Think of all the people who have rested their heads there. I might not put it in my mouth, but to lie back and make a few phone calls — I do it all the time. In a similar vein, I was at the grocery store with my sister Lisa and I noticed her pushing the cart with her forearms. These things are crawling with germs. In Paris once, I went to my neighborhood supermarket and saw a man shopping with his cockatiel, which was the size of a teenage eagle and stood perched on the handle of his cart.
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The first time I saw them, I started and screamed, but after that I made it a point to walk on the other side of the street, pausing and squinting to take them all in. It was like moving to Alaska and seeing a congregation of bears - I knew to expect them, but still I could never quite believe my eyes.
Helen on politics, Helen on sex, Helen on race relations: the response at the table was almost always the same. And where did you know this person from? This was in New York, on Thompson Street, in the fall of While talking, he noticed a woman standing near the door, 70 at least, and no taller than a year-old girl. She wore a sweat-suit, tight through the stomach and hips.
Her glasses were wing-shaped, and at their centre, just over her nose, was a thick padding of duct tape. Helen, she said her name was. Hugh nodded hello, and as he turned to leave, she pointed to some bags lying at her feet. You got something better to do? Hugh was in the living room taking down the panelling while I sat on a paint bucket and tried to come to terms with my disappointment. For starters, there was the kitchen floor.
The tiles there were brown and tan and ochre, the colours seemingly crocheted as they would be on an afghan. Then there was the size.
Her hair was dyed the colour of a new penny, and she wore it pulled back into a thumb-sized ponytail. She had on puffy sneakers, cheap ones made of air and some sort of plastic, and, considering them, I frowned. Right about then, Hugh stepped out of the living room with a scrap of panelling in his hand. He would get up early and leave the house no later than eight. My only real constant was Helen, who would watch Hugh leave the building, and then cross the hall to lean on our doorbell.
If you had a cold, she had a flu. My mother died when I was half your age. This was how we wound up with a Singer sewing machine, the kind built into a table. A woman on the third floor made her own clothes and, in her own quiet way, had asked if she could have it. Everybody needs a sewing machine, especially this one - top of the line.
I mean, really, why not just give us a tugboat? It would take up the same amount of space. He sat on the horrid little bench that came with the machine, and five minutes later he was teaching himself to sew. Every day for the next six months, Helen mentioned her gift. You made any pants yet? You made any jeans? I had stuff everywhere - the sewing machine, for example - but her living room, like her kitchen, was spartan. On one wall was a framed photograph of herself, but no pictures of her daughters, or any of her seven grandchildren.
There were no chairs, either, just a sofa and a coffee table. The black-and-white model on the bottom had died years earlier, and the one above it had no volume control. This left the TV at the top of the pile. When in the living-room, she usually sat on the radiator, her lower half indoors and her head and shoulders as far out as they could go. The waitress on the second floor coming home at 2am, the shopkeeper across the street accepting a package from the UPS man, a woman in a convertible applying lipstick: nothing escaped her attention.
It hurt her neck to turn from the street to the screen, so most programmes were listened to rather than watched. Exceptions were made for Friday episodes of One Life to Live, and, occasionally, for Oprah, who was one of the few black people Helen had any regard for. Perhaps in the past she had been more open-minded, but getting mugged in the foyer of our building convinced her that they were all crooks and sex maniacs. Susan fell overboard while sailing and managed to survive for six days by clinging to a cooler.
Colleen taught herself to read and got a job as an executive secretary. The third guest, a poet, had recently published a memoir about her cancer and the many operations performed in an effort to reconstruct her jaw. The poet and I had met and spoken on several occasions. Now here she was on Oprah, and nothing would do until I ran across the hall to tell Helen.
You think that makes you special? She was allowed to brag and name-drop, but no one else was. Announce an accomplishment - signing a book contract, getting your play reviewed in the New York Times - and her hackles would go up.
One perfectly aimed word, and within an instant I was eight years old and unable to control my temper. It seemed wrong to yell at a grandmother, but more than that I found that I missed her, or at least missed someone I could so easily drop in on. The beauty of Helen was that she was always there, practically begging to be disturbed. Was that a friend, or had I chosen the wrong word? What was the name for this thing we had? Helen fell in the tub and sprained her wrist.
While she was laid up, I went to the store for her. Hugh took down her trash and delivered her mail. Joe, a widower now, offered to help as well. One morning, Hugh left the house at seven. A short while later, Helen called. The door jerked open before I could knock, and she stood in the frame, her lower jaw sunken, the lip invisible. It seemed that she had been at her window, surveying the scene below, and when a man in the building across the street threw a lit cigarette into our trash can, she yelled at him with such force that she blew her lower plate of dentures right out of her mouth.
There I found a beer bottle, a slice of pizza with ants on it, and, finally, the dentures, incredibly unbroken by their five-storey fall. What made it all look so fake was its perfection. No single tooth protruded or towered above its neighbour. Even in shape and colour, they resembled a row of ceramic tiles. Back upstairs, I found Helen waiting on the landing.
She slid the dentures, unwashed, back into her mouth, and it was like popping the batteries into a particularly foul toy. Now there were new pills she needed to take. I offered to pick them up for her, and along with the prescription she handed me a receipt. I was then to suggest that he shove his delivery charge up his fat ass. This was a boy of 14, a beloved neighbourhood figure who delivered for the nearby deli.
After using it to tally the bill, he stuck it in his shirt pocket, absent-mindedly, most likely. Helen reacted by pulling his hair and digging her nails into his neck.
I crossed the hall and, after letting me in, she took a seat and pointed out her sore shoulder. A slight stain had formed, and she insisted that it was dog urine, leaking down from the apartment above her. You and your "tomorrows". Helen kept a sawn-off two-by-four in her kitchen, a weapon against possible intruders, and he awoke to hear her banging it against the inside of her door. He had a key in case of emergency and entered the apartment to find her on the floor.
Beside her was the overturned step stool, and beneath the kitchen table, lying just out of reach, was the bottle of white shoe polish. During the next few months Hugh and I visited Helen in the hospital. No teeth, no glasses, and when the last of the henna had faded, her hair, like her face, was the colour of old cement.
The hospital room was small and hot. Near the door was a second bed, and in it lay a Dominican woman who had recently lost a leg. Do you think she wants those crackers? At the funeral home were people I had heard about but never met. Helen once told me that as a young woman her nickname had been Rocky, as in Graziano, the fighter, but according to her sister, she was called any number of things.
It was such a strange thing for her to have, let alone say. It was, I thought, like stroking some sort of a sea creature, the flesh slick and fatty beneath my palms. In my memory, there was something on the stove, a cauldron of tomato gravy, and the smell of it mixed with the camphor of the Tiger Balm. To order call or go to books.
When You are Engulfed in Flames
‘When You Are Engulfed in Flames’