was three in the morning when her message came in.|
I was the manager-on-call that night, and the thing was I could've dished her call out to Sully, or Richie, any of the techs that were covering that night, that's what I was planning on doing. But then I heard the address --
What made me think I'd just be able to lie there in bed after hearing it? "The Condominiums at Taft Place," Kay from the answering service had loftily pronounced, evidently mimicking the client. "Unit B-2. The woman up there's got no heat, she says." Of course they could have called it The Taft Condos -- that's what we locals did -- or even The Taft --
I leapt out of bed, paced out into the kitchen as if that would help, lit up a cigarette -- then remembered I'd just lit one up in the bedroom --
After I slowed my breath and made my voice sound normal I called her myself. I slid back into bed, sat up, drew the covers up to my chin --
It was the coldest night of the year, like a knife.
"Hello!" she answered on the first ring, but not with a question.
"Hi, this is Brian calling from Pinnacle Heat and Elec -- "
"There's no heat in my unit!" she interrupted, and her voice was corporate crisp. "I need you to come out immediately." Course I could've said to her Well, I Need You to Check the Following For Me -- but then you're just engaging them in that stupid entitlement pissing contest that passes for most human interaction nowadays -- and I took my ball and went home a long time ago. Plus maybe the problem was just something simple like a tripped fuse, and if I had her check a few things and we did happen to fix it over the phone, then I wouldn't be able to go out and see the place.
And all at once I needed to. It had been ten years.
"Are there any...ah...children or infants in the home?" I asked but I was shaking. "Any aged or infirm or people with disabil -- "
"Of course not!" she snapped. "What possible difference could that make?"
The Fucking Possible Difference It Could Make Is That If It's Just You, I Can Warm My Ass Up In The Shower Before I Go Out In This Cold.
"It's a question," I answered, "of urgency."
"I have an important meeting in the morning, and if I don't get some heat on in this place I won't be able to sleep. How's that for urgency? Now I want someone up here in fifteen minutes. Is that clear?"
I took a long drag from my cigarette, blew the gray smoke up to the ceiling.
"I'll see what I can do," I said, half-stifling a feigned yawn. Then I hung up.
Great. Just my fucking luck. A Corporate Turbo Bitch.
The smoke cleared above my bed and I could see the water stain on the ceiling, the one that's shaped like Texas in a Dali kind of way. Sometimes I think that's maybe where He went, Texas, like this is some kind of sign or something. But I've been living here for seven years now and haven't done anything about it yet, so I suppose it's too late. Really, it's always too late.
He'd be waiting for me there in the basement --
I throw the covers back, swing my thighs out, spring up to the edge of the bed, don't pull back when my shocked bare feet hit the frozen floor. I look down and see that I'm hard. I could play with myself again But What Possible Fucking Difference Could That Make? The helmet head is smiling back at me, laughing because it knows what I really need to do is pull back the tissues of my chest and play with my heart instead.
But you can't do that.
Mine's dead anyway.
But I can't blame that on Him. I did it to myself.
After my shower I select my couture. Will it be the blue working class chinos or the blue working class chinos? I select the blue chinos. The black boots or the black boots? The black boots. The white T-shirt and socks or the white T-shirt and socks? I opt for the latter; I'm feeling sexy and, oh, I don't know, kind of dashing and frisky tonight. The one choice I don't have is the de rigeur blue chino shirt with our logo sewn onto the left breast pocket, a green mountain with a white peak and Pinnacle Heat and Electric in green swirly letters beneath. Above the mountain, in red writing: Brian, Asst. Manager.
That would be me. Just in case I forget my name I suppose.
I fire the van up and check the back while it's warming. Smitty had this vehicle yesterday and he's such a slob, always leaving tools everywhere and his signature Funny Doodles wrappers in the tool box. As I'm backing out the driveway the yellowing lace curtain in the first floor front window pulls back just a soupcon: Mr. Curtain (ironically enough) is per usual keeping a weathered if somewhat jaundiced eye on my comings and goings. An insomniac, he's got the night shift while his equally inquisitive wife keeps watch by day. But really I couldn't ask for better tenants for my two-family (what a joke, family, it's just me and my two goldfish on the second floor): they're better than a $50,000 alarm system.
It's only a mile from my place to the Taft Condos or, a thousand pardons, The Condominiums at Taft Place. But I take a pretzel crazy way, trying to ease the boxing butterflies in my stomach. It's no good. As I slide up the One Ways and ease through the merciless 3:30 am red lights, I'm seventeen again, taking the shortcuts home from school, sweat sealing my shirt to my back and equally sticky thoughts of Him papering my mind.
The radio BEEP makes me jump and I almost drive into a policewoman-esque navy Marquis parked halfway out onto East Seventh Street because of the concrete snow banks. The two-way radio's green light flashes and I respond like the good monkey I've been trained to be. The answering service again.
"Unit B-2 wants to know if anyone's coming and why they haven't yet," Kay from the service says.
"Uh, that's a copy Kay I'm en route over," I answer, hoping she doesn't hear the pubescent quaver in my voice.
"Roger Brian. Sounds like one pissed-off lady," Kay says. "Lemme call her back and see if I can smooth those ruffled feathers, over."
"You're a pal Kay, but be careful she's a bank vice president and they don't have feathers they have brass... elements. Over."
"How do you know she's a bank veepee over?" There's a little more than idle curiosity in Kay's voice.
"Ahhhh, I just... somebody told me. Thanks again. Over and out."
"Hey wait Brian, I'm still waiting for that cup of coffee you promised me," she says. "Don't be a stranger. Base out," but I look in the rearview mirror and that's just what I see now, a very scared stranger.
The Taft School Condos can only be accessed by one street, Taft Street, and it rises arrogantly past turn-of-the-century triple-deckers and corner cig-and-lottery markets until it ends at the top of the hill, where the red brick building sits like the Acropolis. Recessed lighting tucked into the shriveled azaleas at the base of all four sides of the Taft are neither streetlight harsh blue nor that appalling sodium vapor so prized by our master builders these days. Instead they are soft pink, and they bathe the antique rose brick in a warm love blush that belies both the building's working-class surroundings and the bitterness of the evening. But the light in the little guard shack at the entrance to the grounds is wincingly fluorescent, and it makes the man in the polyester rent-a-cop uniform sitting beneath this light look like a yellow bug. There's a lowered gate before me discouraging my further proletarian advance, written on which is PRIVATE PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING RESIDENTS ONLY. Of course any one of those three phrases would have sufficed, but apparently they wanted to make sure people got the point: after all darling we are in Southie.
It's now mandated that I keep out of a place I was once mandated to attend, the obligatory ironic architectural nod, as it were.
The guard is fast asleep. I throw the van into park and put pedal to the metal. I believe my racing motor awakens him, either that or it's a blessed coincidence. He glares at me with eyes heavy with sleep and suspicion. Even from inside my van, windows rolled up, I hear the wheezy clacking of his space heater, working beyond its capacity even if he isn't.
He says nothing. I abhor the sad demise of Common Courtesy so I glare back. At length he slides down his window and mumbles something I don't quite catch. I roll my own window down.
"Excuse me, what did you say?" I ask. "Good evening Sir and welcome to the Taft Condos? How may I direct you this evening? Is that what you said?"
"What unit you want?" he demands, looking like Ah yes he does remember me shooting his mother some time ago.
"The soul of balmy courtesy even in the frosty depths of winter," I smile back. "Actually I'm going to buy this whole fucking place and first thing after that is fire your rude ass. But in the meantime you can ring your match in courtesy in Unit B-2 and tell her the Boy is here."
Apparently this guard needs this job, as he doesn't come out and pound me. He picks up a phone, grumbles something, then a moment later pushes a button. The gate rises in jerks as if it's unsure and I am admitted into the hallowed grounds of my old high school. I smile and wave like a convertible-conveyed homecoming queen as I drive in, but there's no one here.
"It's me!" I say to the imaginary crowd, students, teachers, the school board, mothers from the PTA with nostrils all a-quiver in righteous indignation. "I lied," I continue. "It was me. It wasn't just Him. It was both of us. I lied."
I park where I'm not supposed to and take a petty working class pleasure, albeit futile, in doing so. The once cracked asphalt at the side of the building is now a smooth faux-brick parking area, lavishly appointed with islands of rhododendrons whose shrunken leaves have closed up shop for the season, like shutters closing the eyes of cottages by the sea. This was once the faculty parking lot and was strewn with left-leaning bumper-stickered Volkswagen bugs and buses, old station wagons with cola cans holding mufflers together until the next paycheck came. Now the area has been rechristened as well as repaved; it's the Residents' Garaging Area now, a much more appropriate moniker for the European luxury sedans and my-dick's-bigger-than-your-dick SUVs all in pretty muted rows. It's rather inconvenient for me to be having an anxiety attack at this time as I walk to the front of the building, for I'm panting and the air I'm taking in is so cold it burns. I try not to notice the view from the front stairway as I ascend -- yes, seven steps -- the ocean and the harbor islands to the left, the skyline to the right. It's a view I once knew well. I open the vestibule door and buzz B-2. The inner door buzzes back as if she's been standing Doberman guard by her intercom. I wonder how she's managed to telegraph ill humor into this buzzing. I snatch at the door.
I begin to believe that I shouldn't have come after all, for the stairwell down, though carpeted now in some inoffensive color that defies identification (Wheat? Stone? ) is exactly as it was. My heart leaps to overdrive just as it used to heading down these stairs, and my testicles tingle in a kind of ball-jerk reaction. Gym class was last period, and it loomed above the horizon of the day like an iceberg one was inevitably fated to crash into again and again. And if I was frequently the fastest, the quickest, the strongest in gym, it was only because of the adrenaline that even now races through me like an out-of-control driverless horse at some surreal nightmare Pimlico. I wonder -- if this made me excel then, will it help me now? Will I be a more effective efficient Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning Technician because of my racing heart?
I'm sweating when she opens the door. She's wearing Armani for Crissake. She's about my age, maybe a little older, tall and big-toothed in a waspy, semi-carnivorous way. Her ice-blue eyes quickly appraise. They observe everything, but see nothing. There seems something merciless in the sharp cut of her features, the patrician sweep of her ash blonde hair.
"I assumed you'd use the service entrance at the back of the building," she begins, and I wonder if she's purposely arranged her thin lips into a sneer, or is this an unfortunate congenital issue.
"Would you feel that the rightful order of things has been restored if I go out and come back in that way?" I ask.
Her head snaps back a little.
"What -- what kept you?" she demands.
"A contretemps with my man at the gate," I answer, trying to keep this up but her high-ceilinged unit is where our locker room was, where it all happened. "Actually that's not true. You see I breathed too heavily upon a Range Rover as I was passing through the parking lot -- excuse me, the residents' garaging area -- and I was trying to buff out my hoi poloi breath marks. I'm sure you understand." I smile sweetly at her but really I want to weep, to scream.
Her lips fall into a frown and her thin light eyebrows swoop up like startled birds' wings.
"Wipe your feet," she orders, staring down at my boots.
"They're clean thank you, but tell me -- did you just swallow something large and unpleasant?"
"Yes," she says, "two hours worth of cold air." She shuts the door.
"You should have called someone," I answer.
"I did. You know, I was going to phone your supervisor and complain about your tardiness, but I figured I'd give you five more minutes before I got you into trouble," she says, though with less conviction.
"Ah, t'would be a cold world indeed without the sweet selflessness of noblesse oblige," I say picking up my toolbox.
"Or the pleasure of customer service, given with a smile," she retorts. I can't help but laugh. She smiles and extends her hand.
"Truce?" she asks, but I want to tell her don't be nice to me, don't take away the armor of my sarcasm, it's all I've got. But of course I shake her hand. Her eyebrows lift up again when she notices my trembling hands.
"Ahhh...cold out," she says, but her eyes search mine.
I nod, then look away quickly.
"It's down here," she says, turning away.
She leads me down a gallery-like hall that seems endless, as if Hitchcock did her interior and its receding as we progress. The hall's appointed with tastefully confounding objets d'art garnered from, I presume, her hunter-gatherer business trips. The hall spills out into a vast living room -- what they now call a Great Room, speaking of its size and not necessarily the things that happen there -- and despite its total metamorphosis I instantly recognize our old locker room. Sweat announces itself upon my forehead, begins trickling down my sides despite the coldness of the room and its arctic-gray color.
I shouldn't have come here.
She long-legged strides to the far end of the room and hurls open double French doors to reveal the heating unit and electrical panel. I come up behind her. She steps aside and I struggle to focus on the switches and circuit breakers.
"Do you need anything?" she asks after a minute, her hands rubbing her shoulders.
I shake my head. She stands as if unsure behind me while I mechanically begin unscrewing the bolts to the heating unit's panel. A teakettle whistles blessedly from the different time zone kitchen just as I feel the dry-heaves starting, the knee-jerk reaction to my anxiety attacks.
"I'll be in the kitchen if you need anything," she says quietly.
I'm tempted to ask if she happens to have a spare Xanax on her, but I think better of it. "Th-thank you," I say. Then I make an absurd retching sound that pierces the high-ceilinged room. Oh shit.
"Are you...is everything all right?" she asks.
All I can do is nod my head. I don't hear her go, but after a minute I warily half-turn. She's not there.
I am free to recollect.
What I mean to say is, the roofless wall of memory that I've been holding back for ten years implodes down on top of me. My hands become almost too shaky to turn the screwdriver.
It was right here, right where I am. His office was right there in the corner, the locker room right here where I'm working, our shower room up against the far wall. The wall's been cut out now and fitted with a trio of large floor-to-ceiling windows that reveal the lights of the harbor, the airport, a cruise ship nesting in its dock like a warm-weather bird that awakens to find it's missed its chance to migrate. Just outside the windows two shriveled rhododendron leaves flutter in the merciless polar wind; my manic eye detects something especially frantic in the left leaf's shaking. We did have windows in the locker room here, but they were casement ones, high up by the ceiling, frosted and barred, and the light that streamed through them came in steamy chunks that highlighted pink and white flesh, some smooth, some hairy. And the scent is gone now too, the odor that hung like wet sheets in unmoving air, the grass-like smell of sweat, of damply rumpled gym shorts and moist athletic supporters, of young bodies writhing and sweating, of fresh towels half-wet hung up to dry on half-opened metal locker doors, of talcum powder and Old Spice swirling in the solid air like incense.
I open the electrical panel but it's really a locker door, I'm back there to that day, I have no more power to resist this than I would the collapsing of the building upon my head, all four ponderous floors and ten thousand ghosts of it. I'm opening my locker door and yanking on my white briefs, white but frayed at the legs, I've grown much lately, sixteen-and-a-half and my hair is damp lank on my forehead, my face flushed with exercise and something else, and I pull the briefs on quickly I'm only half-hard and once again I've survived gym class and the showers, once again I've exalted in gym class and the showers. Everyone else is still in the shower I hear the echoing, the laughing, the singing, the dissing, the snapping of a wet towel against wetter skin the howling, and I guess that's why he picked me. I was the first one out of the shower; he picked me, the kid who came down from the office. The Beadle they used to call him, a messenger boy, a senior one year older than me and I hear him push open the squeaky locker room door and he spots me and walks over, looks me up and down then hands me something a piece of paper folded twice.
"Give This To Tobin," he says. A note from the office for Mr. Tobin.
Mr. Michael Bernard Tobin. Our gym teacher. We liked Him He wasn't a hard ass Mr. Tobin; He'd grown up here but on the West Side down by the freight yards. He wasn't always trying to prove he was a hard ass like the other gym teachers, Coach Kowalski, sneaky Mr. Quigley, that man in women's clothing Miss Humphries. He had black hair that always looked like it was damp but it wasn't, shiny I mean, eyes bluer than the sky in winter after a storm. He was quiet like his mind was always on something else, seeing something hopelessly distant, I used to wonder what, they said he'd been in Vietnam, our hometown's version of the Grand Tour, A Marine, I used to think it must be weird to have all the intense stuff happen when you're young, and then you spend the rest of your life thinking about it sitting around trying to digest it living in its shadow like a child star nobody calls any more. Always dressed the same, gray T-shirt puffed out with Taft Phys. Ed. Dept. written across the chest, navy blue sweatpants, white socks, white sneakers, a whistle dangling from a chain around his neck.
He never raised his voice he'd just look at you. He was 23.
I was a junior. It was early May.
A note. I knocked on his office door No answer. But I think he's in there, I saw him go in five minutes ago when gym class ended I just happened to notice so I think he's in there, in his office which is in the front part of our locker room, but enclosed and private though.
I opened the door and stepped into his office. I didn't think to put my clothes on I guess I thought the note might be important, an emergency, somebody sick maybe couldn't wait. His office was small a desk, a chair, some black file cabinets very warm you could smell the moist heat a picture on the wall of a Marine in full dress but it's somebody else not Mr. Tobin.
I stepped in more and the door closed behind me. In the back of His office there was this closet like, but a shower stall instead, He had His own private shower but why wouldn't He, He was a teacher. I'm standing in the middle of His office and all I can hear is the shower water running, that and my heart, loud, kicking like it wanted to come out and play and run around the room including the ceiling. Outside this shower closet there's a mat on the floor, a towel on the doorknob, some clothes on the floor white, navy blue, more white, and something off-white.
And then the water stopped.
He opened the shower door, His head dripping water. He looked down, stepped out onto the mat, then his head jerked up when he saw me I was staring I couldn't help it one time in sixth grade I ran for office Class Vice President, and they made you give a speech in the auditorium, but when it was my turn all I could do was stare couldn't speak no not a word just like now because all I could do was stare into his eyes my mouth open because He was the most intense thing, the scariest thing ever of all time longish crew cut, wet white flesh, shiny hair around his nipples running across his chest gathering into a line then down his stomach, so much hair, flat muscles, swollen muscles, a big pink scar across his stomach but the whole time I'm looking into His eyes but peripherally I can see Everything I saw It warm and rosy-colored full from the warm shower water dripping something familiar yet wholly different and secret and now I've seen it I didn't know people walking around all day on the street their clothes on riding the bus, taking business calls, when all along underneath some of them looked like this so unbelievable all you could do was stare your heart beating the band.
He says my name picks up the towel covers His front with it, but He's still dripping. There's a question in his voice but all I can do now is stare then I'm shaking all over because I can't look away. And as I continue to stare I see in His eyes that He Knows. And I run out of His office, try to run out, run into the door by accident, hit my head on it I half fall back, get up, grab the door knob, but then I remember the note so I turn around but he's coming towards me the towel wrapped around him and he doesn't say anything but grabs me by the shoulders Electricity He spins me around, looks at my forehead but there's no blood only a bump.
"Are you okay?" he asks but I still can't talk and He's looking in my eyes and I'm shaking.
I hand Him the note and leave.
And I know that He knows.
Walking home from school that day the seven of us The Gang: Sully, Richie Fitz, Eddie Fitz, Kevin, Timmy, Chris, me. We make our daily stop at McGillicuddy's Spa for cokes and whatever candy we can steal, then step outside for a smoke and the establishment of Our Presence.
"Hey Brian," Timmy says a few minutes later, "look man, here comes Brenda Casey. She's hot for you boy."
"Who, her?" I jerk my head in her general direction.
"Yeah man, her girlfriend Trudy said you can meet her any night down The Beach and she'll let you feel her tits."
The others hoot and holler.
I puff on my smoke, pause, make a face.
"She's a dog," I pronounce. They think all of them I have unattainable taste, when in fact here's the truth it's them I want to feel down the beach at night and as soon as we got out of school that day my heart still racing, a welt forming on my forehead, I said, "I Saw Tobin bareass, I had this note for him, you wouldn't believe how hairy he is," and no one said nothing because this is what we're all becoming so it's sacred plus you just don't talk about another guy's body unless you're dissing it Fat Ass, Little Dick, Big Nose, Ugly Mug, Pigeon Toed, Zit Faced --
-- but my mistake is I still can't get him out of my head, what I've seen, what passed between us, and later closer to home it's just me and Richie Fitz and Timmy and I say again, "You wouldn't believe how hairy Tobin is."
Richie Fitz turns on me, screams, "Quit talking about that!" he's pissed off I realize I've said too much, we glare at each other and I'm half-thinking of popping him one in the face, but then we'd fight and it'd be all over town the next day, all over school, How'd It Start? Well See Brian Saw Tobin Naked, Right? and I couldn't have that no.
I can't sleep the next two weeks it's late May, hotter every day I'm melting we still have gym three times a week, and now during class I catch Mr. Tobin staring at me, he always looks away, then stares again me too, He starts fucking up, misreading the stop watch during the dash, calling people the wrong names, Someone says, "Hey Brian man, what'd you do to piss Tobin off , he keeps looking at you," see where I'm from there's no reason for a man to stare at another unless he's pissed.
"Who the fuck knows?" I shrug.
But then He comes to me one night. He does. Me and my family live on the first floor, the second floor's empty because the landlord won't de-lead it. My bedroom's the old front porch. Dad's away with the merchant marine, he comes home every six months, they stay in their bedroom him and mom the whole time she comes out for air every now and again red faced laughing, "Shhhhh, your father's sleeping," and she tries to cook for us but screws it up and ten minutes later gives us ten bucks, "Go get pizza," and she's laughing as she goes back to the bedroom and nine months later we have another brother or sister. I get my own room, I'm the oldest see, it's the old front porch and Dad's just left for six months and Mom works nights at the Necco Factory and it's hot very hot this particular night I raise the blinds to catch the sea breeze after I turn out my light and I see Him across the street, Mr. Tobin His hands jammed into His pockets staring Tiger Tiger in the Night.
I'm brought to another world I don't even think it's weird for Him to be there, like in a dream when you accept anything without question.
It's midnight everyone's sleeping but me.
I open the screen door. I sit down on the top porch step. I'm wearing white briefs, but the night is dark the City hasn't fixed the streetlight yet out front. I light up a butt.
He crosses the street. He's squinting, He's not sure it's me. He comes closer.
He's wearing cut-offs and smelly sneakers with no socks and a white t-shirt whose right sleeve half-hides a Marine Corps tattoo on a full white bicep. His eyes look like open wounds leaking the same things that are in my heart, but he's containing it He is after all a Marine the few, the proud, Semper Fi and all that shit.
He sits down beside me on the step. His bare thigh flesh grazes mine. Neither of us moves away. We both gulp at the same time. He tells me I shouldn't smoke then a minute later asks for one. We have a cigarette. I go back inside. I don't say anything. I hold the door open for him as we stare in gulps at each other's feet. I lock the door behind us.
He finds comfort here. I don't think He understands it Himself. All over the world He's had chances, whores in Saigon, WACS at Air Force bases, any hundred girls round the way here at home who'd think themselves blessed to have Him, to give Him a houseful of red-cheeked children, kitchens happy with noise, a calendar on the fridge red-inked with upcoming Tupperware Parties and PTA. But no. No no. He has found comfort here, a remedy at last for mines decapitating his buddies beside him, children shot before His eyes I think it's as odd to Him as it would be to anyone else around here -- but it's true nevertheless. He finds comfort here with a boy sixteen and a half with a body much like his own, yet wholly different, as if two separate designers worked on plans from the same engineer. His calf is hairy, swollen with muscle when it's flexed in passion or standing wide-legged in the gym barking orders a whistle between His white teeth. But his calf is looser when He's lying on His stomach sleeping, one knee slightly up. The boy's calf is smooth and leanly firm. The Man's body hair is curly and black, matted in a line down the hard, scarred stomach. The boy's body hair can't be seen in most lights, and when it can it's fuzzy, light, and so downy the man tries to lick it off the boy's body. The exception to this is under the boy's arms and between his legs, and around each nipple where a single long, wiry hair emerges like a scout for a still-unseen army. And the man finds comfort in these as well, I can tell, and I know he doesn't know why. But that's okay.
It is what it is.
I can't really get specific about that first time every time was like the first time, a stranger in a strange land that is nevertheless Home when summer came he had to work, He didn't make much as a gym teacher He got a job working in a moving company's warehouse on the West Side where furniture in the midst of being moved was stored like Limbo until other trucks came for it. He got me a job there too. Sometimes we would really bust ass and me and him'd be moving something and our eyes would meet, sweating, panting, sweat running down our sides Wow other times it'd be slow and there were seven floors of furniture in this building, a big freight elevator too, and we'd wander among the cavernous floors making up the people's names we thought the stuff belonged to, and sometimes on other people's couches, sometimes on other people's beds, one time in the big elevator we made it stop between floors and for the rest of the day you could smell us in there but we didn't hang out much in public together, people might talk, which mostly was fine because This Thing was so intense you needed to be with this person, but also you needed to be alone so you could think about this person.
"How's it coming?"
I turn. Unit B-2 is standing before me, a cup of tea in her hands. She holds it out to me like we're filming a commercial.
"I thought you might like this."
I manage a wobbly smile.
She clears her throat. "Any luck?" she asks.
"Yes, all bad. Two burnt-out wires and a faulty transfer."
"Is that bad?" she asks.
"Well, it can make for a less than salubrious living environment. But we have the technology to fix it if that's what you're getting at. But it's... time intensive? Is that how you'd say it in the corporate world?"
"I'd know what you were talking about," she smiles.
I gulp tea. Her eyes have become softer, quite like His. I have to look away. I turn back around to my work. There's an awkward silence as I continue to strip the wires.
"Salubrious," she echoes behind me.
"Conducive to one's health," I say.
"Hmmmmph. I would have said warm," she says.
I half turn. "How sad," I sigh, but she knows I'm joking, she laughs.
"Are you a writer?" she asks, sitting down on the arm of a nearby sofa.
Now I laugh. "No, I'm a Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning Technician. Why, did you call a writer to come fix this?"
"No, it's your vocabulary, your quick wit. You have an amazing vocabulary for a ...I mean...."
I turn my head around to face her. "For one of the Little People?" I offer.
She becomes quite ruffled, reddens.
"I'm waiting breathlessly," I chime, smiling and tilting my head.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I didn't mean it like that. I mean I didn't mean it the way it came out." She gathers up our empty tea cups, glad I think for something to do, something to take her away from me. She takes the tea things and leaves the room.
The luck of the draw had Coach Kowalski as my gym teacher when school resumed in September. Me and Mr. Tobin (I still called him that in my head, but in person I called him Mike) both thought it was better, we'd be able to concentrate maybe. It was my Senior Year.
After school he'd be waiting for me downstairs in His office, He'd leave His office door unlocked for me I'd go in when the locker room was empty sometimes He'd be at His desk, sometimes in the shower sometimes just sitting there his feet up on the gray desk staring at the picture of the Marine on the wall.
"Who's he?" I asked once.
"Just someone who died," he said. He was so kind to me, so tender, but He yelled at me once, one day when I told Him I could stay with Him all afternoon, all night stay at His place.
"What About Your Homework?" He asked.
I laughed, shrugged, made a face.
He got pissed.
"You've got to do something with your life," he said, never seen him so serious except sometimes when I'd wake up and find him staring at me He made me promise I'd read everything I could get my hands on, look up words I didn't know I promised just to shut him up but I've kept my promise now as you can see I'm one of the best-read Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning Technicians around one afternoon in His office usually we waited until night, His place or mine, but this day we couldn't, a softness in His eyes, this funny smile, the smell of him lightly sweaty, his hair a little rumpled me seventeen now you know how hard that is and I drop down before Him drunk on Him high on Him my arms around the back of His thighs I ease down His sweatpants His jockstrap He puts His hands on the back of my head groans my name like I'm hearing it for the first time and this is all happening in slow motion between us, but in fast motion or regular motion His office door swings open and Coach Kowalski is there and there isn't any way to stop what will happen next.
They'd kill you for that where I came from or you'd kill yourself not even time to think about what to do I jumped up screamed, "Fuckin' Faggot!" screamed it right in His face never saw His face like that I pushed Him away from me both hands pushed Him hard I was fully dressed His sweatpants were down at His ankles He fell backwards slammed against the file cabinets I turn to Coach Kowalski, "He tried to get me!" I say pointing at Mr. Tobin, then I push my way past Kowalski out the office up the stairs through the doors I'm outside panting running gotta think tears streaming down my face dry heaving my first ever anxiety attack Be Gentle It's My First Time but the anxiety attack is not gentle it rips through me like a slasher and I'm home in my bed shaking under the covers dry-heaving "Quiet kids," Ma says out in the parlor, "Brian's got the grip."
There is this thing called Courage. Mr. Tobin was not in school the next day. There is this thing called Courage and it hovered above me for the next few days, hovered above me when the headmaster called me into his office the next morning. Kowalski was there also the head of the guidance department, some lawyer from the superintendent's office that kept picking his nose when he thought no one was looking There's To Be A Hearing On Monday, they said, Monday Morning in the Superintendent's Office Downtown We Are Expelling Mr. Tobin You Must Come And Tell What Happened.
There is this thing called courage, and it hovered above me all that weekend like a cloud I tried to jump up and get it but it was higher than it looked.
Monday morning. The superintendent's packed office people from the PTA, a priest, the Superintendent, the assistant superintendent, their staff, School Committee members, other teachers, someone from the teachers union, the headmaster, Coach Kowalski, sneaky Mr. Quigley, smug Miss Humphries, a stenographer, my mother sniffling anyone who could get in, their nostrils flaring in self-righteous indignation, I imagined that some of them had done that morning at home before this meeting with their spouses or live-ins what me and Mr. Tobin had done but that was all right, and of course He was there, Mr. Tobin, all of them staring at Him like He's slime, lower than slime, won't even sit near him in case it's catchy He's sitting there proud true wordless straight as an arrow saying nothing won't even look at me Coach Kowalski reads a statement he's barely literate, he tells what he saw the audience gasps they are sickened, they are outraged. For some reason my eye lights upon an especially appalled woman, a member of the school committee I think and I suspect that perhaps she is one of the people who Did That Thing this morning with her equally fat husband in fact she may still reek of it just a little here and there, but that's okay of course because after all God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve, or if He did make Adam and Steve they caught them and Had a Hearing, and they have all forgotten that we are made in God's image, rather than the other way around.
Then they call Me.
I think I'm going to faint.
I walk to the front of the room.
There Is This Thing Called Courage, but there's only one courageous person in the room and it isn't me Is This What Happened they ask Yes I say, I do not hesitate then I go back to my seat my mother is crying beside me then they call Mr. Tobin, Is This What Happened, they ask ,Yes he says, He does not hesitate and they take turns heaping calumny on him it is after all an election year and He stands there and takes it His chest out, His back straight, His eyes distant, perhaps thinking of the Other Marine whose picture is in His office who maybe died rather than betray Him because he had this thing called courage.
They strip Him of His tenure they strip Him of His job they strip Him of his union membership there is some asshole there from the DA's office with bad breath and he asks me Are You Sure You Don't Want To Press Charges, No, I say, We Already Went Over That This Weekend When You Came To My House, and My mother says That Dirty Pervert, To Think He Can Do This To My Son And Get Away With It, and for the only time in my life I want to slap her, and I almost do but I'm shaking again, and she comes back into her living room and I'm flat on the floor I'm shaking I'm crying I can't help it because it happened right here, right in that corner over there where now hang a pair of Balinese Masks that for many cocktail parties here have been the subject of endless conversation, people are terribly interested in them and their date of origin as if any of that shit really mattered, right in that corner is where I pushed Him away, I pushed Him away but I'm the one who's been falling ever since, ten years now and I haven't hit bottom yet.
"Are you all right?" she asks. Her face is alarm intensive as they may say in the corporate world.
"No," I answer.
Her hands twist together. She can bring home the bacon, cook it up in a pan, run a board meeting, work a roomful of anxious foreign investors, have fired upper management types escorted from Bank Property yes all this and more, but a human being melting down before her eyes is not covered in her corporate handbook. Ordinarily she would Just Call Someone in a situation like this, but it's five in the morning and there's no one to call. Just her and me. She twists her hands. They look like they might snap.
"Do you...should I call an ambulance?" she asks. "Are you...are you an epileptic or something?"
I shake my head, look away utterly humiliated.
"It'll p-pass," I mumble, looking down. "I'll be all right in a minute, it's just that I... that I...." I take a deep breath and hear myself say, "It's just that I killed somebody in this room a long long time ago."
I raise my eyes to hers.
Her eyebrows do a double swoop up. In fear? Yes I suppose, why wouldn't she be afraid. This sticks into me like a stiletto, her misunderstanding of my hyperbole or would it be ironic metaphor? I don't know how well this is known, but when you're having an anxiety attack misunderstandings that might be amusing under ordinary circumstances become five alarm catastrophes, something to make you hysterical almost, so I squeeze my eyes shut and yell, "Not like that not like that he, he's p-probably still alive I don't mean it like that I don't even swat mosquitoes... but really, I did kill him." My breath is coming in gasps and I have to stop for a moment. "Ruined his life I mean, I didn't mean to... but I did. Ruined his life, changed him forever, killed the best part of him, me. I killed him but he's not dead."
I open my eyes and look back at her face. She's relaxed a tiny bit, no longer shows Panic nor Alarm, only Concern at this weirdo in her condo who's Confessed Too Much, More Information Than I Need To Know and she takes a step back and I realize my behavior is All Wrong, all fucked up, Inappropriate they would say, we're all becoming corporate, aren't we? We're allowed to discuss a really neat web site, the merits of 401 K's versus 201 B's sheltered rolled over deferred tax anti-aging supplements on demand four wheel drive, the plot from last night's Must See TV; but, never, It Makes Me Happy To See You, or, Do You Think Anyone Really Loves Me, or, What The Fuck Am I Doing With My Life, or, Oh God I'm Aching and Empty and Don't Know Why, or, in my case, to melt down in front of someone I should be having a professional relationship with.
She stares at me.
Oh God. What have I said.
I picture myself getting up now, All Right Get Up Now Brian, writing up the bill, handing it to her, getting the fuck out of here; but no, instead There Is This Thing Called Despair like a cloud it hovers over me, and, unlike Courage, it breaks like water before a birth nothing you can do to stop what will happen next, right here in front of her I begin dry-heaving, and bellow sobs wrack me. They're not even attractive-sounding sobs, I self-criticize, like in a movie when You Break Down and then They come, They Listen, They Take You in Their Arms and Everything gets resolved because People Really Do Care and somehow two strangers from different walks of life make a connection and save each other, I can see how this movie would be scripted and pitched, she hears my story and gets misty-eyed, I get her to open up and discover that, gee, she always wanted to be a free-lance photographer or a veterinarian and now she's going to Go For It Girl because of something I've said, and in this movie they've done what no one else could do, not a thousand million desperate unspoken prayers to an immovable Providence when I was a kid, they've Hey Presto! made me straight, and now we kiss on the couch amidst a violin fest, then comes the Shopping Montage, as obligatory in Hollywood Romances as car chases are in Action Thrillers, she'll try on a funny hat under the not-amused eye of a stern clerk, later we'll have latte and I'll get a silly frothed milk moustache over my mouth --
This is after all not a movie this is Life, actually twice as ugly, once, twice, three times as ugly and she sits down on a piece of sectional leather furniture as vast as an airport runway that I imagine cost more than I make in a year and I long to ask her What Do The Banking Folk Do, What Do The Banking Folk Do but all I can do is dry heave and sob. In an unattractive way, as I've already mentioned.
"What?" she whispers.
"I'm sorry," I say, but I'm dry heaving between the words. "It'll -- pass in a -- minute. Something happened here."
"So... so I gather," she says. She pulls at her hair.
"This w-was our locker room," I try to explain, realize I shouldn't.
She looks around her Great Room, seeing it differently I think. One eyebrow lifts up in appraisal, like a periscope.
"They said this was the gym," she snorts, like she's been defrauded.
I shake my head. "The other side of this floor. Next door to you. John Harrison's unit. That was the gym."
"How do you know that?" she asks, brightening and smiling. "Do you know John? JB as we call him?"
"Oh, JB, is that what he's going by now? Funny, he was always Biffy back at Choate when we were on the f-fucking tiddily-winks team together."
"You're relentless," she sighs.
"Well really, what do you think? How the fuck would I know him, the president of Tetco Enterprises? Not unless I installed his air conditioning, use the service door please."
"How do you know what he does?"
"I've done research. Looked it up in the records. I know you're a vice president at Bank Five. I'm not a stalker I've just... just kept an eye on the place. From a distance, a safe distance."
"Until tonight," she says.
I nod. It becomes quiet.
"So I'm like your... guinea pig?" she asks, half-smiling. "You just came out here to see the place again?"
I snort a laugh. "I've used you cruelly, I admit," I say. I manage a weak smile.
"So this was. . . ." she asks.
"The locker room. The shower was over there. His office was over there, right in the corner."
"His. Michael Bernard Tobin."
"And he would be. . . ."
"Where did you grow up?" I ask.
"Wisconsin," she answers, making a confused face.
"Very well, that's far enough and obscure enough. He was a Native Son. Decorated M-marine Corps Vietnam Veteran. Gym teacher de luxe at Taft High School. And perverted fallen angel. Once a byword. Now an unremembered ignominy." I say this to confound this total stranger who can know nothing of what I say, but also I say it to hear the words out loud, to hear his name. I feel as if I've reached into my navel and extracted my intestines.
She stares at me.
"Yup, right over in that corner," I add sitting up, pointing. I hardly have the strength, but I do. I look at my arm, my ringless hand, I remember it was This Hand that touched Him, that did Things -- this hand that now fixes electrical snafus, installs air-conditioning systems, beats off, feeds goldfish, feeds me; this dead hand that can only point now to something that happened ten years ago, like a desert signpost pointing to a vibrant city twenty miles away might as well be a million.
"You went to school here," she says.
I nod, refrain from saying You Have A Flair For The Obvious. I try to stand, realize I can't yet. I've got to get out of here --
There's a sudden noise as her heat kicks back in.
"You fixed it," she says, sitting up straighter.
"Quel surpris," I say.
She makes a face, rolls her eyes.
"Sorry," I say. "Yes, I did fix it. Right before I became almost catatonic from a less-than-lovely stroll down Memory Lane. I'm sorry. If you'll just sign for the r-repairs -- "
"Tell me," she says. She leans forward, clasps her hands.
I'm waiting for her to tell me what it is she wants me to tell her: the cost perhaps, or whether this work is warrantied, or perhaps what to do if it happens again if she guesses oh so rightly that I myself will never come back here, no nay never no more.
"What?" I groan when she says nothing after a minute.
"Tell me what happened," she whispers. I look up at her. She looks smaller now sitting down, her legs pulled up underneath her. I notice dark circles beneath her eyes.
I stare at her, dully I'm sure, for after a minute I'm aware of a piece of ropy saliva stringing down my chin. I paw at it but it falls upon the Aubusson carpet, vanishing instantly.
"You gotta be kidding," I mumble.
"Please?" she says.
She pulls at a piece of her hair. "It's five thirty in the morning," she says. She shrugs.
"What possible difference could that make?" I murmur.
"The doctors say that I'm dying," she says.
She grabs at a throw pillow beside her, pulls it into her stomach with both hands. "I -- I don't know anything anymore." She forces a smile. "Except that I'm always cold."
She nods. Then she laughs. Pushes her hair out of her face. She stares at me.
I stare back at her. I'm listening to the sound of the heat. I smell it as it slowly fills up her unit. I look away.
"Ovarian cancer," she says. I look back up. Our eyes lock. Her hand reaches out as if to touch something, then falls back idly on the pillow.
I become truly speechless. I look down and see my fingers twirling one of my screwdrivers.
"I'm... sorry," I finally mumble.
"Me too," she mutters, pulling at her hair.
"No, I mean... I've... been such an asshole tonight. I... I might look like one and I might act like one, but I'm really not. I have two goldfish at home that'll vouch for me, I talk to them all the time, they'd tell you if they could. Brian and Mike. I might be wrong a lot but I'm really not an asshole."
"Brian and Mike?"
"My goldfish. Can I smoke in here or will the Committee Against White Smoking Males make an emasculating house call?"
"Certainly not. Mike as in Michael whatever Tobin?"
I feel myself turn crimson.
I don't say anything but I squirm. She sees my eye alighting upon my toolbox, then measuring the distance to her door --
"You were in love with him -- weren't you," she states, rather than asks.
I turn and look up at her. I can't read her eyes, but it feels like we're both in some kind of waiting room.
"Yes," I sigh, staring down at the pattern in the white rug. I don't have the energy to lie to her. She may be dying, but I'm still so mortified about this admission from her butch HVAC guy -- my role for the evening -- that I look up and gauge her for a reaction. How's that for self-absorption?
But she just stares, a finger in her hair.
"Of course now that I've told you I'll have to kill you," I say, and we both laugh, too loudly, but there's a break in something. I think we both relax.
"That's... okay," she says after a minute. My knee-jerk reaction is to tell her I don't need her or anybody else's approval. But for once I hold my tongue. I find an odd comfort in her words.
"I, on the other hand, really can be a bitch," she adds, laughing. She pauses. "I had to be, they were so incredibly horrible when I first started there, at the bank. You just can't be human in some environments."
"I was just thinking that. Look, I'm really sorry -- "
She makes a face, waves me away, but now her hands are trembling. When she sees that I've noticed them she folds them instantly.
"Cold out tonight," I say.
She looks at me quickly. Then she smiles, and it goes into me like the rising heat.
"Yes," she says quietly. "Very cold."
There's a long pause that isn't uncomfortable. I feel my muscles relax a bit, or un-lax as I call it.
"Tell me the story," she repeats lowly. "I want to think about something else for a while."
"It seems silly now," I mutter. "Unimportant."
"No!" she cries, yells really. "No! It's... it's life. Life's all we have. It isn't silly." She pauses. Her mood shifts.
"Please?" she says plaintively.
I wouldn't tell the shrinks, not everything anyway, I never told anyone.
But I tell her. I tell her everything. Halfway through she suddenly laughs and cries at the same time. I stop, look up.
"Nothing," she says. "I'm sorry. I had a brother. Go on."
I finish. I tell her everything. I tell her how they spray painted FAGGOT on Mr. Tobin's pickup truck while he was in at the hearing. I tell her how he left the next day. Gonzo. Vanished. Without a trace. Well wouldn't you? I tell her how I looked for Him for a whole year when I was twenty, then came home and had a remarkably uneventful nervous breakdown. I was in the hospital for two months. That's when they first started me being good with my dead hands. That was seven years ago. I own a house now. I have two goldfish who love me. I'm okay now, everything's okay. It's fucking okay.
She makes me breakfast in the techno-industrial kitchen. We sit at this artsy aluminum table with curvy legs. I stare around as the metal vastness begins to gleam in the rising sun. When I look back at her she's watching me.
"I never consciously thought this," she says, plopping her eyes into her tea, "but if you'd asked me? I would have told you that... somehow all of this would have protected me." She looks around at her things. Then she looks back up at me. "You know, I don't think any of this is... me. It just seems... cold now. I keep thinking of my grandmother's house, and how ratty it was, and how... beautiful. Safe." She pauses. "Maybe I should do this whole place over," she says.
"Think gingham," I reply. She laughs.
"I guess what I'm saying is..." she lifts her eyes to mine, "I thought this was me. It isn't."
"Y-you don't have to explain to me," I mumble back. "I should get an Oscar for the role I've been playing these last seven years."
We stare at each other.
"I really don't know anything about anything," I say. I swallow.
I look away first.
She signs for the repairs. We stare at each other again when I'm leaving, then laugh and embrace, awkwardly, but warmly. She's staring into my eyes when we break apart as if she's searching for something. But I don't think either one of us knows what that is.
"Okay then," she says, clasping her hands together.
I follow her to the door. She turns.
"Well," she says. "Thanks."
"Thank you," I say. I pause. "Best of luck." I want to tell her about the patron saint of cancer, but she's not Catholic I don't think and she might laugh. Plus I can't recall his name. So instead I mumble, "I think I'll call in sick today. I feel like I could sleep for a month."
"So it's back to the goldfish?" she asks.
I nod. "And back to the bank for you?"
"One more week," she says. "Then I'm taking some time off." She looks away. "I'd like to get back into my photog -- what are you laughing at?"
"Never mind. I... thanks."
I nod. Again I'm tongue-tied. Then I open my mouth, but she starts to say something at the same time. We both stop.
"What?" we both ask, again at the same time.
"Say hi to the goldfish for me," she says.
I walk out the door, go up the stairs two at a time like I used to when I was a kid, set free of school.