The instant I landed the blow on Johnny’s head, I knew he would live with me forever. I knew I wouldn’t escape no matter how fast or how far I ran. He lived with me as I crossed borders to a new life, one filled with unfamiliar sights and smells. I was the same person as yesterday, yet different. I was free, but shackled with my past. What other choice did I have, but to go forward?
I took a deep breath and trudged up the dark, narrow stairs of the converted row house, following Jesse to the second floor. The smell of grease and stale cigarettes seeped from the walls. I hesitated, one foot on the next step. “I’ll be the only white woman living in this building, won’t I?”
Jesse looked over his shoulder. “You wanna turn around and go back?”
If only I could. But I didn’t come all this way to change my mind at the last minute.
I stared straight ahead. “No.”
Jesse’s thick upper lip curled. “Didn’t think so.”
The door at the landing came into view. I clenched my hands to keep from shaking and reached for something to say to calm my nerves. “The radio said there’ve been riots in the city since Doctor King was killed.” Not that I was worried. Street fighting no more affected me than the war in Vietnam. I was more scared of Johnny. Dead or alive.
“This is the west side,” Jesse said, now sounding annoyed. “No trouble here.”
I didn’t know west from east. I’d never been to Philadelphia. What if there were riots? Maybe I should be worried, should have paid more attention to the news. No trouble for him, but what about me? I decided to keep my mouth shut until after I faced the stranger on the other side of the door—Jesse’s brother and my new roommate.
Jesse rapped hard on hollow wood.
A stocky man, wearing a faded flannel shirt and tan trousers with suspenders, opened the door. The man looked old enough to be Jesse’s father. His smile reached his eyes. Maybe he was the one with the nice gene.
“This be her. Erin.” Jesse mumbled the words. With a furtive glance in my direction, he said, “This be Carl, my brother I tol’ you ’bout.”
Carl chuckled softly, dispelling the bad air between Jesse and me. “I suspect she guessed that already. It’s a pleasure meeting you, Erin.”
His voice had a musical, sing-song quality. Cocoa skin crinkled around warm dark eyes. Tight gray curls framed a pleasant face, but I suspected the map of wrinkles remembered a road traveled over many miles of ruts and potholes. I wondered if my own face reflected my journey. I pushed away the thought and gave him my best smile, wanting to make a decent impression, no matter what Jesse might have said about me.
Carl gave me a quick study. I tensed, thinking he could see right through my shell to the runny yolk inside. I thought he looked trustworthy, but my ability to judge men had not proved reliable.
I understood Jesse’s motivation for driving me all the way from New Jersey, but how did he convince his brother to take a strange white girl into his tiny apartment and into his life? I’d give anything to have listened in on that conversation. The man had to be a saint in disguise.
Carl stepped aside. “Come on in. You made it in time for breakfast.”
Jesse looked uncomfortable, a definite change in attitude now that he was in his brother’s presence.
I wanted to be sure Carl understood. “You really don’t mind if I stay here a few days? You probably didn’t have a chance to think this through.”
“How old are you, girl?” Carl’s tone was soothing.
Carl nodded. “Jesse said you were a decent person and needed someplace to stay. That’s good enough for me.”
Decent? Jesse called me decent?
“Hope you don’t mind tight quarters. I only got the one room and one bed, but you be safe here.”
A quick study of the efficiency almost changed my mind. To the left of the door, a stove and a tiny refrigerator squeezed in next to the sink and a narrow counter. A small dining table, two chairs, and a foldout sofa bed with an end table was the sum of Carl’s furniture. One bathroom and a closet filled the rest of Carl’s space. Where would I sleep? Did it matter? I didn’t have anywhere else to go.
“You sure are trusting,” I said.
You don’t know Carl either, I thought, as I set my bags on the floor, felt my stomach tighten. My words spilled out like water. “Don’t worry. I’ll get a job right away. I’ll pay you back, whatever you want, for rent, for food. Won’t take me long to find my own place and be out of your way.”
Carl gave me a fatherly smile, but didn’t respond. Instead he spoke to his brother. “You’re welcome to stay, Jesse. You must be hungry after your long trip. No sense in rushing out again.”
“I gotta get back,” Jesse said, not looking at me. “Phyllis will skin me alive if I don’t get back in time for work.” Phyllis was Jesse’s wife and could be a bitch if she suspected Jesse even looked at another woman, let alone helped one who was running from another man.
Carl’s tone stayed calm but firm. “You can at least have a cup of coffee before you go. Don’t want you falling asleep while driving.”
“Yeah, okay. I can do with a cup.” Jesse lowered himself into a hard, armless chair, the type I remembered from school.
Jesse hadn’t looked at me since we arrived. We both worked at the same restaurant. I was a waitress, Jesse a bus boy. Last night, I arrived late and gave him my tale of woe—omitting a few details. To my surprise, he agreed to help me, even left work two hours early. His attitude had since changed. Guess he got scared I’d tell his brother about that cheap, smelly hotel room with puke green walls he insisted we stay at, arguing he was too tired to drive all night after working.
I couldn’t even guess what Carl was thinking while he scrambled eggs and fried bacon. He turned off the burner, poured boiling water into three cups, and mixed in instant coffee. He handed each of us a cup.
Jesse gulped his and stood.
“Thanks, Jesse. I won’t forget what you’ve done for me.” I meant every word. “There’s no possible way Johnny will find me.” Because he’s dead. “Just don’t tell anyone.”
His eyes bugged and his back went rigid. “You crazy? You think I want my skin stripped from my bones and my neck stretched and hung from a tree? And that’s just what my wife would do. Your husband would probably cut off my balls. Nobody knows nothing, and nobody ain’t gonna know.”
I sat on the bed and spoke as calmly as I could manage, which I could tell irritated the hell out of him. “Stop worrying. Johnny won’t suspect you. If he shows up at the restaurant looking for me, will you let me know?” I surprised myself sometimes. I could lie like a professional con man. Practiced the art while living with Johnny, who I knew wasn’t ever going to show up anywhere.
Red lines streaked the whites of Jesse’s eyes. “Are you kidding? How, without getting people suspicious? What I am supposed to say if they ask where I disappeared to same night as you? I ain’t saying or doing nothing to make them look twice at me.”
Carl chuckled. “My goodness, you sure are paranoid. Don’t make this a big deal. You learn something might help our girl here, call Nettie. You still have her number?” He turned to me. “She’s a good friend, lives upstairs, has the only phone.”
Jesse gave him a sour look. “Yeah, sure.” He moved toward the door.
Carl laid a hand on his shoulder. “Take care of yourself, Jesse.”
“Little late for that shit,” Jesse said, and shook him off. “Don’t worry. This is the last time I go outta my way, be a Good Samaritan. What’s in it for me, huh? Nuthin’.”
His attitude pissed me off. I wanted him to go, but I still owed him. More than he’d ever know. I swallowed with difficulty. “Thanks again, Jesse.”
“Yeah, don’t mention it.”
He didn’t look at me. I knew he was thinking of last night and how he missed out on that big thank you he was expecting for his trouble and didn’t get.
“Are you all right?” Carl asked me after Jesse left. He handed me a plate with a liberal serving of bacon, eggs, and buttered toast.
I put the plate on the table and settled in the chair, still warm from Jesse. “I’m fine. More worried about you. Don’t want to bring trouble to your door.”
Carl shook his head slowly, the smile trembling on his lips. “You don’t bring trouble, girl. Trouble was here before you was born.”
I wanted to laugh before I burst out crying. What would he say if I told him the truth about me? How much trouble would that be?
I pulled myself together. So far, I’d handled myself pretty well, I thought, pretending to be normal. I almost believed the lie. Just act like nothing bad happened. Take the bad stuff, roll it in a ball, and stuff it in a corner. Don’t tell anyone.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Carl’s concern finally got through to me.
“Yeah, sure. Are you?”
He chuckled. “Don’t you worry your head about me. You go ahead and eat.”
He sounded so confident. Maybe I would be all right. Nothing I could do about the past. My life started now. I looked into his eyes, sensing a deep peace in them. I envied that look. My stomach rumbled as I gazed at my plate. “You shouldn’t have bothered.” I managed a smile and realized I was hungry after all. “But I’m glad you did.” I drank half my coffee before tackling my food.
“It ain’t nothing special. I have to eat anyway.” Carl sat opposite me and dug his fork into the eggs.
I finished first and rinsed my plate in the sink. I had to be doing something. Too wound up to relax. I meandered to the window next to the bed and looked out over the gray day.
Fog hovered over the tiled roofs of row houses that marched down both sides of the street.
Carl brought me a fresh cup of coffee. I wondered at his patience, felt a touch of envy at the mellow look in his eyes. He seemed too good to be true. “I’m really grateful for your taking me in,” I said. “But I’m curious, what’s in this for you?”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“All you knew about me is whatever Jesse told you and he didn’t know much.”
He said with a straight face, “What? Are you going to tell me you’re a serial killer?”
I almost dropped my cup. “Why do you say that?”
He looked at me funny, and I held my breath. Then he laughed. “You look so serious. I’m kidding, my dear. Oh, wait. You think I have a hidden agenda? Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect when Jesse called. He said you needed to get away, but had no place to go. I feel it, girl. Think you’re the only one who’s come from bad times?” He patted my arm. “Are you uncomfortable here?” He slapped his forehead. “What am I saying? Of course, you are. You come in to a strange city to move in with someone you’ve never met, a man of color.”
He didn’t get it. I put my hand up to stop him. “Uncomfortable? Carl, you have no idea what my life has been like the last few years. I don’t think I could ever be that uncomfortable with anyone or anything again. Except maybe…” I looked down at the sofa that would pull out into a bed at night.
“Ah, yes, I can see where the sleeping arrangements might make you nervous, but you don’t need to worry about me.” He tapped his chest. “I have a weak ticker. When I go to bed, it’s to sleep. I wish I could offer you something more, but this is all I have.”
I wanted to take him at his word. Just in case, I still had my grandmother’s hat pin, the one that kept Jesse away last night.
“I suppose you’re curious. Why I left in such a hurry?” I said.
“That’s your business. I figure if you want to tell me, you will.” Carl took his empty plate to the sink.
I stood and moved him aside. “I can do the dishes. You’ve done enough. Sit and relax.”
He looked startled, but then he smiled and sat on the sofa. “Thank you.”
I filled the sink with soapy water. The silence stilled the room. I wanted to scream just to avoid listening to my own thoughts. Or Johnny’s voice. My insides were quivering like jelly.
“Johnny’s thirty years older than me.” Good one, Erin. Carl and Johnny are probably about the same age. I scrubbed a dish so hard the painted flowers were in danger of peeling. “He’s got lines on his face like yours. Used to be a hard hat diver for oil companies. Demolitions expert. Worked all over the world—before his accident. But our age difference was never a problem.” That’s right. Keep talking like Johnny’s alive.
I steeled myself for Carl’s question, but it didn’t come.
I rambled on, unable to keep quiet. “I left him once when we lived in Key West. Hopped a bus to Miami. He found me the next day.” I shot another glance at Carl, who sipped his coffee while he listened. “Talked me into going back with him. Said he needed me. Threatened to kill himself if I didn’t. I was all he had, you see. That made him jealous all the time. We didn’t stay in one place long enough to make friends.”
I wiped my hands and turned to face Carl. “But this time is different. He won’t find me. I’ve never been to Philadelphia. Don’t know anyone here. I was smart this time, didn’t leave a trail. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.” I blew out a shaky laugh. “I just don’t want you to worry.”
I didn’t really lie. Everything I said happened. I couldn’t tell him the rest. I couldn’t tell anyone.
I turned my back to him and finished washing the dishes. I avoided Carl’s eyes while I picked up the dish towel to dry them.
After a long silence, he said, “A lot of life packed into twenty-two years.”
I squeezed my eyes shut for a second. If you only knew the half of it.
“I’m not worried,” Carl said. “I’m curious about one thing, though. How did you get Jesse to help you?”
The question threw me. My laugh sounded brittle. “You know what? I didn’t. I asked a few of the girls, the other waitresses. No one else wanted to get involved. Jesse volunteered.”
Carl had taken another sip of his coffee, and he almost spit it out. A few drops hit his chin and he wiped it with his hand. “That crazy fool.” His eyes narrowed. “But I never knew him to help someone out of the kindness of his heart. He’d want something.”
I guess he knew his brother well. Jesse had a family, but fancied himself a ladies’ man at work. He probably envied Carl’s bachelor lifestyle, or the way he imagined how his brother lived. But regardless of what Jesse hoped to gain by having me to himself for the duration of the trip, I considered the man a hero for following through with his offer.
“Jesse did exactly what we had agreed upon,” I said.
Still holding the dish towel, I sank in the chair.
Carl looked at me shrewdly. “What did he expect from you?”
I looked away, not wanting to rat out his brother.
Carl pressed on. “That boy always act like someone gonna beat him to death when he hiding something. He acts jumpy, too eager to leave.”
I figured he’d already guessed the answer. “He made a move on me,” I admitted. “But I had my secret weapon.” I pulled out the hat pin Grandmother had given me. I remembered Jesse’s expression as he lay beside me in that hard bed with the gray sheets, reaching for me, only to get stabbed for his trouble. “It works.”
Carl flung back his head and laughed outright. “No wonder that boy was pissed. Good for you.” He sobered and gave me a knowing look. “You’re not what I expected, Erin Matthews.”
What had he expected?
“You won’t be sorry, Carl.”
I hoped those words were true.