Kimmie gave me a dress. She came over one afternoon and knocked on my door, "This dress doesn't fit me anymore, its too small! But it will look great on you! Take it." It was a black linen dress, very plain, with short sleeves, but it was sort of elegant, like something I would pack for a weekend on the Canary Islands, those couple of days to get away from the light house for some sun and flirtation with fishermen who didn't speak my language.
I wore the dress to work at the library the next day. I hadn't worn a dress in a year at least and it transformed me somehow. And what ever color it put in my cheeks, whatever it did to lighten my step, was noticed by a stranger on my walk home. He was neatly dressed, weighted down by a backpack, he carried himself like a Graduate Student. I passed him in front of the Tate Street Post Office, in the shadow of the train trestle that I walked under every night to get home to Silver. "Beautiful!" He said to me as I passed him, "You are just lovely." And I smiled and he kept walking toward campus and I kept on my trail home. I had never seen him before, and never saw him again, but I've never forgotten him. Occasionaly, that rare phenomenom of feeling beautiful comes over me now, all these years later, and I think of the Graduate Student who told me so. The dress is long gone though.
Not long after I moved into Silver, the old Bitch who lived across the street called my Landlord. She spotted me walking into the building with my boyfriend, the Punker who would be my husband some day, and she called Eddie the Landlord's office and told his secretary, "Tell Eddie that Animal is Back!" Eddie showed up in his big black Mercedes the next day. Now, he was no Waddell, he was Big Greensboro Real Estate, he wielded alot of power in that town and he brokered it in Church on Sunday and on the Golf Course on Friday afternoons.
There was a knock on the door. I looked out my front window and saw the Mercedes. I grabbed my cat, he was a kitten, Bill the Cat, and I put him in the bathroom and told him to be quiet, he looked at me, and seemed to say, "Fish? For fish I'll keep my trap shut." I ran to the door and opened it, "Hey Mr. Eddie, what's up?"
"Can I come in?" His face was red as a summer tomato and he smelled of a just smashed cigarette. I opened the door, I let him in, and my eye immediately fell upon a cat toy sitting on the floor next to Eddie's feet . . . shit, look up, don't look at the cat toy. He sniffed. He put his fat hands on his hips and pulled his pants up. "Young lady, I received a distressing call from the neighbors this mornin."
He sniffed again, he looked down and kicked the little cat toy . . . a grey mouse with a pink tail and a bell hidden inside, there were holes in it, and cat nip was poking out . . . "cat drugs," I thought. Eddie cleared his throat, looked out my front windows, the old Bitch across the street was sitting on her porch, rocking in that chair that I would see her rocking in for the next coupla years, Waitin' To Die, I used to say about her. Her rake leaning by the front door, like her broomstick, "You gotta cat in here?"
"No sir, no Mr. Eddie. No cats, you told me no cats when I moved in." He kicked the toy again, it went across the cold hardwood floor and richocheted off the base board heaters, the heaters I would never be able to afford to turn on when winter came.
"Well, never mind that, its not cats that I'm worried about Young Lady."
"Sir?" I looked across the street and saw the old Bitch hoist herself outta the chair and disappear through her front door. It was cloudy and I saw a light go on through her window, I thought she's was probably checking on her cauldron.
"Its Pyro that I'm here about. Is that young man Pyro living here with you?"
"No sir." Pyro had warned me that Mr. Eddie hated him for something he'd had no control over a few years ago.
"Well, neighbor lady seen him walkin' in the buildin' with you. She said he didn't leave til the next morning." Boy, I thought, that old thing keeps SOME hours!
"Well, sir, Pyro is my boyfriend, but he doesn't live here with me. He lives over on Mendenhall street, in his own apartment.He's in school, studying Math." I added that part about school, cause I thought it might be impressive to Mr. Eddie. I knew what was coming, Pyro had prepared me.
"Do you know what that boy did to my property Young Lady? Did he tell you that he lived in Apartment Four? He abandoned it and left me with dog messes and holes in the walls and a missing refridgerator and a toilet laying on its side. And graffiti Young Lady, graffiti that I don't care to mention . . . " I knew that it wasn't Pyro who left this mess, it was his roommate, Pyro had left the apartment and his roommate destroyed the place, but Pyro got the blame. And the old Bitch across the street hated him cause he gave her the finger one day . . . and who wouldn't give her the finger? Standing there with her rake, pinching her face, sucking on a lemon, not minding her own damn business.
"Sir, I understand your anger and your concern . . . "
"Does your family know this boy? Have you introduced them to this boy? Because, you seem like a nice enough girl, and I don't think your Mama and Daddy would be happy if they knew you were datin' a low life like him." I listened to Mr. Eddie and then I heard Bill the Cat meow and scratch at the bathroom door. Mr. Eddie looked down the hall toward the cat commotion, he shook his head, "Never mind the cat, I don't care about the cat Young Lady. Its this Pyro that I'm concerned about. He cost me money. He owes me money. And I don't want him comin' on these premises. You hear me?"
"Mr. Eddie, can I show you something?"
"Yes, but make it quick, I got a lunch meetin' down on Elm Street in 15 minutes and that's money to me, all my meetins are about money."
"Yessir, I'll be quick." I asked him to follow me down the hall. Pyro and I had begun painting the apartment. We started in the bedroom and worked our way forward. We had only the living room, up front, to complete. Pyro had repaired all the rotting plaster, with Kilz and putty, he'd filled holes, he painted the rooms lovingly for me. He'd put down a new kitchen floor, all 8 square feet of it, in black and white checkerboard. I opened the bathroom door, Bill the Cat flew out and like an escaped convict dove under the bed, Mr. Eddie, took a pack of cigarettes out of his vest pocket and lit one. He took and long drag and inspected Pyro's handiwork.
"Young Lady, he did all this?"
"Yessir and we payed for it all ourselves, I wasn't going to ask for help on the rent, I just wanted to fix the place up so it was clean you know. Pyro did all this, and he's going to caulk the windows for me this weekend and finish painting the living room. He's in school now Mr. Eddie, he's made Dean's List every semester for two years. He's really trying to make something of himself. He's not a bum."
"The Good Lord smiles on men who try to make somethin' of themselves Young Lady, yes he does. You've made your case, I will let it stand." We walked back to the front door and he opened it to leave, I looked across the street and saw the Old Bitch was standing at her mail box, there was nothing in the mail box, but she continued to peer in, she was waiting for Eddie to come out, to tell her that he had rid the street of vermin. "Take good care of that cat, don't let him outside, the niggers'll run him over." I shut the door and sat on the floor, Bill the Cat came running down the hall, his bright orange tiger stripes looked like a sunrise and when he got to me I covered his stiff little ears, he bit me and scratched my arm, I owed him more fish, "We're all niggers here Bill, don't you forget that." Bill flipped over on his back and held my forearm between his back legs and beat and beat and whipped his tail.
My mother came to visit. I hadn't seen her for two years. Not since my old pony had been put down on her farm, only a two hour drive from Greensboro. It was the coldest time of our relationship. I had one more semester of school to go, I had wanted to change my major, from English to Anthropology, like K. V., but the family insisted I be done with it, it was time to get this school nonsense over with. I had seen her exactly three times during my college career. The day she dropped me off at the dorm with my trunk, a brief hug, and a good luck, and then a couple of visits down at her farm, I took the bus to get down there, and I stayed away after those visits, because my heart broke when I got near the horses, I missed them so much, but I wasn't to love the horses, I was to get an education, a degree, "You can't work in Allen's Clam House all your life.You can't be a polo groom. You need to get a degree and some sort of job unlike anything WE have ever done." And then when I thought it might take longer than 4 years, they said, "Get a hurry on kiddo, close it up."
I'd been left to my own devices in Greensboro -- I was like an astronaut who went out to fix some sewage line to space and my anchor let loose and I was floating around the moon, muttering to myself, "Goddammit, I'm going to miss out on the dehydrated apricots and the broadcast to Earth tonite. . . where is my lovely wife anyway? Ground Control! Ground Control! Where did you go?" But checks would arrive in my mail box and I had fallen in love with Pyro. He took me camping and that was the next best thing to horses, as far as I could tell.
"So I have a boyfriend . . ." I handed my mother a bowl of brown rice and peas, and a cup of tea. Its all I could offer her, her eyes were wide. She took comfort in the sight of my cat. Animals are the thing that she loves most. She was clearly in shock -- her daughter was living in a dump, a fire-trap, an industrial suburban landscape that screamed of poverty, crime, and well, the life she led when she first worked on the NY race tracks . . . this was the last place on earth she wanted me to be.
"What's his name?"
"Pyro . . ." I answered, and then I thought, maybe I should have told her his real name, not his nickname.
"P - Y - R - O?" she choked down some of the hot tea I had given her.
"Yes. He's going to be a mathematician."
"Is he white?" She was completely serious.
"That's good . . . is he Greek? or something . . . I mean, with a name like that . . . "
"Yes, he's white. He's from North Carolina." I didn't expand. I didn't explain that Pyro was short for Pyromaniac.
"Your cat is terrific." This was the highlight of the day. She approved of my cat.