Look deep, for what you merely see may not be how it is.
|He ran. He was so very tired; yet even now the staccato sounds of feet hitting the pavement could be heard as his pursuers pounded their way up E 125th Street. His chest was heaving, bands of pain encircling his ribcage, pressing, ever pressing, as the empty street before him grew dim. He tried to focus, forcing air into his lungs and his oxygen-starved body. He knew his respite was over, that the alley-way no longer promised him peace or safe passage.|
He ran, no real destination in mind; just anywhere "away" would do perfectly. But where was that?
Which way? Following the alley down and around a blind corner, he burst out onto 2nd Avenue, grimacing to himself immediately. Cripes, what a neighborhood. He wouldn't drive down this street on a bet in broad daylight with the windows up and the door locked, let alone this. He was already running for his life, but this was nothing but a death wish to begin with.
Who knew that his wife's second cousin's boss was such a schmuck? He hadn't thought the guy had half a brain, let alone friends. Certainly not the kind to chase him through the ass end of Harlem in the middle of the night. He'd just wanted what was rightfully his: a measly five-grand, and after he'd worked so hard for the bastard all those years. This was how to pay a fella back, was it?
He skidded on his heels, catching a streetlamp for leverage as he ducked around another sharp corner.
Twenty long years with the same old carrot shoved in his face, or up his ass, more like it. Hell, he'd married his Maudie because her dad promised 'em better things to come. Wasn't even preggers, but he'd still married her. Granted, it wasn't all bad, but she was a harper. Always and forever harping on about wanting this and why didn't he get her that. What's a poor man to do? He only skimmed a little at a time, not like it was gonna break them or anything.
He wiped tears of frustration and beads of sweat from his eyes as he ran. He hadn't run this much since the old days on Clancy Street. He'd sworn he'd never say it, but he was too old for this shit. And Maudie. Wasn't she a package though, ratting on him to Uncle Louie. Didn't he get her that fancy new dress she had no place to wear? And the dishes she wanted. The trip to the Hamptons. How was he to know there was the Hamptons and then THE HAMPTONS? Two, three hundred a night--did she really think he had that kind of money? Well, he'd gotten it, hadn't he? So she brags it up to Aunt Stella who runs to Louie who has a freakin' cow, full-blown kicking and mooing. Even then, he was still prettier than that rat-faced kid they fawned over, too. He tripped over an old tire left by the side of the road, sprawling like a snapped top half of a windmill, just not quite as graceful. Damn it all, he couldn't win for losing.
The footsteps behind him were closer, only a couple of blocks back.
He craned his head from side to side as he stood, looking for someone...anyone...maybe even a cop for crissakes. Where the hell was everyone? Hey folks, this is New York. Geez crispies, where were the sweat-stinkin' foul-mouthin' crowds of hateful neighbors when you need 'em? God, his chest hurt. At this rate they wouldn't need to kill him, just keep running him 'til he popped like a cherry tomato. What do you think of that one, eh Maudie? Who's gonna get you fancy stuff then? Another sharp pain stabbed through his chest, and he stumbled, gasping.
Right turn down another alley. Shuffle beneath clotheslines full of limp underwear and faded house-dresses.
He paused, hands on his knees, looking up to a patch of moonlit sky between two lines of damp laundry. The sleeve of one shirt was entangled with that of one hanging on the next line over: a ghostly handshake. Congratulations, Harry. Thankya, Dick. He remembered hanging onto the old tire swing in the back yard, his mother hanging out baskets of fresh laundry. For a moment the scent of cool, clean sheets infused the air around him. The footsteps slowed. Someone yelped, and he knew they were in the alleyway behind him.
He ran again only to stop a moment later. He stood with his palms flat against a solid brick wall, gaping in outraged surprise like a tragic mime. There was nowhere to hide. Hell, even a rat was in plain sight as it snuffled through an over-turned garbage can. The rank odor piled onto every breath he took, finally caused him to gag, and he vomited. The rat casually turned, lapping at its freshly served stew without so much as a thank you. New York, New York, everywhere you go...
"Hey Joey. End of the line, bud."
They advanced slowly. Their faced showed the exertion of their run. Pete and Clompers were in no better shape than he was.
"So, Joey, you gonna tell us where you hid it? Boss is dyin' ta know."
"Hid what?" he asked stalling for time to . . . to . . . do something. Serve up second course for Mr. Rat, maybe.
"The fifty k, what else?"
This wasn't about any five grand. This was about Louie making two killings at once. These idiots had no clue. He did. For starters, he was dead.
"C'mon Joey. Make nice and tell us. Otherwise, poor old Maudie ain't even gonna recognize you." Pete took a step forward, flipping his switchblade end over end, methodically, deliberately.
"Jeez, guys. I tell ya. I didn't take no fifty grand." Joey was now standing against the damp brick wall, his feet planted firmly in Mr. Rat's dinner. The disgruntled diner looked at him accusingly as it skittered atop a dry-rotted tire shell with a frayed rope knotted around it.
Pete shook his round head. The cigar, chomped in his massive jaws, moved around like a conductor's baton at the Poor Man's Opera as he talked. "I tell ya, Joey, it ain't worth it. It's gonna get ugly. You're gonna get ugly too."
Joey felt his heart hammering in his chest a blink before Clomper's hairy paw smashed into his stomach. He slid down the brick to slump next to his pal on the old tire. The rat's whiskers shook in anticipation as he smelled fresh blood.
"Don't you even think about eatin' me, Ratsky," Joey grumbled, elbowing the varmint away from him.
The men advanced. They had their directions and this was gonna be easy.
"Been a while since we got to pound the bejeezus outta somebody," Pete grinned, his yellowed teeth and thin lips having a distinctive familiarity to the jack-o-lanterns littering every porch stoop he'd passed.
Once again, Joey’s mind drifted to the old tire swing. He remembered swinging on it as his dad pushed him higher and higher until the summer sun was just a bright flash of light between the branches, until he felt as though he’d swing right up to heaven.
It was just then that Clomper’s fist connected with the side of his head, and as bright lights flashed, Joey raised his eyes heavenward. "Oh dear God, please. Take me now. Please take me home, now."
Her robe and nightgown were bunching up beneath the heavy winter coat she still wore. She worked her frigid toes, driving away the pins and needles from the pair of scuffed slippers on her feet. Spools of lank yellow hair, still bound in metal curlers, peeped through the gaps in her undersized, overused night kerchief. Aunt Stella, similarly attired, but a good deal less disheveled, stood at her side.
Maudie let the tears come unencumbered, let them stream unchecked down her once pretty face as she sat next to her husband's bed at the Veteran's Home. She clutched one of his hands in both of her own, acutely aware despite her grief (or because of it, perhaps) that his was still warmer than hers. For now. The thought only made it worse, grief gutting its way further in like a dull serrated scaling blade. It beat arrhythmic-ally in her temples and her ears as she sat, sweating everywhere that wasn't still numb, and crying salved the heartache about as well as her kerchief kept her curls up. But the tears came, and Maudie let them. She had been strong for him before. Even so, honestly, she just couldn't be, not anymore.
Stella was saying something. Well, she was talking. Then again, she was always talking. Sometimes talking helps, but at their age, both knew plenty well there was nothing much you could say.
"The cab got us here fast, Maudie, the attendants did everything they could for him and the doctor said he's been slipping away for a while now, and you know how he's always hated feeling helpless..."
That makes two of us, Maudie thought. Stella hugged her, sighing, but finally falling quiet.
Maudie let her reddened eyes wander the sad little room that was her husband's final home. She hated his being there to begin with, but what was she to do, keep trying to care for him herself? She could think of better ways of racing him to the grave. Her hand made its way along the dimpled ruffles of the old crocheted blanket on her husband's bed...blue, his favorite color. He'd loved that blanket, even when they could afford one of those down comforters, even after his good-for-nothing brother Frank had shipped him that wire-filled fire-hazard from the Sears catalog. Maudie lay awake that Christmas night half-expecting the bed to just explode into flames at any moment, and the damn thing still left her toes cold. The next night, the blue crocheted blanket was back, and a matching set of flannel nightgowns arrived several weeks later with exchange credit to spare.
His worn Bible lay under his left hand, a picture of them on their wedding day still cinched into the inside cover by its yellowing scalloped edges. His slippers, all but brand new, were tucked neatly under the edge of his bed. He hadn't taken a step since his stroke, hardly wore them even in that miserable wheelchair, but he raised all hell if they weren't in their rightful place...just on the off-chance, of course...
She spent a moment with each picture above his bed, some of them photographs, some of them drawn by their grandchildren, beloved construction paper doodles taped to the wall. His favorite was one of Kyle playing on a tire swing at their summer camp on Long Island. He always said it reminded him of special times when he was little. There were dozens of pictures, but then, he'd been here almost a year now.
"...leastwise, he was sleeping peacefully here when he went. You heard the doctor. He needed sleep, and sleep he was getting. It was just his time. He was ready. You heard him, Maudie."
"Yes, I heard him." Maudie had no idea why her dear Joey had begged to leave her--talking in his sleep, even. He'd never done before. She collapsed over his body, winding her hands in the blue blanket, crying softly for her husband.
"It was a peaceful death, Maudie. If you've got to go, dying in your sleep is a beautiful way to die."