We had to wait. Someone would come for their own mail soon, surely, and who would object to walking a strange smelly man back to his home? Or Lucy would come and, when not met by me (she has a key to my place, of course—if I trust her with my heart, why not with my TV and booze?), would almost without question eventually probably come looking for and find me. And how would she find me? Lying against the wall limp and fragrant as a used condom. How enticing.
“Madness,” I said in the dog’s mud-flap ear. “Sheer madness. It’s a suicide mission. We’ll never make it back alive,” and he turned and licked my face like the breeze at low tide. I closed my eyes and sighed. I shook my head. Then I put my palms against the wall and began to stand up.
Heat, heat and light. I was on the ground with the sun in my face, so all I saw at first was a shadow and I thought of my phantom and quivered. Then I felt the shadow’s sneaker nudge my shoulder and then the shadow said, “You drunk?” and I laughed and said, “If only.”
I made it all the way to the corner just leaning against the building, and I felt good, strong, excited somehow, the promise of Lucy radiating through my legs (they were not at all rubbery, not even a bit) and I leaned against the corner of the building and looked at the street before me and thought, I can do this, I can actually do this, and believed it. There was no traffic; I just had to go slow. This could really work. My body was a boat, a steamship, mine to command, my first mate drooling at the ready. I took a breath and exhaled and stepped away from the building strong, sure, solid as a boulder rolling, inhaled and exhaled again, stepped, stumbled, recovered, smiled at the dog and collapsed right there, landed face-first on the sidewalk.
The dog nosed me in my ribs, his snout a lever (he is well-trained) and I spat out a chip of something hard, pebble or tooth, and tongued my split lip and said, “Thanks, yes. Good creature,” and rolled onto my side and lay there God knows how long.
“How come you on the ground, then?” the shadow said and squatted before me, a boy suddenly, the boy from before, dark cap of lamb’s-wool hair shaved close to his skull. “Somebody fuck you up?”
“Not recently,” I said and sat up. My vision heat-waved a moment and settled. The dog wiggled toward the boy, wagging, and the boy looked to me in question.
“He’s friendly,” I said. “Knock yourself out.”
The boy enfolded the dog in his arms and they made a picture, I’ll say. “What’s his name?” the boy said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “He never told me. Your name’s Germaine, isn’t it?”
He nodded. If he wondered how I knew, he didn’t show it. “What’s wrong with you?” he said.
“I’m clumsy.” The dog wiggled from the boy to me and back again.
“Your lip busted.”
“I suspected as much,” I said. I tilted my head from side to side, front to back, my neck stiff.
“I always see you,” Germaine said. “You stay in C building.” He pointed and I nodded. “You ain’t supposed to have pets.”
“I’m an exception,” I said. “He’s a service creature. Germaine, are you the one who took my chair and my check?”
“Chair, yeah. Don’t know nothin’ about a check,” he said, looking not at me but the dog, petting it fast to make the fur crackle and rise. “What kind of dog is this?”
“Miscellaneous,” I said. “Why did you take my chair?”
“You was passed out,” he said. “I thought maybe when you sobered up you ain’t want to go riding around in a desk chair no more. You look an ass.”
“You give me too much credit.”
“I ain’t steal it,” he said sharply. “I put it back next to your house. I’m trying to make this a nice place.”
“That’s noble of you.”
He snorted. “You shouldn’t drink so much. It’s a curse. You sober now?”
“Stone,” I said. “Germaine, you seem smart.”
“I’m told this is a Wednesday. Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“Yeah,” he said. “But I ain’t.” He smiled at me for the first time and I felt good, happy to take credit for it. “I can’t be on the street anyway. Five O come trolling, always tryin’ to hang some shit on me.”
“Are you a wanted man?”
“Man, they called me up to the office ’cause they think I’m the one tagged the portables, but I never,” he said. “I saw that cop from down the hall and I just ran. I got to find a place to hide out until my mom goes to work. She sees me out of school, that’s my ass.”
“Your mother sounds firm but fair.”
“She’ll beat me raw,” he said. “That’s probably what’s wrong with you, somebody ain’t beat you enough.” The dog licked his mouth and he sputtered.
“Germaine,” I said as he wiped the back of his hand against his mouth repeatedly. “Could I prevail upon you for a favor before you go?”
“Can you go get my chair for me?”
“What for? You got legs,” he said, and he’s right, I do, and I’ve accepted their limitations (I have, goddamn it) and those of the rest of my body (which are many). I’ve heard any number of snickers and jokes and made for myself even more, but because he was young and spoke without malice I was blindsided and suddenly hoarse, ashamed.
“Please,” I said. “I need it. You can keep the check——”
He stood up, angry, and I’ll admit it: I flinched. “Man, I told you I ain’t know nothing about no check,” he said. “You calling me a liar and a thief, too.”
“I didn’t say that——”
“You lay around here drunk, nobody say nothing,” he said. The dog looked up at him and he patted his head. “I show up,” he went on, quieter, “everybody act like I did something. Wonder why.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, and meant it.
“You want your damn chair then go get it.” He had the dog’s leash in his hand and I realized he could just leave if he wanted, just up and walk off with my own goddamn dog (my only recourse a whistle) and then he did just that, and I was alone.
I used to bench 275. An impressive number, especially to the ladies.
I was what the city called a trades helper and the guys in my shop called a flunky. We went out on calls fixing streetlights, patching holes. It’s hard work but good money, get to be outside, get time to read or crack jokes or just goof off. It was everything I wanted. I was good at it, too, put up a pole or bust out a 12-foot trench like that. I was a monster! When I got sick, nobody could believe it, least of all me.
I dropped my head. Lucy, you’d never doubt me. I could have thrown you over my shoulder like a scarf. I could have thrown Germaine in a Dumpster. I hated him briefly, then let it go. If I saw a bum like me lying on the ground, I’d probably steal his dog too. How would a guy as weak as me be able to take care of a dog anyway? How would a guy as weak as me take care of anyone?
“Hey,” Germaine said, and I looked up. He crouched beside me, dog at his heels. “We back. I was just playing.”
“Hey,” he said again. “You messed up, huh?” and I nodded, too low to be clever.
“Can you stand up?” he asked. “Walk at all? I’ll take you back to your house. We can go right now,” and he stood up and over me, suddenly giant, sun behind him blazing, a crown of fire.
We made it across the street easily, my hand on his shoulder, the dog trotting nimbly in the cool of our arching shadow. “Thank you for being tall,” I said.
“That’s how we do,” he said. “Thanks for being skinny.”
“That’s a relatively recent development.”
“See?” he pointed and I saw the chair against its pole, just like always. He walked me all the way to my door.
“I was wrong to ever doubt you,” I said. “I owe you one. You lift weights? Come in for a drink.”
He side-eyed me. “I ain’t like that,” he said, my smart boy, and I smiled.
“Me neither. I’m married.”
“Don’t mean nothing.”
“I love my wife,” I said, and he could see by my face it was true. He considered. “What you got to drink?” he said.
“Mr. Pibb and some Sprite, I think.”
He laughed. “I know you got more than that.”
“You like cinnamon?”
He nodded. “You got cable?”
“I do. And I got something to give you if you can use it.” The dog danced between us, flagrantly fragrant. “You may want to Febreze it first,” I said.
“How about me?” The rumble of drums! “Can I get a Mr. Pibb?”
Oh dear. My phantom.
He emerged from behind the shadowed pole. “Peter Simon?” he said. “You dropped this. I was just coming to return it.” The check! I took the envelope from him like thin folded grace, too stunned to mention his lie. Because I never would have dropped it, not in a million years.
“Germaine Cousins?” he said. “Could you come with me, please?”
It seems such a long time since I was young. When Germaine said the school sent police to find truants, I’d assumed he was joking or, at the least, that police sent for children would be different, cuddly, cartoonish, smiling, in spangled uniforms like some odd breed of G-rated strippers. But now that I could see his face I could see this cop was just a regular cop and so I employed (as best I could) my regular cop stare-down, part intimidation and part weariness and a spoonful of sympathy—We are men who’ve seen trouble, you and I, brothers—and said, “I’m sorry,” my hand on Germaine’s shoulder squeezing. “You’re mistaken. This is my son.”
The cop had a picture and he made a show of looking at it and looking at Germaine and looking at me and looking at the picture again.
“Recessive genes,” I said and waved a hand slowly in front of him. “This is not the boy you’re looking for.”
“I look more like my mom,” Germaine said, accent polished to please.
“Officer Creature, my son is ill,” I said. “And I am ill. Please, we must rest.”
“I have orders,” he said. “Sorry.” And truly he did seem to be! He had the same water-blue eyes as my creature, and he turned them big and wet upon me. Could he be swayed? Could we be saved?
“We are nothing to you. A man and his boy.”
“I’d like to believe you, sir,” he said.
“Give me one good reason.”
“Oh, come on,” I said. “If you’ll just give me a chance to get my wallet, my friend Mr. Lincoln will give you five.”
“Dad,” Germaine said. “It’s over. I don’t mind. I’ll go.”
My front door opened. “Go where?” Lucy said. “I made lunch,” and curled an arm around my waist. I swooned, laid my head on her shoulder. Germaine gasped.
To have seen her that day as he did! To witness, when all hope was lost, your salvation arrive in fishnets and pink leather, to stand glowing in the doorway with cinnamon schnapps, with hot dogs aboil on the stove. Lucy, beloved, my faith never wavered.
“Mom,” Germaine said, and his voice was a bird singing. “Mom, I’m so glad that you’re home.”