The phone jangled so persistently the next morning, I knew it would go on unless I got up to answer it.
Lack of sleep only added to my overall confusion: between work and Peggy, I had become a stumble, bumbling, sleep-deprived man, so caught up in a dream world I could make sense of nothing.
“So where the hell did you go last night?” Peggy demanded the moment I said, “Hello.”
“To work,” I said. “Besides, you fell asleep.”
“If I promise not to fall asleep, will you come pick me up?”
“Yes,” she said. “I want to see where you live.”
I glanced around at my little world, at the piles of stuff, the small islands of clutter had had no time or energy or will power to pick up.
“You want to come here?”
“How am I supposed to know you better if I don’t see where you live?”
“This was a legitimate question.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, when I did not answer right away.
“What could be wrong?” I asked weakly.
“You could be hiding something – like the fact you have a wife or you are living with someone.”
“I’m not married or living with anyone.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I just need a little time to straighten up.”
“So when can I come over?”
“How does Sunday sound?”
“No can do. I have to dance.”
She was silent so long I thought at first she had hung up until I heard her breathing, and finally she said, “Monday’s fine.”
As it turned out, I didn’t need until Monday to get things in order, managing to shuffle through enough junk to pass muster by Thursday.
I left a message for her at her mother’s and got a return call from her a short time later.
“How about coming over for diner?” I asked.
“Are you doing the cooking?”
“Not this time. We can buy out and bring it here.”
“Okay,” she said.
“You want me there the usual time?”
I counted my dwindling cash.
I would be cutting things close, but I knew I needed particular items to make the evening work such as a bottle of vodka. I had seen her drinking nothing else at her place. So I stopped off at Home Liquor, a discount store near the Lodi border and wandered around the bottle-filled aisles looking for the least expensive brand I could find
Fortunately, cocaine was not something I needed to supply.
I also bought a six pack of beer in case she changed her habit. I knew I would need a beer or two just to get through the evening.
I knew I had to get ice, too, since Peggy’s mixture required it, but my cold water flat came with a refrigerator so small that it barely accommodated groceries, and had a freezer that could fit one package of frozen fish and nothing more. In winter, I used the shelf of my small front porch as a freezer, but spring had arrived relatively early and any ice I kept there would melt if I bought it too early, so I figured to pick it up when we went to pick up the food.
I felt as nervous this time as I had during my first day back in high school, scared that I might so something that would scare Peggy off.
And anything could set her off.
A few nights earlier, I had sat in her living room watching a movie on TV, some old Alfred Hitchcock flick I’d never seen, full of twists of plat that I was lucky enough to figure out before the film revealed them.
Peggy sat up and glared at me.
“I thought you said you never saw this film before?” she said.
“I haven’t seen it.”
At this point, she announced it was time to go to sleep.
“What about the film?” I asked.
“What do you care? You know what it’s about,” she said and stomped out of the room, leaving me to dutifully follow and keep her company until she slipped into sleep.
After bringing the bottles home and fitting them into the refrigerator, I made my way back out to the car, and drove over the Wall Street Bridge, up Passaic Street and through the maze of streets that were then so familiar to me I could have driving them in my sleep – and felt as if I was, becoming one more ghost of my family destined to haunt that particular landscape.
Figuring we wouldn’t be long, I parked the car in the lot and made my way into her building, up all three flights as the music once again blared from the top floor.
But it was softer music than the usual stuff she’d used to unwind, a Fleetwood Mac song I had taken a fancy to a decade earlier, not one of the big hits, yet one I particularly liked.
I was surprised to hear her listening to it.
“It’s my favorite song,” she said. “It says everything you ever need to know about me.”
“I’m not going to build my life around one person ever again. Other people let you down; going out with Robert taught me that.”
Robert, she told me over the course of several weeks, was her last lover, the one great love of her life.
She hinted at his being someone in the underworld who might even have tried to pimp her out. She alluded to beating and public conflicts, which may have explained why Wolfman had put me out a few weeks earlier, since some of the bouts between Peggy and Richard had taken place in the My Way. She had dated him right up until Christmas 1986, months after I had met her.
Much later, I learned more from other sources, how she and Robert had dated all the way back in high school, and that she so adored him that she could not stop talking about him, or even listen to words of warning from others who perhaps saw what he was more clearly than she did.
The song and her emphatic statement hit me hard, painting a bleak future for any hopes I might have that the thing we had between us might amount to anything more than a fling.
The song dampened the positive mood of the whole evening, and I could not get the lyric out of my head as if a landslide had already started inside of me – a landslide I could not stop.
“All set,” Peggy said, dressing in a shimmering blue New York Giants jacket, a white blouse, blue jeans and pink Pony sneakers, looking exactly like that Tom Boy, All American girl next door I had dreamed up since high school, but could never get. I was never one of the cool kids in leather jackets or a jock, or even one of the bright kids, but that breed of rebel nobody liked or respected, especially girls who looked like Peggy did at this moment, and now two decades later, I followed her down her front stairs to my car, already knowing I was destined to lose her.
We drove to Wallington for the Chinese food, to a place where the host knew me from my visits there with an old girlfriend. The host was so stiff and formal, Peggy jokingly called him an oriental Rod Sterling, and considering the weird overtones of this date, the description seemed apt.
Then, we drove back the way we came, through Wallington, passed one of the clubs where my friends’ band used to play, on the road along the river, passing the 8th Street Bridge to the Quik Check for the ice and as it turned out, cigarettes for Peggy.
The manager was an old friend from the days when I worked in the Fotomat booth outside, handing me his usual one-line insults as I paid. My money was nearly gone.
In the car again, Peggy sat with my portable radio on her lap, the nearly depleted batteries giving minimal volume to a Madonna song, one she usually danced to at the bar. She hummed along as I steered the car down River Drive, then left over the Wallington Bridge, passed Holy rosary Church for the left onto 8th Street.
“Wait a minute!” she scowled as I started to turn the car into the car port. “Are you telling me you live only one block from Mr. B’s?”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, I suppose,” she said. But she sounded suspicious as if I had kept some important information from her.
My apartment sat on the first floor of a dilapidated apartment complex, once owned by my best friend’s aunt.
Complex, of course, was the wrong word. It was a string of four story buildings along Passaic Street with ground flood store front that in years passed had had apartments attached to the rear where proprietors and their families lived – old style immigrant havens very similar to the kind of places my grandparents their grandparents had lived in across the river in Garfield and Lodi, leading up and through the Great Depression.
At some point in the 1960s, my friend’s aunt sealed off the apartments from the stores renting out these rear apartments to Polish immigrants, many of whom had lived in the neighborhood all their lives never learning one word of English, not needing to with all the Polish businesses here: grocer, butcher, baker, bar.
My friends and I moved in during the early 1970s as the elderly Polish died, first my friend, then his friends, then me, sometimes all of us crowed into one apartment in a death watch over residents in the other apartment, waiting for them to die off so we could move in. By the time my friend’s aunt sold the place, we had occupied four or five of the apartments, creating a kind of artists’ enclave. But when the new owner took over, he raised the rent and my friends started to move out until eventually only I remained, holding out in two of the apartments – one kept in the name of my uncle who spent most of his time in Graystone mental hospital than here.
I lived in the larger of the two apartments, which meat I had three rooms instead of two, and a bath instead of a standup stall shower. But like most cold water flats, its heat was generated from the side of a stove with metal plates on top. The third room was actually a late addition, and it got nearly no heat from the kitchen, so I rarely used it if the temperature fell below 40 degrees.
Because these apartments had been cut off from the front, to access them, we had to use what were originally the back doors – each of which had a tiny, phone booth-sized porch that opened onto a large black-topped area we called the car port.
I always felt as if I was living in a fortress – since the car port was surrounded on four sizes, the wall of a factory to the west, the walls of the apartment buildings to the south, and two sets of garages to the east and north. The east garages – all three of them -- faced out onto 8th Street. The eight garage -- along the north side -- faced into the car port.
A drive way between one of the buildings and the 8th Street garages allowed cars in and out. Two narrow alleys accessed the carport from Passaic Street, but the one behind my apartment -- into which my rear windows looked – had been gated off at both ends and over time had filled with debris that only a Navy Seal could have easily overcome.
Technically, I wasn’t supposed to park inside the carport – because other people, most often non-residents, rented the garages and needed open space to pull in and out. But often, I could leave the car in front of my door if I didn’t intend to keep it there long, which is what I did this time.
Peggy remained quiet even after I had turned off the ignition and the usual sputtering stopped.
“Welcome to poverty row,” I said.
“I hope the inside is better than the outside looks,” Peggy said.
“It’s worse,” I said, trying to make light of the situation, but also trying to prepare her for the grim reality of my life.
Her expression brightened only when she saw my dog, Spud.
“Is that your dog?” she asked.
The long-haired Dutch barge dog looked utterly out of place against the backdrop of gray wooden walls and oil-stained pavement – so eloquent, he put me to shame. His large black eyes oozed love so that even burglars stepped around him without fear as they broke into the apartments here. I had already been burglarized twice with him on duty, losing an Atari computer once, an East German camera and once the burglars even took the dog, who later escaped them and returned home to his perch on my front porch.
Spud started panting the moment he saw me and then began to bounce up and down, a strange kind of leaping that he would do in one place: up and down, up and down, all in anticipation that I would likely give him a treat.
“Why is he jumping?” Peggy asked.
“He wants a treat or a walk,” I said, opening the car door to get out.
“Can we walk him?”
“Later, after we eat. The food is getting cold.”
The moment the door swung in on the apartment and the scent of soiled cat litter and the remains of my winter existence spilled out, I realized my mistake in bringing Peggy here.
While I had swept and straightened, the place remained little more than a cave with me as a primitive cave man somehow managing to plug along in my life, surviving, but not thriving, almost content with the fact that I needed so little.
This was not Peggy, who had already told me she needed luxuries in her life and a man who could provide them for her.
“You’re lucky this isn’t summer,” she’d told me once. “Your car doesn’t have air-conditioning, and I never let a man drive me around unless he has air-conditioning.”
Not only did this world of my lack air-conditioning, it barely had heat.
“This place is disgusting,” she said, strolling around the kitchen with a harsh expression, clearly undecided as to where she might sit, if anywhere.
“I’m not the neatest person in the world,” I confessed.
“This has nothing to do with neatness,” she said. “It’s so dark in here and musty. Do you ever open the windows?”
“Not in winter,” I said. “Not often in summer either. I hate having the neighbor’s kids peeping in.”
“Well, open some now,” Peggy said. “It’s hard to breathe. Do you have anything to drink?”
“Vodka or beer?” I asked
“Beer will do with dinner,” she said, looking at my kitchen table which I had tucked into a corner of the room. “Why do you keep the table against the wall?”
“Because it gives me more room in here.”
She said nothing.
I brought out plants and utensils, half expecting her to ask for chop sticks which I did not have.
We ate in silence, too, as I digested her remarks with pain.
Perhaps I’d always known sh3e’d hate my world and that I had no real place in the spit and polish Republican world she so much admired.
At the time, I painted her world as one of illusion, of phony heroes like John Wayne and Ronald Reagan, while I lived in the real world of hard work and sparse existence –a world where messes like mine reminded me constantly of the eternal struggle we mere humans had to under take to survive. I thought of myself as too creative for the regiment of cleaning and air fresheners here world thrived on.
Years later, I would change my mind, realizing how we needed things and people so to aspire to in order to inspire us to rise out of our how pathetic common existence to become greater than what mere survival shaped in us.
But by the time I realized this, it was too late and the Peggy I so wanted to be with and moved on without me.
I watched as she ate – a methodological act –picking at her food for those parts she liked best, leaving the rest until later or to leave them totally alone when finally sated. She sipped her beer carefully, too, and act that surprised me because only then had I realized I had never seen her drink a beer before: at home, at the bar or even at her mother’s.
She did not look up at me, until she had finished, and then her painted face had a cold and distant expression.
“How about we walk the dog?” I suggested.
Her expression changed and her eyes beamed.
“Walk Sp-pud!” she said.
I got up. So did she. We moved back outside, took down one of several leaches that hung from the wall of the porch.
Peggy even took delight at my trying to put the leach on Spud, each of his leaps defying my best efforts to hook his collar.
The Three Stooges could not have put on such a show or drawn such child-like squeals of delight from Peggy.
I always walked the dog in the same place – a large rectangular park behind Holy Rosary Church. So I led them down the drive to 8th street, then down 8th Street passed the house actress Loretta Swit had grown up in to Wall Street, and took the church drive rather than the driveway next to Mr. B’s which also led to the park.
Neither Peggy nor I wanted him or his crew to see us together.
The park was a piece of historic history, part of a farm that had once sat on the shore of Dundee Island along the Passaic River, but these days, most people didn’t notice the marker, but were like me, walking their dogs where they could let them off the leash or letting their kids run wild. Many school kids cut through the dilapidated fence that border the unused rail road tracks as a kind of short cut to the housing projects on the other side. At the far end of the park where the tracks made their way to a bridge over the river near Monroe Street was a wooded area where hobos occasionally set up house keeping, cleared out at intervals by police, only to return, often keeping warm around trash can fires upon which they also cooked the fish they caught in the polluted waters – fish the state posted signs for them not to eat.
There were no bums in the park that day, but plenty of squirrels and Spud leaded after everybody much to Peggy’s delight. Her eyes were bright with job I’d not seen in them before.
“Sometimes he mistakes skunks for squirrels,” I told her, holding the lease I had already detached from the dog.
“No way?” Peggy laughed.
“Absolutely,” I assured her.
“With that thick coat, how to you get the stink out?”
“Tomato juice,” I said. “Spud does it so much, I have a steady order for quart cans of the stuff at the grocer.”
I told her, too, that Spud often jumped into the river on very hot days, which required my bringing him back to the apartment for a bath.
“Sp-pud is beautiful,” Peggy admitted. “But he’s not as beautiful as my Sandy was.”
“A dog I once had,” she said. “She was the greatest dog in the world.”
“You mean the way Jessie is to cats?” I asked. “Don’t you think you’re a little prejudiced?”
“Are you telling me Jessie isn’t the greatest cat in the world?”
“I’m prejudiced, too, I have two cats of my own.”
“They don’t compare to Jessie.”
“Not to you, maybe,” I said, watching one of Peggy’s painted eyebrows rise.
Then the second one rose.
But she was no longer looking at me, but at something Spud was sniffing up the path.
“What’s that?” she asked.
I looked. But I couldn’t make out what it was at first. So I walked towards it and saw Spud sniffing at the carcass of a dead squirrel.
“It’s nothing,” I told Peggy. “It’s been dead for days.”
“I don’t want to see it.”
“But you can’t even tell what it was.”
“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 nodded and called for Spud to come.
But the joy and innocence of that moment had dissipated and I knew we would never get that moment again. We quickly returned to my apartment.
“Give me a drink,” she said, when seated at the table.
“I said a drink.”
So I mixed her a glass of cranberry cocktail, vodka and ice, which she drained quickly and held out the glass again.
She drank the second more slowly as I sipped a beer.
The silence was unbearable.
So I tried to fill in the spaces with talk about my life, giving a few details about the friends who used to live in this building with me and how they had moved out and how I had to drive out to West Jersey to see them and how empty life here in Passaic felt with them so far away.
“At some point I’ll have to introduce you to them,” I said.
Peggy looked up.
“Are you sure you want to?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m just a light-headed go-go girl.”
“That’s not true and you know it.”
“It’s what they’ll think.”
“You don’t know my friends. They’re not like that.”
“So why don’t you take me to see them so we can find out?”
“All right. I will.”
“As soon as I can arrange it.”
Then, there was some silence again, interrupted only by the hiss of the gas from the stove.
I laughed; Peggy frowned.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
“So now I’m funny?”
“I mean you’re being here. I haven’t shared a meal with a woman here since I went out with Fran.”
“I don’t want to hear about this.”
“Why? You tell me about your ex-lovers.”
“Robert beat me.”
“And the others?”
“I just don’t want to hear about you with other women. That’s all.”
I nodded, feeling hurt, as if Peggy had slammed shut yet another door of possible trust between us.”
I glanced over at the apartment door Peggy had insisted on leaving open so she could see “Sp-pud.” But instead of the dog filling the gap, Mary Ann did.
Her timing could not have been worse.
She wasn’t an old lover; she was a current lover, someone not very serious who popped in now and then for an afternoon or evening of play, always coming unannounced, always assuming I would be alone, when on this occasion I was not.
“Am I disturbing something? She asked, sounding genuinely surprised.
It was one of those moments when time stopped to allow the full horror of the situation to roll over me.
I leaped up, nearly knocking over my chair, successfully spilling my beer in my rush to reach the door.
“This is not a good time for me, Mary Ann,” I sputtered, sounding even more of a fool than I already felt. “I’m kind of busy. I should have called you, but…”
The drivel dripped off my lips like bad beer, easing the surprise in Mary Ann’s stare and replacing it with a laugh.
She always took delight in moments such as these, when she caught a person at the most vulnerable.
I suspect she had wanted to catch me like this, coming and going in stealth, peering under my almost closed shades for a glimpse of me clutched in a love embrace with another woman.
It was a game she played and one that I didn’t completely understand.
The last time I’d seen her, she’d just introduced me to her future husband, an hour after she had finished making love with me.
“Oh sure,” Mary Ann said. “I understand. I’ll call you tomorrow. Okay?”
I could only nod.
Then like the wraith she was, Mary Ann vanished, leaving me again in an even more uncomfortable silence.
Peggy hadn’t moved.
Her expression was one of pending rage, her lips pale despite the red she had painted them. When she finally spoke, her voice was taunt.
“You should have introduced me, Alfred,” she said.
“Introduced you?” I said, stunned.
“But you don’t know what she’s like.”
“I don’t need to know. This only proves my point that you don’t want me to meet your friends.”
“Mary Ann isn’t exactly a friend,” I said.
“Something like that. It’s hard to explain.”
“But you’re still ashamed for me to meet her.”
“That’s not true.”
“So you say,” Peggy mumbled, the room suddenly much colder as if the sun had gone out of it, and the last warm rays of hope from our walking the dog, extinguished in a dreadful sunset I couldn’t easily reverse.
My hopes of becoming intimate with Peggy seemed remote.
I desperately glanced around my apartment for something I might use to reverse the slow fall into the abyss – when I caught sight of my guitar in the bedroom.
“I can prove how much you mean to me,” I said.
Peggy’s cool gaze turned in my direction again.
“How?” she asked.
“I wrote something about you.”
“Not more of that.”
Her icy stare melted a little.
“Music?” she said. “I didn’t know you played a musical instrument?”
“I’m not exactly proficient,” I said.
“Play for me.”
“Here and now?”
“Alfred! Do it!”
I fetched the guitar out of the bedroom and the sheets of paper on which I has scribbled the lyrics, speaking them out on the table.
I couldn’t find a pick so I strummed the strings with my thumb nail.
I wasn’t a prolific song writer, or even a good one. But I only wrote songs about things that struck me deeply and these came straight out of my experiences with Peggy, from my early fascination seeing her dance at the bar, to the latest times when I came into her life and saw those things important to her like her cat, her unicorns and even John Wayne.
When I finished I fell silent, waiting for her response.
She stared at me for so long I didn’t think she had any response.
Finally, she shook her head.
“You didn’t write those songs about me,” she said.
“You heard them,” I said. “They’re all about you and your world.”
“You could have inserted those things into those songs.”
“Not impossible,” I admitted. “But I didn’t.”
“Why did you write them?
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“No, it’s not.”
“It’s because I care about you, Peggy.”
Again, she stayed silent for a long time, but eventually gave a nod.
“All right, you wrote them about me,” she said. “Now can I go home – out of this dismal place?”
I felt crushed. I had made my best effort to reach her and failed.
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll go.”
She turned from the door.
“Oh, and don’t forget to bring your guitar.”