By Michael Lauchlan
Banging. Tommy hears banging in the street again. Somebody getting in late. Maybe the woman next door came home a little drunk and she’s banging on doors and windows. Has she lost her keys or her mind? Then he hears another noise, sharper and more insistent, the bursts repeated. The gang fight in the abandoned school has gotten hot again. But what woke him is closer and it’s not a gun, though it does sound sinister. It could be cops, he thinks. Maybe trying to get into a place down the street where cars come and go a bit too quickly. The banging echoes and he thinks of Lee and Jean. He can still see Jean trying to get the door closed, see that narrow sliver of her pale skin with Lee pulling on the knob.
Tommy’s not a bad sort. He’s retired now, and he tries to keep himself out of everybody else’s story. He lives on an old block with no cul-de-sacs and a great abundance of stories. Lee’s voice woke him that night while he was still learning to sleep alone after Mary died. He didn’t miss her as he thought he would. It was more like finding himself lost in a different town, in a strange house on a strange block. Like he had to creep down the hall just to find his way to the bathroom or the kitchen. Like nothing much mattered anymore.
No, the noise he hears tonight isn’t Lee. If he’d kept a little scotch in the house, maybe he could sleep through the racket. Maybe old Julia will wake up. She never leaves her upper flat at the end of the block, but she does love to call the cops. Leave your car parked overnight anywhere near her house and she’ll report it abandoned and the bastards will tow it to the city yard. When the noise lapses, Tommy shifts on the couch and drifts off and maybe the interval gets longer or maybe he just gets sleepier. When he was little, the radiators would bang and he always thought there was somebody angry in the basement. Mom explained it as well as she could, but he pictured somebody with a wrench or a hammer just wailing on the pipes. Tommy had a child’s idea that the guy in the basement and he didn’t like letting the heat go upstairs into their radiators. He never told his mother about this explanation. It seemed a secret he should keep.
Tommy opens his eyes in the darkness of his living room and the flickering TV, where some strange version of the news unfolds. His last cigarette has burned into a perfect little pipe of ash. Mary didn’t like him to smoke in the house. It was different then. They ate better for one thing, even after she was too weak to do much in the kitchen. The truth is, after he quit drinking, he did most of their cooking. But there’s little reason to cook now. Now, the light comes through the windows differently. And of course, he smokes in the house. Mary would scold him if she could. Andrew does when he’s in town. He gazes about wide-eyed and scolds him in a dry abstracted tone, while trying to manage the headaches that accompany each of his trips home to “check on dad.” Tommy smiles and considers lighting another just to hear Mary’s voice again. But instead he lies back on the sofa and closes his eyes as the banging intrudes.
He finds himself on his feet and headed toward the back door. He can’t hear well enough to know for sure whether the racket is coming from the front or the back, but he’s moving decisively. He doesn’t pick up his gun on the way out, because he doesn’t have one. His neighbors do. Even Julia has one, though she seldom moves past the end table that holds her phone. Tommy snatches Mary’s cane from where it’s been hanging since the night Mary went to the hospital. When she started bleeding and he couldn’t stop it, he panicked and called an ambulance. But there was nothing they could do for her; there was nothing he really wanted them to do. All he did was ruin her chance to die in her own bed.
When he gets outside the mystery is resolved. Two yards away, little Janey is standing on her back steps banging on the door and trying to wake up Robert. She’s banging away with what looks like a soup ladle and calling in a voice too soft to penetrate the door. Tommy’s not surprised that Robert has drunk himself into a stupor, but he can’t figure out how the idiot managed to lock Janey out in the middle of the night.
The back gate gives Tommy a bit of trouble, as it does when he goes out to whack the weeds. Tonight he’s glad to have Mary’s cane, so he can at least take a swing at any rats he meets. Janey is just a tiny version of her mother. Tommy can still see Marcia as a waifish girl, helping Mary bake cookies and bread. She’d stand on a chair and scoop flour into the bowl. Mary would let her add eggs and Tommy would watch the child fish out bits of shell with her tiny fingers. Mary missed out on having a daughter of her own, and Marcia benefited by getting a spare mom. Mary died before Janey was born. And before Janey’s father split. Until tonight Tommy’s avoided wondering how Marcia ended up with Robert.
He hates to think about how little Robert has to offer, hates to remember how Mary’s people thought about him all those years ago. Hell, they told him so. He was a laborer on construction projects and had manners to match. He drank. He had no education to speak of. He’d ruin her life.
It’s only when he enters Marcia’s yard that Tommy gets a whiff of the smoke. Little Janey is pounding more insistently. Tommy scoots through the dark garden as quickly as he dares. He’s a bit out of breath by the time he reaches the girl. She turns to him wide-eyed. “He won’t wake up, Tommy. Something’s burning and he won’t wake!” The closed porch is starting to fill with smoke, and Tommy can see through the storm windows that Robert is lodged against the door to the rest of the house.
A knot of flames has formed in the middle of a quilt on the old sofa they’ve stuck out on the porch. The flames don’t look impressive, but they are starting to dance a little. In the haze Tommy can only see a couple beer cans. He figures Robert must have taken some pills along with, to induce his present coma. Maybe he tried to get up and just didn’t get very far. Tommy knows he can’t move the couch and he thinks about trying to find the garden hose in the dark yard. It’s all he can do to keep from cursing at the stupid son of a bitch. He can hear Mary scolding him before he even opens his mouth. “Janey, honey, can you be very brave?”
“I’m scared, Tommy.”
“Me, too, honey. But we’ve got to pretend for a couple minutes. I am going to break this window, but I’m too old and stiff to climb through it. I’ll put you inside so you can unlock the door and then we’ll wake Robert and get him out. OK?” Janey is staring at him and trying not to cry. Tommy slaps the cane through the window near the back door, hoping a shard or two will make it over to Robert. With a second swipe he takes the mullions out of the window sash. He can see the source of the smoke. “Be quick, child.” He drops the cane and slips the girl through the sash like he’s setting a dozen eggs on the floor of the porch. She takes a look at the sleeping drunk. Tommy is seized by terror that she might panic. What kind of idiot puts a child in a room full of smoke? “Open the door, Janey. Now.” He watches her take two steps to the door. She flips the lock and he pulls her out of the smoke and sets her on the steps. “Wait for us on the grass, dear.”
Tommy’s boy got a bad burn once. He nearly died, in fact. The neighborhood kids were in the backyard running through the sprinkler. Little Marcia was there, smiling and shining the way kids do playing in water on a hot day. Tommy was straightening the garage and drinking a beer and watching the whole gang. Andrew was running around with a water pistol, jumping out of the bushes and blasting away. When he got near the house he must have slipped in a puddle and he reached out and grabbed hold of the electrical service. The jolt was immediate and stunning. The poor little guy couldn’t even scream. Tommy was moving toward him right away, but he got tangled in the hose and went down. Mary came flying out the back door, snatched up a push broom, and made a run at the boy like she was going to break down a door. Everybody seemed frozen in place and nobody could speak.
Tommy still wonders why he didn’t quit drinking right then. In truth, he drank more after that. He’d sit up in bed, trembling after some nightmare version of the scene. He’d find his way downstairs and pour a shot. It helped to throw one back. Or two. He’d sit up all night staring into the dark. He lost the framing job where he was finally making some real money. After Mary packed up Andrew and headed for her sister’s house, he stayed drunk for days. Then one morning, half sober, he went for walk. Not far. There was a grill at the end of the block. A light mist was falling. When he walked into the diner, the smell of eggs and sausages was overwhelming. He didn’t know whether to cry or throw up. About then he realized that he had nothing in his pockets. No keys. No wallet. He saw the young waitress who’d wait on them when he and Mary and Andrew opted for breakfast out. He saw the disgust curling into her face and shuffled out without a word. At home, where the door was standing open, he walked in and looked at the rooms, whiskey bottles and dark disarray, and knew it was over. He called Mary and was still straightening up when she came to take him to rehab.
Tommy goes through the smoke, snatches the burning blanket, and tosses it out the broken window. He goes back for the cushion, which is smoldering furiously. He manages to squeeze it through the window before he ducks under the cloud and grabs Robert. He speaks directly into his ear. “Stand up you ugly son-of-bitch. You don’t deserve it, but your little girl just saved your ass.” Robert is starting to rouse. Tommy grabs a handful of Robert’s hair and stands. The smaller man struggles to his feet and starts coughing like a madman. Tommy gets an arm under him, drags him out the door, and lets him slide down onto the bottom step before he goes to stomp on the quilt. Julia’s been sitting obediently in the grass, but now she gets up and looks into Robert’s eyes. Tommy can’t bear the sound of the girl’s voice.
“You were so sound asleep and you were sleeping against the door. I got up to go pee and I smelled smoke. I got scared, Robert.”
Tommy can hear a siren in the distance. Apparently Julia also woke up to pee. “Janey, darling, could you do me a big favor. I got a little burn on my hand from the quilt. Can you find a pitcher in your kitchen?”
“Mom and I finished the lemonade right before she went to work. The pitcher is in the sink.”
“Perfect. Could you put some ice-water in it for me–so I can soak my hand?”
Janey scampers over the broken glass, through the smokey room, through the door that Robert no longer blocks. Tommy lowers himself onto the step next to Robert. “Are you awake.”
“Do you know what happened, asshole?”
“I fell asleep.”
“You’re stoned you son of a bitch. You nearly burned up your house, that beautiful child, and yourself. Do hear those sirens? Cops come along with fire trucks, these days.”
“The fire’s out.”
“They don’t know that. But you can tell them all about it. I’m going home. And when you can stand up you might go flush the rest of your shit. In case they get curious.” Janey appears in the doorway with a pitcher. Tommy smiles at her and dunks his hand in. “Janey is a real hero, Robert. Janey, do you know that your mom kind of grew up in our house? My wife taught her how to bake bread and cookies and cake. Did you know that?” Tommy is starting to have difficulty speaking. He stands up, his hand still in the ice-water. “She came over all the time. She and my son thought they were brother and sister. And she looked just like you.” Tommy steals a look at Robert, sprawled on the step, still half asleep.
“Janey, do you ever watch baseball games?”
“On TV, sometimes.”
“At the end, when something surprising happens, the players do silly things.”
“Very silly.” Tommy upends the pitcher on Robert’s head. Then he hands it to Janey and retrieves Mary’s cane. “Good night, child. Your mom will be home from work soon.” Spluttering, Robert finally makes an attempt to stand. “Go take care of business, Robert. They’re turning onto the block right now.”
Tommy makes his way through Marcia’s vegetable garden, out the gate, down the alley and into his yard. His hand did get a burn. His back is complaining after lifting Robert’s leaden carcass. But mainly, he’s out of breath. He pauses to lean on the cane in the back of the yard, to survey a scene lit by the one working light in the middle of the alley. He can hear the squawk of a cop car killing the siren. If he could really picture the cops busting Robert, he wouldn’t have said a word. Tommy didn’t count on that kind of luck. And if they did arrest him, they’d take Janey away. He thinks about Marcia coming home to all of that. Instead she’s coming home to this.
He goes up the steps and hangs Mary’s cane on its hook. If Mary were here, she’d know what to tell that poor girl. He turns on the kitchen light. For no good reason, he walks through the house turning on lights. “OK, Mary.” He says aloud. “I hear you.” He collects all his ashtrays and dumps them. He fills the sink and, though his hand stings in the hot water, begins washing the day’s dishes, staring into his reflection in the window over the sink. It still surprises him to see how old he is. He sets up the coffee for tomorrow morning. He’ll get out early and measure Marcia’s window. By the time she’s awake he’ll be back with glass and glazing compound. If she let’s him fix it, there’ll be one less thing for her to worry about. Maybe Janey will want to help him with the putty.
Michael Lauchlan’s poems have been included in anthologies and have landed in many publications including New England Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The North American Review, Ninth Letter, English Journal, The Dark Horse, Tar River Poetry, Harpur Palate, Collagist, Summerset, Southword, Poetry Ireland, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Sugar House Review, Canary, Lascaux Review, The Punch, Louisville Review, and Barnstorm. The Dearborn resident’s most recent collection is Trumbull Ave., from Wayne State University Press.