He lay on the cot of the Ames Shelter House and closed his eyes.
That summer’s ramble had been the last. He’d known it then and the doc had confirmed it, told him he was lucky to have lasted as long as he had.
That afternoon he’d given his bindle to a young man who’d come in asking for a blanket, given him all he’d need for surviving the streets, tools that it had taken years to acquire.
The empty locker felt like a wound, but he could lie here warm with eyes closed and travel it all over again.
She gets up from the recliner. She’s wearing her old robe and pink sweatpants. I fix her a plate, pull out a chair for her. She sits down and starts to eat like she’s starving. I know better than to ask when she ate last.
The stove is a disaster. Beneath the towel, charred patties congeal in an inch of greasy water. The whole stove smells rancid, caked with ashy spatters. The calendar on the wall–December 1981, when Pop died–is singed at the corners.
I feel my anger rise. “You’re just lucky you didn’t burn down the fucking house.”
Graduated from RSDI, the got an MFA from Pratt. I wanted to be another Basquiat, take the New York Art scene by storm, selling out a show and buying some old farm in the Hudson Valley, convert the old barn into a studio aka Jackson Pollack.
But nobody was impressed. I couldn’t get a show at the crappiest gallery, couldn’t even get work selling illustrations to magazines. All I had to show for my education was a mountain of debt and three huge boxes of unsold paintings.
So, you want me to draw you on an elephant, or a lion?
This all started when Pank nicked the panel Morris.
“Got it Manchester,” he’d said. “Bloody fuck all looking for it in Bristol.”
He’d fitted it out with magnetic panels he’d gotten from Amazon, a lovely irony that made us both smile.
For a few months it was our main occupation, both of us in smart gray coveralls and caps, driving the neigbourhoods on the spy for left packages.
Pank hit the idea of following the real Amazon bloke, hot on his heels to un-deliver his latest batch.
That’s what caught us up in the end.
People sure buy some weird shite.
“Now remember there are two of those casseroles.”
“So you said.”
“Well, just don’t forget about the one in the freezer.”
“I did the dishes again.”
“You didn’t have to.”
“It’s no bother. You know it wouldn’t be so hard if you kept up with it.”
“I know. I just…didn’t have the energy, I guess.”
“Well, God helps those who help themselves.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“How about you go for a walk? That might clear your head.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Seriously. Get out of that recliner. There’s a whole big world out there.”
“Don’t I know it.”
Ford To City: DROP DEAD. They was golden words to us.
Back then, there was at least two New Yorks.
There was TV New York, the one you see at the beginning of TV shows like Barney Miller or Welcome Back Kotter. Long shots of skyscrapers, maybe cut with a street scene or two.
Them scenes got as much to do with real New York as Bugs Bunny does with a real rabbit.
We lived in the park then, your mother and me, in a cave they since filled in with concrete.
Dangerous? Maybe. But at least we was free.
Twelve tables, two booths,
staff of three:
Frank on the grill
Merla waiting table
Mrs. on the register.
Weekends the wait
is an hour or more
Frank hovers over
the smoking flat-top
like a symphony conductor
each order taking up its little area
a big wedge of hashbrowns
down one edge
bacon and sausage cooking
in the side broiler.
Merla glides through
like an ice skater
pitcher of water
and pot of coffee
in perpetual motion,
plates stacked across her arm.
Mrs sits watching
like a chickenhawk.
Oh he don’t look like much, Birdy, with them cross-eye glasses and orthopedic boots, but I tell you that kid is worth more than his weight in silver dollars. You put that crook-face boy up on a ladder and he can tell you the layout of everything in the room worth a pickled cent. Jewelry, TV, watches… that stuff is all easy. He can spot a wall safe, or a closet strongbox. He can tell you whether the woman of the house is a light sleeper, whether the man has an in-town girl he sees.
Oh yes, Birdy. He’s gold.
The roach-crawling apartment, broken down car, the Waffle House, forty-plus hours a week of aching feet and grease-saturated clothes.
All gone now, left way away down there.
It’d been in her mind ever since signing up for the course. She’d ingratiated herself with Jerry, a middle-aged divorcee who thought he knew everything about ballooning and was eager to share.
The look on his face when she cast off the ballasts and left him standing there. Poor sucker couldn’t believe it. Probably planning what he’d do when she landed.
But she wasn’t going to land.
She turned the burners to full.
Them days we’d meet up after work at Fat Vince’s.
Little Stevie was still alive then, before all that shit with his Ma.
We’d eat and figure out what to do with Saturday Night.
I was holding down seven-to-four at Saragaglia’s Hardware, mixing paint and flirting with the women.
That place got more women than you ever saw in a hardware store, all of them helpless as does.
What’s a Phillips screwdriver, James?
Will this plug fit my drain?
I always remembered all of their names, too.
They loved me.
Looking back, I think that’s why Saragaglia kept me on.