There was blue dye in the sink and on the wall. The stains were seeped into the porcelain, not getting lighter, and the Bon Ami was useless. The room was hot. Sweat ran down the back of my neck.
I said, "What is it?"
She said, "I don't know. But you don't want to shake it. It'll explode. I got it from Sonny. Sonny does odd jobs." She held the jar as far out in front of herself as she could, taking slow steps.
I hadn't met Sonny yet, didn't know that his apartment opened onto the same patch of roof as mine and Tracy's, that we'd share the roof as a porch between us. That was the first time I'd heard Sonny's name.
I didn't want to touch the jar if it could explode. I said, "Like, what kind of odd jobs?"
She said, "Plumbing. Whatever." She held the jar out.
I took the jar. The sides of the jar were hot, either from Tracy's hands or the liquid inside. I was afraid to move. I barely bent and put the jar square in the middle of the flat windowsill.
She said, "It's all yours. If you need more help, I'm across the roof." She pointed out my window to one of the two other sets of windows that opened onto the same patch of roof.
That's when I saw a person sitting on the edge of the roof. I saw curly brown hair and a blue dress. It was the man who was more of a boy from the church lawn.
Tracy leaned out my open window, past the jar, the rocking chemical, with one palm on the ledge. She said, "Hey, Joan."
He turned. His face was round, his eyes wide. He looked scared, but he wasn't running.
Tracy tapped a cigarette from a pack she'd pulled from the waistband of her shorts. She lit the cigarette, then held it out toward the boy. He stood and walked on the patch of roof, on the sun-hot tar. He brushed dirt from the back of his too-short dress and leaned to take the cigarette without walking all the way over. He nodded in a quick, ducking way. Beneath the dress his legs were hairy and scarred in a pattern of darker pink slashes. His white socks were gray with dirt, and one of his shoes was split in the back where the sole met the leather.
He said, "There's bones in the garden."
Tracy said, "Honey, there aren't any bones in the garden. We're lucky if we get anything in that little garden plot there." She lit a second cigarette for herself. To me, she said, "I wouldn't smoke around that chemical either, but I have been." Exhaling, talking louder to the boy, she said, "Go on, you can't stay here. You know that."
I lifted the jar, moving the chemical away from the cigarettes. I put the jar on the floor.
The boy nodded, that quick ducking move. "Down with the bones?"
Tracy said, "Go on," and he left down the fire escape.
Tracy slid down the wall, sat on the floor, her burning cigarette again too close to the jar. She said, "They go all the way to the ground," meaning the fire escapes. "Not the best, but we'd be condemned without 'em. It's a fire trap."
I was moving the jar chemical. She said, "There aren't any bones. He always says that. Who knows?"
Instead of putting the jar in the closet, I moved sideways, sat the chemical out the window, on the roof in a small patch of shade made by the overhang. I said, "His name's Joan?" She said, "He likes to be called Joan of Arc.
"It's harmless," she said, "He gives Sonny the creeps, I don't know why. I tell Sonny, we're all innocent as babes in the eyes of our Lord as long as our hearts are pure."
I couldn't keep scrubbing the sink with Tracy there, afraid she'd want to use that chemical I wouldn't touch at all. I ran water in the sink, rinsing the Bon Ami. I soaked a towel to run as a makeshift mop over the dusty floors, and said, "Joan of Arc wore men's clothes. It's the opposite."
Tracy said, "Whatever. It's his life." She flicked her cigarette out the window, where it caught on the edge of the roof and lay smoldering.
I'd come to learn too late that Sonny was his own small, explosive chemical combination, a daydreaming history of accidents, misguided plans, and self-mutilation. I met Sonny, of the chemical cleanser, in the middle of that night, still my first night in the building.
I slept through the afternoon on the quilt on the floor, in the heat of the sun that came in the windows. When I woke up the room was dark and full of compressed heat, the whole day collected there. I didn't have a watch or a clock or a phone of my own. I had no idea of the time. I straightened my hair with my fingers and brushed off the dress I'd slept in--my lucky dress doubling as a nightgown and still feeling fine, heavy and silky in its nylon knit, only touching my skin where it happened to fall against it, with no waist at all. I opened my door and could hear voices, a party going on, but didn't see anyone right off. I didn't want to see anyone.
I walked to the second-floor landing and looked down the stairwell to the lobby. The lobby was close to empty, with only one person passing through. I could smell sage or pot or both burning, smoke drifting up. The last thing I wanted was to walk through a crowd, cut through a party of people I now lived with but didn't know.
Before I even got to the front door, still halfway down the stairs and too late to turn back, I saw that the door was propped open. I saw the orange glow of cigarettes, heard voices now louder; the party was on the porch. There were dishes stacked on the porch floor just outside the door, the dishes rattled down the steps. A woman with a beer in her hand caught one bowl rolling. I said, "Sorry," and kept going. I was almost down the stairs when I didn't fall but tripped again, and had to catch the railing. This time, when I turned, it was Tracy, her foot out, a beer in one hand and cigarette in the other.
She said, "Lindeen, my bonne amie."
I said, "Hey, Tracy," to show I remembered her name, and kept walking.
She said, "What's your hurry--meeting your dealer?" She stood up, walked beside me. She said, "You want a beer?" and offered me hers, already half empty.
I said, "Isn't that illegal?"
She said, "What?"
I said, "Drinking and walking, public intoxication."
She laughed and said, "If it is, it's low on anybody's list." Then, "Where you going so fast at midnight?"
I slowed down, pointed to the store up ahead, the yellow-and-red flickering of "Shop Demetrios, Deli and Market." Beyond the store, there were taverns.
The night was warm and clear, with stars visible beyond the streetlights. Tracy walked beside me, pouring the dregs of her beer in the bushes. Night air against my skin, the smell of smoke coming from a closed, split-drum barbecue and the color of the sky--each sensual detail created a new retrieval cue. These would be what I'd remember, and what would later, in turn, lead me to remember my first night in the building. In the future, when I'd walk in soft and similar night air, I'd think of myself as having been hopeful in a shortsighted way. The thalamus sorting sensory detail on the way to the brain.
My goal in the new apartment was to move with the conscious choice of absorbing every molecule necessary--texture and scent and love and sex and smoke and Valium and cat piss and whatever would feed the part of me that most needed nourishing. The whole aim was sustenance. There's a way of going through the world without taking in the energy you need from what you have, and going out for drinks is as nourishing as vitamins when the company's good enough to kick in the right combination of pleasure chemicals in the brain.
Tracy said, "So what's your story--bankrupt? On the lam?"
She still wanted to know why I was moving in. I said, "I told you I'm okay for money." I felt my roll of cash in the dress' deep, round pocket.
She said, "If it's not money, it's love. So, what happened with the man?"
I had to laugh--how could I say she wasn't right? I said, "It wasn't working out."
She said, "I knew it. He's cheating on you?"
I shook my head no.
She said, "Well, doesn't look like he beat you. You're walking and breathing and talking just fine. You got all your teeth."
I said, "Yeah, no, it wasn't anything like that."
She pointed to a tavern, just past the market, and said, "Drink? I'll buy."
I said, "That's all right." I was aiming for something more like a box of cereal. I hadn't eaten since early morning.
She said, "Have a drink with me."
I said, "I look terrible."
She pulled me toward the door, went on inside with me behind her. She said, "You're the best-looking thing here, guaranteed."
The tavern was dark, with a few chairs and tables scattered loosely. Most of the drinkers were up at the bar, men who looked older than they probably were. I followed Tracy to a table in the corner. Tracy tipped her head at the bartender's nod, and without us even ordering, he brought over a pitcher of beer and two glasses.
He said, "Tab?" and Tracy nodded again. After the bartender left, Tracy said, "You got a lot of stuff to move in?" I said, "Just about nothing, really." She tapped her fingers against her glass, and the tapping was the harried, unstable sound of a rhythmic rain. She said, "That's good. You're three flights up." She was still tapping. She said, "So what happened with this guy? You left in a hurry. If it wasn't sex or violence, you pregnant?" I laughed and said, "What are you, a detective?" She said, "I'm interested. And I know how the world works. I like to check my instincts against the facts." She said, "But I don't think you're pregnant. You don't seem like the type to drink pregnant." She said, "I might drink pregnant--I'm weak that way-- But you, I doubt it." I said, "No. I wouldn't drink if I was pregnant." Then I told her. I said, "I thought I was pregnant, for most of a month."
She said, "But you weren't?" I said, "No. I almost wish I was, though. I half liked the idea." She slid her elbow down the table, leaning low. She looked up at me from under her too-long bangs and said, "Was it hard to leave him?" This question I should've recognized as an easy effort to gain my confidence, a quick intimacy. Instead, I only said, "Of course." The Portuguese have a word, saudade, that means to miss something, but to live with the feeling of missing it, hurt and comforted at the same time by the recollection. In Portuguese, this combination of pain and pleasure and remembrance is the most romantic word there is.
My idea was to translate Matt into history, into saudade, a nourishing and marginalized memory. When the bartender came by again, with me still on my first glass and half a pitcher on the table, Tracy slapped her hands on her thighs, on the pocketless boxers she was wearing as shorts. She said, "Shit. I forgot my purse." She said, "Gus, can I keep this tab running? One day only, I promise." He said, "No problem." I said, "I'll get it." I took the roll of dollars out of my dress pocket and held the money low, under the edge of the table, to count out a few ones.
Tracy stood up. She said, "You're a jewel. I owe you, for the beer." I should've realized the first night that Tracy watched money too closely--she was watching me too closely--but I didn't realize it, not then or anytime soon. I had to pull the dollars out again when we stopped at the market for my groceries. I tried to peel a bill off inside my pocket, but the first one was only a single dollar.
The second was a 50, and then I dropped a 10 out the side by accident. Tracy picked up the 10, handed it back, and said, "Geez, girl--we need to get you a money clip." Outside the market, she said, "What'd you do, clean out an account?" I lied--it was a worthless lie, but I didn't need Tracy to know I had all my money on me. I said, "paycheck" instead, like it made a difference. My paychecks and my checking account were about the same, on a good day and early in the pay period. We hadn't stayed in the tavern long, and then were in the market only long enough to find a box of cereal and a carton of milk. It took minutes to walk the few blocks back, but I would've passed our building if Tracy hadn't grabbed my arm, told me we were home, standing already at the foot of the porch stairs. I didn't recognize the building. The porch was empty and dark. The lights were off. The brick that had been holding the front door open was kicked aside, the door closed. I heard bottles rattling against a shopping cart being pushed over the hard sidewalk from some where around the corner. Tracy looked at me, and said, "Keys?"I had one key, to my apartment. I pulled out the one key, and Tracy said,
"Where's the other?" I said, "You only gave me the one." There was nothing for the front door.
She said, "I give everybody two. I'm sure you've got two." She said, "Why would you take only one?"
I only had the one for my apartment. I hadn't thought about it when she gave the key to me, was worried at the time instead about eating half the crust of bread she'd offered. I said, "Where is everybody?" It didn't seem a party could disappear so quickly, like a ghost of a party, a hallucination.
Tracy said, "You think those people live on the porch?"
I said, "What about your keys?" She was the manager.
She said, "I wasn't the one taking a walk."
Tracy rang a buzzer, and nobody answered. The stars were visible overhead, now even more than before, and the night was warm, but I had a terrible moment's dread at the thought of sleeping again in the back of my Checker, this time sharing the space with Tracy.
She rang a second buzzer, and we stood waiting. She leaned against the railing and said, "It'll take Sonny forever."
What we got was a man who looked divided, like two men in one. Half his face was shifted and scarred. He came limping down the flight of stairs, one foot in an unraveling cast, a heavy wrap of bandages. His hair was thick and stood up in peaks. One arm was marked with a pink stain, something between a birthmark or a chemical burn. I watched him hobble through the lit lobby to the door.
He opened the front door and he stood in our way, rubbing the better side of his face where his skin wasn't stretched under the lines of scars.
I said, "Hi," and he nodded. His eyebrow on the scarred side of his face hung longer than the other, and was streaked with gray. His eyes were set unevenly.
Tracy said, "My resistolero, many thanks," and ran a hand over the man's brushy hair. She pushed her way past.
He said, "Who's your friend?"
Tracy said, "Sonny, meet Lindeen," and she kept walking, up the lobby's stairs.
I said, "I just moved in today."
One side of Sonny was tanned and supple, his skin tight over his bones. On the other side the tan blended with pink and paler scars. His eyes seemed even more of a pale blue because of his tan and a streak of white paint on his face. When Sonny shook my hand, he looked me in the eyes. His calloused hand was as speckled with paint as the wood on my new apartment's floor. Then he let go of my hand. He was still looking at me. He moved out of my way. He nodded again, and said, "Be careful. It's not the best neighborhood," and he coughed.
In the lobby there was a thin hint of the smoke, the sage and pot, that had been burning, the only sign of the party that otherwise cleared. I didn't turn around as I climbed the stairs, but I could hear Sonny limp-ing up the three flights, all the time getting further back.