The guy is shouting swears I’ve never heard—filthy, sexual slurs that make me ashamed to be female. I sink beneath an afghan even though the air is stifling, and watch him yell at a woman with a strawberry blonde ponytail, not unlike my own. Their profiles are just above a café curtain. The man’s ash blonde hair is slicked back. More ash than blonde. Everything about him is gray, his eyes, his skin, his sweaty, sleeveless T-shirt. I can’t see his fingernails, but I’m sure they smell like cigarettes. A fluorescent kitchen light gives their white metal cabinets the blue tinge of a vague bruise.
I’ve never seen a couple fight. The guy’s jaw clenches. The woman is mute. Her face would be pretty but for its contortion at every verbal blow—lips pursed, brow furrowed—like in fourth grade when I rode my turquoise Schwinn barefoot over the bump at the end of our driveway, and my right foot slipped off the pedal. My big toe dragged over crumbled asphalt until it was a rosy pulp. The childhood maxim, “Sticks and Stones…” runs through my mind like a neon lie.
I know I shouldn’t be listening, but they are louder than the leading man played by Gordon MacRae. He’s a carnival barker singing about his unborn daughter, “My little girl, pink and white as peaches and cream is she.” Moments after his reverie, he’s stabbed in a ballet knife fight, leaving his young wife and daughter to fend for themselves.
Being adopted, I’ve never met my own father, my flesh and blood father. The pathos in the melody stings that spot in my history. I stare at the girl in the window and wipe my cheek with the soft blanket. Are my tears for her? Or me?
Probably I should stop sniveling and shout, Cut it out! Or is this where you’re supposed to call the cops?
Instead I ease the window shut, pull the shade, turn off the TV, and clunk the same bike I had in fourth grade, down, down, down the stairs to the street where I can pump away.
I careen around the corner making my own breeze, around the block to Main, past the library, past the movie theater, past the laundromat, past the A & P, and up the hill past a dead end named Witch’s Path.
By the time I cycle back to Elmdale, a shirtless guy is standing in the middle of the street only a few houses down from my apartment. A beer can in one hand, gesticulating with the other, he’s yelling at another bare chested guy on the first floor porch directly opposite. I know they’re dads only because they’re screaming about their children.
Street Dad shakes his fist. “Keep your F’ing son out of my house!”
I slow my bike and bump over the curb to the sidewalk. Porch Dad stomps off his stoop and marches toward Street Dad. Their hairy bellies almost buck.
Quietly, I drag my bike back upstairs. I can still hear Porch Dad shouting. “Fine. My son doesn’t want to play with your F’ing son ever again.”
I peek out the bedroom window until both dads have retreated to their sweltering apartments. Show over.
I can’t imagine Mr. Thompson, my childhood neighbor, who cut his lawn in spotless chinos, ever crossing Bentley Road to threaten my father about my shenanigans with his daughter, Helen.
When John returns home, he asks if I want to go to the movies. Without a car, our only choice is The Exorcist, playing just blocks away.
I admit the head-swiveling, green-vomit-spewing girl really freaks me out, especially when her little girl voice drops to the throaty bass of the demon controlling her body. Walking home in the growing dark, in the super-heated air of a humid summer evening, not even John’s presence can calm me.
I wouldn’t swear all the events described above actually happened on the same day, but that’s how my memory has filed them—together: the fatherless left to fend for themselves, in a world where lovers cannot love, where grown men fight like children, where there’s no antidote for evil, but Jesus incarnate.
At the time I saw myself as an innocent observer. Now I know, the power of the cross is not for mere voyeurs.