Story 3 of PIECES, 1960
My mother had convinced herself—and us—that the landlord would never go through with it. But the eviction notice said the marshal would arrive at eight in the morning, and he did. She tried stopping him with lies. “Mr. Levine said he’ll wait for the rent,” she insisted. “He told me himself. I spoke to him yesterday.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Donnegan,” the marshal told her, but he wasn’t. He put his badge back into the vest pocket of his dark, wrinkled suit and told the movers to begin their work. My mother kept at him, but Bridget knew better. She was already packing our things, stuffing everything she could grab into the cartons Conor had gotten from the supermarket.
It was our first apartment on our own—three rooms for the five of us. My older siblings had already made their escape. Peter joined the Navy. Maggie and Kate got pregnant and married. Bridget was thirteen; Conor, eight. I was eleven, sneaking into adolescence with the body of an eight-year-old. Liam was eighteen, broad-shouldered by then, as tall as my father, sullen. He missed the old neighborhood where he could sing a cappella in the hall with Big Al and Guido. He left his dirty clothes around for Bridget to pick up and spoke his anger in the falsetto voice he’d weave into a Clovers’ song. He’d go strutting through the three tiny rooms whenever he got himself ready to go out, and by the time he left, he’d be hardened, his mask in place.
But I knew what was underneath. More than once I’d watched him lean over and place the needle carefully, precisely on the song he wanted to hear, and deliberately, soundlessly slip his hands palms down on the seat of the chair, beneath his thighs, and secretly, relentlessly rock himself against the deadened springs of the armchair, back and forth and back and forth and back and forth to the rhythm he desperately needed. He’d close his eyes, and the emotions he had forbidden his face appeared in the lines of his mouth, and he would sing.
Before she finally left my father, my mother sometimes filled the waiting with song, old Irish ballads she’d learned from her mother and songs from the ’40s, when she was a girl. To distract our fear, she’d prompt each of us to join her, and our voices would mingle. The sounds were rarely so beautiful as they felt, but there were nights when they conjured something even in my father—times when he would keep the door from slamming and stagger over to our circle. No interruptions. No hello. Only the surprising sound of the note we’d forgotten was missing.
While Bridget packed, Liam slipped his 45s back into their dust jackets and found a place for them in his record case. He had dressed quickly—dungarees and a heavy sweatshirt—filled a gym bag with clothes, slid his skinny comb into his back pocket, and shoved a can of shaving cream into the corner of his bag. The last of our toothpaste was in there too. With barely a glance at Bridget, he picked up his record case, tucked another batch of 45s under his arm, and heaved his gym bag over his shoulder. When he saw me watching him, he gave me his toughest look. “Don’t you say nothin’, Moira,” he warned, then closed the door behind him, as quiet as a cat burglar.
In the bedroom I found one of the uniformed moving men standing before the dresser I shared with Bridget, gathering in his broad black hands all the little perfume bottles and jewelry cases we’d collected. I went to the corner of the room and picked up the clothes I’d neglected to put away the night before. I didn’t want those hands on my petticoat, didn’t want him to see how frayed my panties were.
When he left, I went to the spot where the dresser had been, my clothes rolled into a ball against my chest. The man had placed the things from our dresser into a shopping bag, and the jewelry cases had come open; our chains and beads lay tangled among the bottles of perfume. One of the bottles had broken, and the smell of Midnight Passion made the room all at once ridiculous. I stuffed my clothes into the bag.
In the place where the dresser had been, the flowers in the linoleum had not grayed. Balls of dust had woven around things lost, forgotten: an earring, a pen, a spool of thread, loose parts of a life escaping unnoticed. A fifty-cent piece was indented into the floor. I dug it out, to take it to my mother. She was in the kitchen, searching the bottom of her pocketbook for loose change. Four dollars, two quarters, some nickels, and a dime lay on the table before Bridget. “Mama,” I said.
“Not now, Moira. For Chrissake sake, not now.”
The marshal’s heavy steps pounded echoes through the empty apartment. He hesitated in the kitchen doorway, uncertain whether to come in, as if there might be some protection in this circle of ours, some boundary he hadn’t already trespassed. “Is someone coming to pick up your things?”
“I’m calling a storage company.”
“Better have someone stay downstairs until they get here.”
The morning sun was paltry, barely warm. The men had placed the boxes and the furniture on the sidewalk in the thin winter light, and the two Puerto Rican kids from across the street were playing on the couch. “Get off there, Carlos,” I yelled, and they scrambled away. The furniture on the sidewalk made me feel like a stranger, disconnected. The mattress and the cushions and the skinny-legged tables looked alien. I didn’t want to belong to these things anymore, couldn’t wait for someone to take them away.
I sat at the top of the stoop, away from the battered collection calling such attention to itself. Now and then a passerby—someone about to have a day like any other—looked from the furniture to me, my legs held tightly together, my arms folded across my chest. I tried not to see beyond my knees. I took the coin from my pocket and rubbed it between my fingers, glad I hadn’t given it to my mother. I liked the feel of it, the certainty that no one could take it away.
Liam crossed the street to me, rested his gym bag on the arm of a chair.
“Come on. We’ll go home.” His tone didn’t have that harsh edge anymore.
“You mean to Daddy?”
“I can’t. Mama . . . what will Mama say?”
I could tell there was something he didn’t want to tell me, like the time the dog went missing, and he knew it was dead. “I’m going back. If you wanna come, I’ll take you.”
I hadn’t seen my father in more than a month. I never thought I’d miss him, but I did, because he used to find ways to keep us from worrying about the things we couldn’t have, make us laugh about them. He’d say new shoes could give you cavities and going to the movies stunted your growth. “Will he be home?”
“He’s probably at the Light House.” That was where Dad worked, making brooms with other people who couldn’t see. “We won’t see him till he gets in. Who knows when that will be.”
“What if he’s drunk?” I pictured my father, mouth twisted, fists clenched.
“He won’t go for you. I’m the one who’ll get it.” Liam sounded angry, as if it was my fault Daddy never hit me.
He jerked his bag off the chair. “Then don’t.” He left me there, got halfway down the block before I could catch up.
We walked, saying nothing. I could have been any kid walking with her big brother—a kid with a room, a dog, a phone number, things to do that day—but I knew I’d never be a kid like that. No matter how many times we started over, no matter how many times we scratched out the past, the ache in our faces would give us away. I was no one. There was no more to it than that. All I knew was that it felt better with Liam, better than the smell of Midnight Passion, better than my mother scrounging for dimes, better than the sofa in the street.
My father still lived in our old apartment, the second floor of a two-family house about twenty blocks away. My fifty cents would have paid our bus fare, but I didn’t want to tell Liam I had it. I was afraid he’d spend it on cigarettes. I offered to carry Liam’s gym bag, and he passed it to me. He let no one touch his record case. It was cold, but he refused to close his coat. I was desperate for my hat, wondering if Bridget would pack it away for storage by mistake. We passed my school. It was too early for the kids to be there, but lights were on in some of the classrooms and I thought I saw someone in mine. I remembered my homework was still in my book bag. No hat. No homework. I stopped short. “I have a math test tomorrow, Liam. Tomorrow’s Wednesday.”
“Not for us, it isn’t.” He pulled me along and I came more willingly this time, seeing that whether we went back or kept going was all the same.
The downstairs door of our old house was locked and the bell was still broken, so we walked down the narrow alley. A porch off the living room of the apartment looked over the courtyard, and a wooden stairway led up to a door in the floorboards. Liam could have climbed up and got us in, because the latch had broken long ago, but when we got to the back of the house, my father was sitting on the porch, and the sight scared me.
We watched, studying his movements. I hadn’t looked at his face in such a long time, since long before we left him, and now I was hungry for it. Maybe Liam was too, because he didn’t call to him. Dad was nearly blind by then and starting to look very old, his face creased by years of suspicion, maybe afraid others might see the kind of man he was. He was wearing his gray work uniform, the one he wore to the Light House. He had one leg crossed over the other, and he was staring blankly past the antennae on the rooftops across the way. He couldn’t have been up long, because his cigarette trembled in his hand. I wanted to run then, before he realized we were down there, go back to the stoop and the furniture, wait for my mother. I turned toward the alley, but Liam grabbed my arm and called to Daddy. He jolted up when he heard Liam’s voice and leaned over the railing.
“Liam? Liam, have you got Moira with you down there?” he said. “Get up here. Your mother’s been calling Mrs. Olsen.” He went back inside to let us through the front door.
Liam dragged me back up the alley. “I don’t want to stay,” I told him. “I want to go back.”
“Back where? To what?”
“Mama’s worried about me.”
“Then go ahead. You can hide in a dresser drawer and let them put you in storage.”
By then Daddy was at the door. “What do you two think you’re doing?”
Mrs. Olsen opened her door at the end of the dark alcove formed by the stairs that led up to our apartment. The morning light was unkind to her. Her face sagged and her hair was limp with the remnants of a perm. She wore one of those sweater clips to keep a dull green cardigan on her shoulders, and the sleeves hung loose. She looked at us for a second before she spoke, enough time for me to read what I knew every outsider thought of us. Our lives were a threat to them, yet somehow satisfying. We made them feel better than they were.
“Your mother called here twice, said you two took off. She’s worried,” Mrs. Olsen said, looking at me. She crisscrossed the loose sleeves over her chest, as if to ward off our powers. “She said if you showed up here to tell you to call your sister Maggie’s apartment. That’s where she’ll be.” I was about to answer her when she slammed her door.
We headed upstairs with my father, and Liam took the steps two at a time, the way he always did. The banister felt good in my hand, familiar. This was the place we’d found to give ourselves one more chance. Such discordant hope, so out of synch with anything that had come before. We walked through the living room, into the kitchen.
“Take off your shoes,” Daddy said, “before that witch starts banging her broom up at us.” We already had them off. The living room was nearly bare now—one lonely armchair, matching clown-face plaques still hanging on the wall near the corner, the table below them gone. The lamp had tipped over onto the floor and the lampshade was dented. I remembered the starched lace doily my mother kept beneath that lamp.
The kitchen smelled like an ashtray. The table was a collection of Braille playing cards, crushed Camel packs, and dirty deep black ashtrays taken from the bar and grill. A pillowcase of laundry sat on a kitchen chair; an instant coffee jar was open on the counter, packets of sugar from the diner—some whole, some torn—all around it. The floor was sticky with beer.
“What’s gotten into you, runnin’ away from your mother like this?” The question was for me, not Liam, who’d appeared on his doorstep often enough before.
“We got put out,” Liam said.
“Your mother never put you out.”
“The marshal. I’m talking about the marshal,” said Liam. “Put us out of the apartment. The stuff’s in the street.”
“You mean evicted?”
“Jesus.” Daddy sighed and sat down, then got up again, as if he sensed there was something it was proper to do for us now, but couldn’t figure out what it was. He touched the top of my head, and I think he would have tried to comfort me, hold me even, but he didn’t. That would have been ridiculous, and we both knew it. He never did that kind of thing.
“Did you eat?” he said.
“We’re all right,” Liam said.
“You hungry?” he asked me.
“I think so. I mean yes,” I said.
“Don’t you have to go to work?” said Liam.
“The hell with ’em.”
That worried me, because he’d only just been hired back. “But Dad—”
“How am I supposed to go to work with you two traipsin’ around town? Nobody knowin’ where you were?”
I didn’t answer; neither did Liam.
Daddy went over to the cabinets on the wall above the counter. “Let me see what I’ve got. Wait a minute. There must be something here.” He felt his way through the cabinets, as if he’d never explored them before. He pushed aside a bag of flour, a can of lima beans, cursing them. A box of tea fell onto the counter, then some matchbooks tumbled out. He seemed desperate to find something for us, as though we were temperamental, spoiled enough to walk out if he couldn’t accommodate us. He found Rice Krispies and came back with a grin on his face, looking pleased with himself.
“Get us some bowls, Liam,” he said.
“I don’t want any,” Liam told him. He was screening the ashtrays for butts worth saving.
“Bowls,” Daddy told him.
Liam brought them and my father cleared a place for me with a sweep of his forearm. I was altogether taken by his doing this. He had me sit, moved a bowl in front of me. Then he took the cereal box and began to pour, but he couldn’t hold it still; the Rice Krispies sprayed about the bowl, the table. “Ahh, bejesus,” he said, as if even the cereal couldn’t be counted on. “I don’t need to be doin’ this for a big girl like you. I’ll get the milk.” He went to the refrigerator, brought the pint to the table, sat across from me, and reached for a cigarette. I poured the milk and watched tiny curds nest among the rice as the sour smell escaped the container. Then I looked at him, and before he could disguise it, I saw in my father’s face—the way he squinted as if from a foul odor—what it must feel like to fail. To fail beyond any hope of redemption. To know, finally, that you can change nothing.
“I’ll go out and get you something,” he said, “and I’ll call Maggie, tell your mother you’re all right. I’ll take you over there after you have something to eat.”
“We wanna stay here,” Liam said.
“Here? You can’t stay here.”
“I ain’t going back,” Liam told him.
Daddy didn’t argue with him, and I hoped he wouldn’t make us go to Maggie’s. Her apartment had only five rooms and she and Owen had two kids. Liam would be sleeping on the floor for sure, like the last time we wound up there, and my mother would probably make me bunk with Maggie’s two-year-old, who peed the bed.
“I’ll tell you what,” Daddy said. “We’ll eat and go over to the arcade at Coney Island. We’ll make a day of it.”
He was our medicine man then, sure of the magic we needed. “I won’t be long,” he said, then got his wallet and went out.
For the first while, we believed this. Then it was over an hour already and we were even hungrier. We searched the refrigerator again. Cans of beer were all he had. Liam took one out and started looking for the can opener. I found it in the sink with the dishes, a foot of slimy, wet string tied to one end. The doily was in there too, a dishrag now. Liam opened the can and took it back into the living room.
I took one, too, and followed him. He was picking out some 45s from his case, moving into his ritual. He’d gotten the spindle onto the turntable, had the turntable spinning. He held four records in his left hand, evenly spaced along his fingers. He looked for one more. It would have to be just the right one. He’d play them in order, an order that had meaning for him, power. Once I heard the first song, I’d know what came next. The record dropped; the arm moved. There was the expectant swish of the needle on the silent band: Robert and Johnny. “You’re mine and we belong together. Yes, we belong together, for all eternity.” I sang with him. He nodded in approval, although he remained expressionless, singing the song, drinking his beer, never looking at me. A connection permitted only because of the music. “I swear by everything I own that I’ll always, always love you.” He turned it louder, swayed with it, took a long swallow as the second record dropped into place: the Belmonts. “To spend one night with you in our old rendezvous.” Tangled falsetto voices, weaving around the words. Then the Five Satins. The Flamingos. “I don’t know if we’re in a garden,” Liam sang. He glanced at the armchair, and I left him alone, went to my old room, pretending I didn’t know what he needed to do.
My room was only wide enough to fit a full-size bed, almost wall-to-wall. It was pushed flush against the room’s only window. I climbed across the mattress to look out. Mrs. Kearney’s window was open, but she wasn’t sitting near it the way she always did, surveying the courtyard like a prison guard. When my father got home late and the yelling started, she’d make a show of slamming her window down. We knew she complained to our landlord.
We’d left him in the night, after one more of his rages, taking only enough for a day. I’d come back since then, gotten my clothes, some of my dolls. I was at an age when I was ashamed to want them so badly, so I’d forced myself not to take them all. I picked up Betty, the tall, blonde bridal doll with the too-perfect face. Bridget and I had decided she was the mean one. She was catty, hurtful. I could see she hadn’t changed.
I fell asleep to the rhythm of the armchair pounding against the wall and woke to the shock of the apartment door slamming. I thought at first that sleeping in that place again had brought me this familiar dream, but the phonograph needle screeched across the music and my father’s curses filled the place, vile, mad curses from an anger bigger and deeper and blacker than any cause I could reason. I jumped out of bed, weak from the fear of him.
From the living room doorway, I watched him crack Liam’s 45s, fold them in his huge hands. Some bent and popped into his face. Liam grabbed for the ones that remained, and Daddy took him by the back of the neck, slapped him, threw him down. Then he saw me, took a step in my direction, and Liam got up—to keep him from me maybe. But what chance did he think he had against such hate? My father threw him down again, but I didn’t scream, because I had seen this before. Liam was bleeding now—from the broken records or from the force of the blows, I couldn’t tell. He called my name. But I ran. Left him there. Ran to the porch and lifted the door in the floorboards, climbed down the narrow wooden stairs into the quiet of the courtyard, slipped into the alley’s narrow passage. Left him there. Because I believed that my father would not spare me this time.
The sun cast a weak, indifferent light where the alley met the sidewalk, and something caught my eye, a round reflection leaning upright against stubborn weeds that grew from brick, a circle of black circles, poised as if waiting. I picked up the record—the Clovers—and held it with two fingers in that caring way Liam had, like a lover almost, and slipped it between my sweater and my skin. I listened for Liam’s voice, but only for a second, then I ran up the street and let the coldness of the circle contain me, keep away the feeling that I might break all apart. There ain’t nothin’ in this world for a boy and a girl but love, love, love.
At the corner, an old lady with a shopping cart waited to cross. She’d woven twine into the places where the metal netting was gone; some tape made the handle. The woman rested against her cart, weary, and smiled at me, but it was too much of a smile, and I wondered if I had been singing.
PHOTO BY Laura Rivera