Baltimore Boil

 

A story by Wally Gordon

Day 5; chapter 9

 

Huston’s house is like the houses around it, except that it isn’t. Like the man himself, it is more so: larger and more carefully constructed, the blooms in the front flowerbed brighter, the tiny grass plot neater, the bay windows bigger. He is a man of his gentrifying neighborhood, only something indefinably more.

Just before we reach Houston’s door, I hear steps behind us, running steps, small steps. Startled, I turn abruptly. In this area, you never know who is behind you or what it means, what he, or even she, intends.

It’s Dickie. Panting, he comes up beside us. “I want to see Teri,” he demands. “I overheard you talking about her. Is she OK?”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” I tell the boy.

He and his sister often don’t get along. Maybe they are rivals for our affection, for Jan’s anyway. I once knew how the kids felt about me, but nowadays I no longer know. Sometimes I feel like an interloper in a family that doesn’t need me and sometimes I feel as if I am all that keeps this family going, the fulcrum, the key to everything. Right now, I feel more useless than I ever have. I can’t protect anybody, not Dickie, not Teri. Could I protect Jan if I had to?

And then we are at the door and Anita is opening it and embracing us. I see tears. Why is she crying if everything is OK? She throws her arms around me and her body is pressed against mine. She is an enthusiastic and loving woman. She is also the most beautiful woman I have ever known. She doesn’t have Jan’s size or strength, but neither does she have Jan’s emotional fragility. This is the first time I’ve ever seen her cry in the years we’ve known each other. Even when Gary was only 6 years old and had pneumonia and almost died, I never saw her cry. She was like a rock. She still is.

Gary is behind her, tall and willowy. He shakes hands with each of us, even Joey, with the strange formality a certain type of teenager acquires as a protective skin, just as other teenagers put on a costume of hostility or indifference or just eternal absence.

“Where’s Teri?” I ask Anita, who is still holding onto me in the strangest way.

“In the back, in our bedroom.”

I pull gently away from her and start toward the back. I know this house almost as well as my own, I’ve been here so many times.

“No.” Just the one word. It’s not quite a shout but carries as much energy as if Anita had screamed at the top of her lungs. It stops me cold. “I don’t think she wants to talk to you.” She sees the shock on my face and too late, tries to soften the blow. “Not yet, anyway. Let’s talk and give her a few more minutes. She knows you’re here. She must’ve heard you come in. She’ll join us when she’s ready.” What other adult would have allowed a teenager so much space for her own emotions, to do her own thing in her own time. She puts Jan and me to shame.

Me anyway. I refuse to wait. I push open the bedroom door without knocking, just barge in as if I were in my own home, my own bedroom, going to pay a social call on my own biological daughter. As if.

Teri is sitting on the bed staring at me.  Her stare is hard, fixed, determined, maybe hostile. I can’t read it. Our eyes are locked onto each other. As pale and as slight as she is, she doesn’t look fragile or hurt. I breathe a sigh of relief—one less thing to worry about.

“Tell me, Teri, what happened?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing? You disappear for two days, and you do it in the middle of a race riot, in a city patrolled by soldiers with bayonets. What kind of ‘nothing’ is that?”

“Nothing, Dad.”

“Where were you?”

“With friends.”

“What kind of friends.”

“Some college boys, boys from Johns Hopkins.”

“You’re in high school, what are you doing with college boys?“

“They’re my friends. We hang out together.”

“What do you do with a gang of college boys?”

“Dad! What kind of question is that?” She stands up and takes three steps, stopping so close to me I can see the pores of her skin, the dark circles under her yes, a line of dirt on her forehead. She looks up at me. Her mouth shapes itself it an ugly sneer. “Dad, you’re old enough to know what a gang bang is.”

There are a lot of things I could’ve done. I could’ve just said, “And you’re too young to know about gang bangs,” but I don’t. My reaction is instinctive, unthinking, uncontrolled. It’s not the result of a plan but of pure pain, and all the tension and worry and frustration and sadness that ambushed me these past few days, the problems with Jan, with Dickie, with the job, with this city and my life in it, trying to be a father when I don’t know how, trying to be an editor when all I want to do is write, trying to find out who this 25-year-old boy-man is when everybody else thinks they already know. I knot my right hand into a fist and slam it into Teri’s nose as hard as I can.

Everything happens at once.

Teri crumples to the floor, blood spurting on her face and a curse twisting her lips, a curse that matches in intensity and meanness my own curse: “You slut. You lousy slut. How dare you!”

“How dare you?” She throws the insult back at me. “You bastard, you’re no father.”

I hand’t been paying any attention to them, but Houston and Jan and Joey and Bryan have followed me into the bedroom. Jan screams, “Stop it! I hate you!” Houston and Bryan grab my shoulders and throw me to the floor and hold me there. They are protecting my own daughter from me, I realize, and in the moment that realization hits home I am calm again, and ashamed. I apologize. I am crying now. I am apologizing not only for what I’ve just done, but for everything that I am, and am not, for all the failings that have made and unmade us, that made a girl who has gang bangs, a boy who molests little children, a wife who is sad and unhappy. A father and husband who is neither.

All of us are crying now. We are holding each other.

“What has happened to us?” Jan moans.

“What will become of us?” I plead.

Houston and Bryan, the friends who have done all that friends can, leave us. Leave us to ourselves, to put together what can be put together, to save what an be saved.

So we will have another chance, one more chance to be a family, Jan and Teri and Dickie and I. Even I. We can pull themselves together and go on, as this vast traumatized city is trying to pull itself together and go on. All the lives and loves of a million people, even of four people, can’t be snuffed out just like that, in a few brief days. Yes, we and they will go on, but will we and they do better? That is the question.

 

THE END