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Friday, August 29, 2003
The women who live on Rebecca Dravos' side-street are mothers, and judges of men and women.
We live on a side street, but everyone in the neighborhood calls it an alley, and I think of the old women who sit in front of the building next to mine as the alley watchers. They are there every night of the summer, on folding chairs, when I take Elephant on his late-night walk. They smile and wave at us as we walk towards the park, and 40 minutes later, when we come back home, Elephant races up to them, and they scratch his ears and adore him. He stands between them, huffing in ecstasy. He moves his head like Stevie Wonder as they tell him over and over how handsome he is.
Mary is tall and thick, Consuelo small and slender. They drink beer in violation of the open container law. Their voices are smoker's voices, but they no longer smoke—although one night I came home with a woman who smoked and as they saw her inhale, you could see the eyes of the old women glisten with desire, refracting the sodium light of the streetlamps. Mary asked my date for a single cigarette and a light. We watched them share the smoke, as they passed it back and forth like prisoners, moaning in pleasure, exhaling in long breaths when it was over.
“What's your last name, darling?”
“What are you?”
“No, your family.”
“Greek. Also English, Jewish, French. Italian. Irish.”
“You're like me,” said Mary. “You came from the pound.”
Their world is circumscribed by a few blocks in Brooklyn; outside of those blocks, the faces lose familiarity. In the netherlands outside of New York it's barbarians, a world without sophistication, a world lacking both ethics and interesting violence, where people forsake real parmesan and don't know their cousins. Humans can be divided into: Black, Puerto Rican, Italian, Irish, Oriental, and White.
“I married an Italian,” Mary said one day, out of nowhere. “Do you know why Italian men learn to cook?”
“No,” I said.
“So they can marry Irish women.” She laughed at her own joke. “But my Anthony couldn't make a meal to save his life. Clumps in the gravy like a baby's fist.” Anthony is now either dead or gone off; it's not clear. “So I learned.”
They've lost the ability to sleep the night through, victims of old-woman bladders and the general wakefulness that plagues the old. So they stay out until 1. Their voices carry up to my 2nd floor bedroom, rising into laughter and falling into memories. They talk about crime, food, and children. I often fall asleep with Elephant at my feet and Rockstar coiled against my hip, calmed by the murmurs of their voices mixed with the white noise of the fan.
They each beared many children. Some of the children have made it to Queens or New Jersey (never to Greenwich or Westchester), but the oldest sons still live in Brooklyn, one in Bay Ridge, the other in Brooklyn Heights. Each drives his own sport utility vehicle. When the sons visit, they stop their trucks in the street and leave the motors and lights turned on, and stand in front of their seated mothers. They greet the two women, and then they schedule errands, negotiate the visits of grandchildren, and plan meals. Then they drive off. One of the sons is a police officer; the other distributes clock radios. When their sons leave, their respective mothers criticize them without mercy, scrutinizing every aspect of the men from hygiene to driving ability, from parenting skills to phone manners, and the other one grunts her acknowledgement of the truth of the criticism.
Consuelo's son Hector is the police officer. He has a 14 year old son; he's been married nearly two decades. One night I overheard Consuelo say: “He goes through money like it's water, like it comes out of the tap. I told him over and over, you can't afford a girl with clothes like that. But he liked those big bosoms. 'Mom,' he says, 'I love her,' and I said, 'you love her on the beach, but you gonna love her in the hospital?'”
Unlike Consuelo, Mary is big-chested. She replied, “Nothing is wrong with bosoms.”
“That's not what I'm—”
But Mary has already started in: “When we was first married, Anthony, he tells me he likes a slender woman, so I starve for 10 years. 10 years, I don't eat anything except smoke from a cigarette. His mother cooks us ravioli, I have one. She makes Christmas roast and I eat a slice as thin as a crepe. I look like a hatrack. He barely puts a hand on me. On our anniversary and his birthday, if I'm lucky.
“Then I'm 31, I don't have a baby. My mother lights candles for my womb.
“So I say to hell with this. I had those Danish cookies people bring you at Christmas, in the blue tin, a dozen tins in the bottom of the pantry. I eat those like they're mints. I bake cakes. I eat a steak with the fat and mayonnaise on my french fries. All of a sudden I'm like two watermelons up here. 40 pounds. I'm tearing the wicker out of the dining room seats. We have to re-cane. Every man in the neighborhood is holding the door for me. And Anthony, who tells me for 10 years how much he likes Audrey Hepburn, suddenly he's Pan the Greek god. I don't think I stood on my legs for six months. The neighbors are going to kill us if it keeps up, hitting the ceiling with their broomstick—”
“At first he can't look me in the eye, then he starts to take me out to dinner every week so we don't eat with his mother, and then he takes me out to the Poconos and right then there's Brendan 9 months later, then Michael the year later. Then Tommy.”
She was quiet for a moment. “I look at Brendan and think, if I didn't start making poundcakes, you wouldn't be here.”
By this point I had climbed out of bed, turned off the fan, and put my ear to the screen window. Consuelo, annoyed at being sidetracked by the story of her friend's four-decades-old transformation from anorectic Diana to callipygian Venus, leapt into the silence and continued her story:
“Listen, this woman, she's spending him into a grave. I was over his house where I saw his credit card statement.”
Mary came suddenly out of her revel of erotic recollections, and was suspicious: “Saw—”
“It was on the table.”
“On the table.”
“In the envelope, yes.”
“It just happened to be there.”
“It must of fell open in the humidity.”
“If you were my mother-in-law I would kill you.”
“Let me tell you.”
“I don't care to receive information from spies.”
“Six thousand dollars.”
To which the response was a long, low whistle. Both of them can remember feeding a family on that, then taking a vacation on what was left. “And I tell him I can help him,” Consuelo continued. “So he doesn't pay that interest. But prideful. Like his father.”
“He's going to find his own way,” her friend said.
“Into the grave, and with three children. Six thousand dollars.”
I can't tell if they are widows or divorcees, or something less well-defined. Their husbands are rarely discussed; each appears to be long gone. The only men who matter are their fathers, who are invoked very rarely, as saints, and their sons, who are usually described as idiots. (The relationships are of course more nuanced than this, but from the little I hear, this is the sketch I've made.) Both Mary and Consuelo worked, I know, but the jobs are never described, although sometimes they talk about people they know from the neighborhood who were also co-workers. Consuelo looks Puerto Rican, but likes to joke about being part-Irish, and maybe she is, or maybe it's just a way of teasing Mary.
One night in late August, tired from a long day at work teaching slack-mouthed 18 year olds how to use the online card catalog, I came home, took Elephant out, and and brought him to the alley watchers for his love session. Consuelo said to me, “Rebecca, I know a nice boy for you.”
Mary snorts, “Watch out. Who?”
“With the sideways mouth? Edwin?”
“He fixed that. He's good-looking now.”
“Oh shit, baby, you run. Don't let her tell you a thing about men.” Consuelo tried to say something, but Mary cut her off. “She used to bring them home, the whole neighborhood would turn out to see them. What was that fat boy with the car? Rebecca, one day Connie shows up with an Orthodox Jew with the sideburns in a big delivery van—”
“Your poor father nearly fell off the roof. And you look at this boy, you can tell he's never seen a woman with her wig off—”
“Chaim. He was going to take me to Florida.”
“Well, you're still in Brooklyn.”
There was a silence while they both looked at me. Uncomfortable, I said, “thank you, but....”
Mary said, “She has a good dog, what else do you need?” She looked at Elephant, who has his tongue out, and grabbed his ears. “What else do you need, right? Definitely not a man.”
Elephant was panting. “I think it's time for a drink of water,” I say.
“All right, honey,” said Consuelo, and they both scratched Elephant's ears goodbye.
That night the wind brings up a few sentences. Mary said:
“That girl, that Greek one.”
“She should meet Ester's boy.”
“Connie, that girl I don't think likes boys.”
“Good looking girl like that?”
“You think they all get those duck-tail haircuts and grow their leg hairs? It's 2003.”
“She said she's a librarian. They don't know anything about boys.”
“You can like books and men too. You remember Bella O'Connor?”
A long whistle. “She was a librarian?”
“She worked for state records.”
Consuelo thought for a moment. “Maybe she's Catholic.”
“She's one of those Greek Catholics. Connie, that girl brings home girls.”
“So? You and I stay up all night, people don't think we're going to get married.”
“For which I am daily grateful to God.”
A long pause. “Rebecca? With that good dog?”
“Exactly.” A minute of silence passed. Hearing myself judged, I leaned on the windowsill, head in my hands, mouth open. Mary said, ”They have problems, lesbians.”
“Something that happens between them. It's not fun, I know that.”
“Huh.” Consuelo thought for a moment, and the breeze gave me her last sentence: “Maybe we find her a nice girl, then.”