"Low Lives," by Eugenio Volpe

Eugenio Volpe

Eugenio Volpe

Eugenio Volpe has published work with New York Tyrant, Post Road, The Delinquent, Twelve Stories, Waccamaw, decomP, and many others. He won the PEN Discovery Award for his novel-in-progress and has been nominated for Pushcart and BOTW prizes. He blogs about Don DeLillo and surfing.

Low Lives

It's a depressively muggy weekday afternoon and the lowlifes next door are blaring “Rock with You.” They've been screaming bloody murder all week and just as I'm hoping for the father to get shot or stabbed or perhaps overdose, their youngest child falls three stories to the sidewalk. I hear the impact, onomatopoeia straight out of the comics. I then hear the mother scream a different kind of murder.

We all have three stories: Mother, Father, and Child. That said you'll never hear me broadcasting my parental woes all over town. I expect the same courtesy from my neighbors. The lowlife's been lucky. He's lucky that I live alone. He's lucky I don't have kids. It's a good thing for him that I rent. Had I been paying property taxes and raising a family next door to him, I might have already put his head through a wall. His daughter might still be alive had my credit score been higher, had my father's penny-pinching not left a copper taste in mouth, had my mother not cheapened the value of marriage by sleeping with the family dentist. The lowlife's daughter might have lived long enough to kick a crack habit had I the courage to live life by the book.

Just last night the lowlife's daughter was riding her Big Wheel up and down the sidewalk. It was hotter than Hades. I had every window open and all the lights off. I live a few steps above street level in a demoralized Victorian. I was splayed on the couch in boxers, avoiding contact with my own skin. I was just lying there sweating, flipping through network drama theme songs. Doctors? Cops? Cops and lawyers? I couldn't decide. She was alone out there, pedaling alongside speeding Escalades and Accords. Their cardiac subwoofers thumped a grim storyline into my chest. I settled on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Fred Savage was guest starring, or Kevin Arnold was guest starring depending on how literally you take life. Professionally, Fred Savage had matured into a serial rapist. He was relying on the old Kevin Arnold persona in gaining his victims' trust. Nobody expects the boy next door to rape them just as nobody expected the lowlife's daughter to become a brain surgeon or even a hairdresser.

Despite the whodunit intensity and rising dew point, I managed to doze off. When I awoke, Fred Savage was deceiving the ladies and gentlemen of the jury with his Kevin Arnold act. It was working like a charm. Winnie Cooper was about to stroll into court and testify on his behalf. Not really, but you get my point. His performance was that familiar and thus the ending became predictable: Fred Savage was banging his attorney! Why else would she be letting a client argue his own case? Why else would a gorgeous blonde represent a serial rapist? Like all of us, she grew up watching Wonder Years. Like all of us, Kevin Arnold's soft brown eyes had browbeaten her superego into the shape of a 1968 Ford Station Wagon.

The lowlife's daughter rumbled past my window during the third commercial break, a Lexus pitch and iPad ad away from the verdict. The cable box clock read 10:42. I could see where everything was headed. The lawyer was going to betray Kevin Arnold. She would get him off but then murder her sociopathic lover out of guilt because the law has a funny way of destroying evil for all the wrong reasons. The lowlife's daughter made a second pass, her plastic wheels scratching the asphalt, sounding like my mother's voice after the day's second pack of Merits.

My mother spoke Big Wheel to Auntie Gina on the phone every Friday night while my father was out working as a bouncer at Wise Guys. It was my duty to eavesdrop on these conversations whenever possible. From an early age, I had an unsettling hunch that my mother was unhappy and therefore untrustworthy. It had something to do with the way she sat on the edge of my bed some nights, smoking with one hand and twiddling my hair with the other, imploring me to love my future wife deeply, fully. It was vague advice, but her conversations with Auntie Gina would occasionally fill in a few blanks. A pack of Merits and half jug of Riunite would evoke words such as cosmologic and clitoris. On a Friday night in the spring of 1987, shortly after a particularly bloodlusty episode of Miami Vice, I overheard the word oral. She was in the kitchen. I was in my bedroom. Huey Lewis was on the stereo singing about drugs. I could only hear my mother's every other word and thus commando crawled into the hallway. Apparently, she had pleasured Dr. Lovitz during my last appointment. She pleasured him orally while I was knocked out on laughing gas. I was there getting a silver crown because my cousin had accidentally hit me in the mouth with a street hockey stick. Dr. Lovitz came like a tube of toothpaste. All plots lead to a painfully slow climax, or so she told Auntie Gina.

Therefore the lowlife's daughter is dead. From my living room window, I watch him sit on the curb and rock the lifeless thing in his arms. His wife wails and beats the telephone pole with her fists. I shouldn't be seeing any of this. I should walk away, mind my own business, but look where that's gotten us. He's made his story my business.

I hear sirens. I slide into a pair of flip-flops and head outside. A hot wind nearly blows the front door from my hand. I take an extra deep breath in adjusting to the humidity. It's like swallowing an entire generation of pride. The sidewalk saplings bow with the wind. Their pink blossoms aren't long for such weather.

A small audience has gathered on the other side of the street. Partly out of respect, mostly out of fear, they keep their distance. I do not. I walk straight at the lowlifes like they owe me money, dead serious, staring the entire way. I see the horseshoe tattooed on his neck. He looks like a scrawny Ice-T. She looks like an overweight Paris Hilton. She has stopped punching the telephone pole and is now trying to wrestle the lifeless thing from its father. She has blood on her hands, its blood and her own. I've never been so close to them. They are worse than I thought.

I walk up next to the lowlifes and the small audience gasps. I loom over them. I deny them the peace that they have denied me for the past two years. I stand there, expressionless, hoping that my presence is making the situation worse. I want them to feel me like I have had to feel them. In my book, they deserve it. But perhaps I'm projecting. Perhaps I am projecting Michael Jackson onto Huey Lewis. The lowlife and I are the same age. I can't imagine who his mother must have been, what she must have done. My mother was raised in a broken English home. She grew up on homemade polenta and the Rolling Stones. The brave old world or Mick Jagger? The wrong choice would make a lowlife whore out of any woman.

The mother doesn't notice me. She's pulling at the lifeless thing by its foot. The father refuses to let go. He is crying up at the sky, but acknowledges me from his periphery. Until now, I'm not sure if he's ever given me a thought.

“The iPod was in the goddamn window,” he says pleading his case. “She wanted to hear that new Alicia Keys song.”

It's the first thing he has ever said to me. I don't dignify it with a response. Tears of sweat dribble down my chest.

“I'm not the one who put it in the goddamn window,” the mother screams.

“He wasn't talking to you,” I say.

She pays me no attention. She returns to the telephone pole only this time she bangs her forehead against it and lets out a platinum-selling sob. I tune her out and continue crowding the father. He's the one. It's all because of him. They'd be shit without him, or so he used to scream across the neighborhood. Now he has snot on his upper lip and the lifeless thing looks like a pro-life poster. In the arms of the lowlife, it makes a stronger case for the opposing argument.

The fire truck turns the corner. Its air brakes let out a dispirited sigh. The father gives me a look. He wants me to walk away. I stay. He nods his head as if understanding.

“How's the newspaper business?” he asks, returning his bloodshot eyes skyward.

I take a step back. He knows what I do for a living. I'd never taken him for a reader of film or restaurant reviews. I take another step back. His sights still in the clouds, he pries open a pained smile. His teeth are school bus yellow. A gust of wind wrinkles his Paul Pierce jersey. A cop and fireman push me aside. Two more firemen ask if I have seen anything.

“Nothing,” I say, “but I heard the impact. The parents have been screaming bloody murder all week.”

“It's always something with these two,” the short, fat one says.

“They're tweakers,” the bearded heartthrob replies. “Too bad it wasn't one of them instead of the girl.”

They're not talking to me, but I offer two cents.

“How about a little respect? This isn't an episode of Rescue Me.”

“Is that why you're out here gawking,” the fat one quips.

I'd put his head through a wall, but we're outdoors. There are no walls. Everyone can see everything, namely ourselves. The paramedics arrive and try loosening the lifeless thing from its father's death grip. The mother intervenes with more screaming and swinging. It takes three cops to force her into the back of a squad car. Her god-awful cursing is only partially muted behind the glass. The car is running. One cop assures the other that the A/C is off.

The sidewalk audience has tripled in size. They crowd the cop car with a damning silence. The mother bangs on the window with open palms like a best-selling protagonist coming to terms with guilt. She has a good read on her audience. None of them are literary. They prefer spoon-fed emotions, another good reason not to pay property taxes around here. I want to live next door to characters worthy of the PEN Faulkner Award, real writer's writer type characters, the kind who keep shit to themselves, who don't beat up the inside of police cruisers. I want to live next to the kind of characters who blow up in more sophisticated ways, like running someone over in a Roadster or hoarding the Bobby Thomson homerun ball.

I stand between the paramedics' shoulders so the father can get a clear shot of me gawking at him. He's no longer looking skyward. He's scowling at me, clearly irritated by my presence. I'm still confused about him knowing what I do for a living. It feels creepy-crawly, like the sweat running down the front of my shirt. Even creepier is his refusal to let go of the lifeless thing. Then again it's his finest moment as a father. He has fathered the tragedy outright. He has never held anything so significant. Why would he give it up? It's all his. The paramedics plead with him. They want it, but only because it's their job. It's my job to judge things, polenta con fagioli and the emotional credibility of hobbits and vampires. I stand there acting thoroughly disgusted so that the father might judge himself, but that's not how he's reading it. He looks at me like I'm out of focus. Is it the same expression that he wears when reading one of my film reviews?

“How do you know?” I ask. “How do you know that I write for the paper?”

He squints at the question, like I'm stupid for not knowing the answer. He takes it personally. He turns away in disappointment. I drop my chin and kick the curbstone like a disheartened Kevin Arnold. He has browbeaten my superego into the misshapen sorrow of a lifeless thing.

The short fireman pulls at my elbow with the polysaturated force of donuts and hot grinders. “Okay, buddy, show's over. No more Law and Order for you.”

It's a safe guess. He doesn't really know me. He doesn't know that I write movie reviews for The Providence Herald. He doesn't know about my father shattering Dr. Lovitz's jaw. It was well worth the $7,000 lawsuit. It was the best money he ever spent, or so my father said. He hasn't said anything else since. He divorced my mother and moved to the woods of Maine, forever letting go of me and my sister. We were finally free to eat junk food and not put the cap back onto the toothpaste tube. I let the water run while brushing. I left lights on around the house. The lawn never got mowed. Our empty trash barrels blew around the street for days. My mother graduated from Riunite and Merits to Vodka and cocaine. She continued sleeping with Dr. Lovitz and forty or so other men (I've kept count). My sister is an unemployed hairdresser with three kids from three different fathers. She is thirty-five and currently single. The jury is still out on me.

The heartthrob grabs my other elbow and the two of them try dragging me away from the scene.

“It's June 11th not September 11th,” I remind them. “Nobody's screen testing for heroes today.”

The lowlife laughs like crazy at this as the cops pull at his elbows. The paramedics stand by with their hands out, waiting for her to drop. She's already dead. They can't do anything for her. The father has the right to hold his daughter until she rots in his arms. That should be his sentence, but the law has a funny way of lawlessly punishing evil. Those on the sidewalk agree. They give the authorities hell for it. The mother is on her back, kicking at the windows. She and her husband have lowered the property value of our being. We will never be protagonists in a PEN Faulkner novel. Ours is a neighborhood fit for reality TV. The father has a sly hand in us. The lifeless thing is his device.

I offer both firemen some showy resistance by kicking them in the shins. One of the cops walks away from the lowlife to jab me in the stomach with his baton. I catch my breath and then kick him square in the nuts. It's a kneejerk reaction from my days in the dentist chair. He falls down clutching at his groin. I yank my right arm from the fat one's grasp and punch the heartthrob square in the beard. He falls over like a tree. The fat one stands there awestruck. My mother always said that I looked like an Italian Kevin Arnold. I never took her word for it.

The cops draw their clubs and charge, leaving the lowlife mostly unattended. I put the fat fireman into a full nelson and use him as a shield. The cops swing anyway. He takes a few for the team and one or two for the opposition.

There is a wrinkly old El Salvadorian woman who lives on the corner. Her teeth look like the rotting balustrades of her third story porch. She's up there day and night counting rosaries on our behalf, but now she's down on the street with her beads in the front pocket of her blue house dress. While the cops swing for my head and miss, she opens the cop car and frees the mother, who jumps onto the back of the nearest cop, the one who I punted in the nuts. He flips her over his shoulder. She lands flat on her back, a few feet away from the Big Wheel, which is parked behind the bumper of her Grand-Am. The cop zip ties her wrists and she rolls around the asphalt, screaming like a bad actress.

The cop kicks the mother in the legs in attempt to quiet her. A man from the crowd jumps him from behind. He's a Dominican who lives on the other side of me. He sells fruits and vegetables on the corner out of a white box van. I know for a fact that he doesn't like the mother. I've heard him talk shit about her. We all talk shit about her, but today has become a different story. Today we're all getting arrested, which is better than getting published, and the next best thing to getting your own reality TV show.

The Dominican is a shade lighter than Big Papi with the physique of A-Rod. He wrestles the baton away from the cop and throws it over a fence. The cop reaches for his mace and aims, but before he can shoot, the Dominican drops him with a straight right. He then comes to my rescue, throwing one of the cops to the ground in a headlock. I release the fat firefighter from the full nelson and instead of turning his battered anger on me, he attacks the remaining cop. They tumble to the ground and roll all over each other. Members of a Korean gang begin trashing one of the police cruisers. They kick in the windshield and headlights. When all the glass is shattered, the crowd begins rocking the car back and forth in attempt to flip it. It's a bit cliché, but who's ever really had an original thought or moment?

I rush over to the cop car and wedge my way into the crowd. I put a hand on the driver side window and lean into their momentum. We have a slight hand in each other's anger. We rock the car back and forth as if putting it to sleep. We are demoralizing ourselves before the law comes to do it for us. The sirens are getting closer and the lowlife decides to flee. He is done with us. A true work of art is never finished only abandoned. He runs into his house with his daughter under arm. The paramedics chase after him, but he has already slammed the door and locked it.

Just as we're about to succeed in flipping the car, six more cruisers screech onto the scene. The crowd scatters in all directions. A few of us stay. We have nothing better to do. The Dominican puts up a good fight, but this is real life. Nobody can take three armed men at once, at least nobody who sells fruits and vegetables for a living. It only takes two men to bring me down. They club and stomp. I try to take it like a man, but one of them kicks me in the back of the head, knocking out my silver crown. I haven't given the molar a single thought in almost sixteen years, but there it is, the only imperfection in my mouth being aestheticized by a squall of cherry blossoms scurrying down the street.

I collapse to the street face-first. The asphalt is scorching hot. The cops keep on me, stomping and now clubbing the backs of my legs. I keep my head down. I won't sue because the law has a funny way of justifying good for all the wrong reasons. I just lie there, splayed in the middle of the street, a lifeless thing, bleeding it all out like a tube of toothpaste.