So I’m sitting on my bed at home thinking the whole thing was over – that whatever sentiment I expressed towards Peggy was wasted and that I was better off not dealing with the enraged character I woke up the previous morning or the vindictive one I saw last night at the club – when the phone rings with Peggy on the other end of the line.
“When are you picking me up?” she asked.
“What are you talking bout?”
“We have a date to go to the movies, remember? And you’d better hurry, the first show starts at 7:30.”
She was off the line before I could respond.
So I got dressed.
I was more than a little worried about money. Strip clubs were not cheap, and I had long ago out stripped the budget I had set aside for a once-a-week excursion, dipping into funds I needed for utilities, phone, rent and gasoline.
The music roared from the top floor of the building even as I entered the front door at the bottom, growing more unbearably deafening with each flight of stairs I climbed.
I didn’t bother to knock; I just turned the door handle and went in.
She halted in mid-stride in the middle of the kitchen, her drink in one hand, the makings still spread across the table as a cigarette smoldered in her other hand.
She looked stunned at seeing me.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, her question just barely discernible under the unbearable decibels of her music.
“You asked me to come,” I shouted.
“On the telephone. You said something about a movie.”
“I guess I did,” she said, taking a deep drag on her cigarette and an even deeper drag on her drink. “You’re early.”
“You said I should hurry, so I did.”
“Well, you’re going to have to wait; I’m unwinding.”
“Could you – turn down the music?”
“Not yet. I need it to unwind. It won’t take long.”
“Are you like this everyday?”
“Only when I work my day job. I hate it.”
“Why don’t you get a new job?”
“Why don’t you mind your own business?” she shouted, then became to pace the room, apparently picking up from where she left off prior to my arrival, circling the table as I eased passed her to the far side of the room and settled near the kitchen windows. I didn’t look too closely at the paraphernalia on the top of her dresser just inside the broom door – a mirror, razor and straw, and the residue of white powder. Instead, I turned and looked outside, passed the flag on the fire escape at the dark city below and the shadowy shapes that made their way of the dark doorways into the twilight.
A sharp knock came on the door, drawing my attention in that direction.
Peggy stopped mid-stride, glancing sharply at me, one painted eye brow arched high up on her forehead.
` “Did you bring someone with you?” she asked, making the question sound like an accusation.
“I wouldn’t do anything like that,” I said. “Maybe it’s one of your neighbors complained about the volume of music?”
“My neighbors don’t complain,” Peggy said, peering through the peep hole. “They know better.”
Then she spoke at the door.
“Who the hell is it?” She asked.
I heard only the muffled reply, but not what was said.
“Damn,” Peggy hissed and opened the door. “What do you want?”
Again came the muffled response.
Peggy shook her head. “Not now, I have company. You’ll have to come back.”
The voice in the hall grew shriller.
“I don’t care,” Peggy said, and shut the door.
Then she came over and sat next to me on the window sill.
“An old romance?” I asked.
“Be real. I have better taste than that,” she said. “It’s merely business.”
“What kind of business?”
“Don’t you worry about it. You’re supposed to be having run tonight, remember? Stop frowning and let me get ready.”
Downstairs in the vestibule, Peggy paused to pull out the circulars from her mailbox, letting them fall on the tiled floor.
“I hate this junk,” she said. “I get sick of seeing it in my box. I get the whole building’s crap.”
I looked at the pile on the floor.
“What if you get a real letter?” I asked.
“I never get real mail here,” she said. “I have it sent to my mother’s place – which reminds me, we have to stop there on our way to the theater.”
“Do we have time?”
“I’ll just run in and out, don’t worry.”
I led her to my car which I had cleared of newspapers and empty coffee cups just for the occasion.
She took no notice, bearing the same look of distaste she had on her previous trip, possibly because she disapproved of my driving a Japanese car.
“I hope we don’t have any last minute turns this time,” I said.
“Just drive,” she said, directing me back down Harrison Avenue to the military monument at Midland Avenue in Garfield and then right on Midland towards the far side of Garfield where it abutted what was once called East Paterson – and landscape thick with my grandmother’s German roots, though the far her sister had lived on had long vanished to post World War II housing.
We turned left on Lanza and through the neighborhood Peggy had grown up in, though I was unaware of the fact at the time, passing her father’s house – a class two family with a large open lot beside it, a tavern next to that and a Polish deli across the street that gave out coffee free on Sundays. Generations had resided here, nestled into this tiny community with a local grammar school a block away, a local middle school a few blocks the other way and a sizeable park just beyond that.
Peggy’s mother lived a few blocks down in an odd brick apartment building that seemed to have no front door and tiny windows that made it look more like a fortress than a place to live.
“Pull over here,” Peggy directed when we had reached the corner of Lanza and Ray, a tan brick church looming ominously on the far corner.
I complied, then waited until she got out to ask, “Don’t be too long or we’ll miss the movie.”
“Just park the car,” she said, leaning down to look at me through the open door.
“But I thought you said you were going to run in and out?”
“Must you hold me to every Goddamn thing I say?” she asked. “Just park the car. I might be longer than a few minutes, and I wouldn’t want to get you peeved because you have to wait.”
“You mean I’m coming in?”
“That’s the idea, Alfred. Or do you have a problem with meeting my mother?”
I glanced at the building, some odd premonition coming over me – and ill feeling I had no way to justify.
“Well?” Peggy asked sharply.
“No, I have no problem meeting your mother or any body else,” I said.
“Then come on. I don’t want to be here all night.”
Peggy’s mother “Eleanor” greeted me with a grimace and one of those “Not another boyfriend,” looks I had seen when dating girls in high school, a pained but patient look as if she would suffer through this as best she could.
She studied me superficially and then sighed.
I studied her, too, disliking her immediately, although she gave me no reason to.
I sensed something wrong from the moment she opened the door. She seemed to breathe out trouble with every breath, carrying a strong odor of nicotine, perfume and booze.
She dressed the way I might have expected Peggy to dress, wearing spandex pants, a button-down white shirt and silver rings on every finger that clinked each time she sucked on her cigarette. These sparkled with every move, and she seemed to wave her hands a lot – somehow managing not to disturb the perpetual ash hanging from the end of her cigarette.
She had phony red fingernails so long she struggled to do ordinary things like turn a door knob or punch out a telephone number, and seemed overly concerned that the glass or diamond chip in each might fall loose if she exerted too much.
“My friends call me El” she said, holding out one of those ring filled hands for me to shake.
Her fingers felt cold and clammy and I let go of the hand quickly, struck by other oddities, such as how the woman’s face was framed by a flood of bottle-blonde hair and saucer-shaped silver earrings, nearly as large as tea cups. She wore a matching necklace. But this was not the worst part. She wore blood-red lipstick and purple eye shadow and her eyes seemed so hard I could not look straight into them.
“My daughter has told me a lot about you,” El said.
“MOTHER, PLEASE!” Peggy growled, pulling at my sleeve to draw me deeper into the apartment.
We had come into the first floor apartment through a door off Ray Street, a few steps up and into the kitchen. This led – via a short hall – to a dim dinning from where a land on a hall table cast a dull glow over the back of the coach and some future beyond, all of it rather dark, most if it made with cushion and wood.
A table cat appeared. The pattern across its face was made it look injured. Peggy called it “Arp.”
“That’s the ugliest cat in the world,” she said.
El tagged along behind us until the three of us stood in the same room, dark doorways to the other end suggesting other rooms, one or more of them bedrooms.
“Peggy was very pleased about those packages you gave her,” El said with a wink. “A sly move, boy. What a great way for you to get into my daughter’s pants – and I thought I’d seen everything.”
“Mother will you please stop,” Peggy pleaded. “How many times to I have to tell you he’s not like that?”
“I heard what you said, Peggy. I just don’t believe it. I want him to say that doesn’t get a hard on every time he sees you dance.”
“I said stop it!” Peggy yelled. “Why do you have to tear down every man I bring in here?”
“Because they’ve never been any good,” El said, eyeing me as if she thought me nothing more than a pathetic worm.
“Just because he bought you all those boxes filled with Giants things?”
“Do you want me to leave and now come back?” Peggy asked. “You tell me I ought to date people and then you abuse them when I do. Maybe I should just go home and let him fuck my brains out. Then come back and fill you in with the details.”
“I’m sure that’s all he wants,” El said, hooking her thumb toward me.
“I need a drink,” Peggy said, moving off to a small table filled with an assortment of bottles. “How about you, Alfred?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Don’t tell me you’re going out with some one who doesn’t drink?” El said.
“Of course he drinks,” Peggy barked, hands shaking as she poured the alcohol into a glass. “I met him in a fucking bar, remember?”
“Am I allowed to ask him what you’re his plans are for you tonight?” El asked in mock innocence. “Or are you going to tell me to shut up about that, too?”
“We’re going to see a movie,” Peggy said, taking a deep draught on her drink.
“A movie?” El asked.
“Yes, a movie,” Peggy said, draining the drink then putting the glass down firmly next to the bottle. “What about you, Mom? Are you still seeing Charlie?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Is it getting serious?”
“Not too much. He hasn’t tried anything with me yet.”
Peggy grinned at me. “Mom hasn’t gotten any for a while – have you, mom?”
“Quit that, Peggy,” El said, almost looking embarrassed.
Peggy glanced at the wall clock.
“Come on, Alfred, we have a movie to catch.’