Author Darlene Wesenberg Rzeztorski
February 1970: Wherein the Grimeses move into Apartment 2, Messy Bessie learns to bark to guitar music, the trial of the Chicago 7 continues with a “not guilty of conspiracy” verdict, and three surprises—two pleasant and one unpleasant—find their way into the caretakers’ English Basement apartment.
“Well, it would have been nice of Mr. Dreschler to let us know that he was putting a rental ad in the Sunday paper with our phone number!” Lily grumbled as she took the sixth phone call of the morning regarding Apartment 2. “Don’t you think you could get up now, Blue Jay? Some people are coming to look at the apartment at one, and you can either show it or take care of the Hatchling and I’ll show it.” He groaned, yawned, stretched, bumped his head on the headboard of the bed, and rolled over. It had snowed again and Blue Jay had spent hours on Saturday chipping ice and shoveling. Now his muscles ached and he wanted nothing more than to stay immersed between the warm covers.
“Okay, I’m getting up. Right now.” He proceeded to drift into a state of defiant dozing. “Make that in half an hour,” he said, pulling the comforter over his head.
The phone rang again and Lily let it ring. She sat in the kitchen and took a deep breath, enjoying the muted reflection of sunshine through snow on the kitchen walls, which she had, in a fit of madness over semester break, painted a vibrant blue. It was as close to Mediterranean sky as she could get, calling back a vague memory of a summer three years ago when she had bummed around Europe on a Eurail Pass, eventually ending up in Crete where she had stayed until the last possible minute. Now snow had drifted against the windowpanes giving them the lazy appearance of half-shut eyes. The old enamel sink gleamed and the coffee pot perked, creating an air of pleasant domesticity; nonetheless Lily always was aware that beyond the walls of their small haven was a greater world where insurmountable problems loomed.
Lily had taken several phone calls that morning and ignored an equal number of others; during the afternoon she and Blue Jay would hold court in Mrs. Grant’s now emptied apartment for prospective tenants who expressed interest. Mr. Dreschler expected her and Jay to repaint Mrs. Grant’s living room, but that would have to wait for the following weekend. Most prospective tenants seemed disenchanted by the faded spots on the living room walls where pictures had hung. Lily and Jay admitted to themselves that the whole place looked a little dismal and that a coat of paint would help. The overcast sky only added to the gloom, and the memories lingered.
Lily had dreaded returning to Mrs. Grant’s empty apartment, with everything removed. It had all happened so quickly, and without warning. It seemed to her that some angel of death had soared down and taken her friend; then Letitia had come like some deus ex machina, swooped in, taken matters into her competent hands, erased all traces of a life except for shadows on the walls and indentations in the carpets, and then departed with her mother’s ashes.
“This is how it can happen, Blue Jay,” Lily said. “Not even a memorial service. I would have felt better if we could have gone to a chapel and prayed and cried together. No closure. Just whoosh! And gone.”
“Maybe this is the way Mrs. Grant wanted it. I never knew her to go to church and never saw any church ladies stop by like with Mrs. Davis. Maybe the Grants had their family issues that we’ll never know about,” Blue Jay responded.
“People are like that. Families are like that. I know, some couples who have fancy weddings and seemingly perfect marriages and perfect children—they’re the first ones to fall apart. They’re not real. You’re the sociologist. You should know this.”
“Some get it right. Who knows?” Lily sighed. “But whatever transpired before, I know that Mrs. Grant loved this daughter very much and missed her every single day, and now I know that she had options. But she chose to live life here on her own terms.”
“Quoth the raven, Nevermore, as Papa Poe said in his sorrow. Bravo for Mrs. Grant. May she rest in peace wherever her ashes end up.”
Conversation of this nature continued until the doorbell rang, heralding a long Sunday afternoon of caretaker duties.
Although several people came to look at Apartment 2, some found fault with the gray wall-to-wall carpeting with indentations where the furniture had stood for many years; others wanted the entire place re-painted, still others found it too large, too plain, too shabby. Only one couple found it pleasing, just what they were looking for.
“Do you keep the place warm?” the woman queried. “Is the electricity included?”
“Yes to your first question; no to your second,” Lily replied.
“What about a security deposit? When could we move in?” the tall, gaunt man asked bluntly.
“Well,” Blue Jay hesitated, “whenever, I guess. You’d have to place a security deposit of two hundred dollars.” He looked around the room. “I was planning to paint next weekend.”
“That doesn’t matter to us,” the man hurriedly replied. “You don’t have to paint. We’ll just hang up some Elvis posters.”
“I’ll have to notify the property management firm to get their okay. Let me have your name and place of employment. They’ll want to run a credit check. I will hold the security check, but it all depends on management’s approval.”
“Ummm, I’m currently unemployed, but my wife is working. We’re the Grimeses, Orville and Sherl,” Orville said, extending his hand to Blue Jay. “And this is our son, Travis, named after Elvis Presley’s uncle.” He laughed nervously. “He’s eight. He’s quiet, though. He won’t bother anybody, I’m sure. Will you, Travis?”
The child remained sullen, staring at the floor. “Why do we have to move again?” he muttered, more to himself than as if expecting an answer. “You can’t make me go to another new school.”
Sherl Grimes spoke up. She was a small, buxom woman with bright lipstick, gleaming blond hair with dark roots, and an unnatural blush to her cheeks. Her voice had a pleasant Southern drawl. “I am employed as a cocktail waitress down at Frenchy’s on East North Avenue so this place would be real handy. I make good tips. Frenchy’s is known for elegant dining and big spenders. Our hours work well with parenting; Orville’s usually gone days when he’s working and I’m gone in the evenings, so somebody’s always here with Travis.”
Travis glared at her, “I’m grown. I don’t need nobody.”
Blue Jay grinned. “Oh! Well, whatever works for you. That’s cool.”
“Orville is expecting to go back to the docks as soon as the shipping season starts. They pay real good, you know. In the meantime, he does a praiseworthy Elvis imitation and is hoping to get a few gigs.”
Orville nodded, smiling widely.
“I tried contacting Elvis, but I guess he’s just too busy to bother about a little bro from Tupelo. I just hafta keep trying out of adoration.”
Sherl quickly added, “He worked on the docks this past summer and even on into October. The life of a stevedore is real feast-or-famine. I guess you could say we’re in famine season now.”
Orville laughed. “As Sherl mentioned, I do play the guitar. But I’m not one of them hairy-faced hippies. No offense.”
He smiled at Blue Jay, as if noticing his unruly red hair for the first time.
Jay laughed. This conversation was getting weirder by the moment, he thought.
“Went to the same high school as Elvis Presley. Humes High School down in Memphis. ‘Course he was long out of there before I came on the scene, but I’ve practiced singin’ along with his records and I know all the tunes. I even have a silver-spangled suit that I wear for special performances.” He winked. “Elvis can’t be everywhere, you know. That gives me a chance to perform. Course, I don’t charge as much, either.”
“We do have all types of people in this building—young and elderly, hip, yip, straight, and gay. And we all get along.” Blue Jay paused for emphasis. “All of us.”
The conversation continued along this vein and eventually the Grimeses filled out the necessary information and left a $200 deposit on the first month’s rent.
“See you soon,” said Orville, zealously shaking Blue Jay’s hand. The Grimses then climbed into their battered yellow Volkswagen and drove off in a puff of exhaust fumes.
Although no one else had expressed the slightest bit of interest in occupying the apartment, Lily and Blue Jay held off contacting Mr. Dreschler until the following afternoon, at which point Mr. Dreschler said to go ahead and turn over the keys to the Grimes couple, since he wanted to be able to collect rent for February.
“Personally, I think if he lets it go much longer, he’d have to give a couple weeks’ free rent, and he’s too tight-fisted for that,” Blue Jay mused. “Well, at least we got out of painting.”
Lily felt misgivings about the whole affair. “Blue Jay, there’s something strange about these people. I don’t know. They’re friendly enough, but I just didn’t pick up good vibes from them. Maybe it was the way they treated their little boy.”
“Hmmm. Different lifestyle. Do you think it’s just a North-South thing? I mean, we’re not supposed to enter prospective tenants in a popularity contest, and the final decision is Mr. Dreschler’s. I guess they’re okay,” Blue Jay continued. “It’s not like all kinds of people are vying for the apartment.”
“I wonder what will come of this,” Lily sighed.
~ * * * * * ~
The new semester brought a change in the childcare arrangement. Lily’s schedule was less demanding since she had decided to take an introductory level urban studies class rather than Professor Milton’s graduate level seminar—where she was destined to receive no higher than a B+. She was unsure about how to continue her studies, especially since they might be in a different school next fall if Jay could get into a graduate writing program somewhere. Jay had squeaked through the first semester of his German class with a C but would need to spend extra time in a study group. Messy Bessie seemed to be adapting quite well, and the interactions between Little Jay and the parakeet proved to bring comic relief to Lily’s and Jay’s increasing feelings of deep despair and disbelief as the United States troops advanced deeper into the Asian jungles. The war protesters continued to raise consciousness on campus, so it felt good to retreat to their subterranean kitchen with hissing steam pipes, chattering bird and babbling child.
Valentine’s Day came and went with little ceremony. Lily baked a special heart-shaped chocolate chip cookie the size of a pizza pan. When Jay noticed some special preparations underway, he slipped out over to the supermarket and picked out a single red rose for Lily. They shared a supper with the strains of “Love Me Tender” seeping through the ceiling. “Well, isn’t this the height of romance!” Lily remarked, blowing kisses to the Big and Little Jays.
Their personal party was interrupted by Sherl pounding on the door. She wanted to use the phone to call in to Frenchy’s to say she had a headache and wouldn’t be able to work. “We plan to get our own phone next month. By the way, I hope you don’t mind if we gave your number out in the meantime. People might be calling to arrange Elvis gigs. You can just take the number and let us know, just in case.”
Jay and Lily exchanged glances. “Well,” Lily remarked. “It better be a really temporary arrangement. In case you didn’t notice, the phone is right outside the nursery.”
Jay shook his head. “Really temporary.”
Oblivious, Sherl thanked them. “Sorry. Gotta run!”
Besides the ongoing protests on campus and the advancing frustration around the war’s expansion, Lily and Jay had caught glimpses of the ongoing trial of the Chicago 7. Jay’s opinion of television was changing, and he always put aside his studies to catch the ten o’clock news with Lily. There had been special moments of the trial captured on TV that caught his fancy, such as the time Judy Collins was invited into the courtroom by the defendant’s attorney, William Kunstler, serenading everyone with “Where have All the Flowers Gone?” Lily sang along.
The trial dragged on with new theatrical adventures airing nightly. Jay was especially delighted when Attorney Kunstler saw fit to examine Phil Ochs, the folk singer who had assisted Jerry Rubin and others in bringing in a live pig shortly before the 1968 Democratic Convention. The Yippie Party named him Pigasus and brought him to the Chicago Civic Center next to the Picasso sculpture where they nominated the pig as their candidate for president. Of course, they were all arrested, even Pigasus. Jay had missed that event at the time, arriving the following day. “Including this event is a stroke of genius on Kunstler’s part. Sometimes the best points are made with humor taken to the next level, Lily!” he exclaimed.
That night he stayed up to jot down a poem that was laughing through his brain:
Ponderings of Pigasus
When the day was young
I was happy in my sty,
Bathing in the mud,
Eating table scraps and crud.
Then one day:
What’s going on here?
My pignappers clap when I sing.
I have perfect pitch.
But I miss my muddy ditch:
Vote for me
Those who have slung mud at me,
I thank you.
Those who have taunted me with
Pig, pig, pig,
Boo to you.
Three cheers for your future president!
I do not miss my sty,
Although the food was better on the farm.
Now I am Pigasus the Strong
And I will end all war.
I will bring the troops home.
I will wage peace
And stage Oink-ins
And build huge mud baths in all public parks.
A vote for me is a vote for sanity.
Jay smiled to himself, read it over again, crumbled it up, and tossed it across the floor. “Some poems are just scribbled out for catharsis,” he thought. “The world doesn’t need another pig poem, but writing it was a trip.”
The Lost Lenore thought it was the start of a late-night game of fetch and leapt off the couch.
Jay laughed. “Let’s get you out for a bonus constitutional.”
On February 18, good news regarding the verdict of Chicago 7 defendants lightened the mood on campus. A couple hundred students held a noisy, unscheduled Yip-parade around the campus, celebrating the fact that the defendants were found not guilty of conspiracy to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
One zealous English professor, a fairly new arrival affectionately called “Young Frankenstein” by his students because of his physical resemblance to Basil Rathbone, led his students out into the corridor and he also joined in. As the revelers snaked and pounded their way through the corridors and stairwells of Bolton Hall, Lily observed the goings-on from her classroom with a smile.
It seemed basically just another day in the halls of learning…that is, until Professor Young Frankenstein led his students through a door that stated “Emergency Exit Only” and triggered a fire alarm throughout the eight-story building. It signaled the end of classes for the afternoon. The union commons became a default destination, crowded with students celebrating the wonders of the day.
“I guess the trial outcome is some small vindication.” Blue Jay stated, recalling how he had been at the convention as a protester, but thankful he had chosen to withdraw from the crowd when he saw the mounting violence.
“To me the pen will always be mightier than the sword or the teargas cassette. I think there are better ways of expressing opinions. Just look around now. What was accomplished? The war is still going on and protestors are still being clubbed in this country. Even that whole trial turned into a freak show. A big, public circus on national television with both sides making a mockery of the system. I don’t know what they were trying to accomplish. Contempt of court? Is this a victory?” His mixed feelings merged into germs of a new poem. He reached into his backpack for his yellow legal pad and jotted down a few lines:
There’s a wheel on the circus
That spins round and round in the hearts of the children
Watching the show from the bleachers
With the bear whose ruffles are rags.
Lily smiled and held her silence. She was accustomed to this type of interruption. When he looked up, the conversation continued. “Hey, Blue Jay, the whole world watched them bring down the system. Now you’re talking like an old man. You know what they say. ‘Never trust anybody over thirty.’ You’ve got three more years to be trusted.” “Three and a half. I’m damn sick of this war and all the mess that never quits. Bloody murder. What will this world be like when the little Jay has to flap his wings and fly on his own? What kind of place will we leave him? Christmas in Cambodia?” Blue Jay bit his bottom lip. “Here’s hoping it’ll get better.” Although they moved through the rest of the week as if swimming through lead, the following Monday mail brought two surprises. First was a postcard from Jay’s sister thanking them for the gifts. “Hope to see you soon!” was added in his father’s spidery handwriting.
“Look at this card, Jay. Your sister says it’s the Paulding Light. Did you ever hear of that?” Lily couldn’t make sense of it.
“Sure. Grew up with it. We used to drive down by Paulding on the old forestry road by the tracks with a six pack and wait for the ghost. I really saw this ghostly light a few times. We all did. For real. The ghost of a dead brakeman is stuck there where he was run over by a train and he comes waving his signal lantern.”
He studied the card. “Looks exactly like this. A dismal, abandoned stretch of track with tall trees on both sides with no room for escape, and then suddenly this glow appears in the distance. I’ll take you there this summer, Lily.”
“Is that a promise or a threat?”
The second remarkable piece of mail was a thin envelope announcing that The Tragedie of Joanie Fist was accepted for publication in Undercurrents, a national small press magazine held in high esteem by the UWM English department—in fact, by English departments all around the country; although very few other people had ever heard of the magazine outside these learned circles of academia. It was especially important because the entire drama would be printed, filling almost the entire summer edition of the magazine.
Blue Jay’s mood shifted. From feeling like he was swimming through heavy metal, he felt he was walking on air. This prestigious publication definitely would enhance his chances for acceptance into a graduate program. “Time to send out my applications,” he announced. “Maybe past time,” he added worriedly. He had been looking at the University of Chicago and also at Paul Engel’s writing workshop in Iowa City. This affirmation of his writing gave him the boost to his self-esteem he needed to actually take action.
Lily took his swollen head in stride, realizing that the victory had been hard fought and, in her opinion, well deserved.
That evening as they were celebrating Blue Jay’s victory with carry-out submarine sandwiches, the doorbell rang in its usual raucous fashion. This time it was Larry and Lenny, beaming at them, each carrying two sturdy wooden chairs. “No, we don’t have any building complaints. Quite the opposite. We come bearing gifts. I’m working in a mansion over on Lake Drive. Their plan calls for Swedish Modern, but these chairs just seemed too good to throw out. These chairs are a perfect match for your round oak dining room table. We thought you could use them.”
“They’re beautiful!” Lily reached out to touch the smooth wood.
“ Mission style. Well, then, we wish a belated Happy Valentine’s Day to the best caretakers this building ever had,” Larry smiled.
“Do you have time for coffee? And how about some cookies? We can sit at the round oak table and break in the chairs.”
“Break in, but not break, I hope!” Lenny quipped.
“Well, I think we’ll have to break Blue Jay of the habit of tilting back and balancing on two chair legs when he’s expounding,” Lily replied.
A pleasant hour was spent as Larry and Lenny regaled them with more tales from Milwaukee’s past. This time they told about the legendary Gertie the Duck who had built her nest on a busy downtown bridge and proceeded to raise nine ducklings, with considerable help from the Milwaukee citizenry. It was during World War II and the people needed something to be cheerful about. Even the newspapers had carried daily progress reports. Lenny had grown up in Milwaukee and his mother had taken him down to the Wisconsin Avenue Bridge near Gimbels Brothers Department Store so he could personally meet Gertie. “Crowds of people quietly, almost reverently appeared every day,” he related. “My mother made me walk on tiptoe.”
“Maybe we need another Gertie-like diversion,” Jay said.
“You’ll have to tell this story to him when he’s older,” Lenny said, nodding at the Hatchling. “There’s even a sweet book out. Make Way for the Ducklings. I’ll see if my mother still has my copy from when I was little. I don’t think she ever throws anything out—just lets it stack up, year upon year.”
“You might say she lives in a storage bin, Lenny,” Larry interjected. “I’ve seen your mother’s place. The stuff is stacked so high that I am afraid to walk through the hall. She must have every scrap of paper she ever got.”
Lenny laughed. “And every report card I brought home, and every Valentine and drawing, and even my baby footprints stamped on vellum.” He stared at the ceiling, as if seeing his baby footprints tracking around up there. “I worry about a pile of junk collapsing on her as she tries to go from the kitchen to the back door. Maybe we should spend a weekend with her out in Mayville and offer to help her clean it out. I haven’t tried for a few years now. Maybe she’d be more receptive now.”
“Every time we go there, it gets a little worse. I don’t think she can get to the back door anymore.” He paused. “Hmm, Lenny. That’s probably why you became an interior designer, with all that emphasis placed on the assembling of stuff. But, seriously, all her clutter is just not healthy.”
“Don’t play shrink-o with me here, please, Larry. What will our young friends here think?”
“We think you are marvelous and very cool and….” Lily continued, “please have some more cookies!”
When the Hatchling began to fuss and Lenore began to whimper nervously demanding her evening stroll, the party broke up. The cookie crumbs found their way to the trash, the coffee cups to the sink, to be taken care of the next day. A dishtowel was thrown over Messy Bessie’s cage. The Hatchling fell asleep clutching his tambourine, Lenore sprawled on the carpet next to his bed.
Lights burned late in the English basement apartment, as the evening’s dwindling hours were filled with memorizing a list of irregular German verbs and reading Adkin’s Vampire Nation: An Analysis of Advertising Practices in America. A little before midnight, Lily yawned and turned in for the night, but Jay put aside the German workbook, took out his yellow legal pad and continued to work on his “Wheel on the Circus” poem.
~ * * * * * ~
The presence of the Grimes family marked a change in the building. In addition to the folk music coming from Apartment 6, there were now the twangs of Orville’s electric guitar, which seemed not to have a volume control. Orville offered anyone a tune at the drop of a hat, especially those in his Elvis Repertoire. One of his favorite songs was “Old Shep,” a ballad about a boy whose dog saved him from drowning and had to be shot by the boy when he got old but went to doggy heaven. Orville assured everyone that Elvis had made this song famous, although no one in the building had ever heard it before. His version of “Love Me Tender” would have shaken the rafters, if there were any rafters to shake. Fortunately, Mrs. Davis was somewhat hard of hearing, and had not called to complain.
The Lost Lenore seemed to take special umbrage at the final verses of “Old Shep”, and her howls, combined with Orville’s caterwauling, regularly distracted Blue Jay from his writing. Even Messy Bessie joined in. Although she doggedly refused to repeat any English or German words, she learned to imitate Lenore’s various barks with a precision that fooled even Blue Jay.
In communicating with her humans, Lenore had developed special vocalizations: There was the urgent whine: “Take me outside immediately. Nature calls;” the plaintive whine: “Pet me. Now. Everyone in this household neglects animals;” the exuberant yelp: “Someone is at the door and I can’t wait to jump up and give this person a kiss!” Now, thanks to the addition of Orville’s music seeping through the ceiling, dog and bird developed a low, incessant moan, interspersed with an occasional crescendo.
Orville seemed to reach his peak cathartic virtuoso performances in late afternoon, during Blue Jay’s watch of the Hatchling. Fortunately, most of the tenants were out and about during this time. Only Mrs. Davis’s partial deafness spared her from the blast.
Unlike his parents who put forth an aura of friendly extroversion, Travis Grimes was sullen and withdrawn. “Perhaps you’d like to come down and amuse Baby Josh for us or take Lenore on a walk around the block now and then,” Lily offered. “It could be a little part-time job for you. Would you like that? I could pay you, like a real job.”
“Maybe,” he muttered, looking at his shoes.
“Our son has plenty to do up here,” Orville interjected. “He’s on punishment right now for his sassy mouth.”
“Maybe some other time,” Lily attempted to soften the blow as a look of hostility flashed across Travis’s face.
The true nature of familial relations in the Grimes household revealed itself late in February. True to the predictions in The Farmer’s Almanac, there was a grand February thaw. Unfortunately, the front stairway carpet had been tracked with dirt from salt and sand carried in on people’s boots. Once again, it fell upon Lily to vacuum the stairs and front hall, since Blue Jay had faithfully shoveled and scraped for most of the winter. He offered to take The Hatchling on an outing down the street to visit Ernie and Klara while Lily vacuumed. He had some questions about repairing a leaky faucet in the laundry room, and it would give Lily a time to work without interruption.
Lily discovered that she found comfort in the predictability of building maintenance. Unlike the academic world, these chores were concrete. One could look at a carpet, for example, and say, “This part is done. I have cleaned it; I vacuum very well, for a human-woman. I give myself an A+;” then, turning the other way, one could observe the dirt and say, “This part I now will clean.”
She sighed, adjusting the vacuum’s brush height. For a belated Christmas gift, Mr. Dreschler had “given” them a new vacuum cleaner and a Christmas handshake. Although she might have preferred a nice box of chocolates or even a big hunk of Cheddar cheese, Lily had marveled over the arrival of the vacuum cleaner as though it had been her heart’s desire.
As she vacuumed, Lily thought back over the occasion. It had been an early January morning. Blue Jay had been at the UWM library, so she was left to be the hostess and pose as caretaker extraordinaire.
In a moment of inspiration, Lily decided to offer Mr. Dreschler a cup of coffee; in an unguarded moment of response, Mr. Dreschler accepted. Lily took out the delicately painted porcelain cups she had bought at the Goodwill last fall, pleased for the opportunity to use them. Unfortunately, just as Mr. Dreschler was lifting the steaming coffee to his lips, the handle broke off with a little pinging sound, spilling the rich brown liquid all over his neatly pressed silk suit and boiled wool car coat.
“Oh, no!” Lily blurted out. “I am so sorry!” Full of apologies, Lily could not quit talking. She first grabbed a dish towel, then went for a bath towel, seeing that a mere dish towel was an inadequate response.
Mr. Dreschler grabbed the towel and stood up, dabbing at his trousers, which had taken the brunt of the coffee. “This is inexcusable. I try to be generous and look what happens.”
He rose to leave. “I will be presenting you with the dry-cleaning bill.”
“Oh, but of course!”
Lily first had felt dismay at his abrupt departure, but a moment later she saw the humor of the situation and burst out laughing. “Larry and Lenny will appreciate this!” she gloated. “And I can’t wait to tell Jay!”
Her stairwell reverie over this incident was disrupted by a sudden commotion in Apartment 2. The door opened and Sherl ran out, Orville in hot pursuit.
“Omigod!” she said. “What’s wrong?”
Sherl was in tears. “I need some ice for my jaw!”
Lily glared at Orville, whose lanky frame now filled the doorway. “What’s this about?”
“It’s about us. Not your damned business,” he snapped.
Turning her back to him, she shoved the vacuum into the corner landing between the first and second floors and said, “I have ice. Sherl, let’s go downstairs. Where’s Travis?”
“He’s at Cub Scouts,” she said, and both women exited the building and went around to the back and down the cement stairs to the entrance of the English Basement caretaker’s apartment. Orville did not follow.
After wrapping some ice cubes in a towel and pouring a cup of coffee for each of them, Lily asked, “Sherl, why did he do this to you? Does this happen often?”
“I think I broke my jaw,” she said. “I—I just fell. He didn’t do anything.”
Silence filled the kitchen.
“Are you sure?” Lily questioned. “It sounded like more than that was going on.”
Another silence, then tears.
Lily ran for a box of tissues, astonished at the sudden turn of events. She went to the door to make sure it was locked, afraid Orville would turn up at any minute. She had sensed something was wrong in this relationship from their first meeting, but the physical violence was a more serious matter than she had suspected.
“He always wants me to serve a fancy breakfast and I was tired. I worked so late last night. Waitressing is hard work, always on your feet, always trying to think ahead about what the customer wants. Working for the tip. Smiling. Frenchy makes all the waitresses wear high heels. My feet ached bad. And he wanted me to get up and cook him salt cod for breakfast. Fish!”
Lily nodded sympathetically, feeling concerned, but outraged at the same time.
“I usually go along with whatever he wants, ‘cause he has this mean streak, but today—I don’t know—I just couldn’t do it.”
She dissolved into tears again and Lily ran to get a roll of toilet paper, since they were out of tissues. “All my teeth hurt.” She blew her nose so loudly that Messy Bessie became intrigued by the new sound and broke out into a chatter. Ordinarily this would have provoked a laugh from Lily, but instead she threw a dish towel over the cage to silence her. “In the course of only an hour, Sherl has become a friend in need of help.” The thought simmered in Lily’s mind.
“He always likes fish or fried bacon or something special to eat in the morning. It gets worse in the winter when he’s out of work.”
“Best you talk about it, Sherl,” Lily said, giving her a gentle pat on the shoulder. “It won’t go past me.”
Sherl looked at the coffee in front of her, paused, and took a deep drink.
Lily sat in silence, hoping that Orville would not see fit to come downstairs and pound on the door, creating more trouble.
Sherl’s words gushed out in a torrent.
“My daddy warned me about Orville, but I was too much of a small-town rebel to listen. I got married at age sixteen. You can do that down home.
“‘He’s pure talent, Daddy,’ I’d say. ‘You’ve heard him sing. Orville’s gonna be famous one day.’ And he’d tell me back, ‘He’s a good-for-nothing juvenile delinquent. He’s just eighteen and already has a record for stealing a car and breaking-and-entering. And even when he was in grade school, he was with some hoods that broke into the school and sprayed obscenities on the walls. A real JD. If you go off with him, don’t never think of comin’ back.’
“But did I listen? No, first chance I got, the week after I turned sixteen, we eloped.
“You can get married in Mississippi when you’re sixteen. Not like up here. Got married by a justice of the peace in Memphis.
“First he treated me like a queen and we had a great time living in motels and traveling around ‘til the money ran out. The next thing you know, we’re waiting for Travis to get here and Orville is taking day jobs. I ended up with a waitress job.”
Lily felt overwhelmed but told herself that sometimes the best you can do is be a good listener. Perhaps Sherl hadn’t really been able to talk about this before.
“The first time he beat on me, I was pregnant. I didn’t know who to tell and I couldn’t go home. Then I figured out how to stop him, just by going along with everything he wanted and being sure that I didn’t even so much as glance at another man. I’m real used to waiting on him hand and foot. But you know, like today, sometimes the body just says, ‘No. Not now. My bones are weary.’”
“Does the body ever say, ‘Enough?’ I’d think there would come a point….” Lily’s voice trailed off. She hesitated. “If anyone ever treated me like that, I would leave so fast….”
“Well, you know, when I go back upstairs, he’ll be real sweet, like nothing ever happened,” she broke off. “But one of these times, if he pushes me too far, I will split. I’ve been stashing away a part of my tips because I won’t ever really leave without Travis. Orville bullies Travis, but he don’t smack him very often.”
She sighed. “I’d hate to think what would happen if I wasn’t around. I have to cover for the kid a lot. Travis has a real mind of his own, too.”
Sherl pushed back the chair and stood up to leave. “Can I bring this ice pack back later? Speaking of Travis, he should be comin’ home soon and I wanna be there. Nothing seems broken and I’m not hurting so much anymore.”
“And…thanks…. And please, could we keep all this between us?”
Lily shrugged, “As long as you promise to come down here or call the police if he tries to hurt you again.”
“And one more thing. This building really isn’t that soundproof, you know. If it’s really bad and I hear you calling for help, or I hear you in any trouble at all overhead, I will not hesitate to call the police myself next time. Just so you know.” Lily sounded more self-assured than she felt.
“Well, okay, I guess.”
A caretaker has to take care of her tenants, you know,” Lily smiled, giving her a quick hug. “I am here for you.”
And they both went outside and around to the front of the building. For a fleeting moment, Lily worried that Mr. Dreschler’s prized vacuum cleaner might have been stolen and she’d have to replace it but found it on the landing just where she had abandoned it. With a sigh, Lily resumed her vacuuming and Sherl disappeared into the depths of Apartment 2.
~ * * * * * ~