Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Home Chase 

 

 

 

Flattened by sickness and a bit dissociated, as written here, while coming home out of the stress of flying from here from Chicago to New York to welcome into this household her child.

 

At the entry stairs, her big beefy neighbor swept up to help whisk baggage into the Riverside Drive apartment building, north by slope toward into the exit island and on into Manhattan.

 

Their charming neighbor could only help out, for they were trying to vacate the four-bedroom apartment overlooking the park layout with swings and pathway curving up to the medieval chapels and cloisters.

 

Few other neighbors, she speculated, were using coke to rise above routine doldrums and to keep going fast enough not to fall along with others in line with their twenty-year-plus fall in their U.S. income.

 

The next day, Saturday, the descent grabbed her this morning while walking into the leftover WWII Quonset hut of sorts that she worked in on Saturdays for extra income. A Spaniard, an educational psychologist and family therapist, greeted her and fled outward for coffee. Thick, dark liquid with boiled milk poured into paper cups set them up for the morning work.

 

“G.W.H.S. is a correctional institution,” Maria said, referring to where they were. “My job here has no meaning… Five gangs operate here and throughout the city. If kids don’t belong to one, they’re forced into them, as specialists no entiendo, even nice kids.”

 

She ripped out her words. “And G.W. has a murder rate too.”

 

How had this semi-patrician in mauve suit, Maria Elena, educated in families, clinical psych, and psychodrama, ever wandered from Spain to George Washington High School? Renata also queried: what drives mates here to include the sweet, rotund, jolly one who’d moved in next door to her apartment?

 

For relief, Susan and Howard and she had gone to the outdoor concert on Thursday near Heavenly Rest for soothing. Then, the New York Philharmonic with the two aging Andres, Andre Previn conducting and Andre Watts playing the Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto to enchant concertgoers. The Vaughan Williams was anticlimactic.

 

* * *

 

Nearby, Heavenly Rest church held silences. Still her anger resembled the lowest hostile drug-dealing lookout, who bulked up back and shoulders. They stood guard up and down Broadway, firm and grim.

 

Back in whatever available sanctuary, she flashed on. “I am air, not seen.” She watched.

 

Anger evaporates, but not yet. Many from many global points assume this U.S. is an anything-goes environment.

 

She’d been crying for two hours straight within points of clarity and serenity. But then, the sobs return. She can’t follow the tack of witnesses of not in the moment, the view figurative not literal.

 

The corner she was standing on also posted a lookout drug dealer, the musical one, who deals away bad pain. He was the final revenge of the slaves.

 

More than that is the enslaving of the oppressors. Sop them with cocaine. Don’t manacle them with irons for the mind adrift or high in denial.

 

The wind captures them as candle fuel, her own rage tried blowing out. What was happening to her had happened to essence, Essenes, Horus, Oracle. Purity: the last shall be first. What happened next contained old scores or current scares.

 

Surrounding her rage over her bigger rage, which she dubbed “the soft margarine against the brick wall.” Her husband embarrassed himself in public by losing his temper. Thank hell, he did not live here anymore, so his temper would have brought more danger upon their household, already threatened.

 

What sparked this thought was confused communications recalled. He said, “butter” butter, but the man behind the bodega counter offered margarine instead. She’d believed margarine would do. But was snarled up in her inner thoughts and acts.

 

But her neighbor appeared instead at the main floor elevator. Un hombre con pelo azulito y el suéter Missoni en los colores brillantes y primeros.

 

The ritzy sweater caught her attention. He himself puffed up blue in their hall’s strange light.

 

Also, he wore silver-framed glasses, noticeable for reflecting the sun, when he exited or entered his little Honda with 2CVX on the license. When out of the driver’s seat, he left no other to drive the car or change street sides according to parking signs. He seemed not to lock the compact car. So, many others might get in it and drive it, she saw while happening to look at the manhole cover while crossing the street.

 

Yesterday, he’d gone into their building to buzz the honcho/jefe of her building before she dashed off in her elder car out off the highway exit. Her movements seemed to trigger her observing another dealer going up to the front door. But she stopped so no one would see her.

 

Glancing back via the rearview mirror, she saw that the nearest manhole cover appeared to tip up. The fellow peering out, she guessed, was turned toward the “lookout” at the front door.

 

Time was passing, so she turned on the ignition key and drove off. The car rattled but couldn’t stop on the side of the busy highway for the noise problem to be checked.

 

* * *

 

Upon her return with discount groceries from Newmark, she unlocked her steel-covered and encased door with her thick, heavy-duty, cylinder key, all factors selected because of nearby hallway break-ins. In so opening her apartment door, she found two notes from neighbors. The only truly friendly person on the floor, Lee, a sixty-something Jewish woman with curly hair on her high crown, noted the Irish Gardner youths had just lost their mother to cancer, a shock to Renata. She’d talked to the emotionally fragile youngest Gardner boy, still at home evidently, who attended the grubby Quonset-hutted section of the local high school. Helen downstairs with a chirpy manner wrote she was collecting money for the boys. The oldest and brightest, they all said, had already left and moved in with his girlfriend.

 

A new lively twenty-something woman arrived at Renata’s door, as she unlocked it, and asked, “Can you and your daughter come visit and see our nursery?” Renata nodded yes, though was preoccupied with the boys. She did hear a baby, her next-door neighbor’s, must be, its gurgling. Or was it the gold fish tank just inside their apartment door?

 

Renata’s next-door neighbor had also just come up to go into his place with his already present girlfriend. He, too, nodded. Having also just heard about their red-headed mother’s death, Carlos pulled out a twenty for the boys’ fund and handed it to Renata. Never mind the gurgle Renata heard while she unlocked two more locks in her door, two macaws behind their door squawking at her big black-and-white cat cutting out from behind her now open door, while neighbors chatted.

 

“They tried to do CPR,” Lee was saying, “on the Irish boys’ mother for her asthma. But it didn’t work.”

 

They each went inside their own apartments. Renata paused to hear her closest neighbor greet the fellow seen entering their building front door from tilting the manhole cover.

 

* * *

 

An hour later, Lee from down the hall tapped on her metal door. Once inside, she asked, “Are those people still in over there? I thought they’d moved.”

 

For two weeks, Renata had heard no soundings through their common wall, much less seen anyone, except maybe a “lookout.” She shrugged. I don’t know.

 

The woman of the house, named Lila with ringlet bangs with the baby who resembled her.

 

Next day, Lila the mother invited Renata and her teen daughter into their place. Renata accepted. Her daughter could not, for reasons of sports and study for SATs. Born into baby finery, a bassinet, crib, and wall decals of Sesame Street characters, Big Bird, the baby was smiling and gurgling.

 

 

“What?”

 

Renata better tell no more. Certainly, the apartment’s not a crack house.

 

But must be a dealer’s haven, her friends Terence and Lawrence R. noted. The baby’s like his mother, for sure.

 

Her decision to move away came slowly.

 

* * *

 

She peeked through the peephole, when possible. Only if she identified the outside face did she open the steel-covered door. It was covered because her neighbor across the hall had a pole jammed through his weak central door wooden panel, and his jewels from his jewelry business were stolen. Carlos stored some there before he apparently slipped them into his jewelry store down Riverside and upward on Broadway.

 

The neighbors like twerps whispered, the few English dominant speakers, that is, did, among themselves about his male and female visitors and his jewels—what kind? After he fortified his door with metal, the others, including Renata, on the hall followed suit.

 

* * *

 

Soon after, a pounding on her door. “Open UP!” yowled a voice. “Immigration, immigration.” La Migra!

 

“No one here,” Renata said. She thought she heard scuffling. She opened her peephole.

 

Couldn’t see, so she opened the door slightly. Big guns up and down the hall. Who were they after?

 

* * *

 

A poet could suit the low-rent Inwood rent and forest primeval, she coined “home fullness” to many artists tolerated as long as serenity remained. But the cockroaches and mice were alienating her daughter away at college. Renata evacuated and sprayed each room of the four-bedroom apartment and spray-bombed each room. Oh well, the possible summer artist subtenant was newly separated from his wife. He was looking younger every day and his wife older. Tall and curved like the great swathes of his inked brushstroke drawings and raging comments against the ills of the day, political prisoners, and weather.

 

“Now more people write and paint for meaning in chaos,” her newish friend Terrence, a six-six Sicilian-descended red-blond, commented. Terry added, “Thousands are competing for a few outlets, to squeeze out the worst for the best.” He appeared with his poetry.

 

No kid still dabbling to dance through life with color into the center of the earth. If highs emerge in flowers, birds via sacramental peyote and coca and marijuana, he indicated. “Why cultural arousal?”

 

“It’s the Holy Spirit,” he replied. Oh, well, this artist, if he pays up, will be a worthy subtenant while she leaves for the summer.

 

His wife Elaine in drug rehab looked pale and drab. For whatever reason, Terry introduced Renata to her while her estranged husband inflated from squashed features. Why was unknown, or she speculated: his new perky redhead with the perfect profile accompanied him to his signing of Renata’s summer subtenancy letter.

 

Time now and money for travel to see her parents with her daughter, all getting older, so she must go now while possible for all to be together. Money lacking, she’d sublet her apartment.

 

The trip out and back went well, but she returned to check out her place, expecting neatness. Glasses were standing and lying around every which way. In the bathroom, burn marks on white enamel from freebasing cocaine, heroin, or another controlled substance stood out. Dust layered her place, usually in neat stacks, now disorderly.

 

Carrying subtenant garbage to the boiler room, she rode down with her neighbor also by the elevator. His beeper shrieked.

 

“It’s getting colder outside, isn’t it?” Because of his size, she guessed safety was rendered greater by living near him. Could she be sure?

 

Renata changed the locks to rid her apartment of the subtenant and ordered a metal bar to brace the door from inside, until she could find money enough to move out. The subtenant artist had seemed friendly to the fellow next door. For sure, the latter found meaning in money and gamesmanship.

* * *

 

The highway exit made their place the hotspot on the dealers’ map. The best evidence drew on the blue Jersey licensed cars. Most were first noticed near Rev. Ike’s church, like a mosque only once a movie theatre designed like a mosque with bright geometric designs in red, blue, and yellow. She bought a sideview mirror to gaze down from her window, without looking directly at her target, so the drivers with blue licenses below entering Riverside Drive wouldn’t see her above. She tested her plan.

 

Jersey cars halted. Its driver or passenger reached for the choice drug from the street dealer. Pity the poor on foot; disdain the dealer. Her mostly Anglo-Saxon obsessiveness viewed las cucarachas as vile and turned this view into her fixity.

 

They must rise through piracy into conquerors on horseback. High horses failed to arise.

 

Meanwhile her daughter asked, “Who’s taking care of me tonight?” Renata winced. Her estranged husband was caring for their teen, in her almost grown stage.

 

Feelings need spelling out. Otherwise, they bury themselves in the psyche and return

to haunt the self-person until probed. Her teen, their youth girl, her parents agreed, might get inbred with whatever drugs sniffed or dreamt of.

 

She, Renata, felt herself a model of rectitude, just depressed as seen in the mirror when she brushed her medium-brown blown hair. How to rely on highs to get through time and lows. Spiritual highs could after all lead to new realms.

 

* * *

 

On the elevator going up, she met up again with her nearest neighbor, Eddie. “What kind of work do you do?” she’d dared to ask. Quickly, she admired his silver dollar pendant on the chain with WOW stamped on it and face up on some days and a diadem with diamonds on others. This evening was a WOW day.

 

“I should hide it,” said he.

 

“What do you do?” she’d asked.

 

“Workouts for boxers, weightlifters, and runners. Come around. We’ll help you both get started. Bring your daughter. We’re trainers.” Renata worried about her daughter meeting up with him. At the end of the elevator ride, he said, “It’s getting rough out there. Be careful.” He handed her a business card for both his bodybuilding sites. On their ninth floor, the bodybuilder and Renata entered their separate doorways with steel doors to halt shootouts.

 

A few minutes later, pounding on her metal door drew her to peek out the peephole. Again, her burly neighbor, whose girlfriend was seen no more. Instead, his visitor, a big cheery fellow at the steel doorway chatted.

 

“Eddie’s busy. He sent me over to let you know something.”

 

“Oh, what?”

 

“There’s going to be a riot tonight.”

 

“Who with?”

 

“You’ll find out.”

 

“Oh, what should I do?”

 

“GET out of town.” Her daughter had escaped without knowing it. Thank God. Otherwise, they could have driven across the GW Bridge or the 207 Street Bridge or the one to Kingsbridge/Riverdale.

 

Thanks.” Renata lived on and above the wide exit to the highway to bridges across the Hudson River and Spuyten Duyvil. By this time, her daughter was well on her way out. Renata still had time. Her belly was becoming a moving elevator. The social worker, she reminded herself, must be a social watcher.

 

The last time with this lonely gurgling spun out the previous fall, when her daughter’s freshman dorm called her with a worry sound on the answering phone to lure her to speed up into New England. Her daughter Berry met her on the South Lawn and cheered her with, “Oh, don’t worry,” and she whisked out of her baggy pants’ pocket her big matchbook cardboard folding over wide matches. “Really, I am not tripping anymore. You can keep these. I am not smoking nicotine anymore, and I am doing my work. Pot’s not addictive. It does little for me.”

 

She showed an LSD packet. Renata worried.

 

* * *

 

 

Another knock came. “You’d better get your car off the street now. They’re burning cars down on Broadway and side streets.”

 

Flames and smoke flared at a three-block distance from her windows. She needed to stop reality to think.

 

Her ’83 VW bug was parked below her windows. Down the elevator to the side entrance, she revved the car and drove it to the building’s garage. In a brogue, the fellow said, “You’re not a paying regular.”

 

“I live here.”

 

“You don’t. You can’t park here. Places taken and paid for.” Cars behind hers were honking to get in.

 

While angling to back out and park, she ran inside. Another driver gave her the finger.

 

She parked going uphill near the manhole. In horrible suspense—waiting to be caught or shot. Her forehead was dripping sweat. The manhole cover was tipping open again and a gun pointed outward.

 

Her heart pounded her chest.

 

* * *

 

Upstairs she slouched on her couch. Her cats were acting out. One yellow Puffy jumped on the French doors and ran along their tops and on shelves. Jody the black tux sloughed onto her shoulders like her grandmother’s fur ruff and purred.

 

Renata tried meditating and sleeping. Waiting to be shot in her nightmare, she feared she was in cahoots and hostage to Big Eddie the drug dealer with his Pieta, Christ haloed by stars. Big Eddie was only a suspect.

 

Bolting upright, she heard a helicopter nearby and saw one hovering outside the glass window. Flames still pricked the skyline above Broadway and Dyckman beyond. The corner near the bank was on fire from the roof. The helicopter on wings continued outside her window. On the radio without sound; the TV was fuzzy snow with sound. Nobody was reporting. She’d better get out anyway in her putt-putt.

 

At 40 degrees outside, still she pulled over her head a turtleneck dickey she could bring up, if needed, over lower face, if necessary. In the hallway stood a lookout outside her neighbor’s door. He was shorter and smaller than Eddie, and unlike the latter’s Hispanic background, was African-American and less beefy-looking. He and Renata nearly collided at the apartment doors only inches apart.  He put on a smile and some charm. He said to Renata, “You know the mother and baby here, don’t you?”

 

Time and again, she’d walked down Broadway encountering lookouts as stalwarts with their packets of white dust dense with highs. Once she grabbed one from a hand, laughed, and handed it back. “Next time.” She walked with the West Indian who was showing her the ropes as her guard, necessary under the Federal District Court order. Without him, she could not make a home visit to a disabled child they were proctoring.

 

* * *

 

Now as the time to depart from Riverside Drive began to arrive, Renata walked back and forth in her apartment hallway. Walking, walking…only her floorboards warped sideways, so she walked one foot up and one lower.

 

Southwest out her window above the exit and below was the island garden, penned in and locked, marked a bougainvillea-laced respite for willing gardeners. But the corner beyond compelled her stare. High flames flew above the diner next to the Chemical Bank branch. They surmounted the tree heights. Inevitably, they would burn down to stumps. Not yet though.

 

Jumpiness she could not stop. A r-r-r-r-roar just outside her next window moved her back to where a helicopter buzzed in one place with the whirling rotors.

 

She hailed the pilot. He didn’t seem to see her. She would have to crawl out to the fire escape to avoid the oncoming fire, hotter, ever hotter. She was sweating.

 

At the end of the railroad apartment hall with tipsy floorboards, knocks rapped at her steel door. She jumped at the tinny sounds that rattled her all the more. The rapper warned her again, “Leave.” No place to go.

 

The helicopter was still out there. She banged on the window and pulled aside the metal window gate installed against break-ins. She took her broom to whack on the rickety and rusty fire escape to catch the pilot’s notice. He did wave her away.

 

Terry. Where was Terry?

  

 

 

 

Originally from an upper Mississippi tributary town, Jean E. Verthein traveled through Italy, Iran, Japan, and Mexico before settling in New York City. She has worked with disabled students and served as an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. She earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and received two writing grants from the Ragdale Foundation. Her work has been published by Adelaide Literary Magazine, Litbreak, Poydras Review, and other journals. Adelaide Books, New York and Lisbon, published her novel Last Gentleman in the Middle Distance.