Crickets, August's harbingers of autumn, chirped merrily, filling him with a slight and inchoate depression. Memories evoked, sunny summer vacation cratering to back-to-school gray. Still it signaled the close of this workday, carpentry at a farm outside of Wakefield. Nick's boss, Billy, a potbellied retired NCO, snorted at Nick as Billy trundled to his tail-finned old Plymouth.
Astride his new orange Kawasaki with its three cylinders of power, Nick breezed back to Providence, to his apartment. A quick shower, then he slipped into a pair of clean jeans and a denim shirt, top two buttons open, zipped down the stairs and stepped onto the wide front porch of the careworn Angell Street Victorian. Once upon a time, it was a family's home. Now, two apartments, each one an entire floor. Nick lit a Salem, crossed Thayer Street, and over to the new McDonald's, a slight limp to his step.
"I'll have a Big Mac, fries, a chocolate shake, and an apple pie. Please."
In a jiffy he was handed a paper bag and was settled in a booth near the front window, staring out at the college kiddies, RISDoids and Brownies, wandering homeward. Some were treading to shabby apartments on the outskirts of Fox Point. Nick wondered about those chumps, paying too much for a crummy neighborhood, with a notorious tyrant landlord, a guy who bought building after building, an empire of substandard housing. Why would someone choose to rent from him? Nick paid $10 less per month than Evie, a chick he knew in one of those Fox Point dumps. And he had more room, with easy access to the vitality that is Thayer Street, the boutiques, restaurants, bookstores, a record shop. "Dumb bunny," he thought while lighting a cig. She'd told him about the time she'd been three months arrears in rent and spread her legs to get off the hook. He shook his head, and watched the world stream by. So much for her women's lib jive. It's a man's world. Under his breath he crooned, "And it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl..." Evie? No morals.
Very soon it will be September. Then October's splendor bursting into November. And before you know it, winter in full New England force. "This sure ain't Texas."
Besides the pickup day jobs, Nick made a few extra bucks selling weed to the college population. To help fit in, he lied about attending Colorado State for a few semesters. And he bought a pawn shop Nikon, learned his way around a darkroom he set up in the spare room. "Hey, I'm an artist," he chuckled to himself. "I'm expressin' myself! Just push a button, take a snap of some lonely hag on a park bench or a leafless tree or a clump of carnie freaks on lunch break or—the all-time favorite!—a grimacing towhead with a cap gun, and I'm a regular Michelangelo." The first lesson he learned on the path to becoming a fine art photographer: B&W only. Color is for boobs. B&W is serious, intellectual. Again he laughed, rolling ash off the end of his cig into a metal ashtray, working the tip to a point before taking another drag. He was in a group show downtown. It wasn't much of a gallery, just a frame shop, exhibition in the backroom, but he sold a picture now and again. His walls had a few, but not too many, examples of his work, framed and matted. And the same treatment for a Picasso print and a Lichtenstein poster. Classy look, he thought. Better than Fillmore posters taped up.
Another trick he learned on the road to respectability: stash the Grand Funk LPs in a closet, leave some Fairport and Traffic albums in plain view. (And a Beethoven. He'd bought a used Beethoven album for a quarter at the Sally Army, and even listened to it a couple of times while stoned. It wasn't too bad!) Ditto the Playboy and Mad mags versus copies of Psychology Today and Art in America, and a couple of poetry books, Corso, Plath. Ever since he was colossally ditched by Gabby, the love of his life, a year ago, Nick aimed to bang a bevy of primo co-eds, even an occasional prep brat from Wheeler. Dismissed were delusions of love or romance. When you get down to brass tacks, we're all animals. Live for today. How's the ad phrase it? "You only go around once in life. So grab all the gusto you can." And he could strum a few jazz chords on the folk guitar leaning against the wall in a corner. That and good weed didn't hurt his case. Nick played the blue-collar card to good effect, could use it to charm the pants off a rich bitch. "These girlies will settle down with a doctor or a lawyer—an attorney—but I'll get in the early licks. Years from now maybe I'll bump into one around town with her hubby. I'll give her a wink. Knew you when you were young and wild and juicy, begging." He'd taken Polaroids and glossies of a bunch, kept a scrapbook. Grade AAA got the glossy treatment. "Amazing what some will do in front of a camera. Anyhoo, tomorrow's a work day, so to bed, catch some Carson."
He was idly smoking a joint, watching Ed McMahon bend forward and guffaw to Sammy Davis, Jr. cracking wise, when the phone rang. He leaned over to pick it up and heard a voice whisper, "Nick?"
"Yeah, who's this?"
It took Nick a few moments to link the voice and the name to a face. Then it began to fall into place, that Wheeler gal, a senior, she'd said. Geez, what was it, a month or two ago? Cute little thing, but he'd forgotten all about her. Overbite, long straight jet-black hair, freckles... It was coming into focus.
Nick sat up. "What!"
"Pregnant. Don't know what to do."
"Y'know, dad has lotta guns. And friendly with mobsters, and all. I mean, he's not mafia, or anything. We're Irish. But if you're in construction in this town, well, mob's involved, and all."
"Oh! Wait! I hear my mom!"
Nick sat there, in a cold sweat, and listened to the dial tone for nearly a minute before hanging up. From another planet, Ed McMahon said, "Hey oh!"
Nick rose, went to the kitchen. His fist came down with a loud bang on the countertop. "Dammit!" He paced the kitchen tiles, back and forth, back and forth, cursing. He couldn't recall her last name. In fact, didn't even know if he ever knew her last name. "Dammit!" A high school kid! Pregnant! "Dammit!" From downstairs a guy yelled, "Hey! We're trying to sleep!" Nick trotted out of the building, down the front steps, onto Angell Street, headed east to Wayland Square. Everything was closed, of course, even the Newport Creamery. But that was fine. He had no desire to see or talk to anyone. He just wanted to walk and walk and walk. "Tracy! What kind of name is that, anyway? It's a bubblegum song!"
It'd been a Friday night, frat party at Brown. They did something in a closet, then back to his place? They'd been so high. But on what? Pot and wine? Yes, lots. Downers too? Opiated hash? Mescaline? It was fuzzy. There might've been acid in the wine.
"She knows where I live and has my number and her father is a gun nut. I'm dead. Man, oh man, oh Manischewitz!" Nick wandered empty suburban streets off tony Blackstone Boulevard until dawn, then trudged home, managed an hour's sleep. Groggy, he rode to work, slogged through the day, Billy on his back, barking, "Wake up! Hop to! Jay-zuz!"
A day later Nick came home to find a note slid under his door. It read: Meet me tomorrow. 4:00. Dick's Bookstore.
The note was on pink paper. At the bottom Tracy had drawn a red heart. In crayon.
Nick looked up the bookstore in the phonebook. Downtown, desolate area.
A little after 3:00 the next day, Nick left work early, much to the fury of Billy. He parked his Kawasaki in front of Dick's, went into the gloomy old shop and found Tracy towards the front in the travel section thumbing through a coffee-table book. She heard him enter, looked up and smiled tentatively. Braces!
"Wait! You have braces?"
"Yuh. Got 'em last week."
"How old are you?"
"What! You mean you're 13!"
"And seven months..."
Nick hissed, "Didn't you say you were a senior?"
"Mebbe said that. Don't 'member. You got me pretty wasted. Look. Talked to older girl. Junior. Last year she was in similar spot, and all. Parents took her to Puerto Rico for... operation. But I can't tell my parents 'bout this. We're Catholic, and all."
Nick braced himself, both palms against a table of moldering books. He inhaled old book dust and exhaled old book dust. He fought a wave of vertigo.
Tracy continued, "Mebbe we can elope. On your motorcycle. Run away to one of those hillbilly states! Di'n't Elvis marry 12-year-old sister, or something? If they'll do that, we're pretty golden, and all." She stood up straight and smiled, braces glinting in the smidgeon of sunlight that fought through the grimy front window. Her green eyes were radiant.
"Whoa, Nellie! Hold your horses, just one minute! Whoa, whoa, whoa! Marriage? Are you crazy?"
A look of shock sprang onto Tracy's face, she began to whimper, her lower lip trembling. Then she let out a long low dreadful moan before breaking into a full wail, head thrown back, arms taut and vertical at her sides, tiny fists clenched tight. From the back of the shop, lit by an overhanging bare bulb, the ancient proprietor looked up from his nap. Under his green eyeshade the hermit crab shot, "If'n yer gonna put on a show, take it to Broadway! No shenanigans in here! Out!"
Walking down an empty side street, Tracy sobbed uncontrollably while Nick had his hands on her shoulders, guided her along, tried to soothe her. "Listen, let's go in there. I'll get you an ice cream soda. How's that? Just stop crying, settle down." He took his bandana and wiped tears from her face, then held it to her nose. "Blow." Snurrrk!
"We'll work something out, kiddo. I promise. Cross my heart, hope to die." He was talking just for the sake of talking, to get her mind on a different track. Tracy snuffled and nodded her head. Nick skipped ahead a few steps to Mike's Diner, held the door for her. But when he looked she was gone. Then he saw her waving from a bus window as the bus pulled away from the curb.
Dazed, Nick got on his Kawasaki, rode home. Once he almost rear-ended an Impala stopped at a light. "Dammit!"
That night, again watching, or half-watching, Carson, his mind not able to focus on much, the phone rang.
"Hi! It's Tracy!"
"What happened? Why'd you take off?"
"Uh, 'membered. Hadda be home. Forgot."
"Anyhow. Talked to 'nother girl. I think I know how to get the... operation, you know..."
"She knows a lady in Boston, lives on Beacon Hill. Retired doctor. She does the... operation in her home. Big house."
"Okay. Now you're thinking sensibly."
"But it's gonna cost. The abor... the operation."
"Okay. How much? I'll pay for it."
"And traveling expenses. I can tell my parents I'm visiting my friend, Emily, and her family for Labor Day weekend, they'll buy that. But need hotel money. And restaurant money. And incidental money. And hafta bring older girl, legal adult, and all, for hotel, say we're sisters."
"Okay. No sweat. How much?"
"She says, altogether, $3000."
"Gotta go! My dad!"
Nick paced his bedroom, calibrated numbers, muttering to himself, "I'll try to get extra hours at work, clean out most of my bank account, sell the Kawasaki, get a beat sickle for 40 or 50 bucks just to get around. If it breaks down, I'm a decent mechanic. But man! My Kawasaki! I'll have to hustle some weed on the street. I hate to do that, but... Ernie at the gallery might be able to advance me some bread on my pictures. Maybe. He's a tight bastard. Where am I gonna come up with three grand?" A guy downstairs yelled, "C'mon! Quit tromping around! We're trying to sleep!"
After school Friday, Tracy stopped by and he handed her a manila envelope, three grand in cash. After she left, Nick went to the backyard, to his just registered 1968 Honda CD50, and gave the bike a swift kick to the rear tire, knocking it over. The mirror broke off. "Dammit!"
Saturday found Nick at a junkyard, scrounging a mirror. On Sunday he fretted. What if Tracy died under the knife in Beantown? She was a pain, but he didn't want her to die. She's just a kid!
And on Monday, Billy fired him. Nick showed up to find a new guy, a husky fellow with a crewcut, doing his job. Billy bellied up to Nick and gleefully sing-songed, "Beat it, punk! Had it with you! Don't wanna work? Plenty who do!" Then, chin raised, "In case you no com-pree-hen-doh, am-scray, hippy-dippy!"
After six kicks the Honda revved, but crapped out pulling onto the road. A speeding sedan swerved to avoid hitting Nick, the driver leaning on the horn. Nick heard the work crew laughing at him. "Get a horse!" Laughter. "Real swift, Easy Rider!" Laughter.
Wednesday afternoon, at the kitchen table with a copy of The Providence Journal, Nick was scouring the help wanted ads when the phone rang. He jotted to his bedroom, picked it up and said, "Hello!"
"Hi, Nick. Tracy."
"Geez, I've been waiting to hear from you! On tenterhooks! How'd it go?"
"Okay. Had good time. Colonnade's really neat! Ate like a pig. Room service, and all."
"Yeah, yeah, fine. But how are you? How... how did it go?"
"Ummm... Nuh. Di'n't get operation."
"Yuh. Decided keep our baby."
"Gotta go, sweetheart. Mom just got home. Love ya! Soooo much!" Tracy made some kissy noises and hung up.