Staring out the lone window, watching the quiet street below, Red Mazzo absentmindedly tugged at his beard and tapped his foot to a song's light beat. Feeling peaceful and easy, like the song playing on his portable GE radio, he sat in the worn rocker in his attic apartment, the top floor of his parents’ house. Re-lighting his pipe, he puffed until he got the Borkum Riff good and hot, the tar at the bottom sizzling.
A searing and sunny June day, almost noon, Red was taking a break from writing a new poem, one he'd been struggling with, the inspiration eluding him. All he'd written was, "From winter's gaze, the ice glaze, a crystalline maze, proffers theme." He'd crumpled pages and tossed them into the metal waste basket, and this sliver was all he had to show for his efforts. Ah well, been on a good run of late. Couldn't last forever.
Mid-puff, he spotted her loveliness sashaying down the sidewalk, on his side of the street. No, not nearly close enough to touch, but close enough to take his breath away. Then she was gone, leaving Red to wonder if she'd been a mirage. He stood up to crane a clearer view and bonked his head on the severely slanted ceiling. "Dammit!"
Maybe fresh air would do him good? His tobacco was running low, a good excuse for a stroll to Petersen's Drugstore. Red stretched and looked around his tiny room. It was stuffed with books crammed into thrift shop bookcases, a lot of it poetry: Beats, Romantics, Moderns, etc. In a corner sat a corrugated cardboard box of LPs: all of Bob Dylan, The Band, along with other favorites, Dave Bromberg, John Prine, Joan Baez, The Rose Garden, Poco, Jim Croce, about 60 altogether. On a roller stand above the box, a Panasonic stereo, same one he'd had since high school, Christmas a decade ago. He'd never bought a new needle, so to grind through skips he'd taped a nickel to the tonearm.
Red trotted downstairs, out the front door, down the gravel drive, onto he sidewalk, walking on sunshine, a bounce in his buckle shoes, bell-bottom jean hems a-flapping. He slapped his back pocket to make sure he had his wallet, and spanked his bottom a few more times, a giddyap. Despite a bit of writer's block, he felt playful, on the verge of something.
Entering Petersen's he was hit with an arctic blast of air conditioning, too frigid for his short-sleeves. Tobacco was behind the register, he'd get that on his way out. First, Red headed to a mid-aisle and crouched at the magazine rack's low tier, scanning for Writer's Digest. It never hurt to remain vigilant regarding the craft, and they had lists of places to submit. Currently, Red had 29 poems under his belt, so far unpublished. A week ago he'd gathered the courage to send a few to regional reviews, reckoning he had a better chance with one of those. Break in there, then attempt national. Submitting was an ordeal for him; rejection was a descent into fury and despair.
To Red's pleasant surprise, they had latest edition of Writer's Digest. He walked it up front and was staggered to see the beautiful sidewalk girl manning the register.
Ringing up his magazine, she said, with an insouciance that relaxed Red, "Oh... Are you a writer?" Her voice reminded him of the toy xylophone in his kindergarten class, the one that delighted him as he sat apart from the other tykes.
"Heh! Well, yes. A poet. Unpublished, to date. But last week I sent several poems out for consideration. Fingers crossed, heh, heh." His toes curled and uncurled, curled and uncurled as he removed a dollar from his wallet.
"Huh! I'm an English major, Vassar, Class of '77. So two more years, then we'll see what happens. The real world, y'know," she feigned a shudder, then smiled. Her smile was like a carnival ride around the sun.
Red heard himself say, "Marist, Class of '73, and oh yeah, English major," as he marveled at her teeth were so even, so perfect. And her blonde hair, straight, parted on one side, about an inch above lithe shoulders. And those blue eyes, the spray of freckles across her button nose... She said, "Which poets do you favor? Which current ones?"
"Well, have you read 'Gathering the Bones Together' by Gregory Orr?"
"I simply adore Gregory Orr!" She laughed and said, "How about that? A spontaneous poem!"
They both laughed, but a line was forming, so Red was about to excuse himself. But before he had a chance to step away she blurted, "My name's Sondra. I get off work at eight. Stop by and walk me home?"
A rotund grouch in a madras shirt behind Red barked, "C'mon! Snap it up! Haven't got all day!"
"My name's Red! I'll see you at eight!"
"Don't forget, tiger!"
Red floated out the door into the heat, but he didn't notice. His head was in the sky, his feet on a cloud as he drifted home. Passing a parked car, its windows down, a song came on its radio, one he'd never paid attention to when it was new, when he was in high school: first a chuggy beat, a teakettle whistle on a cheap organ, then, "I see you standing in the alleys and the hallways, you're gone now..."
Walking up the drive to his porch he realized that he'd forgotten to buy the tobacco. He threw his head back and laughed aloud, scaring a squirrel.
Red trotted on to the porch, sat on the swing, looked at his Timex. 12:36? "God," he sighed. Eight seemed a month away, a distant horizon. Just then Jack McVey roared into the drive, gravel crunching and flying, screeched to a halt, hopped out of his Pinto. "Hey, Reddy! What's up?" Jack, holding a Budweiser tallboy, took a long slurp, elbow pointed out, and then held the can high, for the world to behold, and intoned, "Mm-mm! How sweet it is!"
Delighted to see his friend, Red said, "Jack, you will not believe this. You will not believe what... what just happened to me."
On the edge of a porch chair Jack said, "What? Spill, Mister Mazzo! I am all ears, effendi!" He took another long swig, retrieved a Winston from his shirt pocket, lit it, and settled back, anticipating a grand story.
Red told Jack the tale, beginning with spying Sondra out his window, culminating less than a minute later with, "And she called me tiger!" Jack pouted his lower lip and said, "Hey, who knows? Could be good." He shrugged, tilted his head, "Who knows? Didja see the Bosox last night? Good game."
The sunny sky clouded. Red was irked by Jack's lack of interest, let alone enthusiasm.
Sensing Red's mood, Jack poked his cig at Red and snorted, "Tell ya what, Reddy. Wake me up when you get in her pants."
"I would appreciate a lack of vulgarity when referring to my... my girlfriend."
"Ha ha ha! Girlfriend? Ahh, what's her last name?"
"I... I don't know."
"Ha ha! Some girlfriend! You don't even know her name! C'mon, let's go to Albany, hit a bookstore, some record shops!"
"No... I don't think so."
"Aw! Is someone's fee-wings hu't? Does it hu't and have a tempa-tuh?"
Red rose, made no eye contact with his alleged pal, bade no farewell, went indoors, marched upstairs. In his room, steaming, Red heard Jack drive away, making as much racket exiting as he did arriving. Peeling out, Jack tossed the now-empty beer can out his window.
Red fumed for a minute, but then he thought... Sondra! Lying on his bed, he daydreamed about her, her face swimming before him. He replayed their encounter over and over, lingering on certain magical moments. It was all so perfect, from when he first beheld her willowy figure below his window. It was like a movie. He laughed and shook his head in disbelief. Yes, it really was like a movie! Or a dream. He pinched his arm and didn't wake up. Unreal!
At dinner he barely touched his spaghetti and meatballs, bread, and macaroni salad. His mom asked, "What's the matter, Reddy? Cat got your stomach?" His father eyed him with mild disgust. One child, a son, and it has to be this fruitcake. All the money wasted on college, for what?
It'd been a difficult birth, this one son, and afterwards his wife had sworn off relations, a matter of life or death.
John Mazzo toiled at the elementary school, the custodial engineer (otherwise known as a janitor) mopping up the kiddies' vomit, scouring their toilets, painting over obscene graffiti. His house, a Civil War-era item, once had a spark of charm, not much, but something. He'd snuffed that with flimsy vinyl siding tacked on the exterior, and a do-it-yourself makeover of the interior, slapping up faux-wood paneling, installing dropped ceilings, spots of which now sported the stains endemic to the medium. That was the ruination, that and the Section-8 apartments that glowered down on them, built on a hillock that, once upon a time, John could've claimed for a song. His gut burned with a constant resentment at the residents, especially the kids who tossed junk into his above-ground pool, but also their parents who mooched off him, the ever-lovin' taxpayer. Almost as much the welfare bums, he hated the rich, like those on the other side of the main drag, those with surnames like Smythe or Vanderburgh or Finklestein. He fantasized about what he'd like to do to those rich bastards, to their wives, to their daughters. More than anyone, though, he hated his flabby wife and his weakling son. He'd love to punch her in the snout, and give Red a swift kick to the can, send him sailing off a cliff. Instead he exacted revenge by doing the mess around with barroom floozies. John shoveled food into his face, grunting, his eyes on the TV in the living room, the game on.
Suddenly, John slammed the tabletop with his fist, sending his plate to the floor. Mrs. Mazzo leapt to clean the mess. "John, what's wrong? What's the matter?"
"Nothing! Who says anything's wrong! I'm just watching the game, for cripes' sake! I'm not allowed to watch a game now! New rule! Quit nagging me, ya witch!" She cowered at his feet, scraping the red glop and the broken plate into a dustpan as the pot-bellied brute bellowed, leaning into her ear, "Can't a guy just watch a game! For cripes' sake! My game! God damn you!"
Where was the man she married decades years ago, the jaunty fellow with a glint and the easy grin?
In silence, Red forced himself to eat, bite after eternal bite.
After dinner, he washed his face, brushed his teeth, combed his flaming red hair, donned a fresh shirt. Then he thought to use a paper towel to dust off his shoes.
At a glacial pace the clock hands crawled to the anointed hour. Finally, Red announced to his mom, "I'm going out. Not sure when I'll be back!"
"What? At this hour?"
"Got a date! At eight! Can't be late!" He laughed at this spontaneous poem. Arms akimbo, Mrs. Mazzo stared in disbelief. She couldn't recall ever seeing her baby so happy. He was beaming.
Approaching Petersen's, Red felt a pipe organ chord of cold nausea wash over him. Spying Sondra through the plate glass window, his knees went liquid. But then she turned and saw him, smiled and waved. In a flash he stood straight, feeling like Jesse James, knowing he could rob a bank at Sondra's request. Red strode into Petersen's as if he owned it.
Blushing, Red chuckled, "Hi, Sondra!" Sondra! His woman!
Leaving, she held his hand and, in sandals of Spanish leather, led him to the corner of the busy cross street, pushed the button for the walk light. He stared at her feet. They were articulate, the big toes almost like thumbs.
On the other side they slipped into another world, one quite different from Red's blue-collar neighborhood. The yards were capacious, the foliage lush, the cars classy, the homes reserved. All was drenched in a misty violet light. A few blocks into the luxury, Sondra stopped before the smooth driveway of a Frank Lloyd Wright-style house, a Triumph TR4 was parked cater-corner a two-car garage. "Electric doors, no doubt," Red mused.
"Wanna come in? My parents are at the club, some dismal dull affair, ha ha."
"Sure! Why not? By the way, what's your last name? Mine's Mazzo. And Red's a nickname, for obvious reasons. My real name's Ed, Edward." His voice sounded deeper than normal to him. It was steady, surprisingly so.
As the classical FM station purred from a Marantz system, they lounged on a sofa in the sunken living room and discussed poetry for hours: Shelley, Keats, Eliot, Pound, Corso, Plath, Sexton, and, of course, Gregory Orr. To his amazement, Red found himself comfy in this situation. Recalling a song, he felt the great relief of having her to talk to, just to talk to a female so gorgeous and knowledgeable and perceptive. Easy on the eyes, easy on the ears. Occasionally when making a point, Sondra touched Red's knee, or placed a hand over his. He wondered if she, like he, was still a virgin. Probably not, he scowled for a second. But she doesn't seem to have a boyfriend. Someone with a boyfriend wouldn't behave like this.
Her ruby ring sparkled, winked, caught his eye. Noticing his notice, she said, "It's Egyptian, you know."
"After graduation I plan to edit and publish a literary journal, as it were, a poetry review to be specific, actually, if you will. I'll wheedle some money from daddy to get started. I can live at home for a while, work from here. There’s just so much talent out there yearning to be heard, lost souls, august oracles, modern-day prophets, so to speak. I want to give them a voice, a gathering place, a bible, via an elite boutique sort of thing, square-bound, not a bit of glitz, much gravitas." She paused with the timing of a polished actress and continued, "Red, I have this feeling... this feeling that you are my Gregory Orr. You won't make a million, but you will be read, appreciated..." She raised her hands, miming pistols, pointed one right at his nose, and mouthed, "Pow!"
Just then the mantel clock chimed midnight. "Oh my God! It's late! Gotta send you home, boyfriend! Work tomorrow!" Sondra conducted Red to the door, opened it, gave him a gentle shove into starlight, and exhaled, "The next time I see you, I want you to present a poem to me, written by you, about me. Make it sexy, you demon." She smiled and blew him a kiss as she closed the door.
Red stared at the door for a minute before sauntering home in a daze. Fate's cast-iron skillet had struck him with a mighty smack on the back of his head. At one point he bent over, arms hanging limp, and just laughed before realizing he was in a strange neighborhood after midnight, that he'd better scurry home before a police cruiser stopped and quizzed. Get to the safe side of the divide!
For the first half hour in bed, Red lay wide awake thinking about Sondra. His final thought before surrendering to a slumber was, "And wait until I tell Jack! Now he won't be able to sneer!"
Red didn't stir for eight hours. But once up and at 'em, he commenced writing the poem for Sondra. Now! Now he had the inspiration! He banged away at the ol' Remington until about noon, scampered downstairs for a bite to eat. He hadn't even had coffee, let alone breakfast. While doing dishes, Mrs. Mazzo said, "Someone got in late last night!"
Beet red, Red chortled, "Yeah, you know how it is..." After coffee, a slice of toast with grape jelly and a glass of Hi-C, Red got on the blower, eager to set the record straight with Jack.
"Her last name is Hardwicke," Red informed him.
"Who? Wha'? Oh, hi, Reddy. Whose last name? Whatcha yammering about? Oh, okay, got it chum, got it."
Red went on and on about last night: the hand holding, the rapport, the journal-to-be, the poem request, the "Make it sexy, you demon." He was so joyous that, at times, he was laughing.
"Her parents were out? So didja do her? Why not! What is the matter with you! You're so backed up, why'n't ya just rape her?"
Ineffably furious, Red slammed down the phone, tramped upstairs, hunched over his typewriter, but was too wrought to see straight, let alone write. His fist slammed the desktop, and he cursed Jack McVey from here to Timbuktu.
The next morning, after a fitful night, Red took a fresh look at what he’d written yesterday morning. It was good! A few spots needed a fix, but overall, maybe his best ever. He made the corrections, showered, ate a quick breakfast of Sugar Pops, passed the rest of the morning by watching rerun sitcoms before scooting over to Petersen's at noon, poem in hand. A middle-aged lady wearing cat-eye glasses was at the register. "Sondra? It's her day off. She'll be in tomorrow, kiddo. At noon."
"Thanks," Red replied before stepping outside. He was about to head home, but got the notion to try her house, retraced their steps from the other night. Taking a deep breath, he rang the doorbell, heard a series of sonorous chimes within, and waited. No one came to the door. Hoping against hope, he pushed the doorbell a second time, to the same result. "Oh, well. Tomorrow afternoon."
The next day Red entered Petersen's with his poem. Seeing Sondra idle at the register, he headed over. There were a few customers scattered about the store, inspecting the label on a bottle of multivitamins or perusing the paperback turnstile or chatting with the pharmacist.
With a conspiratorial air Sondra whispered, "Looks like ya got my poem! Let's hear it! Before a customer comes to the register."
Red stepped closer, cleared his throat and quietly, yet confidently, read:
A stroll along
a sidewalk fair, a fairy love
glimpse from above
nowhere, a jolt, a vision.
see you, lazing, supple, wanting,
as lonely as I, as lovely as
dream most intimate,
Sondra's lips curled back and she spat out, "Yuck!" Then, loudly, "Get your plaguey hands off of me, creep!"
Red thought, "But I'm not touching you..." before glancing around. The customers were staring, their faces curious and stormy. Mr. Petersen bolted to the front of his store. "What's going on here?"
"Oh, Mr. Petersen, thank God! This insect is making advances!" She shook her raised hands as if to rid herself of a filth.
"Look here, son! Get the heck out of my store, and never return! I'll call the police if you do!" Before Red could utter a word of defense, a high-school jock rushed to him, yanked an arm, hustled him out the door, purposely tripping Red, causing the poet to land on his hands and knees, scraping his palms, ripping one knee of his bells. The hero followed this with a swift kick to Red's butt, knocking the wind out of Red for a few seconds.
"G'wan! Scram, pervert! Leave decent people alone!" Stunned, Red didn't bother to dust himself off or pick up his poem. He just sprinted, leaning forward, hands dangling, like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon character, in the direction of home. But he zipped past his house, was in no frame of mind to see anyone, let alone his parents. He kept running until, breathless, he came to the park, found a bench far from anyone. He flopped face down across it, held his head in his hands and wept, not even thinking to collect himself, just let the torrent, the abscess, burst. After a few minutes he looked up to see Jack McVey, hands a-pocket, casting a shadow over him.
"How's it goin', pally? Get lucky with your fine and fancy Miss Hardwicke? Ha ha ha ha!"