Amy quit smoking crack and now sleeps on an army cot using a burial shroud for a blanket. I wasn’t sure where the thing came from. There was a funeral parlor below the apartment we live in now and it went out of business; a janitor found it and she asked if she could have it.
I just sit around an old card table chain-smoking.
“Did you ever read ‘The Lottery'”, she asks me one day.
I shook my head no.
“This girl wrote it, back in the 1940s”, she says. “Shirley Jackson. It’s a short story; shocking for its time”.
“No, I haven’t read it”, I say.
Amy has, among other things, a bachelor’s degree in Literature from Vassar. She was lucky to get off crack. Who knows how long it took; but she was still turning tricks. Even now, near 40, you’d see her on the corner or outside the liquor store in high heels. There were a lot of them in the area; all ages, all colors, all races. Men would pull up in their cars, negotiate a price, the girl would get in and they’d drive off. They didn’t have to go very far. A side street, usually; off the main drag.
I’d see this happening when I went outside to smoke. I was propositioned a few times. Then they figured out that I was shacked up with Amy and they’d left me alone. No tension, no hostility; many of the girls were quite kind; once in a while I’d let them bum a cigarette off me.
The truth was, I had no place to be. I’d been in the military, did 20 years, and qualified for a monthly pension. That’s basically what I live off. It wasn’t much; paid for electric and gas; meals at McD’s and my Marlboro habit.
Amy keeps a photo, a black-and-white photo of herself at about 30; with a man and two young girls; they are at a beach somewhere, smiling out from a blanket. I may ask her anything and she will give me an answer, but I’m forbidden to ask why she left.
“What’s the lottery story about”, I say.
“Why does everyone”, she says, “whenever you mention or discuss an important literary work, have to ask this pointless question: what’s it about”.
“Maybe because I haven’t read it”, I say.
“Well, you should. It sold out every copy of The New Yorker when it was published”.
She keeps a dog-eared paperback in which is kept the family photo. When she’s out, I only touch the book so I can look at the photo of the beautiful, happy family. I have my own theories about her but I don’t explore too deeply.
She’d scribbled notes in the margins of the book:
‘boarding a bus, New Haven; 845AM‘;
‘period started; Tues. Oct 4th‘.
She’s never once told me that she loves me.
We live in an abandoned apartment building. For some reason, the services stay on. No one knew for how much longer. I pay our bills anyway, from my credit union. We weren’t the only squatters and there was no security; if you wanted to break in and kill us, it wouldn’t take much. Sometimes when I wake up I find the door ajar.
The years had rolled by after I was discharged. I’d been checked into hospitals here and there; high BAC. “Any higher, you wouldn’t be breathing”, a nurse once told me. I stayed dry after that. Going on eight years. But I don’t try to work anymore. And I’m okay with this life I live now, and with looking after Amy.
We scrounge stuff here and there; the scruffy card table; Amy’s cot; some lawn chairs with frayed fabric and bent aluminum legs that no longer fold properly. A worn out sofa that was once powder blue, now sun-laden with yellow foam peering out here and there. We’d dragged it down from the 4th floor where it’d been left. That’s what I sleep on. God knows, there’s no point to try and rob the place.
Amy samples cuisine in the local 7-Eleven, and a bodega three blocks away; her favorite is a rice dish from a Caribbean kitchen somewhere in the area. I’ve never been to it. When I feel like it, I just walk to McDonald’s, and get a coffee and an apple pie. The walk can be risky. A man was knifed outside the YMCA building in broad daylight.
She is explaining the story to me.
“So, there’s this quaint village, and they–actually the whole country–have this annual ritual: they have to select someone by drawing lots. The person that gets selected is eventually stoned to death by the townspeople themselves. Even the family members participate in the stoning”.
“Sounds kind of brutal”, I say.
“Yes, yes, it is brutal; but the brutality is only part of it. There’s a poignancy to it. Like, the woman who eventually gets selected. She’s the mother of a boy and girl. The girl is in high school. So after this family gets selected, and they have to narrow it down to which family member is chosen for execution, the girlfriends are heard whispering: oh, I hope it’s not Nancy”.
“Is it supposed to be some sort of Darwinian selection theory”, I say, not knowing what else to say.
“No; no, I don’t think so”, she answers, “but you may have a point. Since here we are, the two of us; and we somehow selected each other; and we both have a brutal life, in a brutal place”.
Her words hang there and I get up. I grab my cigarettes; I go outside.
On Saturday night, at eleven-thirty, she comes in flush with weekend cash; she is carrying a plastic bag.
“I picked up Chinese”, she announces, and sets it on the card table.
I spend part of my own Saturday cleaning our bathroom; scrubbing the ancient bathtub, picking stray hairs off the tiles, polishing the cracked mirror; wondering how many men have shaved in front of it, over the 80-year history of the building.
There’s a Hispanic family that lives across the hall; a husband and wife, two children in school; the woman works somewhere, the man mostly stays in. I see him once in a while sweeping up used syringes and splintered glass; he keeps the basement free of debris, he puts the trash cans out.
Once in a while, he comes over and we play dominos on my shaky table. I’m not very good and he loses interest after a couple of games.
“You should quit smoking”, he tells me in Spanish. “It’s no good for your health”.
Like most of the people in the area, he thinks I am a pimp.
But our bathroom is immaculate; I keep it that way; I run a bath and Amy gets undressed and steps into it; with a rough washcloth I scrub her arms and back; I scrub away grit, and sorrow, and the touch of strangers.
She gets out of the bath and I massage her entire body with Aveeno lotion.
“It’s cold”, she tells me.
She is still quite a beautiful woman.
Then I strip too and lay down on her cot; she gets on top of me; quietly, softly, we make love.
When it’s done I go out to smoke. When I come back she is eating lo mein from a cardboard container, wrapped in her funeral shroud, watching TV with the sound off.
I’ve never envied Amy, her intellect, her education; rather, I regret my lack of it; not that I was slow, or not accepted by a college; there was simply no money for me to go.
“Edgar Allen Poe”, she is saying, “was found dead on a street in Baltimore. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton committed suicide. Frank O’Hara, a man of lovely words, died in a freak accident”.
She pushes over two egg rolls and a plastic packet of hot mustard; she knows I like them.
“Did you ever wonder”, I ask her, “if you might not have chosen a more cheerful major”.
“The best writing”, she replies,” is never cheerful. It’s brutally honest”.
On Wednesdays I do our laundry; part of my routine. We don’t have facilities in the building so I walk two blocks to a coin-op. It’s not all that much; my underwear, two pairs of jeans, socks and some t-shirts. Amy manages most of her wardrobe separately. I mean, the miniskirts and hot pants.
Something falls out of the laundry bag and I am holding it in my hand.
“Don’t let the cops see you with that”, this girl says.
Her real name is Theresa but she goes by Sienna. The first time I’d seen her, she was squatting under a tree, urinating. When I walked past and noticed her, she started laughing. I once asked her, over a cigarette, about why she did what she was doing.
“Well”, she’d said, “I like sex and I need money”.
Somehow in my mind, the complicity of liking sex and needing money never quite fused into a mutually inclusive or symbiotic theme. What I have in my hand is a slightly used crack pipe. I don’t think she is using again. I think it must be from a while ago and somehow it got into the laundry bin. That’s what I want to think.
She comes in early one morning looking battered. She is limping and favoring one hip. Her hands are scratched and her cheek is swollen and bruised. I suspect the worst.
“What, … “, I say, “…happened?”
“I’m not sure”, she says. “I woke up in the Emergency Room…they think I was hit by a car”.
But even this evidence is anecdotal. I lead her to the sofa. I make her sit down. I brush the hair away from her face. She looks confused and alone.
Going out, I find a CVS open. I remember childhood things: St. Joseph’s aspirin, rubbing alcohol. There’s a package store on the way; I pick up a fifth; I pick up two of them.
The Spanish woman has seen her come in. She has made some kind of soup; I put the packages down and she hands it to me, in a metal pot. “Hot”, she says, motioning with her eyes to the potholders. She looks concerned. They are good, kind people, this family.
I touch Amy’s forehead; she feels warm. I make her lie down. I take the funeral shroud from her cot and place it over her.
“Thank you”, she says.
Pouring out some alcohol, I soak a small dish towel and wring it out in the sink. I place it on her forehead.
“I think you have a fever”, I tell her.
Crushing two of the baby aspirin with water, I spoon it to her. She swallows it, closes her eyes, murmuring something about this story, this short story she had been explaining to me.
She is delirious, I think. She sleeps.
The Spanish man comes by. I motion him in. For the first time he speaks to me in English:
“I think you should let the woman go”, he says, and continues, “the city will turn the water off next month, and the electric”.
My hand is shaking a little, and I am thinking that alcohol is not such a terrible habit if you can just manage the shakes.
“And also”, he says, “I would like you to return the pot to my wife”.
I say, “the pot, oh I did return it, I handed it to her just yesterday in the hallway”.
“No, no, you didn’t”, he says; “it’s right behind you on the counter”, he says.
I am thinking about how much cash I have in my wallet, that I might need to visit the credit union before the liquor stores open, how the world will dance and swirl before me; who might take care of Amy.
I repeat again that I had returned the pot to his wife the day before.