This memoir excerpt appeared in Southword in 2013.
I responded to an ad in the paper for a room for rent in the northwest part of Poughkeepsie, an upscale area with which I was unfamiliar. Frank Caruana, a shrunken, elderly Italian man, welcomed me into his home. He fussed in the kitchen over glasses of water and a package of cookies, which he placed between us as we sat at the table. The bright white cabinets and polished marble floor gleamed as if an industrial cleaning crew had just come through. I imagined there was once a staff of cooks preparing elegant meals for him and his family.
“My wife passed away six months ago,” said Frank. “It’s been very quiet here.”
He told me about his late wife, how they celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary before she died. And how he was a famous musician and conductor in Italy. Without asking any questions about my past or future, he launched into the terms of the rental agreement.
“No deposit needed. No smoking and no pets.”
I assured him we didn’t smoke or have any pets. My shoulders, which had been hugging my ears since the eviction notice, came down an inch after I took a long, deep breath. In the corner of my eye, I saw something wiggle in the package of cookies. A tiny, white maggot reared its head as if straining to participate in our conversation. It climbed up over the ridge of a cookie, followed by another worm-friend. Frank smiled at me through his thick glasses.
“I just rented the downstairs room to a nice man,” he said. “We’re going to have a full house!”
Three weeks before my visit to Frank, Jimmy and I sat on our frayed couch, pulled apart at the seams by our cats’ claws, with an eviction notice in our hands. We stared down at the low wooden table filled with foil, resin-stained glass pipes, mirrors, razor blades, rolled up dollar bills. The couch and table were the last pieces of furniture we owned, after having sold most of our possessions, including our TV, to pay off drug debts. Two freshly cut lines of coke, in perfect symmetry to avoid argument, ready to be snorted. We could hear our neighbors, with whom we shared a wall, screaming and banging around, the woman, Christina, yelling for help. This time we didn’t respond.
“Which line do you want?” asked Jimmy, crumpling up the eviction notice and throwing it across the empty room.
I looked over at him; he had grease on his hands and face, and wore a blue jumpsuit seeped in so much oil it no longer made sense to wash it. I could tell he’d been sleeping inside the hollow portion of the tractor tire at the garage where he worked. I’d spent my work day stealing as many naps as possible in the dark room while developing full-mouth x-rays for the dentist I assisted. Jimmy’s eyes, yellowish and glassy, focused on the part of the room where our TV used to be.
The can began to rattle, but, for the first time, we ignored it. Jimmy had rigged a homemade doorbell by filling an empty beer can with coins and attaching it to a telephone wire outside our kitchen window. How could we’ve known over a year ago that our friend, a dealer, would introduce us to coke and teach us how to free base with the knowledge that we’d be climbing the walls and selling our possessions to buy more from him? Jimmy and I looked at each other. We always had a connection. I’m not sure who blew first, but the next thing I knew, we exhaled, and tiny white particles flew up in the thick air.
“The man downstairs is a pedophile,” I whispered to Jimmy in our bedroom late one night. We’d been in Frank’s house for a week, unable to sleep. Dreaming of a glass pipe filled with turbulent, yellow smoke.
“Don’t worry, baby,” he said.
The old man Frank explained to me that Ed, the new tenant in the basement, had lived only a few blocks away with his parents, up until other parents on the block grew so fierce Ed was forced to leave. His picture featured in the local paper, with an article about how he photographed neighborhood kids swimming nude in his parents’ pool. He had a hard time finding a room to rent, until he met Frank.
“He’s a nice boy,” said Frank. “Very quiet.”
Ed was hardly a boy. Middle-aged, he stood six foot, three inches tall and weighed over two hundred and fifty pounds. He reminded me of a wrestler with his dark, curly hair, barrel chest and thick legs. In the two years since I’d run away from home, I’d endured a lot with Jimmy. His fist fights in the middle of the night with his drunk stepfather; no heat in winter; the New York State Troopers trying to take me in as a minor until I proved I had just turned eighteen. Never once had I thought of calling home. Jimmy was my new life, my new family. Our theme song when we ran off together from California to New York was Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer”.
“I want to go home,” I said.
“He’s not going to hurt you, geisha.”
“We’re living with a criminal.”
“Do we have a choice?”
To help pay down our drug debt, Jimmy took a second job at Jiffy Lube by the mall. He didn’t get home in the evenings until ten-thirty. After work, I’d go straight up to our room and lodge a chair under the doorknob to protect myself from Ed. I snuck my cats in from the car so I wouldn’t be alone. I avoided the kitchen altogether, in case Frank tried to offer me more infested snacks, so my meals consisted of takeout food from McDonald’s or Burger King. Slowly, my appetite returned. I set a goal to reach ninety-two pounds by the end of summer. Then I’d be only ten pounds under my normal weight.
One evening, around seven o’ clock, Frank knocked on my door.
“Just a minute,” I said.
I swept up both cats in my arms and placed them in the closet. And then I opened the window wider, snapped a towel to clear the air of cigarette smoke and sprayed several pumps of Poison, a bottle of perfume Jimmy bought for my eighteenth birthday. I cracked the door an inch, hoping the cats wouldn’t meow.
“Would you like to watch TV?” asked Frank, holding the remote.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be right down.”
When I got downstairs, Frank motioned for me to sit next to him on the couch. He hadn’t turned on the TV yet. I flipped through a few channels until I came to Jeopardy!
“Is this okay?”
“Yes, yes, yes,” he said. “Anything. Perfect.”
My least favorite categories were Presidents, Sports and Science, things I knew nothing about. I preferred Literature, World History and Geography; even though I didn’t know that much about those topics either, I could at least guess and be right sometimes. Frank never tried guessing at all. I wondered if he understood how to play the game.
“You have to answer with a question, like “Who is” or “What is,” I said.
“Yes, yes, very nice show,” said Frank.
He encouraged me to turn the volume louder. The blue Jeopardy! screens reflected off his glasses. I thought about what it must’ve been like for him before we all moved in. He didn’t have any family nearby. His only son lived and worked across the country at Stanford University. I held an image of Frank sitting in the dark at his late wife’s vanity, still filled with lipsticks, pins and barrettes, staring into the same mirror she used to look into.
When Jeopardy! ended, he asked if I wanted to watch the next show, Wheel of Fortune. The thought of spending half an hour with Vanna White disturbed me but I didn’t have the heart to say no to Frank, so I sunk back into the couch and tried to solve the puzzles.
One evening, when Frank and I were watching Jeopardy!, I heard the basement door open. Ed emerged from his cave, bowed his head and stood at the entrance to the living room with his hands in his pockets. He had court dates set and wasn’t allowed to return to his parents’ house. No one visited him and, as far as I knew, he never left the house at all. Frank said he was on disability but I didn’t know what for.
“Sit down!” said Frank, scooting over on the couch to make room between us.
Ed sat down just a few inches away from me. He smelled of sweat and gauze. I’d never been that close to an actual pedophile before. I took in a deep breath. Jimmy had assured me that if Ed really wanted to molest me, he would’ve tried by now.
At first Ed sat completely still, as if he’d be asked to leave the room for breathing or blinking his eyes. Then he started calling out questions in a soft voice, most of them right. He knew the questions before Alex Trebek finished reading the answer. Ed didn’t phrase the questions correctly, but I wasn’t about to call him on it.
During a commercial break, he turned to me.
“Do you know why your car doesn’t work?” he asked. “Because it’s a Nova,” he said. “No Va. In Latin, that means ‘no go’.”
I’d taken a few years of French before I dropped out of high school, and this sounded reasonably correct to me.
“So I should rename our car?” I asked.
“Too late,” he said.
Jeopardy! came back on. One of the categories, Biology, had the following answer for six hundred dollars: “The intestinal tract of these insects can break down cellulose.” I wanted to say “What are maggots?” but then stopped myself in case Frank got a complex.
Ed sat up, and, like a little kid, began screaming at the contestants, as if they could hear him, his hands in the air, “Termites!” “Termites!”
He got the answer right, the contestants got it wrong. Ed turned around and high-fived me and Frank, as if he’d just won the money.
For the next few weeks, Frank, Ed and I watched Jeopardy! every weeknight. We were mesmerized by the theme music, the categories in bold white letters, and Alex Trebek, smartly dressed in a dark suit, greeting us in his soothing voice. Sometimes I wondered if my Dad still watched Jeopardy! too. If he ever looked over to the couch, where I used to sit when we watched together, and regretted his violent outbursts.
One night, while sitting in our usual spot, I realized that if strangers drove by Frank’s home, they would see three heads – small, big, small – and assume it was a family sitting down together after dinner. I didn’t know the details of Ed’s case, and didn’t want to pry, but felt I could serve as a character witness, if needed, and talk about his gentle nature and knowledge of languages, science, history, philosophy. What if they had it all wrong? What if he truly loved those children?
Some of the color had returned to Frank’s face. I didn’t want to be the spouse left behind after a long marriage. I’d want to be the one who died first. Whether or not it was genuine, I felt proud of Frank for smiling again. And for getting up each morning, looking at his wife’s vanity, and still deciding to change into neatly pressed slacks and comb pomade through his thin, grey hair.
Later that night, Jimmy came home and handed me two un-cashed paychecks, the first time in over a year. Both of his jobs paid minimum wage, so it wasn’t much, but it was more than we’d had in a long time. I held the checks in my hand, tracing over the amounts with my finger. We could make rent and a small payment toward our drug debts.
“I’ll sign my checks over to you every two weeks, geisha,” he said.
He reminded me of why I ran off with him in the first place. Jimmy promised to take care of me, of us, and I knew he’d come through. I mentioned an opening for a weekend janitor at the dental office where I worked.
“I’ll take it,” he said.