Up in his attic room, Robert Lodansky rubbed his eyes and peered out between two grimy Venetian blinds slats. He watched as two police officers got out of their blue and white cars, hitched up their belts and walked up the cracked concrete path to the front door of the house. He had a good idea why they had come: His parents were again in some kind of distress.
Robert knew they needed help when he heard the pounding of their canes, which sent vibrations through the cheaply-built house. As usual, he turned up the volume on his television to drown out their calls for help. This time, coincidentally, he had been watching a rerun of "Cops."
The front door was never locked because there was nothing left worth stealing. The neighborhood toughs and anonymous vandals had decided years ago to leave the crazy people alone. The house at 145 Pine Street had the stench of age and decay - of death lurking within. As the officers stepped over mounds of yellowed newspapers, they pulled on latex gloves. They had been called there many times and they knew what to expect.
The officers made their way through the walled-off gerbil trail of junk, bags of rotting food, piles of wood and lumber, and detritus that was impossible to identify in the dim light. When they got to their bedroom in the back, where the couple slept and counted down the sad remaining minutes of their lives, they found Stanley Lodansky lying face down on the floor, moaning and crying. The once beautiful Shirley Lodansky, now in a faded, threadbare muumuu that barely covered her shapeless body, was sitting in her wheelchair, shrieking obscenities at him. Foul, vicious words spewed out of her mouth. The television was on, the sound was blaring, and Chuck Woolery's smiling face filled the screen. When Shirley noticed the officers, she screamed at them, "It's about goddam time you got here. Just pick up the miserable bastard and put him back on the bed." For the officers, there was no "Thank you for coming." No "I'm glad you're here." She didn't even bother to turn down the volume on the TV.
Stanley Lodansky weighed over three hundred pounds, and most of his bloat was around his middle. His toothpick legs had atrophied. Worse, he was wearing only a diaper filled with his own excrement, and his legs and back were caked with more that had run out. His back was cratered with bedsores. The rookie officer, unable to contain his disgust, gasped and grimaced. He whispered under his breath, "How can these f'in animals live like this?"
Somehow, the old lady overheard him over the Game Show Network. "What the fuck do you know?" she shouted at the top of her lungs. "What the fuck do you even care? Just pick him up and get the hell out of here!" She reached for the black telephone, threatening to throw it at him.
"Hey, take it easy, lady," the older officer said, his voice calm. "We're doing the best we can." He glanced at the younger officer with an irritated, exasperated look on his face.
The officers moved the bed aside to get to Stanley. They strained to move him and exhausted themselves lifting and pushing and shoving him back onto the bed. Finally, they positioned him on his back on the stained sheets, and propped his head up on pillows without pillowcases. Stanley's lips were quivering. The veteran officer leaned over to hear what the old man was trying to say. At first, he had trouble making out the words. But then, out came a muffled but unmistakable "Let me die." Stanley Lodansky was staring up at the officer, softly pleading, "Let me die. Let me die. Please…let me die."
Suddenly, the woman was screaming at them again. "What are you waiting for? You did your goddam jobs! Now get the hell out of here!"
The two officers quickly retraced their steps, hurrying to retreat, to flee. Both yanked off their gloves and tossed them into the uncovered plastic garbage pail left out on the front porch. Piled in it were dozens of other discarded latex gloves - a mass of disembodied hands, empty, yellowed and misshapen.
From his upstairs window, Robert watched the police officers standing between their cars. He had turned off his ceiling light so he would not attract attention. He heard them joking and laughing over the din of the televisions. He was peeved that he couldn't make out what they were saying. Every time police officers had left the house, they stood around outside, smoking and kidding around. Tending to his parents must have disgusted them. He could not even comprehend how the ever-changing parade of Haitians and Hispanics from the other side of town could come everyday to look in on and care for his parents - to clean them, to feed them, and then to change them once again. At least Robert wasn't the one who had to do it.
It hadn't always been like this.
The Lodanskys had two point two children, counting the cocker spaniel, and lived in a small ranch-style house in a typical suburban town. Robert was "the baby" - the longed-for son. Stanley and Shirley, once high school sweethearts, had moved into the house two days before Robert's sixth birthday. It was much larger than their three-room Brooklyn walk-up in their "neighborhood in decline" - a neighborhood from which the whites were fleeing in droves, replaced by the blacks, who were just as quickly moving in. The new house was just big enough for both Robert and Rachel, his older sister, to have their own small, almost airless, bedroom. In each room, dark paneling covered cracking sheet rock, and a tiny window sat high up on the wall.
Beaten down from years of working in a metal-plating factory, and desperately yearning for a better life, Stanley had begged his parents to lend him the money to buy a luncheonette in a village way out on Long Island, a place with an Indian name none of them had heard of until then. His parents said they trusted him, but they made him sign a promissory note anyway. And they insisted that he start paying off the loan at once, as per the schedule. Luckily - for Stanley had done no research before plunging into the business - his "Big-L" luncheonette was surrounded by thriving businesses and quickly turned a profit. When he found that the Pine Street house was for sale, and it was also within walking distance, he took out a mortgage to buy it, using the Big-L as collateral.
The next five years were idyllic.
Robert often stopped at the luncheonette on his way home from school. When he helped out, his father paid him with egg creams and cherry Cokes. Sometimes, when his friends weren't around to play cowboys and Indians, he would bicycle over on a Saturday afternoon. When Robert and his friends got older, they played ball out in the street until it got too dark to see the taped-up baseball or it got too perilous to ignore their parents' shouted demands to "come home this instant, or else you'll be sorry."
Everything changed just after Robert's eleventh birthday, in rapid, devastating succession.
First, Robert's grandfather - Stanley's father - had a massive heart attack. He lay dying on his cold bathroom floor while his wife wailed and pounded on his chest, shrieking, "Irving! You bastard. You can't die! Don't leave me!" Shortly after, Stanley's mother suffered a stroke which was blamed on her husband's untimely death. Then Shirley was hurt in a hit-and-run and had to be hospitalized. With no health insurance, and with their meager savings quickly depleted, Shirley was discharged before she fully recuperated from her spleen and liver injuries.
As Stanley's mother recovered, she demanded the balance of the loan in full, despite the terms of their loan agreement. She played on Stanley's guilt like a virtuoso. He had no choice other than to ask her to move in with him, where he and Shirley could give her the attention she craved. As the younger child, Robert was the one who was displaced. He was forced out of his own tiny room and into his sister's, which was big enough for only one bed. Stanley and Shirley thought they had no choice and thought of no other alternative. It never occurred to them to have Robert sleep on the couch, or on a surplus army cot, or even on an inflatable mattress. They promised the children that the sleeping arrangement would be temporary and, in the meantime, they started turning the unfinished attic into a room for the Lodansky matriarch.
At eleven, Robert was just beginning puberty and at thirteen, Rachel was already well on her way. During the day Robert and Rachel gave each other as much space as possible, but they could not escape their physical proximity in the bed. Sometimes when their bodies touched accidentally during the night, more than a moment passed before each instinctively pulled away.
One afternoon after school, Robert and Jimmy West, his best friend, were sitting out on the front stoop. Usually, Robert would always play at his friends' homes or hang around outside. A sudden downpour forced Robert and Jimmy inside. Stanley had taken a rare afternoon off, and he and Shirley were at it again - cursing and screaming and calling each other names - something that was happening ever more frequently. Robert, embarrassed and ashamed and too flustered to think, dragged his friend into the bedroom and closed the door. Jimmy looked around the room and noticed Rachel's things. Then it dawned on him. "Isn't this your sister's room?"
"We have to share this room," Robert answered. "But it'll only be for a little while."
"You sleep with your sister?"
Robert was caught off guard and couldn't make up a lie quickly enough.
"Yeah, but it's not what you think."
"In the same bed?"
"Yeah, but you don't understand…"
"Holy Christ! That's gross!" Jimmy screamed. And he ran out of the room and out of the house. It was the last trusting relationship that Robert was ever to have.
It took only half the next day for the story to get around that Robert was sleeping with his sister. Heads turned when Robert, and then Rachel, walked into a suddenly hushed school cafeteria. When Robert carried his lunch tray over to his usual table, he stood waiting while his friends spread themselves out and claimed that there was no room for him. Rachel's classmates didn't bother responding; they looked right through her, and then away. Robert and Rachel sat separately by themselves, silently enduring the whispering, the pointing, the leering faces. Middle school innuendoes about a sleeping-arrangement necessity rapidly turned into a titillating story about incest. Both brother and sister had become outcasts, objects of derision, shunned and scorned and ridiculed.
The construction of the attic room was finally finished but the damage had been done. Isolated and alone, Rachel toughened it out at school until the end of the year. She was suspended twice for fighting, and failed all but one of her classes. At meetings with her guidance counselor about her grades and with the principal about her discipline problems, she sat silent and sullen while her parents made empty promises to get help for her. Although the sleeping arrangements in the Lodansky household had become an open secret and the stuff of idle gossip, no one - not the guidance counselor nor the principal, not the itinerant psychologist nor the over-worked social worker - ever brought it up. It was as if an 800 pound gorilla reared up in the middle in the room and pounded his chest, but everyone chose to ignore it.
Rachel saw no way out and no way back in. And so, in early July, in the dead of night when everyone was sleeping, Rachel tiptoed into her parent's room, emptied her father's wallet and her mother's green metal box and pocketed all the cash. She locked the front door behind her and walked out into the darkness. She left behind her keys. But she left no note.
Stanley and Shirley were distraught. They did all that was required to find her. They called Rachel's friends, who reluctantly told them about a boyfriend they had never heard about. They contacted the police, who had them come into the precinct house the next day to file a report. They called hospitals on their own. They continued to hound the detectives. They called and visited everybody who they thought might have had a clue. They heard snickering and whispers but not one word about where Rachel might have gone. They blamed themselves and blamed each other. And they punished themselves for not doing more.
They soon found out how small their town was. When the false but ruinous story about his children got around, business dropped off and he had to lay off one of his two part-timers. When there was nothing to do, Stanley Londansky, wearing a stained apron over a sleeveless T-shirt and smoking unfiltered Lucky Strikes, stood at the counter idly wiping up imaginary specks and breadcrumbs with a damp rag, or busied himself scraping off burnt-on fat splatters from the grill with a putty knife. The few school kids who used to come in at 3:00 suddenly found other places to spend their time.
It was hard for Stanley not to notice the young mothers, who had occasionally dropped in for a leisurely lunch or an ice cream sundae, hurrying by on the opposite side of the street, pushing their sleeping toddlers in strollers, intently window shopping at the hardware store or at the lady's auxiliary thrift shop. Only the diehards, who had fallen into their own rigid routines, or who just simply didn't give a damn about the rumors, stayed loyal to Stanley's BLT's and Krazy Burgers and double-scoop home-made ice cream cones. After Rachel took off, all Stanley Lodansky said, if anyone had cared to ask, was, "Fuck 'er. She's dead to me." If he were a religious man, he would have told them that he had already sat shiva for her. He'd wipe his hands on his apron as if wiping away the pain. She was gone and all he wanted to do was forget.
Robert did not suffer nearly as much as Rachel. For one thing, while she had a circle of friends and had been dating without her parents knowing, he was never the social being that she was. Some of his buddies in the midst of budding puberty got strange yearnings when they thought about Robert sleeping with his sister. Most of them kept their thoughts to themselves but, once in a while, one of them would say, "Hey, Robbie. It's cool with us" - really meaning that it would certainly be cool if it were one of them. In their hormonally-charged way of thinking, Robert took on a certain status. Within a matter of weeks, the collective renunciation that would continue to plague his sister made Robert into a sixth grade hero-in-the-making.
Rachel's disappearance in the middle of the night was a godsend for Robert. When his grandmother complained that she would "never climb up all those goddam stairs" to her newly completed attic room, Robert eagerly volunteered to move all of his belongings up there. He didn't even want his old room back. His parents were more than willing to turn Rachel's room into a den and a guest room. In time, though, it turned out that no guest, no visitor, no relative would ever set foot into that room.
The Lodanskys bought a foam-slab L-shaped couch with bolsters covered in durable red corduroy, a matching red pole lamp, and a new television set. They perched the TV on a gold-plated metal table with tiny plastic wheels, and pulled out its rabbit ears. There, the family spent their own version of quality time.
Often, Stanley would come home exhausted from being on his feet all day, and then immediately fall asleep sprawled out on the couch. Shirley's place was next to the pole lamp. There, she would sip from a yahrzeit glass filled with cheap wine, continually refilling it from a green gallon jug she kept within reach on the floor. She would read from a library book and sometimes put the book down to watch her favorite show. Occasionally, she would infuriate her husband by waking him: "Stanley! You sleeping? Get up! You gotta see this. Stanley…!" But soon her head would start to bob and she, too, would eventually nod off. Robert's grandmother, often oblivious, would continue to stare at the flickering screen with little or no comprehension. So it would fall on Robert to make sure his father's lit cigarette didn't drop onto the fabric, or his mother's drink did not spill on the floor. Sometimes he wished that the three of them would be consumed in a great fire.
After Robert gently pried the teetering glass from his mother's fingers without waking her, he would finally be able to escape up the stairs, leaving the TV on so they would not awaken. They never noticed, when they eventually staggered to bed, that Robert was spending an increasing amount of time up in his attic room all by himself.
And the deterioration continued.
While the surrounding village grew and prospered, its aging downtown area was losing business to the proliferating strip malls. Businesses were closing up and moving out. The Big-L luncheonette was especially hard hit, not only by the exodus of customers in general, but by the unrelenting rumors and undying gossip about Stanley's son and daughter. His daughter might have been dead to him, but the rumors of depravity lived on.
Stanley refused to give in and close the business. Selling was out of the question for he had done nothing to improve the place nor did he have the money to even try. So he held on and let the other part-time employee go. In the morning and lunchtime rushes, such as they were, he still needed help. So he forced his wife to come in and help.
"You need me today, Stanley?" she would ask every morning. But what she was really thinking: You're such a goddam failure.
"Yeah, hon. Please." I want you there so I won't have to accept all the blame.
"Couldn't you handle it by yourself today?" I'd rather stay home and have a couple of glasses of wine. Anything else but being with you.
"I need your help. Business is starting to pick up." Stanley needed to lie to her, but, even more, to himself.
As she did every other morning, she would shake her head, sneer at him with disdain, and call him a bullshit artist. And then, after he left, she'd take her sweet time getting dressed while pouring a glass of wine from her jug. She'd leave the house to meander over to the Big-L only when she was goddam good and ready.
Lying awake, listening, Robert waited for the front door to shut before he would get out of bed and go downstairs. If it were a school day, he'd make himself a sandwich from the leftovers his father had brought home, have a quick bowl of cereal, and then walk to school. On other days, he'd stay under the covers until well after noon. Only his grandmother was around and she, of course, had nothing to say. When Robert glanced at her sitting on the couch, staring at the flickering television through over-sized glasses, he sometimes saw her as just another piece of dilapidated, broken-down furniture. When she got up to shuffle to the bathroom - if she had remembered to do so - what Robert saw was a rusting toy soldier moving mechanically on warped steel treads. And he couldn't help laughing aloud at the grotesque image in his mind.
Robert learned, with some success, to control what he thought of as "warpings," and which always cracked him up. It was happening at school, as well. When he sat in class, he would sometimes see the teacher as a fearsome, meat-eating dinosaur hunting for her next meal. Sometimes, the buck-toothed girl in braces on her teeth sitting next to him became a soldier in battle armor with empty eye sockets and no sign of life. The tall, wiry boy solving an algebra equation at the blackboard morphed into a skeleton with scraps of bloody flesh flaking off his bones. Robert could not stop himself from giggling, which he would hurriedly stifle with a cough. Occasionally, a teacher would notice and ask him what was so funny.
"Nothing, Miss Ward," he'd quickly answer. "I'm sorry. I just thought of something funny that happened on the way to school."
Robert became adept at catching himself in time, at not letting his imaginings go too far. The same mental agility helped him maintain his grades so, as he soon figured out, he would not be red-flagged for extra help or special attention. Although he was generally thought of as being odd, no one who should have picked up on any of his increasingly strange habits and behaviors. After all, they reasoned, teenagers sometimes do senseless things. Sometimes they can be freaky and peculiar and act in unpredictable and aberrant ways. Robert realized that as long as he kept things more or less in check, no one would catch on or even care.
On a crisp October day when he was in ninth grade, Robert skipped his last class - algebra, his least favorite - and went home early. He opened the front door and was assailed by the turned-up volume from the television. Before he got to the den to turn it down, the back door slammed. When he raised a yellowed window shade to look out, he saw, limping stiffly but hurriedly away, the unmistakable figure of his father. He stifled a laugh when his father morphed into a metallic robot with inflexible joints, and then a Nazi storm trooper goose-stepping from the backyard. Robert had not seen him move that fast in a long time. By the time he opened the door, and yelled out, "Hey, Dad!" his father was gone.
Robert ran back to the den to turn down the volume.
"Hi, Grandma." Sometimes he got no response.
"Hey, Grandma. Whatcha watching?" He giggled at the sound of the words. Still nothing.
He thought to himself, She's really messed up today. Ever since her stroke, his grandmother's mental and physical health had been deteriorating. When she was moderately alert, she was abusive and domineering, especially to Stanley. At other times, she was almost mercifully catatonic. Once, when the family members came together at suppertime, as if by accident, his father explained to him, in front of his grandmother, who was sitting silently, sadly shaking her head, that she had been having a series of mini-strokes. So it didn't surprise him at all to see her sitting in her usual spot on the couch with her eyes open, inert and unresponsive.
This time, however, her eyes were unseeing. Empty. Devoid. Vacant. As if there were nothing left inside. He stared at his grandmother's shrunken chest and saw no inhalation, no exhalation. Hey! I remember those two words from biology! he thought at first. But, suddenly, the realization hit him: His grandmother was dead! Oh shit…Oh Shit! What am I going to do now? A moment or two passed. He started screaming and shuddering. He felt himself falling and hitting the floor before he felt no more.
His mother found him lying in a fetal position, in a puddle of his own waste. She let him remain like that on the floor, while she called the police. Only then did she tend to her son, and then, only tentatively and without haste. He came to just before the police cars rolled up, so she rushed him upstairs to clean himself up.
Because of his grandmother's age and the condition of her body, it was determined that she died of natural causes - that she had simply stopped breathing. There was no investigation, no hard questioning, nothing to question. In keeping with religious tradition, she was buried the following day. A rabbi doing a mitzvah, a good deed, had to beg several men from his congregation to make up the quorum of ten required for a proper memorial service at the grave site. Only a few bothered to return to the Lodansky house afterwards for a bite to eat or to utter some words of commiseration. It was just as well, for Stanley decided not to sit shiva for his mother. After all, how could he? Especially after what he had done.
Soon, it was as if nothing had happened. His grandmother's death was just a minor rip in the fabric of the family, just a blip in time. Robert, in his own hallucinatory haze, contemplated the concept of "out of sight, out of mind" because that was how his father and mother had decided to deal with his grandmother's death, just as they had with Rachel's disappearance. There was now simply one less being in the house at 145 Pine, one less mouth to hand-feed, one less person to change and clean up and worry about, but one more space on the couch in front of the TV.
= = = = =
The rest of Robert's ninth grade went by, fast-forwarding like a blur. He could never find the words to say to his father, nor to his mother, who Robert assumed was just as culpable in his grandmother's death. A stranger to them before, Robert became more alienated, an alien in his own home. And his parents had simply given up and did not give a damn. It was better off that way.
Robert's next three years in high school were mostly uneventful. He wasn't a "jock" or a "goth" or an "academic." He fell into no specific group. He did not become the butt of jokes - practical or otherwise - as one might have expected. Nor did he become the target of the extended elbow in the hallway, the victim of the pulled-out chair, the recipient of the slap in the back of the head, or the focus of the wrath of one of the school bullies. Instead, he was just "that weird kid" who was, surprisingly, left alone. He had no friends and few acquaintances, and spent most of his time in his attic sanctuary. With little parental interaction and guidance, which was fine for him and fine for them, he was on his own, and, in the vernacular, "lived in his own head." Thus, his increasingly extensive fantasy life, fueled by imagination-inducing and -enhancing chemicals, always threatened to take over and subsume him. And it took increasingly more energy for him to keep it all under control.
Robert got by, passing most of his classes chiefly because of the school district's popular - not to mention money-saving - policy of social promotion. Like many of his lower-class peers, he was switched into a non-academic track known as the "career institute." It was a euphemism that fooled and placated apathetic parents who were too busy making ends meet to give their kids' education a second thought. But it did not fool their sons and daughters who were all too happy to do nothing in school - except to show up and stay out of trouble. Only much later, when the actual lack of job preparation became front page news in the local newspaper and then an immediate concern of the state education department, was the social experiment scrapped in favor of yet another new set of rigorous standards.
Robert sat, stoned and glassy-eyed, among his "esteemed fellow graduates," baking under the hot afternoon sun on the last Sunday in June. He was glad to be wearing shorts and a T-shirt under his dark blue gown. No snapshots to gloat over later would be taken, for his parents had not bothered to come. Still, Robert scanned the crowd of "parents, relatives and friends - the folks who made this all possible," who were sitting in the wooden bleachers on each side of the field, hoping to spot the two familiar faces that he magically hoped would be there.
As the voices droned on, Robert gazed up at the sky, watching the approach of storm clouds. He was hoping that a sudden downpour would flood the field and halt the ceremony, that lightning would strike the pompous, self-important speakers on the podium, the asshole valedictorian and the bitchy salutatorian - not that he actually knew them well. Robert discovered that not everything discussed in English class had escaped him. When the sun was eclipsed by a particularly dark cloud, Robert started laughing, almost maniacally. The dread, the foreboding - the dark cloud, the omen. When a teacher acting as an usher approached him, he was barely able to get himself under control.
Robert's row was asked to stand. But when Robert's name was called and he walked across the podium to receive his diploma, there was no clapping, no cheering. No hooting, no hollering. All that could be heard was the rustling of programs. Robert wanted the silence to swallow him up as he hurried off the stage and back to his seat.
Afterwards, Robert hung around for a while, watching the picture-taking, the hugging and kissing, the proud looks on all of the shimmering faces that oscillated between happiness and gruesomeness. When he felt the buzz wearing off, he rolled up his gown and tossed it behind the bleachers. Then he walked home.
As he passed the den, his mother and father were in their usual places in front of the television. His father, sitting in his underwear, barely acknowledged his son - not even a "How'd it go?" - as he passed by on the way to the attic stairs. When he got to his room, Robert stashed his rolled-up, rubber-banded "local" diploma into the back of his underwear drawer, flopped down on his bed and began to cry.
Robert had made no plans and had nothing to do. He had no job and no life except the imaginary one inside his head. His mother often complained of migraines or chest pains, or some other malady, and then refused to go to the Big L to help out. His father seemed to care less and less each day, and sometimes closed the luncheonette before the late afternoon rush, such as it was. Up until then, at the beginning of every summer, his father would make Robert the offer of a part-time job at the luncheonette. Every summer, Robert had turned him down.
A couple of weeks after his graduation, Stanley called out, almost reluctantly, "Hey, Robbie…"
"You wanna work a couple of hours a day at the 'L?"
"Jeez, Dad. I don't know."
"You can pick up a few bucks. Off the books, you know."
The only job experience Robert had was cutting lawns, but he couldn't compete with the professional lawn services that had gradually taken over the neighborhood. Sometimes he did odd jobs for several elderly ladies who lived across the street but he suspected that they gave him money because they felt sorry for him. He didn't want to be a charity case, but he needed money desperately. Now, more than ever.
"Yeah. Okay, Dad." Giving in. Selling himself out.
"Start tomorrow at six?"
"That's kinda early."
"Take it or leave it."
My father is always such a bastard, Robert thought, but he kept it to himself this time. "Yeah, yeah. I'll be there."
Robert's employment at the luncheonette lasted exactly five days. His father found fault with everything Robert did. Robert couldn't get anything right. His father ordered him around. Robert couldn't learn from his mistakes. His father made nasty remarks to him in front of customers. Robert was as sour to him as the bile that rose up in his father's throat.
When Robert couldn't take it anymore, he tore off his apron, threw it in his father's face and yelled out, "Fuck you, Dad! I'm outta here!" And Robert never forgave his father for stiffing him out of his last day's pay.
A month sped by, and then another. When he wasn't picking up a buck or two here or there dealing or doing odd jobs, Robert was spending most of his time up in his room, or outside in the overgrown backyard when it got too hot in the poorly-insulated attic. Robert avoided his mother like poison. One day, she caught him as he started up the stairs. She yelled, "You know something, Robert?
As usual, her words were slurred.
"What now, ma?"
"You're no goddam good."
"Gimme a break, will ya."
"All you do all day is stay up in your goddam room. What the hell are you doing up there?"
"I listen to music. Read. Think Study. I'm even doing some writing."
"That's bullshit, and you know it."
"C'mon, Ma. Lay off."
"You better do something with yourself, or else. We can't stand you around here, moping around like this."
"For chrissakes, Ma. Would you leave me alone?"
"Leave you alone?" His mother was becoming even more irate, her voice more shrill. "Leave you alone? You're lucky we don't throw you out of the goddam house."
Robert pushed her aside and escaped up to his attic sanctuary, while she continued screaming at him: "See how you'll like it then!" and "You're a miserable bastard!" and then "You're just like your father!"
Only when he slammed the door behind him did the screaming stop.
Unproductive and unsatisfying days slid by, separated by empty nights filled only with fear and dissolution. Even when he was exhausted, Robert often refused to let himself be lulled to sleep, fearing that his father would drag himself up the stairs in the dead of night and press a pillow over his face. In the fog between sleep and consciousness, Robert's mind really began to wander. Past episodes were mere flights of fancy compared with the distortions of reality that now captured his psyche, that often dug at his soul. But what scared him most was that he was losing control. It was taking him progressively more effort to snap back and return to the present - if and when he really wanted to.
Early one afternoon, Stanley decided to lock up the Big-L and go home. His swollen feet were bothering him more than usual. Just as he got to the door, the telephone rang. Stanley shuffled over to the phone and angrily snatched it off the hook.
"Yeah?" Stanley's gruff, gravelly voice, resenting the effort it took.
"Daddy?" A soft voice. Tremulous. Tentative.
"Who's this?" Although he knew at once.
"Daddy…it's me. Rachel."
Stanley's heart sank. It was a voice he hadn't heard in more than ten years. A voice he had longed to hear for as long as he could remember, although he would never admit it to himself, nor anyone else.
"Daddy…I'm sick. Real sick."
Oh my god. And now she calls? Stanley's head started to throb. "Where are you?"
"It doesn't matter, Daddy."
"What's wrong? Is there anything…?"
"I got the AIDS, Daddy. They say I'm going to die."
Stanley's grip on the phone tightened. He wanted to bang it against the counter. He was furious. Helpless. Speechless.
"Daddy. You've got to help me."
"What the hell do you want me to do?" His voice became louder. More belligerent. He wanted to catch up to her and slap her fourteen year-old face, but then hold her close and protect her.
"I don't know. I don't know if there's anything you can do."
Moments of silence passed. Sweat was pouring down from his forehead and then mixing with tears. Stanley tried to get his breathing under control. His chest was heaving, his heart was pounding.
"Ten years, Rachel. It's been ten goddam years." Shouting. Becoming more adamant. More hardhearted. More heartless. "Where the fuck have you been all these years?" But wanting to say, "Why did you run away? I missed you so much."
Then, "Well, I'm sick too. And so's your mother." Screaming. Blaming. Accusing.
Anger and remorse, guilt and sorrow blazed through him like a flashing strobe. Old torments came flooding back in a torrent.
When he could take it no longer, his voice suddenly became icy, detached, robotic, disconnected.
"Rachel. Don't you call here anymore. You hear? You're dead to me," he heard himself saying. And he banged the handset back on the cradle.
Almost immediately, in a panic, he realized what he had done. He picked up the phone and shouted, "Rachel! You still there?"
But there was only the dial tone. Stanley sagged down to the floor, holding the phone, but failing to hold in the memories.
Eventually, he got up and limped home. Stanley had intended to tell Shirley about the phone call, but when he opened the front door, she called out to him, with that goddam edge in her voice, "You're home already?"
Shirley's brief greeting was a code, three words that expanded into an accusation, a denigration. Under his breath, Stanley muttered, "Back-biting bitch," and walked into the den to turn on the television. And he never did share the contents of that telephone call with his wife, nor his son, nor anyone else. Out of sight, out of mind.
And they all slid, inexorably, downhill.
= = = = =
In the twelve years following Robert's high school graduation, his father's paralysis worsened. Because Robert didn't give much of a damn, he wasn't privy to his father's diagnosis and the prognosis of inevitable decline and deterioration. There was no way for Robert to know, for example, that a few months after he threw his apron in his father's face and walked out of the Big-L for good, his father's condition had become so painful that he needed heavy doses of painkillers just to get through the day. Hiring someone to work full-time was out of the question; the business was already on the verge of bankruptcy. Stanley wanted to lock the doors and walk away from the Big-L but he just couldn't, not without losing everything.
But one day, for the first and only time, Lady Luck finally smiled, but only faintly, on Stanley when the Big-L was bought, and immediately gutted, by a Starbucks franchisee. The money Stanley received barely paid off the debts he had incurred along the way, leaving them with little to live on.
His mother's health was also spiraling out of control. She suffered from hypertension, diabetes and obesity - and, Robert thought, terminal bitchiness - a combination made deadly by her absolute and adamant refusal to closely monitor her weight and her sugar level and her failure to take her medications as prescribed. Now, a dozen years after Robert's high school graduation, Shirley Lodansky was in the process of losing her eyesight. She had already lost both of her legs, which had become gangrenous and had to be amputated.
Robert kept his door locked to the two invalids downstairs, not that they'd ever attempt the fourteen-step climb up to his room. He wanted nothing to do with their bickering and their demands, their miserableness and their misery. Until he heard the tumblers click into place, he felt a sense of unease, of being torn, of needing to avoid them at any cost. Only when the door was closed did he feel any sense of peace. And then he could refuse even their most harmless, most innocent pleas for help.
Late one evening, Robert unlocked his door and listened for movement downstairs. Always, the television was on; it had become his parents' only companion. When he was sure they were asleep or passed out, he tiptoed down the stairs, avoiding the loose boards that he knew would creak. He had already spent many nights walking the dark streets alone. He always avoided greeting dog-walkers with the expected cheery "Good evening." He detoured around the schoolyard where rowdy teenagers often congregated, knowing that he'd be the butt of insults or boozy jibes. He crossed to the other side when anyone approached. But as much as he wanted to be by himself, to let his mind wander and fantasize in its own aberrant way, he yearned for some sort, any sort, of human connection.
One evening, beckoned by loud jukebox music from within, he found himself walking through the doorway of a bar on Main Street. A buzzing, neon "Mystic Inn" sign illuminated the window. He surprised himself, for it was the first time he had ever gone into a bar. He waited until his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light and then went over to the counter.
When the bartender finished wiping the dark wood, Robert asked, "How much for a beer?"
"A buck fifty for draft. Six for a pitcher."
"Gimme a glass." He reached into the pocket of his jeans, pulled out a crumpled twenty, and handed it to the bartender.
Robert watched intently as the bartender held the glass at a slant, pulled down on the tap, and let the glass slowly fill. The bartender took the bill and placed the change on the counter next to his glass. Robert swallowed down his beer. As soon as the glass was empty, he got the bartender's attention and asked for another.
"Why don't you get yourself a pitcher? It'll be cheaper that way."
Robert, unused to drinking and the effects of alcohol, was already starting to feel the buzz. "Sure. Why not?" The bartender picked up a couple of bills from the counter. Robert pulled over a barstool and sat down.
When the pitcher came, he poured himself a glass and quickly downed it. Only when he refilled his glass did he find the courage to look around.
Several men sat by themselves at the bar, staring off into space. Their body language warned "do not disturb!" They weren't even watching the color television set hanging from the ceiling in the corner above the bar. The Yankee game was on but the sound was off. A dozen men and women - a few who looked vaguely familiar from his school days - had dragged several round tables together. They were gesturing animatedly and shouting raucously at each other above the music. In the back, near the jukebox, ignored by all of the others, a woman was dancing by herself. She was undulating to the music, swaying her hips and her pelvis and her ass to the driving rhythm. To Robert, watching her was more arousing and exciting than the dancers on Soul Train or the raciest stuff on cable. Robert had never seen anything like it, like her. She was an untouchable, yet he could not take his eyes off of her.
He drank his beer and watched her. He asked for another pitcher. The group of twelve, in the meantime, had become subdued and, a while later, they got up to leave. Half-empty pitchers and a dozen empty glasses remained on their tables. They completely ignored Robert on their way out.
Robert pocketed his change and got up, carrying his pitcher and glass, and wobbled over to her. He sat down at one of the vacated tables and continued to gawk at her, not that she minded. After several more pulsating songs, there was quiet in the bar. No more coins had been fed into the jukebox. Wearily, she sat down at the table across from him.
"I love watching you dance," Robert heard himself saying.
She smiled - a sad, ironic smile - but said nothing.
"You come here often?" Robert wanted to smack himself for saying something as trite as that.
She chuckled, as much from his words, as from his obvious discomfort.
"Yeah. A lot," she replied. "Too damn much."
"My name's Robert."
She extended her hand. It felt damp when he took it in his.
"I never saw you here before. Your first time?"
"Yeah," Robert answered. "I don't get out much."
A few moments later, she said. "I come here all the time. I got nowhere else to go. I've gotta get out of the house." Then, "There's so much bullshit going on where I live."
Robert allowed himself to take a closer look at her. Her face glistened from sweat. Her makeup was running. But her dark, impenetrable eyes captivated him, more so than even her lusciously liquid dance steps a while earlier.
"I think you're beautiful," he murmured. He couldn't believe he had said those words.
"Yeah…Well, look at me," she replied. "My hair's messed up. I'm sweating like a pig. I must smell like a…"
"It doesn't matter to me. I don't care."
"You're crazy. You don't even know me."
"So then tell me about yourself." Robert felt like he was mouthing words, play-acting a pick-up scene from a bad TV show.
She sat back and stared at him. Mulling it over. Trying to decide.
Meanwhile, the volume of the television was turned back up. The Yankee game announcers chattered on in the background.
"C'mon. Let's get out of this joint." More words from a script.
"Let's just walk."
She let him take her hand as he led her out of the place.
They walked several blocks together. "Where's your car?" she asked at one point.
"Uhm…uh," he stammered. "I, uh, walked here."
"Well, that's okay. It's nice out."
"How 'bout getting a cup of coffee," he asked.
"Sounds okay with me."
They walked several more blocks, until they were in front of a Starbucks. His father's old place. Robert paused and then said, "Here okay?
"Fine with me."
Robert ordered hot chocolate while she stood at his side, deciding what to get.
"And, you miss…"
At first, she wanted to order something expensive, like a Frappuccino, but then changed her mind. This guy is sweet, she thought. He isn't like all the others. The only thing they ever want to do is to get into my pants.
"A grande Decaf with lots of milk."
"The milk's over on the side," the server said, as he handed her the filled cardboard cup.
Robert took the other twenty out of his pocket and paid for their order as she went to top off her cup with skim milk. They sat down at a table next to the window.
"So…," Robert said, as he tried to pick up the strand.
"What about all the bullshit going on?"
"Oh. All that." She paused while she had to make another decision.
Then, in staccato: "Italian father. Puerto Rican mother. He drinks. She drinks. He works. She doesn't. He curses her out. She gets under his skin. He smacks her. She punches him back."
She hesitated, until he said, "Go on."
"So me and my little brothers and sisters…we get hit, beaten, cursed at. I can't stay around them. It's like poison."
"So why don't you leave?"
She shrugged, as if to say, "Where am I going to go? What am I going to do?"
Robert looked at her closely. Momentarily, she took on a different countenance, but one, he suddenly realized, that was not at all like one of his hallucinatory warpings. Instead, he felt a kinship, a presence, as if, magically and joyously, he had found his own reflection, his heart's counterpart, a soul mate.
Robert wanted to stay like that, with Eva, for the rest of his life, for the rest of time. He felt warm inside. Excited. Almost unable to contain himself.
But his reverie was suddenly interrupted. "We're closing in five minutes." They swallowed down what was left in their cups and got up to leave.
"What now?" she asked.
Her house was out of the question, and he didn't want to bring her back to his filthy, cluttered room even if he could sneak her past his filthy, miserable parents. As they walked out of the Starbucks, he took her hand and turned to kiss her. She gave him a peck on his cheek and quickly pushed him away.
"I've gotta get going."
"Can I walk you home?"
"No. You better not."
"See you tomorrow night at the Mystic?" he asked.
"Sure thing. Tomorrow night."
She turned and he watched her sashaying away from him.
Robert was so happy that he wanted to skip, like a child, all the way home - not as if he had ever done so. He believed that meeting Eva was preordained, that luck was finally starting to go his way. Ever since the unfortunate discovery of his sleeping arrangement with his sister so many years before, he thought that misfortune and hardship chased after him like an evil boogie man, a vindictive spirit who absolutely refused to let him be, who forced Robert to always, always, keep on looking over his shoulder.
The next morning, after several hours of fitful sleep, and despite a throbbing hangover, Robert started to clean his room and put things away. He picked up dirty underwear and socks and turned his T-shirts outside-out. Off came posters of rock bands and heavy metal groups, most which were now defunct. Off, too, came the Hustler centerfolds. Joining the disjointed, misshapen latex hands in the garbage pail were the remnants and residue of a squalid life lived in an emotional limbo.
He carefully pulled on the frayed, brittle cords to raise Venetian blinds that hadn't been up for as long as he could remember. Almost too-bright sunlight filled the room with warmth, lighting up corners where dirty, dark secrets could no longer hide. With a screwdriver, he got the paint-frozen windows unstuck. A breeze swirled through the room, threatening layers of dust, whisking away dust motes of sadness.
When he was finished, he sat down wearily on his bed. Tonight, he decided, he would sneak Eva up to his room.
Robert lay back and began fantasizing about Eva - touching, caressing, kissing, licking, doing it - making love, making babies, making a life together. He realized, suddenly and with a profound impact, that instead of the demons and the gremlins and the warped images that had inhabited his thoughts, he was now seeing things much more normally. And he fell asleep with a smile spreading across his face.
When he opened his eyes, the sun was setting, and his room was bathed in a yellowish cast. He slowly got out of bed and went into the bathroom to shower and shave. He put on his best shirt and his one pair of pants that weren't creased.
He listened at his door and then, silently - or so he hoped - made his way downstairs.
"Is that you, Robert?" Who the hell else would it be?
"Where the hell'ya goin'?" As if she actually cared.
"Nowhere. Just out."
And he opened the door and escaped into what he hoped would be the best night of his life.
When he got to the Mystic, the same men were sitting in their same spots, still gazing into space, as if they had never left. He wondered what they were looking at, what they were seeing. He bought himself a pitcher of beer.
Several hours passed. The baseball game had ended and the TV had been switched to ESPN. Making it last as long as possible, Robert had slowly finished the pitcher and was now working on his second. Several couples had arrived and sat by themselves in the back, talking quietly, urgently. A few more men arrived to take their places on the stools around him. Meanwhile, Eva had not yet come to him.
Where could she possibly be? he wondered. She promised she'd be here.
Every time the door opened, he glanced, with increasing concern, at who had arrived. It was getting later and later.
Damn it. Where the hell is she?
He drank from his glass, feeling more tipsy with every swallow, more anxious and angry with every sip, more lost and more disconnected with every gulp.
And then he realized, as if he were sucker-punched in the gut, that she was not going to show up.
Eva did not appear that night, nor the next night, nor the night after that.
For a while, night after night, he sat at the bar like a sentry, nursing a glass of beer, anxiously and expectantly swiveling in his seat whenever the door opened, until, after a time, he no longer bothered to even turn his head. And he discovered that there was no such thing as "out of sight, out of mind," for there was ever so much to see, to dwell upon, to obsess about, in the vast internal wasteland that belonged to him, alone.
Rev 15 / March 27, 2005
March, 2005 Copyright © 2005, Lloyd B. Abrams