In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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What Henry wants to be is an actor, but in the meantime he teaches a course called “Great Plagues.” What I want to do is play for the Lakers, engineering the break while Kareem signals for the lob. For now I sit in an office at City Hall with PLANNING ASSOCIATE stenciled in black on the door, which means that I spend my time trying to figure out where to hide thirty thousand tons of garbage each week. I really don’t have anything to say on the subject of plagues, major or minor, but I agree to guest-lecture because Henry has an audition for a lawn mower commercial and wants to save his voice.
I talk about how we have this garbage piling up all the time, and how tough it is to find someplace to stick it, but how the boys down at City Hall are worrying about it night and day, and by the way please bag your leaves. It’s the talk I give whenever my number comes up at the office and I find myself standing before some women’s bridge club out in Manayunk somewhere. Trouble is I can go maybe half an hour, and Henry’s class goes fifty minutes. I finish up and look around — except Henry’s gone, of course, down the hall to grab a smoke or hit the men’s room. So I lick my lips and look out over the sea of young faces, and say, “Questions?”
A long silence follows, everybody looking at everybody else, and I’m about to dismiss class early, sending them off to hurl frisbees at each other or play grab-ass in the dorms, when a hand shoots up in the rear of the room. A young woman rises — she looks small and dark and lost — and asks for my thoughts on the problem of Third World dumping, meaning, I realize too late, the habit we have of sending our trash halfway around the world and depositing it next to grass huts. Later, I’ll learn that t-h’s give her fits; they sometimes come out sounding like d’s, or t’s. All I hear now is “turd world dumping,” as if she’s trying out a new name for sewage systems. I’m halfway through a detailed account of the giant sludge filter operating out at Penn’s Landing when Henry walks through the door and waves me off.
I run into her a week later at the Red Herring, a sushi and beer place down in Center City. I hate sushi, but the heat in my office cut out at 9 in the morning with a triplet of deep thumps like a squad of F-14s passing overhead, and the Red Herring is dim and warm and a three-minute walk from City Hall. I settle at the bar and order a scotch, when she pulls her head from a book. The cover of the book has a picture of a towering waterfall, white foam gunning from a jungle wall like a tapped hydrant. She steps around the three stools separating us and slides her elbows toward me, resting her chin in a little saddle she makes with her hands.
I look at her and say, “Henry’s class, right?”
She smiles, her eyes blue and shocking in the brown of her face. “Professor Kingston’s class. Yes.”
I’m suddenly jealous of Henry, envying him the young women who write his words down in red spiral notebooks. She has beautiful hands, I see now, long fingers and nails like ice.
“Buy me a beer,” she says.
It takes three hours of hard drinking, and a little platter of tuna-looking things that aren’t tuna at all and make my stomach pitch, before I think to get her name. By that time I know she hails from a little town in Central America that has more iguanas than people. I know she’s here for a semester, because the university has what she tells me is the best department in the world in something called political geography — one of those disciplines hatched in the last twenty years that manages to place its journals in all the downtown B. Dalton’s — and then it’s back home. I know she’s never been to a salad bar. Her father, a journalist, disappeared four years ago. Her favorite color is green and her favorite program is “Kojak,” which is still playing prime time in San Salvador.
I know she has a boyfriend back home named Rafael.
Not Ralph, a name for goldfish and ridiculous uncles. But Rafael. Rafael invites thoughts of dead volcanoes, hints at Renaissance frescoes. Rafael is stickball in New York streets.
“Mercedes,” she says when we finally come around to her name. It sends a parade of hood ornaments through my head.
The cry of a siren greets us in the street. I walk her back up Walnut, hoping she’ll ask me in, hoping we’ll spend a minute or two at the door, our arms around each other, her breath on my chin, then maybe lose ourselves in a big down comforter or whatever she uses to fend off winter. But at the door she brushes her lips against my cheek, saying she has an Econ paper due Monday.
I turn and head back down the street. I take a right at Thirty-Second and cut across the campus. Through a window I can hear two guys debating the sweater size of a girl named Cheryl.
I pause at the corner and DON’T WALK, though it’s 3 in the morning and there aren’t any cars anywhere. I’m thirty-seven years old.
When the bartender sets the two bottles of Dos Equis on the bar, the guy on my right looks my way. “You got a green card for those?” he asks, cracking a big grin and slapping his thigh. He’s wearing a cap that has INTERNATIONAL HARVESTER across the bill in red and gold lettering. I can see rows of worn fillings like chips of coal at the back of his mouth. The bartender and I trade small smiles. Then the three of us swap nods all the way around, as if we’ve come to a hard-fought understanding. I lay five dollars on the bar and carry the beers back to the table.
Mercedes tilts the beer and takes a long swallow. Then she fills her glass and knocks the lime off its perch with a flip of her finger. “I don’t like this,” she says.
I’m not sure whether she’s talking about the bar, with its lines of chrome and dark wood, or Mr. International Harvester, or me. I work at squeezing the lime around the mouth of my glass.
Out in the street a woman is screaming for Ernie, or Bernie. There’s the sound of glass breaking, and she shuts up.
We sip our beers in silence, and then I rise for another round. Mr. International Harvester has slipped out, and I’m glad for that. While the bartender pulls the beers, he leans toward me and says, “Fred didn’t mean anything.”
“Fred?” I say. I’m rooting in my wallet for another five.
“Fred. He doesn’t think sometimes, that’s all.” He dips his head in Mercedes’ direction, and I turn to look. From a distance she looks frail and out of place. Up close it’s not like that. Up close I’m taken in by the broad plain of her face, the sudden whiteness of her teeth. The bartender and I stare at Mercedes for a minute, until she looks up and sees both of us watching her. She makes a fish-face.
“Fred, he was just trying to be funny.”
I find the five and set it on the bar. I hustle on back to the table, the beers in my fists.
Somebody turns on the TV perched high in a corner, and we settle back to watch as the Lakers run down the ’Sixers. Before I know it I’m telling her all about it, beginning with Jerry West and ending with an account of how hard it is for Kareem to find goggles that fit.
When I finish up, she shakes her head. “Your heroes,” she tells me, “they are so small.”
I feel like I’ve been slapped. “He’s seven feet and change.” I mutter.
Her laugh, when it comes, is a high trill that makes me think of exotic birds with unpronounceable names.
“How about you? When you go back, I mean.” I’m still smarting, though only a little.
Her eyes narrow, and she stares at me for a long time before muttering some Spanish.
“El triunfo. Work for the triumph,” she explains.
“The triumph,” I repeat. On the screen Worthy powers home a twenty-foot jumper.
I walk her home, to a neighborhood filled with Thai restaurants and crumbling porches and men sleeping on grates. As she wrestles with the key she reaches behind her and finds my hand. Without turning around she steers me through a windowless kitchen and up a rack of rickety wood stairs to a small loft. Up in the loft I dip my head and she lifts her chin. As we near the finish I hear her breathe, “there,” and then, “there,” and that is all, except it comes out sounding like “dare,” or “tear.”
“Salad bar,” she says when I answer.
I cradle the phone between my chin and shoulder and rub my eyes. Outside the sky is a churning gray.
“It’s Saturday morning,” I tell her. “It’s 6 o’clock on a Saturday morning.”
I call around and find a Sizzler down on Eighteenth Street that’s open. “We don’t restock until 10, 11 on weekends,” the voice on the other end tells me when I ask about the salad bar. “Don’t count on much out of the way of some iceberg and a few garbanzos.”
The Sizzler has a teenager with green hair behind the counter and an old guy with a broom, asleep on his feet. They’re both wearing brown uniforms with pointy hats. I grab a cup of coffee and follow Mercedes around the salad bar as she loads up. She lays some lettuce on the plate and then makes separate mountains of bacon bits, black olives, mushrooms, and pickled beets. It looks like a miniature Andes circling the rim. She finishes off with a lake of buttermilk dressing in the center. We pick a table at the far end of the restaurant, away from the pointy hats, next to a window that fronts Spruce.
“How was your Econ paper?”
“A-minus,” she says. She takes her fork and gouges out mountain peak after mountain peak, until she’s left with a ring of volcanoes.
The fork begins a second circuit. Suddenly I’m wishing I smoked. She looks up to find me watching her. A smear of buttermilk dressing sits on her lip. “This is fun,” she reassures me.
“Rafael,” I hear myself say, working my coffee with the stir stick. “Student?” Outside a cab narrowly misses a red Chevy wagon, taking down a STOP sign instead. The cabbie leaps out and begins hammering the fender of the Chevy with his fists. The woman at the wheel of the Chevy locks her doors and sits staring straight ahead, her face like sheetrock. “Peasant?”
Mercedes reaches over and pulls a napkin from the dispenser. She glances my way, then dabs at her mouth.
“Right there,” I say. “Toward the corner.”
“He’s a gorilla,” she says.
“Yeah?” I’m thinking maybe Ralphs are Ralphs the world over. “Seems a little harsh,” I add, my tone oily with charity.
“No. A guerrilla. You know. Not the animal.”
I stop stirring. The guy with the broom wakes up. My right hand goes into a spasm of clenching. “Pay well?” I say.
She pinches a bacon bit between her thumb and forefinger, inspects it, then pops it into her mouth. “I can go back, yes?” she asks, standing with the plate in her hand and jarring the table so the coffee sloshes onto the formica and speeds toward my crotch.
“You can go back,” I say, crossing my legs.
That night she has a meeting, some group whose name sounds like it belongs on a fat file in Washington, so I head on over to Henry’s. Henry answers the door with a beer in his hand. He stares at me for a moment, like he’s trying to place me. Then he hands me the beer. “Hey,” he says, “c’mon in.” His apartment looks like large creatures got loose, died, and the burial’s not for another week. I hear the theme song to a sitcom in its twentieth year of syndication tooting around in the background.
“You up to anything?” I say.
“Nah. Just thinking about maybe doing some ironing.”
I push a pizza box off the sofa and settle in. “Surprised you own one.” On the screen Opie’s walking down a country road with a fishing pole over his shoulder.
“Sure. I got the iron, Marge got the pasta-maker.” Marge is his ex. He pays three hundred a month in child support. Every Christmas she sends him the same photo, Henry and Marge and the two kids from back in the old days, when they were still together. Except every Christmas she cuts his face out of the picture. Henry has a drawer full of Henry-less family photos.
He goes into the kitchen and pulls another beer from the refrigerator.
“You remember that talk I gave in front of your class?”
“Sure do,” he calls. “You left me twenty minutes short.”
“There’s this student in your class. A sophomore, dark.”
He steps from the kitchen, his eyes fading out of focus and then back in again. “I know the one, sure. Mexican or something, right?” I don’t say anything for a while. I take a long pull on the beer. My eyeballs itch.
He stares at me. “Hey,” he says finally. “Hey.” Henry considers his beer bottle. On the screen Aunt Bea is baking an apple pie. “I feel like maybe a pimp,” he says.
I wake up and Mercedes is sleeping with her right hand on her left breast and her lips parted. I make it over to the edge of the loft and work my way down. I tiptoe to her bureau. The bottom drawer contains a batch of letters done up in green twine. I pull a letter free and weave my way around the sofa and on into the tiny kitchen. I try three burners before one finally flames blue. “Te quiera mucho,” I read. “Me haces falta mucho.” Muchos all over the place. It does not look good. I slip the letters back into the drawer, breaking the twine, and head for the wood stairs leading toward the loft. Midway up a piece of lumber gives and then my head is bouncing along the floor.
When I come to I’ve got my head in Mercedes’ lap and I’m staring up into her eyes. Her lap is warm, and I can feel the beating of her heart as it butts up against my crown. “You left the gas on, too,” she says.
In the morning, a Sunday, she makes a breakfast of eggs and black beans and hot chilies that leaves me teary and gasping. She says she has to study, so I decide to tag along. At the university library I feel like I’m eighty years old. I leave her at a study carrel and head for the card catalog. I find it below a drawer marked EAT to ELF.
On the map, El Salvador looks like a shoe box somebody’s stepped on. I learn that for a long time the place was a bunch of Indians running around planting corn and inventing mathematics. Then the boats from Spain pulled in and gave everybody smallpox. I read for a while, and find out the place is rotten with cashews and coffee and dysentery. Seems their major import is Apache attack-choppers shipped in from the States.
I trot on up to the periodicals section and spend the next two hours bent over one of those microfiche viewers, going blind.
Monday morning a truck filled with three tons of incinerated ash jackknifes on Interstate 95, blocking traffic for eight miles and bringing out the EPA in force.
I place a call to the Department of Streets to see whether they’re going to handle the mess or dump it all on my office. I get put on hold, a sax arrangement of “Greensleeves” filling my ear. The heater is still out, so I sit in my overcoat and try to blow chilly smoke rings. I look out the window and watch as an old woman shuffles along, a pair of dirty sneakers on her feet, and an enormous bag of rags hanging from her shoulder, making her body list to the left. The sax picks up in tempo and I stare as the sneakers blossom suddenly, crawling up her calves and turning olive green. The old woman breaks into a run, a rifle big as a fence post in her arms. I rise out of my chair and press my face against the window. A voice cracks over the line, making me stagger like I’ve taken a slug to the heart.
“If it were on the Ben Franklin Parkway or over on Spring Garden, OK,” the voice is saying, “we’d be in business. But you’re talking interstate here. You’re talking state lines and all the rest.”
The woman drops to her knees and rolls, coming up in a crouch. She levels the rifle and makes a slow three-sixty turn. I flop to my belly and hug the all-weather carpet.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” the voice says. “Try City Hall, maybe.”
“Go for it,” Henry says. He’s landed a part in an underwear commercial and is trying on his outfit. He’s the pineapple.
“Really?” I say.
“Sure. Finals are in two weeks. Invite her over. Make her dinner. Good wine. Say all the right things.” He can’t find the zipper, so he has to step through the neck in order to get his feet into the leg holes.
“I don’t know,” I say. I reach toward him and tug on a little metal tab that won’t give. “Is this it?”
“Too late.” He gets both feet in and then starts working on finding the arm holes. “She’s young, that’s all. She doesn’t know. She’ll learn to love it here, you’ll see.”
“You think?” I say.
“Sure.” He pulls out a cap sprouting three large plastic leaves and ties it to his head. “What’s not to like?”
“But I’m in the middle of cleaning,” she says when I call.
“I’ve got a pair of lobsters here in need of a sauna.”
“The mildew in the bathroom, it’s terrible.”
“We’ll build a fire. I’ll rub your back,” I tell her.
“I’m afraid to pee it’s so bad.”
“A good wine, white and dry as deserts.”
“You’ll rub my back?” she says.
I hang up the phone and jump in the car. I stop at a fish place over in Olde City, but it’s late in the day and all they have is a single greenish lobster missing a claw. I let the girl at the counter talk me into some crabs instead, along with a special crab tool that looks like a miniature tennis racket outfitted with pulleys and happens to be on sale.
I’m working on the fire when she knocks, but so far all I’ve gotten is a teepee of smoldering wood and two burnt fingers. I answer the door and her cheeks look the color of rust from the wind. She sheds her coat, then makes a face. “Why so much smoke?”
“It’s not drawing right. Just give it a minute. Hungry?”
We head arm-in-arm into the kitchen. I seat her at the table and set a glass of wine in front of her. I stand and play with the crab tool, wondering how it works. Finally I give it up and reach for the crabs with my fingers. I drop them into a pot of boiling water. They wave their claws around for a while, like they’re trying to get somebody’s attention. Then they go to sleep.
She rises out of her chair. She kisses my ear. I put my arms around her. She leans her breasts against me. Her neck is a curving miracle, her wrists thin twists of rosewood. I kiss her straight on the lips, then pull her tight.
From over her shoulder I watch as the little teepee of wood spits sparks, then collapses. A thin feather of flame curls high and wavers before fanning out. The flame goes orange, then red, then blue. I look into the flame and see right through to the end of my life. I’m thinking twenty years’ worth of winter mornings waking next to Mercedes. I’m thinking piñatas for children named Pablo and María. I’m thinking mucho all over the place.
“I’ll write you,” she whispers.
“You and I, we could —”
“I’ll write you,” she says again.
“I don’t understand why —”
“No,” she says. “You don’t.”
She steps free and takes a long sip of her wine. My hands hang in the air for a second, as if I’ve forgotten what they’re for. I reach over and pick up the special crab tool.
“I don’t like this,” she says in a soft voice.
“It’s twelve bucks a bottle,” I say.
“Not this,” she says, nodding at her glass, “but this,” and she waves at the kitchen, at the apartment, at the city as it stretches beyond the window.
The crab tool makes this clacking noise in my hand. “This, everything,” she says, her eyes suddenly moist. She waves at the kitchen again. “It scares me to debt,” is what I hear next.
I throw the special crab tool on the floor and it breaks in three places. We look down at the pieces. “Death,” I bark. “It scares me to death.”
She frowns, then wanders over to the stove. I move next to her. We stand shoulder to shoulder and stare into the pot for a long while.
“These are lobsters?” she says finally.
I run my fingers across her brow, pretending to brush a strand of hair out of her eyes, though her hair is perfect, perfect and dark and beautiful. “The best,” I tell her.
Terry L. Toma