What Life Dictates

New neighbors. The walls are thin. The mole on her chin makes it safe to fantasize, or so I think.

“I’m Crowley,” she says, “that’s Jim.”

Jim the Psycho gives me a look that says: I’ll kill you if I catch you looking at her, while daring me to do so.

“What do you do, Mister?” she asks.

–“I write.”

–“What do you write?”

–“Whatever life dictates.”

“I like that,” she smiles.

“Get your ass in here!” Jim scowls, dragging her in after him, and slamming the door shut behind.

I try to keep my mind on my work, a story I’m writing called “New Neighbors.”

They moved in next door, it begins…

Nothing doing, life distracts. Like I said, the walls are thin. I hear everything. All I can think about is Crowley. Crowley in the hallway. Crowley in the shower in the spray of hot water. The shower head itself a metaphor for something else.

She is fast becoming a fixation.

One night I hear a commotion and rush out into the hall. The door is open a crack, a black patent leather high-heel serving as an accidental door jam.

–“No, Jim don’t! Please, Jim, no!”

–“Come to Papa!”

–“No, Jim, no!”

–“Papa loves baby! Papa wants baby!”

–“You’re crazy, Jim, you’re in one of your states.”

There’s a scream.

I rush in. “Crowley, Crowley, are you alright?”

She lies crumbled on the floor, her skirt torn, red marks all over her face and bare legs.

Jim and I just glare at each other.

Crowley tries to smile. “It’s alright,” she says between sobs.

“Didn’t you hear her?!” Jim the Psycho shrieks. “She said she was alright!”

Crowley looks from Jim to me and back. “I’m okay.”

“Fuck off!” says Jim.

That’s when the real obsession begins.

I run into her on the stairs and we exchange smiles.

“Jim’s alright, really,” she says. “Except when…,” she hesitates. “He wouldn’t really hurt me.”

I say nothing.

“What do you do all day?” she wants to know.

–“I write.”

“That’s right, you said you was a writer. Jesus shit, an honest to god real writer next door! I write too sometimes. Only I don’t show it to nobody.”

–“What do you write?”

–“What life dictates,” she grins.

I grin back.

–“You ever wrote any bestsellers?”

I shake my head.

She looks disappointed, like my reply doesn’t fit her image of a real writer, like Danielle Steele or Stephen King.

I am about to shut my door when she reaches out and grabs me by the wrist. “Could I show you sometime?”

Just then the Jim the Psycho comes tramping up the steps.

Crowley drops her hand, but not fast enough. Jim’s eagle eye scans the perimeter of his prey.

“He’s a writer,” she says to Jim, as if to explain, “we got us a real writer next door!”

“Wadaya write, obituaries?!” he cracks, half joking, half threatening. “Get your ass in here, Crowley!” he hisses between two broken front teeth, reaching for her wrist and yanking her in.

One day I’m tapping away at my Olivetti—this is back in the early Eighties, when words are still hammered, not processed—trying to make headway on that story, and there’s a knock at the door.

I peek through the keyhole. It’s Crowley standing in the corridor in a torn T-shirt and a short blue jean skirt, barefoot, with her fingernails and toenails lacquered in alternating dabs of red and black.

–“You busy?

Ordinarily I don’t answer the door or the phone when I’m writing. But there she stands, a naiad clutching a notebook. “I thought maybe I could show you some stuff.”

“This is about me, Crowley,” she reads aloud, legs folded in under her knees on my black Castro convertible sofa-bed, the only stick of furniture in my studio apartment not hauled in off the street, a prize proudly earned from a weekend’s work whipping off a brochure for a company that later went bankrupt. “I watch TV, chew gum, do my nails ‘n shit,” she continues. “I’m bored most of the time when Jim’s out. I’m bored silly. Jim won’t let me go out and look for work.”

“Jim says: ‘Some cross-eyed clerk’d probably try to bang you in the storeroom.’

“‘Aw, Jim, I wouldn’t let him touch me!’

“‘Like hell you wouldn’t! I see the way they look at you. They tear off your clothes with their eyes. And I see you lookin’ back.’

“‘No, Jim, that ain’t true.’

“‘Like shit, it ain’t!’

“Then Jim says, ‘Come to Papa! ‘N he rides me on his knee. ‘Has my little girl been good or naughty?’

“‘No, Jim, I ain’t done nothin’!’

“‘Has she been naughty today?

“‘No, Jim, I been good, I swear!’ It’s just a little game we play.

“‘I seen your report card,’ he says. ‘The teacher says you been messin’ around.’

“‘No, Jim, I been good.’

“‘You let boys look up your skit!’

“‘No, Jim!’ I giggle.

“’Well, did you?’

“‘No, Jim, I been good, honest!’

“‘Show me how you did it!?’

“‘I didn’t do nothin’!’

“‘Go ahead, Crowley, show Papa how you let them boys look up your skirt!’

“‘Well maybe just a little,’ I says, ‘I just let them see a little leg.’

“‘A little leg and what else!?’

“‘That’s all, Jim, I swear!’

“‘I bet you let them see your panties too!’

“‘No, Jim, honest I didn’t!’

“Then he lifts my skirt all the way up.

“’And you let them grab you, don’t you!’

“‘No!’

“‘And squeeze!’

“Then he takes me and I feel this tingle of shame like the whole world is watching. Sometimes I imagine other men. Strangers I meet. Guys I only glance at and take their faces with me and keep their faces hanging in my memory, like pitchers in a wadayacall it?

“A museum,” I fill in the blank.

“That’s right,” she says, “like a museum, only not one of them funny kind of museums with pitchers with the nose in the wrong place and the eyes in the mouth. Not like that guy…

–“Picasso”

“That’s the fellah, not like Picasso,” she giggles.

Jim the Psycho’s got his antennae tuned in and his eagle eye roving. “Crowley!” he growls, turning up on cue at the bottom of the stairs. “Who you talkin’ to?”

“Nobody, I ain’t been talking to nobody!” She rushes out the door to head him off.

But Jim comes bounding up the stairs, two steps at a time.

“How many times I told you I don’t want you tellin’ nobody about our life, least of all not no writer.” He sneers. “Next thing you know he’ll go ‘n put our private affairs in some magazine or something. Then the whole world’ll know our business. I don’t never want to see you talking to nobody again. If I ever catch you, you know what I’ll do—“

But the afternoon readings become a regular ritual.

As soon as Jim is off scavenging and doing whatever else he does, Crowley knocks at my door. — “Am I bothering you?”

I shake my head, which she takes as an invitation to enter.

“I was born on a Greyhound bus,” she reads aloud. “I don’t know where my folks was comin’ from and where they was goin’ to. But I do remember the rumble. Don’t ask me how. I know it ain’t possible. But first I remember being inside and then feeling a rumble and being out. We was always on the move. We didn’t never stay in any one place for long.

“Jim ‘n me, we met at a bus terminal. I don’t remember when. My folks must ‘a left me behind and Jim found me at the lost and found, where he went to claim other people’s property.

“I was good in school…the times I attended,” she reads, “especially in English. I’d bring back books to read, books the teachers give me.

“Jim said, ‘What’s this shit?’

“’They’re books,’ I said, ‘just books.’

–“’I know what they are, Crowley, but what’re you doing with them?’

–“’Mr. Summers, he gave ‘em to me.’

–“’What for?’

–“’To read.’

–“’What he want from you?’

–“’Nothin’.’

–“’Nobody gives you nothin’ for nothin’. I bet he wanted to get into your pants.’

I opened the book.

–“’Listen, Jim, this is really something. It’s better than TV:

“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. The book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another…”

First he listened a while, like he was interested, then he stared at the ground.

–“’Did you like it, Jim? It’s got a black man in it and his name is Jim too, only he’s a slave, see, and this poor white trash boy named Huck helps him run away down a river to freedom. It’s a good book…”

“’Gimme that!’ says Jim, and he grabs the book and opens to page one.

–“’You gonna read it, Jim? You gonna read it for yourself?’

–“’You’ll see what I’m gonna do with it,’ he grins. Then he goes and tears out a page.

–“’You can’t do that!’

–“’Who says?!’

–“’It’s a libary book! It don’t belong to you!’

“’Don’t it!?” Jim grins, tearing out page after page, then biting into the cover and chewing off a piece and spitting it out.

Crowley stops reading. Her eyes fill up with tears.

“Is it true?” I ask.

“Shit, no,” she grins, “I made it all up…most of it.”

“It’s good,” I say.

–“Good enough to get into The Reader’s Digest?”

“Well,” I say, “maybe it needs a little work.”

–“You could fix it up for me, couldn’t you! You could fix it up right!”

Every afternoon she knocks at my door and reads me a passage.

One time she says, “Take it and fix it up.”

–“I couldn’t.”

–“Why?”

–“I’m not an editor.”

“Oh,” she says, hurt.

But she keeps knocking. And I keep letting her in. Each time she comes, her toenails are painted a different color arrangement.

“You like ‘em?” She asks when she sees me staring at her toes. This time they’re orange and purple in alternation.

“Sure,” I say. Her left cheek’s all black and blue.

–“It’s for Halloween.”

–“Halloween’s not till October.”

“I know,” she says, “but Halloween’s my favorite holiday.”

The next day when she doesn’t come by, I miss her.

“Trick or treat!” says a slip of paper with a lipstick kiss by way of signature sticking out of a notebook, left lying in front of my door.

“We moved,” says the note. “Jim doesn’t like me talking to strangers. Maybe you could do something with it.”

*

The new neighbors are more discreet. I haven’t met them yet.

–Peter Wortsman


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