The first night we moved in Alice heard gunshots. Then sirens. She sat motionless and wide eyed trying to make sense of it. I didn’t hear any of it — too excited about our first apartment together.
The bottom half of an old Victorian converted into a duplex, the apartment was spacious with unrelenting sea foam green carpeting throughout. I could still smell the rough scent of fresh paint excreting from the walls — so white — even the woodwork. It was home. Our home. A cheap home. Which made the price perfect for two broke college students.
And it was in the ghetto.
This was gasoline on the already fiery hatred Alice’s father had for me. I had enticed his princess to the wrong side of the tracks. I was defiling her. I was not what he wanted for his daughter. And proof that he didn’t know his daughter at all — a young lady who rebelled with sex, promiscuity a badge the men and women she bedded polished as they rolled off of her. And of course there was the drugs. Yet her family was blissfully, willfully ignorant — content to blame me rather than accept reality.
Despite Alice’s comfort with sexual violence, for the most part physical violence was a mystery — something that happened to people other than her. I should have heard the gun shots, but I didn’t.
Two weeks later, I walked into the kitchen from school, slowing as I heard voices. When I turned the corner I found Alice sitting across from a large, frumpy black woman.
She wore only one flip-flop and her hair was a mass of tight curls jutting around her face, black wires waiting to be wound, home to unidentifiable debris. She was dressed haphazardly in clothes thick with stains — some hers, some from others — and her baby blue shorts did not match the faded, multi-colored tank top. The scratches and scars up her legs were dark against her skin in some spots and in others raw and red. One wound wept cloudy fluid from just below her knee. She scratched at her arms and broken finger nails left ragged white marks between what looked like cigarette burns on her forearms.
I stammer stepped and came to a stop. “Hello? Alice? Why is there a crack head in the living room?”
Alice’s back was to me and she turned at the sound of my voice. The look on her face was equal parts dismay and relief. The unnamed guest had continued to ramble during our brief exchange, never breaking stride in a story that made no sense from the middle, never noticing my 6'2" person clouding the doorway.
“Chad, this is Beatrice. Beatrice, this is Chad, my boyfriend.” At the sound of her name Beatrice stopped talking, not suddenly but more in the manner of a dying motor…an elongated hum. She swiveled her head slowly and looked in my direction. I can’t say she looked at me. There was little focus in the eyes, bloodshot and wild.
The look of confusion on my face prompted Alice to continue. “Chad, I met Beatrice out front by the mailbox. She asked for a glass of water and followed me inside when I went to get her one. We’ve been talking for the past 20 minutes or so.”
Nicely done Alice.
“Ah, I see.” I stepped into the living room and leaned against the door frame. “How are you doing Beatrice? It’s a pleasure to meet you.” At the sound of her name Beatrice wound up and started talking again. What followed over the ensuing five minutes were fragments of a story more fantastic and disconnected by the breath, all summing up in a simple request for food and money.
If I believed what I was hearing Beatrice had at some point been kidnapped by an ex-pimp and turned on to crack which had now become a demon she wandered the streets on a daily basis trying to avoid. She was homeless and focused on getting to St. Peter’s for the night, a shelter several blocks down that required $10 for a place to sleep. Despite her rather impressive girth, she complained of being hungry, having not eaten for several days. Alice’s altruistic nature had softened me since we met and I started to feel sorry for Beatrice.
As she talked I glanced at the living room table, a hand me down affair from Alice’s parents. Originally from Ethan & Allen, the beautiful wood surface was protected by a heavy plate of glass. Across the surface, appearing like jagged cracks across a frozen pond were scratches from a razor blade. We had given up trying to be careful when lining out our coke and I realized many of us were only a few crazy nights from ending up with sticks and twigs in our hair and mysterious welts, bruises and burns on our bodies.
I motioned to the kitchen — “Alice, why don’t you get Beatrice some leftovers to take with her.” Alice was glad for the exit and slid silently past me as I reached into my wallet. I had a twenty dollar bill, which I checked to make sure wasn’t one we had used as a straw, folded it neatly and held it out. Beatrice’s hand shot out like a snake, grabbed the bill and deposited it in her bra strap, all without her eyes ever focusing on me. She thanked me, blessed me, told me I was a saint.
Alice returned with plastic containers loaded with odds and ends from the kitchen. I accepted them and started walking towards the front door, pausing long enough to make sure Beatrice would follow me.
“Beatrice, it’s been a pleasure meeting you. I am sorry for what you’ve been through but hope this helps. Good food, a good night’s rest. Tomorrow is a new day.” I spewed cliched bullshit — not caring that I sounded like a public service announcement or that my tone was as thin as my intent.
Beatrice continued to shuffle past me as I held open the front door, placing in her shaking hands the tupperware containers I never wanted to see again. She blessed us both, told us she was going to change her life around, assured us this was a new start and walked out the door. I watched her shuffle to the end of our walk, turn left (instead of right which was the direction to St. Peter’s) and then I closed the door. And locked it.
“Alice, what the fuck was that?”
Alice started to laugh, a nervous sound, full of sharp edges.
“I left the door open when I went to get her water and she just followed me in. She sat on the couch and started talking. I had no idea what to do so I waited.”
“Shit Alice….we live in the ghetto.” I wasn’t upset, not even scared. Just a little left of center. “You, me and the smack dealers upstairs are the only white people around and your dad is already pissed you moved down here with me. Telling him we are now having crack heads over might just kill him.”
She nodded and walked away. I went into the office and started working on my latest assignments. As I thought about it, I couldn’t blame Alice. The closest she had ever been to the ghetto was a television screen or a drive through on the way to something on Broadway. She had grown up in Iowa, a cheerleader, upper middle class conservative. Admitting she was sleeping with me was just a way to get back at her father — a form of rebellion she could admit to publicly while the drugs and trail of other sweaty bodies were for her own edification. Living with me was an attempt to scare him. I believed there was a pure heart behind the baggage she carried, the memories she wrestled with. I told myself it hadn’t crossed her mind a crack head might follow her into the house.
A couple hours passed and we threw something together for dinner. As we were eating and watching TV, there was a knock on the front door. I walked over and peered through the glass. I could see Beatrice swaying back and forth on the front step, another man scratching his arms on the sidewalk fifteen feet behind her, his rail thin form having a difficult time staying solid in the deepening dusk.
I opened the door just far enough to make myself fully visible, never letting go of the handle. I could feel Alice behind me.
“What’s up Beatrice?” She stood two stairs down from me, the rancid smell of her squeezing me between Alice’s curiosity. Her eyes were more bloodshot than before, darting and kinetic.
She regaled me with a story of losing the twenty dollars I had given her, having the food stolen. She had wandered her previous steps looking for the money and cursing her own luck. Neither of us called bullshit, too content in our shared understanding of where the money had really gone. She told me about Tyrone, the friend behind her, who was in worse shape than her and how we shouldn’t worry about her but knowing we were saints, to be blessed, that we would help him at least.
I listened for a few moments and interrupted her. “Sorry Beatrice. We’ve done all we can. You’re on your own now. Good luck.” I closed and locked the door and returned to my dinner. She knocked a few more times, raised her voice once and then lost interest, receding in to the night.
We went to bed joking about it, using gallows humor as an antiseptic to the now unnerving presence of Beatrice and her menagerie. The laughter was sharp and thinner than we expected. We swore we would never tell her dad about Beatrice, retreating to the imagined safety of parental figures without admitting our need to do so.
At 2 am there was a manic knock on the front door. I was awake instantly. The last thing I wanted was to draw more attention to our house. I slid my hand under the bed and pulled out my .357. I walked to the front door in my boxers, gun hanging limply as I wiped sleep from my eyes. I threw open the door this time, my irritation overriding common sense. I didn’t know what was on the other side. Or if it would bite back.
I had expected to see Beatrice. Maybe Tyrone standing there. But what I found was a woman far skinnier and older than Beatrice but no less fucked up. Her fast paced mumbling was punctuated with questions marks.
“What are you asking me?”
She continued to mumble, to rant, her sentences coalescing into something understandable . “Is Tyrone here?”
“No, Tyrone isn’t here. I don’t know Tyrone.”
“Are you sure? Beatrice told me Tyrone was here. Are you Tyrone? You’re Tyrone! I know you’re Tyrone!” She screamed Tyrone’s name.
“No, Tyrone isn’t here!” She floated up the two steps between us and started to reach for me, continually screaming for Tyrone.
“You sure Tyrone isn’t here? Come on man, I’ll blow you if you get Tyrone. Or for twenty bucks. Yeah, just twenty bucks and I’ll get ya off.”
I lost it. Whatever patience I had was gone. I placed the barrel of the gun against her forehead and screamed, “Do I fucking look like Tyrone!?!?”
Maybe it was the cold steel of the gun against her forehead. Maybe it was the tone of my voice. Or the volume. So much for discretion. But she quieted, sank within herself and stepped back down the stairs, backing up towards the sidewalk.
I slammed the door, locked it and watched through the glass as she wandered away.
As I climbed back into bed I could hear Alice chuckling. “Do I fucking look like Tyrone?” As she whispered it the laughter consumed her and I joined in. It was a release to tension we’d been trying to avoid. An escape of fear we didn’t want to acknowledge.
When I caught my breath, I whispered, “Fuck Alice….no more crack heads in the living room.” Then rolled over, wondering if I had said it for her, for me or for her father.
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