Reading the New York Daily News it showed a full-page photo of Mayor Abe Beame holding up its headlines, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” The city nearly bankrupt, President Ford wouldn’t bail it out.
I looked up and saw a muscular black youth, wearing a black, green, and red turtleneck, colors of black liberation, on my apartment’s window ledge. What struck me, at first, was fear. I saw the young man struggle to enter my living room and tried, but failed, to move around the corner to the fire escape at the building’s rear. I then stood and reached for the spear Roxy had nailed to the wall. I’d jam that spear into the thug, skewer him good, watch him fall five flights to the ground.
I was a dishwasher when I met Roxy in a small mid-Manhattan restaurant that served salads, soups, and desserts. She wore a see-through blouse, sequined short skirt, earrings that tinkled performing her server duties. Her dark bare legs a real treat for male diners as well when this bubble dancer came out of the kitchen to bus dishes. I myself glanced hard at those limbs. The trouble was that she left earlier than I did and I couldn’t ask her out.
After closing, I shined the kitchen spotless, then cleaned the tables and mopped the floor. I took the subway to 79th Street and walked up Amsterdam Avenue to 80th Street at three-thirty a.m. Too much adrenalin pumped through me from speeding through the chores. I walked fast and jittery, watching lone characters standing on either side of the block. I felt their eyes drill through me. My grungy clothes and long hair bouncing in my wake protected me from harm. My hurried steps alerted watchers that I was street smart, looking for a fix or prowling for a hooker. Or perhaps a paranoid guy who clocked the night shift and maybe packed a blade or pistol. The darkness spread from the poorer section nearer Amsterdam to the pricier townhouses nearer Columbus Avenue.
I lived very near Columbus in a crumbing building built in the late 19th century, its long halls I mopped up for extra cash, hearing tenants scream as they got sucked into black holes we all carry inside. Never approached by figures to my right or left, I often looked down at the dark pavement, feeling like a grotesque straight out of a doomsday R. Crumb comic. I drank Jim Beam to come down. I slept atop a loft on a thick foam pad, and its comfort helped annul the job.
One night I saw Roxy leave with a teenage black youth and a large white man. Roxy lost her workplace poise, giving the man a slight bow, her demeanor transformed into a TV housewife. He grabbed her arm and she resisted only momentarily. I walked to the window and saw him open the passenger door and push her inside. The teenager sat in the back and the man turned and spoke to him. The boy slouched, his head below the back window.
The next night Roxy smoked a cigarette and I joined her. She looked scared, an unfamiliar expression that I'd not seen since she had worked here for two weeks now. She talked with the diners and cooks in a crisp, upbeat manner.
“You alright?” I said.
She looked at her shoes, then her eyes bobbed and weaved until she steadied on my face. “After five years, he came back. I need a place to crash.”
Her usual empathic words now trembled. She stubbed out the cigarette on the floor, the floor I machine-polished once a week. The history of the diners’ traipsing I glossed over. This city of grime, filth, and germs: I made the floor virginal for the diners to feel special, not the sluts they were. I heard them often comment when I came out of the kitchen to grab a plastic bin of unwashed plates, bowls, and utensils. That long red scar across my right cheek. It didn’t matter to them how I obtained it. I wanted to stick my face into theirs, telling them a psychotic uniformed-army man slashed me in a bar because he thought I made a pass at him. He sat three stools down, yet he fingered me as his indispensable victim. A coincidence? They do happen. As a temp, I worked at a lower Manhattan college bookstore. A black, gay clerk said he lived on 80th Street near Amsterdam. He called those who made his homosexual life hell hoodlums.
Had that big man supported her? Where had Roxy gotten her money? Not from low wages and tips at the restaurant.
“Can I come home with you, Pending?”
“I don’t see why not.”
It wasn’t because I lived alone, keeping my apartment dark and needed company every so often. The rent was three months behind and she could help. Her dark skin, lithe body, forceful presentation of body and speech, desperate face: I had no reason not to.
I had to clean up. She read a paperback and when I was done, I locked The Harmony restaurant. We took the train to 79th Street. We walked the five flights. The strange dark hallways spooked Roxy. Thankfully, I never remembered my nightmares. Darkness kept them sealed off, and lessened the chances for clinical depression and suicide. I had opposite responses than other people.
I opened the rickety door. The landlord wouldn’t provide a solid door with a steel bar slotted in a metal groove in the floor, angled into a slot in the door, making break-ins difficult.
“Sit anywhere. Not much furniture, what’s here came from city sidewalks.”
“Deprivation doesn’t mean it’ll last forever,” she said, taking off her denim jacket.
I pulled two Rhinegolds from the fridge and we sat at the kitchen table. The roaches hadn’t yet made their appearance. I hadn’t put on WNEW, the best rock station in the city. We drank in silence except when we swallowed beer; noises from our throats I hadn’t thought about until then.
“Feel comfortable here?”
“You mean safe, don’t you?”
“That big guy. And the teenager. How are you connected with them?”
“Because I’m Japanese and African, who’s related to whom? You don’t think that odd, do you?”
“Odd is why you’re here and not with them.”
Roxy asked for another beer and I grabbed two.
“I have a place of my own that Rip doesn’t know about. I want my son Marcus with me but Rip still keeps him hostage. He thinks I’ll do whatever he tells me. But not anymore.”
“Is he your husband? Where does Marcus come into this?”
“My parents were killed by the French in 1959 in Senegal. I married a Senegalese man after both my parents were killed. A Communist, they imprisoned him so I left for New York.”
“Why did they go to Senegal?”
“My parents had to leave Japan. It was war and they were Communists. Militarists would’ve executed them if they’d stayed in Tokyo. They thought Dakar was safer.”
“Ironic, wasn’t it.” I sounded like a physician asking patients to describe their symptoms.
“Another thing I want you to know. I’m not a citizen but have a green card.”
“You can work.”
“I teach a clandestine kendo class in Harlem. But I need more money to live and have no skills other than kendo.”
“So Rip can’t find you except at Harmony’s.”
“Last night was the first time I saw him in five years. Rip blackmailed me. He has evidence linking me with the murder of a racist school administrator.”
She rose, stretched, and told me to stand too. She moved her hands as if she held something, aiming for my head, wrists, shoulders, torso, knees, and ankles. Roxy shouted more ferocious with each thrust than I could if highly outraged. But it wouldn’t match her bloodthirsty salvos. She looked fierce and beautiful with each blitz.
“You scare the hell out of me,” I said, grabbing a beer can and pretending to defend myself. She frowned.
“That tells my opponent I’m supremely charged when I strike him with my kendo black teak wood sword. We’re in body armor, of course.”
“Would you use kendo on Rip?”
She thought a moment, beads of perspiration on her face. “The way of the sword, that’s what kendo means. It’s the samurai code.”
“If you had a sword, would you get Marcus back that way?”
“I don’t have a sword. I have a Sasaho yari, a long, steel blade, and shaft. A spear.”
“I’ve seen Japanese spears in movies. How’d you get one?”
“My father’s grandfather passed it on. I’ll give it to you if you come to my place so I can get some things. OK?”
“Are you sure Rip won’t be around?
“We’ll go there in the morning. He’s a strong sleeper, takes barbiturates to get buried beneath the sod.”
“Sure. Around seven a.m.?”
“Fine. Where do I sleep?”
I said she could use the loft. I’d sleep on the couch. She won’t be working at The Harmony anymore. No need to ask.
We ate stir-fried potatoes, egg omelets and gulped down orange juice for breakfast. We took the Broadway-7th Avenue local at 79th to 137th and City College. It was a crisp fall morning in West Harlem and we walked a few blocks east to her studio apartment.
It was dark and she lit thick candles, taking out two duffel bags and began jamming stuff into them. “That’s the yuri,” she said, pointing at it standing upright in the corner. She held up a kerosene lantern to see. “No need for electricity.” Her curtains drawn, light kept at bay, as if she expected a drive-by. Rip had a death-grip on her.
I asked how she would take it to my place without raising suspicions.
“I’ll carry on the train like an objet d’art. Riders will know it’s a museum piece. Trust me.”
Across the aisle on the train, a black man, well dressed in a white sport jacket and white tie, a black flower in his lapel, stared at the spear in her hand. He looked at Roxy, smiled, and gave the power fist, then the peace sign.
“I like your black bat flower. Where’d you get it?”
“A florist sold them on Lenox Avenue. Nice, uh.”
“Very rare. It means everything works out for the best.”
Silently I watched Roxy’s tight grip around the spear.
Back at my place, she pounded nails in the wall and placed the spear on them. We sat on chairs, their cushions sagging, admiring it.
“You know, Pending, I really did shoot kill that man. 1970, just five years ago. It was radical politics then. Extremes fascinated me but not now.”
An accomplished woman.
“What do you want these days?”
“Equilibrium. He kidnapped ten-year-old Marcus after I escaped from his townhouse. My bullets were aimed at Rip.”
“You could’ve chanced it and called his bluff.”
Her expression told me that was idiotic.
“If I pressed charges, Rip would’ve told the police everything he knew about the murder. He has vast connections. And he might torture Marcus and drop him in a Dumpster.”
“Still, you planned the administrator’s murder. Why kill that man rather than Rip?”
“Marcus might’ve been hurt or killed in the crossfire. Rip has all sorts of weapons.”
“So now kendo replaces that hate and fear.”
“In ’70 I channeled it through what passed for revolutionary political change. I had to strike back and chose the administrator. I’d lived in a dungeon’s cage.”
“If you wanted to kill you could’ve picked me.” What an altruist I was.
“Imagine champagne bottles, carrots, whips, shackles, rope, urine, horse penises, blood, duct tape, ball gags, reeking old men, teenage boys and girls, many mens' sperm dripping from my face, choking me with two dicks slamming into my mouth until I gagged and spit out vomit. And there were hundreds of others exploited.” Her voice faroomed through me, jumbling my brain, disorienting any assurance of security, but I rebounded, saying:
“I feel we should dance, listen to Frank Sinatra songs, our bodies swaying, how people were so free from harm once.” If I were more human, I’d head for the toilet and heave my guts out, knowing how false that remark was. “Lies are always safer.”
“I’m sleepy,” she said, yawning.
She went to the bedroom. It was four-thirty. I should call in sick but hadn’t ever felt at ease with protocol; etiquette sickened me too, so I didn’t.
“Drop dead, punk,” I said as the black teen fought to gain purchase on the window ledge outside the living room window. I grabbed the spear, ready to run him through the back. He profiled his face in his effort not splatter below. It was Marcus. I opened the window and pulled him in.
“How the hell did you know where I live?” I hadn’t bothered asking why he made the climb. Sherpas would rather climb Mt. Everest than this building.
“Rip’s outside. I walked across the roofs from Amsterdam. The leap from the last building to the ledge was tricky. I wanted to warn you."
Roxy burst out of the bedroom, hearing her son’s voice. She hugged and kissed him, holding him tight.
“Rip’s outside in the BMW,” Marcus told her. He grabbed the spear from my hands. “That door couldn’t keep out a pussy cat,” Marcus said.
I felt I had sunk into a dark pit: I wasn’t reliable.
“He forgot to lock the car door. I leaped out when he drove me to a john ‘s place.”
I saw the working end of a crowbar pry open the door. It took a few seconds. He had the build of a professional wrestler without the theatrics. He couldn’t see Marcus holding the spear in a small room to the left. Roxy decoyed him, the kendo raised as if she’d attack him by swinging it against his head. He stepped farther in the apartment. Marcus drove the spear into the side of Rip’s heart, yanked it back, blood pouring out of Rip. Marcus thrust the spear again, and again into the wound. Rip turned and watched Marcus’s grin. He took one step towards him and Marcus pierced him dead-on through his thick neck.
The three of us dragged the body into the living room. Then I carefully cleaned up the mess. I had enough household cleaning supplies to do the job.
Roxy drove the BMW to the townhouse on the Upper East Side. I sat in the back with Marcus in front. Marcus showed us where Rip’s office was and we found stacks of cash in his desk. Plush to say the least; I was envious. Marcus got his clothes and two handfuls of books.
“For a spell, these books walled off the hell men did to me. I helped make Rip a rich man.”
“How could you read in a dungeon?” I said.
“Sometimes he let me out. Rox had her own cage before she escaped. Where should we go, Rox?” Marcus’s face changed from jubilant, standing over Rip’s dead body, to fear.
“To my place. Then we’ll think about the future.”
We drove to the Harlem apartment. After two weeks she gave me cash when we decided it was too cramped for three. I shook hands and then they hugged me. I decided to leave the city.
Years and years later, I look for drudge work, mostly from one dish washing job to another. I travel east and west, north and south, roads and highways taking me across the country. Peace comes with sleep. Its darkness saves my life.
Drop dead, America.