FICTION: River Ralph by Maris Norfrey

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“The sapphire river of life will float my body over rocky bends to a sandy shore where I’ll bask in the sun forever. You can come with me, Frankie Delmar.”

I would be like, “What’s a sap fire river, Ralph?”

What ten-year-old speaks that way? Sapphire? Bask? Not even our parents used words like that. The mere sound of Ralph’s voice made my father cringe, and Mom’s face would squeeze into worry lines. Ralph Kaluseo, always over the top and always going on and on about the rock opera that was his life.

He hated his name. Complained endlessly.

“My name is a barnacle I’d like to scrape off my hull.”

“What’s a barn nickel?” I’d ask.

He said Kaluseo was a hopeless mess of a last name, and the only part of Ralph he liked was the “ph” because it sounded like “f,” like something it wasn’t. He loved my name and would stretch his pre-puberty cords into a faux baritone—D e l m a a r r r. Said my name was provocative. What was provocative was a ten-year-old using the word provocative.

“I want to be a Delmar someday, Frankie.”

“You can’t, stupid. You’re a Kaluseo.”

“Not if I married a Delmar.”

“You’d be the dad, dummy. Your family gets your name.” I always felt good when I knew something Ralph didn’t. Of course, that never happened, not really.

We were neighbors, and best buds, Ralph and I. This was before we were taught about the threat and danger of differences. We’d spend most of our playtime at my house, which thrilled his parents. (Not mine.) Ralph called his family, narrow-river people. He said this with a sad resolve as if he was sorry for them. ‘There is not enough water in the known universe to swell the river’s flow over the wreck of rocks that are my family,’ he’d announce,  in his favorite role as the Shakespearean, wearing a bedsheet as a toga. Watching and listening to Emperor Ralph always got me laughing.

Making a bed or cleaning a room with Ralph—a penny opera, taking out the nightly garbage—an exotic twilight drama, raking the lawn—an epic war scene.

When we played Army, he always wanted to be a medic.

“Where’s your gun, Kaluseo?” I’d ask, again.

“I’m the medic. And this is my field bag,” pointing to his school backpack. “I save the life of a handsome Lieutenant, and we meet after the war in Paris. Maybe you’ll get wounded, Frankie, and I can save you. We’ll drink champagne on the banks of the Seine.”

“Where? I’m a tank killer, you idiot. I don’t need a medic.”

I had salvaged a piece of old pipe from the swing set my father tore down in the backyard, as a bazooka, and wore my sister’s bicycle helmet as battle gear when destroying enemy tanks.

“If you don’t want a gun, you can be my rocket loader.”

“Oh yes, I can do that. I’m a great loader. I help my mom load the dishwasher and the washing machine. That’s the only time she talks to me, and sometimes she even…”

“Shut up! This is war, not washing stuff! You tap on my helmet when you finish loading the rocket. No dishes, no medics, okay, got it, dickweed?”

He looked at me like he was going to cry. He was a great crier, fake and real. It was hard for most to tell. I could.

“Your bazooka is just a dirty old rusty pipe, and your helmet’s pink, with unicorns on it! And pink’s not your color! You’re more in the umber family.”

“Shut up! Shut-u-u-p!”

I said shut up to Ralph a lot, but I never really wanted him to. I didn’t always understand what he was saying, but I loved the way he said it. Ralph Kaluseo made me laugh, and I think it encouraged him to be him, a gift I didn’t realize I was giving.

“I’ll be your rocket loader,” said Ralph, “But only if I can die. I die very convincingly. I fool my mother all the time; she gets so mad.”

“What are you talking about? Okay, okay, you can die, but I don’t, and I don’t get wounded and go to Paris!”

Ralph’s war would never really end so there would be no one for him to meet afterward by a flowing French river, no sipping champagne in the arms of his lover.

Ralph was off the charts smart. Started reading at three. Wrote simple songs at the age of six. He was that precocious child who would help his mother with her crossword puzzles and coach her at Scrabble. ‘No, Mumsie, put the W on the triple.’ ‘Ralph, stop calling me Mumsie.’

Not dad, he never helped or corrected him. He knew better. They rarely spoke.

Growing up, he taught his older brother algebra and his sisters how to coordinate colors. Those were fleeting victories, momentary bonding; they never blossomed into a lasting acceptance — the Kaluseos were rough river rocks. In his mind, I was his savior, and my house, a temporary haven from ridicule. We were a poor substitute for a loving family, but he found ours a sandier shore.

Eventually, I learned what barnacle and sapphire meant, and fag and queer.

My adopted tribe of young warriors saw Ralph Kaluseo as a liability, a loose brick in our impenetrable wall of manhood. He was last to get picked and first to get pulverized. Still, he’d continue to follow me around like a lost puppy. I’d throw him under the bus to stay in the good graces of the guys and then later drag his mangled body out of the wreckage and brush it off when the coast was clear. No choice, I thought. Not then. Ralph always forgave me. Always.

As soon as he could, he was gone, in search of his tribe. The day of our high school graduation, while our high school class threw their caps in the air, Ralph was boarding a bus. Pictured himself as Natalie Wood, I’m sure. He was obsessed with West Side Story.

‘I’m such a cliché, Frankie—musicals—so yesterday gay.’

He moved to Provincetown, then the west coast. He called it mecca-hopping. His parents spoke of their other children living on their own or away at college, but rarely mentioned Ralph their wayward river, and then only his mother, sounding apologetic at the mention of his name, as if mentioning his name made a withdrawal from some invisible respectability account.

He’d say, ‘Frankie, I’m the most motherless motherfucker on the planet. Sharks don’t have nurturing mothers.’

‘Motherless’ was the name of his trans-band in Frisco. He’d Instagram me sixty-second videos of their live act. They were raw, the music and the act. Said the band was his Gestalt therapy.

As the years passed, Ralph would phone, Tweet, Instagram, or text-bomb me about every few months at random hours day or night, sometimes asking to borrow money. I think the loans were his way of keeping us connected; he always paid them back right away. He’d sold songs, some to well-known producers, all genres—especially love ballads. No Billboard top-ten yet, but he made bank on a small flow of royalty checks and from bar gigs with ‘Motherless.’ He texted a photo of his first never-cashed royalty check for thirty-nine dollars, surrounded by one of his elaborate handmade frames glue-gun-decorated with small found objects. I noticed in the top right corner a small toy soldier holding a bazooka with its helmet painted with pink nail polish, next to it a cutout heart.

After college, I moved to Nashville. I was writing copy for an online sports magazine and teaching conversational English at night to immigrants. That’s where I met my fiancée. We got married in June. No one wanted Ralph invited to the affair.

His family—He’ll suck the air out of the room!—He’ll want to be a bridesmaid.

My family—Frank, it’s your day.—Have him over afterward, for dinner if you want.

The Kaluseos never asked me if I knew where their son was living, not that I could tell them. Once, Ralph told me he was working his way south on the west coast towards the belly of the beast, where ‘fags are chocolate dipped in the sun and then devoured like candy.’ Ralph—a midnight call—a texted picture—an Instagrammed recording. Him growing heavier with each correspondence, the leanness of his youth giving way to his mother’s DNA, smiling round-faced past the camera to his childhood buddy, his love, me, River Ralph now looking swampy and grey.

I admit it; he was a major pain in the neck most of the time, hyperbolic-hypersensitive-hypercritical of himself and the world. He was washing his brain in antidepressants cocktail-ed with whatever the street druggists were prescribing—micro dosing Special K—three-day ayahuasca ceremonies in the hills—self-medicating—copping—coping.

I’d tell him to go to rehab, and he’d say, “It’s fine. Everybody’s on everything out here. It’s showbiz. The juice fuels the community. It’s too late to swim upstream, O’Tool.” Then he’d tell me his favorite joke from when we were kids, again, the circus one. He’d told it a hundred times, about the guy who walked behind the parading circus elephants with a shovel and wheelbarrow collecting their huge turds. One day the man was complaining to his grandson about his job, and the grandson asked, ‘Grandpa, why don’t you quit?’ Stunned, the grandfather would say, ‘And quit show business?’ He always laughed.

On the phone, Ralph sounded like Ralph, overjoyed and overboard like when we were kids, but the last two calls sounded more like he was imitating himself, an act. I hadn’t sent him an invite to the wedding. I’d told him after the fact. It was easier to betray him—a bad habit. When I told him I got married, he sounded happy, then, didn’t call for a while, then a single text,

Benedicta, my Benedicta, I forgive you, Salvatore.

‘Benedicta’ was for Benedict Arnold and Salvatore—savior.  I’m not sure what he forgave me for, missing the wedding or for sharing ‘Delmar’ with someone else and not him.

Our last phone conversation was difficult.

“Hey, buddy-boy. How’s the writing of sport and the debauchery of Spanish flesh going?”

“Good. Husbandry suits me.”

“I always thought it would. Are you planting a new crop of Delmars? Making Mumsie happy?”

“One already in the oven.”

“Oh my God! Those immigrants, barefoot and…”

I heard a muffled animal noise. He was crying. I knew the sound. They were real tears. It struck me inside, my heart taking over for my small mind.

“How are you doing, Ralph?”

His voice came back thin, “Bad-ish. I’m a balloon ready to pop. Something has gone afoul with me, Salvatore. The electricians have crossed my circuits. Up is down and left is right, my mind is at war with itself.”

“What does that mean?”

“Everything.”

“Are you working?”

“Are you working? Are you working? Let’s see, am I working? In what sense? Do you mean as a human, a man human?”

“A job.”

“I’m not a jobber. You know that.” There was a long pause. I heard him blow his nose. “Remember that time in your mother’s bedroom closet, Frankie?”

“No.”

“You lie. You should have said, which time because we were always in your mother’s closet. You must remember how I love hidden things, especially in closets. That time we found the garter belt and that bra, sultry black lace with those little red nipple tassels. Wicked! Your mom, the secret slut with those big grass-fed boobs swirling those bad boys around for Daddy.”

“I don’t want to discuss my mother’s breasts with you, Ralph!”

“I do. I loved them. Me jealous.”

“I remember you put the bra on over your shirt and tried to drag me into the closet.”

“Tried? I did, Delmar. The mind is quite a tool, isn’t it? And not a tool as in tool, but you know, as in, you’re a real tool, that kind, the mind as a trickster, selective memory, and what-not. Your pen-name should be O’Tool Delmar. Please, for me. I’ve never asked anything of you except for that one time in the closet.”

“Are you drunk?”

“Always. Aren’t you?” Then he sang punk-rock style, “Maria. Maria. I’ll never stop saying Mari-e-AAAA!”

“Really. Is that necessary?”

“Yes, my life is a musical, actually a tragica opera. I can’t fucking believe you married a Maria. The irony is calcifying. I’m a Shark, and you’re a Jet, and I always thought somewhere, somehow we’d have our own Tony and Maria moment. She’s a Shark, right?”

“I’m getting off.”

“Me too!”

“The phone!”

“I kissed you. And you know something?”

“What?”

“You kissed back and with your tongue. I still consider it as one of the peak moments of my life.”

“You told me to! You said it was practice for girls so we wouldn’t make fools of ourselves when the time came to kiss a real girl.”

“I was lying, but look what happened. Your time has come, and obviously, you’re a great kisser. You got the girl! You’re welcome. You felt me up.”

“I felt up my mother’s sex bra! That was psychologically damaging enough. And I didn’t kiss you back. Listen, I’ve never thrown anything in your face. I’ve always treated you as just you! As Ralph Kaluseo.”

“Yes, and fuck you for that. That cut me the deepest, buddy-boy. If it wasn’t for that one kiss, I’d… ”

“What? What are you trying to say?”

There was a long pause. I heard a sound in the background like water rushing or wind.

“What’s that sound? Where are you?”

“I’m sorry O’Tool Delmar. I’m sorry I brought up the kiss, our kiss, our Edvard Munch moment. Something has gone wrong. Something I have to deal with.”

“What? Do you need money?”

“Can I call again?”

“Yes, of course.”

“And again and again?”

“What is this all about?”

“I’ll explain later. Say hello to your bride for me. We’ll get together sometime. I’d love to meet Maria and your sprout.”

“Yes, we’ll definitely do that, Ralph. We are friends. And…”

“And what, my closet French kissing-cousin?”

“And I’m sorry for everything. You know.”

“I know. But I guess when you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way.”

And he was gone. River Ralph Kaluseo never called back after that or texted. No pictures. No Instagrams of him screaming on stage in a platinum wig and stilettos, studded and bedazzled.

I was watching television in bed with Maria, the baby sleeping next to us when my phone rang. It was my mother.

“Are you watching the Golden Globes?”

“No, CNN.”

“Quick, turn it on. They announced Ralph Kaluseo as a nominee!”

“Our Ralph? They said Kaluseo?”

“Yes! Call me back!”

A song Ralph co-wrote called ‘Pink River’ had won an award. I waited, excited to see my childhood friend in all his glory. He never showed. His co-writer held up two award statues and said, “We made it Kal.” His bottom lip trembled as his voice left him. The producer took over thanking everyone on earth, and the two left the stage. I lay back on the bed folding up inside. Cool water flowed over my body and stole away my breath. Maria asked me if I was alright. Said she could feel my heart racing. I grabbed her and kissed her cupping her breast. She laughed and called me a crazy gringo, then kissed me back.

Ralph had taught me more than how to French kiss. No one in my family cared about books. We had a paperback copy of ‘The Valley of the Dolls’ and a hardcover of “In Cold Blood,’ a dictionary and a set of encyclopedias. Ralph loved books, and he filled my room with the ones he stole from the public library, and he shared his love of reading. No one in our families cared about the alchemy of music and art. Ralph did, and he brought that into my life. No one spoke about love and feelings or dressed in a bedspread as a Shakespearian actor. No one laughed as loud or cried as hard as River Ralph. And no one made me laugh as much as Ralph did, and in the end, cry. He opened a tributary in my mind that flowed through a larger world where differences were not to be frightened of or hated. He wasn’t a saint, but he was worthy of love. I was a slow understudy.

The dedication in my first published novel, a story about a boy who wanted more,

To the Sapphire River, wherever you are.

 I’m sorry.

O’Tool Delmar is kissing you back.

Always.

glasses

Maris Norfrey

Maris Norfey is a graduate of The School of Visual Arts and a new writer

If you enjoyed ‘River Ralph’ leave a comment and let Maris know.

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