Oct '02 [Home]
Martin Leahy's Toys
by Daniel Maguire
Special Mention, Big City Lit Spring Fiction Contest
Martin Leahy had toys. He had so many toys that even I—a spoiled only son myself—even I was awed. Of course, his father owned a tap room; mine shot rivets into steel. Even being spoiled has its hierarchy.
The Leahy's lived on Manayunk Avenue. They lived above us; everyone in Manayunk lived above or below someone else. Hills were the geographic signature of the place. You would go "up Marty's" or "down Johnny's"; you'd say "up the Ridge" if you were going to Ridge Avenue. And you'd go down Main Street—that is, if you were allowed to go down Main Street. In 1956, if you were nine years old, you were not. Main Street was too seedy, with winos (we called them "bums") and hookers (never spoken of) and bars. Lots of bars.
Bars were different from tap rooms, which were interspersed throughout the community and always on a corner—it seemed every second or third corner. They were social clubs, really, respectable and catering to both men and women of the best sort. Right. There's no snob like a lower middle-class, blue-collar snob.
But a bar, well On Main Street, they hunkered down in the middle of the block, glaring at passers-by through smoke-yellowed windows, or calling out, to no one in particular, in the coarse rasp of whiskey-soaked voices. They tended to congregate in certain areas too, close to one another, like a gang of tough guys, trying to intimidate by sheer force of numbers. Narrow, brick and brown stucco buildings with dirty fingernails, trouble-makers.
Because Bub Leahy—to this day, I don't know what his real first name was—because Bub owned a tap room, the Leahy's lived above us in more ways than just geography. To own a tap room meant you got one of the first cars in the neighborhood, you dressed a little better than your neighbors and you took two-, maybe three-week long vacations to the Jersey Shore. It meant you were active in the Ancient Order of Hibernians and were president of the Holy Name Society. It meant that your wife was head of the PTA, or whatever served as a PTA in 1956, and that she gave lots of parties, to show off, or play the Big Deal, or just because she liked to give parties. And it meant that your only son had really, really cool toys. Lots of 'em.
Martin had the standard array of cowboys and Indians and army men, but he had hundreds of them; some had interchangeable weapons and some rode horses; they came in a blast of bright colors and all were amazing in their detail. Marty had Knights of the Round Table, and of the Square Table and the Trapezoid Table; they had lances and axes and swords and they rode armored horses for jousting. He had Roman legions and an assortment of motley swordsmen that you could use as barbarians, in case you felt like conquering the world on a rainy Monday afternoon.
He also had realistic dinosaurs, and tanks and planes and rockets and cars and trucks—and everything came with its attendant castle or fort or village, with plastic trees and rocks and moats and landscapes. Marty's toys brought their own world with them.
Getting an invitation to play with Marty Leahy was like getting a Command Performance to play at Buckingham Palace. But, since Marty was spoiled—how could he not be?—he ran through playmates like Henry the Eighth went through wives. Gerrie, his mother—her friends referred to her as Gerrie Bow since she looked a lot like the movie star Clara Bow, "the It Girl"—Gerrie, his mother and mine had been friends in high school, so it was inevitable that I would, one day "get the call."
At first, I didn't want to go: Marty had just turned eight and I was already nine. An experienced street urchin with no place to go and nothing to do, why did I have to go play with some baby just because his mother knew my mother? But Mom said I was going, and go I did. I trekked up the steep incline of Terrace Street, climbed the sheer face of Jamestown Street—a feat that would make a Sherpa mountain guide think twice—and then made the final assault on the peak of Manayunk Avenue to the Leahy's house. Marty answered the door, eager and welcoming—he probably hadn't seen a real live nine-year-old up close—and I mumbled something like, "Hi, kid. I'm supposed to play with you," and pushed past him through the door. Epiphany. Xanadu realized. El Dorado discovered.
We played until dinnertime, ate dinner, and then played some more. This had never happened before. Mrs.Leahy was delighted. Early on, when Marty got cranky and tried to start an argument about some game we were playing, I simply looked at him blankly and went back to playing on my own. The truth is that I was merely ossified by the banquet of toys, but Marty took it as intimidation, nine-year-old style. And it worked; from then on, he always deferred to me.
We played two or three times a week, maybe more if there was a string of rainy days. I was in paradise. I was like one of the family. I even worked up the nerve to talk to Marty's older sister, Maura; at twelve, she was already breaking hearts. And the moon set and the sun rose and all was as it should be.
But the god of toys is a jealous god. And a selfish god. In fact, he's a real sonofabitch. Somebody once said—and I hope they're dead, because they deserve to be—they once said something like, in joy lay the seeds of sorrow. And there's a proverb claiming that "familiarity breeds contempt." But for me it just bred more familiarity.
The more I played with Martin Leahy's toys, the more I forgot they were Martin Leahy's toys. I came to think of them as my toys. So, when Martin let me start taking some home with me Well, let's just say that sometimes the prodigals returned, and sometimes they didn't.
I tried to keep this a secret. I would hide them under blankets and bring them out to play at night and, of course, I was discovered: Who can hide anything from the red-haired daughter of an Irish cop? What nine-year-old boy can fool his mother?
The result was that the toys went home to Marty and I went home right after school. And stayed there. Already skilled at justification, I felt that my mother's anger—silent and cold, more frightening than hot and loud—was an overreaction; I was too young to know the difference between pride and dignity.
A few weeks passed. Flowers bloomed. I got a good report card. And besides, Marty liked me, was asking for me and had perfected the 'towering sulk.' Gerrie Leahy invited my mother to lunch and was so desperately gracious that I was, at last, readmitted to The Presence.
We played regularly after that. I would say we even became friends, as summer misted into fall and Halloween gave way to Christmas.
I remember vividly the Christmas of 1956. Our family was invited to the Leahy's for 'brunch,' a term not often used in Manayunk, in 1956. I remember taking pictures, with my two families, in front of their Christmas tree, amid largesse no Kubla Khan could 'ere decree, nor any Scrooge, in tow with Christmas Spirit U.S.A., could comprehend. I even gave Santa Clause a reprieve, for another year anyway.
Christmases stood on each other's shoulders. The host of toys grew. But time grew as well, and the year that separated me and Marty grew wider. Longer. I don't know how we knew, but we knew, and on the last day I ever played at his house, Marty made a gift to me of several toys I especially coveted. I demurred, but he insisted. "I'm sick of 'em. I'll just give them to Freddie Mullen if you don't take 'em," he lied.
I took them home and hid them, remembering their cost. I would picture them, their colors and their shapes. But I never took them out to play with; neither I, nor Marty, ever had their use again—a strange, sad destiny for toys. And, as is the way of unused things, they eventually disappeared beneath the blankets of the years.
It is forty-four years later, the last Christmas of the old millennium. Essentially alone, I sit and look through photo albums filled with the vestiges of Christmases gone by, pictures of my children in pajamas, sitting under decorated trees, surrounded by what I thought might be the answers to their tinseled dreams. And maybe it's all those toys, or perhaps I sense that new millennia must leave some memories behind I think of Martin Leahy.
They're all dead now: Bub from a stroke, Gerrie from a cancer; Marty died in Viet Nam in 1969. Maura, beautiful and dark, overdosed on heroin; but not before she broke just one more heart—her mother's. And as each turn of a page chronicles my children's changes into different lives, I visualize myself with Martin Leahy and his family on a Christmas Day in 1956. I see us there beside a gleaming tree, surrounded by our toys and smiles and dreams, all the shining things we could not keep.
(Daniel Maguire's poetry has appeared in The Paterson Literary Review, The Schuylkill Valley Journal, The Mad Poets Review, Poetry Fury, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and others. In May, 2000, he was selected by the editors of The American Poetry Review for a workshop with Robert Bly. He was awarded first prize for poetry at The Philadelphia Writer's Conference in 2000, and again in 2001. He was a quarter-finalist for the 2002 Lyric Recovery Festival at Carnegie Hall Award. Maguire lives in New Jersey. "Martin Leahy's Toys" is his first attempt at a short story.)