(This is a somewhat problematic chapter since I had almost no original notes from it, and several conflicting fictional versions that placed the events in the early morning hours after one of Peggy’s gigs or earlier. I blended them for this account. The detailed descriptions of the interior of Peggy’s apartment come from a much later journal entry as do some of the references to the Russian Mafia)
As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait a week to see Peggy again.
I got a call about mid morning two days later, a jangling that dragged me out of sleep and told me immediately that some one new was calling, since everybody who normally called me knew better than to call me before noon, and most were trained to call even later than that.
“Is that you, Alfred?” Peggy asked when I finally managed to reach the phone and croak into it.
“Yes,” I said.
“Why do you sound so strange?”
I was too much in a haze to try and explain and merely grunted, then asked why she’d called.
“To set up our date, of course,” she said.
“You did ask me, didn’t you?”
I had a vague recollection that the matter hadn’t been fully settled.
“Yes, I suppose.”
“So I’m calling you on it. How does Friday sound – after I get off dancing?”
I said it sounded fine, even though I had my doubts. She gave me a time to arrive and some other basic instructions I half acknowledged, then I when back to sleep. Hours later, when I woke up again, I wondered if it had been a dream.
I didn’t even remember having given her my number, although I could have. I knew she never gave me hers.
Peggy told me to never park in the lot beside her building, even though she did. Her landlord, she said, got angry when anyone did.
So I parked up the block on Harrison across Charles Street, where the business district seemed to merge with a more residential area, and walking towards her three story apartment building, I could see the light in her apartment building shinning through what I learned later was a full-sized American flag she had draped across her fire escape – a flag was issued to the family when her uncle Peter died during the Normandy Beach invasion.
Her building sat on top of a long hill as Charles Street descended towards Passaic Street at the bottom of the hill, my family able to trace their roots back to the 1880s when great, great grandfather, John the Baptist Sarti finally settled in that area after his second trip to America. His grave was still located there in the cemetery that bordered the southern side of Passaic Street, his remains planted under a full sized statue of John the Baptist baptizing Christ.
It occurred to me later that her ancestors and mine had lived their lives side by side, perhaps even with a nodding acquaintance since my family ran a local bakery, a general goods store, a hardware store and even a construction company on these blocks from when they arrived until nearly a decade after the end of World War II, perhaps even doing business with her family.
With the exception of the bakery, which did business nearby until the mid-1990s, my family had begun to scatter just after the war after the death of Gerolama Favata, the grand dame of our clan – just as Peggy’s family would when her grand mother, Mary, died in 1995.
Despite all of the mobsters that still lived in the Lodi-Garfield area, many of the Italian families had begun to seek greener pastures after World War II, where as Peggy’s family with the continued influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe must have continued to feel comfortable there, attending churches where Eastern European languages were spoken more freely than English, where delis still served foods that came straight from the old country. One deli across the street from her grandmother’s house still gave away free coffee every Sunday even when I wandered there a decade after Peggy’s death, people still clinging to traditions and customs that made that part of the world a piece of their home land here in New Jersey.
This was still a few years ahead of the fall of the Soviet Union, but clearly showed the foundations on which the Russian Mafia began their take over of local rackets in the early 1990s – as the restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe brought out an even meaner, less ethical breed of criminal, less interested in maintaining culture as in taking over.
But Peggy’s Harrison Avenue apartment sat in the heart of the old Italian neighborhood, and walking three I saw the ragged edge of what once had been, shoe stores and delis already on the verge of extinction, buildings still thick with generations of Italian cooking.
Her building very much reminded me of the tenements I once lived in on the Lower East Side of New York, the outer door leading to a small titled vestibule with brass mail boxes inserted into the right hand wall, slots for the name of each tenant and a pearl-colored door bell that allowed the visitor to ring upstairs, and for the tenant to ask via a small speaker who it was before buzzing the visitor in – a system that apparently no longer worked by the time Peggy moved in.
The doors to the mail boxes mostly stood open, locks broken. One or two of the doorbells were broken as well, made unnecessary by the broken lock to the inner door that allowed anyone to easily push their way in.
A dim light glowed from a bare bulb above, allowing me to survey the slots for Peggy’s name, but for some reason, hers was not among those listed, so I guesses which button to push, assuming that the fourth button was the one that corresponded to the top floor apartment whose light I had seen go one after dropping her off a few nights earlier.
No voice came over the tiny speaker, no buzzer sounded to release the lock.
Some of the mail from the
overflowing box below it has spilled to the floor and I picked up a few pieces,
but all were addressed to “resident” not “Peggy Yacyniak” or anyone else.
I did, however, hear music from inside, muffled until I pushed open the inner door, then it roared at me, flowing down from some place upstairs.
Another dim light made the stairs along the right wall visible, but kept the door on the first floor in shadow – a single beam that made it possible for me to climb up the splintered stairs if I clung to the banister. This last shook at my touch, partly because it was loose, but largely due to the volume of the music above that seemed to send vibrations down through the center of the building, rocking it all, a volume that grew more intense and more unbearable with each step I took upwards.
By the time I reached the second floor, the music hurt my ears and banged on my chest with each back beat. I could feel it flowing up through the soles of my shoes and through the walls each time my fingers brushed the pealing paint. Dust flowed down from above, like a snow storm caught in the dim light.
If anyone else lived in the building, I could find no clue – and the doors to the second floor like those on the first, remained firmly shut – though I thought I saw one peep hole darken as I passed.
By the time I reached the bottom of the next flight up, I had grown deaf to everything but the torturous volume of music from above, pouring down at me and over me with such abuse I staggered, so monstrously loud, I didn’t even know what band it was.
When I reached the top of this flight, I found two more doors and another set of stairs leading to a door to the roof. The door through which the music blared had a small placard on it saying “Home Sweet Home.”
I knocked on this door.
But the stereo volume was so high I knew nobody inside could hear me.
So I pounded on the door with both fists.
Coincidentally, the door was not latched and opened several inches. A shadow faced filled the gap, and the door slammed again, followed by the sound of the lock being latched.
The music stopped, leaving a silence nearly as deafening as the noise had been.
This time a shadow filled the peep hole.
“Who is it?” Peggy’s nervous voice asked from inside.
“I don’t know any Al Sullivan. Go away.”
“But you asked me to come,” I said, watching the shadow in the peep hole shift as if she tried to see my face more clearly.
“You old me to meet you here.”
“Alfred? Is that you?”
“Yes, I suppose that’s who I am.”
“Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” she yelped and unlocked latches and three open the door.
“I thought I did,” I mumbled, aware of a new and different Peggy, one dressed in a loose sweat shirt that fell to her knees.
I liked this version of Peggy even more than the other, and the real smile she gave me instead of the sardonic one she routinely gave people at the bar.
She reminded me of a Tom boy that lived next door to me growing up.
Peggy’s face alone retained the artificial lines she painted on, down-turned curves for eyebrows, thick red paint on her lips.
What had looked almost natural in bar light stood out here as unreal, filled with the air of extreme calculation, as if she had spent hours with a ruler and compass to make each line exact.
“You’re late,” she said, motioning me into the kitchen with a tilt of her head, glancing passed me into the hall as if she expected to see someone else there, someone she had mistaken me for in the first place, someone she definitely did not want on her doorstep.
“I came alone,” I said.
She glanced sharply at me.
“What do you mean?”
“You seem to be looking for someone.”
“No, I’m not,” she said sharply, slamming and locking the door again behind me.
“You’re mistaken,” she said even more sternly.
I shrugged, but did noticed the splintered wood around the locks, suggesting that something or someone had exerted significant force from the outside and the new reinforcement had been added since.
“If you wait a minute, I’ll finish getting ready so we can go out.”
“Out? Now? You were serious about that?”
“Yes, out,” Peggy said, pausing to look over at me from across the kitchen. “To get something to eat. I’m famished. You don’t think I intend to cook, do you?”
“But it’s nearly four in the morning.”
“I can tell time.”
“Where do we go at this time of day?”
Peggy shook her head. “You don’t get out much, do you?”
“I guess not,” I admitted. “I didn’t know you could find a place open, that’s all.”
“There seems to be quite a lot that you know nothing about. Just stay there. I won’t be more than a minute. Then we can go someplace where we can talk over food.”
Peggy vanished through a door near the windows and from the sound of gushing water I heard next, I assumed it was a bathroom.
Peggy’s world surprised me, small but functional, a space I would come to know well and which would remain fixed in my mind for the rest of my life – partly because it seemed to reflect who she was – a portrait of her inner self and its division, each room reflecting a different aspect of her character, changing her as she moved from one part of the place to the other. The kitchen served as a hug with doors leading to the bedroom, living room and bathroom.
The kitchen was the largest room, and from a brief glimpse was the largely unused – no dishes in the skin or dish drain, just a few glasses in the sink, part of a set to which one on her kitchen table belonged.
During the next few months, I learned a lot about her routines.
Although she nearly always
turned on the stereo in the living room when she got home from work or a dance
gig, she turned it on loud so she could hear it in the rest of the house as she
moved from room to room, stripping off the conservative garb of her day job or
her dance gear, for some new identity, sometimes one designed for the external
world when she went back out, or a more intimate identity she kept here in the
The kitchen was the place of transition, where she returned to the moment the stereo was on and she had changed her clothing. Here, she routinely drew out the ingredients for her drink from the refrigerator, vodka and juice, and ice from a metal ice tray. These she deposited on the glass topped table where she had already dumped her keys and her purse.
The sink, cabinets and stove were tucked away into a corner to the left coming in from the hall. She never used the stove. She said she hated to cook and when she ate, she went out or brought something in from outside, and was particularly fond of Chinese food and turkey club sandwiches. She also said she hated to wash dishes clean.
Men usually paid for her meals, taking her to expensive places when she was young, less expensive places as she grew older, or brought food to her when she called. She frequently had me stopped off a deli up the street to bring her a turkey club.
I can’t recall her ever offering me coffee there, and never saw pots or pans even on the stove. The only dishes I ever saw in the sink were the glasses from her drinks, large class, usually, unless she was drinking champagne that night.
The refrigerator, which stood almost opposite the door from the hall and next to the window looking out onto the fire escape, was her most used appliance, something to went to frequently in the endless effort to refresh her drinks.
Her bathroom, which had a vent where the window should have been, stood to the left of the kitchen window, a tiny space with a shower, but no bath, a toilet beside the sink and the usual assortment of ladies products as well as an unusual number of aspirin bottles – most of the empty.
Peggy spent a huge amount of time in the bathroom, putting on this face or that, for this public or that, one face for her straight job, another for her gigs, while still other faces to meet her mother or friends. The sink was always cluttered with items for painting on eyebrows or lips, nail polish or some other items, part of a ritual that actually changed how she acted, often turning her from warm or depressed into someone cold and calculating, as if the mask gave her strength she lacked otherwise.
If we stayed in, Peggy usually deposited me in the living room while she made her drink, changed her clothing, and put on a new face. This was a room to the immediate right of the hall door – put parallel to it, a room painted gold where as the kitchen was white.
This was a narrow room with a couch along the long wall opposite the door, and two end tables to either side and a long coffee table immediately in front of it. A lamp stood on the end table on the far side of the couch near a small window, and an arm chair angled towards the couch from the corner opposite the lamp.
Along the wall opposite the couch was Peggy’s entertainment, which included a stereo and a large-screen color TV. Hundreds of records leaned against the base of the stereo stretching along its width, situated in a way that allowed her to find what she wanted by easily thumbing through them.
The most remarkable feature of the room, however, was the accumulation of photographs that filled the wall above the stereo and TV, every one of them a picture of John Wayne in his many incarnations. He was cowboy, soldier, sailor, even Davy Crockett, and more than once she told me that he was the man of her dreams, the man who had always wanted to fuck, but came too late.
In this room, Peggy became the seductress, often coming back from her change of habit dressed only in a t-shirt or football jersey, her long leg sticking out like a walking advertisement for sex. She usually had a drink gripped in one hand and a cigarette smoldering between the fingers of her other. It was here, dressed like this, that she usually made her conquest, luring poor fools like me from the bar to share with her their cocaine with the presumption that after that ritual they would join her in the bedroom when they actually found themselves back in the hall once the cocaine expired.
In the living room, she drank, snuggled, sang to the stereo, even watched TV with me, often making promises with touches and looks that she took weeks to deliver on. Inevitably with sex as the end game or not, she would stand up and state, “it’s time for bed and leave the room, leaving me early on with the basic question as to what I was supposed to do next.
The bedroom – which was through a wide door off the kitchen to the right – was a fantasy land with pastel blue walls and soft pillows, as well as an assortment of stuff animals, posters, and novelties, most of which depicted some kind of unicorn. Every available surface had some sort of unicorn figurine, most gifts from the men she had brought up into her world. In between these was the collection of New York Giants paraphernalia I had given her, part of what I had called “a survival kit for a New York Giants fanatic,” something I hoped would get her though the off season now that her precious Giants had won everything.
More disturbing was the drug paraphernalia she had on the top of the dresser immediately to the right of the door coming in. There was also a 38 caliber pistol bullet – the gun to which she said was stuff in one of the drawers beneath her underwear. She also claimed to have had a loaded shotgun in the closet, which I never had the misfortune to actually see.
As much as she claimed to hate cleaning, the place was generally spotless. She did vacuum from time to time since I caught her at it, but she was dead set against dusting.
“I hate dusting,” she said. “I never dust.”
Despite this claim, I never saw a speck of dust on anything in any of the rooms.
She had two dressers in the bedroom, and I vaguely remember a closet, one dresser to the right of the door facing in, the other to the left of the door facing the foot of the bed. The closet opened beyond this dresser. The bed occupied most of the left side of the room, tucked against the wall so that you could get in only at the foot or along one side.
A small window – the only one in the room – was in the wall directly across from the door with a small bedside table just beneath it with a clock radio and lamp on this. The radio was a classic 1980s variety with flipping numbers that changed with the minutes and hours, and the lamp had some kind of novelty base that made finding the switch difficult. So there were times when after Peggy fell asleep, I simply left the lamp on.
Peggy had a small black and white TV set on a cart, which was hooked to a wall socket by an extension cord. She rolled it out when she went to bed and turned it on and off by remote control, a novelty at a time when I was still getting up and down to turn my own set off and on at home – though in truth, I watched very little TV at home during the 1980s, explaining why I knew so little about the programming, a matter of great amusement to Peggy who wanted to know what I did with my spare time if I didn’t watch television.
Peggy and I spent a great deal of time in her apartment, a great gift to me, she said, since she considered this her private world. She also favored me by wearing clothing, which she did not wear when in the apartment alone. She said she didn’t care if people saw her naked through the window, although being as high up as she was, this was unlikely, although she did claim to spend time on the fire escape naked on particularly hot nights – a sight I never got to see.
On that first visit, however, the only room I got to see much of was the kitchen, taking note of the curious glass-topped table with a heart carved into the wood beneath. The chair backs matched with carved hearts as well. A single shaded lamp hung down over the table, similar to the kind I saw as a kid in old fashioned pool halls.
On the table stood a half empty bottle of vodka, a container of orange juice and a half empty glass that contained a mixture of both with a few ice cubes floating in it.
Beside these stood a white vase with a dozen fresh roses stick out of it. The note that accompanied the roses leaned against the vase, unopened.
Peggy poked her head out of the bathroom doorway and squinted at me, then vanished again, asking from the bathroom, “Do you like my flowers?”
“Yes,” I said, fingering the card. “But you don’t know who they’re from.”
“I know who sent them,” Peggy said, making an appearance, this time with a tooth brush in her mouth, encircled by foam. “They’re always from the same person.”
“He must like you a lot.”
“He loves me.”
“And you don’t love him?”
Peggy took the toothbrush out of her mouth and squinted at me again.
“What makes you say that?” she asked.
“You seem to care more about the flowers than the man who sent them.”
“Men are a dime a dozen,” she said. “But you can’t get a dozen roses for a dime.”
She vanished into the bathroom again, turned on the water, spat, gargled, then turned off the water again, to reappear without the toothbrush.
“I’m ready,” she announced. “I suppose you’ve had time to look over my small abode?”
“Yes,” I said. “You can tell a lot about a person from the way he or she lives.”
“What have you found out about me?” she asked.
“Hard to tell yet.”
“Did you look under the rugs or in the closest to make sure you sniffed out everything?”
“Not yet,” I said. “You didn’t give me enough time.”
“Sniff around too much and I’ll put you out,” she said with a laugh, but her eyes looked serious. “I like my privacy.”
“I was kidding.”
“I’m not,” Peggy said. “I let you get away with too much and the next thing I’ll have you moving in.”
“This place is too small for two people.”
“Which is why I hate it sometimes,” she said. “There are times when I feel like I’m inside a cage here.”
“It seems perfect for one person.”
Peggy glanced sharply at me, her hand encircling the glass of melting ice.
“Who says I want to be all by myself?” she asked. “How do you know there isn’t somebody already?”
I felt my face flush.
I had crossed a line between curious and nosy and we both knew it.
I glanced around, looking over the small alcove to my left, at the stove and the sink and the number of glasses all with the same mixture of melted ice and juice, glasses waiting to be washed, but no pots or pans.
“Don’t you ever cook?” I asked.
“Don’t you ever stop asking questions? No, I don’t cook. I don’t have to.”
“You mean you don’t eat?”
“I mean there’s always someone willing to take me out – like now. If you don’t mind, let’s go, I’m famished.”
Outside the window, beyond the flapping flag, pre-dawn light began to show, pale blue against the distant New York City skyline. It was not quite dawn, but a warning of its imminent arrival, while beneath it, a sea of man-made lights still glowed, still dominating the night, as if someone had turned the whole upside down leaving the sky full of stars on the ground.
But in the shadows, I could not yet make out the details of the landscape, the landmarks of my life, the curve the Hackensack River valley or the jagged edge of local streets.
“Okay,” I said, “Let’s go.”