Cheating. Death.

Source: Dreamstime

Edmund Deane pulled his Subaru up to the figure in the gray hoodie and baggie jeans hitchhiking on Rte. 9 and thought how you didn’t see much of that anymore.

“Where ya headed?” he asked when he rolled down the window.

“North,” came the faint reply. 

Now, Edmund didn’t like surprises when driving the back way through the Adirondacks, but the surprise of that voice and the face shrouded within that hood was one he felt he really didn’t need. They belonged to a pretty girl of no more than 18. And as Edmund was about to say he was heading west (Which he wasn’t; he just didn’t need some possibly underage girl in his car alone.), she opened the door and took a seat.

“Thanks, mister. I just gotta get as many miles as I can outta this shit hole before dark,” she said as she put her backpack between her feet.

“Um, okay. Any particular area you want to end up?”

“Plattsburgh, Montreal. At this point I’m in no position to be choosy,” she said, smiling an endearing but practiced smile.

“I can take you as far as Plattsburgh,” Edmund said. “After that, you’re on your own.” She twisted in the seat and looked back over her shoulder as the Subaru maneuvered through an S in the roadway.

“That’d be great.”

After that, she was silent, save for a “hmmm,” “yup,” or “nope.” Edmund guessed he just asked the wrong questions.

Finally, just south of Elizabethtown, the girl turned to him, pointed at his ring and said, “You ever cheat on your wife?” 

“What?!”

“Cheat, roam, cast your seed in distant fields, break your marital vows’s ’til death do us part’ part.”

“I don’t see as that’s anybody’s business but mine. And my wife’s, of course.”

“So should I take that non-denial as a Yes?” she said, studying Edmund’s eyes.

“Look, I’m doing you a favor here, and you haven’t exactly been conversational, let alone forthcoming, for the past forty miles,” he said.

“I kinda thought that’s what I’m doing. Starting a conversation.”

“One would usually expect to talk about the weather or the Yankees or where they’re from or school in a situation like this.”

“I have no control over the weather, I don’t like sports, I haven’t had a home in four years and I don’t go to school.”

“I see. Well, what is it you do then?”

“Fuck,” she said as matter-of-fact as she would, “I’m a checkout girl at Price Chopper.”

“Excuse me?” Edmund could feel his face redden and stomach tighten.

“You know, screw. For money. Though not enough around here. That’s why I’m headed north. To some cities where the markets and demand for my service might be stronger.”

“I see. Aren’t you a little young for such…”

“Are you shitting me? Don’t you read the papers? Listen to the news? I’m almost over the hill for what most of these bastards want these days. So I gotta strike while the iron, among other things, is still hot.”

“I see,” Edmund said. 

“By the way, Allysin.”

“Excuse me?”

“My name. Allysin. You never asked.”

“Thank you. I’d prefer that line of discourse rather than the preceding uncomfortable talk.”

“That’s not my real name, of course.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s my, shall we say, ‘stage name.’ I spell it A-L-L-Y-S-I-N. Get it? Ally’s Sin. Cute, huh?”

“Just darling,” Edmund said. 

“You never did answer my question, umm… Shit, you never gave me your name, either,” Allysin said.

“Edmund,” he said.

“Really?” she said with a laugh. “You go by Edmund?”

“It’s my name.” Now Edmund’s discomfort was nudging into annoyance. He thought about pulling over and tossing her the hell out near Deerhead.

“Well, Eddie, you still haven’t told me me yes or no about stepping out on the little woman,” she said.

“My wife’s dead. ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” he said, thinking the roadside here looked like as good a spot as any.

“Sorry, man. That’s rough. I understand those poor folks can just lay there and linger for quite a while.”

“She did.”

“So is that when you cheated?”

“That’s it.” Edmund said, pulling the car off to the side of the road and screeching to a stop. “Get the hell out of my car.”

“Okay. Okay. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. I just like to know more about the male mind. After all these years, it’s still tossing me some riddles I can’t answer. I got a lot to learn. It’s why I had to get out of town so fast back down there.”

“You certainly do have a lot to learn, young lady,” Edmund said, his pulse thumping in his temples.

“Really, I’m sorry. The Life tends to deaden a girl’s feelings for others sometimes. Since all anyone wants from you, on a good day, is what passes for lovin’. You could say your name was Beyoncé, or even be her for that matter, and they wouldn’t give a shit. They just want to get their rocks off. So, while I’m giving them a fair performance, I’m more than likely also thinking about what I’ll have for breakfast at the all-night diner,” Allysin said.

“But that doesn’t give you any right to hurt or insult people you don’t even know. I’m trying to remember my wife when we were young and she was a beautiful, vibrant girl. I don’t need your help in remembering the ugly parts of her last days.”

“Sorry, Edmund. Okay, I’ll get out here. I may not make it to Plattsburgh by dark now, but I’ve been in worst pinches. So, I’ll just leave you and …shit. Is that fucking snow?”

Sure enough, the first flakes of a snowfall rolling down the Champlain Valley settled on the hood and windshield of Edmund’s car and transformed into tiny puddles.

“Damn it. I wanted to be in town before the snow hit,” Edmund said. “I can’t just leave you out here in the middle of a snowstorm. Close the door, Allysin. I’ll get you to Plattsburgh, but that’s it. And no more questions.”

“Sure, Eddie. I owe you a solid, man. I’ve got a few bucks here you can have for some gas.”

“No. I was going this way anyway. You were just going to be a good deed I could do on a crap weather day in the North Country. You looked pretty forlorn there by the side of the road,” Edmund said.

“Well, I was,” Allysin said.

“Yes, you were. How’d you ever end up in this situation anyway?”

“I thought you said no questions.”

“You’re right. None of my business. Sorry. Radio silence from now on. Besides, this snow’s getting heavy and I should keep my mind on the driving,” Edmund said. 

“Nah, it’s no surprising story. Had a mother who drugged herself to death and a drunk ol’ grandma. Each of them had slimeball boyfriends, if you could call the motherfuckers boys. And, depending on the day and the amount of intoxicant they were havin’, I was either in the way or their idea of a guest towel,” Allysin said.

Now it was Edmund’s turn to “hmmm,” “yup,” or “nope.” 

The snowflakes were getting larger, clinging to one another. That combination of their size and the speed of Edmund’s car made them hit the windshield with a constant patter of dull splats. A sign said I-87, the main highway between Albany and the Canadian border was only two miles ahead.

“I think it would be a good idea if we left this road and got onto the Northway. They take care of that better in the snow the nearer we get to Plattsburgh,” Edmund said.

“Sure, Edmund. Quicker you get there, the sooner you’ll be rid of me,” Allysin said.

“Oh, I guess you’re not that bad a traveling companion, Allysin,” Edmund said. “You’ve had it rough. Too much hard life for someone so young. Like I said, I just didn’t need to be reminded of…that time.”

“Sure, Eddie.”

As Edmund pulled onto the main highway, twilight had pulled the curtains on that Thursday. The storm had taken care of the blinds. The headlights of the southbound vehicles glared brightly into northbound lanes of traffic.

“Wasn’t expecting it to get this bad this fast,” Edmund said.

“Well just keep the tires and your eyes on the road, man,” Allysin replied, her voice a little higher pitched, sounding more like the teenager she was than the woman she’d become.

From behind, a speeding Kenworth’s white-hot halogen lamps filled the interior of the Subaru with a harsh daylight, starling Edmund and Allysin.

And as the sliding semi bumped the back end of the car, they each looked at one another and, for a moment, Edmund saw Jill Bentley from work on that late night they had sex under a light in his office building’s empty parking lot.

Allysin looked and wondered if this is what her dad might look like had her mother not been such a party girl she knew who her little Alicia’s father really was. 

Edmund saw the light reflected in Allysin’s eyes and for the first time realized they were flecked with gold, just the way his Susan’s were. How they read his eyes from a face and body unmoving while a machine gasped air out and coughed air into her lungs. Those gold-flecked eyes he couldn’t look at for long because he knew she couldn’t know, yet was certain she did.

And Allysin blinked and saw Boomer Grandjean about to hit her again and again, just like he always did when he’d had a day’s worth of Spice. Okay, and whenever she cheated him on some of his cut of her take. The way Edmund’s eyes grew so large were just like Boomer’s after she’d stuck him four times in the chest that morning.

The Kenworth blew past them going about 80, swerving a little too and fro, while Edmund tried slowing the Subaru and his heart. With a sigh, they each knew they had cheated death at that moment. The truck had kicked up a cloud of white which now surrounded them like they were flying through a cloud, a whiteout illuminated in Edmund’s headlights.

Allysin grasped the dashboard and said, “Sweet, Jesus! I half expected I’d be seeing angels in this stuff a few seconds ago.” 

Edmund reached over and placed his hand on Allysin’s, taking his eye’s off the road for a second. In that moment, though, the trailer appeared out of the snow in front of them, jackknifed, ninety degrees to the roadway. 

And that was that. Two people, each cheaters in their own way, had cheated death together. Maybe Death has a moral code, though, recognizing there should be some kind of penance for such sins. Or maybe Death is a vindictive bitch who does not stand for being cheated at its own game. Ultimately, Death always wins.

First story-ish thing in a long time. This was supposed to be a response to writer Cara Michaels’ weekly Menage Monday feature. I was to write a flash fiction piece of no more than 250 words using three prompts: That photo up there, the phrase “can’t cheat death,” and the premise of a road trip. As you may know, I’ve been struggling lately with my creative life, so I just jumped in and kept writing until I thought I was done. I’m not, but this is as far as I’ll go with this first draft.

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The Struggle Continues

I think of you too much and not enough,
these days and nights since you left me behind.
The “thinking” is something that feels so rough,
while the “not” just makes me feel so unkind.

But kindness is like beauty to a beholder,
and beholders can wear glasses of rose.
My flaw was choosing when to be bolder,
but too often instead of choosing I froze.

That’s how I lost what was a thing unique,
and now I know it’s more than that I’ve wasted.
But this is what comes from being so meek,
not daring to take Prufrock’s peach and taste it.

So today I just sit here and fritter
instead of sharing some time, just you and Joe.
If I’d spoken up would I still be bitter?
Perhaps, but I didn’t, so we’ll never know.

But I like to think this poem you’re reading,
and it’s collecting some transcendent due.
Someday, again we’ll share two souls beating,
since just one heart’s left whole instead of two.

This is such a struggle. The writing, the creating, the imagining, they’ve all gone away it seems. Too long under the pall of my losses. Even though one’s now somewhat mitigated. But I keep trying. If I can’t keep lit that old candle, maybe I can strike a spark and start a wildfire with the dry leavings of what once was so verdant and alive.

Cold Day in Hell

 

So many times I’ve tried to forget
and grew angry when I couldn’t.
Other times I wanted to get angry
but forgot how. They’re all
tiring and tiresome
wastes of time and what little spark
I can stir to heat the teakettle
of each new day to steaming.
Most days I barely hit a simmer.
But you always seemed to have
your emotional flamethrower primed
to incinerate that lifetime supply
of kindling you’ve kept seasoning
on the back porch of your soul.
I can’t recall which is worse,
to burn down your own house
or freeze within.
Guess we’ll never know.

The Winter Artist

Photo © Joseph Hesch, 2011

The day opened with so much
of my little world wearing
a white gesso, waiting
for men to paint their marks
upon the pristine scene.
With the huff of their grunts
hanging frozen in the air
if only for a second,
with the chuff of their shovels
opening a wrinkle in the unsullied,
with their blowers snorting smoke
and throwing the fallen pieces
back toward the gray sky,
only to see them descend again
as Nature, with great gravity,
laughs at their puny efforts.
Then along come the plows,
with their dead, unblinking eyes
lighting the way, to gouge the skin of winter,
wide channels of black and brown,
made worse by throwing salt into its wounds.

But out back, no shovel,
nor agent of man’s need
to improve Nature by sullying
its beauty, has left its scar.
It’s too cold even for the deer
to place their punctuation
on the virgin page.
Perhaps tomorrow, the crows will be
the first to write Nature’s script
as they drop in twos upon the snow,
quotation marks for the Winter artist
who prefers to paint in one color,
whistle and hum a tuneless tune,
and speak loud without saying a word.

Never Again

Passchendaele

They say it rained fire and steel
for days at the Marne,
where forests melted from your sight
if you were crazy enough to lift
your head above the trench line.
For to do so was to risk a messy death.

History tells me some British soldiers,
Tommies they were called, sunk without
hope of rescue into murderous mud holes
during the forever rain of Passchendaele. Or,
if they were lucky, one of their mates would
shoot them first before they went under.

You know, of course, while generals pondered
their strategies of bleeding out
the other side of its youth over months
of shelling, or deciding when to send more
into the Hindenburg Line meant grinder,
thousands still lost limbs, minds and lives.

I know for a fact that flyers who climbed
skyward in crates of wood and canvas,
did so without parachutes. To survive
another day was less important than trying
to save a burning airplane, which,
they were told, had more value than they did.

This happened only a century ago,
after which most who ever felt the whiz
of bullets pass their faces, smelled the gas
that killed and the stench of the killed,
who saw friends turned to pulp
before their eyes, said “Never again.”

They said such a war was too terrible
to repeat for King and Country, for ideology,
for gains on a balance sheet or a map.
It wasn’t worth repeating that horror. Many tried.
All failed. Yet they called it The Great War.
But they aren’t, not even if you “win.”

They’re Hell.

I’m pretty sick right now. Flu, depression, and a mind that never stops yet can’t bring forth anything with meaning, even to myself. Yet, as a student of history, I felt moved today to write something about the end of the First World War, where mankind saw death and carnage on a super-industrial scale. I wish I could write more, about how the war bled out nations on so many scales. Who it Ended nations. How it began others. But, ultimately, war is about people. The men and women who served, fought and died in Belgium, France, Italy, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere deserve better than they’re getting. It’s been one hundred years since the War to End All Wars ended and some of us don’t know, don’t care or don’t care to know or do anything about it. His loss.

Never Again

I often find it fitting,
on the day after my birthday,
that the skies are gray,
gray enough to match my mood.
It’s not that I lament
yet another year passed
of what ever-dwindling,
shabby grab-bag few circles
the fates have left for me
like pieces of day-old cake.
No, I’ll admit preferring
the dark clouds, even rain,
so the heavens would not
remind me even more of the sky
I marveled at on that day-after.
It just seems more apropos
to shroud the sky, since the sight
of that endless September
Carolina Blue hue will forever
be shattered in my memory
by streamers of smoke,
ghastly blasts of flame and
sights I’d prefer to recall in
a dimmer light, but will full-lit.
And whenever on this date I lament
my piddling old aches and regrets,
I yank my head out of those clouds
and give thanks for whatever light
by which I see this day-after,
when others will not. And so many
never will again. Never again.

Just because.

…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.