Shame on those who, during their puberty, murdered the person they might have become.
– Jean Vigo, “Toward a Social Cinema.”
“I Stood Beside My Bike In Anger”
The door opened and the reek of cooked cabbage, cigarette smoke, and premature old age gushed out. She handed me the key without touching my hand, pulled her robe aside to show me her swollen, purple leg, and told me to go upstairs alone.
I was about to stick the key in the hole when I noticed a note jabbed over a nail at eye level.
Darla Fuck you
you are a Cunt
I don’t Ever Want to See You agin
I pulled the note off, folded it neatly and put it into my back pocket. I am a collector of messages meant for other people. Intimate letters are the best kind, found on sidewalks or in waste baskets. It was my third that year. I went inside.
The smell of vacancy and a layer of dust. The apartment hadn’t been lived in for a month maybe. A single bed by the ceiling, a blue ladder made out of two-by-fours leading up to it. In the next room, a rusty-legged 1950s-era Formica table with faded, ripped vinyl chairs. In the kitchen, pots and pans on plywood boards screwed into the wall. I opened a drawer, picked up a bent fork that had been stuck into a lot of rotten-toothed mouths over the years.
The orange couch sagged and I sprang up. I went into the bathroom. The stink of mold. Four inches of green water in the shower. Back in the living room I pulled the French window up from the floor and it gave no resistance. I stepped onto the balcony. I bent down and felt the rivets in the tin floor to make sure they were flush. A big leafy shade tree dappled the sun. I jumped up to look over the plywood partition that split the balcony in half. Nobody over there.
I jumped again. No furniture, nothing. Just a half-dead potted plant. Was it safe to think I had no neighbor? I smelled dying plants. A storm-cloud was about to burst. I leapt downstairs, taking three at a time.
A Camel dangled out of the corner of the caretaker lady’s decomposing mouth. When was the last time it had been kissed, and how drunk had the kisser been? I gave her forty dollars and signed a piece of paper. She breathed hard and asked no questions. I told her I would be back in thirty minutes with my stuff and the rest of the money. She didn’t shake my hand or touch me. I liked her.
On Magazine Street I felt refreshed. A pile of fresh dog shit made me change my stride. I unchained my bike, hopped on and pedaled toward the youth hostel. Rain began falling warmly. I was happy. I’d found my place. A dog leapt out, snarling and barking, but an iron gate kept him back a foot, so I told the dog to fuck off. He kept snarling and barking, so I straddled my bike like I was going to kick him in the face. The rain fell soft and lovely.
No one was at the front desk of the youth hostel. The big room I shared with ten men from Europe was empty, but still stank of ten men sharing a shower room and two toilets. I stuffed my things into my backpack and thought about what I might steal. I’d had a camera stolen from me in a youth hostel once.
The front desk phone rang, and was still ringing when I walked by the front desk. I waited. I wanted to say goodbye to the guy from Siberia who worked there. He was nice and easy to talk to. The phone rang until it stopped, then I went outside.
I rode unsteadily. Two boys in about sixth grade laughed and pointed at me. Did I look funny? The sun came out hot. The bushes steamed and gleamed. The same dog as before jumped out at me but this time I didn’t react.
My clothes were soaked from rain and sweat as I handed the caretaker lady the cash. $150 a month, couldn’t beat that. A little white dog appeared at her side. It yapped like a baby guard dog.
I said, “I didn’t know you had a dog.”
I said, “Does it bark?”
I said, “Does it bark a lot? The dog.”
Maybe it would have been different if I’d had a dog, but I didn’t.
“It depends on what you mean by a lot.”
She didn’t smile. I didn’t like her. I lugged my backpack up the stairs. I went back down for the bike. I shut the door behind me. Home was having a door to close and lock behind me. I took my clothes off and went out to the warm tin-floored balcony and had sex with myself. I am being frank. The sun dappled by the shade tree struck my face. I closed my eyes.
I opened my eyes and took a shower in the green water that came up to my ankles. I went back out to the balcony and sun-dried with no fear of being seen. The tops of people’s heads walking on the sidewalk were at an extreme angle. I went back into the apartment to look around. I climbed the blue ladder and lay down on the narrow bed. My ass pulsated wet into the mattress. The air was stifling. Who in god’s name had lofted a bed three feet from the ceiling in New Orleans?
It was only late March, but it was late in the afternoon. The bed sheet stank of stale pussy juice, sweat, and come. My asshole itched, like something small with a lot of legs had crawled up inside it. The sheet was gray, not white anymore. The bed was narrow. If I turned over, I would have fallen eight feet down to the floor.
“What kind of person writes a note, and punches it over a nail?”
“An angry man,” I answered myself.
“An angry, somewhat illiterate man.”
“Yes, he did spell ‘again’ ‘agin.’ But who are you to judge?”
“I am no one to judge.”
The guy had channeled his rage into a note and poked it through a nail, god bless him. It was better than punching Darla. I could never have written a note like that. I wasn’t able to project on that great a level. I blamed Colette for everything, but I also knew I was half to blame, so I restrained myself. I’d been raised to be nice, in a nice suburb of Milwaukee. I’d boarded an airplane with money in my pocket, and flown away, all so I wouldn’t poke a note through Colette’s nail.
The note jabber, though, was capable of projecting rage at incredibly close range. To his credit, though he’d turned his rage into writing. He’d even “posted” it. Then, like a man, he’d gone off to some local watering hole to cool off.
I was lying on Darla’s bed, my wet ass sweating into it. Would the note poker be back? Did he have a spare key? Was he on his way back right now? Would he storm in and stab me through the bottom of the bed with a butcher knife? I didn’t want to be a cripple. I climbed down the blue ladder and put my clothes on.
Darla was black, and the angry man was black. I presumed this because most of the neighborhood was black. I was white. The caretaker lady was white. The boys who had pointed and laughed at me were white and black. But being poor, whatever color you are, makes it probable that you have to stick around the neighborhood.
Darla took a bus to Baton Rouge to stay with her sister. It had to be done. I had to get her out of town. But where was there for him to go? I had him storm down into his brother’s basement, three blocks away, where he was begging himself to go back right now and give it to Darla good.
There would be a knock on the door any second. I would play possum. It would happen fast. The door would be kicked in. He would shout, “Who the fuck are you?” I would say, “I just moved in, I don’t know!” He would say, “Have you been fucking Darla?” I would say, “I don’t even know Darla!” Then there would be a moment of silence. Then we would both eye the kitchen, and race to the drawer to see who could get to the bent knives first.
I ran water in the bathroom sink for a long time but it didn’t get cold. I brushed my teeth. I paced the scuffed, warped wooden floor. Black people were complicated. They had complicated passions I didn’t understand. I didn’t know anything about black people. I went down to the lobby to look at the mailbox to see whose name was on it.
I knocked on the caretaker lady’s door to get my mailbox key. I could hear the television. She was playing possum. I hated people who played possum. I knocked harder. Nothing. I went and stood in the front door of the building. I thought of writing Colette a long detailed letter explaining how I was feeling about Darla.
I went back up to my balcony to look at the start of dusk. My problems weren’t behind me. I hadn’t outsmarted anything. But I’d escaped. It had taken me five days to find a place, and I’d found it. Things were different now.
I needed to take a nap, but I didn’t want to because I wanted to sleep later. I picked my bike up and carried it into the hallway. I listened in front of the other upstairs door. I held my breath and listened. I carried my bike downstairs. I listened at the door on the first floor across from the caretaker lady. Were we the only ones living there?
I was about to knock on her door and ask, “Are we the only ones living here?” but I didn’t. I pushed the bike outside, put my left foot in the stirrup, hopped on, swung my right leg over the tube, and rode off.