…But Don’t Touch

Photo by Luke Braswell

There she was, wearing nothing but slippers, a loosely tied white house coat, turquoise panties, a chunky necklace with big stones blue as her eyes, and a smile. I froze at the “nothing but” part of her wardrobe, but her smile put me sort of at ease.  

She answered my knock on the red door of the yellow three-story in West Albany.  The year was 1967. The house had to be eighty years old. It had red doors, shutters and windows.  Not just the window trim was red.  The glass in the first-floor windows wore a streaky coat of dark red paint, as well.  

“What can I do for you, cutie?” she said, opening her door wider and stepping back from the view of passersby.

“P-paperboy,” I stammered, not believing what my then-14-year-old eyes were seeing.  “Dollar twenty-five for the week, ma’am.”  She couldn’t have been much older than twenty.

“Okay, honey.  Where’d Danny go?”  The lady fished in from her house coat, pulled out a tennis ball, opened it like an egg and handed me two dollar bills from the wad she had inside.  “Keep it, sweetie.”

“Um, he told me he got his license and a job delivering office supplies after school.  Thank you.”  

As I started to leave the red entryway, the lady touched my cheek and asked, “What’s your name, honey?” 

That feeling was extraordinary.  Touch was not something we shared in my family.  At least not like that.  With five kids under the age of 15, touches at my house were fleeting, at best.  There was no time for lingering, to express warmth, even to feel warmth.  Most touches we felt were the back of a hand—some accidental, more often calloused and abrupt.  They weren’t placed on you long enough to feel warmth and, once they departed, you more often felt heat.

“Um, I’m James Burke, Jay…uh, Jay,” I said, glancing along the lines of her center-parted hair, past a face that was all eyelashes and practiced smile. Past that necklace. My stare eventually settled, like sand down an hourglass, resting on her scuffed slippers.

“Nice to meet you, Jay-Jay.  I’m Lo, Lola, Lolita, whatever you like.”  

“Close that door and get that brat out of here,” another woman screeched from across the dark front room.  Her face was all scarlet from the red window glow and, I guess, from anger.  “Little bastard’s scarin’ away business.” 

“What business, Kat?” a voice from the kitchen asked.  “Ain’t seen no more’n the same three johns here in the last three weeks.  An’ you givin’ it ‘way to that punk Ollie down the street.”  

I already knew who Ollie was.  Ollie St. Denis lived in one of the tenements five doors down the block.  He had beaten the hell out of Danny a few times, I’d learned. And two years ago he walked right into the flat where my Gram lived, right across the street. Walked out with her radio.  Gram died not too long after that.  

“Shut up, bitch.  You’re just jealous ‘cause you don’t have a strong man takin’ care you.  Just your retard brother, and who’s takin’ care who?” the chubby lady yelled into the kitchen.  Her eyes bulged all pink like babies’ rattles. She had her hair pulled back in a greasy rat-tail—so tightly that I don’t think she could have closed those scary eyes all the way anyhow.

A tall girl roared out of the kitchen.  She must have been close to six feet tall and wore platform heels that sounded like hammers on the linoleum floor.  They also put the crown of her head near the top of the low door jamb, which she clipped on her way to the front of the house.

“God … dammit!”  She teetered for a second, which allowed Chubby to bolt up the stairs to the left and slam a door at the end of the hallway.  

“Honey, I gotta get Nan some ice for her head.  Maybe help cool her down, too.  See ya ‘round, Jay-Jay,” Lola said.

I’d seen people get angry before, especially my Old Man, who could be as loud and profane as anybody in this neighborhood. But this scene shocked me to shivers.  What really confused me, though, was what else I was feeling besides that chill down my back.  I had seen that much skin before at the beach. But there it never gave me the same warm gooey feeling I got from peeking at Lo.  It felt good, I guess, probably because I thought it was bad

 “G’bye, thanks,” I whispered, and backpedaled out the door, out into the street, nearly being nailed by a passing Freihofer Bakery truck. When I got the honk of the truck and the screaming of that fat lady and the picture of Ollie out of my head, I was almost ready to collect at the last house on my route—the one with the boxer that bit Danny.  Twice.  

No, maybe next time. 

The following week, I had finished the U-shaped route and was doubling back toward home. I decided to step into the pharmacy on Ontario Street to check the comic books and get some ice cream. I always liked the smell of the place, particularly there near the ice cream freezer, sweet and creamy but with a buzz of freon. I was kneeling in front of the magazine rack when an old lady reeking of that old lady kid of perfume over leaky old lady drawers stepped over my feet and hmmph’d. 

“I don’t know what’s happening to this neighborhood,” she whined.  “Getting so decent people can’t even go to the drugstore anymore.  And no respect.  No respect.”

That last bit was aimed at me, I was pretty sure. 

I looked toward the direction of the pharmacist’s counter, where she came from. I saw just one customer.  Long dark hair, bell-bottoms, big chunky necklace, platform shoe tapping indignantly.

“Well, now that your respectable customers are taken care of, can I get some help here?”

It was Lola.  She handed the pharmacist a slip of paper.  He looked at them and I think I heard him say, “Who is this Emily Mastroianni on this prescription?”

“It’s my aunt, she’s got a wicked bad cough, they think it may be emphysema, and the doctor wants her to have that special cough medicine,” Lola replied, looking him straight in the eye and working those fake lashes so hard I think the papers fluttered on the counter. 

“Please wait.  Down there,” the pharmacist nodded toward the aisle where I knelt.  Lola turned toward the magazine racks, saw me and beamed, “Hiya, hon.  Jay-Jay, right?’

“Uh, hi. Yeah, hello.” 

As she clopped down the aisle, I tried to stop staring at her enormous blue eyes. Self-consciousness brought me down to the stretched scoop neck of her rib-knit sweater and embarrassment chased me from there to where the sweater hugged just below her hips.  I got those squishy feelings again and snapped back to looking at her eyes, now directly above me.  And fell on my butt.

“Whoa, there, Perfessor.  Whatcha readin’? Playboy?”

I stuffed the comic back in the rack and jumped up.

“I seen you around here before, haven’t I, Jay-Jay?”

“Um, I guess.  My Gram used to live around the corner across the street from your house.”

“No kiddin’!  Small world.”

“Yeah.”

“Where do you live?”

“Oh, ‘bout a mile back up Third, off’a Watervliet.”

“I been there.  There’s a couple bars an’ a drugstore on Watervliet, right?”

“Uh-huh, guess so.”

“I was thinkin’ I seen you before, when you stopped by the house the other day.  Prob’ly when you use’ta visit your Gram or around Watervliet Avenue, huh?”

“I guess.”

“Yeah.  Know what?  This’ll sound funny, but you really remind me of my first boyfriend back in Utica.  God, what a sweetie.”

“Oh, Utica?”

“Yeah, I was s’posed to go to school here, but … things happened,” she kind of drifted off.

“Mmm.”

The pharmacist called, “Miss!”

“Hold on, honey, while take care of my overhead,” Lo said, “I’ll walk ya partway.”

On that walk she told me that the girl who hit her head storming out of the kitchen was Nan.  Lo said Nan and her brother George came to Albany from down in Hudson to live with her Dad’s mother. She said their Mom, a white lady, was a prostitute and she didn’t want Nan to be one, too. 

About two months after Nan and George got off the Greyhound, their grandmother up and died and Nan took over mothering George.  Not long after she lost her job at the Public Market for stealing Bisquick and a couple cans of soup, Nan entered the family business.  

Lo said she and Nan first met one night outside a bar on Clinton Avenue.  She said they understood that there was safety in numbers.  They decided to partner up and arranged to move in with Kat, another girl in the neighborhood.  They pooled their cash and government checks to rent the yellow house with the red door.

I thought I knew what it was they did for money, but I didn’t want to be sure. 

For some reason, Lo ran into me lots of times after that.  She’d ask me about my family.  She’d tell me things about her life. Her flapping eyelashes were so sincere, I mostly believed her.  But I soon realized that Lo didn’t always tell all the truth.  Her words needed to be set aside, walked around and sniffed from all different angles before you took them all the way in.  

I felt that way about Lo, the person, too.  I especially liked the sniffing part.  She walked in a cloud that snapped my whole body to attention.  She smelled of citrus and spice and winter mornings and my lungs froze and I shivered when she was close enough to inhale.   

One afternoon in October, I ran into Lo at the drugstore again and she caught me sniffing her hair.  She laughed and said she got what she called her fray-grahnce from a head shop downtown.

“Oh, it’s not just your everyday pitchy-hoolie,” I remember her saying.  “It’s got other natural ingredients, oils an’ … um, attractants.”

“Uh-humm.”

Suddenly, I froze and Lola’s eyes snapped up when somebody yelled, “Hey boy, your mamma know you hangin’ wit whores?”  The remark  was chucked at me like a busted brick from across the street. 

It was Ollie St. Denis on the stoop of the tenement where his Grams lived.  His Grams, Mrs. Simpson, got the paper, but I almost never collected for it because Ollie scared me.  He’d get in my face and say stuff like, “Gimme dollar, boy,” or “Why you stealin’ from a poor black woman for dat shit, boy?”

“Least he got a job, Ollie St. Denis,” Lo yelled back, sounding more like Nan than Nan.  Meaner, tougher, though.

Across the street, Ollie growled, “I make money, bitch, and I don’t hafta lay down wit no stinkin’ drunk to get it.”

“No, you steal from your Grams and rob ol’ white ladies, don’t you, you punk?”

“Bitch!”  Ollie jumped up from the stoop, all red eyes, pointy black shoes and fists.  He hadn’t yet hit the curb when the whole neighborhood rattled, “Oliver!”  It was the voice of his Jamaican grandma, freezing him in his tracks.  “What you doin’?” 

“Nothin, Mamma Paulie, just playin’ wit da paperboy and his girrll-frannd.”  He stretched out the last word and snapped it off like a big rubber band.  Stung like one, too, for some reason. 

“Sen’ dat boy up here.  I sure I owe him money.  Why dat boy not collect?”

“Yes, Mamma.”

I wanted to keep walking with Lola, even though the change in her scared me a little bit, too.  But the lady wanted to pay and I didn’t need her yelling at me like she yelled at “Oliver.”

Ollie had returned to the stoop and stood in the paint-chipped, otherwise open doorway, so I had to skinny my way past.  When I bumped against him, it felt like one of those Home touches.

“You best watch you ass, boy,” he hissed, still squinting payback at Lo.

“Um-hm.” I mumbled as I slid by and walked into the narrow and dimly lit hallway, half of which was crowded by the stairway to the landing above. I bounced up the stairs, two at a time, to the third floor and, as always was socked in the face by the air up there, thick with the odor of over-cooked cabbage, marijuana and soggy diapers. I knocked and Mrs. Pauline Simpson creaked open the door.

“Come in, honey.  Where you been?  You not come by in a long time.  I like to pay my bills every week.  I can’t ‘ford no month’s worth of paper in one poke.”

“Oh, it’s just one week, dollar twenty-five, ma’am.  Uh, your grandson’s been taking care of me.”

Just like Lo always told me, you weren’t exactly lying when you told only the good part of the truth.

“Oh, he’s a good boy.  He just miss his mommy and friends in Mt. Vernon’s all.”

She fished in a purse atop a shiny cherry dining room table, the only decent piece of furniture I could see.  Nan said Ollie had sold some of his Grams’ things, which must have been the job he and Lo yelled about.

“Thank you, Miz Simpson,” I said.

“Take care, Baby Boy.  Don’t be a stranger.  I miss you Gramma ‘cross the street.”  She pinched my cheek, her fingers bony but warm.

“Yes’m, me too.  ‘Bye.”  I tugged away.

I found Ollie sitting across the bottom stairs, his feet wedged between the railings, blocking my way to the door.  The afternoon light came from outside through the open doors.

“Gimme the money she paid you, boy.  You got plenty.”

I could see the hems of Lola’s bell-bottoms outside through the doorway.  I was pretty sure she could see my sneakers on the stairs from the sidewalk, especially when I heard, “C’mon, Jay-Jay, let’s go.”

“The money, boy.  Now.”

“Jay!”

Ollie reached for my leg and …

“Oliver, come up here, baby, I need you.”

I jumped over Ollie’s legs and the railing, slipped on the mat and fell on the sidewalk at Lo’s feet.

“Don’t run, stand up and walk towards my place,” she said.  “Keep your head up and walk like you’re the biggest swingin’ dick in the neighborhood.  Everybody needs to see you ain’t scared.”

A couple of weeks later Lo and I met at the drugstore again and she walked me partway home and I told her that my Old Man was laid up with a bad back from his construction job.  She seemed really interested in if he was taking anything for it.  I told her he didn’t like taking medicine.  Something about being tougher than the next guy.  That didn’t mean he didn’t take painkiller with a head on it, though.  Sudsy head, not a skull and crossbones head.  She asked me what he did with the bottles of medicine he got.  

“They usually just sit in the back of the medicine cabinet until Mom flushes ‘em down the toilet.  She worries about the babies getting into things.”

“I’ll take ‘em.  Since they’re just gonna get flushed anyway, why don’t you give ‘em to me?”

“Ummm.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Honey,” she said, resting her hand on my cheek.  “I don’t want you to get in trouble.”

Just like always, my head started spinning.  For an instant, I didn’t even see her.  That intoxicating perfume hit me like it was one of those painkillers and I felt flashes of maybes, could-bes, risks and rewards in my head.

“Uh, I s’pose I could get you some of the pills.  You know, from way in the back.”

She put her arm around me and pressed her mouth to my ear.

“Jay-Jay, thank you.”

She gave me a little kiss and suddenly started crying, just like that.

“I’m sorry,” I blurted.  “Did I do something wrong.”

She rubbed her eyes, smudging black stuff on her cheeks and flashed me that steel smile.  

“It’s okay, I’m better now, honey,” she said.

 “What do you need all this medicine for?”

“Pain, honey.  Pain”

I brought her two full bottles of codeine which I saw her empty them into her hollowed out tennis ball. I found she always kept in her purse or a coat pocket. We never talked about medicine again on our walks.  I asked Nan why Lo was taking all that stuff and Nan said that Lo used the same cough medicine prescription at the drugstore around the corner from my house, and at Honikel’s on Central, and the Delaware Avenue Pharmacy.

“She hurts, baby. But she ain’t harmin’ nobody else.  Jus’ herself, I guess. She ain’t even tippin’ the needle like that motherfuckin’ ex of hers.  The one what turned her out.  She don’t hurt nobody.  An’ she gives the world a lotta love, baby.  She’s jus’ tryin’ to not feel much of today so she can get to tomorrow.”

After dinner one night late that December I was collecting and Lo invited me all the way in past the red door.  I felt that she must have been celebrating the holidays pretty friskily. She hugged me and kissed me and thanked me for being her friend.  She sat me on her couch, gave me a glass of wine, and put her hand on my thigh.  For a second I actually thought we were gonna.  You know…gonna.

On  the table next to her was that tennis ball, lying in two pieces, neither of which held anything but drowsy memories, I guess. She asked me if my Dad had any more medicine at home.  Then it hit me.  It hit me and it hurt me like the Old Man had hit me.

I grabbed her hand from my thing and held it in front of me.  I looked her right in those blue eyes.  For the first time I was actually looking at what might be really her, whoever she was.  I saw past the false lashes, past the almosts, the “Honey’s,” the warm touches.  She knew I saw her whole truth, not just the good stuff.  

Lo got quiet again and she put her hands into my back and pushed me to the door, saying I’d better get out before somebody happened by.  When I exited the heat of the yellow house I discovered two five-dollar bills hanging from my jacket pocket—her Christmas presents to me or just more of her overhead, I didn’t know.   

As I stumbled into the dark outside, a gentle snow had laid its hands over the street, stoops and parked cars, covering the decay that became more obvious every day inside and outside these homes.  It was pretty, the cars looked like wedding cakes. It even made the dying neighborhood smell better, like an air freshener for a whole four square blocks, but it was another lie.  Another …

“Whadda you doin’ here? I told you never to go in my house.”

I didn’t need to turn; I knew it was Kat.

“Merry Christmas, paper-b-o-y.  Santa give you any presents ‘cause you such a good b-o-o-y-y?”  

Ollie.  I whirled to see him and Kat, each holding up the other.

“No, you ain’t been a good boy.  You been hangin’ wit whores again.”

The fact that he was hanging on a whore, or one was hanging from him, was lost on Ollie.  But the five-spot sticking out of my pocket was not.  

“Gimme that money, boy.”  He pushed Kat down in the snow and grabbed my arm.  

He fumbled for my pocket, missed, and smacked me in the mouth. All I saw then was a bright green light and his face under a cap.  I grabbed his arm, he smacked me again and we slipped on the snow to the sidewalk, Ollie on top of me.  Ollie’s weight knocked the wind out me.  Everywhere I looked was colored lights.  Some were red and yellow and green and hung on the fronts of houses.  Some were there even when I closed my eyes as he hit me again.

Ollie pushed his hand down against my face—it smelled like an ashtray and weed—and punched me with his other hand. Then I couldn’t catch my breath at all.  It felt like Ollie had gained a hundred more pounds.  It turned out he had.

“Get off him, you fuck.”

It was Lo.  She had pounced on his back, wrapped her legs around the pile and was scratching his eyes with one hand while the other beat his head with the heel of her clunky shoe.  I can’t say I wasn’t grateful for the rescue, but then she missed Ollie and hit me in the forehead, too. A white flash of light dimmed to yellow.

Next thing, Kat jumped on top of Lo, trying to get her off Ollie.  Then I heard Nan’s voice and apparently she grabbed Kat and I thought I was going to die right there, suffocated in a pile of over-perfumed prostitutes.

As the lights began fading to black, I had a sense that I was floating, everything felt lighter.  It turns out George had heard the ruckus from upstairs and had rushed to the street and started peeling bodies off my chest.  When he was done, he held Ollie at arm’s length. Nan cinched her arms around Kat’s waist, lifting her flailing legs above sidewalk.  Kat kicked snow and spit steam and cuss words at the only two characters left on the ground.

“I warned you!  I told you to stay away from that kid,” her eyes about to pop.  “But no, you had to take him in, like a fuckin’ puppy.  Used him like some dumb john or somebody from that mobbed-up guinea family of yours.  Yeah, Miss Mob Princess.  Wouldn’t they be happy to hear about you now?  A hooker. Princess Cocksucker.” 

Lo stood up, her house coat and hair wet from melted snow and stuck to her.  She had changed in a second.  Still kind of pretty, but more vacant, sick, pathetic.

Two cop cars, lights flashing, slid around the corner.  Another one roared down Livingston from the other direction, schussing to a stop there on the corner. Its windshield-mounted searchlight trained on us like we were center-stage of a risqué dance recital.

“Awright, everybody stay where you are. What the hell’s goin’ on here?” the first cop out of his car bellowed.  His hand was on his gun.  Mine was on my head.

“Well, Ollie, what a surprise to see you in the middle of something like this.”

“Officer, I was walkin’ my girlfriend here home when this crazy bitch jumped me and started hitting me wit’ that shoe,” he whined. 

What a lying puss, I thought.

“Wait a minute, hold on,” a bony sergeant got out of one of the cars and approached us with a long black flashlight in his hand. “I know you,” he said, poking it into Ollie’s chest.  He turned on the light and flashed it in the faces of each of the ladies from the yellow house.  

“Girls,” he nodded as he lit each of them, “we’ve all met before, I believe.  And you, big boy, I’m seein’ way too much of you on the street these days.”  

“And now who the fu… the paperboy?  Oh, how I love the holidays.” 

“That little bastard’s been trying to rob my house,” Kat screamed.

“I see,” the cop said.  “Then who beat the hell out him?  Your boyfriend said he was walking you home when the Christmas Angel over there jumped him.  Nobody said anything about anybody breakin’ in here.  You ladies have anything to say?  No, no, wait. Kid?”

“I was collecting for my route, officer,” I mumbled through already puffy lips, wincing into the interrogating flashlight beam.  I could feel the blood dripping from my mouth, tasting of salt and steel. I wiped my mouth and noticed the blood smelled nothing like a raw steak, more tangy.

“I was finishin’ up when he came an’ tried to take my money.  Lola tried to stop him and everything went … crazy.”

Lo said nothing.  She wrapped her house coat tighter around herself, kept her head down and shivered.  She appeared to be looking at nothing, like her eyes had turned backwards and stared down the hollow of her.  

Just then, a pickup truck came hauling down Livingston and slid up to the curb behind the police cruiser.  One of the cops put his hand to his hip.  I looked up, saw my Dad jump out of the truck with an expression so dark it scared me more than Ollie.  How the hell did he…?  I turned away, choosing to look across the street, where I saw a skinny woman’s silhouette in the window, a telephone stuck to her ear.

In that house, next door to my grandma’s old place, lived Mrs. Mason.  She sometimes remembered me as the little kid who used to chase down the Wiffle ball I fouled into her yard.  I could still remember crawling under her rose bushes, the sweet and green aroma and thorns that’d jab into my hand and head. Outside of her garden, her life’s work was to sit in a wing chair close to her front window and serve as sentinel for her neighborhood and all its changing life. 

“Officers, that’s my kid there.  What’s he done?”

What had I done?  Jesus Christ on a bicycle, look at my goddam face will ya?  Yeah, I kept hitting that guy over there’s fist over and over with my face. 

“From what we can tell, nothin’,” the sergeant said.  “And we’d like to keep it that way.”

“Hey, Jimmy,” one of the cops yelled from his position at the end of Ollie’s right arm.  “This your kid?”

“Hey, Eddie,” the Old Man growled to what was probably one of his bar buddies from the old neighborhood.  “Yeah.  You takin’ him?  His mother’s going bat-shit at home.”

“Nah.  Sarge, this kid’s okay.  Let’s just take the hookers and Ollie and the big kid and sort ‘em out at the house.  ’Sides, it’s almost time for my 10-20.”

“But Lo and Nan and George were tryin’ to help me,” I yelled.

“Shut up, Jay,” my old man hissed, as he grabbed my shoulder.  “Get in the truck.”

Ollie and Kat and Nan started howling about fairness and justice and white this and pig that.  As my old man pushed me into his truck, I turned to see George braced against the cops’ efforts to get him in the patrol car.  Two of the cops wrestled with him and he shook one off and another one belted him behind the knees with his big flashlight.  With George down, the first cop kicked him in the gut and whacked him in the neck with his flashlight. I tried to yell to make them stop, but the Old Man clamped his hand around the back of my neck and manhandled me back to his truck.  The cops handcuffed George and threw him like a sack of wet laundry on the back seat of their cruiser.

My father punched the accelerator as he put the truck in reverse and whipped the steering wheel.  I looked out the rear window as the cops loaded Nan and Lola into one of the patrol cars.  Lo still was staring at nothing.

That was the last time I ever saw her.

When we got home, Mom was crying.  She hugged me then pushed me away to sob in my face that Mrs. Mason had called and asked did my Mom know that I was hanging out in whorehouses.  And then she told Mom that she had called the cops about the whorehouse across the street and because I was about to be killed by a “nigger with a knife.”  

“What’s wrong with you?” Mom wailed.  I thought the swelling on my forehead and mouth and the blood on my chin and jacket made that pretty clear, but she didn’t see it that way.  “You have to work. You’re supposed to be an example to all your brothers and sisters.  You’re the oldest. How do you think this looks to them?  What do you have to say for yourself, James?”

“I think … I’m goin’ to bed.  G’night.”  

At which, my Old Man belted me in the back of the head.

I actually thought about swinging right back.  But what good would it do?  Nothing would change.  I’d still hurt, no doubt worse when he got done with me.  And Mom and the Old Man didn’t even realize the real trouble I was in.  How could I go back into the neighborhood after what had happened tonight?

I walked out of the living room into the kitchen.  I pulled some ice from the freezer and wrapped it in a dishtowel.  I turned on the faucet and let the water run until it was really cold.  I wet the towel and ice, put them to my mouth and closed myself in my chilly bedroom off the kitchen. 

A cop came to the house the next morning, Christmas Eve, and took a statement from me.  He said that this wasn’t Ollie’s “first time to the fair,” whatever that means.  Other witnesses confirmed Mrs. Mason’s story, so Ollie probably was going to be headed away for a few years, according to the cop.  I kind of felt bad for Mrs. Simpson, so I decided to give her the paper for free from now on, even without Ollie there to rob me. 

The detective said that since the yellow house was rented in Kat’s name, she was charged with solicitation and fostering prostitution and a bunch of other beefs.  It looked like she wasn’t going back to the neighborhood for a while either.

He said Miss Mastroianni, Miss Brown and her brother faced assault charges and were being held because they apparently they didn’t have anyplace to live anymore.  

That afternoon, the Old Man drove along with me on the route, slowly shadowing my steps in his pickup.  I didn’t want him around, the feeling of his eyes on me just made me angrier.  I just wanted to deliver the papers and get warm.  Whether that was at home or not didn’t matter.  Not anymore.

Even though there was no sign of the girls at the yellow house, I placed the folded newspaper in the vestibule just as I always had, leaning against the inner door.  Nobody had shoveled the snow and it still looked like a wrestling mat for fallen snow angels.  Nobody cared.  Why should we?  It was the way of the neighborhood. It was my way now, too.

I didn’t care at all.  The lesson didn’t take me too long to learn, or maybe it did.  When somebody puts their hand, their skin, themselves on you, it seems that it’s just to control you.  I wasn’t going to be controlled anymore.  It’s a hard lesson to learn, but it’ll keep you from being hurt too often.  One way or another.

I spotted some blood on the snow near the house’s yellow wall.  My blood.

Same color as the window, I thought.  I kicked some snow over it.

Lo’s shoe stuck out of a dirty pile of snow by the curb.  A dog had drilled a yellow-rimmed piss hole next to it. Same color as the house.  A fitting, final punctuation to my lesson.  

I kicked the shoe into Livingston and ditched the Old Man by walking home, alone, against traffic, on a one-way street.  

Alone. Felt kind of good.

Actually, I didn’t feel anything.

I’ll keep this story up only for a week or so. Sorry it’s so long. It’s always been meant to be the title and tent pole piece of a story collection based on men who have difficulty with intimacy. I revised it and added some more sensory detail, particularly smells, in response to the latest prompt from Canadian writer Sarah Salecky’s Six Week’s, Six Senses summer writing project. This is also one of my Albany stories, based on my hometown at various points in its history.

Keep the Change ~ 3rd Street, Albany, 1968

“Oh, it’s’a Friday already? Come in, come in,” Mrs Dargenti would say most weeks. The old Italian lady would invite me across her threshold and fish a buck and a half out of a gold-clasped change purse each week for her daily newspaper.

I can still smell the pungent bouquet of garlic, oregano, basil and olive oil, with a hint of what I’d someday learn was anise. From the living room walls, four generations of strangers, captured in First Communion piety or Wedding Day solemnity, intimately stared across the entry at me.

The living room furniture glistened under plastic coverings, preserved like Wednesday’s leftover lasagna, protected from time and tipped wine. I imagined everything inside was like it always had been, except now the sounds of Papa and the kids were replaced by the voices of Jerry Vale, Dominico Medugno and lonely sighs in italia.

Across the street in the three-story walk-up, six families lived (twelve, if you wanted to be accurate as a census), the hallways cloaked me in darkness while the air choked me in its closeness, redolent of boiled cabbage, piss, weed and something more felt than seen or smelled.

If anyone opened the doors to you, it’d usually be as far as the chain lock would allow. If that lock was off, you weren’t invited past the threshold.

“Whachoo want?” any resident younger than fifty would say if anyone even answered the door. I’d tell them I was collecting for the newspaper delivery. Inevitably, they’d say to come back later, tomorrow, next week, when no one would answer my knock.

But if Mrs. Symonds, the matriarch of the family answered, sometimes she’d open the door enough for me to see inside, where a dingy sheet covered the sagging sofa. A pair of mismatched sheets hung from curtain rods on the two front windows, providing a modicum of privacy from without.
Within, however, there was no such thing. Four rooms and a bathroom left little space to fit the grandmother, her son, her daughters and her daughters’ children.

If Mrs. Symonds paid, it would be apologetically for two of the four weeks she owed, and it would be with three crumpled singles she’d pull from her stained housecoat. I’d eat the balance of the other two weeks, cutting another three bucks into my earnings for the month.

I really didn’t want to go back into the building. The soundtrack from the other three flats, sometimes say James Brown and others maybe Marvin Gaye, never drowned out the backbeat of the looped percussive bang of my heart when I climbed to the second floor. Not after a guy I’d never seen before stepped out of the shadows by the stairs and cut a memory into my chest.

Later, when my connection to newspapers was to fill them with words instead of delivering them, I drove along my old paper route. There, the home that once preserved its past still stood. It now sported an out of character, unpainted front step of cast concrete, it’s aluminum railing canted to the left. Lengths of stained green vinyl siding sagged or flapped from its sides.

Across the street, a vacant lot stretched like a glass-strewn grave where the other house stood. If it was a fire or some stillborn plan for a new building that brought it down, I’ll never know.

The truth is, despite an effort to preserve some hazy, idealized past or merely survive the present, the future can be as cold as that thin blade, as hot as the desperation and anger crouched behind locked doors and beneath staircases and as inevitable as the fact you may be able to go home again, but home may not be there to greet you. Especially not with a buck and a half. Forget any ten-cent tip.

In retrospect, you can keep your change.

Don’t know why or from where I wrote this. Just started scribbling in pencil on a notebook page. Maybe Inspiration has run its course in my life. These days, it feels like that housecoat pocket of Mrs. Symonods.

Echoing Days on the Muhheahkunnuk

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The Cohoes Falls, frozen in winter.

As I count down these,
my dwindling days out here
in the country for old men,
I feel my life closing in
even though here the sky’s
so much wider and higher
than it was over the city.
Even with steely buildings
shouldering me on their
right-angle ways toward
this corner and that,
I always managed to escape
thoughts of fewer tomorrows
to the here and now
of the river the ancients
called Muhheahkunnuk.

We’d wander from the anchorage
at Beverwyck to the falls
of Cahohatatea, in concert,
rippling like an echo south,
then north then south again.
I forgot it’s tune here and now,
where the trees shoulder me
toward another sundown,
whispering and cracking
like these old bones. Can I
head back upstream to my life’s
chiming Cahohatatea, perhaps
to drift on new echoes of this
old journey? The we can back up
to push off again tomorrow.

Cahohatatea is the name for the waterfalls where the Mohawk River drops into the Muhheahkunnuk, the Mahican name for the Hudson. Since I retired, sometimes I think the thing I miss most about working in Albany–Beverwyck to its Dutch inhabitants–are my noontime walks along that historic “river that runs in two directions,” its waters pushed back upstream by the tidal flow from its mouth at Manhattan.

Sunrise, Sunset

Night view looking north up North Swan St. in Arbor Hill Feb, 1967, in Albany, N.Y. (Times Union archive)

Night view looking north up North Swan St. in Arbor Hill Feb, 1967, in Albany, N.Y. (Times Union archive)

Silhouetted by the yellow light of a single table lamp, its shade tipped and scorched, I didn’t recognize Mimi at first. In fact, I thought she was just another of the thousand or so domestics I’d interviewed in their quiet or hysterical moments after men had beaten the hell out of them.

When I sat across from her in what passed for her living room, dining room, and bedroom, I still wasn’t sure this was the girl who had been my daughter’s classmate from grade school and into high school. It had been nine years since I had last spoken to her. About the last time I had seen my daughter.

“Mr. Dinovo,” she said, a glimmer of hope flashing in her eyes at the sight of a once-familiar face. Just as quickly that look was snuffed by a sullen darkness, eyes downcast in an attitude of shame or secrecy. I’d seen that too many times over the past 25 years, as well. The difference with those girls was they hadn’t been to my daughter’s sleep-overs sixteen or seventeen times.

“Hi, Mimi. You doing okay?”

“Yessir.”

She now had assumed the tone of the accused, the tone I’d heard so often from the time I was a rookie right up to these days of leading murder investigations. No defiance, just vague false sincerity. Two words welded into one, implicit with the message: “Please leave me, please go away, please, I don’t want no trouble anymore.”

“OK, honey, have you been seen by the EMT, the fireman?”

“Yessir.”

“And you’ve been talked to by the officer; she explained your rights?”

“Yessir”

She turned away from me, the light now illuminating more of her face and my memories of recognition.

Mimi was a girl of exotic beauty in this dark and barren place. Even now, her skin was smooth and brown as a caramel apple, a face some men might dream to make art about. There were a few things beside the passage of time that kept her from the perfection of her teens. The first was the plain fact that she was a whore, a prostitute in a city where many could be declared such, but she, unfortunately, was one by definition.

Second, was that scar at the corner of her left eye that ran down and around her cheek, curving back toward where it came from. The track of a tear she decided to uncry, maybe. I had a feeling she’d cried her share.

“Lieutenant, do you want me to finish this interview?” The female uniform wasn’t used to detective lieutenants sitting with just another beat-up black girl in the Arbor Hill slums.

“That’s okay, officer, I can handle this.” I probably was a little sterner with the young woman than I should have been, but this wasn’t something I wanted somebody else to handle. This was something I was doing for my kid.

“Why don’t you tell me what happened tonight, Mimi?”

“Nothing, I just had a accident.”

“No you didn’t. Did your boyfriend Maurice hurt you, tear this place up?”

“No. I…I got high and I must have flipped out. I tripped on the lamp cord and fell.”

“High, huh? I smell a lot of smells around here, but none of them are weed.”

In addition to the usual aromas in apartment buildings like this one–that odor of boiled cabbage, urine, vestiges of The Joint, and I don’t mean marijuana–there was the tell-tale stench of a combination of burnt plastic and sugar. I didn’t need to see the crack pipe.

Mimi became my daughter Dawn’s friend in third grade. Her mother got her into the Catholic school Dawn attended after Mimi’s father was shot and killed in a convenience store holdup. Her mom did the best she could to support Mimi and her younger brother, Ervin, but they ended up moving to a neighborhood where the department used to send the rookies. Nobody else wanted to work there except the cowboys hoping to make a score in totals of arrests for themselves. That’s where I saw Mrs. Jenkins hanging on a street corner one night with other girls. I saw her a handful of times more and I figured out what was going on. After that, I told Dawn it might be a nice thing to invite Mimi for some sleepovers every once in a while.

“Where’s your family, hon? Can your mom look after you, anyone else?” I asked.

“My mom died four years ago. You know about Ervin.”

Mimi’s younger brother had been swept up in gangs at a young age. He was convicted of assault on a police officer and a couple of other beefs. Last year he was sent upstate to a facility deep in the Adirondacks. These were two good little kids who got sucked into a sociological whirlpool from which they could not escape. I was one of the caretakers that guarded a wall containing that eddy.

“I try to visit him, but I got no money and it’s a long trip by bus,” Mimi said.

“Is there anyone else who could put you up tonight?”

“I can take of myself.”

“Yeah, I see that.”

“County took my baby, you know.”

“I didn’t know you had a baby.”

“Little Maurice, yeah.”

She put her face in her hands and started to cry. As always, I was clueless about what to do in a case like this. I motioned the female officer over. I pulled out of the circle of yellow light and thought about how Dawn was taken from me.

As my career was moving along, I started drinking more than I should. I mean, you finish the second or third shift in this jungle around 11:00 o’clock and you can’t go right home. The day’s work stays with you awhile, keys you up. The feel and the smell of it stays with you. Eventually, I believed I couldn’t wash it off, so I washed it down.

I’d get home as the sun was coming up and I’d go to bed, hardly ever seeing Dawn until I woke up and she was coming home from school. And then I’d have to head to work with barely a peck on the cheek for her. Maybe not even that for her mother, Gail.

By the time Dawn was 13, I was a detective and her mother told me she’d had enough of being the lonely police widow, only without the benefit of my death. Gail was fed up with me being drunk and abusive whenever I was home. Arguments would start and a couple of times I even hit her. Sometimes right in front of Dawn. When she called the cops on me, I showed the officers my shield and all was forgiven, at least as far as the official record.

Gail knew she was in a no-win situation. To her, I was as much a criminal as the ones I was chasing and arresting. You spend enough time in the jungle, you can become an animal, too, if you allow it. Her choice was an easy one.

She bailed and took Dawn with her. I was so messed up, hurt, and angry, it was easy for her to get sole custody. It took me four years after that to get straight. It was either dry out or lose my job, which turned out seemed more important to me than a family. It was after that I began to try to make things right.

“Lieutenant, Ms. Jenkins wants to talk to you,” the young uniform said.

“What’s up, Mimi?”

“Mr. Dinovo, I’m tired. Can’t you all go and let me sleep?”

“Not until you tell me what happened, Mimi. I gotta make a report.”

I didn’t tell her to whom. I was tired, too. I was working day shift now and not used to being up all night anymore. I was a little more than three weeks from retirement, the start of a new life. I’d already scored a job as chief of security in a little college in South Carolina. I was determined to leave the jungle behind.

“Just tell me it was Maurice and we’ll call it a night.”

“No, you don’t know what he’s like. And I still love him. I just was bad, that’s all.”

“Look, Mimi, yeah, you’ve been bad, but you don’t deserve to be beat up like this.”

“Who asked you to come here, anyway? Was it that bitch daughter of yours?”

“Hey, knock that shit off. What if it was Dawn?”

Over the past few months, I had reconnected with Dawn. I still was trying to take care of all my twelve steps and the making amends part was the toughest. I don’t think Gail will ever forgive me, though I keep trying. I couldn’t find Dawn, though, and Gail wasn’t in any mood to help. Then, three months ago, Dawn called me. We’d exchanged emails and some phone conversations since then and I was hopeful of a continuing thaw, even though she said she couldn’t see me.

“She’s the reason you’re here? Shit, she’s the reason I’m here,” Mimi said.

“What the he’ll are you talking about?”

“Dawn got me hooked up with Maurice.”

I jumped up and pulled her around so she faced me.

“What do you mean?”

“Was Dawn got me with Maurice after he was done with her.”

“Done with her?”

“Was her boyfriend. It was while she ran away from her mom a few years ago.”

My heart sunk. How the hell could a police lieutenant, someone who reads every report every day, not know a teenage girl had run away? Where the hell was Gail? Why didn’t she tell me?

“Girl angry at everybody, just had enough and started hanging in this neighborhood. Had to get away from her mother. She’s a big drunk, you know.”

No, I didn’t know. Dawn hadn’t given me any idea of this.

“Anyway, bitch took a shine to my cousin’s boyfriend and stole him. She said she loved him and he loved her. He just used her, though, the crackhead bitch.”

“What are you saying?”

“She’d do anything to keep him happy, and for some free rock. She even turned some tricks for it. But, he…”

“That’s it, Mimi, cut this shit lying.”

“Ain’t lying. She nothing but a crack whore; no better than.…”

“Lying …”

“No. She got greedy, though. Started business for herself. Maurice found out and smacked her good. Serves her right. Bitch couldn’t even kill herself right. Found her beat up on the floor of my apartment one day, laying next to a puddle of puke, crying. Got a cab and sent her home to mommy, haven’t heard from her since.”

Gail never called me. Her hatred was too big, I guess.

My hatred had just been recharged, though. I knew what I had to do.

“Okay, Mimi, enough. I tried to help my daughter. Yeah, she called me. I don’t even know where from. Look, tomorrow an officer’s going to stop by here. You’d better be here, too. The officer is going to give you a bus ticket to Plattsburgh. She’ll give you an envelope with money in it. You’re going to take that bus and visit Ervin. I don’t want to see you around here for at least a month. I’m going to call the State Police troop captain up there and he’s going to make sure you’re set up for a while.”

“I ain’t leaving. I got to see Maurice or he’ll…”

“Oh, you’re going alright. And don’t you worry about Maurice. He won’t be following you. He’s going to be staying here.”

“You ain’t gonna hurt him, are you? Like I said, all this was my fault.”

“I don’t care whose fault any of this is. I’m just trying to tie up some loose ends before I retire. You were a good girl. Your mother tried her best for you, more than I ever did for Dawn. I owe it to both of them to set things straight,” I said.

“You don’t owe them nothing. Why don’t you just go away and leave everybody alone, just like you did before?”

I turned to the uniform.

“Officer, I want you to stay with Ms. Jenkins until your shift is over. I’ll see that you’re relieved. Make sure she cleans up this place and packs some things for a trip. She’s leaving town for a few days tomorrow.”

“I ain’t going. When Maurice hears about this ain’t nobody gonna be happy.”

“Enough! Maurice won’t care. Officer, take over.”

I stepped quickly out of the apartment. Outside, the air was cold and the eastern sky glowed pink above the tenements.

Red sky at morning, sailor take warning, I thought. Yeah, take warning.

By noon, I made sure that Mimi was headed north and the State Police would meet her at the bus station. I called in every chit I had up there to have her driven by a Trooper in a cruiser to the correctional facility. The Trooper would drive her back to the city later. When she got back, a city cop would see she got a place to stay and was kept busy for the next four weeks. I figured in Plattsburgh, she might just pick up her life where she left off. With luck, it would be some brighter part of her life before Maurice.

All day I coasted the neighborhood. Searching. I found him that night walking alone a couple of blocks from Mimi’s. Looked like he’d been searching, too. Too bad I found what I was looking for before he did.

I called Dawn that night to tell her I was leaving for South Carolina in a few days, burning some of my remaining vacation time rather than sticking around until my last day. I asked if I could see her before I left. She wasn’t sure if that was a good idea. Maybe she was right. Some things are hard to change.

It sounded like Dawn had changed, though. She asked me about Mimi and I told her she was going to be okay. That she was visiting her brother for awhile.

“What about Maurice, Daddy?”

“Looks like he’s gone, too, hon,” I said.

The other day, I got a call in my new condo from an old detective buddy in Albany. He said that Maurice Bidwell’s body was found by some vagrants under a pile of bricks next to a burned out vacant tenement.

“No shit. Any suspects?”

“Kinda,” he said. “He was shot in the head. Ballistics said it was a 22-caliber that had been used in a couple of robberies you investigated. Did you have any leads on who was the doer in those stick-ups? Anything?”

“You know? I always thought it was Maurice who was good for those. Couldn’t prove anything. Guess I was wrong.”

“Okay, thanks, Tony. Hey, how’s that soft new job going for you down there? We had our first snow here last night.”

I laughed.

“Well, Billy, tomorrow my daughter and granddaughter are coming down for a few weeks. Never even seen the little one before. And the weather? Let me just say I’m sitting here on my deck drinking a beer, watching the sun set. Red sky tonight. You connect the dots.”

This is one of my Albany stories. I write about Albany a lot, whether I identify it as such or not because it’s as much a part of me as my hand or heart. As part of my Story a Day challenge, I was tasked to write a story in which the setting is key. In Albany, historically there were two major underprivileged areas, The South End and Arbor Hill. Of the two, I know the latter more. I grew up next to it, delivered newspapers in the West Hill, on the edge of Arbor Hill. Things have improved there, but back in the late 60s and the 70s, it was very rough.

Urban in Our Nature

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Corner of State and Pearl Streets, circa 1912. My great grandfather walked a beat here, or so I’m told.

I remember gray spring days on Bradford Street every time rain goes beyond “threat” and before it hits “wet,” in that aroma its footsteps raise marching down Central Avenue to my stoop, a petrichor composed of raindrops and the pulverized concrete and dreams upon which generations built my Albany. I’m the panting beast who hears church bells in the peel of a beat up rubber basketball against a once-orange ring and its hanging chain netting on a heat-shimmering black top half court in Hoffman Park. I’m the guy who would whistle along with the birds every day at noon when the City Hall carillon played Happy Birthday—and I hate that song. But someone else walking these concrete trails needs celebrating, and I’m down with that. I’m the fourteen-year-old paperboy who met head-on the metastasizing disease of fear creep from places I was never allowed to go until it infected where I had nowhere left to. I am the old man who no longer is sure what an elm tree looks like, since Dutch Elm disease long since killed all the elms the Dutch planted in my city. I feel like an endangered species now myself, someone who, like his fathers before him, remembers the tough nature of growing up in an old city that turned even tougher in its kill-or-be-killed relative present. But do not let me hear you whine your big city insults about gingham dresses or Sears Roebuck suits. I’m an old wolf who survived the dark forest where the two rivers meet, and if anyone can bay about the place where Hendrick Hudson was punked back to one-day Manhattan, it won’t be you. I earned these scars from her sunlit streets and darkened hallways, these tears only we who have cradled in her crusty touch are shed for her dead and still dying history, this accent that is no accent to my pack’s ears give me the high ground to howl at her setting sun. And it hasn’t set yet, bub.

I write too long, these prose poems in which I swim (and usually sink) these days. This is one inspired by Robert Lee Brewer’s call for a poem (I hope this qualifies) with the title “Urban (blank).” My #6 for poem-a-day NaPoWriMo. I am a city boy and from a city I’ll bet is a hell of a lot older than most of yours on this side of the Atlantic. And while she makes me cry in her lost history, we still have a history together, my Albany and I.

You Can Observe a Lot Just by Watching

From where I sit in the parking lot,
I can’t tell if there’s a driver
in that black Mercedes over there
with the black-shaded windows, so
I’ve no way of knowing if he
noticed the broken glass he’s parked atop.
It’s tinted a bluish hue,somewhere
just south of cerulean, like a March baby’s
aquamarine,if you turn your head just so.

If that’s the case, he more than likely
isn’t noticing the brown-on-brown wren
over there picking seeds from the ironweed
ringing the flaked yellow painted
concrete block walls of this garage.
Chances are then, he missed the tossed
baby diaper, wrapped tight as
a chimichanga con mierda,
that’s bisected by sun and shadow.

He’s not sitting out here
humming to the harmonious whoosh
of the cars on their way west out of Albany,
or those few headed into town,
on this hot July Saturday at noon.
Oh, here he…no, she…comes from the back
of the tailor shop, big sunglasses
perched on her perfect and pert nose,
dark and secretive as her car windows.

And now there she goes, whooshing
away in a spray of blue glass,
grey gravel,
a frightened wren,
tiny seeds and a sun-faded,
smiling Elmo, Sesame Street diaper.
Pity.
She’ll never know what she missed.

On this enshrinement day at the Baseball Hall of Fame, just a little ways west of here in Cooperstown, I’m put in mind of old Yogi, the great Yankee Hall of Famer and blue-collar philosopher Lawrence Peter Berra. He’s quoted as saying, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” I guess I kind of proved that yesterday.

April 26, 1865 (Do They Remember?)

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The Lincoln funeral procession passes through downtown Albany on April 26, 1865

I wonder how many of them
here on this dark day remembered
the President’s last visit to the city?
Do they know the actor was in town
that day, too? Do they know
that each performed that night?
The President, to grumbles and chides,
in the Capitol and Governor’s house,
and the Actor, to bouquets and accolades,
on the boards of the Gayety on Green Street.

Do they recall the weapons flashing
through their tears on this second visit?
How that first crowd, raucous and angry,
had to be clubbed back by the butts
of soldiers’ muskets that soon would
spit fire in the gleam of southern battle?
Do they remember the actor, handsome
and passionate, appearing in The Apostate,
had fallen upon the Albany stage and
pierced his own chest with a dagger?
Do they wonder what if?

The crowd now weeps as the casket
rolls by on this street where men both
slept that night and one now sleeps
for all time. A moan follows the casket
along Broadway and up State as if riding
the swags of black crepe where once
stripes and stars directed a course
from this city on the Hudson to a nation on fire,
where two lives crossed paths once,
then again on the way back to Springfield.

Poem #23 of NaPoWriMo. Writers Digest was looking for a history poem and I recalled what happened in my home town almost exactly 150 years ago today…President Abraham Lincoln’s casket came through town on its way back to Springfield, Illinois. Being a bit of a history buff, I recalled some coincidences of the President’s first visit to Albany on February 18, 1861. I wondered if any of the people lining the street as the casket passed wondered the same things I did. This long piece poses those questions for which we have no answers.