Dinner for two?
“This is it?” I asked, looking through my salt-splattered windshield at the gaudy exterior of the restaurant Peggy has chosen.
It came straight out of an imitation Godfather movie with a cast of characters that had dressed up for it the way my friends sometimes dressed up for Rocky Horror, men with dark wrap around sunglasses and suits, smoking cigarettes near the door, one woman near them wearing a scarlet evening gown, all of it looking cheap despite the amount of money that must have gone into creating the scene.
I kept thinking of the men I once had the unfortunate experience to see in the downtown Paterson pizza parlor years earlier, who came in and beat the crap out of some poor fool because he hadn’t paid up on a loan or a bet, the men behind the counter doing their best to ignore the whole affair, even later, when they were mopping up the blood from the floor, advising me – that 16-year-old boy in the back booth waiting out of the cold for a bus to New York – to do the same.
It would not be the last time I saw such antics, but it was the most memorable, and made clear just why my uncle Harold had come home so often in a similar condition, an airport security man and low level numbers collectors who could not keep from making foolish bets he could not afford to pay off.
I found the palms of my hands slipping with sweat on the steering wheel, and my mouth so dry I could hardly swallow.
“You don’t like it?” Peggy asked.
“It’s not a matter of liking or disliking it,” I said, though I hated the place – too many torches along the outside walls, too much stucco for my simple tastes.
“Then what’s the matter with it?” she asked.
“I’m not sure I brought enough money for a place like this,” I said.
We had stopped off at Willowbrook Mall where I knew my boss came in early on my nights off, and I could hit up for an advance on my salary.
“Now?” he said. “You need money now?”
He kept looking at the clock and the strange hour, as if he could not believe that anyone in his right mind would be up at this time of morning unless being paid for it, and with this being my night off, he assumed I would be home in bed and preferably not alone.
His look suggested he thought I might have been a vampire or a drug addict.
But he gave me the money just the same.
“If money is all you’re worried about, I’ll order something cheap,” Peggy said. “While I’m used to ordering the best of everything, I’m sure they have something on the menu you can afford.”
This was an after hour place, I thought, their menu was never designed with someone like me in mind, and I already could envision the dark interior and the strange lot of characters I would find inside from those later days when I had to cart out my drunk uncle from similar places, trying not to let the angry faces of management scare me too much since they were clearly doing me the favor of letting me take him rather than dumping him some place in the Meadows behind Giants Stadium permanently.
With his job as security at Newark Airport, my uncle was a necessary component in the smuggling network, but he lacked the kind of class that allowed this kind of mobster to feel comfortable around him, the son of a carpenter who could never wash the sawdust out of his veins. I had a similar problem but was wise enough to know where I did not belong.
I could not explain this to Peggy in a way she could understand since she clearly did not have the same barriers I did.
“It’s not just the money,” I said. “You can order what you like, only…”
“I’m not sure they’ll let someone like me in there.”
“You’re with me and they’ll let me in. I always come here.”
“With other people, not me.”
“True,” Peggy said, studying the building as if she finally got the idea of what I was doing about. “Maybe we should find some place else. Besides, I wouldn’t want to run into Robert here.”
“My ex-boyfriend,” she said. “He’s the jealous type and might not like seeing me with you.”
This, of course, spurred my imagination into thinking this mysterious Robert might be one of these creeps outside the door, someone who might like to break an arm or a leg for the fun of it.
What she failed to say I only learned years later, and how much of an understatement “ex-boyfriend” was in describing Robert. Details of his relationship with Peggy would emerge over the next few months, but I would not learn until decades later how much he had meant to her, and how he had betrayed her, and how he continued to haunt her right up to the day she decided to take her own life, the man – who as a boy – she had followed throughout high school, the boy for whom she would do just about anything, and most likely did, the man who eventually led her down the dark road to the desolation I would vainly attempt to rescue her from.
At that point, I thought of him only as someone who might come at me swinging a tire iron, seeking to break my skull, or wreck my car.
I steered the car through the parking lot, back towards the highway, my weak headlights illuminating the parking lot cluttered with Lincolns, Cadillacs, Mercedes and Jaguars.
My fingers fumbled with the door latch, which I’d forgotten to lock.
“What’s wrong? You look nervous?” Peggy asked, reading more than I wanted her to read from my expression. “Are you worried about Robert?”
“Should I be?”
She did not answer the question right away, but stared out the window at the growing traffic that marked the official beginning of the morning rush hour, earlier risers attempting to get into New York and Bergen County from their distance homes in the suburbs, weary men for the most part clutching cups of coffee while listening to conservative propaganda on the talk radio stations as they tried to wake up enough to do their jobs.
“I imagine he would be quiet upset if he thought you fucked me,” she said finally.
“But I haven’t.”
“You mean there’s a chance?”
Peggy shrugged, but still didn’t look at me. “Who knows? You might get lucky some day,” she said.
“And get my legs broken?”
“Believe me,” she said turning towards me, her sharp red fingernails touching the back of my hand. “It would be worth it.”
Sunlight peeped over the distant hills of North Bergen, giving color to the landscape for the first time, but with a bluish tinge that painted the shadows and gave a dreamlike quality to the buildings we passed.
“You take a lot of risks,” I said.
“You’re the middle of nowhere with a man you met in a strip club.”
“I can take care of myself if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I think it would be difficult for anyone like you to hand a determined attack, at this hour with so many woods nearby.”
“Were you thinking about attacking me?”
“No,” I said in a gush. “I was just making a point.”
“Then you’re a bigger fool than I took you for if you think I came out here with you unprotected.”
“My purse isn’t this heavy for no reason.”
“You mean you have a pistol in there?”
“No, it’s my diaphragm,” Peggy snarled. “I never go anywhere without one.”
“Okay, so you’re not as trusting as I thought.”
“I’m not trusting at all. Anyone who annoys me – bang!”
Peggy imitated firing the pistol with her forefinger and her thumb.
“You think I’m funny?” she asked.
“I think you would be if you ever tried to shoot someone.”
“How do you know I haven’t already?”
“You wouldn’t be so flippant about it if you had.”
“So now you’re an expert on shooting people, too?” Peggy asked. “How many people have you shot, wise guy?”
“I’ve never shot anybody,” I admitted. “But I’ve talked to plenty of people who have.”
“So you’re a poet with killer friends – is that it?”
“No, soldiers,” I said. “I had a stint in the army.”
“That’s different,” Peggy said, staring out the window again as we drove down Route 46, passing a landscape populated with new car dealers, fast food stores and gas stations.
“How would you know?” I asked lightly.
“Because I shot someone once – in the leg.”
“Only in the leg?”
“I missed what I was aiming at.”
We drove another mile in silence, then she asked, “Besides writing poetry in strip clubs, what do YOU do?”
“You mean for a living?”
“No, I mean for fun. Yes, for a living.”
“You saw where I worked.”
“I saw you run into the mall and come back out with money.”
“I’m the midnight baker at a Dunkin Donuts.”
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Thomas thinks you’re a cop and that I ought to be careful around you.”
“I can say as much about him, or you or anybody.”
“Except most people don’t take notes in a strip club, which reminds me when are you going to read some more stuff that you wrote about me.”
“Not now,” I laughed. “I didn’t bring them with me.”
“No notebooks? Don’t you feel naked without them?”
“Why are you so interested,” I asked. “The stuff isn’t very good – and I got the impression you hated my writing about you.”
“I don’t like you writing about me,” Peggy admitted. “But I want to know about you and I figure that might be a good way to find out.”
“You could ask me.”
“You wouldn’t tell me the truth.”
“Try me,” I said. “What do you want to know?”
“Oh, the usual. Where you came from? Where you’re going? Where you were born for instance.”
“I was born in Passaic,” I said. “A few blocks up the street from the My Way in St. Mary’s Hospital.”
“Really?” Peggy said, looking surprised.
“People do get born in Passaic,” I said.
“What about your mother and father?” she asked.
“I don’t know my father. He left when I was a kid. My mother is living with her brother in Toms River.”
“She raised you?”
“Sort of. She was crazy. Locked up most of the time when I was a kid.”
“So who took care of you?”
“My grand parents and uncles.”
“All in one house?”
“Do you find that odd?”
“No,” she said with a shrug.
I later learned that she had grown up under similar circumstances, her clan centered around a Lanza Avenue house where her grandmother, Mary, still lived along with Peggy’s father and his girlfriend, Jan.
“You’re not telling me the important stuff,” Peggy said.
“Who you’ve loved and love and all that.”
“I have and ex-wife and daughter, if that’s what you mean.”
“No current lover?”
For a long time, I said nothing, perhaps thinking this was a little too private.
“Well?” she asked.
“It’s complicated,” I said.
“You mean you want to keep it secret. That’s no way to start a relationship.”
“What exactly do you mean by relationship?”
“What do you think I mean?”
“I know what the word means. But not what you mean by it.”
“Well,” Peggy said with sly look. “Friendship is a relationship, isn’t it.”
“Are we friends, then\?”
“I’m not sure friendship covers it,” she said, still sounding mysterious.
“Then, are we lovers?”
“Alfred!” Peggy helped, still with a note of mockery. “I’m surprised at you.”
“That isn’t an answer.”
“I’m not sure you deserve an answer,” she said after staring at me for a long time.
Dawn fully embraced us as the highway grew more crowded with cars, Route 46 giving way to Route 3 and the signs for the City of Clifton along with signs for the Parkway, the Turnpike and New York. Street lamps winked out as did the lights on the billboards.
Yet the world was not fully awaked, and we drove through the last, linger vestiges of night, people of the night who needed to get indoors before struck dead or turned to dust or stone by the arrival of the son.
I pressed my foot harder on the gas.
Eventually, I turned off Route 3 and onto Route 21 north, heading towards Passaic and my home, only to pass it by to plunge back into Garfield and eventually to Lodi before pulling into a parking space in front of Peggy’s building.
Even with the sun fully risen, her doorway seemed dark and foreboding, unable to absorb enough light to illuminate it, while the windows above and across the street already glittered with the new born day.
“Well,” I said, shifting the car into park, the engine running rough in the still-cool morning air. “You’re home safe and sound.”
“And still famished,” Peggy said, but in a distant, distracted tone as eh stared out at the parking lot and at a movement among the cars there – the dark shape of an alley cat emerging for a moment only to disappear again under one of the cars.
“Do you want to go find breakfast somewhere?” I asked.
“And suffer through another ride like this one? No thanks.”
She made no move to get out of the car.
“Well, then?” I asked.
“You wanted to come home and now you’re home.”
“So I am,” she said, finally opening the door to get out.
“Can I see you again?” I asked.
She looked over at me. “Are you sure you want to?” she asked. “You’re not sick of me yet?”
“Why should I be sick of you?”
“Stop with the questions,” she said. “It’s never a good thing to know too much about someone.”
“I suppose that means no?”
I didn’t say that. Next time maybe we can take in a move so we won’t have to talk so much.”
“I’ll call you,” she said, got out, closed the door and vanished once more into her building.