The light is off in the hallway. It’s been off for a month and the first floor tenant, Mrs. Gaynor, has complained to the landlord. Over and over. She has sciatica and the beginnings of glaucoma, and believes every story she reads in the papers about muggers in the dark. She says that I don’t care because I’m young. Young people read only the headlines about Russia, she says. Movie reviews. Dear Abby.
Truth is, I don’t have to worry about muggers because I have a beautiful left hook.
My stepfather taught it to me when I was a little girl. He took me to the park, stood with his legs wide apart and head cocked to the side, and said, “Hit me. Hard.”
My stepfather had a thing about dinosaurs. He said they’d disappeared — babies and all. He could not get over the babies disappearing. He was going to make sure I wouldn’t be taken away without putting up a fight.
Mr. Kaminsky on the second floor didn’t put up a fight when he died. He was confident there was no devil in the afterlife and had no fear of dying at all. Treblinka had cured him of that. Mr. Kaminsky was absolutely sure that the devil smoked Gauloises and lived in Argentina with a couple of Dobermans. Mr. Kaminsky was very old when he died. I found him at the kitchen table, with his old slippers on, his right toe sticking out with a tuft of gray hair on it.
The apartment where Mr. Kaminsky lived is now occupied by a guy who vacuums his floors first thing in the morning, and dry-cleans all his clothes. Socks. Ties. Sheets. He doesn’t like to take any chances. This new guy has complained about the light being off in the hallway. I haven’t. I’ve been busy. For the last month I’ve been doing Scotch.
Mr. Kaminsky and I used to drink vodka. Sometimes late at night, if I saw his light on, I would drop by for a hand of poker. He had been in the Resistance in France and still didn’t sleep very much. Sometimes he woke up with a start in the middle of the night: the Nazis had dogs; his bike was thrown off the bridge; his brother was shot in the face. Those nights, he let me win. Or when he remembered I was eighteen. And a lady.
I am standing on the landing in my old robe, squinting in the dark. Ray is going on and on. On and on. He is sweating, breathing like a dog, eyes half-closed. When I met him I thought he looked like Al Pacino. He talked big, acted bad. He got me a lease on a place, a good deal on a Honda, cheap grass. He got me clothes at Bullocks when I got busted.
“Get off my case,” I tell him, shifting my weight. “OK? I’m not that sick yet.” I just found out — I can’t be that sick yet. I got dizzy this morning. I had three johns in a row. I went for a drink while the third one got dressed — he had a wart on his thigh — and I got dizzy leaning over the sink. I saw roaches.
“Take the night off,” Ray says. He is going on and on because he slept with me. Free of charge. He runs the show. He just read the new test results in the dark hallway. “Teresa . . .” he whines. “Teresa. . . .” Like when he’s coming. As if I’ve done a bad thing to him personally, getting AIDS now that business is taking off.
He got so freaked out he even sent me to a new doctor. This one had a receptionist and people waiting on gray velvet couches.
The old doctor had worn the same shirt for the last three years, second button from the top missing. He prescribed codeine and asked, “How’s business?”
While palpating my abdomen, “Now Teresa, concentrate. I’ll tell you the names of three horses. Pick one quick. Poseidon. Troubadour’s Call. Electric Lady. It’s a free Pap for you if you get it.”
Doing the breast exam, “Teresa, make sure you always use a condom, OK?”
The new doctor had narrow eyes like my stepfather. He asked me, “Any idea who it could have been? A classmate?”
I had written “student” on the “profession” line. I could see what he had in mind: a young man with glasses dragging his skinny self to a dealer on Skid Row, then groping at me on the family couch while his folks were at the movies.
“Yeah, I have an idea,” I said, and looked away at the picture of his kids in pink sweaters. “Yeah.” And he felt better, I could see: we have it under control. I wanted to tell him, maybe it was Jake from Arkansas, whose mom calls him collect at 5 a.m. with a fresh Psalm. Or Mr. D. He has a face like Mother Teresa’s: one is bound to pick up something with a face like that, something mortal to go to heaven with.
I looked back at the doctor. I saw a little flicker in his eyes. A very small spark, here and gone. My lips do that to men. The doctor looked at his knuckles, then up again. He looked outside.
“Look,” he said, “I hope you are aware of what to expect.” Blotched skin. Ribs sticking out. No hair. Yes, I know. As kids, we used to chase Tim O’Malveny down to the railway tracks with stones, if we caught him outside before sunset. Because of his hair, lips, skin. In our nightmares Tim would chase us through empty rooms, up winding stairs, his scarred fingers one inch from our hair.
I stood up quickly and said, “Well, thank you, doctor,” I said, “Goodbye, doctor.” I shook his hand as politely as if I’d sat on gray velvet couches all my life reading bouillabaisse recipes for two. I wrote him a beautiful check, with a loop at the end of the signature.
I sat on the stairs outside the doctor’s office. I smoked a cigarette. I said to the street, “Mr. Kaminsky, I’m gonna die.”
In the dark hallway, I sway a bit, touch Ray’s hand. “Hey, Ray, come on. . . .” I finger his T-shirt, eager for his smell. “Have a drink, Ray?” But he is pissed off, tight-assed about touch, sweat, saliva.
“A drink?” he says.
“Cheer up, Ray. Nobody’s dying here.” My teeth clenched. “They’re going to find something. Don’t be an idiot.” I see them looking for it, in white coats. They run up and down elevators and buses. They are very excited. I fling my robe open. “Hey, Ray. Take a good look. Come on. Cozy stuff. They line up for this. Stuff like this is made to last, honey. Plus, I’ve got good genes. I’m made of steel. I’m so fastidious about food, you know that. Vegetables, milk, that’s it. No fats, no fries. Carrot juice. Celery sticks.”
“I used your toilet,” Ray says. “I took a piss in your germs.” His open palm sends me spinning against the rail.
“Don’t be an idiot, Ray.” I look up. I try to see him. His white T-shirt shines in the dark. “I’m gonna pass out,” I say. I close my eyes. That’s what they’re waiting for, the tiny germs. Waiting in the cracks of my sweat glands. Baby germs first, headlong, like kids bursting out of school. They’ll leave me spread-out, dried-out like a bear rug. My head up, teeth clenched.
“Take it easy now,” I say. But Ray is gone. I pull myself up. I’m not that sick yet. I’m just dizzy. I’m not going to pass out. When I was ten, my stepfather passed out at a Greyhound terminal. Wild Turkey did that. In the dark I see him now, his purplish lips opening and closing, his tongue wet.
I want Mr. Kaminsky to slide up to me, with his checkered scarf around his neck, his old robe trailing behind with a faint scent of mothballs. “Please, Teresa. No passing out. Please. No scenes.” And then I’d say, “OK.” I'd take a very deep breath. “Thank you, Mr. Kaminsky.” And I’d be calm. We’d both be calm and polite in the dark. I’d tell him, “I tried all the lipsticks at the counter at May Company. They have my saliva all over Crimson Splendor. I liked it special.” He’d be standing by me quietly. We’d breathe together, in, out. We’d be very calm, Mr. Kaminsky and I.
I want to keep talking to Mr. Kaminsky. I want to tell him I’m doing fine now. Yuppies are moving into the building, but we are going to hold forth, Mr. Kaminsky. I feel brisk and efficient. Mr. Kaminsky, a walk is what’s needed here. One step at a time. My hand is on the rail. Ray is gone. I hold on to the rail. I’m Teresa, five years old, in the dark, on the top step, holding on to the rail. Mom is at her night shift at Burger King. My stepfather is drunk in the hallway.
“Teresa . . .” he whispers in the dark. “Teresa, is that you?” I stand very still, without breathing. “Is that you up there?” He is moving along the wall, slowly. “Teresa.”
I say, “Please.” I say, “Don’t touch me.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Come on down, honey baby.”
I dreamed of spiders for years. They came in the dark, one by one. With big eyes staring in the dark, long hairy legs. Touching me.
My stepfather had a thing about dinosaurs. He said they disappeared — babies and all. He couldn’t get over the babies disappearing. He didn’t want to give up on the babies. He woke me and my brother in the middle of the night, to look for them under our blankets. He sat in the kitchen in the dark, with a bottle of Scotch and a flashlight, waiting for a rustle.
Last time I saw him, he came to bail me out. It was a long time ago, before Ray was around. He bought me coffee, paying with change. Mom’s money. He looked short. I said to him, “I think about you.”
“Thank you,” he said.
In the dark I breathe deeply. In. Out. I might not go for a walk after all. I might slide down right here. Let go of myself. Yes. I slide onto Mrs. Gaynor’s welcome mat, right under Mrs. Gaynor’s door, by the den where she keeps a carpet from her sister, Daureen, who became a Maryknoll nun and needs no furniture. And I’m going to lie here, flat. Let them get me. On Mrs. Gaynor’s carpet, among Mrs. Gaynor’s cats. Warm. Quiet. Get me now. With Mrs. Gaynor chatting, sipping vervain infusion.
“You go ahead and leave me, Ray!” I holler. “You go ahead and do it. You’re gonna come back begging!”
I pull myself up, my head up. Watch me, Ray. He likes me special when I walk. High heels and tight ass.
The entrance door is open. The new guy in the building is standing there, his dry-cleaned shirts rustling in cellophane.
“Have you got a cigarette?” I say. He keeps staring at me. My robe is open. He sees my breasts, the tiny mole by my belly button. He pulls a cigarette out of his pocket, taking his sweet time.
“Any matches?” I ask. He doesn’t answer. I shrug. “Hey, you got no matches, it’s all right. Hey, thanks.”
I walk on, steady. I give him a full view of me swaying the way I do it, the way that drives Ray crazy, begging. It’s my thank you note, dry-clean baby.
If I pass that light before I count five I’m gonna die old with Ray. Me and him. We open a house, a class act. We are old and he takes pills for his back pain.