FICTION -- SPIRITS
By Michael Jesse
Turning away from his grandmother's house, Jack retraced his steps along the alley next to the theater and headed back to the Essex Club. He couldn't say exactly how much time went by between that first episode and the day his grandmother went into what his mother called the old folks' home. But during that time, he could remember days when Grandma cheerfully talked to Bertie the parakeet for hours at a time, and she seemed like an entirely different person. The Grandma he had always known rarely spoke unless something practical needed to be said, and she was never what one would describe as cheerful. Yet this other version of her rarely stopped talking except for pauses during which she seemed to be listening to Bertie holding up his side of the conversation. Although she spoke real words, the sentences she strung them into made no sense. Yet Johnny could tell from her tone and inflection that she was saying something quite clever that Bertie presumably appreciated.
Years later, when he was a senior in high school and his mother was dying of cancer, they would pass the time watching whatever old movie happened to be on TV. In one, a young Bette Davis played a socialite engaged in witty banter with a man at a ritzy dinner party, waving her cigarette around theatrically as she spoke. "Grandma talking to Bertie," his mother wheezed, and they both laughed. She gasped for breath and he had to help her put on her oxygen mask. He didn't know it yet, but it would be their last good day together.
Instead of going back inside the Essex, Jack walked around to the club's garage to get his car. He drove west of the downtown area into what used to be a factory workers' neighborhood, slowing as he passed West Fifth Street Elementary School. It still looked pretty much the same but the playground was different. Less asphalt and no monkey bars. In his day there had been both. In fact, the monkey bars were over asphalt so if you fell, you fell hard. He remembered a boy's bloody face after one such accident.
Jack himself had been a nimble climber and could go higher in trees than most other boys. That, unfortunately, had been the only playground skill at which he excelled. If it involved hitting, catching or kicking a ball, Jack had been terrible at it. Part of it, he realized later in life, had been the isolation of Grandma's house where he'd had no exposure to sports, and part of it had been his eyesight. He started first grade at age five -- the youngest in his class -- and was halfway through the year before his teacher realized he could not read the chalkboard. After a visit to the eye doctor, he had to wear an eye patch for a period of time because one of his eyes was "lazy" and tended to drift. Having an eye patch might have felt cool if it had been black instead of flesh-colored, and if he did not have to also wear glasses on top of it. The combination had only given the other boys something else to make fun of. At that particular moment, the teasing didn't hurt him much because he was so overwhelmed by the details that he could now see. He had assumed that things were supposed to be blurry when they were farther away. Being able to see so much of the world around him with such clarity was almost a religious experience. It was a gift unexpected, as if he'd woken up one day with a superpower.
A few more blocks along Fifth Street, Jack drove past a string of one-story duplexes that were all the same except for whatever superficial changes had been made to their exteriors over the years. Some had shutters or fences or additions, and of course they were painted different colors, but the floor plans were identical. When you open the front door, you see down a long hallway to the back door. He no longer remembered the exact address, but he knew that one of these skinny shotgun houses was where he and his mother moved when he was eight years old and starting the fourth grade.
To find that house, he was searching for another that he remembered being right across the street -- one of the few houses in the neighborhood that was distinctive. Red brick and two stories, Mrs. Marlowe's house towered above all others and had a second-floor front porch. Mrs. Marlowe was the landlady for several of the duplexes in the neighborhood and from her perch it was said that she kept a close eye on the behavior of her renters. She didn't approve of unmarried people having overnight guests of the opposite sex -- nor any Negro visitors regardless of gender or time of day -- and she was notorious for abruptly evicting tenants who violated her standards.
Jack drove around the block a second time before he realized Mrs. Marlowe's house was no longer there except for its foundation and some clusters of broken red brick. Across the street from the now empty lot he saw the street numbers 285 and 287. Yes, he remembered the addresses now -- they had lived for a time in in either side of that duplex. The hedges and rose trellis were gone, but otherwise it seemed about the same. He spotted the fire hydrant in front of the house next door that he'd banged into while learning to ride his bike (a year or more later than the other boys).
The alley next to their house went steeply downhill and a brick one-car garage had been dug into the hillside, its flat, concrete roof serving as a patio. The garage itself was rented by Mrs. Marlowe to a man who came around on weekends to work on an old sports car. He played baseball games on a transistor radio and occasionally made comments back to the radio suggesting the next play -- a bunt or stolen base attempt. Johnny liked to pretend it was his father working on the car, and that soon he would take a break and help Johnny learn to hit a ball.
His actual father was a shadow rarely spoken of. His mother only said he was "gone." He remembered Grandma saying he "went to the beer joints." Johnny knew what beer joints were because there was one on the corner and he saw men going in and out. He imagined how someone might get trapped or kidnapped while inside of one.
When he was older, his mother explained it more fully. "He was a good man at heart," he remembered her always saying. "He could make anyone laugh, and he would stop to help someone change a tire in the rain. But he drank and gambled and spent all his free time in bars. When he got paid on Fridays he'd waste half of his paycheck at some bar buying drinks for his buddies and betting on whatever game was on. He'd come home late with barely enough money left for us to get through the week. We'd argue for a few minutes, but then he'd pass out wherever he was -- on the davenport on the floor. That happened over and over again, Johnny, and I didn't want you to be exposed to it. I told him to go away and not come back unless he quit drinking, and I never saw him again. But Johnny . . . he was a good man at heart."
After Grandma was in the old folks' home talking to Bertie, there was no one to watch Johnny after school. But that was okay, his mother told him, because he was eight years old now and didn't need someone watching him every minute. She gave him his own key to the front door that fit in the little rubber change purse with the 35 cents he would need every day for lunch at the school cafeteria. Because some children who lived nearby walked home for lunch, the school didn't know who was supposed to stay. That presented an opportunity to Mickey Wymer, who was always on the lookout for opportunities. At his instigation, the two boys walked away from school on the lunch hour and went to the corner grocery store where their 35 cents purchased them each a can of Mountain Dew and a three-pack package of Hostess chocolate cupcakes. It was Mrs. Marlowe who brought an end to those adventures when she happened to go to the grocery one day at noon and spotted Johnny with his "hillbilly" friend. Johnny did not even notice her, but heard about it later from his mother.
"You know I care about Mickey," Johnny's mother explained, "and I sympathize that he has not had an easy childhood. But he's not always a positive influence on you, and at your age you are just not a very good judge of that." This was how his mother often spoke to him -- she was always very logical and rational and Johnny was as well so he accepted her pronouncements. After school Johnny was to come straight home -- alone. He was to lock the door, change from his school clothes into play clothes, and then he could make himself a snack and watch TV. There were only three channels and two of them had soap operas at that hour. The only other thing to watch was the Merv Griffin talk show and then the Match Game.
Although his mother encouraged him to play with the other boys of the neighborhood, Johnny did not do so. He wished he could be just barely good enough at sports to fit in. His glasses did help him see the ball better, but Johnny knew even then that the reason he was so bad at sports was not his eyes but his brain. There was something wrong with his brain -- he knew there was. He thought about things too much -- apparently way more than the other boys did. Points would be won or lost based on whether he hit, kicked or caught a ball at a very particular moment. There was simply no avoiding it. Maybe for other boys that pressure made them better -- more likely to hit the big home run when it really, really mattered. For Johnny, it was the reverse. The more important the moment, the more likely he would fail. When it was his turn to perform, he could think of nothing except the possibility -- the likelihood -- that he would fail. And so he did.
And some of the logistics of sports just seemed so impossible. Johnny considered it challenging enough to try to catch a ball thrown in his direction, but to have to hit it in mid-air with a bat? This seemed overly complicated, and yet other boys could do it. Sometimes Johnny tried to practice at it when he was alone. He would toss the ball up and try to hit it with the bat, but every time he would miss it and the ball would land on the grass at his feet. Some days he just gave up and went inside, but one afternoon he just kept trying and trying and failing and failing. After ten or twenty or one hundred futile attempts, he threw himself on the ground and cried into the dirt until he heard a voice coming from above, telling him it was okay. Rolling over, he squinted up into the sunshine, at the silhouette of an older boy who seemed to have materialized out of nowhere. The boy did not did not give his name, but just said, "c'mon, I'll help you."
The older boy led Johnny through the neighborhood, collecting other boys and their gloves and mitts, and then in someone's backyard they set up a defensive team with Johnny the only batter. Coached by his unnamed benefactor, Johnny tried his best to hit the ball -- and once or twice he did, but even those times it usually just rolled slowly to an infielder. Most of the time, he just missed it entirely. Johnny felt bad for the older boy, who was trying so hard to do a good deed. If it had been a movie, Johnny would have learned to hit a ball as music played and the credits rolled, but it didn't happen that way. The other boys grew impatient and his guardian angel began to lose his confidence. Declaring the lesson over for the day, the older boy promised they would work on it again soon and walked away with his friends. Johnny never saw him again.
In the other half of their duplex lived a woman named Mrs Wilson and her six-year-old daughter, Pam, who had blonde hair with bangs and an annoyed pout as her default expression. The two mothers became friends and chatted as they sat on their front porches smoking cigarettes and drinking highballs. His mother called Mrs. Wilson "Darlene," and Mrs. Wilson called his mother "Bessie," which was her name of course, but Johnny was not used to hearing it. It occurred to him that he had never heard Grandma say her own daughter's name.
When summer came, Johnny's mother didn't want him to be home alone all day so she arranged for him to stay at least part of the day at Mrs. Wilson's. She was home all day because her job was to call people on the telephone and talk to them about life insurance.
Johnny would rather have stayed home by himself but compared to his mother's other idea -- sending him to a day camp with other boys to play sports -- Johnny said he would rather go to Mrs. Wilson's house.
That meant playing with Pam, but Johnny didn't mind that too much. Though she was two years younger than him, Pam was bossy so they always had to play what she wanted. That was okay with Johnny because it was better than playing sports with the boys in the neighborhood. He had already noticed with envy that the games girls played were much less stressful because they did not involve the constant risk of failure.
Pam usually wanted to play with her stuffed animals or Barbies. Either way it involved acting out little scenes and doing the voices. Johnny did not mind doing that at all. He liked making up stories and pretending to be imaginary characters. Pam was always in charge of the game and would hand Johnny a stuffed animal and declare "do this one." Johnny's favorite animal was Black Bear who lived in a cave under the coffee table. He liked imagining what Black Bear's den would look like -- maybe he had lots of books and was smoking a pipe and reading in one of his leather chairs when Horsey (voiced by Pam) came down the road between the coffee table and the couch.
While Black Bear and Horsey were engaged in conversation, Johnny could also hear Mrs. Wilson making her business calls. Her voice sounded very different and she identified herself as "Mr. Smith's secretary, Beatrice" instead of Darlene. He wondered if there really was a Mr. Smith.
When Pam was in the mood to play Barbies, the rules were a little different. Although she had at least ten Barbie dolls -- all of them identical except for hair color -- Pam was not willing to let Johnny play any of them. Instead, she gave him her "Midge" doll and said, "you do this one." Intended to be Barbie's kid sister or younger friend, Midge was not as pretty or as grown-up-glamorous as Barbie. She had a flatter chest, reddish-brown hair that perkily turned up at the end and exactly five freckles on each cheek.
Johnny did not actually know it was a "Midge" doll because Pam's Barbies did not call her that. Usually they did not call her anything as they ordered her around, but sometimes they called her "Honey." Johnny did not mind acting out Honey's part, even though Pam's Barbies were just as bossy to Honey as Pam was to him. He was content to just play along because that meant he didn't have to decide anything.
However, it did annoy him that Pam was just as stingy with her Barbies' clothing. While Pam was constantly dressing and undressing three or four Barbies in the course of the story, Honey had no clothing at all except white plastic sneakers. In Pam's constant narration of the story, the various Barbies first had to get dressed to go to work, and then when they all came home together they had to change again. While Pam was engaged in these intricate wardrobe changes, Johnny was free to pretend that Honey was going off to work or school also, but that was challenging to imagine because she was naked. He tried pretending that she was actually clothed, but that was difficult to imagine. He also tried pretending that it was normal for her to go places naked, but that made him uncomfortable in a way that he could not quite identify. So usually he just had her staying home to clean and cook. When Pam's Barbies came home from work, they ordered Honey to fetch dresses, coats and scarves from Pam's Barbie box (but Honey was not allowed to try any of them on herself) and she had to fetch tea. That was okay because at least then Johnny had something to do in the story. He kind of liked being Honey because Honey never had to catch a ball or win a race. She didn't have to be the one who was picked last or the one whose failure to perform cost her team the game.
When school started, Johnny was allowed to go back to his old after-school routine, but two or three times a week he would get bored with Merv Griffin and go next door to play dolls with Pam.
But then one day he came home from school to find that Pam and her mother were gone. Johnny's mother told him the landlady put them out because they were behind on their rent. She said it was a shame what happened to them, but that the other unit had nice carpeting and better sunlight so they were going to move into it.
Johnny tagged along as his mother and Mrs. Marlowe walked through the nearly empty rooms. A few scattered items lay abandoned here and there, and among them was Honey. When Mrs. Marlowe and his mother stepped into another room, Johnny picked up the naked doll and hid it under his shirt.