The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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There are four types of brick. I remember two of them: pavior and stock. Our row house was all brick with ledges near the roof, four stories up. Pigeons liked to make nests there, but it was stupid; the ledges were too shallow, and with the first strong gust of wind their nests blew down. Still, year after year, they did it. Optimists, those pigeons. I was stunned by the dead little birds — lavender question marks on the stoop. We would walk around them day after day. The ants came, and other birds. Each morning fewer pieces of the fallen remained. The neck was always the last to go. I would think about them at Thanksgiving when my mother lifted the long neck from the butchered bird and laid it on the table. One day I stood over one of the fledglings, trying to see into its gray eye. My mother yelled, “Get away from that dirty bird!” I backed away, but I hated her for it. A thick yellow caterpillar was crossing the translucent body, and the sun was shining on them both, glistening off the featherless bird and puff of caterpillar hair on the brick step. There was nothing else quite so amazing in the neighborhood that day. My mother was leaning so far out the window she could’ve fallen the four stories herself. I thumbed my nose at her — as brazen as fuck you in 1962.
Thirty-five years later, in the midnineties, I worked in another brick building, a homeless shelter for men on the Bowery in New York City. The bricks’ rectangular bodies were cool. The windows were five feet tall, the ceilings fifteen feet up. Pipes hung from the ceiling, and mice sometimes ran the length of the room on them. Everyone stopped what they were doing to see if the mice would fall, and when one did, a cheer rose in the shelter, a cheer that sent the mouse running into a corner, where it disappeared. I was a nurse, but I didn’t wear scrubs; I wore street clothes and a lab coat. I liked the guys who lived there, even the ex-cons. They were survivors, comedians. They all had AIDS; it was a requirement to stay in the shelter. Mr. Davis was my favorite. He was sixty-five years old and had once owned a house in Harlem. He’d worked most of his life as a janitor, and in 1962 he’d bought a brownstone on Lexington Avenue. I asked him one night how he became homeless.
“Truth is, baby, I could never read,” he told me. But he had paid off his house by 1985, working long hours to do it. Then the tax collector came and said he owed back taxes, had him sign some papers. “I was too ashamed to say I couldn’t read, so I signed them. Gave him my house that day.”
That can’t be true, I remember thinking. “Couldn’t you just explain what happened?” I asked. “Get a lawyer?”
He looked at me as if I were crazy. “I was drinking heavy by then, honey, and I just stayed in the house until someone came and moved me to the street. I left a beautiful credenza on that sidewalk. Everything was on the street, me included.” He laughed. That was one of the things I loved about him: his ability to laugh at his own misfortune. I don’t know how he got AIDS, men or needles or hookers — doesn’t matter.
One evening I had a woman come in to teach meditation. She was guiding all the men on a mental journey, saying things like, “See yourself walking down a path,” and, “You don’t have a care in the world,” and, “Now imagine you meet someone wise.” Mr. Davis was smiling through the whole exercise and turning his head one way and the other, laughing. Finally the facilitator asked him to tell us what his vision was.
“I was in front of my house in Harlem,” he said. “It was autumn. There were leaves blowing down the street. Then a beautiful girl called to me from the right side of the street. Then a beautiful girl called to me from the left side of the street. Then I was walking down the center of the street, like I was a parade all by myself, and the beautiful women were calling, ‘Sam! Sam!’ That’s all.” He paused and looked around at all of us, then clapped his hands in the air. “I love this class,” he said.
The facilitator was disappointed, but the other men loved it. Everyone was roaring. Out of their reveries now, they stood and waved to Mr. Davis and wiggled their asses, calling, “Sam!” And Sam turned right and then left, as if he were a beauty queen trapped in a short, brick-like body.
On weekends, for extra money, I worked in an emergency room in Jersey City, just four blocks from where I grew up. I could see the New York City skyline from the front door of the hospital, and sometimes I would take a break and go outside with the smokers to see what garish color the Empire State Building was lit.
One day I said, “Why is it pink?”
“It’s red,” the Italian American security guard said, “for Valentine’s Day.”
“Oh, right, right.”
I headed back inside. The emergency-room doors opened with a gasp of air sucked from the lobby toward the street.
One night those doors popped open at 1 AM — too early for bar-fight victims, too late for heart attacks. A woman ran in and lifted her little girl onto a cot. “Oww, owwee,” the child was saying. Her urine was bloody. The mother was asking how a four-year-old could get such bloody urine. Maybe an infection, we said. “Oww, oww,” said the child on the cot. Her curly black hair was held in place by three yellow duck barrettes. I sat her in my lap and rocked her and told her how we needed her to pee in a cup and how we knew that making the pee was an ow, but once she did, then we could give her something so it wouldn’t hurt so much anymore.
“How?” the mother was saying. “Why?” the mother was saying.
I was caught myself by the why. Maybe it wasn’t an infection.
“Mommy, owwee,” the girl said. Duck barrettes slipping, black curl falling.
“Her father had her all weekend,” said the mother. “He dropped her off at midnight, and immediately I noticed her underpants.”
In 1980 and ’81 I’d lived in Hawaii. Sometimes, when I was at work in the emergency room in New Jersey, I would suddenly feel as if I were on the island snorkeling. I would actually feel the dozens of yellow fish passing over my legs. Sometimes I wanted to sink back into myself and close my eyes and wake up in the transparent waters of Kailua Beach.
I remember walking once on the horseshoe road overlooking Kaneohe Bay. “Little bird, little bird,” a man was saying. He was kneeling on the road, and I almost tripped over him. There was a light drizzle, an orchid in bloom. This man was saving a myna bird. Cars stopped for him, runners stopped for him, I stopped for him. Mangoes fell in the high grass. The day was gold and steely white. The bird had a mate; it cried and waddled in circles around this myna that had somehow become covered in oil. The man was cleaning oil from its black feathers. The slick bird was placid and unruffled in his hands except for the eyes, which slid rapidly from side to side, from the man to the other myna.
The ER was remarkably quiet. The doctor was suspicious. We were all trying not to think what we were thinking. I rocked the little girl while her mother signed papers. We lifted her slight body onto the stretcher, and the doctor looked between the child’s legs and saw torn shreds of skin and clots of blood. “Oh, no,” one of us said. Maybe all of us said that. The mother went crazy. We had to assume anyone could have done it, including her. I covered the girl with a white crocheted blanket. She held on to a corner with one hand and my scrub pocket with the other. She watched her mother move into the hall with the doctor. The police came. We called the father, hid the concern in our voices: “Just thought you’d like to know your daughter is here, probably an infection. She’s asking for you.” He agreed to come down.
I left the child just long enough to go out and look at the skyline. The Twin Towers, the Empire State Building, the World Financial Center. Instead of thinking about the lit windows and wondering if someone was working late, or if it was the housekeepers with their gray bins and brooms, I thought about the darkened squares. About who wasn’t there. About where they were and how many of them were holding their children and how many were harming their children.
When I went back inside, the girl had fallen asleep. Her hair was damp with sweat. The tiny curls at the top of her forehead reminded me of the gray necks of the fallen pigeons. When the father eventually came, he looked normal, not like a monster, and she threw her arms around him. We all stood by, witnessing. “Ow, Daddy,” she said. “My pee-pee hurts.” He bought her a Pepsi.
In Kaneohe we never found out why the bird was covered in oil. The man said he’d just found it wandering the horseshoe road overlooking the bay. “They mate for life,” he said, tilting his head to the bird’s crying mate. Often you’d see one hit by a car, he told us, and the other would soon be hit in the same place, because it wouldn’t leave its dead mate.
I’d come to Hawaii to escape from my brother’s death and the death of other young boys from cancer, and from a lover whose wife was a fashion-magazine cover model. I’d come to escape the idea that I could never be as luscious as she was. In my senior year of high school I had cut a picture from The New York Times Magazine’s fashion issue of a coat I really wanted, a red cashmere swing coat. “Check it out,” my friend Eileen said years later. “In that picture you saved with the coat, that was her.” There she was in my jewelry box — one of those little-girl ones with the windup ballerina and the mirror — my lover’s wife in a wild red cashmere coat in front of the Flatiron Building.
When I was six years old, my guitar teacher, whose classroom was on the second floor of a gray office building, took the guitar pick from my hand and wedged it in between the strings. He turned me to the window, lifted my skirt. I remember watching the women walking in and out of the Dis-Kay discount store across the street. There were big bins of flip-flops; it was almost summer. There was a stack of laundry baskets in bright colors. A fake palm tree. White styrofoam life preservers. A basket of flags for July. I was angry. I just wanted to learn a Beatles song. I didn’t know the words fuck you, but I knew the stance, and I took it, holding my white cotton undies up with one hand while with my other I made small circles on the window. I remember thinking about the goldfish in the Palace Drugstore downstairs, about the plastic bags you carried them home in, how their mouths appeared to be gasping for air.
Forty-three years later I told my father.
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” he asked.
“Umm, you would’ve killed him?” I said.
“You got that right,” he said. We sat together watching an episode of The Sopranos, wondering what our revenge might’ve been.
The Bowery shelter was near CBGB, where I had seen Blondie perform when I was nineteen. From my window one day I watched a television crew film a scene for NYPD Blue. One of the guys from the shelter tried to get in the scene, but they pulled him back and made him wait on the corner. When he came in for dinner, I heard him tell the others, “They asked me to stand in the background. You wait. I’ll be on the show. I looked like a badass in the background.”
His name was Elliot, and he had a huge afro, as if it were still 1970. One night he took a piece of blank copier paper from me and started filling the center with a black circle. He went around and around until the circle was about three inches across. Then he folded the paper into a triangle and tore off one corner so that when he opened the paper again the black hole had a real hole at its center. He gave it to me and said, “This is the special hell someone has saved for me. This is where I’ll go when I die.” He’d killed two men because they’d killed his brother. “They were no good,” he went on. “They were drug dealers. But I don’t think God cares about that, you know? He just doesn’t want you to kill anybody.” He didn’t look me in the eye. I didn’t say anything, but I held out my hand to accept the drawing. He took off his glasses, wiped them, and said, “At least I’ll be on NYPD Blue before I die.” He asked if he could skip group class and lie down. He disappeared behind the dividing wall that separated the shelter’s main room from the rows of cots.
A little while later I went to call the men to group. We had someone coming in to teach them how to cook on a hot plate. Five of the men were standing over Elliot’s cot and didn’t respond to my request. I knew, because they had told me, that it was dangerous to stand over a sleeping man who’d been in prison; the man’s reflexes would be on high alert, and even a light tap on his shoulder could lead to a violent response.
“Guys, get back,” I said.
They didn’t move.
One of them waved me over.
I saw a mouse making its way into Elliot’s afro. It was mostly buried in his hair, but you could see its back feet, pink and kicking the air, looking for solid ground. I didn’t know what would happen if he woke up.
“Leave him,” I said. “Come, come.”
The men gathered around me at the stove, and we made a lot of noise on purpose, banging pots and turning the TV news on loud to wake Elliot up. “What the fuck is going on out here?” he said, coming around the corner. The mouse was nowhere to be seen.
“Great, it’s probably on my bed,” said Sam. A week earlier Sam had tried to kill himself by tying a tourniquet around his neck.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the mouse in Elliot’s hair, about the black hole on the paper. I was still thinking about these things when I got stuck in the Holland Tunnel on my way home.
The police interrogated the girl’s mother in the ER until 3 AM. Then they cornered the father in a room with an old EKG machine. At about 4:30 in the morning he confessed. I know this because the detective, weathered and still wearing his raincoat, came out and rubbed his face with his freckled hands. It was a gesture that said, I could’ve killed that motherfucker, but I didn’t. We looked at each other and just shook our heads. What a world, we both seemed to be saying.
The little girl’s father was handcuffed and dragged down the hall. The yellow duck clips had fallen from her hair. Her lovely black curls had let go. The mother pulled herself together for her child’s sake.
I remember putting the small intravenous needle, like a light-blue butterfly, into the girl’s hand. We took it out after she’d received a heavy dose of antibiotics, after her cheeks had regained their tender color. When I took the needle out, I finally said her name out loud: “There you go, Joanna.”
When I first moved to Hawaii, I lived with a boy from Boston whom I’d met in the airport lounge. Every night after work he made us each a Black Russian, and we would swim in the apartment building’s pool under the trees. Some nights the moon made slits of light on the water. Some nights I nearly fell asleep in his arms as he spun me in the pool. But I was not in love with him, not for one minute. In fact, he took a picture of me in a white silk kimono that I sent to my lover in New York. I was an angry person then. I told the boy about my old neighborhood, how tough it was, about the guitar teacher. He took me to a waterfall. To get there we walked through a forest of trees whose roots looked like elephant toes and whose bark peeled like skin. We swam in the water at the base of the falls. “That guy is either dead now,” he said of the guitar teacher, “or he doesn’t remember you at all. Wouldn’t even know you if he was sitting next to you on the PATH train. You are the one giving him that power to still matter.”
I don’t know exactly what I believed, but at that moment seven native palila birds came into the area around the falls, singing. I counted them. Their yellow breasts were startling amid all the green. My anger disappeared into the crash of water as I moved under the falls. It fell into the pool we were swimming in, then rose as a mist, then disappeared into the woods. I was still young. “Fuck him,” I said, and I dove under, staying there as long as I could, living on the big breath I had taken with me.
Mary Jane Nealon