At the end of my grandfather’s life his doctor prescribed a powerful hydromorphone against the pain of bone cancer. A lot of Germans were busy knocking holes in the Berlin Wall around that time, and I showed up to say goodbye to my grandfather just as Dilaudid was bringing its soft hammer to bear on his habit of silence: out flowed a record of his misadventures, his ambiguous luck, his feats and failures of timing and nerve. He had been installed in my mother’s guest bedroom for almost two weeks and by the time I arrived in Oakland he was getting nearly 20mg a day. He started talking almost the minute I sat down in the chair by his bed. It was as if he had been waiting for my company, but I believe now that he simply knew that he was running out of time.
The recollections emerged in no discernible order apart from the first, which was also the earliest.
“Did I tell you,” he said, lolling on his palliative cloud, “about the time I dropped a kitten out of the window?”
I did not say, then or at any point until he sank into the cloud for good, that he had told me very little about his life.
“Did it die?” I asked him.
“It was a third-story window,” my grandfather said. He added, as if his native city were known for its adamantine sidewalks, “In Philadelphia.”
“How old were you?”
“Three or four.”
“Jesus. Why would you do something like that?”
He poked out his tongue, once, twice. That was something he did every few minutes. It often looked as if he were passing clownish judgment on something you had told him but it was really only a side-effect of the meds. His tongue was pale and had the nap of suede. I knew from a few precious demonstrations during my childhood that he could touch the tip of it to the tip of his nose. Outside the window of my mother’s guest bedroom the East Bay sky was gray as the nimbus of hair around his suntanned face. He was as comfortable as my mother could make him. If at its terminus she harbored other hopes or ambitions for her strange career as his daughter, I didn’t know anything about them. “Curiosity,” my grandfather decided, and stuck out his tongue.
I said that I had heard curiosity could be harmful, in particular to cats.
Back then, South Philadelphia was broadcast with Moonblatts and Newmans, those cousins who one day would people the weddings and funerals of my mother’s and my childhoods. Their homes served as my grandfather’s way-stations. He also cultivated secret contacts among the Italian bakers and grocers, running errands or working a broom in exchange for payment in pennies, lemon ice or a twist of warm bread. He studied the nuances of people’s ways of speaking and carrying themselves.
His absences and injuries caused consternation to his parents, who made efforts to curtail them. Bounds were set, borders established; my grandfather subverted them. Resolute in his refusal to give details or name names, resistant to corporal punishment, willing to forgo whatever treat he was to be deprived of, he broke and wore his parents down. In time they surrendered.
“Nothing can be done about a boy who throws cats out of windows,” said old Abraham, my grandfather’s grandfather, in his Pressburger German. Abraham ruled from his corner of the parlor that doubled as a dining room, enthroned atop his hemorrhoid donut among his books of commentary. It was nearly dark, one of the last free evenings of the summer.
“But what if he’s lost?” my grandmother said, for the thousandth or millionth time.
“He isn’t lost,” Uncle Ray said, issuing the finding that ultimately prevailed in the family Talmud. “He knows where he is.”
At that moment, he found himself under a boxcar, hiding from a railroad bull, a big man named Creasey with a film on his left eye and patches of carroty hair growing on parts of his face where no hair ought to be. Creasey had already thrashed my grandfather soundly a number of times that summer. The first time he had jerked my grandfather’s arm up behind his back so hard the bones sang. The second time he had dragged my grandfather across the yard by an earlobe, to the main gate, where he applied his boot heel to the seat of my grandfather’s trousers. My grandfather claimed the earlobe still bore the print of Creasey’s thumb. The third time Creasey caught my grandfather trespassing, he strapped him thoroughly with the leather harness of his Pennsy uniform. This time my grandfather planned to stay under that boxcar until Creasey moved on or dropped dead.
At last Creasey trampled his fifth cigarette, took another swig, and moved off. My grandfather counted to thirty and then slid out from under the boxcar. He brushed the grit from his belly, where the skin prickled. He spotted Creasey, carrying a knapsack, making for one of the little stucco houses scattered, here and there, across the lots. On his first forays into the Greenwich Yards my grandfather had been charmed by the idea that railmen were cottaged like shepherds among the herded trains. He soon determined that the little bungalows were no one’s habitations. They had mesh grilles over their blackwashed windows, and if you put your ear to their doors you could hear a thrum of power, and sometimes a thunk like the clockwork of a bank vault. Until now my grandfather had never seen anybody going into one, or coming out.
Creasey fished a keyring from his hip and let himself in. The door closed softly behind him.
My grandfather knew that he ought to head for home, where a hot supper and an operetta of reproach awaited him. He was hungry, and practiced in deafness and the formulation of remorse. But he had come here, today, to stand one final time at the top of one particular signal bridge that he had come to think of as his own, and tell another summer goodbye.
He turned his face to the east. Darkness piled up like a thunderhead over New Jersey. Beyond the river lay Camden, beyond Camden the Jersey Shore, beyond the Shore the Atlantic Ocean, and beyond that, Paris, France. His mother’s brother, a veteran of the Argonne, had informed my grandfather that in the “cathouses” of that city a man might cross one further border, where silk stocking met white thigh. My grandfather took the signal lantern in his arms. He pressed his hips against its smooth encasement and looked up at the evening sky. A full moon rose, tinted by its angle on earth’s atmosphere to a color like the flesh of a peach. My grandfather had spent most of that last Friday of the summer reading a copy of Astounding Stories of Super-Science, found among some other unsold magazines in the back room of his father’s store. The last story was about a daring Earthman who flew in an atomic rocket to the Moon’s dark side, where he found ample air and water, fought bloodthirsty selenites, and fell in love with a pale and willing lunar princess. The Moon was a tough neighborhood and the princess required frequent salvation by the Earthman.
My grandfather regarded the Moon. He thought about the noble girl in the story with her graceful, undulating body and felt the swell of an inner tide, reaching toward her, lifting him like Enoch in the whirlwind into the sky. He ascended the skyward tide of his longing. He would be there for her. He was coming to her rescue.
A door banged shut, and Creasey came out of the little house and rejoined his evening route. He was no longer carrying the knapsack. He crossed a set of tracks, a hitch of stiffness in his walk, and vanished among the cars.
My grandfather climbed down from the signal bridge. His path home did not run past the little house. But old Abraham had ruled correctly from his corner of the parlor: nothing could be done for a boy who would throw a cat out of a window, onto a Philadelphia pavement, just to see what would happen if he did.
My grandfather approached the little house, with its gridded black windows. For a full minute he stood and watched it. He put his ear to the door. Over the electrical hum, he heard a human sound: choking, or laughter, or sobs.
He knocked. The sound broke off. The house’s mysterious clockwork clicked. From the marshaling yard came the trumpeting of lashed-up engines, ready to drag a long load west. He knocked again.
My grandfather gave his first and last name. On reflection he appended his address. There followed a prolonged spell of unmistakable coughing from the other side of the door. When it passed he heard a stirring, the creak of a bed or chair.
A girl peered out, hiding the right half of her face behind the door that she gripped with both hands, ready to slam it shut. The visible half of her head was a mat of peroxide tangles. Around the left eye, under a delicate eyebrow, paint mingled with mascara in cakes and blotches. She wore the fingernails on her left hand long, lacquered in black cherry. The nails on her right hand were bitten and bare of paint. She was wrapped loosely in a man’s tartan bathrobe. If she was surprised to see him, she did not show it. If she had been crying, she was not crying anymore. But my grandfather understood Creasey, the way you came to understand a man who repeatedly kicked your ass. The details of the hurt that Creasey might have done to this girl during his visit remained obscure, but he felt the outrage all the more vividly for his ignorance. He saw it in the ruin of her eye paint. He smelled it, a taint of Javel water and armpit in the air that leaked from behind the half-open door.
“Well?” she said. “State your business, Shunk Street.”
“I saw him come in there,” my grandfather said. “That Creasey bastard.”
It was a word not to be used in the hearing of adults, especially women, but in this instance it felt fitting. The girl’s face came out from behind the door like the moon from behind a factory wall. She took a better look at him.
“He is a bastard,” she said. “You’re right about that.”
He saw that the hair on the right side of her part was cropped short as his own, as though to rid that half of lice. On the right side of her upper lip she had raised enough whisker to form the handlebar of a mustache. Her right eye was free of paint, under a dense black brow. Apart from a shadow of stubble universal on either side of the chin, an invisible rule appeared to have apportioned evenly the male and female of her nature. My grandfather had heard but disbelieved neighborhood reports of sideshow hermaphrodites, cat girls, ape girls, four-legged women who must be mounted like tables. He might now have reconsidered his doubt if not for the fact that he saw, filling both sides of the loose flannel wrapper from the neck down, only womanly curvature and shadow.
“The price of a peep is one nickel, Shunk Street,” she said. “I believe you may owe me a dime.”
My grandfather looked down at his shoes. They were not much to look at.
“Come on,” he said, reaching for her arm. Even through the flannel of her sleeve he could feel fever on her skin.
She shook loose of his grip with a jerk of her arm.
“He won’t come back this way for a while. But we have to go now,” my grandfather said. There were whiskers on the chins of his own aunts; big deal. He was here by the power of a wish on an evening star. “Come on!”
“Aren’t you funny,” she said. She peeked out of the doorway, looked to either side. She lowered her voice in a show of co-conspiracy. “Trying to rescue me.”
From her lips it sounded like the most pea-brained idea ever conceived. She left the door hanging open and went back inside. She sat down on a narrow cot, and gathered a stiff blanket around herself. In the light of a candle guttering on an overturned jar lid, panels of black switches and gauges glinted. Creasey’s knapsack lay neglected on the floor.
“Are you going to take me home to your mama and papa?” she suggested, in a voice that made him momentarily dislike her. “A drug-sick whore full of TB?”
“I can take you to a hospital.”
“Aren’t you funny,” she said, more tenderly this time. “You already know I can unlock the door from the inside, honey. I’m not a prisoner here.”
My grandfather felt there was more to her imprisonment than a lock and key, but he did not know how to put that feeling into words. She reached into the knapsack for a package of Old Golds. Something about the pomp with which she set fire to her cigarette made her seem younger than he had at first thought.
“Your pal Creasey already rescued me,” she said. “He could have left me lying there right where he found me, half dead with my face in a pile of cinders. Right where those Ealing boys red-lighted me.”
She told him that from the age of eleven she had been traveling in the sideshow of the Entwhistle-Ealing Bros. Circus, out of Peru, Indiana. She had been born as a girl, in Ocala, Florida, but at puberty nature had refashioned her with a mustache and chin fuzz.
“I went over big for quite a little while but lately I’m getting all this action from my girl department.” She tucked her folded arms up under her breasts, cuing them. “Body’s been goofing with me all my life,” she said.
My grandfather wanted to say that he felt the same way about his brain, that organ whose flights of preposterous idealism were matched only by its reveries of unfettered violence. But he thought it would be wrong to compare his troubles to hers.
“I guess that’s the reason I started on the junk,” she said. “A hermaphrodite was something. It has a little poetry. There is just no poetry in a bearded lady.”
She had been nodding, she said, dead to the world, when management at last saw fit to throw her off the circus train, as it pulled out of the Yards, bound for Altoona.
“Creasey found my valise where those assholes had pitched it. Conveyed me to these comfortable lodgings.” She tucked her legs up under herself, and before she gathered the blanket more tightly caught my grandfather trying to see into the shadow between her legs. “Creasey is a bastard, true. But he brings me food, and smokes, and magazines. And candles to read them by. The only thing he won’t bring me is a fix. Pretty soon that’ll be all the same to me anyway. Meantime he doesn’t charge me more rent than I am willing to pay.”
My grandfather contemplated the ashes of his plan. He felt she was telling him she was going to die, and that she planned on doing it here, in this room that jumped in the candlelight. Her chest blood was all over a crumpled chamois rag, and on the woolen blanket, and on the lapels of the robe.
“Creasey has his points,” she said. “And I’m sure the folks on Shunk Street would be happy to know that he has been kind enough to leave me in possession of my virginity, too. In the technical sense.” She squirmed against the cot illustratively. “Railroad men. They are practical fellows. Always find a way around.”
That started her barking into her scrap of chamois, and she bloodied it some more. The violence of her coughing shook the blanket loose, baring her legs to my grandfather’s inspection. My grandfather felt very sorry for her, but he could not keep his gaze away from the inner darkness of her robe. The spasm passed. She tucked the bloodstained part of the chamois into the remnant that was still clean.
“Have a look, Shunk Street,” she said. She hoisted the hem of the tartan robe. She opened her legs and spread them wide. The pale band of belly, the shock of dark fur, the pink of her labia endured in his memory, flying like a flag, until he died. “On the house.”
He could feel the turmoil in his cheeks, throat, ribcage, loins. He could see that she saw it and was enjoying it. She closed her eyes and raised her hips a little higher.
“Go ahead, sweetheart. Touch it if you want to.”
My grandfather found that his lips and tongue could not form even the simple reply that he intended. He went over and put his hand against the patch of hair between her legs. He held it there, sampling it with rigid fingers like he was taking a temperature or pulse. The night, the summer, all time and history came to a halt.
Her eyes snapped open. She lurched forward, and shoved him aside, covering her mouth with the bare hand while the painted one groped for the chamois. My grandfather took a crisp white handkerchief from the back pocket of his cut-off corduroys. He presented her with this evidence of the hopefulness invested in him by his mother, every morning afresh, when she sent him out into the world. The girl crushed the handkerchief in her fist without seeming to notice it was there. My grandfather watched her body tear itself apart from the inside for what felt like a long time. He worried she might be about to die right then, in front of him. Presently she sighed, and fell backward against the cot. Her forehead shone in the light from her stub of candle. She breathed slowly and with caution. Her eyes were half open and fixed on my grandfather, but minutes went by before she took notice of him again.
“Go home,” she said.
He eased the day’s inviolate handkerchief from her fist. Like a road map he unfolded it, and laid it against her brow. He sealed up the flaps of her robe around her, and dragged the awful blanket up to her chin with its babyish dimple. Then he went to the door, where he stopped, looking back at her. The heat of her clung like an odor to his fingertips.
“Come back sometime, Shunk Street,” she said. “Maybe I’ll let you rescue me yet.”
When my grandfather finally made it home, well after dark, there was a patrolman in the kitchen. My grandfather confessed to nothing, and provided no information. My great-grandfather, egged on by the patrolman, gave my grandfather a slap across the face, to see how he liked it. My grandfather said he liked it fine. He felt he had earned a measure of pain through his failure to rescue the girl. He thought about informing the patrolman about her, but she was by her own admission a drug fiend and a whore, and he would rather die than rat her out. Whichever course he chose, he felt, he would betray her. So he answered to his nature, and said nothing.
The patrolman returned to his beat. My grandfather was subjected to lectures, threats, accusations. He bore up under them with his usual stoicism, was sent to bed hungry, and kept the secret of the two-sided girl in the trainyard for the next sixty years. The following day he was put to work in the store, working before and after school on weekdays, and all day Sunday. He was not able to make it back to Greenwich Yards until late on the following Saturday afternoon, after shul. It was getting dark, and the weather had turned wet the night before. Along the tracks the reflected sky lay pooled between the wooden ties like pans of quicksilver. He knocked on the door of the little house until his hand rang with the pain of knocking.
Michael Chabon is the bestselling and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, A Model World, Wonder Boys, Werewolves in Their Youth, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Summerland, The Final Solution, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Maps and Legends, Gentlemen of the Road, Telegraph Avenue, and the picture book The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman, and their children.
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