I’m a light sleeper anyway. I miss nothing: the creak of a door, the settling of a load-bearing wall, the slightest rustle of the living room curtains. It was a little after 5 a.m. when I awoke. There was noise at my door. Someone knocked about trying to get the key in the two locks. Whoever it was finally managed and came inside. Nothing stealthy about it. Hannah, I thought. Probably needed a book for school that she’d left here.
“Honey, I’m in here!” I yelled, as I jumped out of bed, started wiggling into my jeans. “You should have called. I don’t want you walking the streets alone, even in the morning. Just call me, Hannah. That too much to ask? Oh, and I think it’s a history book and it’s over by the bookcase.” Yada, yada, yada… like that.
First clue, she didn’t respond. Hannah and me have this synergy whether we’re fighting or chatting like chums. I say something, she says something back. We get caught into this rhythm; this mother-daughter dance that had been choreographed back in the wound; back when I’d get a craving say, for mashed potatoes, and she’d give me a good kick after I was done. The second clue, I smelled smoke, stale clingy cigarette smoke; the same cloud that always trailed me home from Iffy’s. My heartbeat picked up just like that.
“Please, not again,” I thought. We’d been burglarized twice in ten years. I began to sweat, I could feel a wet patch expand under my arms
“Focus,” I thought.
I kept talking, acting as if I still believed it had been Hannah who’d entered. I pulled a sweatshirt on; I’ll be damned if I was going to get killed in a dirty bra. All the while talking, making it stream of conscious, not asking any questions not leaving the least little opening for a response. I wanted him to think I was just rambling; didn’t want him to panic.
I grabbed my gun, backed away from the door and toward the window. I opened the window, and the screen as well.
“Damn it’s hot in here,” I complained. “It’s only March. Early spring. Shouldn’t be this hot. Honey, give me a minute.”
I stepped out the window, down the fire escape.
“Damn!” I thought. “Forgot my friggin’ cell phone.”
I’m thinking I need to get to the nearest pay phone or, hell, just run down the street to the precinct. Get the cops, come back. Except, it galled me.
“I’m going to let some low-life druggie intrude into my life?” I thought. “Fuck that.”
I ran around the front of the apartment.
I snuck up to the second floor, our unit. Good, the door was open. I pushed in just a bit. I saw him, standing with his back to me, looking into my bedroom. Even though I expected to see someone, knew that a guy had broken in, it still made me shiver. Here I am holding a gun and ready to shoot again. I don’t like this, I thought.
He wore a torn denim jacket, too-tight jeans, an old-man’s sort of cap. But this guy was young, strong. I could tell by his stillness. Did something look familiar to me?
“Motherfucker,” I said, “you so much as twitch and I’ll blow your fucking head off. My father’s a cop, and some of my friends are judges. I won’t do any time. Don’t move your hands, turn around real slow.”
Something about the way his arms slumped reminded me. But no, I thought, it couldn’t be him. And yet, and yet…. He turned and I saw him fully in the overhead light.
“Who are you?” I said.
“Cheryl, you know who I am. Peace be upon you.”
“Dizzy Tanner never talked like that. And Dizzy Tanner is dead.”
They told me he was dead. I got letter somewhere explaining how he’d died. Dizzy and me, we were lovers. He’s Debbie’s father.
“In the flesh,” he said.
“They told me you killed yourself. That you were distraught over something.”
He took off his cap, and that left no doubt. His blond hair stood at spiked attention. I could get a better look at his eyes as well, eyes whose vibrant blue I used to drown in.
“They said you killed a man on the oil rig and then killed yourself.”
“I jumped overboard, yes. Could you stop aiming your gun at me?”
“What the fuck do you want?” I asked, continuing to point the barrel at the center of his head.
“I know you hate me,” he said.
“I call the cops, they’ll probably have questions.”
He moved back a bit, almost as if I’d hit him.
“You don’t want to do that,” he said.
“I knew that they didn’t tell me the full story,” I said. “You killed somebody didn’t you?”
“I’m clean now, Cheryl,” he said. “I’m different.”
“No, Dizzy, your not. A different man wouldn’t come sneaking into his ex’s apartment.”
“Who was sneaking?”
“You heard me talking in there, but you didn’t answer. Who do you think you’re bullshitting?”
“I wanted to say I was sorry.”
“But go ahead. Call the cops. You’re right. I’m clean now, but I have shit in my past.”
“They’ll put me in jail and then Debbie will know I’m alive.”
“She doesn’t have to know.”
“But she’ll find out. Or you’ll tell her.”
“If they arrest me, she’ll find out somehow. She’ll sense it.”
Debbie would too. For a fuck-head, Dizzy always had an instinct for the vulnerable spot. I got a better look at him. Man, he’d aged. He was, what?, about 10 years younger than me. That’s one of the things I liked about him at the start. But we just fed each other’s destruction, and that destruction blossomed, or exploded. Debbie was the only good thing to come out of it.
“I am now a Muslim,” he said.
I had to laugh. What the hell else could I do? So Dizzy. Always into something different. He couldn’t just be a guy from the neighborhood. Just a regular working stiff. No, he thought that it might be a good idea to become Communist — this when the entire Soviet block was crumbling. He’d latch on to some idea, Eastern mysticism, say, and he’d cling to it and cling to it and cling to it because it made him feel different. Oh, he’d light the incense candles. He’d tell you all about the fucking chi. You would be convinced that the next step is some fucking ashram in India and much to your amazement, even if you’d seen him do it before (because he’d gotten so intoxicated on the next thing that you were convinced against your better judgment that it was the last thing), he’d switch it up. Suddenly, Eastern mysticism was so yesterday. He always wanted to be special.
But that’s not the thing. Here’s the thing. We used to shoot heroin together, me and Dizzy. With two little kids in the apartment. Oh, yeah, baby. That’s the way it went down. I was a real mother of the year, I was. Oh, it was a great relationship, a wonderful partnership until he hit me once and I waited, and waited, and waited and finally pushed him out of the second floor window. He didn’t go to the hospital, but he didn’t come back, neither.
“I don’t have any money,” I said now. “Please just be honest with me, for once! That’s what you want, right? I mean, Dizzy, you broke into my place!”
He bowed his head, moved his sneakers. There was something different, no doubt about that.
“I could use some cash,” he said.
“So you came here to steal.”
“I came here to ask.”
“I did send you money.”
“Do you know how much you owe me in child support, if I ever decided to go after you?” You fucking asshole!” I was whispering this.
“I will pay you,” he said.
“But first you’ll steal from me.”
“I am desperate.”
“Need a fix?”
“I am clean. Just hungry.”
I spun away, but kept my gun in my hand. Stepped into the kitchen, grabbed a roll from the breadbox. Threw it at him.
“Here! I don’t care about your inner journey! I don’t care about your changes! I don’t want you to make amends! Don’t fucking tell me about Allah! I certainly don’t want you hanging around! You know better, I mean you must know better, than to fuck with me!”
He wasn’t reacting the way the old Dizzy would, and that unsettled me too. Now, he was the quiet one.
“Over in the Middle East,” he said. “I worked for an oil spill cleanup company.”
“And you converted. That’s so typical. How long will this stage last? Know what stage I’ve been stuck in the last 18 or so years? Adulthood. Motherhood.”
“Yeah, you were always such a good mother.”
“I am now. I am since I pushed you out the fucking window. I am since Antonio….”
I was crying. I couldn’t believe I let that fucking little freak do that to me, but I was crying. The image flashed before me. My father swinging from a rope tied to a skylight in his home. My father, dead of despair. My father killed himself because of me. I was sobbing.
“Get out! Get out! Don’t come back!”
I stood there shaking and sobbing for I don’t know how long. I only know that when I next became aware, he had gone. He’d taken the roll.