(Excerpt from Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale)
I climbed the stairs to the third floor, where Jimmy’s apartment was. When I got to his door, I knocked, not expecting an answer, and not getting one. I turned the knob, expecting the door to be open, and it was. Two for two. A good start.
Jimmy, I called out.
Jimmy’s apartment smelled thickly of cigarette smoke and something else—something missing. My nose couldn’t put a finger on what that smell, or un-smell was.
The apartment was in total darkness. Recalling the layout of Jimmy’s place, I crossed from the foyer into the living room. I fumbled for and found a light switch on a lamp and clicked it on. The lamp was no ordinary lamp. It was Betty Boop. Her arms were elevated at 45° angles, holding the lampshade over her rotund head, which was now cast in silky bronze light. The light also set off the red dress she was wearing, giving it a luminous, old-Hollywood look. Betty’s saucer-shaped eyes seemed to be looking directly into me. Maybe they were trying to tell me something.
I’ll question you later, Miss Boop, I said, knowing that I wouldn’t.
I surveyed the living room. No tell-tale signs of disturbance or disorder. I saw a phone on its cradle, set at angle on an end table. I picked it up. There was a dialtone.
While checking the other rooms, I found a second phone in the kitchen, and it too was working. Above the kitchen counter, near the fridge, I spotted a laminated photo of Gabriella, Jimmy’s mother, taped to a panel. The photo had been given out as a memento at Gabriella’s funeral. I stared at the photo and never before realized how much Gabriella resembled a catcher’s mitt. Mostly in the cheeks and mouth.
To the left of the photo, rosary beads hung on a nail. I removed the beads and stuffed them in my pocket. I’m not overly superstitious, but you never know when rosary beads might come in handy.
I sat on Jimmy’s recliner in the living room and waited. Instinct told me that Jimmy wouldn’t suddenly turn up, but it felt good to be in an apartment that wasn’t my own. I went to the fridge to fix something to eat. Not much there. In the freezer I found Pepperoni-and-Cheese Hot Pockets. I microwaved one on high for two minutes, then poured myself a glass of grape soda and went back to the recliner.
While eating, I looked at Betty Boop looking at me. The space between us lengthened, as did time. I went through Jimmy’s records, which were stocked in crates on the living room floor. I wanted to hear something that would kick me in the ass and send me to the zoo. I settled on Led Zeppelin III. I tried playing the record at a modest volume, but that wasn’t doing the trick so I turned it up full-blast. Now there were fuzzy reverberations. Now there were tingles.
I nuked another Hot Pocket and poured myself another glass of grape soda. This time I added ice. I was in no rush to leave. Music sounded better in other people’s homes. Food tasted better. Drinks drank better.
It was in the middle of “Immigrant Song” when a woman appeared in the doorway of the living room.
What are you doing here, she shouted over the music.
I could ask you the same question, I shouted back.
So I did.
What are you doing here?
We looked at each other, unsure as to who should answer first. Playing the gentleman, I decided it should be me.
I went to the stereo and turned off the music. Then I said—I’m a friend of Jimmy’s. I came to check on him.
The woman, who remained a statue in the doorway, regarded me suspiciously.
I wiped my Hot-Pocket-stained fingers on my pants, then stepped forward slowly, so as not to alarm her, and extended my hand. I’m Salvatore Massimo Lunezzi. But you can call me Sal.
The woman looked at my hand, as if it were toxic, then looked into my eyes and saw me as no better than my hand. I let my hand fall limply to my side.
The woman remained still and silent and performed invasive surgery on me with her eyes. I didn’t know where to turn, as it felt like she was stripping off my skin, bit by bit. After a long torturous minute of this, I was thoroughly ashamed of the fact that I existed.
I tried to crack wise—See anything you might find useful—but my voice betrayed me. It had come from a thirteen-year-old boy blindsided by puberty.
Suddenly, the woman’s features softened and her icy demeanor melted.
I’m Anna, she said, in such a friendly voice it made me go jelly inside. She smiled extra-big, then extended her tapered ivory fingers for me to shake. I clumsily groped her fingers and shook. Her hand was soft and clean-feeling.
For those of you who might be wondering: Anna was not a scissor-legged blonde. She had dark hair. Real dark. Like a night-forest with no moon. The color of her hair violently contrasted her skin, which was white. Real white. Like bleached bones. Or virgin snow. There was something very classical, very noble, about Anna’s facial structure. Especially her nose, which reigned as the stately matriarch over the rest of her features.
Anna breezed by me and sat in the recliner. I couldn’t take my eyes off her dress. It was an aquatic green with scalloped white trim. It puffed and flared and possessed the character of a decadent pastry. Ornate, pretentious, crème-filled.
Hungry, she said, and gave me a smiling look.
My face and hands grew hot and itchy. Had she seen into the depravity of my pastry association?
Then, with a quick sideways glance, she indicated the plate on which I had eaten the Hot Pocket, and said—What’d you have?
Hot Pocket, I said, relieved by what she didn’t know.
Anna fished out a nail file from some secret pocket in her dress and began filing her glassy nails. This put me at ease and I sat down on the couch, facing her.
Mind if I sharpen a pencil?
Anna gestured—Be my guest.
I took out a pencil and my pencil sharpener and went to work. Shavings collected in the seashell ashtray set on the coffee table in front of me.
Keeping her eyes focused on her manicure, Anna said—I had to look you over in that way. Just to make sure.
I recalled her eyes and what they’d done and felt a renewed wave of shame.
What were you making sure of, I asked.
That you really were Jimmy’s friend.
Me and Jimmy grew up on the same block in Bensonhurst, I volunteered. Where you from?
Not Bensonhurst, Anna said, still not looking at me.
I kept at her. You Jimmy’s ladyfriend?
Anna laughed like I had hit her with a funny stick.
By ladyfriend, what do you mean, she said.
I don’t know, I said.
I’m not Jimmy’s I-don’t-know. Nor am I his main squeeze, as the phrasing goes. Like you, I’m Jimmy’s friend.
Anna blew nail-dust off the tips of her fingers. I stared at those fingers as they extended fully. They were like unfinished sentences implying something poetic.
Sal, Anna started and paused.
That pause, which I believe was intentional, allowed me to reflect on how it was the first time Anna had spoken my name aloud. The effect was dizzying. Like she had given birth to me, signed the birth certificate and baptized me all in one syllable.