The knocking grew more insistent over the weekend, but the old man kept to his usual routine—repairing appliances neighbors put out for trash. Once fixed, he could sell them at Blue Eddie’s table at the Saturday flea market. If he wandered a few blocks north, people threw away the most wondrous things: toasters in want of a new spring, irons that only needed cleaning, can openers barely used. In this way he supported himself.
On Monday morning, when the pounding started again, he stood at the door, fists clenched, and shouted, “GO AWAY,” his voice crackling from disuse. Hollering was a mistake; the knocking grew fiercer. He could feel the door pulsate when he put his ear to it. She—it sounded like a she anyway—yelled something back. Surprised, he looked around for his hearing aid, remembering finally the battery was dead, that he had thrown it against the wall and busted it last spring.
“Deetah,” he heard her shout. Deetah? That was the way he said his own name—Peter. He knew this from childhood recesses spent on a cement schoolyard, where the children surrounded him, mimicking the way he spoke. Yelling his name until even a deaf boy had to cover his ears.
There was no way to see who was on the other side of his door. He’d gouged out the eyehole long ago. Yanking the door open now, he hoped to catch his visitor off-guard. But the woman held her ground: more girl than woman though; hunched with hollowed eyes, hair, a blazing orange.
“Do you know me?” she said. In the midst of these soundless words flowing over him, she said something about Canada, something about being sick. She didn’t look sick aside from her terrible thinness. He could circle her waist with a smoke ring. He began reading her lips, hearing bytes of what she said. Her lips were lush, even when stretched taut. Her elastic tongue looped and curled—someone must have told her he was deaf. It was a good mouth to look at that and he had trouble shifting his gaze, trouble getting his own mouth to work in response. He’d forgotten this feeling: the way some women made him feel tongue-tied but full of words.
His lips formed the name as he motioned her in, seeing then there was someone behind her. She’d been hiding a boy. Curly hair and a nose ending abruptly. Four? Six? The old man could no longer remember what those numbers meant. The boy stepped into the room, surveying it with dark, round eyes. Santa’s workshop, someone—probably a social worker— had once called it. Who else had been inside here? Every inch of space was filled with objects in need of repair; some items well beyond usefulness but still good for parts. In its way, it was orderly. A newspaper was spread under the greased pieces; everything was mostly in parts, in fact, because it was the insides of things that fascinated him. Selling his treasures at the flea market was a concession. He had to eat.
It’d been a long time since he stood this close to a child. Years before, he’d been the father of a girl. That girl grew up and gave birth to another girl. Her girl had one, too. At least, that’s what he’d heard. A long line of girls springing from a forgotten night. After long intervals, the phone rang and an event would be announced to him—if he could manage to understand what was being said. He’d only seen that first child and not much of her. Things had gone badly with her mother—his wife of sorts—when he couldn’t get a job, when his hearing kept him out of the war with its steady paycheck. Was this girl his—what—great-granddaughter? What was her name again?
The boy was studying the toaster the old man had been working on. Flinty crumbs spilled down his shirt when he turned it over. The girl–Lena—brushed the crumbs away, her hand gentle on the boy’s bony chest. Then she was talking. Her voice breaking like surf over him.
Shaking his head, he went to the battered table in the corner, bringing back a pad of paper. ‘What do you want?’ he wrote. And then he said it, too. “WHADEWYAWAH?” His words came out like they always did—a muffled trumpet. He wanted to stamp his feet, having forgetten how his tongue turned words perfect in his head into a scramble of sound. An abomination, his mother had said, administering quick angry slaps when she didn’t understand him. Once, she put a clothespin on her own tongue to show him how he sounded.
“Like a monster,” she said. He nodded, head bent, knowing her demonstration was somehow important. Intuiting he had to show her his shame.
But neither of his visitors today flinched when he spoke. The boy continued examining the toaster, trying to turn the screws—first with his finger, then his fingernail. Lena took the pad of paper and sat down, writing faster than he’d have thought possible. How could she have so much to say to him—someone she’d met five minutes ago? Her glasses slid down her nose, hanging perilously from its tip.
Peter was a rusty reader. “Dear Grandfather,” the pad said. He didn’t recognize all the words.
It had been years since he’d read more than a street sign or a headline. When he finished, he looked up. “IMAOLMA.” He took the pad and wrote it, “I am an old man.”
Her forehead wrinkled. “Mother’s odie. I need you to take care of my boy. Grandmother told me where to find you. I don’t know anyone else in this city.”
Mother’s odie? Odie who? Was that her mother’s name?
Seeing his bewilderment, she said “O” louder, making her lips go wide. He shook his head in frustration, a finger unconsciously sketching Os on the gritty tabletop.
“D…..,” she expelled. And then she mimed it, shooting a pretend needle into her arm, slumping to the floor. Peter almost laughed. But then he understood what she meant and clamped a greasy hand over his face.
The boy looked up, roused by her gesture. Laughing nervously, he threw himself on top of her. She hugged him, the two of them rolling on the linoleum floor: her fleecy sweater picking up sawdust and crumbs like a dust mop. Peter laughed in huge gulping snorts that hung in the air. Rising, Lena opened her bag and took out some clothing for the boy, setting the bundle on the table. There was also a toothbrush, a comb, a few small toys. “I’ll call you with the phone number,” she wrote. “From the hospital. Detroit Receiving.”
He nodded, resigned to it at last. “Do you know who I am, Deetah?” Lena asked, her hand on the door. Her eyes flitted between him and the boy uneasily.
“Yes,” Yeth. He half-turned, instinctively blocking the boy’s view of her departure. The boy threw himself against the door, tears spilling down his face and, with so little nose to stop them, onto his shoes. Peter watched him curiously for a minute and then picked up the toaster. It needed a new spring. Soon the boy was at his knees, both of them lost in the task.
Later, Peter realized he didn’t know the boy’s name. He got up and retrieved the pad of paper, his finger trailing from line to line of Lena’s swirling words. Nothing looked like a name. “WHASYURNA?” he asked the boy.
The boy held a pair of pliers in his hand and was pinching bits of his forearm. Peter wondered if the child was deaf, too. But as he considered this, the telephone rang and the child raised his head. Peter shook his head emphatically when the child made a move toward the phone, his watery blue eyes with their curious maroon flecks pinning the boy to his seat. “What’s you name?”
Peter nodded, and the boy raced across the room. After a brief conversation with his mother, he passed the receiver to the old man. “Hello, hello” Peter cried uselessly, raising the phone as if to hurl it through the wall. He only kept a phone because Social Services paid for it. Said he had to have one. Eyes wide, Jared Wink reached for the phone. After listening intently, he got Peter the pad and a pencil and dictated a phone number to him.
“What did she say?” The boy looked at him blankly. “Why don’t you talk?” Peter wondered aloud.
“Wanna fix something else?” the boy asked, running over to a box of discarded items. After some consideration, he brought an aqua blender to Peter’s lap. Peter shook his head, hating to mess with the gears, but the boy remained stubbornly at his knees, eyes on his find.
Sometime later, it occurred to the old man that the boy must be hungry. Hours had passed, and his empty stomach flexed anxiously. He got up, putting the blender aside, and absentmindedly pocketing the wrench, he looked through the icebox. Jared stood behind him, glancing worriedly at the empty shelves, the bare cabinets. Putting on his baseball cap, the old man and his great, great grandson set out for the market. They stopped once to examine pastries in a bakery and again to watch the man in the bicycle shop attach a new seat to a bike.
The Bosnian woman at the corner market was nearly as old as Peter, but she stood in flimsy cloth slippers, the backs of her legs bulging with muscles made decades earlier in the mountainous village of her childhood. She could stand motionless for hours, planted at her station behind the cash register like a thick, stubborn tree on the slope of a riverbank. The woman performed every task by herself, scowling at the customers and stingily doling out change.
Peter made his purchases, and she counted out the coins carefully, placing each piece of silver in a row for his scrutiny. If a purchase could possibly be carried home without a bag, none was offered. More than once, Peter made his way home toting cans, boxes, and bottles that tumbled haplessly into the streets, under a car, up his stairs. If he motioned for a bag, she pointed to his pockets, or made a frightening face. Pressed by a large amount spent, she ducked beneath the counter, often coming up with a bag too small.
“Why don’ t you bring your own bag?” she asked him repeatedly. Twenty dollars’ worth of food bought him a single paper bag. Turning to go, he found the old woman sneaking Jared a piece of red licorice. Catching his eye, she sniffed defensively, wiping her hands on her apron.
While they were occupied, a young man had entered the store. He waited patiently for the clerk and her customers to realize he was holding a gun. Six eyes saw it at once. The shopkeeper sniffed, waiting to see what he would say. Or do. Peter and the boy watched him, too.
“Empty the box,” the man said tersely, nodding toward what functioned as the cash register. He was dark and thin. A small mustache twitched over his lip. Peter watched the woman as she vacillated between wanting to live and wanting to hold onto whatever cash was in the box. The young man’s eyes drifted. Without thinking, Peter removed the wrench from his back pocket and tapped the thief on the head. Twice. He slumped at once to the floor, the gun sliding across the worn wood to the woman’s feet. Bending quickly, she scooped it up, reaching for the phone with her other hand. Ten minutes later, the cops and an ambulance arrived.
Blue Eddie waited near Peter’s apartment. “Who’s the kid?” he wanted to know, shivering despite the spring heat. A Salem dangled from his lips and he pinched his grimy yellow coat closed with two fingers.
Eddie shook his head, incredulous. “Your what?” He chuckled at its improbability. Practice made the men fluent with each other, but Eddie’s lips were difficult to read in hay fever season. The constant drip from his nose was remedied by the swipe of his left sleeve, obscuring his lips. Most days Peter would have bummed a smoke, shooting the breeze, but today he scooted Jared along with a flick of his hand. He was more tired than usual after their adventure. Minutes later, the two climbed the steep flight of stairs, resting midway up. Peter put his hand in his pocket and realized his best wrench was probably lost to him forever. Perhaps the Bosnian woman had held on to it. Or had the police taken it away? He couldn’t remember.
The boy fell asleep before he finished his supper of burned eggs. They both filled up on raisin toast, thickly smeared with a cheap grape jelly that left a sugary moustache on the boy’s lips, reminding Peter of the young man in the shop. He carried Jared into the bedroom, removed his shoes, and covered him with the sheet. Peter liked a cover himself, even on the warmest nights.
When the knock came, Jared rushed to the door, struggling with the locks, yelling something excitedly. Lena stood in the doorway, a smile gobbling up her face. The boy threw himself onto her and she knelt down, tickling him until Jared looked like he’d die with happiness.
“How’s Odie?” Peter asked, impatient with the prolonged homecoming.
“Odie?” Lena struggled with the name, blinking and looking around for a clue. “Oh, you mean Lottie. My mother’s name’s Lottie.” Her dark eyes shone and she giggled a little. “Lottie’s fine now.”
“Are you going home now?” Peter asked.
She could understand him and nodded. “I’ve a job to get back to,” Lena said. “I shouldn’t have left him with you, Peter. You don’t know how to take care of a little boy. I’m sorry but I didn’t have a choice.” She put her hand on his arm. “I stayed up all night worrying if you would know what to feed him. How to care for him.”
“Don’t forget your toothbrush, boy. Jared.” Peter’s voice sounded stern and indistinct, maybe tear-laden; neither of them understood him. He mimicked brushing his teeth. Jared nodded and ran to the bathroom.
“Will you be okay?” Lena asked.
No one had asked him that for a long time. Peter wanted to ask Lena about her mother and her mother’s mother, about the long line of woman who came from that night, but the boy was waiting, and there were these—these —impediments between them. He wasn’t used to getting the words out of his mouth this quickly. The passages that sounds must travel through were rusty, the words hard to come by.
“Well then,” Lena said at his door. “Thanks for looking out for Jared.” The boy was already in the hallway, swinging on the banister — the old man forgotten. “Maybe we’ll stop by again, Deetah.” She looked at him closely, waiting for a response, but his tongue remained frozen. She put a hand on his arm, waiting, waiting…”Maybe for Father’s Day,” she finally said. Peter wondered when that was.
His great granddaughter and his great, great grandson disappeared around the turn in the stairway. He could feel their vibrations more than hear them. From the window, he saw Jared drag Lena over to the bike shop, to the bakery, to the corner market, which was closed today. He watched as the boy, his boy, ran to the curb where something had been discarded—a toy perhaps.
Jared turned to look up for his great, great grandfather, hoisting his found object into the air. Peter drew his shade up quickly, giving the boy a final wave, framed by the window. Jared laughed noiselessly and made his mother look, both of them waving as they moved away. It was just him standing there now. A moment later, Blue Eddie appeared up the street, giving a little bow as the boy and his mother passed by, looking up at Peter’s shadeless window, flashing his huge jack-o-lantern grin.
Patricia Abbott is the author of more than 65 published stories–two of them in Spinetingler. Forthcoming stories will appear in DAMN NEAR DEAD 2, BEAT TO A PULP, ROUND ONE, CRIME FACTORY, BATS IN THE BELFRY, and Ed Gorman’s 2010 “Best of” anthology. Her story, “My Hero,” won a Derringer Award in 2008. She lives and works in Detroit.