What writer doesn’t get stuck? I think the best thing to do when this happens is to write. Sound like a contradiction? When I get writer’s block, I distract myself by writing something else – an essay, short story, or just my thoughts. I keep these distractions in a folder. It’s surprising how much this helps.
Here’s one of my distractions.
East Street Casualties
The pigeons fly overhead and drop their brand of napalm on the clothes line, splattering the freshly laundered sheets with mustard-yellow streaks. I watch them land on the roof of the tenement building across the street. From where they roost, East Street must look like a honeycomb of crusty pigeon holes. To me, the tenements are a giant row of alphabet blocks that spell “D-U-M-P”. If pigeons had any sense, they wouldn’t even crap here.
It’s only temporary, I tell myself, until my husband lands that perfect job and we move out of this wretched place. Even the grass struggles to grow. There is one tree, a slender elm that the old man next door keeps trying to poison. Lori, the girl who lives downstairs, tells me he hates that tree because the leaves fall in his yard. He pours a green liquid on the surrounding dirt at night when he thinks no one is watching. Lori usually catches him, though, and threatens to call the police. If it wasn’t for Lori, her husband Al, and their two young kids, we’d be poisoned too, and East Street would make a permanent play for our souls.
So we keep our eyes peeled on the mailbox, waiting for a response to the countless résumés we send out. Finally, my husband receives a letter requesting an interview. He nails the interview and scores the perfect job. We should be moving to Narragansett next week, but the only problem is our ’67 Volkswagen.
Three days ago when my husband turned the ignition, the car shuttered like a grand mal seizure. We bolted upright in our seats as it sparked and sizzled inside the cab. When smoke wisped from every orifice, filling the cab with an odor of burnt plastic, I said, “Quick! Shut it off!” He turned to me and dangled the keys in the air. What! If cars are supposed to stop when you shut them off, why is our car still doing a hula dance? That’s when I grabbed the baby and baled. Hugging our baby, I stood on the edge of East Street open-mouthed as our beloved means of escape convulsed and finally flat-lined. Damn you, East Street.
Tonight I’m alone reading a Sidney Sheldon novel while my husband is bartending earning extra cash to pay the mechanic. Absorbed in my page-turner, I am oblivious to East Street’s background noise. For the start of Labor Day weekend, East Street is not having a block party. I guess no one who lives here celebrates the rights of the working man. That’s fine by me, East Street. As always, the quiet doesn’t last long.
“Mama…please…no!” The screams, carried by the wind, reach the open windows of our second floor apartment. When I tame the billowing curtains, I witness a woman and a kid in a tug-of-war. She’s heavy set; he’s small. She’s winning.
“No! Mama!” His wail purges the what-should-I-do-s from the pit of my stomach. I rush down the stairs and follow his cries that override the sounds of the pot-holed street. Does any other righteous stranger poke a nose out of their pigeon holes? Only me?
I speed toward them, my sandaled feet scuffing the gritty side-walk. “Hey! What’s the matter here?” I ask, to either, to both.
“Tengo nadie a guardia le mosto. Él acompañar esté obra,” the woman answers, releasing her hold.
“Do you speak English?” I ask the boy.
He stares at me. I try again.
“Are you alright?” I ask him.
He shakes his head. Good. I think he understands me.
The mother is panting, looking down at the dirt.
“I want to go home,” he finally says.
I take his hand. “Okay, let’s go home. Show me where you live and I’ll walk with you,” I tell him, keeping eye contact with the mother.
The boy lets go of my hand and looks at his mother. I’m watching her, too. Will she tell me to buck off? I’d know those words in any language. Instead she narrows her eyes. The boy tugs my shirt and points to the traffic light ahead, so we walk toward it. The mother is following; she’s slower, unsteady, maybe drunk. The boy is shaking off his fluster and leading the way.
We stop in front of an ash-grey tenement building, the ‘P’ in the shabby string of alphabet blocks. I turn to his mother. She’s speaking Spanish, but her tone is universal, a high-pitched imploring. In between her Spanish words I hear her whine “Loo…eess” over and over. So that’s his name, Louis. Without a word, he runs ahead to the front door. As he enters the building, he leaves the door opened, a simple invitation.
He’s waiting at the foot of the stairs, gesturing for me to follow. There’s something compelling in his gesture, an urgency that won’t take no for an answer. Don’t worry, Louis, I’m right behind you, I want to say. I notice broken spindles and worn treads on the shadowy climb. I count three landings, three flights, each one wafting a distinct odor. At the top, the smell is a blend of stale beer, urine, and rotting onions. Louis unlocks a door at the end of the hall.
Inside, he flips a light switch. The light illuminates a frayed green couch and broken arm-chair. When his mother huffs in, she lies down on the couch and closes her eyes. I ignore her. I’m Louis’s guest, not hers.
“This is your place?” I ask. He nods, and I follow him into the kitchen where he turns on another light. I see an army of cockroaches in scattered retreat across the chipped linoleum countertops, the sink filled with dirty dishes. Louis rinses out a glass and opens the refrigerator, taking out a quart of milk. He takes a deep breath and sits down to drink his milk. I don’t want to stay any longer, but I do. His mother may be asleep on the couch, but I have to know that Louis will be safe.
I stall with chit-chat. “School starts in a few days, so where do you go to school?”
“Not going to school. I need shoes.” His eyelids drop like he’s looking at something on the floor.
His confession shoves me into a chair at the kitchen table, a hard and uncomfortable seat. The idea hit me — Louis is alone trying to survive on East Street. He can’t rely on his mother, that’s for sure. Surely someone knows about this needy child — a neighbor, a policeman, a priest? Doesn’t he have any other adults in his life? What about child protection services?
“Do you know anyone who can help you get shoes?” the question escapes my lips before I realize the stupidity of it. East Street is the edge of his world. It might be only four blocks long, but for Louis it’s the Great Wall of China. There’s no way around it. There’s no help here.
He shrugs and looks directly into my eyes as if to say You?
I realize there’s nothing more I can do. His mother is passed out and no longer a threat. I tell Louis that I’m moving away in a few days and wish him well. East Street, you heartless bastard.
I’m walking home thinking somebody has to do something. Before I go upstairs to our apartment, I knock on Lori’s door. Right when she opens it I ask, “Hey, did you hear that kid screaming a little while ago?”
“Oh, that’s Louis,” she says.
My eyes nearly pop out of my head. “You know him?”
“Yeah, I’ve called social services about him, too.”
“Nothing. Only now she gets a check every month and food stamps.”
“Have you seen where they live?” I ask.
“I know. It’s gross, isn’t it,” she admits. “It’s the first of the month so she was probably heading to the bars.”
“That kid is neglected, Lori. You know what he told me? He said he couldn’t go to school because he doesn’t have shoes. Isn’t child welfare keeping tabs on this kid?”
Lori chuckles. “Two of her kids drowned in the bathtub, Susan. Everybody knows she’s responsible, but social services did nothing about it. They didn’t take Louis away from her, did they? So I ask you, do you think they care about Louis not having shoes?”
“Jesus Christ!” I turn and walk up the stairs.
It’s one o’clock in the morning when my husband gets back from tending bar, but I’m wide awake. I tell him about Louis.
“We can’t get involved,” he says. “You know we’re moving next week.” I don’t argue with him even though I know there has to be something we can do.
“Susan, did you leave the baby alone when you ran out to help this kid?”
I explain that it was only for a few minutes, that she was sleeping in her crib. I feel ashamed when he frowns at me. I manage to say, “I think we’ll be here long enough to make sure Louis goes to school.”
“Really, Susan, do you think we can do anything for this kid?”
“No, we probably can’t. We’re leaving aren’t we? What could we do in just a week?”
“Susan, call social services in the morning. See what they say. Let someone else worry about this kid,” he says. I don’t tell him what Lori said.
We turn out the lights and go to bed. I keep thinking about Louis’s mother. I don’t want to judge her. I left my infant daughter alone while I ran to help another child. So what kind of mother am I?
After breakfast my husband says, “Alan’s giving me a ride to the garage at nine this morning. The car is supposed to be ready. I shouldn’t be long. Take the baby out for a walk. It’s a nice day.”
A horn beeps outside. It’s Al. After my husband leaves, I think about our future. I want to take the baby out for a walk and feel the hope rising in my heart, but my heart is like a hot air balloon tethered to East Street by worry. What will happen to Louis? When I call the child welfare hot line, I learn that Lori is right.
I finish feeding my daughter and carry her in the baby backpack down the stairs. Whoever invented baby backpacks is probably a millionaire. They could have made better straps. I’m already feeling them pinch my shoulders, and it’s a long walk to the neighborhood playground. Yes, East Street has a playground.
When I get there, I’m not surprised all the swings are occupied and the benches are full. There’s never enough of anything on East Street. I spread the blanket on a skimpy patch of grass.
I notice Lori pushing her daughter on a toddler swing. Over by the slides, I spot her son poised at the top. He sits on a slice of Cut-Rite to wax the slide as he goes down. I see Louis is next in line. I scan the playground, but I don’t see his mother. Did he come here by himself, unattended? East Street, are you taking good care of Louis? Ha!
I see a newly emptied baby swing so I quickly claim it. When I push my daughter she giggles her baby giggle that sounds like something between a huff and a purr. I love that sound. It’s more mellifluous than a philharmonic choir. I wave to Lori and the kids. Lori calls, “Hey! What day are you moving?”
“Wednesday,” I call back, “and tell Al thanks for the ride!”
On the walk back, I’m practically skipping. I don’t even feel the baby backpack straps. I hear the unmistakable sound of a Volkswagen horn. The handsome driver pulls up in front of me. I swing the backpack off and place my daughter in her car seat.
“All fixed?” I ask.
“Yeah, and we’re a few hundred dollars lighter,” my husband says.
“Don’t worry. You’ll be making real money soon.”
He smiles. “You’re right, and we’re almost finished packing, too.”
“We’re gonna love Narragansett, honey,” I tell him. Then I see a familiar little boy walking alone. “Hey, that’s Louis. Can we stop for a second?”
“What are you going to do?” he asks.
“Look, I called social services like you said. They’re not going to help. Can’t we take him to buy some shoes?”
“Won’t he need to ask his mother first?”
I give him a look that says you’ve got to be kidding.
“Oh, alright,” he grumbles as he pulls up to the curb.
I roll down the window and call out, “Hey, Louis! Remember me?”
He stares, like he can’t believe I am talking to him. I don’t wait for an answer. “Want to come with us to buy some shoes?” I ask.
Of course, Louis can’t wear shoes without socks. He needs a lunch box, right? How about a new outfit, pencils, a backpack? Yeah. Louis needs all the back-to-school stuff we got him that day. We never knew what became of Louis after we said our good-byes. But one thing’s for sure, East Street is still there. East Street, the devil can have you.