Midwife in the Tire Swing
Chapter 37—Plants have Feelings, too
The electrocuted rubber plant troubled Jerry Levy. In the withered orchard of his imagination its twisted brown stem and scrofular leaves took on the dimensions of a fallen forest giant. The ficus was inoffensive at best, at its worst simply an eyesore. He had failed his charge, “And water the plants while I’m gone, OK?”—to an apartment dweller an oath as sacred as feeding the cats. Sarah was not just a friend; she was a lover—they had an understanding. They had broken bread, drunk margaritas and played out their sexual fantasies together. What solitary fantasies he played out he generally kept to himself. Well, except when he and Sarah played nurse and doctor games. Jerry went dumpster diving to look for the plant’s remains on the off chance that some kids picked it up before the Thursday trash collection and tiring of their toy had discarded it.
“Hey, man. Whatcha doing?” Jerry looked up. Caught. It was the hatchet-faced Puerto Rican he had caught screwing a girl in the air shaft. He must look like an albino rat squinting up against the light. He was knee deep in a 9-yard dumpster—cubic yards, semi-trailer size—parked in front of a brownstone that was being gutted for rehabbing. He hunkered down into his clothes and waited for the bullets to hit.
“Uh, nothing.” What was it Sarah called him, and it had to be the same guy? Umbrella Man. He had a name; this made them nodding acquaintances. “Oh, hello there. I ahh... lost something. I mean threw it out and...” Hardly an arrestable offense. He wanted to pull up a coat collar to hide his face like an absconding CEO in a perp-walk.
“You dealing? On my turf?” Umbrella Man’s eyes closed to slits behind a palisade of dark lashes. He’s sizing me up, thought Jerry. A gun. He’s got a knife. Little Puerto Ricans with big knives had been his bedtime stories. “Don’t go out. Don’t ever leave the house,” his mother’s mother told him. “Oh, Ma,” said Jerry’s mother. “Cut the kid some slack; he’s three years old, for Christ’s sake.” The Levys resided in apartment 4-H, four flights up, up, and away from any attempt on their lives. They lived in Bensonhurst.
“I’m looking for my girlfriend’s rubber plant. I threw it away. I killed it first,” he added.
“Plants have feelings too,” said Umbrella Man. “If you lost your stash, it’s long gone. I wouldn’t go in there, man, if I was you. Might stick your finger. Get sick.”
“No problem, man.” Umbrella Man strolled off. “Oh, yeah...” he stopped and turned.
Jerry had gone back to hunting through the debris in the dumpster. He froze. “Yeah?” He’s going to kill me. He did not look around.
“This is my old neighborhood, St. Agnes parish, useta be Crazy Joey Gallo’s private place: you made a mess in AgnesLand, you cleaned up after. One piece of litter—a candy wrapper, a cigar butt—anywhere near where Joey’s mom might pass by on her way to Mass, and he’d have you in some hurt. Kiss your knees goodbye, like.”
In the salad days of the Brooklyn mob, Crazy Joey’s mom lived over on Wyckoff Street, not quite Brooklyn Heights, but close. The real estate speculators who hoped to cash in on the Brooklyn Renaissance baptized it “Boerum Hill,” this ex-urbanite Eden. Old-time residents still called it Downtown. Crazy Joey was nowhere near the scene, having been bumped off two decades earlier. Umbrella Man was waiting for a reply.
“Yeah?” Jerry smiled.
“Be careful with your knees,” said Umbrella Man.
Jerry had been jockeying cars from one side of the street—double-parked three hours earlier—back into their regular spaces, blocked off with garbage cans. This was alternate side parking; the sanitation department sweeper truck came by for the even side on Tuesdays and caught the odd side on Thursdays. Boerum Hill was an ethnographic checkerboard of black and white, Latino of every complexion along with school department staff whose salaries plus bennies had yet to reach the poverty line, the aspirational working poor—teachers, custodians and academics of whatever stripe from the City University system. If a householder could not afford garage space, and few could, he left his keys with a neighbor and hoped for the best. The City ticketed then towed, a ransom scheme. The car pound poured lavish sums into the City’s general fund.
There was a commotion at the bodega down on the corner of Hoyt and Warren streets. Jerry ambled over.
Umbrella Man was a baseball bat specialist. The nine-millimeter semi-automatic tucked in the waistband of his pants was for show, a deterrent. The Nazi-Boyzz, headquartered on the Lower East Side, called him the King of the Down-and-Dirties. El Barato, another Spic kid who’d work cheap. It bothered him that his employers in the Manhattan projects got a cut of the local action while he worked for tips. They made hundreds of thousands of dollars a year at the same time they were living in city-subsidized housing. Five hundred, a thousand for him. Umbrella Man did not bother to count the money he received; he was proud of his enforcer status. He handed the envelopes to his girlfriend.
Umbrella Man strode across the intersection. The bat hung leisurely at his side from calm, relaxed fingers. He walked on a pavement of bottle caps embedded in the asphalt. The bodega could pop your top in the store, but was forbidden to allow you to consume even soft drinks on premises.
“¿Cómo te llamas? You Vitellio Colon?”
Frutas tropicales, cuchifritos, Heineken beer and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream beckoned with many colors in the windows of the corner bodega. Budweiser, Dr. Pepper.
“Who are you?” The question was from behind black polarized plastic. Umbrella Man swung his bat from a crouch.
Serengeti sunglasses shattered from the blow and flew into the street. Umbrella Man loved the ripe melon sound made by a human head impacted by a metal softball bat. He had heard it often. His favorite bat was spun aluminum anodized blue. Umbrella Man himself had wrapped the grip with electrical tape. “Monkeys come cheap,” Umbrella Man said. He liked that one; Antonio Banderas said it in a movie.
“Hey man. I’m sorry.” The dead man was puzzled. “The Boyzz. You from the Boyzz?” It was good that he should know why he was dying.
“Sí.” Umbrella Man took a second swing.
The delinquent dealer leaned against a metal pole, his lips moving like he was still talking. One eye was loose in its socket and he was trying to push it back in.
The metal pole held up the two floors above the bodega’s entrance. There were apartments upstairs but no faces at the windows. The pole that held up Vitellio Colon and the building both was now stained with blood and a brown, milky fluid. He had been holding a Yoo-Hoo. His head was puffed out to twice its size and, as he tried to step down the four inches from the store to the sidewalk, he clutched at the pole. It was the first hit that killed him.
“I came up short. It won’t happen again.”
“Damn right. Fuck you.”
In the crowd of mixed yuppies and Latinos, only faces, Jerry Levy, now a creature of the moment, said “Call nine-one-one.” The crowd turned on him. “They know where we live. They know everything.” Umbrella Man hitched up his team jacket to display the Ruger tucked at the small of his back. He strode away, diagonally across a public school parking lot. It was summer; the lot was empty of cars and a softball game was in progress. Nobody moved except to make the circle larger, held in place by the spectacle of a dead man talking as his assassin calmly walked away. After some minutes the circle dispersed to its various homes, ever widening.
“Hey, Umbrella Man.” Jerry called after him, then ducked down to blend with the scattering onlookers.
Umbrella Man turned, “Fuck you too, you dumb fuck.” He hitched his red and blue jacket as though to pull the gun. Jerry paled and stood unmoving, hands at his sides.
The two teams, Dominicans, had chosen not to notice the fracas 50 yards from their play. Umbrella Man intercepted a line drive, a grounder, in left center field and shagged it to the pitcher.
Jerry attended his group therapy session that evening. It was a 12-step program for those who admitted to obsessive-compulsive disorders. He didn’t really have an obsessive-compulsive anything, he thought. Well, there was masturbation. Sarah had caught him once; she called him a closet reader and let it go at that, giving the impression she was not all that displeased. Some quirk of hers, he assumed; their sex that night had been superlative. He just wanted companionship and this had been the easiest group to get into. Obsessions left no lasting external physical mark. The weight-watchers, the narcotic addicts, the alcoholics were all expected to carry the stigmata of their affiliation. Not so with the obsessed and the driven. Masturbation, yes. He had been a witness to a murder, a street hit, that afternoon and now found he couldn’t get it up.
The sessions were held in the back room of a coffee bar in Prospect Heights. As Jerry passed the kitchen, he saw a man bent double over the sink. He wore a white apron—an employee, the chef—and his body was convulsing. “Hey...” Jerry ran over to him and stopped cold. The sink was full of a frothing viscous mass. Jerry quickly suppressed a panic that he had interrupted him while he was jerking off. “...you OK?” was the best that he could do. The man at the sink straightened up, an aerosol can, “Whipped Dairy Topping,” clutched against his chest, and held the can out to him “Yo bro, wanna toke?” The can was stainless steel, Jerry saw, restaurant size. The chef, cook, whatever wiped his face on the apron. It was Umbrella Man.
“Ever catch up with your girlfriend’s plant?” Jerry stared at Umbrella Man’s white chin, his frosted eyebrows. “That thing this afternoon? Just business. Hey, man, it’s cool.” His long hair had been tied back in a hair net. “Nitrous oxide. Laughing gas.”
“Yes. I mean no, I didn’t. Find the rubber plant. Isn’t that stuff supposed to be dangerous?”
“Dentists use it.”
Jerry smiled. “For a while there I didn’t know if I’d be calling 911.” Jerry smiled. Umbrella Man smiled back. “Uhn, I’ve got a meeting.” He edged towards the door.
“The nutjobs. You a nutjob, too?” Umbrella Man sucked in a lungful of air and held it. He sighed as he slowly let it out. “I’m a nutjob. My girlfriend tells me that.”
Peaches, thought Jerry. No Peaches was not her name; that was the name Sarah had given her, assuming the girlfriend and the woman Umbrella Man had been screwing in the air shaft were one and the same. “I have a friend,” said Jerry. It sounded weak and hung in the air between them like a confession of feeble-mindedness.
“Don’t we all,” said the Umbrella Man. “See ya, man.”
The meeting’s facilitator, “Hi, I’m Jeff,” waved him to a seat. Jerry sat.
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