We lived in a two-and-a-half bedroom apartment a block west of the housing project. There was no walking through the ghetto east and south of us, so the shortest way to the university’s east campus was north, then east, then south. Straight east the unknown could slow you down.
I walked Anne to school as part of the agreement that let me stay in the half-bedroom—my share of the utilities, some cookin’ and cleanin’, and Anne. I guess she never had a man take care of her before—that was probably why she fell in love with me. She had held men’s arms as she walked, and she already knew all about men’s arms when she held mine, but she was interested in the other parts.
There really wasn’t a whole lot to do. Mostly, I had to make sure that she got to and from school okay, so we walked north, then east, then south every day, her cane clicking to a rhythm that fit my steps.
Debbie didn’t trust me at first. She and Anne both came from downstate and the idea of living with a twenty-five year old man in their junior year of college would have been tantamount to prostitution to their parents—if they ever found out. I guess it was the proximity of the housing project with only the long way around it that finally sealed the deal. That, and the fact that I had just gotten out of the military two years ago made my extra five years not count. There’s more respect for that kind of thing in small towns.
Stationed in Okinawa almost the whole time, if the extra five years made me any different, it was by keeping part of me the same. Perpetually eighteen, I couldn’t get enough of women. I tried to hide it, but somehow they always knew right away. My friends who weren’t Marines said it was the way that I stared, ogling them with eyes like impotent bullets. At least I was honest, not like the college boys who looked away, fearful of rejection. Once you know real fear, what’s a twenty-year old girl gonna bring? Dismiss away. After you’re stripped down to the core, bullshit just rolls off your back.
Debbie understood, she knew her power, because nothing is as easy to ignore as a sure thing. That’s probably why she let me stay there, because after I looked at her, she was sure she had me in line with the rest of the boys that waited at her door. I don’t say a whole lot either, so she must have figured I was just dumb.
My room was like an extended closet, though it had a window, which I couldn’t do without. Light in the morning or else there’ll be darkness all day. The rest didn’t matter as much. I slept on a futon mattress, which took up nearly the whole room. In the corner, I screwed a pull-up bar into the studs in the wall—it doubled as a hanging rack for my work-clothes. The other clothes I kept folded on the floor, next to my meds.
At night, I’d hear the rats gnawing at the walls, scuttlin’ about in the apartment above.
“Did you hear that dog again last night?” Debbie would ask.
“Yeah,” I’d say, but I knew it wasn’t no dog, I just didn’t wanna upset her. “Maybe that’s angels makin’ all that noise,” I’d say.
The whole thing was lucky—me livin’ there for free, workin’ down the block as a valet at Josephina’s, gettin’ free drinks from Jody the bartender—and those weren’t even the best parts. The best parts, I thought, were Debbie’s.
My room faced the old kitchen with its broken tile floor and leaking water heater, right next to the bathroom. Convenient, however—no heat vent—so I kept the door open to catch heat from the old rust-browned furnace in the kitchen. Actually, the cold didn’t bother me, but sometimes Debbie would come out of the shower, wearing nothin’ but a towel, and sit at the kitchen table. We’d talk like that, her in the kitchen, me in my room, all casual like it was nothin’. I hadn’t been with a woman since Okinawa. I’d look at them, but that was it. It still didn’t feel right. So she’d sit there and cross and uncross her legs and talk to me about nothin’ while I sat paralyzed, tryin’ to look up her towel. When she felt I’d had enough, she’d get up all quick, like she’d caught a chill, and holdin’ the towel over her chest, power-walk to her room. I’d close the door then, and think of her, how the whole time she had this smile on her face like she was mockin’ me, which was all right—she could mock me all she wanted as long as she let me watch. It was a fair deal; we both got something out of it.
After I moved in I didn’t wake up crying as often, but this time Anne musta’ heard me ’cause she comes in my room, sits next to me, strokes my hair, and asks what’s wrong.
I mumble something about how we were there to “Restore Hope,” Mogadishu, Somalia.
“’The Mog,’” I say, “Nearly five years in Okinawa and less than a week in the Mog. Everything else is just bullshit. That’s the sum of my life.”
She just pats my head.
The route measured one and a quarter miles, the straight way would have been under one. Even the long way I coulda’ run it in five minutes, but with Anne it took a half-hour. I didn’t mind it, cause’ though I don’t say much, she talked the whole time, and the way she held my arm was like a gust of air—no one ever touched me so light.
“You’re so quiet Georgie,” she’d say and I would just shrug.
She always called me Georgie.
“Why are you so quiet?”
“Don’t have much to say I guess.”
“I don’t think that’s it,” she’d say and squeeze my arm.
We always walked past the same little rock garden in front of the same bungalow. Wasn’t really a garden, just a patch of land with a pile of quartz, but the little plot was so bright it glowed. The owner had put up a sign right in the middle of it that said, “Don’t let your dog piss on the rocks. You wouldn’t like it if we did it to you?”
It always made me laugh, how the second part was like a question, yet it wasn’t a question. Even when they were askin’ strangers for favors, they had to be rude. I told Anne about it the first time I saw the sign, and ever after that when we passed by, she wouldn’t say nothin’, she’d just giggle with me.
The way back I’d run straight through the ghetto, past Our Lady of the Flaming Sepulcher, to the little park with a bean-shaped track, two blocks away from the apartment. I’d lap it for a while, until the dog-walkers came out, greeting me with their Howyoudoin’-Chicago-Italian. The old timers were real friendly here, like in my old neighborhood on the far Southside. I’d sit with them on the north benches and listen to them talk about dogs and real-estate and the weather. South across the park, the brick tenements of the Abla homes rose in front of us, vapor puffing up from the busted manholes and cracks in the pavement. Like the whole housing project smoked, sickening the people inside. The dog-walkers feared that cancer, but they didn’t speak about it ’til they sat on the bench with me three or four times and complained about other things. Then they “knew me.”
One time, I was runnin’ through the park, and as I lapped Alighieri Street, three of these guys stepped out of the project and walked over to the track, blockin’ the way in front of me. Just kids really, dressed all ghetto in their baggy pants and hats and ghetto-gear. I cut around them, expecting a fist to the back of the head but they just laughed and yelled out, “Run Forest, run!”
Then, another time, when I was running through the project I see the same three guys messin’ around with some B-ball, shootin’ crips, and one of them’s like, “Check out Forest,” so I stopped. I’ve got a mean outside shot and I’m quick, so we shot some baskets and then got to playin’ more serious. They never said nothin’ about how I was white, except for a few jokes here and there—but it was all about the game.
Sometimes, they’d sit around in a circle and get to talkin’ all hard about how they’ve got all the bitches and how everyone gots to pay them their respect. Brag about all the people they killed, all the money they make. But that was just talk. Mostly we played B-ball.
That’s how I became the only white guy to play ball in the projects. Later, there were others, but I was the first that I know of. To be fair, these were nice projects as projects go. They were nothin’ like Cabrini or the Taylor homes. They weren’t even as bad as they used to be back in the early nineties. Most of the residents were old and the condos were already movin’ in. On Taylor Street, businesses rose up like fresh baked ciabattas. I guess people were getting used to seein’ each other—their worlds were getting’ close, ready to crash. But not yet—we were still walkin’ around each other—North then East then South.
One night at Josephina’s, I was sittin’ at the bar after work sippin’ on my free Patron, when these two cops came up to the bar, dressed like civilians. I knew they were cops ’cause I’d seen them walkin’ up and down Taylor street in the day. One a’ them was an older fat guy, Irish-lookin’, with grey hair. He moved slow, like he knew the world would get outta his way, and talked like he’d been chewing beef jerky all day, all slurpy, whistling his “s”s. Behind him, the lady-cop swaggerin’ in was in her thirties, a little thick at the haunches, with a look on her face like she just ate a shit and metal sandwich.
They came up next to me at the bar and the guy saluted Jody with a, “How you doin’ Captain?”
Fuckin’ “howyoudoins”, fuckin’ “Captain”.
I was gonna take off then, just down my drink and go upstairs, but the guy howyoudoined me and went on to buy a round for everyone at the bar. There was only me and this other guy Mikey, who was already halfway into a bottle of Jameson and hopped up on enough coke that he couldn’t look you straight in the eye without shakin’. Still, it was generous. So I sat there and listened to him tell stories about the local vagrants and how they’d pull ’em off the streets and drive ’em all the fuck across town to find their own way back.
Phil, the fat cop said, “The businesses are doin’ real good now, dey don’ want none of this riff-raff bullshit beggin’, upsettin’ customers. So you know the one deformed-lookin’ guy, calls his self Wild Willy, the one wid the dent in his head. I don’t know how many times I trew him outa restaurants here, I even took the time to reason with him, explain him how things is. ‘Don’t go in the businesses—walk around!’ But he don’t listen. Real name’s Francis Williams, lives with his mother in the projects here. He’s all right except that he smells,” and then he whispered “like shit” and chuckled.
He went on, “If he gets excited, then he starts breakin’ things all out a’ control, like he’s off his meds. Yeah, so we picked him up here at the coffee shop down the street and trew him in the back a’ the Paddy wagon. We had to make a run south so we drove ’im down to Chicago Heights, you know, over by der, and let him make his way home on foot.” He laughed and whispered like he did before, “Fucken’ thiry-two miles.”
Jody broke out in laughter, fake and real, ’cause with him it’s like that—he laughs fake until it becomes real, and he don’t want to give up on a good joke, so even if it was real once, and it became fake, he’d still be laughin’. Get’s to where you can’t tell which it is—that’s ’cause it’s both.
He turned to me, like he was trying to take some of the attention away from him.
“Yah hear that George?” he said, then turnin’ to the cop, “Phil, you meet George?”
We shook hands and he gave me a modest grip and a level look—he didn’t have to grip any harder.
The Lady-cop eyeballed me and joined me at the bar. The drink musta not gone down slow enough, so she had to order herself that night’s special—whatever she wanted.
“Kettle,” she said, “no rocks.”
She didn’t say a word to me—Southside girls are like that—they don’t start conversations with strangers, that’s what priests and bartenders are for. After they talk to you like three, four times, then they “know you.”
“Suz,” Jody said, “you meet George.”
She gripped me with all she had.
“Sue,” she said.
We finished our drinks at the same time, and she still hadn’t said a word to me, so I got up to go.
“Leavin’ so fast?” she asked.
“Yeah, my shift’s over.”
“You work here?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well then how come I haven’t seen you before? You from the neighborhood?”
“No, I just moved in. Got outa the military, been bouncin’ around, you know how it is…”
She nodded her head like she did.
“You’re a police officer right?” I asked—almost said cop too but caught myself—you never know, some of ’em don’t like that.
“Howd’you know?” she asked, pulling her elbows back so that I could see the gun strap peerin’ out from behind her blazer. She had a wicked smile.
“I’ve seen the two of you around here.”
“Well come on up and say hello the next time, now that I know who you are.”
She smiled and patted my hand, “Think of me as a surrogate mom—I always take care of my boys.”
Two drinks came—another Kettle for her and a Patron my way.
Jody winked at me and said to Sue, “Now why would a beautiful lady such as yourself talk to this guy?”
She brought her hand to her chest like he took her breath away.
“Listen to this one—beautiful lady—you a real player—I’m like a mother to you Jody—talkin’ to me that way. . . . Maybe I should handcuff you?”
She turned to me then.
“Whaddaya think?” she asked, “Is he a player or what?”
“He’s more of a dabbler then a player,” I said.
“He won’t seal the deal—you know, like a player. He just sets up situations and backs out of ’em. That’s why he’s such a good bartender.”
Jody bowed with a smile and took off to the other side of the bar to look busy.
She talked to me then, opened up all soft, tellin’ me all about Jody and how she knew him for years. How he’s got so much goin’ on, soon to open his own bar, how he’s a real entrepreneur and that she’s just so proud of him. She talked about how she was a classy broad and wouldn’t expect nothing less from the men in her life, how nice it was seein’ the kids grow up, like they’re her own children. I warmed up to her, though as soon as I got too comfortable, Bam! the spikes came out.
“Fucken monkeys,” she said about the projects, “livin’ like that.”
“Kissyface,” she said, “it was just a little kissyface, nothin’ serious,” shakin’ her head over to Phil.
“Whorrin’ around,” she said, “that slut fuckin’ everyone in the department. When she’s not in uniform I won’t even look at her.”
“Kissyface,” she said again, shaking her head, her eyes wide open, “just kissyface.”
“You can’t take a left there,” she said, “that’s Niggertown.”
Slurring now, “It’s all right, I don’t need no man tellin’ me nothin’. I have a house in Beverly now—all for me. No one’s gonna tell me how to live my life.”
Sometimes her face would get so hard, like a death mask—or like these theater costumes I saw in Okinawa called Kabuki masks—inhuman like—like they were built to show only rage and stubbornness. And man did she drink. You can drown in liquor—it just takes a glass and some dedication—the drinks they play with you, a sloppy little game. This one played with her drinks like she was trying to drown them, and she was winnin’.
“George,” she said, getting up from the bar. “It’s good to talk to you.”
I got up too, following her, because now that we were up, I could make my way to the door. She stepped and slipped forward, catching herself on my shoulders.
“Oh,” she said, and giggled.
Her hands came down around me and she held me round my chest, her breasts pressing against me like she was rollin’ dough.
“It’s so good to feel a man,” she whispered into my ear, desperately exhaling the words as if they were there all night and she could only get them out now.
I felt the panic rise, the nausea, the irresistible need to get out of there that instant. Still I was fascinated and held her for a minute, my face turned sharply to the side so that our lips could not meet, giving her the moment. We separated and she turned around, not sayin’ a word, and staggered over to the bar where drunk Mikey sat, fidgetin’, deep into his Jameson. I had to catch my breath, cause I was sick now, somethin’ about my meds, the drinks, and Sue’s arms didn’t sit well with my stomach. A few minutes and I made it to the door, where Sue was holdin’ Mikey, and as I passed them, I heard her exhale, “It’s so good to feel a man.”
I come home and Debbie’s all over the place, hysterical, with a knife in her hand. Anne’s locked up in her room, so I’m thinkin’ there’s some shit goin’ down, but turns out they just got a rat trapped in the bathroom. Still sick from drink and Sue’s arms, I put on my combat boots and tell Debbie to get me a mop. She’s quick to the fetch—takes me seriously, but I can’t appreciate it, I just want to get in the bathroom—I feel it comin’ on. The tile’s all broken in there, and I wonder how much damage there will be and if I can do it in time, but then I just open the door and close it behind me.
In the corner between the dirty porcelain tub and the west wall, it sits in a crouch, small and brown, nothing like the ferocious posters that you see in all the alleys. Another step and it squeaks like bloody murder, running to the next corner, and then the next, around and around me, north then east then south. The door creaks open and Debbie peeks through the crack. Anne stands behind her.
“Close the fucking door!” I yell, “You don’t want it to get out.”
She comes in and slams the door shut. I guess with me there, she’s not so hysterical. She watches me, trusting, and I will do it, I will because she depends on me now. And I am sick, and it is almost on me.
One jab with the mop, and I got him pressed down. The yellow sponge holds the back of his body and he squirms until I have him only by the tail. The heel of my boot comes down on his head, my throat is so dry, the convulsions begin. Debbie screams, like a teakettle coming to a weak boil. The door opens, but I’m not there. Lean in, the weight of my body focused on the heel with a bounce, once, twice until I feel the crack. Rat-stompin’, and I throw down the broom and drop to the other porcelain, heaving everything out, I vomit, through spasms. My sweat turns cold and I shake, spitting yellow bile, and darker, scarlet things, things that I could not have drank.
When I feel it coming on, usually, I put on music real loud and do it quietly. It takes a while with me, like my body ain’t done ’til it bled itself free of the evil. It goes beyond where I have nothing left, until all I do is shake and wretch and convulse on the floor. But this time there are hands around my head, propping my neck up in the air, so light that it’s like I’m holding it up all by myself and the spasms stop. I know those hands, and I turn around to see Anne’s face looking down without seeing, holding me as she whispers, “That’s all right Georgie, you’re gonna be all right.”
They think that I got sick because of the rat, because I couldn’t stand killin’ it, because I’m gentle. I scoop it up into a dustpan and throw it in the trash, then I take a long shower. When I come out, Debbie is sittin’ on my bed. This time I’m the one in the towel.
“Thank you so much,” she says.
“Don’t worry about it, I’ve had to stomp a lot of rats in my life.”
I sit down next to her.
“How’d you get that?” she asks, pointing to the scars across my abdomen.
“That’s where the shrapnel hit me from a Skinnie’s hand frag—over in the Mog.”
She scrunches up her face. Maybe she doesn’t know what I’m talkin’ about, but I don’t want to explain.
“Came close,” she says, touching the jagged ridge of skin below my navel.
“You’re pretty lucky.”
I think of saying, “It’s not like I use it,” but it would sound too pathetic.
“I still can’t . . . you know,” I say.
“What do you mean, I thought it missed?”
“It did. I mean, there’s no physical damage, but it just won’t work.”
“Can I see?” she asks.
I let the towel fall open.
“Looks normal,” she says.
She takes me in her hand and rubs with her fingers and we sit there like that.
“It really won’t work?” she asks.
“Maybe it just needs a little help.”
She pulls her shirt over her head and pushes out of her jeans. In a second, we’re naked on the bed, and she takes me back in her hand. She wants it to work. I am responsible, I answer for my failings, I have to do something.
Her body feels so alive, like it breathes, her skin inhales me, and I pass over it, like hallowed ground. Expelled from heaven, cast out from grace, what is left but to worship? And so I adore her and venerate her and she is my prayer. She whispers my name, so heavy on her lips, and I am anchored to the earth, face-up in supplication. At least for this moment, we are not forsaken.
Shrieks wake us. She’s curled around me and at first, I think it’s her who’s crying, but the high pitched screams come from above. I boot up and climb the dimly lit curving staircase, up to the vacant apartment above us.
When my dad first left for Amsterdam, he sent us so many letters and postcards. He’d always write about the stairs there, how steep they were. I probably have twenty-five pictures of staircases in different buildings all over Amsterdam, twisting up and up, so sheer that going up there’s like climbing a wall in boot camp. This building musta’ been built by the Dutch a hundred years ago, the stairs were just like in those pictures.
There’s paint footprints at the top, when I get to the landing there, like someone painted themselves in and then walked around. The screams are louder, coming through the cracked door but when I turn the handle, the lock doesn’t catch, so I give it a little push with my toe. It gives, opening up to moonlight. The screeching stops. I wait a second, ’til my eyes adjust to the darkness and I see the broken paint-smudged floor, rank, covered in pellets and debris, like I’m back in the brig. All around the room, in every corner and along the walls I see them, lemon-yellow, lit up by the moon, glue so deep that you could get your whole foot in there, wriggling with its catch. They didn’t put ’em in the center of the room, rats always stay near the edges, holding tight to the boundaries when they walk around. There must be ten of ’em, stuck like dinosaurs in tar pits. All this time they were circlin’ above us, but now they’re caught like flies, or screaming angels.
Between the traps lay half-eaten blocks of poison, mustard yellow, like toy bricks—enough of ’em that a kid could build a castle. They had eaten so much of that dream castle that death was only a matter of time. The poison works on a delay so that the rats never associate it to their poisoning—keeps ’em coming back for more.
In theory, glue’s supposed to be humane, ’cause when they get caught, they try to chew themselves out, stick their noses in it, and suffocate. That’s the theory. But they’re too smart for that, they ain’t gonna stick their faces in no glue. Instead they scream to each other, for help, and the others rush in and get stuck so that they’re all just squirmin’ there screamin’ for mercy. Once they’re in the glue, it’s already too late, they have to chew their legs off to get out.
I come down on them, one after the next, dealing out hot mercy. Afterwards, I don’t clean ’em up, their bloody bodies caught on the edges, encircle the room. Back down to bed, to Debbie, but she’s gone.
Another night at Josephina’s Phil came in again. He knew me now and the place was dead. We talked a little, him tellin’ me how he knew “da Mare,” me tellin’ him a little about “the Mog,” but I still couldn’t talk about it much. Jody pulled a chess board out from behind the bar and poured us all shots of whiskey. Phil coached me as I watched him play against Jody.
“Always look your opponent in the eye,” he said, “don’t worry about the board, you’re playing the man, not the board.”
“Whered’ya learn that?” I asked.
“You don’t want to know.”
Jody, drunk and drinking, put the pieces down hard and sloppy, so that they were all over the place, standing between squares, staggering around.
“Where you goin’ wit that?” Phil asked, starin’ Jody down.
“Sorry Commander,” Jody said, “I’m a little casual…”
“A little too casual. You watch it,” he said. “When I was overseas, with the CIA, you could get your throat cut for that kind of slipshod chess.”
“Yes sir,” Jody said.
Checkmate took five more minutes and Phil stormed out without payin’. When he was gone, Jody poured us another drink.
“Fucken’ CIA . . .,” he said, “the liar’s fifty years old and is still on foot patrol. Always look your man in the eye . . . the Mayor and me . . . when I was in the CIA. . . . Fucken’ jag-off.”
When I go upstairs, Debbie’s in her room. I wait for her but she never comes. She walks to the bathroom and passes my room so I try to catch her eye, but she won’t look at me. Standing in front of the bathroom door til she gets out, I surprise her.
“Hey,” I say and she says “Hey” back but moves past me.
“Can I just say somethin’,” I say to her back.
She turns around like nothin’s up.
“You know, the other night… that whole thing was real nice for me… I just wanted you to know that.”
“Yeah, it was nice,” she said. “But you know… it can’t be like a regular thing or anything.”
“Well that’s up to you,” I say.
“George . . . ” she stammers, “it doesn’t work. You know . . . I mean I’m sorry and everything, but . . . ”
“I know, but still, it was nice. It wasn’t you or anything, it’s just that ever since I got outa’ the Marines, you know, ever since Somalia . . . ”
“Yeah,” she says, then comes up to me and puts her arms around my shoulders.
She kisses me on the cheek and lets go.
In my room, I do pull-ups until I drop, exhausted, knocking pill bottles across the room. Breathing heavy with my ear against the floor, I hear footsteps going up the stairs, up to the vacant apartment. In a few minutes, there’s a knock at the door. It’s our landlord, Frank DiMario, the ex-boxing coach.
“Hello mister DiMario,” I say through the open door.
“Howyoudoin’,” he says. “I come up here,” he says, “to aks you whada’fuck happen’ up dere.”
“Up where mister DiMario,” I ask.
“Up thefucko’erdere,” he says, pointing up with one crooked finger without looking.
“I come up dere,” he says, “and dere’s a bloodyfucken’mess.”
“You mean the rats?”
He’s motionless, like he didn’t hear me—not a stir.
“Well,” I go on, “the other night I heard all this squealin’, so I went up there and found ’em stuck in their traps, so I stomped ’em.”
Standing perfectly still, his finger still pointin’ up, he curves his mouth up in a dirty smile, showin’ at least two holes that used to be teeth.
“Atta’ boy!” he says. “Gooforyou. You stomp dem rats, Ratstomper. Fucken’ disgusting monsters—monster—I want ’em all dead—fucken’ dead. I do it myself too, but I don’t like hurtin’ animals. I mean I ain’t got no problem wit it, I jus’ won’ do it, ever since I got da’ dog.”
He pauses and mumbles, “I’d cut the hands off a man before I hurt an animal,” shaking a little from laughing on the inside.
“You keepin’ da’ neighbahood safe. Fucken’ rats come in here ’cuz these spoiled kids keep da back door open, lettin’ em in. But I’m puttin’ up a sign in plain good English.”
He turns his head to go and then thinks of something else, “Don’t let me catch you sittin’ around in that Josephina’s—I see you dere in da’ windows.”
“Yeah, I work there.”
“Well,” he says, “you stay away from that Jody. He’ll get you drinkin’, piss your life away.”
“Mister DiMario, he’s not like that, he’s got a lot goin’ on. Startin’ a bar of his own soon.”
“Bullshit!” he says, “His family’s got a bar a’ der own. Maybe they’ll let him run it, maybe dey won’t. Him, he’s just a no good drunk like all da’ rest of ’em in der.”
He smiles at me again, changing the subject.
“Gooboy,” he says and slaps me on the back. “You stay in school.”
I couldn’t sleep, the thing with Debbie and everything, so I went back to Josephina’s. I didn’t want nobody to know that I left so I took the back steps. On the door a cardboard sign written in red marker screamed, “FUCKING CLOSE THE FUCKING DOOR!”
Back at the bar, Jody was shootin’ the shit with drunk Mikey.
“Back for more, eh Captain?” he asked.
“Ain’t no Captain,” I said.
“No, that’s right,” he smiled at Mikey, “you were a sergeant, weren’t you?”
I didn’t answer.
“So why you up at this late hour?” he went on.
“Mr. DiMario woke me up. Knocked on my door to talk about the rats in the building.”
“You rent from that fuck DiMario?”
“Yeah, but he’s all right.”
“He’s not all right, Joe, he’s a sick fuck is what he is. Don’t you know about him?”
“The guy’s a sadist. He’d raise dogs, all gentle, like with the family, and then pit ’em up against other dogs, ones that were trained to kill. Illegal dog fights. He’s indicted on three counts—bloody fucking mess it was too.”
“Hope he goes away,” Mikey added. “For the rest of his life!”
“How do you know?” I asked Jody.
“I was there, Joe, I saw it.”
“Yeah, I was there too,” Mikey said.
“Shut the fuck up Mikey,” Jody yelled, “you weren’t there. You don’t even know what we’re talking about do you?”
“It don’t matter what you talkin’ about,” he said, all indignant like, “assholes need to go to prison, all a’ dem.”
And though I don’t say much, I had to ask, “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“You’re an asshole right?”
“Fuck you Sergeant! Fuck you. Asshole enough to take Sue from you the other night. She was good too.”
“Douchebag, you can have that. All fucking yours.”
“You didn’t even fuck her,” Jody said, laughing. “She came here the next night, told me all about it.”
“Bullshit . . . ”
“No, Mikey, she was here. Seems you had a little too much medication to get it up that night—all candied up.”
“Whatever, she sucked my dick anyway.”
“Be that as it may, Mikey, be that as it may . . . ”
“We had a name for assholes like you back in Somalia . . . ” I said.
“Why don’t you shut the fuck up, Sergeant. Everyone knows you weren’t in no fucken’ Somalia.”
I stood there speechless.
“What? You ain’t gonna say nothin’?” he asked.
I looked at Jody, but he didn’t come to my support this time.
“Jesus Christ George,” Mikey said, “you weren’t never in no Somalia! We never even had Marines deploy there.”
Jody smiled at me and said, “Tell me one thing George, just one thing—why you gotta lie to all these people?”
“Fuck you both,” I said.
Back at the apartment, I’m sick again, and loud this time, it’s too late to turn on the music and cover it up. Anne’s there again, holdin’ my head, but this time I hear her whisper, “Just stop Georgie. Stop,” and I do.
She helps me clean up and follows me to the bedroom. We lay side by side and it’s like on our walks together, like when we both laugh without having to tell the joke—we just know. She strokes my hair and I talk to her about everything that’s been goin’ on with Debbie and at Josephina’s, and when I pause she says, “See Georgie, I knew you had something to say.”
I tell her about how I can’t stand all these people bullshitting through their lives, always walkin’ around in circles, avoiding others, escaping themselves, until they don’t even know who they are.
“What about me?” she says.
“You’re not like that Anne.”
“I am,” she says, “I have to walk around things, Georgie. If I walk into things, I could get hurt.”
So then I talk about “the Mog,” I tell her about how everyone was circlin’ around, avoiding conflict, except for me, how I was direct.
“I walked right into that one,” I say. “Everyone else was goin’ around, but I went right for it and got sprayed with metal. First day there.”
“George,” she says. She never calls me “George.” “Just stop.”
And I do.
I’m quiet for a while but then she laughs and I join in.
“I love it when you laugh,” I say.
And when she reaches for me, she doesn’t need my arm, and now it’s not only her body that is alive—we breathe each other. And it is not deliverance, for we had never left heaven—we had simply forgotten how to behold it.
For two weeks, we are inseparable. I guide her as much as she guides me. And I am never sick. The thing at Josephina’s doesn’t bother me anymore. It ate me up for a few days and I complained about how ugly it all is but then Anne says, “We’re all beautiful, we just get poisoned by fear and loneliness, and fear of loneliness.”
I think she’s right, and I knew it once. It’s so simple that I don’t know how I could have forgotten.
The only real problem is Debbie. She doesn’t approve—won’t look me in the eye no more. Sometimes I come home after work and I hear her through the door before I walk in, lecturing Anne about me, how I’m a freak and takin’ advantage. But I don’t say nothin’, just sit next to Anne and hold her hand. She watches me too, comes to Josephina’s and sits at the bar, drinkin’ and talking to Jody. I see them whispering about me, and when I come near they get quiet.
It comes to a head one night when Debbie brings Jody over and confronts us in the kitchen, tells us how the whole thing between us is a bad idea, how I’m taking advantage of a blind girl, and she’s making a mistake with “someone who’s not ready for a relationship.”
She walks around the room, circling the table, while Anne and Jody sit, and eventually I get up and circle with her, North, then East, then South, until she says to me, “You know, I called your mom. Told her what’s going on with you. Even she said that you weren’t stable. She was worried. She should be here any minute.”
They timed it just right and so we all crash into each other.
“Look, I’m sorry about him, but you have a right to know . . . ” Ma says, “He was a Marine, he was stationed in Okinawa, but then he got sick and so they locked him up for a few weeks and sent him home. That’s his story.
“You been takin’ your meds?” she asks me.
They ask about the meds and she even tells them that. The depression, the nausea, all of it.
“He’s not crazy,” she says, “just troubled.”
“He musta had a real hard time comin’ up on the Southside,” Jody says with a smile that coulda’ looked sympathetic if you didn’t know him.
“Southside? We aren’t from the Southside,” she says, “Georgie grew up in the south suburbs, had a near perfect childhood as far as I’m concerned, until he got sick. His father even had to take a job abroad to pay for it. Georgie had all these stomach problems, had to have surgery. He used to be really self-conscious about his scars, but he got over that, didn’t you Georgie?”
Anne listens and doesn’t budge. I knew she wouldn’t. She holds my hand but then Ma says she needs to have a moment with me, so we walk into my room and close the door. I never close the door.
“Georgie, what are you doin’?” she says, “Why does everything have to be so different with you?”
“Different could be good,” I say.
“Well she is different. Too different if you ask me. Can’t you find a normal girl? I mean—she’s blind—you’re just asking for a hard life. And you know people will talk. Don’t you think you have enough problems already? Why you wanna add more? Complicate your life. . . . You need to find someone like you . . . like us.”
And I get to thinkin’ about who I am, who we are, and who I wanna be. And it’s goin’ round and round in my head, and I just want to stomp it out, and I feel sick—for the first time in weeks. And I go to the door, but I can’t move, can’t open it ’cause Ma’s talkin’ at me, and on the other side I hear Debbie yellin’ at Anne, and the door handle turns but it won’t open, so we stand there, stuck, the screaming poisoning us against each other. And I feel the weight of their logic, hard against the back of my head. So I force the door open, and we stand in front of each other. And when I take her hand I can’t move.
But then, I do. I move out of that glue, and I see it for what it is—just a bunch of nothing. So I take Anne in my arms, and holding her, I two-step but without turnin’, out of that place, out of all the places that anyone can make for us. Out where we can breathe.