Tuesday, October 28, 2008
I’ll never forget the look of terror in the man’s eyes. He reached for his companion, pulling her from my path, wrapping his arms about her neck and waist like a parent would a child.
His frozen stare followed me as I passed.
Confused, nervous, I didn’t dare look back.
Feeling the night wind opening my jacket, I strode across the downtown street, trying to fathom the unusual attention I’d aroused stepping from the bus. It was only when the wind died and I felt the handle of the large kitchen knife against my ribs, that I realized what had happened.
“Idiot!” I thought, instantly feeling like some wretched pariah.
There was the long blade, sticking from the shallow inside pocket, reflecting the glow of the street lamp above me.
To the frightened couple I might well have been a murderer, a rapist, or a serial killer. I scolded myself again, hurrying from the small crowd gathered about the transit station.
Why had I ever let Helmut force the stupid knife on me in the first place?
Pittsburgh wasn’t Mayberry, but it wasn’t some vicious den of villainy either. I had no right walking about armed like some third world bandit.
Stopping over a drain, I decided I had to lose the knife, and the nausea that was suddenly swirling about me. All I had to do was drop it through the grate, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Fear was crouching in the cavern of my ear, whispering, warning me. It had Helmut’s voice.
“It’s after ten, idiot – you know the kind of shit that goes down after ten on a Friday night? They’ll fuck with a skinny kid like you – rob you, beat the shit out of you and then fuck you in your ass, stupid – just like that.”
I must have rolled my eyes, for he grabbed me by my collar and yanked me towards him, thrusting his imposing chin at my throat.
“I ain’t kidding, dick-face! You know what happened to Iceman and Lisa.”
Bettina was standing in front of the refrigerator, holding a slice of pizza to a paper plate. She nodded her agreement. “You can’t be too careful, Tot,” she said, sounding unsettlingly like mother.
Iceman and Lisa had been mugged just the week before, near Wilkinsburg. The mugger had a screwdriver, which he stuck into Iceman’s gut, holding him at bay against a window as he ordered Lisa to empty her purse onto the sidewalk. When Iceman had tried to grab the end of the screwdriver the mugger had raked it across his face, breaking his glasses and leaving a healthy gash above his left eye. He was then kicked repeatedly, until he collapsed to the ground, covering himself, terrified of what might happen to Lisa.
Lisa was Iceman’s “platonic girlfriend”, as he liked to put it. Barely half his size, she had a button nose and perpetually pink cheeks. She reminded me of the silent film actress Mary Pickford. Like Bettina, I’d had a crush on her since the day I’d first set eyes on her, a horrible, relentless crush, the sort that made just seeing her almost unbearable. That she ended up married to an abusive jerk, dancing at a topless bar to pay their rent, simply made it worse. I think the only thing that saved me from doing something desperate and stupid was meeting F and falling in love.
“Here, take this – and don’t come home without it,” Helmut ordered, taking the ten-inch blade from the kitchen drawer and dropping it into the inner pocket of my black sport coat, a well-worn thrift store treasure. I bit my lip, relenting to his bullying barrage, the way I always did.
It was mid-January.
Pittsburgh was a mausoleum in the heart of winter, a jackstraw blueprint of colorless, bitterly cold, mostly empty streets, depressing stretches of old commerce and unforgiving industry, staid structures that seemed to press against the slate-colored sky, slipping into dusk’s lowering shroud.
I made my way down Liberty Avenue, a tawdry procession of peep shows, florists, and watch repair shops that cut through the triangular thatch of downtown streets, a bleak arm reaching from the east, ending before it could disappear into the Monongahela River.
I was on my way to a rendezvous with my father.
It was a clandestine meeting, an act that defied reason, one which, only a week before, would have been all but unthinkable. That I was coming, unwittingly armed like an apprentice butcher, made it only more surreal.
Father had left mother for the first time, some two weeks earlier. It was not a surprise. It had been in the making for a long while, ever since I’d graduated from high school. His moods had become increasingly more erratic, his temper more severe, his willingness to forgive forever diminishing. Mother could do little right in his eyes. Her every attempt to confront his drinking was met with outrage and indignation. “I do with my time what I choose, Mrs. Vogel,” he’d sneer, his head in the ice box, looking for the beer Helmut and I had been told to throw into the river beyond the railroad tracks. It was a routine we performed every Saturday morning, while father slept off the previous night’s tavern occupancy. He’d return from these drunks, a brown bag of bottles under his arm, stumbling through the front room of the small house in Ohio he’d brought us to when his job at the snack food factory in Binghamton was suddenly terminated. I never told mother that Helmut kept the beer for himself, drinking two or three under the highway overpass as I stood watch, having been instructed to whistle twice if I saw a police car, once if I saw father. The rest was stashed behind the wooden hutch at the rear of the brickyard down the road, the same place I’d once tried to keep a baby raccoon I’d found orphaned beside the highway. Helmut brought girls there, forced them to drink, and felt inside their underwear. I knew because he told me.
I recognized that agreeing to meet with father was a towering betrayal to mother, and to Helmut. I realized it was a mistake, but I couldn’t stand him up.
I now know it was fear that ruled my mind. I made myself feel better by convincing myself it was a sacrifice I had to make, a grand, unselfish gesture, a way to reach out and help father, somehow, someway. That he had chosen to contact me gave me a false sense of belonging, a notion of purpose in the adult world. It fed my weaknesses and he knew this all too well. He was an intelligent man, a ruthlessly orthodox commander of the seemingly crazed forces that drove him onward. Even drunk and lost to his overwhelming moods, he was a man to reckon with, which is why this particular meeting was so memorable, so illuminating, so ultimately terrifying.
Father always had strange friends. Almost exclusively male, it was a club groomed to appear like the heavies in old Hollywood movies, with deep-set eyes, collapsing brows, and chins poised like waiting fists. Many had nicknames, as colorful as their appearances, tags like Tiddly Winks, Ratchet, and, my favorite, Pokerface, who I had little trouble imagining was a long lost member of Dick Tracy’s rogue’s gallery. An emotionless slab of a man, he had unblinking dots for eyes, and a countenance that could scrape paint from metal.
I’d encountered a slightly different variation of this motley passel of middle-aged toss-offs in each place we’d lived. From the old country, to Binghamton, to Ohio, it was the same cluster of grey, dour faces, their beers cradled to the bar, drawing on discount cigarettes, backs bent, resignation and regret painted on every last downward turn of mouth. I expected more of the same when I reached the oppressively shuttered, brown facade of The Shanty Inn, the designated location of our familial tryst.
The Shanty Inn was a windowless fortress of plywood and false bricking, decorated with faded shamrocks, the wood beneath peppered with cuts and tears, exposing past frontage from bygone businesses, glimpses of old tinplate advertising.
“Flavored with the Juice of the Pressed Mint Leaves”, I read to myself, attempting to decipher one of these, an old ad for Wrigley’s Spearmint gum that featured a character with a head like the moon sitting on a triangle.
“Hey! Get in here! What’re you doing – loitering out there?” a gruff and familiar voice suddenly called out. “Trying to make me look bad, are you?”
Just like that.
There was no hello, no greeting, nothing, just an order.
It had been more than five months since we’d last seen each other.
It was, in essence, an exchange that well described our entire relationship.
Walking awkwardly to where he father peeking from behind a brown door that was decorated with one of those cardboard Christmas tree air fresheners, I offered him a shy grin, catching the dark, steely eyes that looked threateningly from the shade of his rumpled, plaid hunting cap.
“Get your keister inside! You know what kind hangs about streets like this?” he said, reaching up to swipe me across the back of the head as he closed the door behind us. “Lowlifes – and derelicts – and queers – that’s what!” The stink of stale wine and beer was all about him.
The Shanty Inn was as miserably drab inside as it was out.
Squinting at the mist that clung to the exposed bulb hanging above the drafty doorway, searching the dim room beyond, I made out a narrow bar to the right, its half dozen stools occupied by a collection of heavy coats, all sprouting red hands that nursed glasses and bottles, dying cigarettes propped between their fleshy fingers, listing like markers on a country road. To the left the room stretched out to include three or four compact booths and a pool table, upon which sat a box of toilet paper and an unmarked glass jug of something bright blue. “Window cleaner,” I thought, noting the irony.
“Second booth. Go sit down,” Father instructed, never once looking directly at me.
I did as I was told, sliding into the tight arrangement, the red cushioned back of the high seat rising inches above my head. I fell into a slouch, preparing myself for the bitter pugilist, the man whose fury had ushered me into this world. How well I knew his unmade face, its bruised-looking eyes, its pink and paunchy flanks of unshaven skin, its weak, dimpled chin. My father was not a pretty picture, then or ever. What mother had ever found attractive in him was long gone before I arrived.
“What are you – an idiot? Take off that damned coat!” he declared, staggering my way, two bottles of Old German shaking in an unreliable grip. It was his regular drink, not so much for its name, more for the fact that it was the very cheapest beer in the Tri-State area, cheaper even than his first love, Budweiser. “You’re insulting your host! You think Henry don’t know who you are?” he barked, bumping into the table, making me flinch.
I looked across the way, seeing an unnervingly thin man leaning behind the bar, looking in our direction with a benign alertness. His bald head, shining under the dim yellow light that dangled above a parade of evil-looking whiskey bottles, was surrounded by a crest of dirty grey hair that crawled down his temples in wiry clusters, meeting his cheeks, two paper moons that disappeared into the hollows of his skull.
“Hurry up with it! I ain’t got all day!” father growled, falling with the beers onto the table, his breath assaulting me.
I struggled to free myself from my jacket, feeling the knife pressing into my side. I’d completely forgotten it was still there. I was looking for a place to stash it when the old chewing gum ad had caught my attention.
Father, seemingly not having noticed my concern, pushed a bottle my way, and, without a word, dropped heavily into the booth, coughing as he settled himself under the rickety table, like an impatient hermit crab pulling on its shell.
I carefully removed myself from my jacket, keeping the blade hidden, all the while watching father. His shirt sleeves rolled above his elbows, his thick, hairy arms resting on the table, he was steadying his beer, his head tilting slightly, the bent peak of his cap covering all but his thin, cracked lips that formed an upside down horseshoe, an indicator of his mood. It meant I could expect just about anything.
Why he’d come to Pittsburgh, why he wanted to see me, I just couldn’t figure out. That he’d called Helmut’s number and asked for me wasn’t like him. He normally would have simply tracked us down. He’d have confronted us, on the stoop outside Helmut’s building, berating Helmut, shaking his head my way in disgust, before forcing a dollar bill into Helmut’s pocket. He’d then have left, without a word. But this was totally unlike him.
When I picked up the phone in Helmut and Bettina’s apartment, he seemed to be still making up his mind what he wanted. I think getting me alone was what put the idea of the clandestine rendezvous in his head. He made me swear, cross my heart and hope to die, that I wouldn’t let Helmut know a thing about it. I’d kept my word, telling Helmut I was going to a party with Willy Blanefield III, something I knew would keep him from investigating, his hating Willy with a passion.
My jacket now hanging on the curled hook at the front of the sequestered booth, I wrapped my fingers about the cold bottle sitting before me and took a long, deep breath, expecting father’s eyes to shoot towards the jacket any second, the knife suddenly exposed, his mad fury unhinged.
Though my throat was quickly going dry, I was afraid to lift the bottle to my lips, afraid he’d see the nervous way I was working my hands.
“How’s your brother?”
I blinked, finding my voice, my eyes on the label of the bottle. “He’s OK.”
There was a snorting sound. Father lifted his bottle to his mouth. “Tell him his mother wants him to come home. She needs a driver to help with her shopping.” What was he talking about? She’d never ask Helmut to do that, not after she knew he’d found a steady job, and a girlfriend. “You doing good at your painting school?” he then asked, bringing down his bottle with a thud, almost toppling it. I blanched, scanning the table furtively, noticing the blackened burn hole in the middle, about which some creative customer had scrawled a thicket of pubic hair, along with a pair of skinny legs in high heels, spread wide in carnal invitation.
Father was referring to the commercial art school I’d supposedly enlisted in a few weeks earlier. Mother had been excited to hear I was thinking of my “higher education” when I first told her. What I hadn’t mentioned was that I never even made it to the register’s office before bailing on the idea. I was a student of nothing but my own random attention to life, but I wouldn’t let mother know this. I’d kept up the art school ruse, which father had obviously heard about. It meant he was at least talking to mother. I didn’t know if I should feel good about that or not, his attentions so often leading to dangerous circumstances.
“It’s going OK,” I lied, risking a sip of my beer, coughing hard.
Father suddenly grinned, presenting his uneven teeth. “You get to paint those nudes with the big cans?” he asked, using one of the adopted phrases he thought made him sound American.
“Um – sometimes,” I breathed, glancing at the crude bit of table graffiti. “It depends on the class.”
He laughed. It was a strangely light and womanly laugh. A sound I wasn’t used to. “The class of the dame! Ain’t that right, Totty? You better not be painting no sluts or prostitutes at your academy. You keep away from that kind, you hear me? They’ll give you no joy.” It came out almost tender. I half expected him to reach out and pat the back of my hand. “You see your brother’s girl?” he then asked, taking another swig of his beer.
I nodded, keeping my eyes from his.
“She good looking?”
I nodded again, quickly.
He laughed, slamming his bottle down. “That’s a Vogel! Vogel men always get the pretty dames. Ain’t that right, Totty? Keep away from those dirty ones, you hear me?”
“I will – I promise,” I croaked, my voice breaking.
Father laughed more. “Keep out of that dirty pussy, Totty. I want my boys with clean American girls.”
I blushed. It was impossible not to.
“What’s your brother do with his girl?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know, normal stuff I guess. They hang out and stuff.” I was downplaying the whole affair, wisely keeping our new life from him.
He regarded me for a long moment, fingering the neck of his bottle, picking at the label with his thumb. “You got a girl?” he finally asked.
Terrified at what he might think if I told him the truth, I nodded that I did.
“Lisa,” I lied. “Her name’s Lisa. I met her at school.”
He didn’t say anything. He just smiled softly, watching me. It made me think of the time I came home from a birthday party with swollen lips and red marks all over my neck. He’d carried me to the kitchen sink by the back of my trousers, pushing me under the faucet, rubbing at my skin with the lye soap mother used for cleaning the floors. I couldn’t have been more than five. The boys and girls at the party had retreated to the back garden of the house where it was being held. Lacking a chaperon, we’d taken it upon ourselves to start a spirited game of Postman Knocks, my then-round face quickly becoming a favorite target for the cake-sweetened lips of the giggling girls in their pastel dresses.
“You treat this Lisa well, boy – you understand?”
I nodded, feeling my cheeks warm, hating the lie I’d put myself in.
“It wouldn’t be any kind of a world without the women in it, Totty. You remember that. A man has to know he’s gotta worship his woman, but that don’t mean he’s going to stoop to her – you understand me?”
I nodded, wondering if he knew what he was saying.
“Blessed are we, to have them with us on our journey,” he muttered, his gaze going faraway, taking another pull on his beer. “Blessed are we.”
I closed my eyes, seeing him cutting a great hole in mother’s favorite skirt with his penknife, to spite her when she’d received a compliment one Saturday afternoon from a strange man on the high street in Wurms.
“There’s an angel waiting for every man, Totty. A blessed woman to look after him and give him sons. You find yourself one with strong hips – and a healthy face. You’ll do the Vogels proud, you will.”
I breathed into my bottle, beginning to relax a little, realizing that he only wanted someone to talk to, a son to help him pretend he was a real father.
Rationalizing it that way, I knew I could act my way through the meeting. I just had to avoid his eyes. They cut too deeply, no matter how thick my camouflage.
“A man without a woman is just hamburger,” he sighed, turning his gaze towards the bar, shaking his head slowly. “See Henry the Fly there? He’s a dead man, Totty, a dead man in an empty bed. He carries himself about like a chore. No joy there, no warm pussy in the night.”
I glanced at the gaunt, sickly-looking bartender, seeing him busy wiping at an empty mug, his hangdog eyes searching an unseen space, his face lost in the rising snakes of smoke coming from the row of hunched backs at the bar. I couldn’t have seen what father saw. I was barely nineteen, far too young to feel the dread of the barren eventuality such a picture painted, not the way father had intended.
“You treat her like an angel,” he reiterated, referring to my fabricated girlfriend, with a sincerity I’d rarely witnessed. Thinking of mother, the constant anguish he caused her, made me want to leap across the table and squeeze the breath from him. My hate towards him was equal to my love for mother. It was a balance that worked to perpetuate the situation, though I didn’t realize it then. Home was a raging storm of confrontations, absurd accusations, insane demands, silent appeasements, and uneasy truces. In the thick of it, none of us could see the sad, resounding truth, that we were all essential parts of a madness we were unwittingly nurturing, even as it was destroying us, day by day.
Just then, the front door of the bar opened, emitting a noisy conversation, already well under way. Two women in high heels and long winter coats stomped towards the bar, shiny leather handbags swinging on their crooked arms. They brought with them the smell of diesel exhaust and sickly perfume.
“…damn police again! The motherfuckers think takin’ the seats away is goin’ to stop me workin’ they got anuther thing to be thinkin’ about!” declared the tallest of the two, her hair like the blown mane of some ebony lion. “A girl can take a break and have a cup of coffee, ain’t no crime! They think I’m takin’ johns in a donut shop? Crazy, I tell ya! Crazy. They don’t know nuthin’.”
The other just nodded her head. Both ignored the roosting drinkers. The taller snapped her fingers in the air, catching Henry the Fly’s attention. He lifted his dour face, his eyes offering a mute “What’ll it be?”
“Scotch, no ice. A White Russian for my bitch here,” the taller woman curtly requested, digging in her handbag. As she did, the smaller turned to survey the booths and caught sight of father, his face buried in his bottle. I saw her eyes widen as she tugged on the other’s sleeve. They both turned to look, the taller instantly shooting icy daggers into the top of father’s cap. “Hey! You! I know you!” she called out, in a voice like a fire alarm. “You owes me twenty bucks!”
I shut my eyes, preying they weren’t about to cause any trouble, hoping against hope it was a case of mistaken identity. I heard the hard shoes clicking our way, caught the pungent wafts of perfume advancing upon my nostrils.
“You! Mutha! You cut out on me at the Edison!” the voice wailed. “Give me my twenty bucks!”
I squeezed at my bottle, keeping my eyes closed tight, hardly breathing.
“Get away from here,” I heard father reply, his voice suddenly heavy with the slur of inebriation.
“Twenty bucks, mutha! I sucked your nasty old prick for twenty bucks. Give it me – now!”
I heard father sliding his bottle on the tabletop. Murmurs came from the bar.
“Put that thing away and get out of here,” father repeated, his voice going dark. Right then I knew then she had the right man.
I opened my eyes to see the brassy woman holding a small knife to father’s neck. He was gripping his bottle, tensing his fingers, not looking at her. He gave his warning one more time. She flared her nostrils, her ashen, painted face twisting with rage, her heavily-lined eyes burning right through him. She was about his age. Her circus makeup only made this more obvious.
“Go away,” father growled, lifting his bottle ever so slightly. I was concentrating so hard on the blade of her knife, willing it to move from his throat, that I began to feel dizzy. I started seeing stars, flashes of white that moved about me like tiny insects. I could only watch as the woman pressed the point of the knife into the flesh above his collar. He tried to bring the bottle up, but she was quicker, knocking it from his hand with surprising ease. It shattered on the concrete floor and father seemed to disappear before me, wilting like some neglected flower to the surface of the table. He didn’t move as she rifled through the pockets of his overcoat, which lay on the seat beside him. She quickly found his wallet and withdrew two greasy-looking bills. Searching the rest of the wallet she threw it at the wall, spitting in the air angrily.
“That’s all you got? Six bucks?” she screamed, the knife now brandished over the table, crinkling the dirty bills in her other hand. He didn’t answer. She gritted her teeth, hissing. I could see her friend, standing halfway between the bar and our booth, holding two drinks, her face as still as stone. Henry the Fly was busy cleaning another glass. The pigeons at the bar sat watching silently, their heads crooked about, cigarettes burning in their hands.
“Yes. That’s all,” father finally said, his voice small, sad, like it was when he came down from one of his surges.
The woman turned to me for the first time, looking at me as if I were a stain on a rug. “He got any money?” she said, sliding her knife through the air, now pointing it my way. I saw the thick vein on father’s neck move, his empty hands gripped the air.
“Leave him, he’s just a boy, he’s got nothing for you.”
I stared at the knife, thinking of my own, the much larger weapon hanging just above me, wishing I had the guts to go for it, to beat her down and chase her from the bar, to see the look on father’s face when I did. But it wasn’t going to happen. I knew that. It made me realize that Helmut had only given me the knife to make fun of me. He knew I’d never actually use it.
I began to feel sick, nausea rising, tickling my throat.
“Now you owes me fourteen bucks!” the hooker reminded father, stuffing his money into her coat pocket, still holding the little knife before her as she began to back away. Doing so, she almost bumped into her friend. They exchanged funny looks and the shorter began to giggle. The knife was put way and the drinks were strolled to the far booth, where shadows laid shadows upon one another.
No one said a word for a long moment. An uneasy silence had all but sucked the air from the musty room. I’d placed my open hands on the seat cushion on either side of me. My stomach and head felt connected, like two ends of a Q-tip, each pulling at the other, one needing to explode. I blinked hard, wishing away the stars that continued to gather before my eyes. I knew what was happening, but not why. I’d felt the same way many times before, as if I were about to vomit my insides. It’d been that way, even when I was a child. It was a sensation that came with stress, a warning sign that left me as the danger removed itself. I sat there, concentrating, determined not to let father see me that way, to hide myself from him, as I had so successfully done with he and mother, all my life.
Henry the Fly suddenly coughed.
Someone at the bar waved his hand before his nose.
A joke was made about Henry’s stale farts. I heard giggles coming from the far booth. The stars were gone. My head and stomach no longer felt tethered. I breathed easier. Looking over at father I could only feel pity for him, the way I did whenever he collapsed in mother’s arms, when the uncontrollable tears flowed down his leathery cheeks, when he begged for forgiveness, a forgiveness that always came. His head was still hung low, his hands on his lap, a pool of spilled beer before him. I wanted desperately to say something, to offer some kind of encouragement, but nothing was there. It all seemed so completely hopeless, so useless.
Why had I come from this man, I wondered. Why had he made me, if only to use me to hate himself all the more? Was his pain so great, so much a part of him that he needed to share it through the generations?
Right then, for the very first time, trapped there in that womb-like little booth, I realized how much Grandfather Amwolf and father were alike, and how much Helmut was like the both of them. I suddenly saw my own future, laid out before me, a tunnel of darkness and despair.
In that defeated moment, I lost my grip on the golden deception of childhood, on the unconditional, trusting hope of a promised happy ending.
A few minutes later, the two hookers made their way noisily from the bar, not even looking our way. I watched them disappear back into the rumbling of the night, the door groaning shut behind them. Father still hadn’t spoken, hadn't moved. I reached up to my jacket and took out the kitchen knife Helmut had given me and carefully slid it across the table. Father lifted his head at its approach, his eyes going round, his mouth moving silently. He gave me the briefest of glances, before taking hold of the knife. Touching the sharp blade with his finger, he made a low sound in his throat and proceeded to conceal it in the folds of his overcoat. Then, without a word, he staggered to his feet and exited the bar, leaving me sitting where I was, wondering what I had just done.
I must have sat there for a good ten minutes, lost in thought, before I noticed Henry the Fly, hovering above me, wiping at the spilled beer with a damp rag. He looked at the half-drunken bottle before me. “Get you another?” he asked, grinning.
“No, I’ve had enough, thanks,” I awkwardly replied, getting up, pulling on my jacket. I made my way to the door, wondering what I might find waiting for me on the other side, no longer terrified of the inevitable.
A moment later, I stood on the broken sidewalk, watching the frozen blackness of Liberty Avenue through the mist of my own breath, wondering where father had gone. Then I saw him. He was coming out of a dimly-lit pawn shop across the way. I could see him counting money in his hands, slipping it into his wallet and staggering away, his own breath like a specter fleeing his soul.
It would be almost another two years before I’d see him again.