What color are my eyes?
The phone jangled me awake the next morning at 11.
Even as I opened my eyes, I knew it had to be her.
But it wasn’t. It was Pauly, asking me why I hadn’t come out to see him recently and wondering if I could make it out later that day, and in my weary state I agreed, hanging up the phone in time for it to ring again – this time finding Peggy on the other end, asking if I could come over in the afternoon.
“I have to see my friend,” I said.
“And you’re not going to take me to meet him?”
“I hadn’t thought of it,” I admitted.
“I said sometime.”
“This is sometime and you’re going there anyway, or don’t you want to let him meet me after all?”
“It’s not that I don’t want to – I just don’t want to spring you on him all of a sudden.”
“So now I’m just someone you would spring on people?”
I could not explain it, how sometimes I feared to take the women I loved to see him, how I always expected my women to fall in love with him instead of me – it had happened before.”
“Well?” Peggy asked.
“What time are you picking me up?”
I didn’t even have to go upstairs when I got to Peggy’s place.
She stood out front, dressed against the chilly spring air in her blue New York Giants jacket and her pink Pony sneakers, and though I had seen her dressed this way before, I almost didn’t recognize her, she seemed so out of character to the woman I thought I knew.
It was also daylight – and out of doors, two conditions winter had kept me from witnessing her in, and I wondered if spring would bring a totally new and unexpected Peggy, some startlingly dramatic butterfly emerging from a winter cocoon.
“Pauly will love that outfit,” I said when she climbed into the passenger side of the car.
“Are you mocking me?”
“I’m serious. He’s nearly as diehard a fan of the Giants as you are.”
“Impossible,” she said smugly. “But it shows you have some sensible friends. There’s still hope for you after all, Alfred.”
The road to the lake had become extremely familiar since I had frequently traveled it over the previous two years – after Pauly final moving out of the Passaic apartment complex. He had original fled with the rest in 1979 but returned to become my room mate a few years later, leaving for what was to be the last time in 1985 for the remote rural world of what had served most of us as a vacation spot when kids.
His leaving had left one more hole in my life and had come during a monument year when other close friends had moved – some complete out of state – while I broke up my relationship with another lover whose cocaine habit had driven me nearly insane.
By New Jersey standards, it was not a long ride or even overly complicated, involving my betting onto Route 80 near Paterson and off the highway again when we reached the lake area. But the trip was made longer by the silence between us, and my growing dread of what would happen when the two most dynamic people in my life came together.
I wasn’t afraid that Pauly would dislike Peggy, but rather than he would like her too much, and she would like him more than me.
As I said, it had happened before.
Spring also brought out Peggy’s sunglasses, something our evening and cloudy day connection previously had kept in her purse. So I couldn’t tell where she was looking or if she studied me the way I was studying her. I couldn’t tell if she was bored or not, although she kept trying to tune my portable radio, struggling to reach even the most power station with the batteries dying.
Once we got off the highway, she seemed to take interest again, especially the stretch of one-lane road that twisted and turned as it rose and the descended, a road the state would later straighten to accommodate the massive overdevelopment destined to plague the area in the 1990s.
But even then I sensed the end of something that had been part of my life since childhood and I was glad to have Peggy catch a glimpse of it with me before it totally vanished.
“Do you know where you’re going?” Peggy asked when I finally turned off this road onto an even narrower lane that took us over the hump of land and brought us down into the region where the lake lay.
I’ve driven this hundreds of times,” I told her, which was no exaggeration.
I had driven this straight and drug, in day light and in the dark, in foul weather and good, and knew how fast or slow I could go and where the road did odd things I needed to react to.
Then we turned onto a slanted road which dipped under an arch announced the name of the island on which Pauly lived – taking us passed a mostly empty space to our right where the town had erected a large wooden fence.
“What is this place?” Peggy asked.
“It used to be an amusement park,” I told her. “Like Palisades Park, only not so famous.”
“Small towns don’t like those kind of things,” I said. “They don’t want the crowds or the kinds of people places like this draw. Also the cost of insurance coverage went through the roof.”
“So now they have an empty lot?”
“They’ll build something on the property sooner or later, and totally ruin the neighborhood – at which point, Pauly will move out and I won’t have a reason to come here any more.”
We pulled onto an even narrower lane, glimpsing the lake through the gaps in the few houses to our left, and then the road became rutted and the macadam became slabs of debris, at which point I turned onto a mostly dirt road and pulled up in front of a small house – a house converted to all season from its previous use as a summer bungalow.
Pauly was waiting outside near the porch, his long hair sticking out from under a New York Yankees cap, hair prematurely gray in places.
“Is that him?” Peggy asked.
“How did he know we would arrive when we did?”
“He always knows,” I said, then turned off the engine.
Pauly didn’t move. He waited for us to get out of the car, a cigarette smoldering in one hand.
“You took your time getting here,” he said.
I shrugged. “I had to pick up Peggy.”
Pauly looked at her.
“So you’re the one he keeps going on and on about.”
“He talks about me?” Peggy said.
Peggy’s head turned in my direction, my reflection showing in the large, dark lenses of her sun glasses.
“Oh really,” she said.
“Can we please go inside,” I asked. “It might technically be spring, but the wind off the lake is still damned cold.”
Pauly nodded and led us through the porch into the tiny interior, rooms so crowded together only a hobbit could feel totally comfortable in them. Yet it seemed to fit him and the kind of life he desired to live. Even when living in Passaic, he had built his world into the tiniest, most compact space possible.
“You want food?” he asked Peggy.
“What have you got?”
“I can make spaghetti,” he said.
To my surprise, Peggy agreed.
Then as he and I conversed, covering the usual rang of subjects from global warming to a possible alien invasion, Peggy wandered, studying the details of this strange world, pausing to peruse Pauly’s plentiful collection of books.
“You’ve read all these?” she asked.
Pauly looked over. “Nearly all,” he said.
“Then you can tell me what they’re about?”
“I can if you have a month or two to spare,” he said. “You can ask Al. He’s read some of them, too, and has heard me talk about most of the others.”
She nodded, then went back to his study, lingering over the collection of water color painting that hung at intervals.
“Are these yours? She asked, drawing up Pauly’s glance, his eyes looking a little bloated by his steamed glasses.
“Most of them,” he said. “Some are Rick’s. Do you like them?”
“I don’t know,” she said in a strangely frank tone.
Pauly eyed me.
“So where did you find the art critic?” he asked.
I glanced at Peggy. She paused again to look at me – her dark stare so intense I could feel rather than see the question behind it, she waiting with Pauly for me to answer.
“At the My Way Lounge,’ I said.
“You mean that place on Main Ave?”
“That’s the one,” I said.
Pauly nodded and continued to stir the past, and when satisfied with that, he went to stir the sauce he had simmering in a shallow pan.
I glanced over at Peggy, but she had turned back to her study, wandering along the living room and looking at the number of oddities Pauly’s roommate had collected in his wanderings around the globe, touching some, frowning over the others, and then she saw the guitars.
“You play, too?” she asked.
Pauly looked up,, both hands deep into his oven gloves as he poured the pasta and scalding water into a drainer.
“Too?” he said. “Don’t tell me Al’s been making you suffer through that stuff he calls music?”
“I like his music.”
“Then you know as little about music as you do about art.”
I stiffened, waiting for the inevitable explosion which never came.
“I like what I like,” she said. “I don’t pretend to be an expert.”
“Good point,” Pauly said. “I hope you’re hungry. Food’s ready.”
We settled at the long table in the living room – which was just off the kitchen.
The house had an odd layout: porch, then living room, two bedrooms to one side of the house, dining from and kitchen side by side with a small room to the rear of the living room that served as Pauly’s studio and a narrow hall to the rear of the kitchen that went to the basement stair and a door leading outside to the yard.
Peggy stayed silent through the mean as Pauly and I talked about the band he hoped might get back together and about the old neighborhood and how I ought to move out and come west since I worked at Willowbrook Mall anyway.
I said I didn’t need to move. Rent was cheap and I hated the suburbs, and then it was time to leave and Pauly bid as farewell, leaving us to make our own way back to the car.
Peggy remained silent until we reached the highway.
“You have some strange friends, Alfred,” she said.
“You only met one of them,” I said.
“Just the same, he seemed to like you a lot,” she said.
I laughed. “What’s not to like?”
“I mean it.”
“Okay, so you mean it. I like you, too, and in fact, it’s getting to be a little more than like.”
“Is that so?”
“Okay,” she said as the car plugged along in the slow lane in the direction of home. “If you like me so much, maybe you can answer one simple question.”
“What color are my eyes?”
I glanced over, but she had her son glasses on again so all I saw was my own confused expression started back at me in that warped reflection.
“Well?” she asked.
“Green,” I said, not at all really sure since I had seen her mostly at night or indoor.
“They’re blue, Alfred,” she said.
“I knew that,” I said.
“You’re a damned liar.”
“A man can only try,” I said.
“Don’t try too hard,” she said, “and please, don’t hurt me.”