Right now I’m sober.
The telephone is on my desk. It is one of those phones with hands-free mute, call-forwarding, Meridian mail, conference call. I look at the keypad.
I still remember the number by heart. The only thing that’s different, they changed the area code. 718. Used to be 212. I know because I already tried to dial it. About 28 times.
I look at the keypad. The numbers turn into a ballet in front of my eyes. Or eye.
Did I tell you I only got one eye?
One window on the world.
I’m blind in the other. Born that way.
I tap the number out. 555-8316.
I don’t know why, it’s just there in my
brain, it’s just not a number I’ll ever forget. Not even after 17-odd years. Probably be with me in there till the day I die. Me lying on my deathbed, Kim’s mother’s number buzzing in my head.
I don’t say anything at first. I can’t. My tongue or mouth or whatever ain’t working.
Hello? Who’s this?
Birds … it’s me. It’s Joey.
She hang up. I call back. Birds.
Silence. Silence from her end now.
Birds? You there?
What do you want? Scathing. Ungiving.
I just got out, Birds.
Birds … I just … I just wanted to say …
There’s nothing you can say. I don’t want to talk to you.
I know you don’t. I know. I just … I just … I just wanted you to know. You know, I loved her, Birds. I didn’t mean to hurt her. I never meant to … hurt her … or kill her or nothing like that. I don’t even remember. I don’t even remember. I know that’s no excuse. I …
I could hear her breathing. I could feel her wanting to hang up again, yet she didn’t. There may have been some kind of softening. She just continued to breathe into the phone, waiting.
The truth be known, we liked each other. Even loved each other once. We had been close. Real close. She was always having Kim and me and the girls over for dinner. She always wanted to make what I liked. Pot roast and mashed potatoes and green peas was my favorite. Plenty of white bread with butter. Iced tea. I could always make her laugh. We sat around the kitchen table there in Brooklyn, laughing and laughing.
I always helped with the dishes afterward. Plenty of Sunday afternoons, sitting in the kitchen, laughing, watching Birds and Kim baking apple pies. The girls playing on the floor. All of us cracking up, giggling. Those were the good times.
What do you want, Joey?
I was looking for the girls. I just got out of prison and I wanted to see them. I don’t want to get back in their lives or nothing. I don’t want to cause them no pain. Nothing like that. I thought I could just look at them. I don’t want to cause them no pain. I don’t want to come between you guys.
You can’t come between us, Joey. The girls have their own lives now. If they want to see you, I can’t stop them. They have minds of their own, but they love me. I’m their nana and they come up with me, I brought them up, and I held them, and I reassured them when they were feeling bad, and they’re young women now, so I guess if you give me your number I’ll tell them you called, and if they want to call you and speak with you, they can. That’s all I can do. I won’t do no more.
You go on a journey in your head and you have to have confidence where you go and it is the hardest damn thing in the world to make that leap and to hope against hope that there actually something there. Some destination.
Joey is a lost soul.
If you want to know the truth, Kim was light, bright, and almost white.
He met her when she was 18 and he was 20. He was a busboy at the old South Street fish house Sweets, at number 2 Fulton Street. He was the first white busboy they ever had.
Local 1, the waiters’ union, was told to break the color line. Joey’s father, who was a waiter and a union activist, brought him down when he heard there was a job open. He thought it would be good for Joey.
He pointed out a battered blue door on a shabby street. He said, In d’ere. Joey walked across the smelly street where his father pointed, through the mud and dirt and stinking fish.
In those days Sweets was run by a woman named Anna Pond. Her father had started at Sweets in 1847 when it first opened. He was a water boy. His job was to run down to the street, fill a pitcher at the public pump, run back upstairs, and fill all the glasses of all the diners.
Eventually the water boy took over the joint, bought it outright.
Maybe Joey’s father hoped the same for Joey.
Anna Pond was 90 years old when Joey met her, when Joey walked in the door, climbed the steps. She worked harder than anybody in the joint, never stopped bustling around the floor.
She liked Joey right off the bat. Women were always liking Joey, taking him under their wing.
Anna Pond was no different.
She told Joey he might have a white skin, but he had a colored spirit.
One day toward the end of the lunch hour a group of photographers and models came upstairs. They’d been shooting a print ad at the fish market across South Street. Kimba was with them, one of the models.
She was shy, thin as a rail.
Her teeth were buck.
Her forehead high.
Her eyes were brown, so was her skin.
Joey couldn’t keep his eyes off of her.
The photographers took to Joey.
Everybody took to Joey. Joey joked with them and kidded. Joey talked jive. Joey told the cooks to give their party the freshest fish, nothing but the best. In return before they left, one of the photographer reps took Joey aside, gave Joey a ticket to see Ike and Tina at the old Village East Theater. When he went there Kimba was in the seat next to him.
She said, Hi, don’t I know you?
Joey, Joey, Joey.
Joey made a terrible mistake.
Joey made a terrible mistake with Kimba.
The mistake, of course, was that he killed her, but the first mistake was that he married her.
In the old neighborhood, Joey heard this story. He knew it was true. It was about a guy who was doomed. He had gone to the doctor and the doctor had said, You’re dead. He said, I seen a lot of people, but I never seen nobody abused their body like you. The guy was young, but he was a druggie, much self-abused, and the doc said he had the internal organs of an 80-year-old.
There was these two brothers over on Ninth Street the doomed guy owed pay-back. He knew they were there, running at the mouth, saying how they fucked his old lady, how they had had her, and she was there for the having.
He went over to see them.
He said, Kev, Matt, you guys, you know, I’m gonna pay the price for what I done, for the life I led. They said, Yeah, Joey, waiting for him to get to the point. He said, I been into it, and I don’t have no regrets, but I don’t want to leave the life like that, don’t want to leave the street, all loose ends, hard feelings. Understand? I want us to get over it, go out, you know, like friends, like the old pals we are, have us a time, bros.
So he the man and he go over to Seventh between B and C, his haunt, his treat, you know, where they chant C and D, coke and dope, hear the call, Feo, bajando, you know, and he cop, and he stop and he get a little battery acid he scraped off the battery of an abandoned car, hood sprung, its battery just there atilt, hanging down, leaking, and he mix that shit with the C and D, cut it into the coke and dope, and he go back to their crib, this Kev and Matt, these brothers think they’re so wise, and they get off, man, they get off, and they feel the rush of the coke and the sweet hit of the dope, and then the acid hits them, and he laugh, this man, this guy, this Joey, who may not be Joey, he laugh, them getting all foamy, foamy in the mouth, you see what I’m saying, foamy, foamy.
Kev die right there on the spot in front of him, Joey pointing his finger at him, sucker, that’s what you get for messing with me, but Matt chase him down the stairs, out to the street, and die there, right on the sidewalk, his head lying over the curb, over a pile of dog shit, someone didn’t clean up after his dog.
Joey don’t know what got into him. What he did or why.
He loved his wife. He loved her. But sometimes things get out of hand. Sometimes things just go and go.
Sometime Joey feel the violence in his life is the norm, not the aberration.
Sometime he feel life itself is the aberration. There is no norm. Did Joey say that to you already?
His wife didn’t know.
Kimba didn’t know.
Kimba never knew what she was messing with.
He was playing at love and so was she.
They was too young.
They loved each other, but they weren’t equipped.
Men were on her.
She couldn’t walk the street without being hit upon, he couldn’t walk the street without smelling dope.
They had the two daughters and they loved them, but they didn’t know.
Birdie tried to help. Joey’s parents tried to help, but they were spinning. They were spinning and spinning.
Did Joey tell you he read her journal?
When she wasn’t home, when she wasn’t looking, when she was probably out fucking, he fought the impulse, but he couldn’t resist and he sneaked it out from her closet, from her shelf, from under her underwear, and he read what she wrote. And what she wrote was not about him, but about fucking a guy with a freckle on his dick, who liked to put his finger up her ass, and it just drove him crazy. It drove him wild.
Did Joey tell you that?
Did Joey tell you how reading shit like that drive him crazy and how he couldn’t control himself?
Did Joey tell you he went over there where the man with the freckle dick had an apartment on Tenth Street? Did he tell you first he had gone to his parents’ apartment, got his father’s gun he brought back from the Second World War out of his closet? Did Joey tell you he took the gun, smashed the ground-floor window with the butt, climbed inside the apartment, through the window? Did Joey tell you he pistol-whipped the boyfriend, made him cry, beg for his life on the floor, and shot Kimba? Did Joey tell you that?