Outside the halfway house, everyone is twitching.
Archive for August, 2009
He’s bald and old, but lively, and his shirt is sort of Whitman-like, collarless and open at the neck. He sat behind me on the long delayed flight home, and we exchanged a few words through the crack between the seats. Then, when we all stand up and cram into the aisle, eager for exit, he says, “Are you in school? I saw you have a lot of electronics.”
“No, that’s all for work.”
“What sort of work do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Go on,” he prods me, as if to say, that’s never the end of the story, I’m too old to let that one lie.
I point to my bag, to the electronics. “Work is advertising. But I write fiction too.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere. Me, I write with a quill,” he announces.
“You’re a writer too?”
“No, I’m a retired dentist.”
“Oh,” I say. It’s late, and I can’t find a following question.
He shakes his head. “Not really. Don’t believe a word I say.” We walk down the steps of the plane onto the tarmac and head for the waiting bus. Suddenly his old age shows, he’s nervous, the world has become too big, baffling. “Where are they taking us?”
“Back to Lexington,” I tell him, and instantly regret it. “No, not really. To the terminal.”
“You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?”
“Not about that,” I promise him, and we get on board.
Something rings.. “Is that me?” He starts patting down his pockets and pulls out a phone. He looks at it until the ringing stops. He shakes it at me. “This?” he says. “This is like something you would have.”
I’m in a small southern city and my flight’s delayed. There is one other person at security when I’m going through. The metal-detector handler asks me how I am today. I was better, I tell her, until I found out my flight was delayed two hours. The woman at the end of the conveyor belt overhears me while she’s bent over putting on her shoes. She straightens up. “You going to New York too?” She’s the age of a young grandmother, with thick cornrows and librarian glasses. Her shoulders are rounding down, gravity weighs heavier on her flesh than on mine.
“Yeah, New York. Are you going home or visiting?”
“Oh I’m from here,” she says, “a real little town.” We go our separate ways, but a couple hours later I meet again near the gate. Without realizing it I’ve settled into a seat across from her.
I’ve got some chocolate, what else can you do with three hours in a tiny airport? I get halfway through it and she looks up. “Whatcha got?”
“Chocolate,” I say, holding it up.
“You wanna share that?” she asks me. It’s a game, not a demand, the way a child might approach another child.
I get up and hand her the rest of it. “Here save me from eating it all.”
She takes the candy happily and says, “I always do that. I mean to eat a little and then whoosh! It’s gone.”
“Me too,” I tell her.
“Well, you’re young,” she admonishes. I can’t tell if she means that I don’t yet know any better, or that I can somehow handle excesses better than she can.
She sinks back into her airport paperback, squinting over the tops of her glasses and tracing small circles on the side of her thigh. After a while she gets up and walks over very slowly, with difficulty. “You know, I went to the health food store and got all these pecans and healthy business for the trip, but I’ve got a passion for chocolate. That was just right. I guess virtue doesn’t count as virtue if it only lasts until you get through security, hm?”
I know him and I don’t know him. When I moved here, he and his cousin used to sit in lawn chairs in front of the vacant lot, nodding out. They were lean and wolfish, even all slack in the creaking chairs. They were kind to me, protective when I passed by them on my way home late at night.
They both went away and only one came back: bowed, broken, swollen and aged. He is of the corner but doesn’t work there. He’s had his arm in a sling for a year now, and the other day I saw him pushing a roll of bills inside it, but he doesn’t have the sharp eyes of a lookout or the quick hands of a dealer’s boy, and he’s too old to be either. He’s fucked up too often to be part of the trade. But still, just like Dealer a few blocks away, he works the crowd on the corner and across the street in the courtyard of the projects like a street politician.
He asks me things. How’s my day, or where I’m going when I set off past the confines of his turf. There are things I want to ask him. Things like: what happened when you were gone that year, where is your cousin, what were you like before all this, why are you alone among the corner’s players such a gentleman, wanting nothing from me but a warm smile. There are things I want to ask him but I never do. There is some unspoken contract it would break. We’re neighbors. There are things it’s better not to know.