I was sitting on the stoop as usual. It was about five a.m., the time before dawn in the Pittsburgh summer when the humidity quiets from a sweaty fever to a clammy shudder. I was smoking a cigarette, a habit I’ve been feeding and fighting half my life.
The shadows parted and a youngish man walked gently out. He came toward the stoop. I looked over when he asked to bum a smoke. I apologized for not having any more since I roll them myself for some reason.
I thought again and offered to go inside and roll a couple of sticks for him. He said he didn’t care how many but mentioned his friend was nearby. I stowed the ashy remnants of mine on top of a stoop and he promised to keep an eye on it.
I ran out of papers once I’d rolled up three fresh cigarettes, which I put in a plastic baggie. I went back to the street to find his youngish friend. The friend’s black mask was pulled under his chin so against the dark cloth his face looked a deep brown. They laughed when I told them I’d washed my hands and used water to wet the gum of the papers, for the god of the public health. I apologized for running out. I handed one of them the baggie.
We chatted. They said they lived in another part of the North Side. I had a sudden urge to listen to Bach as soon as they left.
YouTube made me watch a Biden-Harris ad first.
I met Arn through my friend Joe years ago. All three of us were veterans of the Marine Corps. We all liked beer. All of us were in some stage of life we’d move on from. The similarities probably ended there. I still love Joe but don’t know what to make of Arn.
Arn was there one time when we went bowling. Joe and I would bowl with Rachel and another friend every week with a league. Rachel wasn’t a veteran but she put up with us.
The night Arn came to the bowling alley he was energized by beer and his new acquaintance with Rachel. He told frantic stories about a childhood in what I imagined to be the fetid swamp in the Deep South. There were more stories about his purgatory in what I knew to be the powdery orange dust of the West Asian desert.
He grew self-conscious and shy when Rachel spent time listening to another frantic man from a rival bowling team. He said he was a real estate attorney. He was stocky and had padded his shoulders with layers of muscle. He talked about getting up at seven a.m. the next day for work. He bought us shots of liquor and chasers of pickle juice, probably to act like at some point Russians liked him enough to teach him how to drink. “На здоровье,” he said in a fratty lilt.The rest of us were convinced he was on cocaine. The lawyer threw strikes and spares from the hip all night. Rachel went home with Arn instead.
The next time I saw Arn was Halloween. Rachel said she was going out with friends in her grad-student neighborhood. One of Rachel’s friends was dressed as a penguin. Arn came. He was drunk by the time we moved from the first bar to another.
Arn told some more frantic stories to Rachel and her friends. He was narrow with a hollow chest. He wore a tight red t-shirt like casing for his torso, which was shaped like a Slim Jim. He turned to get a drink when he got lost in a tale where no one followed him.
“Are you dating that guy?” said a woman who seemed to be there with the penguin.
Rachel’s face moved but I didn’t hear her over the weekend-night chatter.
“Oh well I was gonna say...” The friend didn’t say what she would have said.
Arn came back with a Jack and Coke. He talked about doing shots and told more stories. I went to get a beer. I wanted it to dull the noise but it didn’t. I came back as someone was listening to him talk about the dusty purgatory. Maybe it was about an injury he kept hinting at. He started talking about an explosion. “We picked pieces of my friend up off the street,” he said in an anxious drawl. “We had to walk across the street to get the other pieces of him.”
“What war were you in?” said the penguin.
Arn was getting another Jack and Coke.
The only people I knew in the group left early. When we heard last call at the third bar, Rachel invited us to her apartment. Arn insisted on moving his Jeep and disappeared before anyone talked him out of it. We stopped at the penguin’s house, where he changed into gym shorts and a t-shirt. When Rachel, the penguin and his date, their friend and I got to Rachel’s Arn was waiting outside the building. Rachel let us in.
Arn sat on the couch but got up quickly to look for liquor. He left a nine-millimeter pistol where he’d been sitting. He said he’d gotten it from his Jeep. Everyone else exchanged looks. The only booze Arn could find was a handle of Cointreau that he upended over his tilted-back head. I took a swig when he offered and it tasted like orange-scented cleaning fluid. When I wandered back to the living room of the small one-bedroom the gun was gone, with the holster it was in. I looked at Rachel’s three friends, who’d configured themselves around a love seat on the far side of the living room from the kitchen. I made a pistol shape with my fingers and a question mark with my face. They motioned to the drawer of a chest where they’d hidden it.
Arn was on Rachel’s laptop. He started one song. Then another and so on. Finally he settled on a sappy political tear-jerker called “Bushonomics.” Somewhere in the first verse he started pounding his fist on the table next to the laptop. He slammed the laptop shut and gave the laptop another slam with his fist for good measure. Rachel asked him what was wrong. He coughed out the n-word in sentences we couldn’t follow. He said something about cops. He talked about wanting to shoot someone who could shoot him back.
He kept swearing and slurring when Rachel patted him on the back and I told him he’d be okay. Soon he was up and pacing the living room past the loveseat and looking at the floor. Being in the room with his rage felt like standing in the hot stream of air that comes from a sidewalk grate. I looked at the drawer where the gun was to make sure it was shut.
“It’s okay,” said the penguin, trying to act like he was talking to someone other than himself, “Arn.”
Arn kept up his parade around the room. His face was twisted and streaked with tears. It had turned the same blood-hot color as his ill-fitting shirt. He staggered past the love seat again and back to the table where Rachel stood. He descended back toward the love seat.
I didn’t know what I was doing until later when I realized I’d grabbed him and squeezed hard. We stood there like exhausted teenagers trying to slow dance. I let him go when he stopped shaking.
Rachel was watching us. The rest of the room pretended not to. At least it was finally quiet enough for me to think.
“Whew,” Arn said. He tried a little too hard to laugh. “Sorry guys. I don’t know what happened. I’m back. Whew!”
“Welcome back Arn!” someone said after a tense moment of silence.
I don’t think he was back then. Maybe he is now.
We went to look at a house in our neighborhood. It was on the same corner as Randyland. Randyland is what would happen if Willy Wonka had been born with a bigger heart and no profit motive. Randy’s a minor celebrity in Pittsburgh.
The house was three stories with several bathrooms and several bedrooms. It was listed for very cheap and being sold as-is. There were good reasons for that, but it represented the possibility of a permanent foothold in our nice neighborhood.
The ad on the Internet had photos. It showed rooms whose floors were covered in scattered clothes, scraps of discarded objects and things that might’ve once been someone’s toys. Decrepit-looking furniture punctuated the mess. One photo in particular showed a room with a tripod next to a caved-in mattress—perhaps an artist’s studio? There were no pictures of the bathrooms. We had a good enough sense of what we were walking into that we made sure we didn’t wear sandals.
The realtor we’d made an appointment with was named Nadine. She and her partner, Kyle, were waiting when we arrived. They were in their late-20s with smooth dress shirts on. He wore trim gray trousers of a thin-looking fabric. She wore a black pencil skirt. Both of them had faces carefully framed by their hair. We all had masks on and greeted each other with uncertainty about the etiquette of shaking hands.
“Now, there’s a tenant in there right now, Kyle said, “but he knows the situation. He has an arrangement with the owner where he knows he’ll have to move when they sell.” Kyle added something about the tenant having agreed to pen his two dogs for the showing.
The house had just been listed. Young couples were alighting from cars and SUVs they parked nearby. They blinked in the hazy searchlight of the midday sun. They were in smart trousers and neat shirts and other clothes they’d probably want to be photographed in. Kyle receded through the front doorway. He returned to say the dogs were safely confined.
For minutes after we went inside all I could feel was the smell of raw humanity and the dogs and any number of things I couldn’t place. I filled my lungs with air every time I was close to the open door. My throat was opening and closing itself to yank my stomach up into my chest. My system’s open revolt made it hard to walk upright. We made a short walk-through of the ground floor, past a living room where I saw a Steelers jersey draped over something and bedding tangled in scattered furniture. We went to the kitchen. To the side of the kitchen the outline of a man slumped in an alcove. Back at the front of the house we mounted the staircase to the second floor, which I barely registered.
The artist’s studio was on the third floor, a walk-up attic. The mattress was still there. So was the tripod, which tilted because one leg was propped up on something. My stomach had calmed enough for me to notice the heavy air that comes from hot wood and insulation. We even descended for a quick tour of the basement. I pretended to care about figuring out where the puddle that streaked across the floor was coming from. I couldn’t have figured it out if I tried.
The angry two athletic dogs became louder than ever when we returned to the first floor. In the kitchen I looked again at the figure of the man in the alcove. His broad back was covered in a loose t-shirt. He was half-sitting half-leaning on the arm of a fraying easy chair. He must’ve had his arms in front of himself because I couldn’t see his hands.The bristly dark curls of his hair at the top of his neck were all I could see of his bowed head. I wondered if the realtors felt his shame or not. I wondered if I did.
Back outside we looked at the brickwork on the outside walls and the yard, which had a stone fountain. Nadine and Kyle proposed different versions of what the place could look like as we talked about financing. A hand parted the blinds in the window that looked out from the kitchen onto the small yard and then let the blinds snap back into place. I asked about liens. They didn’t know of any. If there were, they were the least of the things haunting the place. The sales team warned us the place would sell fast. It probably did.
The first two of these stories resolved themselves in what a priest might call acts of grace. Maybe in some true stories there isn’t one.