patriotism. He also spent extended vacations in Utah to write four books on the US Navy, and each time he left to continue his writing in quiet, he left his wife Concetta alone to raise their daughter. “A life without a family to come home to every night is a boring life” his wife lamented, but to no avail. He would make up for it, but not the way either he nor Concetta planned: Serena’s parents were killed in a plane that crashed into the Cascades in 1990. Poppy had a grieving wife to comfort, and a granddaughter to raise in the striking image of her mother, Maria. Concetta was happy to see her husband embrace Serena and redeem his past, but when she learned of their competition she grew weary of it all. “You don’t make bets with a young girl to see who can do something first, you automatically go first because there’s a plot of land waiting for your corpse to fill it up.” Concetta’s sense of humor was what kept her going after her daughter died, and it enabled Serena to make an excuse that she herself was a smartass only because her grandma passed it down the line. And wasn’t that trait better than passing down diabetes or flat feet? “If your grandfather had flat feet he wouldn’t have served in the Navy and cared more about a friggin’ symbol of America than a crying toddler. ” After breaking her hip playing wiffleball in Forest Park with the two of them, she spent her days flipping the remote control between Lifetime and Court TV, occasionally limping down Union Turnpike where they lived to pick up her Vicodin and Vanity Fair at Rite Aid. When the Vicodin wore off and she couldn’t take another until the next day, she moaned in agony like a beached whale. Poppy started staying in more often to tend to his wife, so it came as no surprise that he surrendered to Serena and gave her a Fun Pass and his blessing to take the trip to the tip of Brooklyn, asking her “What should the prize be for you winning the bet?” Serena looked at him with lowered lids and an uneasy stance and said “I’m not there yet, so I suggest you hold off your trip to the 99 cent store.” With that she kissed both of them on the cheek and headed to the Q46 bus stop, hearing Concetta proudly mutter “That’s my granddaughter!” Serena got onto a crowded subway train, and was one of the unlucky ones who had to stand and hold onto a ceiling bar that squeaked in great protest. There was a red -faced man with an abdomen that protruded out of his filthy low rise black jeans, causing Serena to turn away with disgust. He smelled as though he spent a day rolling around in cat litter, and gave anyone who dare look his way a vicious glare. She kept hoping that he’d arrive at his station before her, but at each stop he tenaciously choked the bar and looked around at the mix of people on the train. When the train became elevated above ground over the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn, he pushed a young hipster couple to his left so he could open the window and let in air. He grinned with success, showing off years of skipped dental appointments and chewing tobacco. She cringed at the thought of him making out with a woman, then wondered what it would feel like when she finally made out with a boy. Her grandparents restricted dating until she was 18, and she didn’t want to sneak around behind the only family she had left. But if all guys had hygiene as horrible as Red ManâÂ?¦her thoughts were interrupted by the sudden jolt of the train, sending her into the abyss of his belly. His grunts reminded her of a special she once saw on Animal Planet. “What the hell!” “I’m sorry sirâÂ?¦” she said in a shy first-grade voice. “Didn’t your Mommy teach you not to push strangers? Especially big mean fellas like myself?” Red Man began drumming on the ceiling with his fingers of one hand and gesturing with his other for Serena to move away. Her throat grew dry and choked up, the same way a person feels when they sabotage a relationship with one word or action that could have been avoided. The word at hand came off the canker sore lips of the manâÂ?¦”mommy.” Serena knew she could have gone to work that day and earned enough to pay for her Nana’s Vicodin, without Poppy eating away at his Social Security check. She got off at Bay 50th Street to let her mind wander without the confinement of the subway car. She walked through Russian Brooklyn, inhaling aromas of kielbasa and goulash, and trying to fight back tears recalling her parents funeral and the strong odors of incense and pine that came with it. In the spring of 1990 Poppy suggested that a good anniversary present for his daughter and son-in-law would be a week in Seattle, where they had met in college some fifteen years earlier. Concetta disagreed, citing that their little girl wouldn’t know what to do without her Mommy and Daddy gone for that length of time and bedtime kisses. Poppy had just come back in the picture at this point, and the six-year old still saw him as a stranger. But little Serena insisted her parents go away, and with the skill of a UN diplomat, Serena persuaded them that by going back to where they “first said love you’s” they would always be happy. When the news reached the Rosetti’s of the crash, Serena wouldn’t leave the house for days, spending the stretch of time watching classic films and turning into her grandmother’s peer. As soon as she came across the recreational skyline, she began walking at a faster pace. A giant wheel spinning around the summer sky at one end and a car that dropped down a wooden pike on the other. There were red flashing lights that bled for attention to “take your chance to win a prize” and another that sold souvenirs to those who could never win a game. But these she still hasn’t seen for herself, they were postcards her grandfather collected from friends who wrote to him while he was staying at two star hotels. The scene motivated her, and she started running, and soon people flew by her only as snippets of conversation, as unimportant as the third place team in baseball. People called to her in Russian to “run like that Greek hero” but she paid no attention to encouragement. Back in her memory she recalled how Poppy blamed himself for the tragedy, even telling the military world that had admired him for so long that he was a murderer. When she reached the Cyclone ride she paid the $2.00 ticket and waited in line with dozens of hyper tourists and families. It was a ten -minute wait, enough time for her to conclude that she would take a front row seat. Once on the red plastic cushion, she heard a group of girls behind her laugh and scream. Serena kept her excitement self-contained, like much of her sorrow she had as a child without parents, and felt a rush of energy push through her stomach as the rollercoaster car jerked and began its trip up the ramp. She smiled. Poppy became worried when at dusk there was no return of his granddaughter. With the help of his neighbor Sheila they took a car down to Coney Island. Poppy looked out the left and right car windows every minute or so for a glimpse of the petite figure, until Sheila put her right arm on his shoulder and asked him to relax. “I’ve got hold of my son’s walkie -talkie, and I can contact the NYPD unit that works down here to see if any of them saw her. ” Her son was a trainee, and through quick friendships with other members of the force, she was given the privilege of using the item. He listened as he heard crackling sounds and heavy Brooklyn accents from the other end. He didn’t think it was going to be of any help, but then he heard one officer talk really fast, and instead of a tough-guy dialect he sounded more like a castrated choirboy. “There’s been an accident on the Cyclone, a girl fell out of her seat after the restraining bar came loose, we think she’s that nice girl who brings cookies to the station with GregâÂ?¦I think her name begins with an SâÂ?¦âÂ?¦.”and then they lost connection. Poppy looked at Sheila and nodded his head that he wanted to go home. He knew that his granddaughter was the girl the policeman referred to, and waiting around the scene for a miracle wasn’t going to make things any better. Indeed, it was a miracle. Serena’s ambulance entered the emergency garage of Coney Island Hospital at the same time Sheila pulled onto the Belt Parkway. The gurney was removed from the back of the vehicle and pushed through the doors to the ER when Poppy turned the radio dial to a big band station. Concetta was waiting at home, expecting to see her husband and her fifteen-year old granddaughter plod in at any moment. She readied herself for questions to ask the young girl about Coney Island: was it just like it appeared in the movies? Were there fifty kids running around with ice cream running down their mouths? After turning off all the lights and getting sleepy on the couch at 9:30, she he heard the door creak open and light poured in from the porch. There was only one shadow on the wall, and when she heard an old man cough and sputter, she got up from the couch and limped over as quick as endurable. “Turn on the news, C. I think you have to see this.” Concetta sat down in an arm chair and turned on the remote to the local channel. A good five minutes of news passed before the Cyclone story came up as “Breaking News.” The victim is a fifteen year old high school sophomore at Fresh MeadowLane High School. She is lucky to be alive tonight after her harness on the roller coaster came loose and sent her to the ground. Had the car gone completely up the ramp, she would not have survived at all, but from where it stands now she should at least make a minor recovery. That’s all we have now, back toâÂ?¦.. Poppy turned the TV off and threw the remote across the room, knocking down a knick nack and sending both items breaking on the hardwood floor. He sat on the couch and took his wife’s hands in his and began to cry. “This is all my fault. I leave my family and try to bring them back together, and fail. No, I just don’t fail, I tear them further apart. Had I been around for our Maria, she never would have fallen for that man and gone on that plane with him nine years ago. She would have been alive and working as a dental assistant and making a life for herself. She would be happy and cleaning out her closet for more dress space and accompanying you on the piano like All in the Family. But I ruined everything.” “No you didn’t. Had Maria never met Stephen, we wouldn’t have had Serena. So don’t you say you wish they never met, because we’d miss out on another blessing in our lives.” Poppy walked over and began collecting the broken knick nack. “A blessing in a thousand pieces now!” “Leave that for tomorrow and get some rest. Your granddaughter is alive, you should be thankful! You can apologize to her when you see her in the hospital. We can ask Sheila to give us a ride down.” Later that evening, after Concetta had fallen asleep on the arm chair and began snoring, Poppy got up from the couch and went for his keys on the coffee table. “Where do you think you’re going?” Poppy turned to face her just before opening the front door, letting the keys merrily jingle in his hands as he spoke, a small tear permitted to land on his nostril. “To the ninety-nine cent store to pick up a prize for our little blessing, just like I promised and will continue promising.”

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