Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The instant Fritz sees her at Keith Gentile’s party, it clicks: Claire Raffo. The pitiful little girl he knew way back at Saints Peter and Paul grade school, who sobbed herself sick every day over lunch while the gorgeous Sister Hyacinth smiled and banged the table with her yardstick and drilled Claire in her lovely soprano to eat. In the years since then, Claire has rarely crossed his mind, yet when he sees her now, the memory of those daily lunchroom scenes ratchets through his head.
Fritz is not in the habit of instigating conversation. He’s usually more than willing to remain anonymous and keep to himself. But tonight he walks up to Claire Raffo, who’s standing out on Keith’s balcony, drinking wine from a coffee mug. A beautiful summer Saturday night. Music, stars, languor. The bravado of two pipes of opiated hash in the alley with Keith.
Fritz explains how they know each other. It’s obvious Claire doesn’t remember him, but she’s friendly, and pretty in a soft yet durable way. Nothing like his mother and her cronies: hard, smart-mouthed women with dyed hair and dresses too short to flatter their lumpy legs. As he looks into Claire’s slightly amused face, he feels something a little like destiny. What are the odds of their reconnecting this way after all these years? This thought appeals to him: the romantic notion that perhaps there is an order to the universe, and that he and Claire have all along been situated together in its design.
“That was a long time ago,” Claire says. Her smoky whisper hangs in the air between them. She looks him dead in the eye, as if there’s nothing in the world that scares her.
Those scenes in the school cafeteria seem like a life that someone else lived, something he might have read about or dreamt: Claire’s tiny, birdlike eyes, the color of aluminum; her plaid uniform hanging off her; how terrified she was of Hyacinth, in her sleek black habit, coming down with the yardstick on the table next to Claire, who sat, like the rest of them, on a folding mortuary chair with “DeRosa” stenciled on its back. She was starved looking, like one of the spindly African children they collected money for at Christmas and Easter. Before her sat the white tablet of untouched bread. She would lay one hand upon it as if swearing an oath.
“Pick up your sandwich, Miss Raffo,” Sister Hyacinth would say in a measured voice, whacking the table with her stick. Claire would jump in her seat at each report. “Pick it up,” hammering again until the little girl started to cry. With both hands Claire would hoist the sandwich to her mouth and peck at it, Hyacinth swooping in and out, pounding the table until Claire came apart, turquoise veins spiraling beneath her papery skin, her silently wailing mouth clotted with meat and bread, tears and drool dripping from her chin.
“Swallow, Miss Raffo.” The thin wood slamming down, Claire quivering. “It’s a sin to waste when so many pagan stomachs go unfilled day after day.”
Fritz and Claire stand on the balcony, looking out over the alley: potholed asphalt; black chunks of rocky tar scored out of the roadbed by the harsh Pittsburgh winters; the distant, otherworldly lights of downtown. His hands rest on the wrought-iron balustrade. When he looks over the edge, it’s too much like being on the scaffold he scales every day for a pittance, a hundred pounds of bricks stacked in a hod on his shoulder, the blinding sun, the skinny planks beneath his work boots checked and splintering. Keith’s little patch of peppers and tomatoes seems to rush up at him, his vision clouds, and he begins to fall backward. When he comes to, he is sitting on the balcony, Claire next to him, Keith leaning down, a knot of people surrounding them. Claire’s open hand rests on Fritz’s arm. He clutches the balusters.
“You OK, buddy?” Keith asks.
“Yeah, I’m all right.”
“That hash,” Keith says. “It’s like acid.”
Claire says nothing, her hand white against his blue work shirt. There’s the music and the party, the smell of grass and hash, the clink of bottles.
“I’m fine, you guys. Honest to God. I just got a little lightheaded.”
Claire doesn’t move her hand, even after the others back away. She and Fritz sit side by side on the balcony. He looks at her face: pink bow lips, no lipstick. He knows that a door has opened. “I’m ok,” he says, and he smiles, though he does not mean to.
“I probably need to take a little walk.”
“I probably need to come with you.”
As they get to their feet, she removes her hand from his arm, and he instantly feels its absence.
They decide to go to Tootie’s Diner for coffee. Cutting through the alley, they emerge onto Penn Avenue and the full thrum of lights and traffic. They turn to each other, as if this moment were mapped out long ago in the cafeteria of Saints Peter and Paul, and kiss. Music pours out of Keith’s window: “I should’ve stayed on the farm / I should’ve listened to my old man.” Claire takes Fritz’s arm, and they walk the remaining half a block to the garish diner. No booths, just a counter. They perch on high stools and order coffee from Pam: front teeth only, no molars; netted, concrete-colored hair; pencil behind her ear; pale green uniform trimmed with white collar and short, white-cuffed sleeves. While they sip, Pam sits in a chair behind the counter and works a crossword, every so often singing out, “You good, Fritzy?” and getting up, no matter Fritz’s response, to top off their cups. One other customer: a fat black man with a Pirates cap and a burgundy gaucho; chili and a milkshake. The place is cruddy in a homey way, the fluorescent tubes coated with dust, grimy bowling trophies shelved above the grill.
Fritz wants to ask Claire what it was that kept her from eating her lunch all those years ago. Now that he’s resurrected that mental picture, he can’t erase it, as if she were some bleeding icon, or one of those leper kids waiting on Jesus in catechism coloring books. The question nagged him even back then: Why won’t she just eat? Then Hyacinth will shut her mouth and put that stick down.
But instead he spills his guts about his job working for his Uncle Pat’s bricklaying outfit, how he has to climb a scaffold carrying a hod, and it scares him to death, that even going up and down stairs now has him quivering. He has dreams about falling, or the scaffold imploding. There’s an omen hanging over his head like a black nimbus, and he doesn’t know what to do.
“Quit,” Claire says.
“It’s my uncle’s company. My mother’s brother. You know: disgrace.”
“Death is worse than disgrace.”
“What am I going to say: ‘I’m scared’?”
Claire holds his hand as he talks. He wonders how she has made this leap: from that petrified little girl, so immobilized by fear that she couldn’t even chew, to this self-assured young woman. She wears a gauzy white blouse that buttons to the neck and a red silk scarf. No barrettes or pins in her soft brown hair. Brown eyes. A bump of bone in the middle of her aquiline nose. Claire is good-looking in a way he can handle. Above all, she seems even-tempered. Not like the other Italian girls he knows, not like his mother. None of that mouth, that streetwise swagger, that opera. His mother is crazy.
“Have you ever thought about talking to someone?” Claire asks.
“Like a psychiatrist?”
“Have you?” she asks.
“Not really. I’m too afraid to admit I’m afraid. If that makes any sense.”
“At least you’re honest about it.”
“I’m not honest about anything.”
She leans over from her stool and kisses him. The guy with the Pirates hat sleeps, head propped on his hand. Outside, dawn breaks: Sunday morning.
Claire has entwined herself around him on the blue stool. She kisses him again and tells him point-blank that she’s falling for him. Fritz, for the time being, refuses to consider what this means. Pam looks up from her crossword and smiles at them, just those few teeth in front. Fritz pulls Claire to him and hangs on.
Though she’s Fritz’s age, eighteen, Claire is already in college. She graduated from Peabody High School a year early and enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh. She rents an apartment with money she’s been saving for years, earned baby-sitting and working at her father’s landscaping business. She also works part time at the university’s day care. She left home mainly to get away from her father, a squat, powerful, overprotective immigrant who slapped his wife and daughters in the name of old-world propriety. When he fell into a rage, he would break furniture and put his fists through walls. After Claire moved out, he disowned her, but she finds opportunities to visit her mother and sisters when he’s not around.
“He’s an animal,” Claire says.
Fritz has seen Claire’s father watering the Raffos’ tiny lawn in the early evening, his thick, naked torso matted in dark hair, a cigar hanging out of his mouth, his red pickup packed with lawn mowers and muddy tools parked at the curb.
Claire has a boyfriend named Allen Compton. He’s not really her boyfriend, she explains; she’s finished with him, but he refuses to acknowledge that it’s over. She was emphatic: told Allen that he turns her stomach, that he desperately needs help, that she never wants to lay eyes on him again. But Allen didn’t want to hear about it. He went to her bookshelf and started tearing books in half one by one, looking at her the entire time, smiling. She pleaded with him to stop but was afraid to protest too much, afraid he’d hit her. Once, her cat jumped on the table while he was eating, and Allen ripped a curtain rod off a window and chased the cat around her apartment. He ended up smashing her fishbowl, the Siamese fighting fish thrashing rhythmically on the hardwood floor, slower and slower, until it died. When she threatened to call the police, he yanked the phone out of the wall.
Fritz went to school with Compton and knows all about him: a little guy who lifts weights. You can see it in the vein that pulses along his biceps like a garter snake, the bulging jaw muscle like a walnut as he chews gum. One of those guys who take pride in being a hood. Black leather jacket, black pants, black T-shirt, pointy black shoes that tie on the side, slick black hair slanted over his eyes. The practiced sneer. He drives a lime green four-barrel 442, jacked up in the rear, with mags and a Hurst shift. He’s the kind of guy, if you crossed him — and you wouldn’t even know you had crossed him — it would be like a curse. He’d pick the time and place. Everything might be fine for months, even a year. And then there he is. You’ve just finished a game of two-on-two, and you’re sitting on the steps of the schoolyard, drinking Fanta grape and smoking cigarettes, your gray T-shirt dark with sweat, when up the block grinds the 442, petulant as a wild horse. Compton jerks it across a side street toward the school. That half-smiling face above the dashboard, Maltese cross dangling from the rearview. You drop the pop can and run back into the schoolyard, but Compton brings the car over the curb and up the first concrete step, then gears down and rides that 442 all the way up, the front bumper sparking off the lip of each stair.
Fritz clears his head. There’s no point in thinking about Compton. As far as he’s concerned, there is no Compton.
Claire’s bed is a mattress on the floor surrounded by candles and covered in a blue batik spread, white doves outlined with gold sequins swooping across it. Huge, silky gold pillows fringed with tassels. Painted on the ceiling above the bed, in smoking red calligraphy, is “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air” — lines from a poem written by Sylvia Plath not long before her suicide. Fritz has never heard of Plath, and those hovering red words unnerve him as he lies in bed with Claire. He’d like to erase them. Claire has read a few of Plath’s poems to him. He doesn’t entirely get them, but he understands enough to be scared. When Claire shows him a picture of the poet, though, he finds her lovely, not terribly unlike Claire: the soft, feminine looks; the contentment on her face; the snug cardigan about her shoulders; the long, girlish hair.
One vicious winter morning in London, Plath deposited outside her small children’s bedrooms toast and mugs of milk, then stuck her head in the oven and turned on the gas. Claire tells Fritz this as if he’ll understand the inevitability of it, as if there were a moral to this story so plain that it needn’t be explained. Fritz feels for a moment the frigidity of that London flat, the unfathomable will of the woman who buttered the warm bread and poured the milk. If he allows himself another moment of introspection, he will see what Claire is trying to tell him. But he waves it away. It is a warm summer night, and he is, for the moment, blessedly safe.
Fritz reclines on the bed, leaning against the wall, drinking from a pint of J.W. Dant bourbon and smoking a cigarette. He gazes out the window into the night and counts six stars. Billie Holiday, though he does not know it’s her, sings on the phonograph. The cat sits just beyond the candles and stares at him. Claire sweeps from the kitchen to the bathroom and switches on the light. She leaves the door open. Her back to Fritz, she looks at herself in the large mirror above the sink. The doorway frames her. She kicks off her sandals and drops her skirt to the floor. Her calves are skinny. She doesn’t shave her legs; the hair on them is dark. She unbuttons her blouse. It falls from her shoulders and down her arms. Then the panties.
Fritz wants to get up and turn off the bedroom lamp, to be hidden by darkness, but he knows better than to move. Silently he brings his pack of Newports to his mouth, lips out a cigarette, and lights a match. He cannot say for certain, but he thinks Claire is looking at him in the mirror. She doesn’t like him to smoke, but he can’t help it right now. He lights the Newport and snuffs the match between his thumb and forefinger. Her bra is white and lacy, a tiny bow at the cleavage. Smoke drifts between Fritz and Claire. She reaches behind her back and undoes the bra, and she is naked, looking at herself in the mirror as she deliberately brushes her short brown hair, then pins it atop her head. Under each arm is a thick nest of dark hair. Fritz sinks lower in the bed, feels the bourbon sluicing through him. With a damp washcloth, Claire sponges her neck, her shoulders, the white plane above her breasts. Lets her hair back down, turns, and stands fully illuminated for the spell of two long drags, white as an urn, the punctuation of pubis and areolae. Then she flicks off the bathroom light and walks into the dimly lit bedroom. In her hand is a lighter. As she dips to light each candle, she holds an arm across her breasts, which are surprisingly heavy, and though Claire and Fritz are the same age, she is suddenly older, he suddenly younger. She snaps off the lamp. He is afraid, swaying on a plank four stories up, ringed by candlelight.
Claire calls him “Frederick,” his given name, not “Fritz.” Saint Frederick was bishop of Utrecht, she tells him. The insane empress Judith, admonished by Frederick for her numerous immoralities, employed two assassins to kill him, and on July 18, 1838, he was stabbed to death. He spent his last breath reciting Psalm 144: “I will praise the Lord in the land of the living.”
“How do you know all this?” Fritz asks. He was named not for the saint but for his mother’s father, Frederico, a peasant cobbler born in the Napolitano village of Formicola. In America, Frederico was known as “Fred the shoemaker.” He died when his shop burned down years before Fritz was born.
“I looked it up. Don’t you think it’s fascinating?”
“In a way.”
“We’ll have to do something special on July 18. It’s your feast day.”
She goes on to tell him that Saint Claire, a notorious virgin, renounced all worldly possessions despite her family’s opposition. She received the penitential habit from the hand of Saint Francis of Assisi. Her feast day is August 12.
Fritz holds Claire with one arm and smokes. The candle flames are perfectly still. The cat lies at the foot of the bed. Atop a packed bookshelf, a cone of incense ash rests in a brass saucer in front of a portrait of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the mystic the Beatles ran off to see.
Claire’s world enthralls Fritz: the bright, tidy apartment; the candlelight and books; the scented soaps and incense; her self-assuredness and intellect. She knows what she wants and says it: Kiss me. Put your hand right here. Hold still for a minute while I turn over. Often she weeps as they make love. Everything about her strikes him as true and immaculate. He doesn’t have to dig through clutter, like at his house, simply to make it from his bed to the bathroom. Nor does he worry about the clutter of his parents’ lives, their messy pasts, the layers of falsehood and secrecy that seem to shade their every word, his mother’s long bouts of silence. With Claire, he feels like somebody; like he is more than “Fritz,” which sounds like a fuse blowing, a small, hissing dysfunction. He likes that his patron saint is a fire-breathing martyr who spit in the eye of the harlot queen. Claire’s world is a parallel universe he glimpsed occasionally through a scrim, and now somehow he has slipped into it.
But it can be a threatening world as well, every bit as foreign to him as his mother’s omertà-riddled Italian heritage. Claire shows him a book she’s reading in her comparative-literature class: Psyche and Symbol, by Carl Jung. On its cover is a blue, red, and yellow mandala with a bloodshot eye in the middle. It makes Fritz dizzy to look at it. Claire tells him that since she’s been reading the book, beautiful childhood dreams have returned to her, and terrible ones too: doors and windows open and close of their own volition; she hears voices; nothing is as it seems.
Fritz already knows what this last part is like, but he reads a bit from the book, just to satisfy Claire. The writing is swollen and circular, and little of it makes sense. Yet Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious appeals to him: that humans are inexplicably imprinted at conception with a cast of characters, which Jung calls “mythological types.” They remind Fritz of the people in East Liberty, where he and Claire both grew up: the dark-robed nuns and priests; the shunned blacks; the haunted Italians; the rotting junkies down on the corner; the wanderers like him — all of them loomed over by suicidal bridges and the Gothic spires of Saints Peter and Paul Church. The thought of it makes him laugh. He tells Claire that East Liberty is their collective unconscious. “We’re all a bunch of Jungians,” he says, though he doesn’t know exactly what he’s trying to say.
Claire finds his observation funny. “Brilliant,” she says.
They smoke kief from a pink glass pipe shaped like a heart and talk about how Claire’s father is the stout, hairy, Vesuvian-tempered, violent, Italian-immigrant-landscaper archetype. He devours maidens between split loaves of bread. Fritz’s mother is the foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, bleached-blond, black-browed, Napolitano-bitch archetype. They laugh and laugh until Claire grows maudlin and tells Fritz that she’ll die if she doesn’t escape East Liberty, leave Pittsburgh altogether. She’d like to transfer to a university in Arizona or California. There’s also a holy man she’s heard about in Kentucky; maybe she’ll go off and study with him. Fritz considers getting out too, but he doesn’t really want to leave Pittsburgh, or even the neighborhood. He is comforted by its terrain and predictability, its “mythological types.” He doesn’t really want anything, except to be left alone with Claire. He squints his eyes and makes an attempt to see his future. Suddenly, as if one of those doors Claire was talking about earlier has just swung open, the image of the scaffold, horizontal and vertical bars of steel rising out of sight, appears before him. Then Claire is laughing again, and it’s clear that the kief and the wine have gone to her head.
On the job, Fritz eats lunch with Shotty Montesanto, one of the bricklayers. Shotty looks out for him: spotted him gloves and steel-toed boots, picks him up every morning, drops him off at the end of the day. Shotty’s half crippled from going down with a scaffold years ago. He blames its collapse on Fritz’s Uncle Pat. Every day Shotty figures out a way to bring it up. Fritz honors Shotty’s kindness to him by suffering through his habitual replay of the accident. Shotty is another “mythological type”: the cussing, irascible bullshitter with a secret wound and a heart of gold who fancies himself a Casanova. Slap a goat’s ass on him and, with his goatee and widow’s peak, you’ve got instant satyr.
Shotty is smoking and killing the second of the two or three beers he drinks every day at lunch. He and Fritz have five minutes before they hit the fiery-hot-afternoon part of the shift. Fritz stretches out on an empty mortar bag, his eyes closed, one hand behind his head, the other holding his cigarette on his bare chest. Smoke glides through the glare; images buckle in the sheer heat of early August.
A block truck rumbles through the site, huge flats of ten-inch concrete blocks chained to its bed. The driver waves at Fritz and Shotty, then drives through the blinding sun and crashes into the townhouse that Pat’s crew is bricking. The cab and driver disappear into the building, the back half of the truck sticking out. Like dominos, the recently laid bricks begin toppling from the townhouse; then the wall ties heave loose, and an entire section of wall whomps down over the truck bed. The gable splits off from the eaves; the last dozen courses of chimney brick let go, plummeting into huge plates of window glass loaded on a pickup. The roofers cling to their chicken strips three stories up, belly down against the boiling tar paper, as the entire building shimmies in the glowing stillness.
Then the scaffold on the side of the house tips toward Shotty and Fritz. The bucks score at their joints, and two bricklayers, taking their lunch on the scaffold, slide off like pucks. The mortarboards and tools and all the planking tear loose, the steel bucks whining as they twist. Shotty scrambles to get up, but his mangled, blood-starved legs can’t manage, so he crawls away from the scaffold that’s bending like a prehistoric bird toward him. Before it lands, Fritz hoists Shotty by his shirt, and they clamber to safety.
No one moves or even speaks. It’s like The Day the Earth Stood Still, a gear-grinding halt to everything. Fritz, on his knees with Shotty, peers up at the roofers stretched out on the quavering roof. He wants this to be a dream, like the ones Claire has told him about. A dream that will stop the moment he wakes up.
“See,” Shotty is saying. See: synonymous with inevitability and bad luck. Fritz feels as if Shotty the prognosticator is warning him: You’re next, my man.
Within minutes a convoy of screaming police cruisers, an ambulance, and a township firetruck careen onto the site. Workmen come out from cover, accounting for themselves. Crews assemble. The firetruck sidles dangerously close to the dying building, then lifts its elevated platform to the roof. The marooned roofers inch into its protective cage and are lowered unharmed. One of the bricklayers who slid off the scaffold has a sprained ankle and lacerations, but that’s all. No one is seriously hurt.
Finally the driver of the block truck reappears through the front door of the ruined building. He wears the blameless face of ignorance. Fritz’s Uncle Pat tears out of nowhere and punches him over and over until the cops pull him off.
“See,” Shotty says again.
Billie Holiday gutters on: “Strange Fruit.” Her voice is like the gloomy cathedral light of an all-day rain: “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.” Fritz has no idea what she’s singing about, but he feels the suffering in it. It takes him back to 1959, the basement lunchroom where Claire cowered daily.
Claire tells him she did not hate Sister Hyacinth at all, but rather blamed herself.
“Why?” Fritz asks. “You were just a little kid.”
“She was so beautiful. I wanted to be like her, to be a sister. At home I’d go to my room and drape myself in my bedsheet, pin a pillowcase to my head, and spin out rosary after rosary.” Her voice grows dramatic. “I dreamed of martyrdom, going down in a snarl of wild dogs, the headsman poised above me as I refused to denounce the Son of Man, scrawling with a bloody finger a crude fish in the dust of the arena, my last breath triumphant, whispering dark sayings of old.”
Fritz smiles. “Where do you get all this?”
“It’s from a poem I’m writing.”
“I wanted to kill Hyacinth for what she did to you.”
“Didn’t you think she was beautiful?”
“I hated her even more for that.”
“Were you ever in love with her?”
“I was afraid of her.”
Fritz suddenly remembers the day Hyacinth called upon him to read, and he had lost his place in the book. She summoned him to the front of the class and commanded him to read, hovering behind him with her arms at right angles, the habit sleeves like black bird wings, a hard-luck Jesus on the cross above her, executed a mere three years into his public life. Gleaming from the pristine pages splayed out in Fritz’s hands were Mother and Father, Dick and Jane, Spot and Puff. They gazed up at him as he tried to say their names and describe their perfect pastel kingdom, but the letters roiled like chromosomes under a microscope. All he could do was stutter. The other children laughed. He felt faint, as if he would not only lose consciousness but pass into the fire, a Purgatory filled with trapped, smoldering children who, like him, had lost their places.
© Randall Richards
Sister Hyacinth led him to the principal’s office and the school’s lone telephone. He was to call home and explain to his mother how he had not been paying attention. He dialed Emerson 1-8104 again and again, but each time there was no answer. He knew that his parents, who worked nights, were home and in all likelihood unclothed in bed, still too drugged by the blessed forgetfulness of something more than sleep to remember they even had a son. As the phone rang and rang, Fritz looked out the principal’s window and saw the men the sisters called “Negroes” passing a jug of Tokay, and two coupling dogs dancing on six legs up the middle of Flavel Street.
Fritz still hears that ceaseless ring. He lights another cigarette. Claire takes it out of his mouth and stubs it out in the ashtray.
“Stay here tonight.”
“I shouldn’t. I really can’t. My mother will worry.” This is bullshit, and he knows it.
It is fear that prompts his hesitance, the fear that Claire will devour him. That little girl trapped with Hyacinth in the cellar lunchroom — it is her face, only older, that kisses him now and says, “Stay. Stay, Frederick,” its mouth hungry. That little girl: he wishes he could go back for her.
“I want you to stay.” She rolls on top of him and raises herself up on her forearms. Her pale breasts sway against his chest, which is dark from laboring all summer long in the sun.
There is a furious knocking at Claire’s front door.
“That’s Allen,” she says, suddenly jumping up, ripping the sheet off the bed, and wrapping it around herself.
Fritz rolls off the mattress and sits on the floor, tugging his pants back on.
“Wait right here,” Claire says. She hurries across the room and down the flight of stairs to the front door.
Fritz walks to the kitchen and pulls a long, serrated bread knife from one of the drawers. He stands at the top of the stairs, just out of sight, and tries to make out the conversation between Claire and Compton. Their voices wend up to him, urgent and strained, but they might as well be speaking another language. He can’t stop his left leg from shaking. He’s heard that Compton has a gun. What will he do if Compton marches up the stairs? The front door slams, and a moment later he hears the sound of skidding mags and the four-barrel kicking in. Claire walks tiredly up the stairs. “He’s gone,” she says. “Please stay.”
From then on, he is aware of the phantom presence of Compton. Fritz has been keeping regular company with Claire, spending the night at her apartment two or three times a week. He is always scared that Compton will show up, and that Claire will not be able to dissuade him from entering.
Whenever Claire talks about Compton or her father, Fritz simply listens and nods and sometimes holds her hand or puts his arm around her. The indisputable presence of these two violent males in her life makes him nervous. Fritz has never been a fighter, but he begins to train for what he senses is his inescapable showdown with Compton. All summer he has carried hods of brick and mortar under a brutal sun. He is in the best physical shape he’s been in since his two years as a high-school wrestler: strong and lithe, and certainly as big as Compton. Each day when he gets home from his job, Fritz tugs off his heavy work boots, slips into his tennis shoes, and runs up to Highland Park, then around and around the reservoir. He doesn’t even bother exchanging his mortar-caked pants for shorts. He just wants to get on the road, to feel his legs carry him, his feet slapping time on the pavement. Sometimes he does push-ups and sit-ups and muscle-building routines with bricks instead of weights.
When Fritz runs, he feels as if he is doing something, not simply waiting around for the inevitable. Up Highland Avenue and around the reservoir: ten, fifteen revolutions along the same path, revisiting the same thoughts — Compton, Claire, the scaffold, Old Man Raffo — the soles of his frayed Converse tennis shoes flattening with every stride. He often ends his runs at Claire’s, sitting on her kitchen floor, sweat dripping from him, listening to John Coltrane blow a feverish gale of sorrow through his sax, waiting for his breath to return so he can smoke a cigarette, waiting for the cup of Constant Comment tea that Claire has placed in front of him to cool. She doesn’t shy away from the sheen of salt and mortar on his skin, his unmistakable body odor. Her flimsy purple dress flutters in the breeze from the open window. The wind is hot. She wants him to leave Pittsburgh with her. And go where? She doesn’t know. Out west. “I want to get out of here, Frederick.”
Why not? he thinks. Leave it all behind: the scaffold, his parents, Compton. Forget about it. But his imagination never leaps beyond the concept of leaving. It is hemmed in by Pittsburgh, by East Liberty. He thinks, Out west, and the only thing that registers is blond desert and jagged ocher buttes. He attempts to envision himself in this lonely, unrelieved expanse and feels lost.
Claire suggests New Mexico: she’s read about it. Or the Yucatán. Or British Columbia. A commune. The Peace Corps. Maybe a monastery.
“A monastery?” Fritz asks.
“For sanctuary,” she says. “And commitment.”
Fritz doesn’t know how to respond. At times he worries that Claire is about to crack. He is sure he hears Compton’s souped-up engine idling outside. He just wants to get it over with.
Fritz buys real running shoes. Twenty-two bucks for a pair of gold kangaroo-skin Adidas. He runs eight, ten miles a day, sometimes more. He begins to conceive of himself as someone blessed with unlimited endurance, a man who can take it and take it, like his father when Fritz’s mother lays into him. One foot after another, respiration even, his heartbeat untroubled, he never wants to stop.
Claire cooks supper. They sit in her kitchen and eat like a married couple. She reads poetry to him, and they drive to the university in Claire’s navy blue Corolla to see free foreign films. They make love in her bed and then sleep. In his dreams he looks down at the world from the scaffold and sees Shotty gazing up at him. Through his every waking moment Compton’s 442 waits like the Minotaur.
One night they are awakened by the sound of breaking glass. Crash after crash. Then tires screeching up the street. Fritz gets to the window first and sees, in the apron of light cast by the streetlamp, Claire’s car sitting in a pool of glass, every window smashed. Lights sprinkle on in a few of the houses along the street.
Sometimes when Fritz is running, he spots Mr. Raffo in his bright red truck, his big, hairy arm hanging out the window, a cigar at the end of it. When this happens he tacks on an extra few miles, to build up his endurance. Lately he’s come to think of Mr. Raffo and Compton as the same person, a mythological creature: animale. He suddenly realizes that endurance is a curse. Only the helpless endure. It is his mother’s operatic blaze that influences the world, her willingness to torch everything on a whim: vendetta, caprice. He begins to tire. Instead of getting stronger, he is getting weaker, skinnier. He barely eats. He feels himself disappearing.
As Fritz holds Claire in the flickering candlelight, she tells him that Compton once threatened to kill her. She laughs when she tells him, insisting that Compton is nothing but swagger, but Fritz has come to recognize her laugh as an acknowledgement of powerlessness, something people of epic endurance share. They know only how to suffer, not how to hit back. Then he hears himself laugh too. It finally occurs to him that he has been training not to fight, but to flee.
“I know this sounds crazy,” Claire says, “but I’d still like to become a nun.”
“After what that witch Hyacinth did to you?”
“I still love God, the poetry of the spirit.”
Fritz lights a cigarette, knowing that his smoking irritates Claire. She turns away to sip a glass of water. A shard of light from the streetlamp catches her shoulder, illuminating a crescent scar from the time Compton bit her.
“Did you know that Saint Hyacinth was a man?” Claire asks. “He was scourged for the faith and martyred in Rome in the year 260. His feast is September 11.”
What Fritz felt back in that lunchroom more than anything else was the impotent rage of childhood. Hyacinth’s yardstick slamming down, as if it were chopping inside him: crack, crack, crack. Her pretty, melodic voice: Eat, Miss Raffo. For the little breechclouted starvelings of Fiji, the baby lepers of Burma.
He was just a little boy, but he perfectly envisioned killing Hyacinth: First he’d warn her, tell her to lay off Claire, give her every chance to “repent,” as it said in the Gospels. Then he’d ride in, the Angel of Love, with his poison kiss.
“I’d like to be martyred,” Claire says.
“Don’t talk like that.”
“Wouldn’t you like to be a saint?”
“No. That’s all bullshit. Don’t even say it.”
“You’re so superstitious, Frederick.”
“I’m not Frederick, Claire. I’m Fritz. Just Fritz.”
“No one is just Fritz. I wish you wouldn’t smoke.”
Fritz gets out of bed and walks to the window, blows smoke through the screen, stares at the red-glowing tip reflected in the pane as he takes another long drag.
“Why the fuck didn’t you eat your lunch, Claire?”
When Claire doesn’t answer, Fritz turns toward her. She is sitting up, the sheet pulled to her waist, her face quizzical, enormous silvery eyes open wide. The only thing to distinguish her from that little girl in 1959 is her uncovered breasts — heavy, iconographic, carnal, nearly a desecration the way they hang in the shadows like halves of the same jilted moon.
She looks through him at the night outside her window. “I was trying to fade away,” she says.
Finished with their lunches, the other children, Fritz included, used to leave Claire there, whimpering and choking on the food she would not or could not swallow, at the mercy of Sister Hyacinth. All the way up the long marble stairs, down the hall to the lavatory, then out to the schoolyard for recess, Fritz heard the echo of Hyacinth’s stick. And finally silence. He thinks he hears Hyacinth’s stick even now, but it’s a car door slamming. Fritz turns to the window and watches Compton, black clad and hunched, crossing the street to Claire’s front door.
Fritz realizes suddenly that he is naked, that his cigarette has burned to his knuckles. He wheels abruptly back to Claire, staggers, and a wash of panic breaks over him. Compton is pounding on the door. Claire is already on her feet, throwing on a robe, headed toward the stairs.
“You better get out of here,” she says, her back to him.
“Claire,” he calls, but she doesn’t turn.
He hears the front door kicked open, Compton’s cleats on the wooden stairs.
Fritz once saw Compton fight a black kid from the projects down the Hollow, along Negley Run. Blacks on one side of the boulevard, whites on the other. The black kid’s name was Patterson. Tall, handsome, no shirt, big defined pecs and biceps. Compton, a good head shorter, in all black, the twisted mouth and Marlboro, labyrinth of gleaming black hair, the oily leather jacket, even in June. Sweat rolled out of Patterson. A few yards away, under the Hoeveler Street Bridge, a stinking dead dog lay ballooned on the shoulder.
Patterson and Compton sparred a bit, open-handed jabs and jukes. Then Patterson grabbed Compton and lifted him like Atlas. Beautiful in the early-summer green of the Hollow. Muscles washed in sweat and sunlight. Compton, going up and up, cradled in those black arms, the throng of white kids jeering, picking from the ground things to throw. The blacks skirting the curbs for rocks, screaming for Patterson to kill Compton, crack him in half on the boulevard.
But Compton, still in Patterson’s arms, wrenched him in a headlock, popped him three quick times in the face, then leaned in and bit him on the cheek. Patterson dropped him and screamed. The black kids started with the rocks, then the whites; then more blacks bounding down the cliff from the projects. By then Compton had gone animale, punching Patterson over and over, moving in and out with demon speed until Patterson, his face a bloody shroud, fell to the ground and wept. Yet Compton, a hail of rocks glancing off his black leather, continued to pound him. Patterson rolled over on his stomach, wrapped his hands around his head. Compton sat on his back like a rider on a horse, pried his hands away, and punched him in the head. Dipped in and bit Patterson’s fingers. Took his time with the punches. Never stopped. Compton with the brute, cock-strong smile.
“Claire!” Fritz calls again, looking around the apartment and realizing, as if for the first time, that there is no way out.
Last night at two in the morning I read Joseph Bathanti’s short story “Fading Away” [September 2007]. Then I read it again. It was rich in details, characters, and dialogue. The ending was chilling but good. I hope Bathanti writes another chapter in the story. I’d like to know if his protagonist Fritz makes it.
Joseph Bathanti’s new story collection, The High Heart, features many more tales about Fritz and is out now from Eastern Washington University Press.