© 1998 Michael O. Starr
Whatever it was Dell had expected, Peter's apartment was not it. No wonder Pete never came home: home was just four rooms, bedroom and living room, neither half the size of Dell's bedroom at home, bathroom, kitchen. Bare hardwood floors. That was it. It was a hell of a way for a man almost thirty to live.
Dell looked at his watch: 8:15. If he was going to go to a movie he needed to get a move on. Peter called after he got to his evening shift and said he wouldn't be home till midnight or thereabouts. He gave Dell the number for movie information. That and Peter's maps had managed, barely, to convince Dell he could find the theater. But Dell had fiddled around all evening, just like he fooled around all day, and now he didn't mind if he found the one more little thing that would go ahead and kill off the movie idea.
He crossed to the table under which his shoes lay, reached down and put them on, sitting on one of the two chairs in the place. The whole apartment was bare like that, a mattress and box springs on the floor in the bedroom, with Mama's little table beside it, the lamps that used to be in their bedroom at home, a foot locker, and in the living room the oak table, only decent thing he salvaged from the divorce, and of course his stereo, which damn sure didn't count as furniture, even though the records took up an entire wall.
Dell, shoes tied, crossed to the windows and cranked them shut. To his right lay the skyline of Manhattan through the still-bare tree in the front yard. Winter lasted so long here! In Natchez the azaleas were past bloomed, the trees thick in leaves. It was eighty when he left. Peter said it was spring, but the week was starting out a lot cooler than the clothes Dell brought with him. The movie idea didn't seem likely to survive his thoughts of wandering around in such cold looking for a theater. He recognized the Empire State Building with the lights at the top, and the Chrysler Building too, which Peter told him a dozen times was his favorite building. Way down there, less than the size of his little finger, stood light-striped boxes Peter had pointed out, but which Dell but could not presently name. Alright, Dell thought, to hell with the movie. They do got bars here, right? That I can handle, I imagine.
Down the stairs, then, double checking the keys in his pocket, all twenty-eleven of them. His heart pounded in his chest his first trip alone in New York City. Or Astoria, rather, or Long Island City, whatever it was called. Peter made a point of never calling it New York. But if you wrote New York City on the letter it got here, right?
There were two locks on the inner door those were no problem. The three on the outer door, however, he had not yet mastered. He fumbled, especially with the bizarre chain lock that you locked from the outside, which could not stop a child, except maybe to make noise. Was that the point? How paranoid could these people be? After all, with traffic, sirens, jets, car alarms, and people whooping it up in the park across the street, breaking glass, raising hell half the night with that goddam boombox, it'd be a wonder that anyone heard when they kicked the damn door in. Dell had been absolutely dead from the train ride, or he'd never have slept a wink in all the racket, as if the whole city was here just to make noise. However, Dell figured a bottle of Jim Beam might solve that problem for him tonight.
The chain lock locked and double-checked, he locked the deadbolt and the lock on the handle, pocketed the keys, went down the front steps and turned left on the sidewalk, heading up the slight hill of 37th Avenue. The houses here were all connected, each with walled or fenced front yards the size of drop cloths. No inch of soil went untended. Every one was planted with flowers, especially roses, which were nowhere near ready. Those flowers that were starting to bloom Dell could not name. At the corner he turned left onto Crescent Street, passing more row houses. Crescent was lined with tall trees that looked like sycamores, their branches lacy with pale green leaves, looking like fur in the streetlight. Cars lined both sides of the street. A crowd of people caroused in the basketball courts by the school on the corner. Were they ever not there? Occasional screels of laughter echoed from thin, girlish voices not speaking English.
Turning right onto 36th Avenue, he crossed Crescent Street, then walked along the fence bordering the school yard. The blocks were shorter going this way, each street more of the same, identical row houses, only their gables and gardens varying. "Like Archie Bunker's neighborhood," Pete said. "It is Archie Bunker's neighborhood," as if this should make some kind of difference to Dell, just because they used to see it on TV.
Luckily, the bar was real handy, right there under the train station. Inside it was warm and low-lit by shaded wall fixtures. For the first time all day Dell had the feeling he knew where he was. He crossed to the bar and took a stool. The bartender was a soft-spoken, red-cheeked man, a little younger than himself. Before Dell had gotten out of his jacket a cocktail napkin and bowl of peanuts were placed before him.
"Hello there. Hy ya doin'."
"Better now, it looks like." Dell smiled back at him.
"What'll it be?"
"How 'bout a Bloody Mary?"
"Right." Bottles clinked and burbled. "You don't sound like you're from around here, if you don't mind my saying so."
"Not at all. Up here visiting my brother."
"Oh yeah? First time here? How're you liking it so far?"
Nodding, Dell said "Tell you the truth, I haven't seen all that much of it yet."
"Well, you got here at the right time of year. A terrible hot bitch it is in the summertime." Love his accent, Dell thought, drinking the first round without putting it down.
"You want to start a tab?"
"Better not. Only having a couple," Dell said and put a five dollar bill on the counter. He ate a handful of peanuts, the only thing he'd eaten all day, and turned to look at the television at the end of the bar. A basketball game was heating up, judging by the vocal reactions of the rest of the bar's few patrons.
Overhead a gentle rumble started, then grew to a roar that Dell could feel vibrating the bar under his elbows; bottles on the sideboard clinked and rattled. A train entered the station above, stopped, then rumbled away, making less noise leaving. Dell found his heart was racing. He swirled dry cubes and slid the glass across for a refill.
"A little more pepper in this one, please sir. What I don't understand is how you can stand the damn noise."
"Yeah, it's something," the bartender replied. "But I probably don't notice it any more than I do that clock ticking."
After one more round Dell reluctantly made himself leave the bar and cross to the liquor store just across 36th Avenue.
Like bars, liquor stores are comfortably similar nation wide. Shelves lined the walls, with floor displays near the front for cheaper wines and pre-mixed formulas. There were security video monitors, and a television behind the counter on which the cashier watched a cop show that Dell could not recognize by the sound of it.
He was surprised to find the prices lower here than in Natchez. Requires cheap whiskey, living in this place. There were fifths, of course, but Dell got to thinking about that last time he visited Peter, in Knoxville, when they'd drunk a fifth of Crown Royal like that much milk. And with the weekend coming up and all. He spotted on a lower shelf half gallons. He picked one of those up and carried it up front to pay for it.
Dell renegotiated the five blocks, the locks and the stairs before he realized he'd forgotten chasers. Not that he really needed one for himself, but Peter would never be able to drink Beam straight, would he? Then he realized he'd forgotten food, as well. Cursing himself silently, he stood in the kitchen with his hands on his hips, looking out the front windows onto the pile of scrap metal in the parking lot across the street, thinking about keys and traffic and cold. Of course, he'd also forgotten something to read, and he'd read everything in the house that interested him that wasn't something he didn't have time to read. At the curb out front of Peter's house stood a good-sized pile of bagged garbage. As he looked down at it, he saw that a rat was nosing around the base of the pile. Dell cursed, staring, damn this place. Damnit!
Then cursing his sister Janice under his breath, Dell snatched open the icebox door, knowing there was nothing in it. Janice had visited last fall. Her glowing report was what prompted Dell to be here right now. Couldn't she see? She declared herself ready to move here as soon as she filed her grades for the winter quarter. Nothing in the cabinets, either. No food, nothing to munch on, nothing. It must all go into records, Dell thought. And how could anybody live without a television? Even if you only left it on for the noise, what else could keep you company like that?
Ah, the hell with it. He unbagged the Jim Beam. This'll do for supper and a midnight snack for me, I reckon. Pete can fend for himself. He cracked off the top, peeling away the tax stamps and lifting the bottle for a sip straight out of the pouring spout. Unlike the Bloody Marys, this was flat and unspicy, a very simple flavor that was warmer than wet, less refreshing than bracing. He took another sip and turned his thoughts to music.
Peter still had the same old stereo, the old Garrard turntable so ratty it wouldn't turn itself off any more. That he'd mastered easily enough. What to play, now that was a problem. He'd played half the records in the place earlier in the day, and had little enthusiasm for more. So make it something good. Beatles? No, he wanted more of a drinking type of music than that, more of a beat. All the new stuff that Dell didn't recognize aggravated him. What had Peter called them, his newest favorite band? Psychedelic Sinktraps? Just as well give that a try. Dell searched out the P's, but found his eye settling on Rolling Stones instead. Now that was an idea. Something reliable.
Back at the old house, before they'd moved back in '68, the Stones were on Ed Sullivan, and Peter told Mama he'd never heard of them and wanted to watch whatever else was on instead. The Monkees, most likely. Dell sat at the table as the album started, remembering the fight. You've heard of the Rolling Stones! No I haven't! Yes you have, Pete! They're playing them all the time over at John's house! Doug and I played them. Now Dell, stop it! If he doesn't know who they are what difference does it make? Well I want to watch them! But no, Peter had his way and watched whatever stupid thing it was, sitting about six inches from the television, staring like he was in heaven, the little shit.
Dell took a deep breath, then. It was fifteen years ago. Hell, more than that. Would Peter even remember it? He couldn't have been but what, seven or eight? He probably didn't remember. And you shouldn't either, Dell thought, as he placed his left thumbnail against the side of the bottle of Beam about a half an inch below where the neck flared out to the full size body. He turned the bottle up. At first it only tick-ticked as the neck drained, then the sound deepened and the bottle trembled as he relaxed his throat so the whiskey could pour freely. When he lowered the bottle and checked its level it was just below his thumbnail. He belched and smiled, his stomach growing warm and numb.
All those years ago. Dell arose and crossed to the window, leaning against it to see the skyline in the distance, of which Peter was so proud. No one had it easy in that house back then. Every man for himself. He leaned onto his hands on the window sill as the big drink took hold. His head reeled slightly and his legs grew numb, leaving him unsure on his feet, so he crossed back to the table and sat down. There was a newspaper on the chair, which he'd already read. Not a magazine in the apartment. Where did Pete keep his more interesting magazines, Dell wondered, though he felt none too interested in sex, either. Every man for himself. Still, they'd be something to read. He arose and went to look in Peter's bedroom closet. None were in evidence, and he hesitated to dig too far. There was Pete's footlocker, but the lock was fastened. It wouldn't stand up to a little trying, but Dell quickly told himself no, went back to the front room and sat down again, by this time feeling a fine, warm glow. Doesn't the phone ever ring here? He'd been here over a day now, yet the phone had not rung once. Well, one time, yeah, when Mama called to be sure he arrived safe. Hell, Pete's phone rang less than his own, at that rate. A lot less. Dell returned, smiling, to the bottle, rethumbed it another half inch down, and turned it up. Again steady, regular bubbling, deep and rhythmic like a bass line. Dood-oop. Dood-oop. Like the machines that they'd connected Daddy to when he fell from the tree. Your father's in the hospital. He fell and hurt himself out at the farm, Mama said. We were at the doctor's office, of all places, that damn shot they gave me hurting my ass like a kick from a cowboy boot, smartass nurse You won't be wanting to sit around on it too much for a day or two, so keep it in bed. Someone came in and said Mrs. Aster, there's a phone call for you. How did they even know where she was? Must have called for her out at work. Mr. Reeves must have told them.
When he lowered the bottle he found he had drained off a good deal more than he expected he could. Daddy on that metal emergency room table in his boxer shorts, the whole left leg, seemed like, laying there shapeless with the bone showing. They'd given him his first shot already, so he didn't act like he hurt all that much, and he saw me and smiled and held up his hand. He hardly looked at Mama. He held that left hand up real slow and I went and took a hold of it and he squeezed back a little and said I love you, son. And that was all he said before the doctors came back from the x-rays and the lab work. Well, his back's not broken, was the first thing they said to Mama, and they made me back off so they could move him into the operating room. I love you, son. How many times had he ever said that to me before then, I wonder. Two, three? Probably not that many. Funny what you'll think of when you're really hurt and know it.
As the last big pouring took hold Dell raised himself slowly to his feet and went into the bedroom to lay himself out on Pete's bed. He won't mind. Before he lay back he took another drink, this time without looking at the bottle, then he set the bottle within easy reach at the side of the bed. He lay back, then lifted up one last time to punch the pillows together under his neck and head. He tested with the bottle to be sure he could drink out of it without lifting his head, in the process taking another mouthful of Beam, swishing it through his teeth like mouthwash, then swallowing it. The bed seemed like warm arms closing around him where he lay, the way Mamaw's feather beds used to feel to him, when he'd sink so far down, it seemed like they'd close over the top of him. You couldn't even bounce on them, they were so soft, and it would infuriate her if you tried anyway. Stop that, now! Those aren't for playing on. Hand-stuffed goosedown mattresses you couldn't buy now if you had to, Dell thought, reaching again for the bottle. Mamaw, when Tampaw wasn't home she let him play on the floor. That time when Mama was at the hospital. Having Peter? No, Jan. It didn't seem like that, either, but he couldn't tell what else would have put Mama in the hospital. He began to feel his thoughts swimming around in his head.
In the front room the album ended. He could hear the sstump, sstump of the needle stuck in the runoff groove. Dell told himself to get up and turn it over, but nothing happened. He could move his hands, but all his legs would do was roll from side to side. He'd asked Mamaw if he could set up his train set, and she told him no because Tampaw would be home for supper soon, so he put just the cars together and ran them around on the floor without the track, which was more fun than he'd expected because without the track to raise them the cars fit neatly under all the furniture. He choo-chooed them all over the living room, under the television and the coffee table, in a circle around Mamaw's feet where she sat sewing, around and around the base of the floor lamp by which she sewed.
Under the sewing table, he ran his hand across a pin that had fallen on the floor, which tore the side of his middle finger, not deeply, but in a jagged shape which terrified him more than the blood. He watched a drop of blood fall onto the train before he let himself scream, then took a breath and screamed again, this time with all his power, damn it must have been loud too, because it hurt his own ears. As he lay there on Peter's bed he smiled at the thought. Mamaw came and grabbed him up from behind, took his hand in hers and squeezed the finger, carrying him to the kitchen and sitting him with his feet off the edge of the counter where she could run cold water over his hand. Hush, honey, and let me see it now. After she'd washed it off and squeezed it for another minute it didn't bleed so much, and he was less scared, but it started to hurt then, and he cried and cried because of how it looked. He couldn't make himself forget how it had been torn back like that, his own skin, which kept him upset, especially when Mamaw reached down a bottle of mercurochrome, opened it and dabbed it on the cut. Then he really cried. She wouldn't let go of his hand, though, but made him hold it still while she blew on it till it stopped burning, then reached down a band-aid, which she pulled open one-handed, somehow. How did she do that? He never watched closely enough to know. She wrapped it around his finger and it stopped hurting some. She let go for a second while she put the bottle and the band-aids away, then turned and kissed his finger. Now, come on. Let me see you smile, okay? Please? She leaned over to him and pecked his face with kisses, which he wiped away like tickles with his left hand, but she dodged as he pushed at her and kissed him two or three times more and said Gotcha! Ha ha! I gotcha! like she'd won a race with his pain because he was smiling until he remembered he was hurt and frowned again.
How about a sucker, huh? One of them suckers we got at the Piggly Wiggly? You want one?
Dell nodded his head on the pillow where it lay.
Let's see, what did I do with them? Do you remember? Did I put them up here? He knew she knew where they were, as she looked in all the cabinets, then back at him with the question on her face. They were on the hook on the other side of the refrigerator, the same place she always put them, and he pointed and snuffled. She turned and searched behind her. Dell wiped his nose on his arm while she had her back turned, then his arm on his pants and heard the crinkly, smiling sound as she reached for the suckers. Why here they are! They came joined end-to-end in long strips, always a green one, an orange one, then a yellow one and a red one. She pulled off the first two from the end of the strip, which hung almost all the way to the floor, it was so long, and she asked him Can I have one too? to which he shook his head and made the meanest look he knew how to make. Oh please? I'm hurt too, you know. Whenever you hurt it hurts me too. So he nodded well maybe it's okay this time, and she crossed back over to him and picked him up. Oh! You're getting too heavy for me to be carrying any more. When did you get so big? I don't know. It just happened. Just happened to happen, huh? Well, it won't be too long before you'll have to carry me when I'm hurt, will you do that for me some day?
And she carried him back to her chair, sat down with him in her lap, then turned him so that he faced away from her with his head leaned back against her chest. Green or orange? Orange. And she peeled the orange one, pulling at the corner of the wrapper without getting it open at first, then holding it to her teeth and pulling again until it finally opened, and pulled out the sucker and held it to his mouth. It was sweet and sour at the same time, and the surface was a little soft and sticky before it got to the hard, smooth part. He licked hard with his tongue so that the rough outside wore away, and then he reached to turn it over to smooth out the other side. Mamaw finally got hers opened, put it in her mouth, then leaned back. In her hands she smoothed out the crinkling wrapper, folding it up and smoothing it out again. She held it up close to his face. See Dell? You can see through it but it makes everything look funny. And so it did, and he laughed around his sucker a little, until she lifted his hand and looked at his finger, which had already bled through the middle of the band-aid. Uh oh! We'll have to change that in a minute, won't we? She said this around her sucker, which she then removed with her free hand and said Won't we, honey? Which made him start to cry all over again, so she hugged him around his chest and said Shhhh. It's alright. Shhhh. I promise. Shhhh.
Dell's eyes snapped open, but the shhhh shhhh stayed in his ears, and the sickly crawling around of everything in the room terrified him. He wiped at his eyes and realized he was crying but couldn't feel it. The shhhh shhhh, a fluttering against his eardrums, did not go away. Oh my God, he thought. The angel's wings. He laid back, resigned. It's Mamaw come to get me. Then he knew he was crying again.
The next time he opened his eyes he was not alone. There was someone in the room with him, sitting on the floor by the bed. Again he wiped at his eyes, which had crusted over, and turned to look at Peter.
"Hey Pete. You home from work already?"
Peter nodded. Neither said anything as Peter lifted the half-empty bottle from Dell's hand, took it back to the kitchen, then returned and knelt again, his own face wet. "I didn't know it was this bad, Dell," he said. "Are you alright?"
"Yeah, I think so," Dell said slowly, listening for her coming back for him, but this time hearing the nothing he expected. "Yeah, I think so," he repeated. "But I don't think I like it here very much, Pete."
"I know," Peter said. "New York's not all that easy a place to like." Again there was silence.
"I don't mean just New York," Dell said. "I mean anywhere."
"Hey," Peter said softly. "Hey now. Don't be like that. You never know who might be hearing you. You hungry? I got some groceries here. Let me make you a little something."
Dell did not answer. He settled back into the bed as if into welcoming arms. Weak arms. If you've got wings you don't much need strong arms. Not nearly so strong as his need to feel them surround him again.