Arthur Diamond's fiction has appeared in Ascent, The Gettysburg Review, Guernica, New Orleans Review, and other publications. He lives in Queens, New York.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Because I cut myself (ouch) two days ago on the can opener, I write my monthly letter to you this morning with a bandaged hand. Mother says I might have introduced the appliance to the trash can weeks before or brought it to the shop for someone smart to fix, but you know your Papa. “Mr. Stubborn,” she calls me. “Lefty,” I call myself, as that is the hand I use now to hold both the dog’s leash and Grandpa Metzger’s vintage walking cane with the metal badges, as I patrol the old neighborhood in the small hours of the mornings, more on this later.
Christine, I am relieved that you have your own place for now in Los Angeles. Your ex must be keeping his distance—this is the law. If you need money for additional legal help, say the word. I can help you with this. As for words about what happened, I have none—mostly. Mother says I have been murmuring the word “Aryan” in my sleep. I say it is “Orion” because I love the stars but she doesn’t laugh.
But this I say fully awake and clear enough for all to understand: Come home, Christine. Come home where you and little Johnny will be safe and secure. Yes, you are a grown woman, confident, strong—but come home, if only for a short while, if only for a vacation, call it what you will.
Now I must stop sounding like the overprotective father that I am to report to you on life in Queens, and I begin with work. I have a decent crew at the shop, two older cutters and two young ones, nothing’s changed since I wrote you last. The days speed by, deliveries in and deliveries out, blood and sawdust and always the register ringing, and always I am busy.
After work I drive home and park the van in front of the house, now that Mother has the new Volvo. She loves this car and puts it up the driveway for safety, so I take the chance of getting a ticket with the van overnight on the street. Against the parking rules, you know, and no man—or van—is above the law.
Then I am at the front door, where the rules are as Fritz makes them. He barks his terrier bark in greeting and does a little dance, and I in turn must show him the package of scraps from the shop. He gets fed immediately, no matter what else is going on in the house. Later, at dinner, he sits by my knee, to get a taste of what Mother cooked. After dinner he’s waiting at the door for his evening walk. Finally, he sleeps upon my lap after Mother and I are settled in front of the television. My name is on the deed, but Fritz is the boss of this house.
Last time on the phone you asked what’s new in the neighborhood, and I had little to say. But there have been developments. I would not write about them but my cardiologist Dr. Morelli—a vegetarian but otherwise quite intelligent—says I must communicate about things that give me agita (the word he uses). So I begin.
About three weeks ago early on a Monday morning I came out of the house with Fritz for his walk. We hurried in the bitter cold to the end of the street and across the Turnpike--just getting busy with rush-hour traffic--then down the big hill, past the brick and frame houses set back from the street, to the dead-end, and from there onto the bike path.
A few weeks earlier the bike path is lovely, leaves are falling in the crisp air and it’s a treat to bat them with your ungloved hands. But now all the leaves are down and everything feels damp and finished. On the path we meander, nobody else in sight. Fritz sniffs tirelessly, kicks up the soggy leaves, barks at squirrels. I am patient, as usual, and craving caffeine. We make our way back to the dead-end.
Here there are cars parked overnight, as well as cars arriving in the early morning to be left for the day by their owners who transfer to waiting cars for the commute to work, a carpooling thing.
One of the cars coming to park at this hour has been a yellow Mercedes sedan, maybe ten years old. In places the carriage where it’s close to the ground is rusted the color of blood.
I’ve walked by the guy sitting in his car, waiting to be picked up, and I never look at him. While leaving cars here is perfectly legal, I avoid interacting with these outsiders. They drive over from nearby villages, like Glen Oaks or Bayside, to take advantage of our easy parking and the implicit protection of their vehicles during the day by us vigilant homeowners.
Fritz has done his business and I’ve bagged it and trashed it and we’ve reached the corner of the dead-end to begin the climb up the big hill back to the Turnpike. I notice at the corner across the street a black SUV idling. I know this driver is waiting for the Mercedes guy to join him for the ride to work, and here comes the Mercedes guy, walking over. I’m proceeding with Fritz up the hill on the other side of the street when something comes skittering along the ground in front of us, striking the curb and settling among the leaves.
You know how I would get at your soccer games when another girl gave you a shove? Or when we rode together in the subway and some boy looked at you too long?
The Mercedes guy is across the street, looking at me. He’s scrawny looking, not dark-skinned but no paleface either, with a weak chin and a pencil moustache, a paltry thing he’s probably had since he first started shaving.
This Mercedes guy, if I make a steak out of him I call it a rat steak, sell it cheap.
I look right back at him. I look at him hard. He calls out, “he can have it.” I yell back, “Why did you throw something at my dog?” The guy is now putting his briefcase in the back seat of the SUV, then he straightens and looks at me again. He yells, “Why not?”
Oh boy. I shake my head. I point my finger at him. “Don’t throw things like that.” He shrugs, as if to show he doesn’t care what I say. But he’s not ignoring me. I think he is bothered that I’m still looking straight at him.
“I don’t like being watched,” he yells. He has a funny accent. I am thinking he sounds Eastern European, like Duddy Dracu, my Romanian apprentice.
“You’re in my neighborhood, and I’m watching you,” I yell. “And don’t throw things in my presence.”
“Don’t be stupid,” I yell. “Don’t be a fool.”
Well there you go. Fighting words.
In response he may have muttered something, I’m not sure, I see his mouth move but I hear nothing. Then he goes around to the other side of the SUV and gets in. The driver is behind tinted glass, I can’t see him or her. The vehicle drives away.
So what is this man about? Why does he do such a thing? Is he a rival butcher opening a shop nearby to drive me out of business? I don’t think so. Likely he is just another feverish newcomer to our shores, pressured, harried, scrapping to make a living—we have all been there, all of us—but why throw a rock? Possibly he turns his ankle stepping on it and in anger picks it up and tosses it, not seeing Fritz and me across the street. Possibly. But the problem is that he does not apologize.
I go to where the rock settled in the leaves, kick it. It’s a rock. It’s nothing but a rock.
Every day and everywhere in the world people make mistakes. They say they are sorry and they are forgiven. But when a person refuses to say he’s sorry, well. This is a real problem. Somewhere along the line he has learned, perversely, that there are few or no consequences for his bad behavior. He throws a rock at me today, and tomorrow he picks on an old man, and next week he goes after young girls. You can see it coming.
My dear, I think that maybe if you and your ex had started out in Queens instead of California then I would have had first crack at him when his mind opened to a hate group. I always had my doubts about him—there, I said it. I’m sorry but I tell you the truth, it’s how I am. (I say I’m sorry even though I make no mistake.)
Anyway. The next morning I do not see the yellow car. But the morning after that, as I emerge from the bike path with Fritz, parked at the dead end is the yellow car. And there is the driver, alongside the car, having a cigarette. When he sees me coming he scurries into the car and rolls up the window.
At the driver’s window I knock—bang bang—with the hammy edge of my hand. “Open up,” I say.
He doesn’t. He looks scared and angry. He says get your hands off my car. Which is what you’d expect a person to say. So I knock again. He looks more scared and angry. I tell him to open the window. He curses me, repeatedly, and threatens to call the police. Then he shifts in his seat and grabs at something I can’t see—I am holding my breath—but it is only a cell phone.
“I call the police!” he cries two times, in his Duddy voice.
“Come out here,” I say through the window.
“I call the police!” He has the phone open and presses a few buttons. He says quickly “Hello police? It’s me, I’m in trouble, come help me.” Then he closes the phone.
Christine, so help me, I had to cover my mouth. Fritz is tugging at the leash, wanting to race up the hill, and I’m trying not to let this fool in the car see me grinning. But then I get the idea that maybe this guy had some newfangled phone with GPS, where you just say “I’m here” and the authorities know where to go. It’s possible, isn’t it?
“You called the police?” I ask through the window, glaring down at him. He gives me the finger and says that they are on the way. I tell him good, I’d like to talk to them. “And if they don’t arrive in two minutes I’ve got your license number and I will call them myself when I get home.” Your papa is a fast thinker.
So now I look him in the eye—through the window—and call him a coward. I say the word several times. I say this word to a man and I expect him to climb out of his car and come after me. This guy does no climbing. So I stand there and he sits there and I stand and he sits—and that was it, really, because what am I going to do? There’s houses around and people must be watching, though I don’t see anyone. Finally I show my back to this guy, give a whistle, and Fritz and I are headed home.
Walking up the hill I am thinking of what to say to anyone coming out of their house to ask what happened. I would say, for someone to come into this neighborhood, where we all raise our children and mow our lawns and pay our taxes, and to send a rock flying at a homeowner’s dog—this is unacceptable. I would say this and my neighbors would nod and shake my hand and pat me on the back.
No one comes out of any house to talk to me, which is fine, maybe they see what happened and that I’m all right and no communication is required. Or maybe they aren’t home. No problem. For you do what needs to get done in this life, my dear, and you don’t expect support or applause. This much I have learned.
I have also learned that surprises are always just around the corner—or down the hill. Three mornings later there is the yellow car near the dead-end, on the other side of the street. I watch the driver’s side door open and the guy gets out and, lo and behold, he is walking straight towards me.
I am impressed. I give him silent credit for having, you know, pluck. “Der hoden,” my father would say.
I see that he holds no weapon, and I am at ease. As he approaches I turn my head this way and that, making sure another person is not coming from the side, like those raptors in that film Jurassic Park, which little Johnny likes so much.
“Why did you get angry?” he asks, stopping just two medium steps from me.
“You threw a rock at my dog.”
“It was no rock. It was ball. I kicked ball.”
I can smell his coffee breath in the morning air. “It was a rock. It looked like a rock. And it sounded like a rock.”
“It was ball. I thought he play. I just kick ball.”
It was no ball. I don’t understand. Is he deranged? I am feeling a little tired of this nonsense. I did not sleep well the night before and now I’m asked to deal with a deranged person before I have my coffee. I give him a break.
“All right,” I say, “but don’t do that again, understand?”
He scratches hard at his weak chin. “I don’t like you get angry at me. You attack my car.”
Well. And I thought he was going to say he was sorry. I point down at Fritz. “You see this? This is my property. You don’t mess with a man’s property. And if you do happen to accidentally send a rock his way, you had better say ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it,’ to me, the property owner. Is this clear enough?”
Apparently it isn’t.
“Why you bang on my car window?” he says. “You mess with it. You hurted it.”
“I hurted it?” I wag my finger at him. “You should have opened your window, so I wouldn’t hurted it. Didn’t I ask you to?”
“But what about crack? You crack my window.”
Well how about that? He surprised me—again. I didn’t crack his window. Look how he’s trying to get something out of me.
“You think I’m a fool?”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s not my problem.”
“You crack my window,” he says. “You pay for it.”
“Not my problem, understand?”
“I understand nothing. You pay for it.”
I hold out my right hand. I let him see the blood from generations of swine dried beneath the nails. I let him see the scaled skin, the new nicks and old scars. I slowly make it into a fist. I ask him now does he understand, and he does, obviously, for he turns away and walks away, muttering over his shoulder.
“And there’s nothing you’re going to do about it, is there?”
Obviously not, because without another mutter he gets into his yellow car, to sit and wait for his carpool person to arrive.
I continue down to the path with old Fritz, and I go over what happened, and I am angry. There was too much talk. I should not have allowed him that close, I had a moment of weakness. If the guy is still there and wants to address me again, I will not allow it. I will warn him away.
On the path Fritz does his business, and when we come back out to the dead-end there is the yellow car, but the guy is gone. I go check his window. There’s a nice squiggly crack in it, a line with an open curve, looks like a meat hook.
A week passes, I don’t see him. The guy must have smartened up. He must have realized that there are a thousand other streets to park on in Queens, why come back here for trouble? Then one morning I go out a little late, feeling under the weather. The weather doesn’t help. It’s cool and damp—pig-killing weather in Slovakia, your great-grandfather used to say.
So I am coming out of the dead-end with Fritz and we are climbing the hill when I see the yellow car, it’s coming down the street at a good clip, coming fast and then it veers our way and I tug Fritz over to the curb as it passes and I shout and wave my fist. The car brakes, hesitates, then climbs the hill backward to where I am and screeches to a stop. The passenger window comes down.
“What you talking about now?” the guy yells from the driver’s seat.
“You son of a bitch,” I yell, edging up to the car. “You’re driving too damn fast and too damned close.”
He gives me the finger, puts the car in gear and races down to the dead end. He makes a squealing tight U-turn and comes to a stop, facing up the hill. He is looking at me. He does not back in towards the curb to park. He is waiting.
I could have continued on my way back home. The coffee was ready and there were fresh blueberry muffins from the bakery in Windsor Park. Mother bought them the day before for a special treat this morning.
But I am your papa, you know me, I do what I have to do. I walk back down the hill. At the corner of the dead-end there is a young pin oak, planted last fall after that bad Nor’ Easter took down a few old trees on our block. Tying Fritz to the oak I see the guy is out of the car and coming towards us.
“Get back in the car,” I say, and I raise my right fist. “Remember this? This will knock you down if you don’t get in your car. You want to try me?”
He did not. He turns and goes back to his car and speeds away.
That was that. I don’t see him or his car again. Morning walks are back to normal, they are pleasant. There are a couple of new dogs on the path, puppies, and Fritz schools them in the basics of social interaction, and I am embarrassed by his facility, but then he is simply dealing with other dogs.
I still keep an eye out for the yellow car.
Then one Sunday morning I wake up uneasy. I get out of bed and look out the street-side window as usual to see how the day is, and something is not right. It isn’t the weather, which is seasonably cold and nasty. I see nothing amiss in the street or on our dab of property until I focus on Mother’s Volvo in the driveway. There is moisture on the rear window but also a dark spot, wide enough to pass a small frying pan through with a domed lid. I leave the window and go out of the room and across the hall to see it from the bedroom over the garage but the dark spot is not a different shape or diminished from this view, so it is not a shadow that I’m seeing, no not at all, oh boy. Then I look at my van in the street. Its window glass is broken too—front, side and rear.
So I have been going out early with Fritz, often before dawn. In my overcoat and hat and clutching the old walking cane I venture down to the bike path and back, maybe up and down a few neighboring streets, alert to the possible appearance of misfits and miscreants, vandalizers of our peace or property, and that yellow car.
A person might say how is this a letter to induce a daughter to come home? It sounds like I’m frightening you away! But this is not my intent.
Fathers are strong, they are sturdy. They proceed without murmur or complaint. They leave home in the morning and come home at night and for their children the world should be an adventure park with late hours. When his children are grown, a father bids them farewell, and, if he has done his job well, his eyes are dry.
A father is not supposed to tell his grown daughter he misses her. How could that be? But I am your father, and I must admit my eyes are a little moist now. Does this mean I did not do a good job with you?
Come home, Chrissie. Come home to where you will be safe.
The carpet in your room is vacuumed, there’s a bright new throw on the bed, and we’ve fixed up the spare room over the garage for Johnny, who will likely share it with Fritz, who will likely sleep there with him.
With wounded hand I sign the name you know me by,
P.S. Please forgive the bloodstains on the paper. I buy a new can opener tomorrow.