So I’m sitting there, in the deepest funk, flipping through the channels with the remote. Some made-up blonde shows up, talking about Russian women being sold as sex slaves. “Shocking story at eleven.” I flip again, and another blonde appears, something unbelievable this time—some brother getting the shit beat out of him ‘cause he’s in the wrong neighborhood. These people on the TV don’t live nowhere ‘round here, I know that. Else they wouldn’t have the heart to be so damned surprised all the time. I reach over to grab my cigarettes off the table, and when I lean back the sun’s in my face, breaking through all the dirt on the glass. It’s the only time of day the sun makes its way in here, forcing itself into the small space between my building and the one across the way, pushing through that layer of dirt. The whole window is glowing ‘cause that dirt spreads the light, makes it soft. All I can see is dirt and light, and something moving underneath, like the shadow of a fish underwater. It’s Grace from across the way, pushing her crazy head out the window.
Her hair is sticking up all over her head and she’s leaning forward on thick brown arms. Grace is fat, and crazy as hell. Last year, some guy called her “Big Stuff” when she walked by him. He was grinning hard, thinking he’s real funny, when Grace stopped in mid-stride and turned around to look at him, her eyes wide and shiny, black as night. Brother lost that grin; see, he was new to the block, didn’t know Grace. Grace walked over to him slow, one foot in front of the other, like she was concentrating on walking a line. She folded those heavy arms across her big chest and sank into her hip. “S’cuse me? You say something?” Everybody stopped talking, moving, just looking at Grace, looking at this guy. Nothing he could do but step up, say “Yeah, I said it,” and collect his concussion. I saw Grace through the window the next day, just from the side, sitting real still, hair standing up as usual. Then she started rocking back and forth, wiping her face with the back of her hand.
She’s forever got her head out the window. Most times she’s quiet, but sometimes she yells to people. Stupid shit, like “Where you going?” Like she got the right to know. When she’s quiet like this, and smiling, you can’t tell she’s the kind that would kill you. You can’t tell that she hates the whole world. I almost want to open the window and talk to her. Ask her what the hell she’s so mad about. But I stay put and just watch her. Her face is all scrunched up in the sun. She turns her head to the other side to get some shade. Then back to face the sun. Over and over, moving her head from one side to the other. She looks down all of a sudden and she’s smiling, all those big horse teeth just lit up.
“Hey!” she yells to the phantom on the sidewalk. “Here I come!” Her voice tumbles down, knocking against the buildings, the light pole, the cars on the street. Then she’s gone. Like that square of black space behind her just pulled her in. I keep looking at that black square. It seems strange in the middle of all that sunshine, even through the layer of dirt.
The phone rings. I stare at it and drag deep on my cigarette, wait for it to quit. It keeps on, so I clamp down on the cigarette and lug my ass off the couch.
“Deidra?” I roll my eyes, put the phone to my shoulder, wait. “Deidra…you there?”
Shut up, I want to say, but suck smoke instead.
“I’m here, Ma. Where you?” I can hear the click-clacking of billiards in the background. I can hear that fool man of hers, Big Red, talking trash. I can hear her hand over the mouthpiece, muffling it all. She sighs, and all of a sudden, I know I’m by myself. Nobody here but me and the bare, dirty walls, the empty pizza boxes and open tuna cans on the counter. “…had to work late, baby. I’m so sorry….” I look at the coffee stain on the rug from the morning after the last time Ma forgot to come home. “…got stuck, had to wait for Red…” I notice the way that stain is right in the middle of the whole place, and the garbage making its way over the top and down onto the floor. “…just too tired, too tired, that’s all…” The way there’s nobody here but me.
“Ma? When you coming?”
“Maybe tomorrow, baby. No sense coming all the way back uptown. Red’s place is closer to work…you ok anyhow. You always ok….” My throat’s drying up on me now, my eyes stinging from staring at that bright window. Cigarette down to nothing, burned my damn finger. I throw it into the sink and suck on the burn.
After we hang up I start back to the couch, but my eyes hit that damn sag in the middle, and I think of how hard it is to get up from there. I turn around instead, slip my feet into beat up Nikes and look down at myself. This is the shit I slept in, same shit for two whole days, but I can’t stop to change. I grab my keys and head down the stairs, out into the sun.
There’s some clouds way off, looking hungry, like they want to swallow that sun, have their way with it. They sound hungry too, thunder grumbling inside. There’s a park over the hill, and I’m thinking I could sit on a bench and watch the ducks or something. I struggle up the hill, my chest not giving in to the air coming in. Been smoking since I was twelve but I been walking that hill all my life. My pops used to walk me over it when I was little. Sometimes we’d take that old garage-sale bike I had. Rusty ass chain. One time my pants leg got caught in that damned chain on the downside of the hill, and it was the kind of bike you had to back pedal to make it stop. I couldn’t stop, and it was the first time in my life I remember being scared like that; the kind of scared just shoves itself down your throat and grabs hold of your heart, stops your breath. I hollered all the way down. Mouth wide open, tears drying in the wind. My pops running behind me telling me to turn. Damn, I was scared. Pops was there when I hit bottom. We left that bike right there on the walk. He carried me home in his arms. Long time ago.
Looks like those clouds scared everybody off. Usually, people are on the walk or standing on the stoop, minding somebody’s business. Takes a lot to scare them old bastards away from the corner store; they’re out there all day sometimes, playing dominoes in the alley next to the store while they wait for the numbers to come out. Hoping their number will come, so they can stay in the dominoes. Nobody out today. Just one kid on a bike, and a lady with a bunch of bags, walking too fast. Me, with the wind at my back and a cigarette behind my ear.
I’m just about to pass the corner store when Frankie steps out. Frankie with them big muscles and that tight white t-shirt and nut-hugger jeans, like some guy in a bad mob movie. He works in the store, cashiering, taking money for the numbers, and he’s the one pays out the winners. My pops used to buy me Blue Sky soda and one of them big pickles or a Slim Jim on our way to the park when I was little. Now, I go in there to buy loose cigarettes, a quarter a piece.
“Frankie. What’s the number?”
“Why? Did you play?” He’s smiling, knowing I didn’t. “It’s uh…617.”
Frankie’s what we call a “guido”—means he’s Italian—and he’s got green, green eyes and curly brown hair. If I was gonna have a crush on some guy, it’d be him. I stand there smiling at him, not knowing what else to say, just looking at his jaw and the chipped front tooth, remembering the time he told my pops about the fight he’d been in. I had stood there holding Pop’s hand and listening to Frankie try not to sound like a hero for grabbing this guy and shaking the hell out of him after he rubbed some lady’s ass. The guy punched Frankie straight in the mouth, breaking the tooth and cutting his lip.
His shirt’s so tight I can see he’s got a real hairy chest under there, and for a second, I can imagine what it’s like to run my hand through all that hair.
“Hey Frankie,” I say just to stop that thought. “Lemme get some matches?”
“Yeah.” He pulls a book out of his pocket and hands them to me. A man walks between us and goes into the store. Frankie waves his hand at me and somehow stuffs that hand into the pocket of those tight jeans and walks back into the store.
When I get to the park, I can see the pond and the way the water’s surface is skittering because of the wind. There are dry leaves everywhere, blowing around my feet in circles like little animals trying to get my attention. There’s a bench right in front of the pond where me and Pops used to sit whenever we came here. It’s usually empty, but right now there’s some old bum lying across it. Slobbering, snoring, stinking up the place. I stand there, pissed that he’s taking up the whole bench, and see that his eyes are open. He’s not snoring. It’s just the way he breathes.
“Hey kid,” spit dribbling from the side of his mouth. “You got a cigarette?” He sits up, looking at me with eyes like the dead oak leaves piled up around his feet. Dirty hands swipe at the spit sliding down his chin.
“Nah. I left them home.” I turn to face the pond, but not before I look at those flat, empty eyes of his. There’s a space on the bench, now that he’s sitting up. It’s a big enough bench, maybe, that I wouldn’t have to be too close to him if I sat down. And the next bench is too far away from the pond. I back up a step, turn around. He’s still sitting there, his hands in his lap, looking out beyond the pond and the trees lined up on the other side, looking like angels with their arms and wings spread out. Like he knows what’s on my mind, he slides way down to the very end of the bench. I make up my mind to sit on the other end. I slouch down, stick my feet way out, study some silly duck quacking and flapping restlessly in the pond. The bum looks too, except he’s giggling to himself, his raggedy shoulders shaking up and down.
His eyes are crinkled at the corners, all lit up and crackling now. I can’t help it; I gotta ask, “What’s funny?” He looks at me, surprised either that I said something to him or that I don’t know what’s funny.
“What about him?”
“Happy? Cause of all that flapping and shit? How you know he’s not mad or frustrated or something like that?”
“Well, I ain’t ask him, so you’re right. Could be something else,” he says like he’s talking to a two-year-old he don’t want to discourage. His smile fades, which makes me feel bad. I got no business pissing on his happy.
“Could be he’s happy, I guess…could be I just ain’t familiar.”
Man this guy stinks. Even from down on my end of the bench, I can smell his breath.
He smiles this kooky smile, nods his old head. Looks to me like it might fall right the hell off his neck. I pull the cigarette from behind my ear, and he looks at me strange.
“I forgot. You can have half.” He nods that loose neck nod, looks straight ahead. His eyes gone flat again. I pull deep, feel the burn in my throat. Lean my head back. Bird shit lands “thwack!” right in his lap. He starts giggling again.
“Now that’s funny,” I say, smiling so hard it hurts my face, “but why the hell are you laughing?” Still smiling, he looks at me, his big dirty teeth right in my line of sight. He doesn’t say anything. I don’t get it. I stretch out my arm, hand him what’s left of the cigarette.
“Thanks,” he says, smoking, looking relieved. His eyes close heavy and slow, like he’s going to sleep. I sit straight up, look over at him. I can’t believe how dirty he is, how bad he smells. There’s something quiet about the way he sits there, his head leaned all the way back, legs folded and ankles crossed. Smoke curling and climbing up from between his fingers. His hands look like they’re older than he is; ashy-brown hands with thick, tired fingers. He looks like he’s always been there, like he’ll never leave. I look back out over the pond, thinking of my pops again. How he looked in that casket. First time in my life I ever saw him dressed like that, so clean and neat I almost turned around to tell everyone they were in the wrong room. But then I saw his pretty brown face, his big rough hands folded neat on top of him. Working hands, he used to say. Working hands with nothing to do. I’m thinking of how I couldn’t cry; how I still can’t. “…you always o.k….”
“You sleep here last night?” I ask.
“I sleep here every night.” He lets out a blast of smoke, coughs, relaxes.
“Why? I mean, there’s a shelter over on…” He’s shaking his head.
“Shelter? Naw,” he says, lifting his rough, dirty hand above his head. The cigarette, still burning between his fingers, sends a stream of smoke toward the sky, like it’s coming from his pointed finger, showing me the way up.
“That’s all the roof I need. I like the sound of trees and wind in conversation.” He pauses, takes another toke, coughing harder this time.
“That’s familiar,” I say, nodding my head. “I used to sleep out here sometimes when…in summer.” My pops used to cry himself to sleep some nights. Most times it was that kind of quiet you can hear, like snow against the window. It kept getting louder though, ‘til every room in the house was full of it, like floodwater, and I had to get away from it. I was about thirteen then, the summer after that bike almost killed me, and I thought that sound would swallow me up. Nobody heard me leave.
“My pops died in summer,” I say all of a sudden, for no reason. He looks at me sideways, his eyes sort of melty and soft.
“Why?” It was a Grace question, none of his business. I look at him, his hands…the eyes that went from dead to smiling to melty, and wonder what the hell I was doing here. Turning back to face the pond, I answer, “He died by the gun.” I make a circle with my lips, then put my finger in and drop my thumb over and over. “I didn’t even cry. To this day, not one tear.” His face doesn’t change, just goes back to staring at that silly duck, then up at the thickening, rolling clouds. Thunder, coming this way.
“It’s gonna rain,” he says, real quiet.
“I know.” We look at each other, and for a while we’re stuck there, staring right at each other’s eyes. It’s not uncomfortable, or even strange.
“When I was a youngster,” he tells me, “the rain used to upset me something bad. But my grandma had this way of putting her hand right to the back of my head, real gentle, and she would say, ‘After that, some sun.’” I swallow hard, look back at the pond. Such a simple thing. Why it makes me want to cry, I can’t figure. I want another cigarette but I only brought the one. The duck starts up again, all that silly flapping and quacking.
“Look at him,” he says, laughing now. I look, and before I know it I’m laughing too, the kind of laughing that makes my stomach hurt, and I can’t breathe. Feels like something is coming loose inside me, and all my senses are tied up in that laugh. Tears are pouring down my face when he starts coughing.
“Hey, man, you all right?” I slide down the bench, start pounding on his back, scared. He can’t stop, looks like he’s going to fall over. I grab his arm. “C’mon man, you OK?” When he moves his hand, there’s blood in it.
“You sick? I mean, you need a doctor or something?” He grins at me, his eyes sparkling, wet with tears, like mine.
“No.” I stare at him, feeling that funk come back down on me like bricks. I can see the dark square of Grace’s window inside my head, and picture myself floating into it, through dust and sunlight, sucked right into that small, dark space. I reach over and grab his hand, move closer. Lightning burns across the gray clouds who got their wish, at least for now; they swallowed up the sun. We jump when the thunder hits, it’s so loud, so mad. What a sight. Two bums clutching hands, tears raining down our faces. The wind kicks up leaves, paper, dirt. The ducks have disappeared. We stay there as the first big drops crash through the pond’s surface, moving it, making it alive. Our hands hold tight together, one hand, bloody and warm. I don’t let go. I can’t let go.
© Tricia Amiel
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read Tricia’s interview]