Didn’t I tell you? she asks the black man, who has been leaning on the truck in the same position through the whole encounter, the lord provides. And I don’t correct her there, we will resort to abstracts like that the rest of the night to cover up our shyness at this strange situation: stranger asks other strangers to move into her house, a city act as strong as street sex, more easily talked about when veiled in euphemism and depersonalized, so that paula isn’t really paula but the voice that cried out, the little-lost-lamb, so that pat the person came down from her balcony and entered the story the lord. . . .
We all know how sleazy street is
it’s up in the mornings with too many kids
it’s too many men coming in the back door
and not enough time to sweep the floor
it’s coffee in the pot and a dirty sugar spoon
it’s towels on the floor of a dirty bathroom
and a smell like me and a smell like you
all mixed together in sleazy street stew
sleazy street stew oh sleazy street stew
it smells like me and it smells like you
gimme gimme gimme that sleazy street stew
— especially composed for
paula footloose & her
Now leo says that of course we will get together again. He calls me on the telephone from seven-eleven parking lots long-distance and says that he loves me and he sends me a hundred dollars a month to keep his name on the mailbox, he in fact spends great parts of his poet-in-the-schools money to drive from galveston to dallas for weekends of love-making and whispered reassurances and barbequed chicken crowded around the little kitchen table with me and the three kids like he is simply a commuting husband and this family is really his. And at first he comes almost every weekend and his hundred-dollar share of the rent comes on the first of the month. But as the fall wears into winter he doesn’t come so much, and the money still comes but it’s coming later and later, too late to cover the rent, so that by spring I realize that I have got to stop counting on it, the rent is going to have to come from me. Me the sometimes writer. Me the new-born bookstore clerk. And me the mother with the asset of morgani the working son, he does pay his part of the rent, too. And so the household lurches along paying its bills on minimum wage and money that sometimes appears in the mail — homage to love from leo and occasional checks from newspaper accounting offices rewarding me for using my time to write commercially viable articles on choosing melons in the supermarket and growing indoor palms instead of wasting my skills on stories and poems which do not sell.
But life is not grim. I like this upstairs apartment I find myself in. Even with rats in the walls and weeds in the driveway, it has its advantages, There is a room for each of us, and my kids are electronic age kids, so each room has its own kind of electrical noise: second-son playing stereo, daughter playing radio, son-morgani playing electric guitar, him playing the loudest and longest, wanting to be a rock musician so much so he won’t have to work at the car wash anymore that he practices his guitar all the time. But the rooms are big and somewhat apart from each other because of a central hall, so it is only at certain peak times of voltage overload that I finally have to let out some kind of yell or scream or politely pointed question /would you please turn it down/ which never stops the mix of noise for good of course, only long enough to give a little quiet time in the evening, a little peace, so my head can come to rest and my thoughts settle down before the sound-level starts building up again.
And then best of all features in this apartment is a white door in my bedroom a magical device. So the kids can be rocking and rolling, shouting jokes at each other through the walls, they can be rolling the bicycle up the stairs and down the stairs and bringing home friends to play pool on the pool table we found in the alley and placed in second-son’s room, and all I have to do is to open this door in my bedroom and step outside. And just like that the lights are out. The electronic noise is far behind me. I am standing on a second-story balcony supported on crumbling colonnades and embraced in the clutch of massive oak branches surrounding the upper part of the house. In the daytime I am in the company of blue jays who soar down through the leaves and squirrels running the branches, and at night I am in the company of stars. And I can sit in my used-to-belong-to-grandmaw rocker out there in the evening and put my feet up on a nail barrel I use for both table and stool and turn my own little radio to the country and western station that none of my kids can stand listening to and smoke a joint. Oh sing it, dolly! Listen to the man play that fiddle! I look down through the tree branches at the cars and bicycles and people passing on the street below who rarely look up long enough to spot me in the leaves — the vietnamese grandmother who comes down the sidewalk every morning with her cluster of children collecting cans, the black man with the twenty braids and red ribbons who rides his bicycle every day, the regular joggers and the dog-walkers, the couples shouting angry words at each other while they walk and the couples with arms around each other, the friday night drunks and the saturday morning whistling mailman — I study them like I study the pigeons who prance and flutter through their various bird rituals along the rooftop of the house next door, composing stories for each one of them and like a benevolent director assigning them roles.
Now in the apartment downstairs lives simon-polli. And when I first take up my observation post on the balcony, I see him coming and going on the walk below me with an array of thin, young and lacquered women on his arm. He is enrolled in the downtown community college with plans for becoming an accountant/male-model & masseur, and he says that the electric guitar playing above his desk keeps him from studying very well. But morgani learns to turn the decibels down when simon-polli knocks a broom handle against the ceiling. I don’t like simon-polli too much, I don’t like his black pompadour and little twitchy mustache, and I don’t like the endless photographs in the simon-polli portfolio he wants to show me with every invitation to his apartment for a beer — simon-polli lounging in a bikini on a broken brick wall, simon-polli dressed in a black gypsy outfit smoldering at the camera-eye, close-ups of simon-polli with his nostrils flared and his pores open. But I do occasionally like to hear his stories. So when he stands in the front yard waving a poorly rolled joint and looking up at me on my balcony perch, I invite him up sometimes to sit with me in the branches. Because simon-polli, see, came from eastern europe somewhere, his earliest photographs he says showed him a skinny kid with a shaved head, symbol of lice control, standing in front of a tent in a refugee camp with his father because when they were released from the concentration camp where his mother died there was no place for what remained of his family to go. He spent five years after the war going from one camp to another, traveling on trains that stopped in towns and villages where constables blocked the doors so that no refugees could get off. Then finally to america with a handful of family jewels which his father parlayed into a decent living selling used cars in chicago. I don’t know why simon-polli came to dallas — that is one of the mystery stories he doesn’t tell. To go to a community college to study massage? That’s what he says.
And simon-polli has a european-sentimental streak at least as strong as that streak in me that keeps my radio tuned to the country-and-western station. His eyes get teary when he talks about his father. He fulminates about the coldness other students exhibit toward him in the college halls. At times he grabs up his guitar and brings it up to the balcony with him and croons out oily love songs from dean martin albums to the passing joggers. One evening he comes with his guitar, full of emotion.
I’m going to be a father again, he says, my four-year-old son is coming from new york to stay with me because his mom doesn’t want him anymore.
Well, I didn’t even know he had a son or an ex-wife, but I say wow simon, that sounds pretty exciting.
I wrote a song, he says, I’m going to sing it for my son when he gets off the airplane. And then simon starts singing — oh matthew, I love you, you are the sky’s blue, you are a bird of a beautiful hue, my son, my matthew — simon-polli singing with his eyes closed his lips pursed up to the moon above the balcony like a jewish coyote.
And then the son does come and he is the most scowling worried and mean little kid I have ever seen. He has thick black eyebrows that meet at a permanent seam between his eyes. But for the sake of good neighbor-relations and in exchange for simon not complaining too much about my own noisy kids, I agree to babysit the son from time to time for free which in fact does make simon very happy, he invites me to come down anytime I want to and smoke grass with him, his stash box kept full by generous checks from his chicago-father.
So one evening I’m sitting out on my balcony when I see simon-polli coming up the front walk carrying a large over-stuffed chair followed by matthew who is picking up little rocks and throwing them at his father’s ankles.
Cut it out! simon is shouting.
No! matthew is shouting back.
When simon sees me on the balcony he calls up. See this great chair? I bought it from this lady down the street who’s being evicted. It’s okay, it’s got some broken springs, she was asking seventy-five but I talked her into taking fifteen.
Sounds like a bargain, I say.
Oh I just felt sorry for her, not that I wanted the chair, he says, although it looks okay, just the springs a little bad.
Matthew lobs another stone.
I said cut it out! simon shouts.
I said no! matthew shouts.
They go on in and there is the sound of whopping and screaming and crying, and I look up the street in the direction the two of them came from to see what is going on. Sure enough, I see daughter standing with some more kids around a pile of stuff along the curb about six houses down. And the sun, I also notice, is almost gone. So I lean across the balcony rail and call down the street for daughter to come home. She comes running, in a minute she’s coming out on the balcony. There’s a girl with her about the same height, long brown hair like hers, same budding build with almost-boobs making little bumps under her blouse and hips gathered ready to begin making curves.
This is fran, daughter says, she’s fourteen, her family’s the one that’s being evicted.
Hello, fran says, very polite, the same as if daughter had said fran’s family owned every house on the block.
Hello, I say, do y’all have a place to sleep tonight?
Fran frowns a little bit. Oh I don’t know yet, she says. My mom is trying to call some people. She starts squinting down the sidewalk back at the pile of stuff on the curb. Oh I better go back and see what my little sister is doing.
Well you tell your mom you can sleep on the floor here tonight, I tell her, if nothing else turns up. And I’m thinking that blankets thrown down for them on a bare floor in the apartment of strangers isn’t much to offer, they will have to be pretty desperate to accept an offer like that. But then if they don’t know where they’re staying yet, when it’s already dark, then they must all feel pretty scared, pretty bad, and any invitation is better than no prospects of a bed for the night. So daughter and fran run back down the stairs and back down the sidewalk. The streetlamps are on, and I can see a pick-up truck parked along the side of the pile with its door open. There’s a black man leaning on the side of it, there’s some little kids playing around the pile, and then fran and daughter are there, standing, talking, but too far away for me to get what’s going on. I go into the kitchen and start washing the dishes when daughter and fran come back. You need to talk to her mom, daughter says, but they don’t know yet where they’ll be staying.
So I stop the water and walk down with the two girls. The black man is still leaning on the truck. He is watching two men speaking loud spanish to each other. One is holding up a pair of pants to himself he picked from the pile and he is laughing, and the other is nodding his head up and down like those pants fit him just right, and there is this little blonde woman tottering around the two men on tiny-three-inch spike heels made out of clear plastic and wearing a white nylon skirt like she just got finished drinking daiquiris at some country club pointing her finger emphatically saying put that down! you put that down!
Hey man, put that down, I say while I’m walking up, and when he doesn’t, I tap my chest a couple of times and say, a little heart man, a little corizon — CORIZON, I say up close to him clenching my fist and shaking it over my heart (this is a chicano charm I learned in el paso, since corizon is something no good mexican man ever wants to be caught short of). Sure enough he puts it down and the two of them snicker, swagger away, saying things I don’t try to translate, and the little woman is picking up the pants from the sidewalk and trying to fold them up. I was just telling your daughter, I say to her, that if you didn’t have a place to stay you could come stay at our place for the night.
Oh! she’s all full of emotion suddenly, shaking my hand. Didn’t I tell you? she asks the black man, who has been leaning on the truck in the same position through the whole encounter, the lord provides. And I don’t correct her there, we will resort to abstracts like that the rest of the night to cover up our shyness at this strange situation: stranger asks other strangers to move into her house, a city act as strong as street sex, more easily talked about when veiled in euphemism and depersonalized, so that paula isn’t really paula but the voice that cried out, the one in need, the little-lost-lamb, so that pat the person came down from her balcony and entered the story as the lord and pushed the wheel of paula’s crossed stars and wrote the address down for the next installment of paula’s karma.
What are you going to do with all of this stuff? I ask her. She just looks puzzled, looking at all the pile of mattresses and black plastic bags, piles of clothes and shoes and papers already beginning to blow away. So I say maybe you can put it all in my back yard for right now.
The black man suddenly unbends, smiles and says all right, like he’s been waiting all this time for just those words. And he starts throwing things into the back of the truck.
I’ll go down and get my sons to help, I say, so I trot back to the apartment. Morgani’s out, but second-son is there and the two of us walk back to the truck. Paula is running back and forth, up and down the sidewalk, first lifting a bag, putting it down, herding fran and the little sister out of the way, talking in explosive sentence fragments. He stole the television, she says, I’m going to sue him, she says, not suitable, she says, now that’s the way he puts it, and look at this! She tucks her chin in at me and points over her shoulder, it took me three days to pack it all up.
Sure enough, I can see that there are lots of things which have been put in black plastic bags and that now are half-dumped, the tops of the bags coming untied. So we all start putting things on the back of the truck, and the black man drives the truck down the block and into our driveway where we unload it, and we do this two or three times until nothing is left on the sidewalk anymore.
So by this time it’s about ten o’clock. The black man (whose name is bennie and whose position in paula’s story is never quite clear except that his truck has been made an instrument-of-god) wants a joint after we make the last load, and I tell him that I’m out but I’ll go ask simon-my-neighbor for one. So I knock on simon’s door. Simon’s mustache is twitching over the chain latch on the second knock. I stick out my tongue and make a face like I’m all dogged out, which in fact I am.
We’ve just got finished moving a family upstairs, I tell him.
Oh no, he says, you moved that woman and her kids in with you that got evicted?
She didn’t have a place to stay, I tell him, it’ll just be for a night or so, until she can figure it all out.
Oh no, he says, I don’t mean to sound like a bastard, but I can’t take it. She can’t move in. There’s agencies to take care of people like her. I’m about to go crazy, pat, he says. I’m studying and having to get up early to take matthew to daycare. Shit.
Look, simon, I say, it’s just going to be for a little while. Listen, do you have a joint?
Bennie-the-black-man’s come up on the porch and is standing right behind me now.
Simon looks over my shoulder significantly, then looks at me again. For you? he asks.
I smile, shrug, guilty as hell suddenly because I’m asking simon for a joint for everyone.
You come down later, he says, I’ll give you a joint anytime, but nothing for them.
Does he have any grass? Bennie asks me while simon closes the door.
Not really, I say. Paula comes shuffling up in her little high heel shoes, and we go on upstairs. When we get to the top, there is paula, there is bennie, there is fran the teenage daughter and her little sister, but then there is another baby, too, one I’ve never seen before, and there is also a german shepherd and a little black puppy. Paula is looking apologetic.
This is cody, she says, pointing to the strange baby boy, dirty faced, in dirty shorts, no more than two years old, slightly smaller than the baby sister.
So okay, I am thinking, there are three children, a woman and two dogs, but this wheel is set in motion now. And they will only be here a few days, they really will not be here very long.
Someone carries up some mattresses from the pile of stuff in the back yard, someone gets sheets, pillows. Then morgani comes in with two joints he’s gotten somewhere. So we sit down on paula’s mattress and everybody smokes, and we start talking about dallas, whether we want to stay here or not. Bennie the black man says he wants to live in dallas all his life and become a well-respected gangster, morgani says he wants to be a rock musician but maybe somewhere else, and I don’t say because I am too busy taking this new landscape in to think of another one, and daughter and fran are already in dreamland falling asleep together on the floor, and cody the little boy-kid is walking around without his pants on, little baby penis peeking out from under round little baby belly, standing in the middle of marijuana talk with a big self-confident baby grin, taking for granted that wherever he is doesn’t matter, he owns it all.
Of course I say it will only be one or two days, but it won’t be just that, it will be one or two weeks or maybe it will be one or two months, even when I am moving the stuff into the back yard, even when I am talking to simon downstairs, I know that saying one or two days is stupid. It is unrealistic. If a single person becomes down and out and gets evicted, then maybe it would only take one or two days to get things straightened out. But a woman with little children is something else again. First, this woman needs some money, she needs either welfare or a job. Then she needs to get herself a place to stay, and then she needs to get some day care for her little kids so that her big kid fran, who is now their all-the-time babysitter, can go to school. Welfare tells her they’ll pay her rent for a house, but first she has to get one. Then they will need to inspect it and approve it and file papers on it, all of which takes about six weeks. So she either gets a job and saves her money and pays the rent for that time and the deposit, or she talks a landlord into waiting almost two months for his money. And so where in the meantime can she stay? On the streets, at the salvation army, here with me.
Then there are other problems, there are the problems that made this elaborate system collapse in the first place, paula tells me these other problems in little pieces of sentences that she tumbles out while her eyes roll and her voice goes higher and faster with emotion. Paula is very scattered — she is a woman who has been under heavy fire and is freaking out. So when I ask her a question the answer tends to be so complicated with names and events and history I’ve never heard of that I quickly lose track of what she is talking about. But she is very angry and when she finds out that I am a writer, she thinks I will be able to tell the world what she is angry about. First, she wants to sue the landlord who kicked her out. She also wants to sue the landlord who kicked her out before that. And then she wants to expose the texas parole board for not letting her old man out. An eight-year-prison term, she says, is too long for burglary. Sometimes she tells me it was a first offense, but sometimes she says he had been a thief, was always a thief, although she hadn’t asked him about it, she didn’t know it. But these things, she says, that were up in her attic in highland park — the television sets and stereos and what-not which hadn’t even been stolen by her old man, he had been framed, of course — they had been stolen by her EX-old man, who was in cahoots with her teenage son by that marriage (fran’s brother) who was now in juvenile prison himself, just like her old man, serving time.
This is the way they had it, she tells me as her voice gathers low and intense for a slow build while she’s waving a pancake spatula over the skillet and I’m drinking coffee, they had ME in the newspaper as the head of some burglary ring in highland park! ME! And I didn’t even know anything about it! Oh, we sold a little tape recorder because it was there, but what could we do! There it all was in the attic! And I told that police officer he was taking an innocent man, we had been framed by my EX-husband, who is a FIEND, he is a DEMON, he is the devil himself, laughing up his sleeve while we’re spending time in jail. I even went to jail myself! For five days! She lifts cody the boy-kid up onto the chair by the table. You want some pancakes?
And this ex-husband, she says, you don’t know what he is like. He put a rifle down my throat, here I was NUDE, see, and he puts a rifle down my throat and says SUCK-ON-THIS-BITCH! She glares at me with her jaw stuck out like it is him saying it. SUCK ON THIS BITCH! And there I was crawling out the bathroom window NUDE, bloody, because he beat me up — see right here! She shows me some lumps on her head. So I was screaming for help NUDE at the door of some neighbor’s.
I’m eating my pancakes, watching her act this all out. There’s lots of details I’d like to know that she’s leaving out, but she’s going too fast to stop her, and I’ll hear it all again anyway, she’ll tell me over and over SUCK ON THIS BITCH! she’ll tell me exactly how he said it, SUCK ON THIS BITCH! until I have the story almost memorized just the way she tells it, with how she gets away left out, with how he got in left out, with what house it happened in left out, just the nude woman against the bathroom tile and the EX-old man with the rifle in her mouth.
So every morning paula gets up, gets herself together, makes breakfast for the babies, and when she leaves she looks great. She is a trim little woman with lots of fluffy blonde hair, who can make herself look like a perfect little doll when she puts on her job-hunting outfit and spends some careful time on her face in front of the bathroom mirror. She always wanted to be a model, she says, but it never quite got off the ground, although she shows me a certificate she once got in 1961 in a miss teenage america contest held in fort worth, and she wants to get enough money sometime to straighten fran’s teeth so that the daughter can be given more opportunities to be a model than her mother was. She does have some connections in the movies, her babies could be movie stars, they’re so cute, if she could just get hold of this guy she used to know when he first started shooting film, but she thinks he’s in California. In the meantime, she throws the i ching several times a day and gets conflicting answers, and goes by all of them, and changes her mind each time about what kind of job she will get or where she will live. She can do secretarial work, and in fact she does get a job, but it only lasts two days, and then she gets another job doing telephone work, but it’s at night and she can’t work out the transportation, and she gets another job and it lasts for a week but then they lay her off, the cloud of paula’s complications always quickly evident to any employer — a woman whose answers to the simplest questions are too complicated, who is already late or missing work the first days of the job because she has no adequate transportation and too many babies at home.
Fran babysits for her mother but she doesn’t like it. She’s calling her mother at work whenever she can telling paula to talk to the babies on the telephone to make them behave, and the babies like talking to paula but it doesn’t make them any better. Although they aren’t bad babies, they are simply babies, lively and into everything, and then maybe even livelier and happier than some because whatever problems paula might have, she nevertheless loves her babies and doesn’t discipline them much, so they are lively healthy babies who have never been beaten up. And fran has learned child care from her mother. She never hits them, she never hurts them, although she doesn’t know what things to do to make them mind, sometimes simply becomes a baby herself laughing and rolling with them on the floor. But then paula calls at five-thirty or six-thirty or seven and says she met a friend or stayed for a drink until rush hour was over and that she’ll be home soon, and fran hangs up the telephone and says shit! shit! and smokes cigarettes and yells at the babies and slams doors and drawers until paula comes home.
And then on sundays paula has to decide if she’ll take the salvation army bus to huntsville to visit her husband-framed-by-her-ex- or take the bus to gainesville the juvenile prison to be with her son. Fran is freaking out from babysitting, she babysits all week and she doesn’t want to babysit on the weekends, too, so paula leaves so early in the morning that fran is still asleep and doesn’t find out until she wakes up that she is babysitting again. Then whatever time her mother comes in, whether it’s five o’clock in the evening or one o’clock at night, she runs out of the house right off, she drives around with the older boys in the neighborhood, she goes to the apartment houses where the older boys live to get high to listen to records to let them feel her up, whatever trade-outs she can do just to get away from the babies for a little while and her mother. Paula yells at her when fran pushes past her heading for whatever is out there — where do you think you’re going, young lady? she says.
Fran yells OUT.
Paula yells well you better be home in half an hour!
Then the door slams and paula comes into my room and sits on my bed. Daughter is glum because she can’t go with fran. I just don’t know what to do with fran, paula says.
Well paula, I say, she’s just babysitting too much, she’s too young and she’s bound to be freaking out.
Well still, paula says, she shouldn’t talk to her mother like that.
When paula leaves daughter starts up — why can’t I go with fran? she asks me. I’m almost as old as she is, she invited me to go.
Daughter is sitting up in the middle of my bed pouting a little lipstick and blue eye shadow on her face that fran let her use and she’s already looking like a young woman, but I don’t care I don’t care she’s not old enough to be in this story fran’s beginning to plot out. Look, I tell her, you’ve seen those gangs of men on the next block hanging out of the windows of low-riders yelling propositions at girls even younger than you, you’ve seen those old men with their brown bags sitting on the curb in front of the seven-eleven store, you’ve seen those drop-out boys inside at the video machines whispering about the size of your boobs when you’re waiting to pay for your bubble gum, and I squint my eyes and wave my arms like mothers have done for hundreds of years conjuring these images up until daughter finally says all right, all right, even though fran comes in after midnight and she’s all right, she hasn’t been beaten up, so what’s there to worry about?
And sometimes daughter does help fran babysit, she plays with the babies and helps with their baths. And sometimes when I get home from working at the bookstore I tell fran she can go down to the corner and get herself some cigarettes while I look after the babies a little bit. But mostly I don’t help, instead of helping I make rules. I mean after all I am the lord, right? I am the lord of the house! So I get home from working at the bookstore all day and I am very tired, and if I have any energy at all I want to spend it talking to my own kids or even doing some of my writing, I don’t want to spend it changing diapers and watching little babies beat each other up and cleaning up dog-shit the german shepherd and the little black puppy have laid down. So I say to paula now there shouldn’t be any babies up after ten o’clock because me and my kids have got to get to sleep, see. And also I say now paula, having these dogs upstairs has got to stop because the puppy pisses on second son’s mattress every chance he gets so you need to make a fence or get a rope or something so that you can keep them out in the back yard. And I say now paula no more babies in my room okay? Because they get into my papers and tear them up. And paula says okay. And I tell the same rules to fran, and fran says okay. But you all know the rule about rules, so I don’t help but my rules don’t help either and so stew stew stew bubble and brew, dogs shitting on the beds, babies pissing on the kitchen table, stereos, chairs, dishes, everything breaking and nobody knows what to do.
Well simon-downstairs stops daughter in the hall, he tells her to tell me that he is going to call the landlord if I don’t throw that family out. A couple of days later he stops fran, he says he is going to call the police if her mother doesn’t leave. Then after all that he stops morgani, he says he is going crazy from all the upstairs noise, that he is going to hold me personally responsible if he flunks school. And finally one evening I am getting home from the bookstore just as he is driving up with matthew’s scowl peeking over the right side of the dashboard. When I see that we are going to meet on the porch, and just when his eyes begin to narrow but before he can get his words out, I say hi, simon, how’s it going? That’s a nice shirt you have on, you sure look great in red, you want to send your kid up to play a little bit tonight?
And he says oh! all right! while his eyes are opening up again and his heart is leaping involuntarily like any mother’s heart will at the thought of free babysitting. Oh you can’t believe what has happened to me, pat, he says while I lean against my door and give him a little allowance of attention, you know I put an ad in the student newspaper for massage by the hour? Well this woman with this incredible voice called! And she asked me if I did massage, like my ad said, and I said yes, and she asked if I would mind coming to her house, and I said not at all, and then she said well, can you pick me up where I work? And I said maybe, it depended where it was that she was working, how much gas it would take, and she said well I work at the playboy club! Can you imagine that, pat? he’s shaking his head like he’s having a hard time imagining it himself, me massaging a bunny!
Well good luck simon, I say, you send matthew up in his pajamas and he can spend the night.
Thanks, pat, he says, I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do with matthew. I wave, and he’s fumbling with his door, he can hardly wait to slap on the aftershave and depart, obviously he’s not thinking about the noise upstairs, and if he hears any thumps or cries while he’s taking his bath and fluffing his chest hair and flexing his fingers, he might think just when he hears it well next time I see that pat I’ll say something, I’ll give her a piece of my mind, but not tonight, not right now not when I’m so tired of being a mother, and then goes back to the story of his playboy evening already unfolding in his mind.
The next morning is saturday. Paula’s told fran she’s going to be home this weekend but she’s up early with a red bandana around her hair and already down the street in barbie-doll levi’s to bring us back donuts from winchell’s and a morning newspaper. I hear a knock on the door and think it might be matthew come to get his houseslippers and teddy bear he had left lying on the blanket where he had slept, I had heard him early in the morning before anyone else was up, tiptoeing down the stairs, pounding on his daddy-simon’s door and yelling let me in! let me in! mad and worried-sounding like he always sounds until I hear the door open and know that simon did get home after all.
But when I open the door, it isn’t matthew, it is a young woman who looks to be still in her teens with a broad country face and yellow hair and a belly about seven months long.
I’m looking for paula knight, she says when I open the door, looking at me like she thinks I’m the one she’s looking for.
Well I figure this is more of paula’s trouble, so I say what do you need her for?
My name is angela moore, she says, I came all the way from tennessee to talk to the woman who put my husband in jail.
Look, I say into her wide country blue eyes, paula does not live here. She is only staying temporarily until she finds other quarters. I don’t know what your business is with her but you’re going to have to deal with her somewhere outside of this house.
Is she in right now?
Well, she says swinging her heavy body around, I’m just going to sit on this porch step until she comes.
Now I have no idea how long she’s going to be, I say.
Oh I’ll just sit here and wait, she says. She’s sitting on the front step, her girth spread out around her nesting hen-style taking up all the space between the two porch columns. Unbudgeable. She smiles up at me, heavy with child as they say. So I try, but I can’t think of anything to say to her. Not really. So I don’t say anything. I go on up the stairs. Fran and daughter and the babies are sitting in the middle of the bed with the television on. I make myself a cup of instant coffee and walk out on the balcony in my houserobe. Blue jays have built a nest within two feet of the rail. One of them is sitting in it. The other one is squawking and dive-bombing the dog from next door. The dog is trotting through the yard with her tail down. I feel sorry for her because she really can’t do anything, she can’t climb a tree, but then I can relate to the watchful mother bird in the nest worried about the hatching eggs and the father-bird full of paranoia, but then the father-bird relishes his dive-bombing role too much, I think, when he keeps dive-bombing the dog all the way to the end of the block, finally soaring up again through the branches squawking at the mother-bird full of his own glory. I hear some voices from the steps below. It’s paula with the donuts talking to angela moore, but I can’t hear what they’re saying. I sip on my coffee for a while and then go into the house to make some orange juice. Pretty soon paula comes in. She’s making her agitated paula sounds like hunh! and whew! and well! like she has been overwhelmed by too much information to spit out in logical sentence forms.
Now who was that? I ask her.
Well! she says. Angela moore! she says. And to think that guy had a wife! she says. Paula is pacing around the little kitchen letting her jaw drop open like there are no words to express her surprise, and I can see that here comes another paula story, and sure enough, she starts telling me another incredible one while I fish a lemon-filled out of the donut bag.
One day she was over on gaston avenue, it was raining and she had just missed her bus. So along comes this guy in a truck, she says, and he asks if I want a ride and I say sure and so I hop in. He asks me where I’m going and I give him the directions. But pretty soon I can see he’s not going where I told him to go. So he pulls into an alley and falls on top of me and suddenly he’s pulling at my clothes! And I am screaming! So I guess, I don’t know, I think he’s just nuts, but I guess he gets scared or something, and I’m grabbing at the door handle trying to get out, so he revs the engine up again and takes off. But all the time he’s trying to drive and punch me and tear at my clothes all at once, and I’m screaming and he’s yelling you cunt! you cunt! And then we’re on the freeway and we’re going about forty miles an hour and I finally get the door open and jump out —
On the freeway?
She nods solemnly. In the center lane, she says, of north-central expressway, cars coming from everywhere. First I just hang onto the door as much as I can and then I drop off. The car in back of us sees me hanging on the door first and then when I come down onto the pavement he stops and picks me up and takes me to the hospital. And I don’t have any broken bones, only pavement burns.
So this angela moore is the truck driver’s wife?
Paula nods again. She’s mad because I pressed charges. I saw the truck’s license plate numbers and the police put him in jail. I mean I’m not a vindictive person, pat, but I think that man needs to be in prison. I mean he is crazy, he could do that to anybody!
Well of course! I say.
But that’s not what angela moore is saying. She wants me to drop the charges against him. She says he’s not that kind of guy, he was just too lonely being away from her so long. She says I’m ruining her life.
Oh I don’t know, paula says. She’s sitting down at the table. She’s pressing one hand over her eyes. Angela says she’ll give me some money.
Two hundred dollars.
Tell her to go away, I say. I get some eggs out of the refrigerator and scramble them up. Cody-the-baby comes in when he hears the grease popping with half-a-donut still in one hand. He comes tugging on my pants. Paula is quiet, staring out of the kitchen window. The eggs sizzle and simon-polli’s voice comes rumbling through the pipes shouting at matthew to take his pants off so that he can be given a bath.
I hate you, matthew shouts!
I hate you too! simon shouts back.
Then there is the sound of crying and simon-polli shouting shut-up! shut-up! while I shovel eggs into a bowl for cody and paula leaves the table to go into the back hall off the kitchen where her mattress is on the floor, shutting the door between the rooms. And cody and I eat the rest of our breakfast to the clicking of paula’s i ching coins thrown six times on the other side of the door.
So it is getting to be close to easter time. And paula is like mother nature herself flitting in and out of the house while her household grows effortlessly around her, the house vibrating with an enthusiasm for its own fecundity which I do not share. Babies come up and down the stairs from all over the neighborhood wanting to play with the two babies at our house. Paula’s german shepherd turns out to be pregnant and due to deliver in a matter of weeks. And a blonde girl shows up in morgani’s bed, causing him to curtail somewhat the evening practice hours of his guitar, another daughter of paula’s a big-boobed teenage girl who’s been living with some aunt who wants to kick her out. The phone is always ringing for paula — employment agencies, collection agencies, welfare, foodstamps, the prosecuting attorney’s office for depositions, the texas parole board for statements, and angela moore quoting bible passages about mercy and love. Paula says one day hey pat, what do you think about the bunch of us rooming together, after I get a job, then I could start giving you some money for rent, that would help you out. But no no, paula, no deal and no dice no wise and no way baby, I mean even in the bible-story jesus only had to furnish one or two meals at the most out of his baskets of loaves and fishes, the multitude didn’t just decide to move in and stay.
Leo is calling long-distance and making plans for coming up from galveston for the holiday. He says is that woman still up there?
I say yes but she’s going to be gone pretty soon.
By easter? he says.
I say maybe, but of course I know it probably won’t be as soon as that. So after I hang up, I start worrying about leo coming, and I worry that he isn’t going to be liking this situation very much at all, since telling him over the telephone that I have been having some house guests doesn’t really convey the flavor of the scene. But I figure that I will fix the latch on the bedroom door one of the babies tore off and cook a large turkey, maybe that will be something at least.
So on ash wednesday while I’m on my balcony watching the kids walking home from school all the chicanos with grey ritual smears on their foreheads, I suddenly notice a man who is standing in the yard looking up at me. Is paula knight up there! he asks.
I say no she’s out.
Well when she comes back, he says, tell her roy wants to see her.
And I am thinking oh-oh, oh-oh, is this who I think it is? And sure enough, when paula comes in, and I say that someone named roy came by, she says that’s him! That’s my EX!
And I say I thought you said he was in california.
Oh no, she says, he came back and he’s got an apartment about half a block from here.
I say well how did he know you were here?
But she is vague, she’s not sure, or maybe one of the kids told him. Oh and she is worried she is agitated she paces around the apartment telling me about the rifle again, oh he is bound to kill me, she says, you don’t know what he’s like, he is bound to do me in.
Now paula, I say, don’t project, maybe he’s in a different mood now, we won’t let him in the house, we’ll get a peace bond, we’ll call the cops.
Oh that’s nothing, she says, nothing will stop him! just you wait and see!
So that night when everyone’s finally asleep and daughter is tucked in beside me, I can’t get to sleep myself, I stare at the moonlight coming in through the balcony door, I listen to the wind in the branches outside the window, I look without looking at the darkness hanging between me and the ceiling. Finally I get out of the bed. I stand in the middle of the bedroom in my underwear. I breathe in and breathe out. I make my arms go around in a circle. I make my spine relax. I imagine my arms are going in a circle around the house, making an imaginary line, and I imagine all of us inside of it and roy out. I call out to roy in the name of every power I can think of — in the name of mary and jesus and father peyote and electrical power lines and the rio grande river — making my arms swing out in a large circle ROY ROY ROY ROY DON’T YOU CROSS THIS POWER LINE. Then for a few minutes I stand and don’t think of anything, just listen to the sound of all the babies and children and animals in the house breathing in and out.
So the next day after paula comes home from the temporary secretary’s job she has been working, she asks me if roy can come over for supper.
You’ve got to be kidding, I say.
Well he’s feeling better, she says. You told me to be calm, so I was calm and we had a drink together, and he’s feeling better.
Not a chance, I say.
But he’s missing fran, he wants to see her.
Not even so that fran can see her father?
Tell him to meet her somewhere, not here. Look, I say, you’ve spent the past several weeks letting me know what a terror this man is and I can’t change my mind that fast.
Oh, it’s just roy, she says, that’s just the way he is.
Well look, paula, I finally say, you tell roy I said there is a line drawn at the first step up the stairs, and I do not want him to cross it. And I tell her this in such a way that she doesn’t ask me what kind of line, she knows that I did draw a line and that whether or not she can see it herself she can be sure it is there. So tears come to her eyes, but she goes to her room and throws another i ching and then starts running bathwater for the babies.
I come home from the bookstore on good friday an hour early so that I can do a little cleaning before leo is supposed to come in. Roy is sitting on the porch in one of simon-polli’s lawn chairs with fran sitting on the wooden arm talking to him. Roy has on a palm-tree shirt and pressed slacks, his hair is slicked back and his face is still pink from a close shave like he has worked hard to be clean for this visit, and when I walk up on the porch he leaps up standing first on one foot then on another with his hands deep in both pockets.
Well hey, he says, smiling at me, thanks a lot for what you’re doing for paula, for my family — but his eyes are everywhere except on me, up and down and over my shoulder, and I think oh-boy he is indeed a squirrelly one, and I don’t smile, well really, I say, it’s just between me and paula. Then I walk past him as stiff as if I am encased in clacking armor and step over the invisible line at the front step like it is a foot high.
The apartment is rocking upstairs like a john cage concert every dial turned to ten in every room punctuated by shouts and crying buzzing voices.
Get out of here! I yell out randomly. Everyone get out of here for a while!
Second-son comes out of his room and thumps the bicycle downstairs, morgani and paula’s stray sex-kitten daughter come out of morgani’s bedroom with their faces flushed and their arms around each other, I give the babies a little push down the stairs, go play with fran on the porch for a little while, daughter asks if she can eat supper down the street with a friend and skips down every other stair when I say yes. I start sweeping and picking up my dirty clothes. In a little while fran comes upstairs, but I don’t say anything to her. Then she goes back down the stairs again with two glasses of water. Pretty soon I hear paula’s laugh outside, too, and fran comes upstairs and goes down with another glass. I begin to make up the bed. The apartment is quiet and the voices on the porch seem far away. I run bathwater, lie underneath the soap bubble surface and listen to the sudden quiet which has settled on the house. My flowered robe leo bought for me in laredo is hanging on a peg on the back of the door, and when I get out of the tub and towel off, I put it on. When I open the bathroom door, there is only slight light in the hallway, the last of the sunset coming through the doorpanes downstairs. Even the voices from the porch are gone and I feel quiet — a few minutes when I am completely alone. But just as I start from the bathroom to my room, I hear the downstairs door click open and I pause on the landing. I peer down the dark stairwell ready for anything and flick up the hall light. A beard and a broad-brimmed hat peek around the downstairs door — leo! Hello baby! he says.
Now I tell you the truth, when leo comes home from galveston after him being gone so long, I just want to fuck him that’s all I want to do, I want to screw-with-him, I want to love him, lie on top of him, lie underneath him or lie right beside him, and I want to lick him, I want to kiss him everywhere, it’s a truth whether it’s evil or good, it’s all I want to do. And if I had my way I would fuck leo outside under every bush and in every creek and vacant lot and flower bed along swiss avenue and howl like a banshee. But I am civilized and leo is civilized and so we simply go into this quiet bedroom alone together for the first time in a month and put the latch on the door and take our clothes off and get into bed and fit ourselves into one connected self as quickly as possible. So we start wrestling around in the bed together and kissing and me moaning in leo’s ear and leo saying unintelligible things when someone tries to open the latched door.
I’ve gone to bed, I yell out, leo’s here and he’s going to sleep, too.
It’s daughter. She knows what I mean. Oh, she says. Okay.
You can get yourself ready for bed can’t you?
She says yes and goes away from the door. Leo starts tentatively pushing up and down again and I push back but it’s not quite so much fun. And every time leo pushes up and down the noise level outside the door grows a little more. Lights come on in the hallway. Music comes on.
Finally leo stops. What’s that? he says.
What’s what? I ask listening with him to the footsteps up the hallway and one of the babies crying, paula talking to fran, fran shouting at paula, second-son switching his stereo back on, simon-polli’s television up from the floorboards and outside the bedroom window above our heads of course the cooing of pigeons nesting on the roof of the house next door.
What’s all that noise? leo asks as we listen together lying in each other’s arms as the house turns up the amps to higher and higher levels.
Oh, I say, that’s just the kids coming home.
Well leo’s visit goes downhill from there. The babies are crying before the sun comes up in the morning. The telephone rings constantly. Second-son and morgani won’t talk very much to leo, daughter talks too much, simon-polli calls up and talks to leo over half an hour telling him the worst all the worst news of what is going on upstairs in that apartment which still has leo’s name on the door, and babies in their worst and most crying moods. Egg dye, green cellophane grass, bunnie chocolate bits, egg crumbs and handel’s messiah blasting out frank zappa on the stereo. Easter morning and paula is awake before the sun rises making dressing with the turkey already in the oven.
When I come into the kitchen she says see? There’s going to be enough for all of us!
And I say who’s all of us?
And she says can’t roy come up? Just for today?
And I say no.
Even though I’m cooking the turkey?
She starts crying. Leo comes in. Paula runs out.
There’s a friend of paula’s at the door, leo says. I told him he could wait for her inside.
I walk past leo to go see if it is who I think it is. When I see him sure enough in the hall — over the invisible line! — I stop and glare. Roy you’d better go on out I say.
I just wanted to use the phone.
I don’t even say no, I just shake my head. He goes out. But I am suddenly confused. There is a line for roy but leo is in the house. Why am I refusing to have dinner with paula and her ex-old man? And if I have three children and an ex-old man, too, and then if I have leo and some fun with leo, then why can’t paula have some fun on easter too? And then it is easter after all! the truce of spring! And why all these rules? But in the middle of the fog I remember it’s because of the rent — because paula doesn’t pay it, although she has wanted to, but I don’t want her to, I just don’t. And then the utilities, too, I gather up all the money and pay the utilities, too, I write the checks myself, and I name off the utilities one at a time — gas, electric, water and telephone — like saying a line of beads in a rosary, until the confusion clears and I can move again out of the empty hall.
Leo doesn’t want to eat easter dinner in the apartment, so we make a big sack of food, and second-son, morgani, daughter, leo and I carry all the stuff downstairs to load it in the truck. And we do have a good meal at the park and lie in the grass listening to an outdoor band, and then we head back home. Outside on the porch roy is sitting on the lawnchair with a big piece of turkey paula brought down for him, and angela moore has come and she is sitting on the steps talking to paula looking ripe as a two-month nesting egg, and the babies are scooting and squealing around roy’s legs. We walk through them and say something about easter and the weather. And I think well it is a pleasant day, they are making happy sounds, leo has had a good time after all, he hasn’t said anything one way or another. But when we get upstairs leo shuts the door to the bedroom and explodes.
Didn’t you tell me once, he says, that the trouble with your first marriage was that you were always inviting people to live with you? Didn’t you say that one of the reasons the marriage fell through was because of that?
Well, I tell him, it wasn’t the reason why that marriage fell through —
You’d better get that woman out of here, leo says, she’d better be out of here by the end of the month or I’m not going to pay my part of the rent anymore.
Oh she’s going to be out the first of the month . . .
I mean it, pat, he says, the idea! you moving all these people in while I’m away!
Well at least it keeps me from getting lonely, I say.
But leo doesn’t think that’s a bit funny, he’s packing up. He kisses me good-bye but he is very angry. Happy risen christ getting the hell out of here hitting the road again to single-man heaven.
So leo is gone. He hasn’t even stayed long enough to leave his smell on my sheets. Squashed eggs in the hall. Even my used-to-belong-to-grandmaw rocker has come loose at one of its legs so that when I sit out on my balcony watching leo back out of the driveway, I sit half-sliding out of the seat. And I think leo shouldn’t have tried to threaten me, it doesn’t matter whether I have his money for the rent or not. But I don’t blame him, I want this paula story to end myself, I don’t want to be around when the husband gets out of prison and finds the ex-husband on the front porch or when fran finally finds what she’s looking for when it’s stuck up her body, I don’t want to hear what happened this time on paula’s way to work, I don’t want to walk through the house anymore through broken toys and stereo-sets and spilled milk and dog piss and I don’t want to deliver any half-german shepherd puppies! And why should leo finally take his name off the mailbox because of this whim of mine to come down from the balcony one evening dressed in god-clothes forgetting to bring a change of costume? And why can’t I be the salvation army? Why doesn’t anyone ever listen to MY rules? Why do the goddamn babies keep coming into my room and painting themselves with liquid paper? And I sit and brood watching the nesting pigeons under the eaves of the other roof. I mean, how can they sit there so long when the sky is blue, how do they know when to give up if the eggs aren’t hatching?
And then one day just like in the old movies the news finally comes, the dust of the rescue squad appears on the horizon, the sun comes through the clouds, the late chicks hatch out of their eggs late for easter but still in time for life, and paula has gotten herself a house.
Paula has gotten herself a house! Somehow in the midst of dealing with babies and dogs and checking out want ads and showing up for various jobs, and getting fired and getting hired and going for drinks with friends when the going got too heavy, and trying to find where fran is going at night and trying to keep roy out of the house and visiting two prisons in two different towns every week, paula has managed to find a house, paula has managed to find a house, paula has done all of that. With a little bit of help — angela moore is going to share the rent. Roy is going to live in the garage until the husband gets paroled. Whatever. Still, paula is on her way out.
And the night paula comes home with the news is the night simon-polli comes to deal with me straight out. He’s squinching his forehead up and shoveling his moustache up his nose trying to look his most pitiful. I’m going crazy, he says, I stopped at a stop light this morning and put my head on my arms, pat, and I just cried — I just cried!
Well simon (I pat him on the back) you don’t have to worry anymore — paula has gotten herself a house! Pretty soon she’s going to be moving out!
He looks a little stunned, a little confused when I say that. But then he slumps down again. Oh it’s not just paula, he says, it’s my son, he’s so hateful, I tell him to do things and all he says is no. And my friends won’t have anything to do with me anymore because they’re all single and I have this son.
Well still, simon, I say trying to cheer him up, not everybody gets to massage playboy bunnies —
His face crumbles with pain. Oh pat, he says, it was just a joke! There wasn’t any playboy bunny! I went to pick her up and gave her name at the desk and there was nobody like that working there!
You want to smoke a joint? I ask him.
You got one?
Sure, I say. I take him out on the balcony where a light breeze has begun to come in through the branches and we light up.
It’ll get better, I tell him.
It just will, I say. Behind us I can hear simon’s son laughing with cody-the-baby over something, but with the door closed I can’t hear what they’re talking about. We pass the joint back and forth for a while, and then we just sit on our balcony perch watching out through the leaves at the street traffic passing, listening to the cooing and chortling coming from the eaves of the rooftop next door, simon and me quiet, for tonight letting the pigeons have the last word.