On the Crossing of Streets
“Now you know that’s no way to be” Minnie says.
A.J. closes his eyes.
“Why can’t you just get a job?” Minnie continues. “We aren’t made of money.”
A.J.’s eyes stay closed. For a moment, he feels he is a saint, but only for a moment.
“Now come on, baby,” he starts, but Minnie is already in full tirade mode.
A.J. stays at the kitchen table for another few minutes, half listening, half thinking about some tropical paradise, then he gets up and walks toward the front door.
Minnie follows him “…and now you’re just gonna sit out there and talk to those good for nothing’s you call friends, and I’m supposed to be cooking your food that I get with two quarters and a piece of tin foil…”
A.J. closes the door behind him and arches his back. He doesn’t blame Minnie. She’s a good woman just trying to get a little more out of him then what he’s giving.
“Nothing wrong with wanting” he says to the empty street, then sits down in his fold-up chair. “Nothing wrong with it at all.”
A.J. knows about wanting, and there was a time A.J. would have done anything for Minnie. He remembers how it was, and how hard he had worked for those years. He had worked on the waterfront; back-breaking labor, men pushing men just to see how hard a man could be pushed.
A.J. had decided it didn’t suit him and spits to the left of the porch rail: not the work, not the powerful men, not the money.
“Damn” he says out loud. Usually his outdoor chair is a place of comfort, like his own personal Balm in Gilead. But out here by himself, he feels an ache inside. It’s something painful, like a fist holding his heart too tight.
“Now it comes” he says to the birds, and decides he is having a heart attack.
He gets up from the lawn chair, but then Smokey comes out his front door guffawing about how bright it is this time of day, and A.J. sits back down.
“Hell, thought I was having a heart attack before you appeared. I’m thinking now I was just having a panic attack” A.J. says good-naturedly. “I thought you might be dead in that house of yours.”
Smokey grabs a lawn chair from his porch, opens the gate, and walks the four or five steps to A.J.’s place.
“Nah. Just stretching out the day. Stretching it on out” Smokey says and reaches in his front shirt pocket for a cigar and lights it.
A.J. and Smokey sit in silence and watch more four-wheeled and some two-wheeled people roll by.
“I wonder if Sloppy Joe is going to make it out this morning” Smokey says.
Sloppy Joe had been drinking a bit more each day, and A.J. knows the signs. His own father had pickled himself from the inside out with the liquor, and although Sloppy Joe is a friend, A.J. doesn’t know how to tell him to cut back.
“Well, we’ll see; nothing to do but just wait and see” A.J. says.
“We could have an intervention” Smokey says.
“We could” A.J. says and settles more comfortably in his chair and changes the subject to dominoes.
After the sun is really up and moving across the sky, A.J. feels his stomach begin a rumble dance. The conversation has died down to guffaws and snorts, so A.J. cracks the front door and calls to Minnie. “Do you have some lunch, Minnie? Smokey’s out here, so maybe some lunch for him too?”
A.J. knows Minnie has lunch; she always has lunch. Sure enough, Minnie throws the window open and passes a plate through it. She doesn’t say anything, and she doesn’t have to; A.J. knows what she’s said a thousand times for a thousand days, and he also knows she’ll say it a thousand more times before it’s all over.
“Now that’s nice of you, Minnie” Smokey says in appreciation and sniffs the two nice po-boys on the plate. “Overstuffed, and just the way they should be.”
Minnie has already shut the window, but A.J. calls out “earning your wings here, honey” then focuses on the plate.
After the first few bites, he looks over at Sloppy Joe’s. “Should be up and out by now” he says to Smokey.
“”Reckon so” Smokey says.
They chew in silence, both now looking at Sloppy Joe’s across the street.
“She didn’t give us napkins” Smokey says.
“Don’t have any” A.J. says and decides that Sloppy Joe’s house doesn’t look so bad. It’s worn like the rest of the homes in A.J.’s neighborhood, but you can still see the fineness in how the house was built. The yard is overrun, and the car has one wheel off, and if there was a dog it’s long gone by now, or else a skeleton still chained to the tree.
“I can’t remember the last time Sloppy took that car out” Smokey says.
A.J. nods and chews his bite of po-boy. “That wheel has been off for a few years now.”
They eat in silence a few more minutes. “Well, I guess we could cross the street” Smokey says. “Take a look.”
“What you’re talking is nonsense to me” A.J. says stiffly. Since the big happening, A.J. hadn’t walked further than the street corner one way, and two blocks the other way. And he hand’t wanted to walk the two blocks.
Minnie had made him go and get milk.
“It’s not nonsense. That all happened what — twenty, thirty years ago?” Smokey relights his cigar and sits further back in his lawn chair.
A.J. doesn’t answer. He knows that Smokey knows it’s exactly twenty-six years ago since the big happening. He had come home from the waterfront and his son was dead in his front yard, and Minnie was sitting on the curb crying.
Sometimes he still hears Minnie say “Bubba T. ran my boy over, ran him down” like she is trying to convince herself that it happened.
Sirens still bother him, and though Bubba T. had tried for years to talk to him, and A.J. knew Minnie had forgiven him long ago, A.J. had not, would not, speak to him or around him.
Bubba T.”s wheel had blown out right when Minnie was waving to him, and she had their little boy right beside her waiting to cross the street. Bubba T had lost control for an instant, and A.J.’s little boy was hit by the side view mirror. Killed on impact the medical professionals had told him, and Minnie had just cried and cried there in the street.
“I’m not crossing the street” A.J. mumbles and reaches behind him and knocks on the window. “Po-boys were great, Minnie honey. Can you pick up the plates so the flies don’t get on them?”
Minnie surprises A.J. by coming out the front door. She stands in front of him on the porch. A.J. hands her his plate, and Smokey starts to say something but she holds up her free hand and points to Sloppy Joe’s.
“Where’s he at? I see two po-boys gone, and the normal number I make, well that’s three. So I’m asking” she says.
“He forgot to come out” A.J. says right over Smokey saying “we were just talking about how maybe we should go on and cross the street and be neighborly and check in on him.”
Minnie looks at A.J., then at Smokey. “Thinking about it?”
“We are considering it” Smokey says politely.
“You two are sitting here being fed like house cats and your friend may not even be breathing, that’s what” Minnie says and picks up Smokey’s plate. “I’m going to have to clean these plates then go check on a fool of a man…”
Minnie moves off the porch and through the front door and slams the door behind her with her foot. A.J. knows it’s her foot, and has often wondered how she stays balanced when she throws it out to close the door.
“Pay her no mind. She’s on a tear today” A.J. says and reaches for the cooler.
Smokey grabs A.J.’s hand. “I’m thinking we should pay her mind. She just gave us a beat down right here on our own porch. Well your porch, but close enough to mine to be mine.”
A.J. snatches his hand from Smokey. “Are you holding my hand on my own front porch Smokey?”
“Seems like I’ll have to hold it for you to cross the street” Smokey retorts and takes a long pull on his cigar.
“Damn cigar. Why do you have to smoke that on my porch?” A.J. fans the air about his head. It’s suddenly thick and clammy and he feels like a smoked cigar, all spent out and smelly.
“You never said not to” Smokey says.
They sit in an uneasy silence for a moment, then Smokey says “I’m gonna have to hold both your hands or what?”
A.J. doesn’t say anything because he is thinking about Sloppy Joe. He does about twenty years of thinking, and then he says “I’m not going to cross…”
The door flies open and Minnie yells “CROSS THE DAMN STREET, A.J., OR GET THE HELL OUT OF THIS HOUSE.” Minnie stomps her foot, then slams the door shut behind her and…locks it.
A.J. is stunned. He looks at the door, then looks at Smokey.
Smokey clears his throat. “I don’t think she’s going to open it.”
A.J. swivels to face Smokey. “I’m not a violent man, but I’m thinking you need to be leaving or I’m going to do some violence right here on my porch. There’s no reason to disrespect a man on his own porch.”
“All right” Smokey replies, then clears his throat. “I’ll leave with you. It’s about napping time, so best get this thing done if it’s going to be done.”
A.J. sees his boy’s face in his mind, and it is shaped like Minnie’s, but has his eyes. A.J. can’t move. “My boy…” he starts then stops.
“Has been dead a long time now, A.J.” Smokey says and looks across the street. “We’ve got someone else to care about now. Time to cross this street.”
Smokey puts his feet side by side and hoists himself up from the lawn chair. “We’re friends, A.J.”
A.J. nods and his mind goes into a time warp. He sees Sloppy coming across the street to tell them Beth left him; sees Sloppy helping him clean up after the last hurricane, drunk as he was; sees Sloppy bringing Minnie some old weeds he calls flowers to thank her for lunch.
A.J. tries to picture his boy; but he can’t get past the face shape and the eyes.
“I guess it’s time to go across the street” A.J. whispers. He licks his lips and stands up with intent.
The first three steps are just off the porch. When they come to the street edge, he looks back at his house, and he sees the curtains move in the front window. He knows Minnie is watching and waiting.
A.J. suddenly remembers how cool the water was when he dove off the big rock one summer long, long ago in Sister Lake. He was airborne and free and then he was in the water, his eyes wide, then he was back up to the surface and he was covered in sunshine.
His foot hits the street pavement and it is like Minnie’s eyes propel him on. Smokey is beside him, hanging back a little, maybe in case he starts to fall, or starts to run, or starts to cry.
“I don’t need a nursemaid, Smokey, I’m not a little girl” A.J. says gruffly and crosses the center line.
Two, three, four more steps and he is over the curb. He stops in front of Sloppy Joe’s house and the world is a loud buzz.
Smokey is saying something, and he turns to open Sloppy’s gate. A.J. follows though he isn’t hearing, isn’t listening, isn’t breathing.
His mind keeps saying that he has crossed the street in broad daylight on a Monday afternoon.
They are up to the front door, and Smokey knocks. The door swings open, unlocked, and A.J. hears Smokey say something like “only a damn fool would sleep with his door unlocked in this neighborhood.”
Smokey steps into the front room. A.J. takes a deep breath and follows.
Bottles are knee-high, and Smokey starts wading toward the back room. All the houses in the neighborhood are shotguns, and A.J. vaguely remembers being in Sloppy Joe’s house when another family lived in it, another family with a little boy the same age as A.J. Jr.
A.J. sinks to his knees in the bottles and something breaks inside his chest. There’s a hardness, then a lightness, and he feels the world spin a little, turn dark then white, until he finally opens his eyes.
Something is under his right knee.
“Sloppy?” A.J. croaks.
Standing up, A.J. looks at Sloppy’s left shoe and then realizes Smokey is right behind him. Smokey kneels down, digs for Sloppy’s head, and then hoists the whole body over so he is face up.
“Hell, what could make a man bury himself in bottles, vomit, and piss on himself?” Smokey asks and puts his hand over Sloppy Joe’s nose.
“Some things” A.J. replies and touches Smokey’s wrist.
Smokey puts a hand on A.J.’s shoulder. “Is your phone working? He’s breathing, but I think we need an ambulance out here.”
A.J. nods, and waves Smokey to the door.
Smokey moves to it, then turns and asks “you’re staying with Sloppy?”
A.J. nods again, and moves to put a plastic bottle under Sloppy’s head.
“Damn fool’s lucky he didn’t drown himself in his own vomit” Smokey says and walks through the front door and runs across the street.
A.J. can see Minnie in their front yard. Her hands are at her side and she is crying. He knows she is crying; he doesn’t have to be close enough to see it.
Smokey puts his hand on her shoulder and turns her, and A.J. watches as they go into his house.
“Sloppy man. We’re going to be fine now” A.J. whispers. “I crossed this street and if you quit breathing it won’t be worth anything. And I won’t pay for your funeral either, so I’d breathe if I were you. Pauper’s graves aren’t nice.”
Sloppy doesn’t answer, but A.J. doesn’t need him to.
A.J. looks down at his pants. Dry.