Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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There are only two decorations in Tommy’s room, unless you count the beer cans, which you don’t. You simply trash them every morning like clockwork, after you’ve cleaned up the breakfast dishes, put away the sticky cereal boxes, swept the sandy kitchen floor. That’s long after Carl’s lingering kiss at dawn before he left for work, after your kids have left for school, right about the time the midmorning train whistle blows in the distance.
The two decorations are the Purple Heart, which hangs over Tommy’s bed, and the color photograph beside it. Both are tacked to the wall with green plastic pushpins. The Purple Heart falls down a lot. You find it under the bed or tangled in the rumpled sheets or across the room in the corner where you always find Tommy’s sweat-soaked nightclothes. You pick it up cautiously and tack it back up beside the photograph, above Tommy’s punched-up pillows — exactly where he hung it when he first came to live with you until he got back on his feet, in this room that was once your mother’s, after he left the veteran’s hospital.
This morning, the Purple Heart is missing again. There’s a long scar in the wall where it should be, and the green plastic pushpin is gone. The hole, which has grown wider with each rehanging, has finally gotten too big. You will have to patch the wall, or else hang the heart slightly above the spot Tommy chose for it.
But first you have to find the heart. It must be somewhere nearby; it never leaves this room. It falls now and then but never strays far from its place on the wall beside the creased photograph of the Asian girl and her baby. Under their steady gaze, you strip the yellowed sheets and pillowcases from Tommy’s bed, first running your hands into the corners, where the wool blanket is still tightly tucked and the heart might easily be hiding. It wouldn’t be the first time you found it there. But not this morning.
You let the mattress air out for a few minutes while you get clean linens from the hall closet, then grab the broom and dustpan from their kitchen corner.
Back in Tommy’s room, you raise the shade halfway, knowing it will screech in protest if you try to raise it any higher. When you pull it back down later — all the way down, the way Tommy likes it and needs it for his daytime sleeping — you’ll see the faded line across its center. Although you put all your muscle into scrubbing it after Mim died, you can still see that rust-colored border between the amount of light your mother would let into this room and the amount your brother won’t.
You open the window a crack, heedless of the heat loss. This room is more in need of fresh air than of stale warmth. You inhale the winter air and hold it in your lungs as you pick up Tommy’s damp nightclothes and stained workpants from the corner. The heart isn’t here. Exhaling loudly, you shove Tommy’s clothes into the pillowcase, on top of the soiled sheets.
You sweep the wide-boarded wood floor, which needs a good coat of bowling-alley wax, as you’ve known for some time now. You are the only one who has noticed. Carl and the kids never see this floor. Company never sees it. Tommy sees only what he wants to see, certainly doesn’t see the floor when he shuffles in half drunk, a six-pack tucked under his arm to finish the job. You’re also sure he doesn’t care.
Tommy works for the post office, but you have no idea what his job is. All you know is that he goes off every evening and comes home at noon, and somewhere in between he works. You know because you’ve swept his crumpled pay stubs from under the bed. You always trash them along with the beer cans. Those, too, confirm that he has a job, since Tommy has never asked you for money or raided your cache in the old cookie jar on the top shelf of the pantry. You and Tommy don’t talk anymore, but you’re certain he knows the money is there because you saw his eyes rove up to it when you gave him the house tour, before he retreated to this one room where the Purple Heart hangs. You’re certain he recognized the chipped ceramic cookie jar with the squirrel poised on top, its shiny black eyes still as alert as when you were kids and Tommy taught you to sneak up on it from behind to pilfer pennies from Mim’s savings.
You and Tommy don’t talk anymore, unless you count the lies he tells you when he comes shambling in at noon, half crocked, from Al’s Country Nugget. You don’t count Tommy’s lies; they are beyond counting.
You especially remember the time he told you a crazy woman had come into the post office with a shotgun, screaming that she’d just shot her husband and that he was in the trunk of her car out in the parking lot. “Crazy as a loon,” Tommy said. “I finally calmed her down. Cops had to come and pry open the trunk — she threw the keys in the river. Know what they found? A goddamn photograph! Big as life, like a poster. Can you believe that?”
You can’t and you don’t. Any more than you believe the other stories Tommy tells you; any more than you believe that someday the stories will end and Tommy will talk to you like Tommy again, that he’ll be the way he was before he came home and hung the Purple Heart on the wall; the way he was the summer you turned sixteen and he took you to New York City for the weekend to celebrate.
Tommy wasn’t living at home then with you and Mim. He’d finished with high school, or it had finished with him, and he’d moved out in June, three weeks shy of your sixteenth birthday and his eighteenth.
Born on the same day, two years apart, you and Tommy could have passed for twins. You were big for your age, and Tommy was a bit small for his, until he discovered the Pappas Gym and started lifting weights every day. In the past year, he’d put on muscle and grown three inches. Your girlfriends were forever trying to sneak a peek at him through the narrow bathroom that joined your bedrooms, hoping he’d come through without his shirt to close the door before he ran a shower. He often did, as if he knew what they were hoping.
The weekend you turned sixteen, Tommy asked Mim if he could take you to New York to see a show. Mim was careless and let you go.
Your mother was a product of a more genteel age, when men were expected to look out for women and take care of them. She thought Tommy would protect you. You knew better. On those double dates she’d allowed you to go on when you were only fifteen — too young, but since Tommy was seventeen, it was OK — you’d found out that your mother was a dreamer. You could have lost your virginity in the back seat of his ’55 Chevy and Tommy wouldn’t have known. He’d been too busy in the front seat hoping his date would lose hers.
You knew that there wouldn’t be a Broadway show that weekend, that the kind of show Tommy had in mind was more likely to feature strippers than Rockettes. It wasn’t really a lie, he told you on the train; he would take you to a show. And he did. The whole weekend was a show, from the moment you boarded the train in the predawn starlit gray on Saturday to the rattling midnight ride home on Sunday.
Mim had insisted on the train. The Chevy could not be trusted, she’d said, to get you and Tommy to New York and back safely. It was eleven years old and fading fast. “No one in New York drives except the cab drivers,” she’d said. She’d given Tommy extra money for train and cab fare. Subways were unthinkable. You can still remember holding your breath as she lifted the squirrel lid off the cookie jar to count out the bills. You prayed she wouldn’t count it all and notice the missing two dollars — the two dollars you’d needed to buy the book you’d hidden under the loose floorboard of your closet, a manual that explained all the fumbling on those double dates in Tommy’s Chevy. But she didn’t count all the money, didn’t find the book. You found it again, years later, when you cleaned the house before the realtors sold it, when Mim moved in with you and Carl and the kids. It was exactly where you’d hidden it that week before you turned sixteen.
You’ve loved the train since you were a toddler, when you first discovered the tracks that ran beyond the picket fence, beyond the wall of lilacs, way beyond the hill on which the house was built. That’s when you put it all together: the wailing whistles that entered your baby dreams in the dark, silent house; the floorboards trembling beneath your hands and knees; the fear in Mim’s voice when she plunked you down in the yard and told you to stay put — you were too small to go with Tommy and his friends. But of course you escaped and found Tommy, and he showed you the tracks. He was allowed to stand beside the picket fence and wave at the trains. The brakemen picked up their flags, swung aboard the caboose, and tipped their pin-striped railroad caps at the two of you. You squirmed to be free of Tommy’s arms, free to squeeze through the pickets and follow the train down the tracks leading to anywhere.
The time you and Tommy ran away from home, that was what you did — follow the tracks — until it got late, and you got hungry and started to cry. Then Tommy took his emergency dime out of his jeans and called Mim, who came and picked you up three miles outside of town. You never wanted to run away again, but Tommy did it about once every year until he moved out that June, three weeks before you rode the train into New York with Tommy beside you, listening to his pocket radio and humming along, getting fired up for the rock bands in the bars off Times Square.
You stared out the window, watched the moon get paler and paler as the sun rose, saw dew-glistening laundry flapping on clotheslines. The debris-strewn banks beside the tracks were just like the ones beyond the lilac wall at home. The train was all you’d hoped it would be. You could only have been happier if you and Tommy had been riding in a boxcar with no tickets.
In Wallingford you read the graffiti scribbled on the wall of the station: “Don Ouimette was here. 1962. Arrived stoned.” A soldier boarded, and you imagined it was him, Don Ouimette, only a little older and straighter, going off to fight in Vietnam. He sat across the aisle, winked at you, and touched his cap. You laughed and saluted, but Tommy never noticed.
In Penn Station you had to use the ladies’ room. There were no doors on the stalls, so Tommy stood guard outside to make sure no weirdos would surprise you. You didn’t sit — you squatted, as Mim had taught you long ago when you were a kid.
Tommy had booked a cheap hotel room. The bellhop, an old man, snickered when Tommy tipped him. You had no luggage to speak of — only a small overnight case and Tommy’s knapsack — but Tommy insisted the bellhop carry them. He guessed the guy could earn his dollar, he told you.
You ate supper at the automat, which you had confused in your mind with coin-operated laundries. You liked the formica-and-chrome shininess and the little doors that slid open to serve your food. Tommy liked the prices. You returned there for breakfast on Sunday, late, right about the time the lunch crowd was arriving. You choked down some orange juice and an aspirin from the small yellow-and-brown tin that Mim had insisted you carry in your pocketbook.
It had been a wild night. You and Tommy started out in Times Square. He had his driver’s license, which said he was old enough to drink. You had no ID, but you put on extra makeup and pinned your hair up and wore a low-cut jersey.
Tommy’s green eyes glowed in the cavernous topless bar. He actually licked his lips, looking like all the other men and man-boys in the bar, as the dancer swayed and bobbed above your front-row table. In the one-bulb glare of the ladies’ lounge, you fussed with the scooped neck of your tight jersey before returning to Tommy’s side. You were frightened and wanted to pretend you were his date. Half drunk, Tommy laughed and agreed.
Later, he swung you onto one dance floor after another until the beer began to bubble in his stomach and he needed to take a walk. You strolled hand in hand for hours, leaving the bright lights and pounding rhythms far behind. You didn’t know uptown from downtown, one neighborhood from the next, but Tommy was leading.
When your feet ached from walking, Tommy took you underground, where the mole trains tunneled. “But Mim said not to take the subway,” you protested.
“So?” Tommy said. “Are you coming?”
Naturally, you went, followed him through the turnstile, exchanged your quarters for tokens, and waited on the wide platform, uncertain what to expect from trains underground.
It was late — you didn’t know how late, having no watch — and the platform was nearly empty. Two lovers made out in the shadows beneath a stairway; the man’s dark, hairy hands roamed the pale flesh beneath the woman’s miniskirt. You looked away, but Tommy didn’t. You saw the drunk first.
He was beyond the yellow line that warned against straying too close to the edge of the platform. He swayed, then fell into the chasm where you knew the train would appear at any moment. His arms went straight out from his sides, and the brown bag in one hand crashed against the concrete with a noise like fireworks. You screamed, the lovers separated, and Tommy jumped down onto the tracks, where the drunk was sprawled, unconscious.
“You’re crazy!” Lover Boy shouted.
“Help me!” Tommy commanded. He draped the fallen man across his shoulders and heaved him up to Lover Boy. You reached down to give Tommy a hand up, and he fell on top of you, across the yellow safety line, just as the train screamed through the black tunnel, passing you by.
You and Tommy left the unconscious man propped against a bench for someone else to find and rode the next train down to Greenwich Village, where Tommy had a shot and you drank his beer.
That same night, Tommy told you he’d enlisted, and you told him he’d make a great Marine. Also that night, you got drunk for the first and last time — really passed-out drunk in some Village bar with spinning psychedelic lights — and Tommy carried you back to the seedy hotel, put you to bed, and slept on the floor. You tripped over him when the phone rang with a wake-up call at a quarter to eleven.
The train ride home gave you a headache, or brought back the one you’d waked up with. Your stomach churned in time with the clacking wheels against the rails, and you couldn’t look out the window while the train was moving because it gave you vertigo. Tommy noticed and switched places with you. You reclined your aisle seat and slept all the way home, your head on Tommy’s strong shoulder.
Now Tommy hates trains. And planes and boats and buses and cars. He prefers to ride his battered three-speed bike to work, and home from Al’s Country Nugget at noon. It’s just as well. A bike eliminates the possibility that he’ll kill a child or a grandmother, and leaves only the possibility that he might kill himself.
But you know Tommy’s already dead and gone. It happened some time ago, when he was shot in that Asian village. He’s buried there, beneath foreign soil, at the place where the jungle meets the carefully tended fields. You look into the photograph over the bed, beyond the faces of the Asian girl and her baby, and think you see Tommy’s grave, almost disappearing into the dense foliage. It’s an empty body bag they’ve shipped home to you. It bloats with beer, then collapses on this bed to sweat and howl beneath the Purple Heart, the heart you find behind the door and tack back up on the wall.
Mary Connor Ralph