So I got back to trying to figure out what was wrong with all this. I’d felt the strange sense of lack of control from the day I first met Peggy, even though last fall I might have thought of it as something else – familiarity, friendliness. Now it was something else yanking me right out of what I considered normal, and I didn’t know what to do about it.
Over the next week, she called me a half dozen times, always about the same time. I could set my clock by her. Her calls came at 3:30 p.m. as if she had me on some kind of time table. I couldn’t figure out which of us was more predictable, her for calling or me for being there when she called, grabbing up the telephone on the first ring.
Each conversation delved a little deeper into her life, and she kept asking me the same question, “Aren’t you sick of me yet?”
As if she was warning me with each inch of rising water that I might drown if I kept up with her. I wasn’t over my head yet, but I could feel it coming. Every conversation also told me just how over her head Peggy was pretending as if she was a real player in her street life world.
I didn’t like the idea of her selling drugs. It left a bad taste in my mouth from my own days on the streets years ago, days I used to brag about after they were over as if I was some kind of player, too, forgetting until now just how stupid people on the street can be. She liked to brag about her role, too, thinking herself as something “cool” or powerful, when she was really trapped in it.
I was trapped, too.
Peggy was like a piece of hot coal dropped into the palms of my hands. I either had to let her go our have her burn right through my flesh.
“So when am I going to come over and see where YOU live?” she asked this time.
“You want to come over here?” I said, shocked, looking at my poor and sloppy place with a deep sense of shame and dread.
My place wasn’t sterile like Peggy’s place was. Books cluttered every flat object along with strips of torn paper from my monthly news letter, old newspapers, and more than a little soiled clothing, I collected weekly to wash.
But it was more than just my sloppiness. I rarely brought anyone here. This was my private domain, a world that too well externalized who and what I was, a hermit living in a cave.
“Of course, I want to come over,” Peggy said. “Why not? Is something wrong?”
“What could be wrong?” I asked.
“Well, you could be married, or living with someone.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
I couldn’t tell her that I did not want the real world invading my private world, even if she wasn’t completely real. I needed to keep what went on outside my door – outside my door.
But, of course, I continued to be gripped by
compulsion and told myself, Peggy really isn’t the real world, just a special
part of it, and after all, didn’t I want to bring her deeper into my life –
even if there was a significant chance she might be revolted by what she found
“No problem,” I told her. “Just give me a few days, all right?”
“Why do I need to wait?”
“I need to clean up a little,” I said.
“Well, all right,” she said, although sounded suspicious as if she believed I was trying to hide something other than my sloppy life style.
For the next few days, I committed myself to a cleaning campaign, a campaign destined to fail. I just didn’t have enough of the neatness genes to make it work. Every time I straightened one pile, I created a new one – one less familiar than the last, leaving me with a thousand little things lost in the shuffle.
But in the end, I had shuffled through enough junk to make her visit at least somewhat bearable.
By Friday, I was ready, if not satisfied, and I called her.
“How about coming over here for dinner?” I asked.
“Are you cooking?”
“Not this time.. We can buy out and bring it here.”
“Okay. You want me at the usual time?”
Again struck by the predictability of it all, I agreed, my life fitting into someone else’s schedule and I had the very ugly feeling that I no longer controlled my life – Peggy did.
I counted my cash again.
I knew I was cutting it close, but I also knew there were items I needed to have, such as a bottle of Vodka. Peggy drank little else at her home, even over soft drinks.
I didn’t dwell on the idea that heavy drinking often accompanied cocaine addition.
I bought a six pack, too, just in case, half for myself, but some for her if she decided she wanted to have beer instead.
I thought about getting some ice since she made it perfectly clear that she drank very little without it. But my small freezer just wouldn’t hold a full bag and if I bought it in advance, it would melt. So I figured I would get that later when I picked her up and when we picked up the food.
At long last, I drove across the Wall Street Bridge, turned left at Sacred Heart Church, and then right on Harrison Avenue, along the route that had now become so familiar to me that I could have done it with eyes closed, along a road that the ghosts of my immigrant family had spent generations living on, working near, and sometimes being buried in. I parked the car in the lot, and rushed up the stairs – feeling every bit again like an over exited puppy, only to reach her apartment to find Peggy pacing again, to softer music that I hadn’t heard her play before.
“I’m unwinding,” she said. “I’ll be with you in a minute.”
“This music is by Fleetwood Mac, isn’t it?”
She nodded, sadly.
“They did a song – a very special song I used to listen to all the time,” I said. “I think it’s on this album.”
Peggy stopped to stare sharply at me, her eyes full of shock and strangely perverted pleasure.
“Landslide,” she said.
“Yes, that was it.”
She went over to the record player, lifted the arm, and put it down on the start of the song.
It hit me like old poison, bringing back all those bitter memories of heart break I did not want to have infect me now, but did, bringing a new relevance to this moment, and creating a deeper ache in me than the one I had been feeling for days, as the old lyrics dripped out of the speakers like tears.
But the song seemed to mean something to Peggy, too, as she stared into space. I just couldn’t figure out what. Then after the song ended, she punched the buttons that turned the stereo off.
“Let’s go,” she said.
The last of my money went to buy ice, Chinese food and cigarettes. I put them in the back seat. She sat in the passenger side, my portable radio humming in her lap.
“All set,” I said, starting the car again, scared at the idea of what I was about to do, but determined to do it anyway. If she was ever going to like me, she would have to know the worst. Two blocks later, I pulled the car into the car port in front of my door that opened onto it.
“You only live a block from Mr. B’s,” Peggy said, sounding a little disappointed as the looked out onto the dilapidated buildings.
“Welcome to poverty row,” I said, laughing, but with perfect honestly. There was no point in my lying about it now.
“I hope the inside is better than the outside,” she said, climbing out of the car to follow me inside.
“It’s worse,” I said.
“This is your dog?
Her eyes looked down on the long-haired beast, a pathetic guard dog, but an animal so full of love it spilled out with every panted breath. He leaped up and down as we approached, hoping for a walk or at least a treat.
“Life wouldn’t be life without Spud,” I said.
“Why is he jumping like that?”
“He wants a walk.”
“Can we walk him?”
“Later, after we eat. The food is getting cold.”
I opened the door and swung it in, and Peggy stood there for a long moment staring into the cave like world, the scent of the cave creeping out with all the hidden pieces of my life. While swept, it lacked the refinements of actually being clean and I felt shamed by it.
“This place is disgusting,” she said.
“I’m not the neatest person in the world,” I admitted.
“It has nothing to do with neatness,” she said, moving through the three rooms with the eye of a West Point commander. “It’s so dark and musty. Don’t you ever open these windows?”
“Sure, but there’s lot of kids in the neighborhood and I don’t like them peeping in. This is the ground floor remember?”
“Well, open something. It’s hard to breathe, and what have you got to drink?”
I told her. She shrugged.
“A beer will do with dinner,” she said, taking another critical look around before allowing herself to get seated at the kitchen table. “And why on earth do you have this table against the wall like this?”
“Because it gives me more room.”
She said nothing. I brought out plants and utensils, almost waiting for her to ask for chop sticks. We ate quietly. I digested her remarks with pain.
She didn’t like my world after all. Somehow I’d known all along she wouldn’t. I didn’t seem to fit in with the neat and polished image of unicorns and John Wayne. They were illusions, I was real. Perhaps too real, filled with messes, and I sometimes had a difficult time maintaining the discipline necessary to keep this world clean when I hardly had to satisfy my cravings and my creativity.
So what did it mean?
I watched her as she ate, slowly, methodically, with the same precise care she gave to her dancing. She even sipped carefully from the can of beer, her eyes looking down into her dish, and when she was finished, then she looked up at me. Her painted fact expressionless and cold.
“What do you say us walking the dog?” I suggested.
Her expression changed. Her eyes lit up. “Walk, Sp-pud!”
Outside, she laughed again. I felt a little less wounded because of it, the open air washing away a little of the hurt, though I knew a serious blow had been struck. I took her back to the park behind the church, carefully avoiding the street next to Mr. B’s which also went there, but took the church driveway instead. It was a flat, oblong place about as large as a football field, bordered by train tracks on one side, the Passaic River on the other, and a small wooded area at the other end. Here I let Spud off the leach and he ran.
“Look at that!” Peggy beamed, delighted with the dog’s sudden freedom. “Sp-pud’s beautiful! But not as beautiful as my Sandy.”
“A dog I had once,” she said. “Greatest dog in the whole world.”
“You mean like Jesse is to cats? I think you’re a little prejudiced.”
“You don’t think Jesse is the best cat in the world?”
“Actually, I’m prejudiced, too. I have two cats of my own, remember?”
“Well they don’t even compare to Jesse.”
“Not to you, maybe, I said, watching one of Peggy’s painted brows rise. Then both rose as she looked passed me to something Spud was sniffing.
“What’s that?” she asked.
I walked closer. In the center of the path, a dead squirrel was sprawled.
“Nothing to worry about,” I said. “It’s been death for days.”
“I don’t want to see it,” Peggy said with a hysteria that surprised me.
“But it’s only …
“I told you. I don’t want to see it. Let’s go over there.”
She pointed to the other side of the park.
I complied, calling for Spud to come alone.
Back at my apartment, I fixed her a drink – ice, cranberry cocktail and Vodka. She claimed her Eastern European background required her to drink Vodka. I wondered if this also required her to stick her drug of choice up her nose as well. But both issues seemed to fade away a little as she sat, sipped and waited for me to say something.
Most other times, she did most of the talking, rolling over me with stock phrases I’d heard her use a million times at the bar. I didn’t mind. It helped fill in the spaces. Yet sometimes, it made me feel common, part of the crowd, to which she owed nothing more than a few standard lines.
This time, she waited for me to speak.
I sipped my beer and talked about the past. It wasn’t a preoccupation, but it did affect my daily life. This week, an old lover, Fran, had contacted me after years of silence. Friends at last. I was very proud of the accomplishment, letting a little too much of my excitement show.
“I don’t want to hear about that,” Peggy said in the same tone of voice she had used with the dead squirrel.
I felt hurt again, the same way I’d felt hurt when she called my apartment disgusting.
“All right,” I said, looking at the open door, the door Peggy insisted on leaving open for “Sp-pud!”
But instead of Spud standing there, Mary Ann was, purse under one arm, her long nails gripping it tightly as she slowly removed her sunglasses with her other hand.
“Am I disturbing something, Al?” she asked.
It was one of those moments when time stopped, and with it, my heart.
Then I leaped from my chair, spilling my drink as I rushed to the door.
“Look, Mary Ann, I’m kind of busy now,” I said. “I know I should have called you, but…”
The tension on Mary Ann’s face eased slightly. She had caught me in one of those special situations she actually delighted in. For months, she had paid me unexpected visits, peeking through my windows, looking see if I was alone. It was part of some game she played I didn’t completely understand, like when she introduced me to her future husband just after making love to me.
“Oh, sure,” she said, backing away, still smiling. “I understand. I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”
Peggy expression picked up where Mary Ann’s humor left off, her eyes narrowed, her lips taunt.
“You should have introduced me, Alfred,” she said.
“Introduced you? Are you crazy? You don’t know what she’s like.”
“No, and I don’t want to know. But I’m beginning to think that you don’t want me to meet your friends.”
I made myself another drink, my hands still shaking.
“Mary Ann isn’t exactly a friend.”
“Something like that. But a little less specific. It’s hard to explain. But I’m not ashamed of you.”
Peggy was cold now, had been continually growing older since she’d seen the apartment – the walk with Spud only serving to slow the process, not reverse it.
I felt it all slipping away, the hope of seeing Peggy on a more intimate basis, the idea of catching a little of her passion.
“That’s what you say,” Peggy said, stiff in the chair.
I rubbed my nose – one of those odd habits I
have when I get upset.
This had not been the first time I had been caught in a situation like this. Years ago at college, I had been caught kissing a young blonde by a woman I was supposed to be dating. Then and now I felt the same inability to explain.
“Look, I can prove that you mean something to me,” I said, drawing Peggy’s cool gaze.
“I wrote something about you – a song.”
The icy stare melted slightly.
“Music?” she said. “I didn’t know you played a musical instrument.”
I laughed and retrieved my guitar from my small bedroom.
“I fool around a lot. But I like writing songs,” I said, laying out three pieces of loose paper on the counter, and then began to play. They were real and tender songs to me, the first one dealing with my early fantasies about Peggy when she danced, imagining her wanting me as much as I wanted her. The second had been writer about our first day, Jesse – her cat, John Wayne photographs and unicorns. The third, the best of the lot, was about Peggy herself, and I sang this out bolding, watching the ice in her eyes melting into tears.
When the song was over, I fell silent.
“You changed the names in those songs just to put me in them,” she said, although her tone said she didn’t believe her own accusation.
“Sure, and I faked the description of your apartment, too,” I said challenging her. “That’s bullshit and you know. I care about you, Peggy. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have written them at all.”
She pondered this for a moment, then nodded.
“I want to go home,” she said, “out of this dismal place.”
I sighed. I had failed to reach her.
“Oh, you can come, too, Alfred,” she said with a laugh, apparently sensing my despair. “And don’t forget to bring your guitar with you.”