From “Double Exposure”
by Greg Johnson
Her hair smelled bad.
The day we came to visit Mr. Thomas, that awful February, she happened to come downstairs—“just checking the mail,” she said, with a half-apologetic smile—and after collecting a few envelopes she stalled a moment. That’s when I noticed the smell, and focused my attention on the oily mane of darkish-blond hair through which, I imagined, she had splayed her fingers many times. Though ten years old, I was an observant child, and passing my gaze downwards I saw that her clothes looked cheap and not very clean. Her fingers had stains on them as of dark ink, or ashes.
My mother, with her middle-class American politeness, shook the woman’s dirty hand without hesitation. From the smile she gave, she might have been meeting the queen. The woman kept looking back and forth between us, smiling eagerly, as my mother launched into a needlessly detailed explanation of our presence outside Mr. Thomas’s door. He was the great-uncle of a pilot’s wife my mother had befriended while we still lived on the base, and Mrs. Fellowes had insisted we stop and meet the old man, since we were going to be his neighbors. The day before, my mother and I had moved into our own flat in the next block of Fitzroy Road, and though we hadn’t finished unpacking she’d resolved that morning to fulfill her obligation promptly. She called it an “obligation,” but I knew my mother was hungry to meet people—even a British woman’s elderly uncle.
While my mother explained all this I stared at the woman, whose name was Sylvia. It struck me that Sylvia was just the kind of person my mother needed at that moment, for she was an intense, compassionate listener, expressing no impatience with my mother’s volubility. That was the first time I guessed that Sylvia was lonely, too.
My mother kept talking. Within minutes she had told Sylvia the story she’d been giving everyone we met (our new landlord, neighbors she encountered in the hallway, even the elderly woman who owned the greengrocer’s shop on the corner). The main details were these. Her husband, my father, was in the Air Force—which was true. He was stationed in London for another six months, at which time his term of service would end—also true. Though we’d been living on the base in quarters provided for married airmen, the U.S. government instead had provided a tiny flat in the Fitzroy Road for my father’s dependents—a disappointing but temporary arrangement, my mother added quickly, for we’d all be returning home together in six months’ time.
This last part was not true. The truth was my parents had split up, and my father had told us both, in separate, difficult conversations, that when we returned to America he planned to file for a divorce. My mother had moved us to the Fitzroy Road flat supposedly because she wanted, now that we were here, to “experience a different culture.” It would be a fine learning experience for me, she said. We would stay in London (where I would follow a reading list sent by my fourth-grade teacher back in Atlanta) until August, when we’d have to return to America and my school. But the real reason we’d stayed in London, of course, was that my mother couldn’t accept the separation—my father had met another woman—and was lingering in the hope that she’d get him back.
She hadn’t told me this, in so many words, but I’d known what would happen in the way intelligent children know such dismal things. Perhaps I knew before she did, months earlier when my mother was still pretending to herself we were a happy little family about to conclude its British adventure.
Standing there in the freezing entryway with my mother and Sylvia, I’d begun fidgeting. I wanted to return to our flat, which at least was well-heated, and help my mother unpack, then read until dark and in that way make an end to another day against the time when we could finally return to America and a semblance of normalcy. But I fidgeted quietly; I was a polite boy. There was a baby’s pram, empty, there in the vestibule, and I held the bar and moved the pram forward and back, forward and back, as though soothing an invisible child.
When my mother finally stopped talking, Sylvia related in a few swift, efficient sentences how she’d come to be here, occupying the two floors above Mr. Thomas’s flat. He was such a nice and helpful man, she said; she knew we’d like him very much. By now, however, Sylvia told us that Mr. Thomas had gone out for the day. He worked for an art museum, she said, and was an artist himself.
“Oh, really?” my mother exclaimed, as though delighted by this news.
Sylvia, ducking her head mischievously, cupped her mouth and stage-whispered, “But ringing the bell won’t do, you know. He’s deaf as a corpse.”
“Oh, is he?” my mother said, sympathetically.
Sylvia laughed. “You have to bang and bang,” she said, miming the action against Mr. Thomas’s door. “Like you’re trying to wake the dead. Literally.”
My mother gave her most forced and gracious smile. “Really, I’ll have to remember that.”
Neither my mother nor Sylvia seemed to sense any awkwardness in their eager, serendipitous conversation here in this foyer—I saw that Sylvia was cold, too, the tips of her nose and ears a waxen pink—and now Sylvia was exclaiming over her “luck” in meeting another American woman living just a block away. They were about the same age, weren’t they? She hoped they’d become good friends. Her babies were napping, or she’d have invited us upstairs to meet them, and make us a cup of tea.
“I’ve taken up all the British customs,” Sylvia said, in her nasally half-Boston, half-British drawl. “I imagine you have, as well?”
My mother agreed because she was always agreeable, though she disliked tea. She swerved onto another subject, a tactic she often used just after committing a lie, then feeling her insincere, polite guilt about it. She latched onto another bit of information the woman had offered.
“You know, we’ve never met a real poet before,” she said, admiringly. “Have we, honey?” she added, glancing down on me.
Uncomfortable beneath the gaze of the malodorous, poorly dressed Sylvia and my genteel-looking, perfumed mother—whom no one would recognize as a woman plunged into raving despair—I glanced away. I kept playing with the pram.
“No,” I said quickly, fearing what would come next, as it did.
“You know, my son has written quite a few poems at school, back in the States,” she said. “He goes to Catholic school, and the nuns read them aloud to the class." ...
“Fist Fighter” by Dan Masterson
(based on George Bellows’ painting: “Stag at Sharkey’s”)
(“Saloon-keeper Tom Sharkey, retired heavyweight contender, is doing some fancy footwork in avoiding the current NYC ban on boxing by awarding ‘membership’ to every fighter he books for his Athletic Club brawls in his Lincoln Square cellar.”—The New York Times, 1909)
The kid comes down Sharkey’s stairs slapping
Snow off his great-coat, the threadbare elbows
Sporting ragtag patches cut from the hem.
He’s got a fresh shiner from one of the 3 other
Smokers he’s already worked tonight & a few
Random welts starting to fade. He weaves his way
Through the crowd, nods to Sharkey, unlocks
The Stay Out door, & flicks the wall switch
Before closing the door behind him. He hangs
His coat on a hook near the speed bag, & turns
It into a blur with a flurry of lefts & rights. He
Steps out of his trousers, reties his trunks & slips
A fold of 1’s into an envelope: 15 of them,
5 bucks a win. He sticks it under the mattress
He falls down on & closes his eyes for no more
Than a 10-count. Up on his feet, peeling off
His tee shirt sopped in sweat & spattered with
Someone else’s blood, he rubs his arms & yanks
A clean tee shirt on as he leaves the only room
Sharkey rents: half the kid’s take per week.
A dime for each piece of skinny-wood he burns
In the potbelly. 2 dimes for a hot bath upstairs.
Free beer if Sharkey goes out on the town. Sneaked
Meals from the cook, Bernie, who calls the kid
Champ and takes his break at 10 o’clock, in time
To see the kid do his stuff. The main room’s filthy:
6 rows of metal chairs tight against a 9’ x 9’ ring
Strung with braided clothesline covered in black
Tape. 10 100-watt clear bulbs hang limp on their
Bare wires, sawdust wet on the concrete floor,
The potbelly’s stovepipe jammed through the broken
Glass of an overhead window nailed shut & painted
Brown, an open drain in a far corner: Sharkey’s “Please
Flush” sign a ten-year-old bad joke, stale beer sticky
Underfoot, cigar smoke & old men with nowhere
To go. The kid’s heading for the ring, lifting 2 rolls
Of waxed-gauze from their pegs & 2 hollow stubs
Of hose to support his closed fists. He wraps his hands
As though they are already bleeding, round and round,
Flexing his fingers as the knuckles grow padded and tight:
The only gloves Sharkey allows. Just 18, the kid’s in his
4th season, & his pale Irish grin, riding above thick shoulders,
Is clean except for some hack doctor’s stitch marks
Under the left cheekbone. He climbs through the ropes &
Sits on the stool, fondling his mouthpiece, & studies
The empty stool across the ring, wondering who it will be,
& now there’s Harris stepping through the ropes, his
Bare knuckles showing through the gauze: a leftover
Wrap-job from his earlier fight down the block
Somewhere. Getting too old for this stuff, 37, 38,
Starting to lose his edge. It’ll be okay, thinks
The kid. He decked Harris in minute 6 last night
At Ramsey’s & he’s got no defense left, just a pecking
Jab & a giveaway right that opens him up for rib shots
That put him down & a jelly belly to keep him down.
Sharkey’s playing ref again, calling them to the center
Of the ring: No gouging, kneeing, biting, wrestling, butting,
Hitting low, no clock. You want out, you stay down for 10.
by Nancy Van Goethem