A cross-country travelogue featuring an old Audi and Nina Simone.
A lonely girl in the city is adopted as a project by her crazy, elderly neighbor.
I moved to New York last year for a job and for a change. I’d been in Ohio for 12 years before that. Ten of them married to Anthony. The split was final a month before I came here, but thinking back now those ten years seem like a handful of months.
Anthony and I met young. There was a deceptively fun first year together that slowly watered down into a decade of ho-hum. We never fought, but we also hardly spoke towards the end. We got used to each other and had the kind of benevolent affection you have for a stranger you see everyday, someone on the outskirts of your daily orbits. You see them and they see you, but nothing brings you together.
Anthony and I had our own lives is all I mean. Then one day we looked at each other and there seemed only the tiniest sliver of recognition. I struggled sometimes to remember his name. It was only a few panicked moments, but even a second is too long to forget your spouse. There was still affection, thankfully, and the split was not so much amicable as a matter of course, like saying goodbye to an old friend after your first short visit in years. You’re happy to have spent time with them, but now you both return to your lives.
My father and I lived in the center of the state and the closest body of water was Lake Arbuckle. There are people I knew in Ohio, born and raised there, who spent more time at the beach than I did growing up. My mother died giving birth to me. It’s a tragedy that can go either way and in my case instead of a misplaced resentment from my father I had an overabundance of support. He saw my mom in me.
I guess I left home to become my own person. A few years at Ohio State I met Anthony. We were married by graduation.
I haven’t made a lot of friends in New York, but I’m not worried. The work is great and the pay is getting there. Life seems full of promise and not in a blindly optimistic way. I was drying out in Ohio, and now at the very least I feel alive, fecund, like one of those Greek gods that pulls a child out of its head or inexplicably mates with an exotic animal. There’s life here is all I mean to say.
Helen though has taken a special interest in me since I moved in. She’s the mother I never had and never wanted, but I appreciate her just the same. She knows more about me than any friend should. Even now her lead-pipe-to-the-head subtlety should be expected, but she still asks blunt, personal questions in a way that makes them impossible not to answer. There’s no time to do anything but tell her the truth as bluntly as she asked for it.
“You doing alright up here darling?”
“I’m fine Mrs. Wallace. Are you taking Stanley out?” Stanley is Helen’s little dog, a 5 month old beagle mix that I want to rescue from her. She is the last person you’d expect to have a dog. She’s only had Stanley a few weeks and already seems bored with the whole prospect of a pet. Stanley seems to agree the match is a poor one. He makes an unsettling eye-contact with me that seems to beg: please help me!
“Yes. Even though I shouldn’t! He’s been a bad boy today.”
“Helen, he’s an angel. I’ve told you a hundred times I can take him to the park for you.”
She ignores my offer. It seems absurd to her that a dog would need exercise.
“Harry left him in the living room again. The little shit pissed everywhere.”
“You have to crate them when they get like that don’t you?”
“Yes my darling, you do.” Mrs. Wallace is a long-retired cabaret singer. She smiles broadly and pulls her little beagle out of my apartment singing “I Cain’t Say No” from Oklahoma! She stops at the landing and turns back to me.
“Christ Darling, I forgot the reason I came up here. Come down for breakfast.”
“That’s really a generous offer, but-”
“Hush! Ten minutes. Throw on a skirt and get down there.”
“Okay, Mrs. Wallace.”
“I’m jist a fool when lights are low!”
Stanley barks and dribbles a little in the hallway.
“Mrs. Wallace, Stanley’s-”
“I cain’t be prissy and quaint! I ain’t the type that can faint!”
I hear her door slam, directly below me, the faint echo of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and yips from the hound.
“…and you can’t really do that today. What are you paying for your place?”
I tell her, like I said, because she always catches me off guard and it’s easiest to answer.
“Just over three.”
“Thousand?! Sweet Jesus! Oh, you see, Harry and I are rent controlled and have been here forever. We hardly pay that much all year darling.”
Harry and Helen have a granddaughter who is about my age. I’m a surrogate to them of sorts. I can’t see Stanley yet, but hear him clicking around on the hardwood floors, then a pause, they what seems plain to me to be a puppy relieving itself. Helen doesn’t seem to notice, she’s launched into an update of the granddaughter. She starts so many sentences in the middle, as if her thoughts were occurring simultaneously in the minds of her audience.
“..never visits. Her mother moved years ago to Iowa for that no good husband of hers and the child-“
Harry interrupts his wife, Helen, on the finer points, “Kansas. They moved to Kansas.”
“Whichever, the point is the child doesn’t come to the city.”
“They have her convinced that-”
“What? Harry, keep your professor mouth shut. You’re retired, you old fool. And make us some coffee. Anyway. They have that child convinced that she’ll be raped and burgled the second she gets off the airplane. She’s a fine looking young lady and she’s never going to find any kind of man in Iowa.”
“Topeka. They live in Kansas dear.”
“Harry, so help me! Can I get you something to drink while he’s making the coffee?”
“Where did you put the beans dear?”
“Harry! They’d bite you on the nose they were any closer.”
Harry looks to me and I point at the counter-top, a few inches from his boney fingers, at a bag of coffee. He smiles and closes his eyes, bows to me. Stanley has clicked into the kitchen and planted his snout on my leg and looks up at me with beagle eyes begging. I can’t tell if he wants food or if the fits of uncontrollable urination have more to do with the frenetic energy of the Wallaces than his puppy bladder. I rub his nose and his tail wags so hard I expect it to snap off and wiggle back out of the room on its own.
“I’ll have whatever you’re having Helen.”
“Oh baby doll, this is a Bloody Mary. You don’t want that do you?”
“Oh child no, you’re too young to-“
“Make her a weak one Helen.”
“Harold Wallace, I mean it!” Stanley’s eyes bulge a little. He tucks in closer to me and the tail stops as Helen’s voice hits a higher register. “Sugar, this has alcohol in it.” she then speak-sings, “Spirits!” from no particular musical number.
I’m 31. Helen has me convinced sometimes I’m 7.
“Maybe just a little one?”
“You see Helen. I told you.”
Helen shoots Harry a stare and he returns to his frail body’s task of grinding coffee and spooning it into a percolator.
“Okay, just a finger full. Harry Darling, what are you making us for breakfast?”
Harry does not respond in the way I would expect. He seems clumsy and mercilessly frail, but he smiles first at me before his wife intercepts the look. The old man can cook.
“Do you like crepes dear?” He asks me.
“Showing off Harold? Of course she likes crepes!”
“I know love. He’s horrible.” She raises her voice. “She’s as thin and hard as a whippet Harry and you’re pushing crepes on her. Make something light for god sake.”
“I love crepes.”
“Of course you do. Crepes Harold! Chop-chop. And be sure now- not too thick.”
Helen first rips it from her husband’s offering hand and then hands me the Bloody Mary.
“Here my sweetness, sip it first and see how it settles.”
The Bloody Mary is 2 parts V8 to one part vodka, a brand that could no doubt strip paint, even in its present diluted state. In other words, just what I need for prolonged exposure to Helen.
“I like it.”
“She loves it Harold.” She drinks down the remainder of her own before slamming the glass down to use both hands to speak-sing, “Loves it!”
Stanley jumps at the reverberation of the glass on the Formica. The force of Helen slapping it on the counter sends an ice cube out of the glass, into the air, and rolling under the major appliances. Helen sees her startled pooch and approaches him with long, fake fingernails, wiggling wildly on jazz hands. He pisses all over the kitchen floor before running into the other room.
“Oh good Christ Stanley.”
She pours herself another Bloody Mary.
He returns and I rub him on the head.
“Clean that up Harry, will you?”
“I can clean it up. Harry’s making breakfast.”
“Oh nonsense!” She says it, but she doesn’t step in as I paper towel up the mess.
I insist that I take Stanley out for a walk.
“He’s fine. Don’t worry so much about him. He’s got a charmed life and he wastes it urinating all over the place.”
I explain what little I know of dogs, that puppies have small undisciplined bladders, that they need hours of daily exercise. Helen rolls her eyes into her Bloody Mary and waits as patiently as she knows how for me to finish my dog speech.
“I can’t imagine a dog more perfect than Stanley. He’s so cute!”
He adores me. Helen and Harry don’t seem to even notice he’s here and bored, other than to scream at him for peeing inside.
“Why didn’t you say!? Take him, he’s yours!”
She’s serious. The offer seems the same as if she were giving me a sweater she doesn’t wear anymore. She inflates with good nature and beams with generosity.
“Oh great! How brilliant of you darling! He’ll be so happy! Look at him! He loves you!”
“Want to come home with me Stanley?” He rolls on his back and I rub his belly.
That’s how I came to have Stanley.