Summer 2007 [Issue No. 12]
Delivery Boy ▪► Randall Brown
Awake. Next to his face, a black and gold condom wrapper, torn in half; he tries to blink it away.
Finally, he sits up, looks down. Shamrock sheets. Maureen. He looks for her. 5:15. His clothes folded on the chair. Cap'n Crunch smiles back at him from Maureen's purple bong. There she stands, at the window, searching for the day rising. Her hair, springs of black curls spiraling here, there, down her back. No freckles, not a single scratch, a round Rubens nude. An old look, from another time. Seven, eight times he woke up here; it is the first time he has seen her naked. Remarkable. Such a thing.
He stands up, sheets wrapped around his body. She turns around—“Where was your modesty last night?”—and he envies her lack of covering, her standing as if she were a child, unaware that there might be anything wrong standing in the middle of a room, naked in front of a stranger.
“That was something,” she says, walking over to her closet. Maybe he’s the child, watching his mother dressing, each piece of clothing imbued with magic. Panties. Alabaster skin.
“Yes,” he says. “Some night.” He sits on the bed, turned away from her, reaches to the chair for his boxers, slips them on under the sheet.
“I think we must have talked for—what do you think?—two hours?” she says. She sits next to him on the bed.
“Maybe longer,” he answers. His head, a balloon, and he hangs on tighter, afraid to lose it.
“I think—” Maureen stands, walks back to her closet, comes out with a white top, picks up a black skirt, throws it into the wicker hamper in the corner. Returns. Sits down. “Robbie?”
He sits on the edge of the bed. His knees quiver. If he doesn’t stop them, the tremors will spread up his body, even his teeth will chatter. “Yeah. Still here.”
She touches one of his curls, twirls it around her finger. Her hand trembles. And so this dream ends. What is that? Relief? Almost. The twirling finger lets loose of his curl, circles his eyes. “It was different, last night, right? I mean I’m not crazy. Right?”
He has dreaded and anticipated such a moment, where he has to create new lines, something, anything else besides the monotony of the script. The balloon bursts.
“I can’t remember last night, Maureen.” The circling hand stops, she takes back her finger. “I try. Just a blur. That’s all.”
“Oh, it wasn’t just last night. All the nights.” She looks up at the ceiling, eyes searching up, down, around, and the tender intimacy of her voice changes, retreats, turns to air. “Oh you know—more of a cumulative effect.”
He stands, slips on last night’s jeans. “I’m sorry. I thought it would hit me, suddenly, you know, a bolt of something. And then I'd remember—everything.”
“Everything?” she repeats. Her hands fists. Perhaps they will hit him, knock him over and out the door.
“I can’t remember any of the nights, Maureen. I black out on ecstasy." He looks at the door, pictures the knob turning, escape.
“None of them. What about with—you know—not me?”
He pulls the shirt over his head and pauses, his face hidden. “None. Not a one. I’m sorry.” Quite an effort it is, to pull it all the way down, and there Maureen sits. She bites her lip. Her face crinkles, a newspaper blown through the Chicago streets. Easy to read. What has he done? He bends over, reaches for socks and shoes.
She stands, strokes his arm, looks into his face, the nightmare moment on stage, opening night, with no memory of any rehearsals, any script, surrounded by strangers. “Still,” she says, “the things you shared. I mean—how about your mother? How you found her in the corn, strung up like a scarecrow. How far you ran, all the way— It must mean something.”
Oh no. Not that. He finishes tying his shoes, looks up, feels as if he might fall forever.
“My mother? I told you that?” Away. Away. Where troubles melt like lemon drops. Away.
She blushes, as if for him. “I like last night’s boy better. His eyes didn’t keep going to the door.”
“I’m so sorry,” he says, a sorry said a thousand million times, the line from the script at work. At the door, he looks back, Lot’s wife, but it is Maureen who appears as a white pillar, so still at the window, not looking at him.
The door slams. Out he goes, down the steps, into the day, breaking upon a city waiting to buzz in his ears.
He breaks into a run down Clark Street to the Octagon Club, unlocks his bike, rides to his apartment. How could he have lied to her like that? A murdered mother. If only. A quick shower, and then the pedal down Halsted Street. Someone has posted signs overnight, and they flash on buildings, lampposts: HELL IS A MILLION DEGREES BUT HEAVEN IS AN ENDLESS THRILL OF ECSTASY. SO SAVE YOUR SOUL. They tumble around his eyes as he pedals. The autumn leaves swirl around in whirlpools, fleeing, chasing each other, leaving russet trails, faster his legs pump. The streets crackle, and he blows through intersections, traffic lights that have no power to stop him.
Mother. He hears it in the wind and the never-ending stream of broken leaves cracking under his wheels.
"Good morning, customer service, may I help you?" Like the hypnopaedic messages of Brave New World, “customers can hear a smile” plays in his head. A whisper’s all he can manage. His high school loudspeaker played, each morning, “Have a nice day. Or not. It’s your choice.” As if that were true.
"You—my boy—lieber gott—your voice. You know me, yes. Will you help me?” The voice plays like LPs, cracked, skipping.
The voice of his grandfather. He'd run down the block to his house, watch Colombo, Mannix, Ironsides, or maybe The Searchers. As John Wayne picked up his niece in the air as if to dash her upon the rock, perhaps Wayne remembered the same motion, the same lift into the sky he had given Natalie Wood when she was a child. He brought her to his chest, enclosed her in his arms.
Each viewing, his grandfather cried, as if for the first time. His tears fell upon his grandson’s neck. He felt his grandfather’s heart beat. And the rest of his life—the part where strange men roamed the upstairs halls and sometimes they got into fights in the bedroom next to his, his mother calling out “Leave. Both of you, all of you. I can’t take it anymore.”—that part he almost forgot.
"Of course I will help you, Mrs. Mohr. I am customer service." No hint in his voice of the thousands of like conversations he’s had. A brightness spills into the phone. Sunshine. Confidence. Customer Service.
"Ah, Leisa. Call me Leisa. It is my plant, the plant Karl gave me. Your delivery boy—he knocked it off the balcony. It fell over the fence; the pot is shattered. You will promise me, yes?, that you will do something."
He pictures the fall, the shards flying everywhere, pictures her look down, her hands at her mouth. But of course she wasn’t there when it fell. Only heard the explosion of her pot, Karl’s pot, boom! No promises permitted here. Rule one of customer service. Can only make requests. The delivery agents deliver. Not him.
Her voice transforms, becomes Maureen’s, full of tremors. All those phone calls, forgotten. He stares at the orange walls of the cubicle, hundreds of them, all bare, for no one sat in the same seat from day to day. He should bring a picture, pin it up. But of what? Of whom? John Wayne lifting Natalie Wood into the sky. A caption: “He remembers!”
Another click. Two clicks. The trainer must have put him on the speaker, for the trainees to hear. He imagines the trainer analyzing his voice, pointing out the inflections and phrases from the training manual. He went to Penn, of all places. Imagine that. It would take three years here just to pay the Penn tuition. The trust fund his grandfather left him allowed him to do whatever he wanted. And this was it. Dropped out. Ran to Chicago. A customer service representative.
And there waits Leisa Mohr. Ah, if she only knew what he’s become, so empty. "My boy, Karl—we went home—the mountains, the air was too thin for Karl's big heart. It stopped. That was 20 years ago it stopped. Everything stopped, my boy."
He pauses. Saw Maureen, again, trembling, full of feelings he knew nothing about. A ghost. A phantom. Pictured Leisa Mohr, the phone held tight against her ear. Her eyes glistened, an ocean. The pot lay in pieces upon her table.
"You will come over, my boy. When you are through, yes?"
The training room must be on the edge of their seats. Such drama on their first or second day. How calm and cool the representative is? Can we meet him? This god of customer service. This employee of the month after month after month? This hero. Leisa Mohr, your boy is a fucking hero. How lucky you are to have found him.
He closes his eyes, sees, hears his grandfather pounding on the dorm room door. “You. She’s calling out for you. Couldn’t you just—” He turned over, buried himself, waited for the dream of battering to dissolve.
“Yes, Leisa Mohr. It’s a date.” He can almost hear the collective gasp from the trainees. My God. What has he done?
"My boy. You will come."
“Around five o’clock.”
"You will come," she says, like a secret.
"Ah, my boy. You will. And I will wait for you. Bye-bye."
He imagines the supervisor’s sighs, the sighs of some promise never realized. At the funeral, he heard his grandfather’s sigh in the brush of the breeze against the gold leaves, falling down upon him, whispering in a cracked voice, "You left, you left," as if it were he who had abandoned his grandfather.
He stands at the bike rack along the Chicago River, fumbling with the combination, his old address 1-6-6-5, somehow missing it each time.
“Hey,” Maureen says, “what got into you? Mr. Perfect Rep gone bad. Quite the news upstairs.”
He twists the tumbler, concentrates on the numbers, the lock.
“You do remember that,” she says.
The lock pops open. He looks up. She bounces from foot to foot. “I told you I was sorry. I am.”
She nods. “Oh yes. It’s all better now. I forgot.”
“Yeah.” He hops on his bike. “Well. What else?” The wind blows all her hair over her face, a black veil.
“Nothing. You’re the lucky one. Amnesia. As if it all didn't exist. Those nights. Me."
He would hug her, if he could, if it were real, if he remembered. Instead, he pedals, rides back down Halsted. The afternoon, sleep, glorious sleep, but untroubled sleep, not today. Miss Gulch chases him across the gray, dusty Kansas prairie; the twister approaches the house. His mother lies inside. Closer, the column of rushing air approaches, and he runs down the road, Miss Gulch raises her arms in triumph. I got you my pretty—
At five o’clock, he pedals down West Oakdale; Leisa Mohr sits on her steps, stands as he rides up her street, waves. She knows him, Leisa Mohr does, or maybe she has waved to all the boys today over to her house; her hand bends, beckons, pulls him over to her front step.
"Ah, my boy. I have some spatzel and bratwurst. My Karl. He was a butcher. Still, I always get the best. They still remember him. Imagine that, my boy. They still remember."
He steps off his bike, leans it against her black fence. Leisa Mohr's hair spirals toward the turret at the top of her house, her face a perfect oval with round, light-colored eyes. She has huge hands, giant fingers. She smiles—stands straight up like the posts of the fence. His legs buckle; he grabs the railing. Sleep. How much he needs sleep.
"My son. He died very young. Leukemia. The priest on the corner—he wouldn't bury him in the Catholic cemetery. Karl pleaded. You see—my mother was Jewish. 'No, no,' they told us. Now they want money to put an AIDS house there. I hear you can get it from someone sneezing into the wind."
"I don't think that's true," he says to Leisa Mohr, standing so tall and so straight, as if nothing could blow her away.
"Oh. Well, isn't that something. Whatever people do in their houses. No one should have to suffer." She turns to the door, opens it, turns back to him. "Karl and I—we went out and dug the grave ourselves. How could they say no to that? They couldn't, my boy. They couldn't. Come. Come."
They walk right into the kitchen. She points to a chair at a small round wooden table, set for three. For Karl maybe? Or the dead son? On the kitchen wall, in the midst of copper animal molds, blue-ancient water pitchers, dishes painted with country scenes—“Ah, my junk,” she says—someone has written on a small piece of paper with broad gold paint strokes I hope I get to heaven an hour before the devil knows I'm gone. Two dozen or so leaves in a frame surround a picture of a man lying still in his coffin. The smell is of onions and meat. On a cardboard, she has pinned a picture of herself with the mayor. She holds a big green thumb—a garden award, perhaps.
"The plant," he says, remembering finally. "Can I do something about the plant?"
"The plant!" She laughs, looks out the window towards the alley. "The plant is fine. But you didn't forget. You are a nice boy, yes?"
How important the plant seemed on the phone. What has happened to her urgency and need? She laughs again, looks to the alley, back to him. She twists her hands, intertwines her fingers. Footsteps on the steps. "Ah. Now we are ready," Leisa Mohr says as the door opens. In comes a young woman, his age, desperately thin, like him, temporary, as if the two of them might blow away some day. Her brown hair hangs straight down—all lines, pulled downward. She flinches when she sees him, then looks over at Leisa Mohr. Leisa winks at her, smiles. She takes two, three steps backwards, her back against the door, as if he were an assailant. Her eyes, wide not with wonder but terror. What has he done?
"Emily. This is. Oh my. I don't know your name." Leisa Mohr takes her hand, holds it, brings her out. They stand together, hands clasped.
"I’m Robbie." The longed-for waited-for someone.
Emily starts to sit in the chair. "No, no," Leisa Mohr says. "You two need to go to the garden. Get some flowers for this table. Now. Scoot. I will finish the dinner."
She pushes Emily out of the door, gently; he follows her out the kitchen door; she almost runs down the stairs, around the back, to a garden.
Emily turns back to him as they walk. Her voice is tiny and distant.
"When Frau Mohr and Karl were here, she led a parade of children through the streets. She made them all donuts in her kitchen. She put all the donuts on a pole. Marched with it. She led them to her backyard full of hotdogs and hamburgers and harmonicas for everyone. Two hundred children. Quite a sight, I bet." She points to the windows on the first floor. "That's my room. Going on six years."
They round a bend—and it's as if Dorothy has opened the door from her gray, dusty world into one bursting with flowers and colors. So it is with Leisa Mohr's garden. Shoots of buds and petals—blues, oranges, reds, pinks, yellows, whites. He stops, listens for the giggles of the Munchkins. They are surviving the Fall. A miracle.
Emily stands at the garden and begins picking different flowers. He recognizes the daisies. He closes his eyes for a moment, tries to picture the Frau marching down the street. Instead, he sees her in the kitchen, sugar falling all around her, sprinkling her hair, her arms.
Emily holds up something blue. "What do you think of my lobelia?"
"I beg your pardon."
Emily groans. You will be like all the other boys in the world, the groan says. She shakes her head and looks away, to the garden. She picks flowers, carefully examining them in her hand, then staring back at all those flowers, deciding, shaking her head, yes, that one. He has already proven not to be the boy of her dreams, such a groan says, the groan of customers when they ask for a promise of delivery, a promise that can never be given.
Emily holds up her bouquet and then turns to him. He smiles, gives her a thumbs up.
Frau Mohr and Emily sit at the kitchen table, and he stands at the sink, finishes scrubbing the heavy iron pans. They watch him as if they have never seen a boy in the kitchen washing dishes. It is dusk. He looks around the room, at all the nothing Frau Mohr has gathered, held, bent, made into something. A pilgrim ship made from some straw. Birds out of old papers. Aprons from curtains. Necklaces from broken purse chains.
Adrenaline, the anticipation of the night, buzzes in his head, his limbs. The world speeds up. The voices of the finished dinner whiz by. "Don’t say 'Bon appetit,'" Frau Mohr says before dinner, "there might not be enough." Emily raises her glass of milk, "You say, 'God bless America,' but I say, 'God bless the landlady.'" A rant in the middle about Bernie, the alderman, a sharen-slicer, a scissor-sharpener, a good-for-nothing who was supposed to put some sign in the alley but takes two-hour lunches and God bless America and goddamn those who would make it anything less. At the end, she leans back, sighs, "Ah, I wish my back were another stomach." She stares at him, eyes aglow. "It is real," she says. Her head tilts, her lips pursed, her hands wrapped up as if she were restraining them from reaching towards this boy at her table.
"Ice cream," he says, blowing a puff of soap bubbles toward them. "Ben & Jerry's is right down the street. Let's go."
Frau Mohr stands, wrings her hands. Emily looks to the soft light out the window. "Sorry," Frau Mohr says.
"Sorry," Emily says.
"We haven't been out for a while," Emily says.
"Since Karl died—" Frau Mohr says, and the light of Frau Mohr's eyes flickers—make a wish—like candles on a birthday cake.
Since Karl died? 1960 something, she said. Oh, Leisa Mohr.
"When Karl and I were married, I sent a postcard home. You know what it said, my boy? This year I went around the world. Next year, I want to go some place different." Her eyes grow wet, and she looks away, toward the alley outside.
"And you?" he says to Emily. "What about you?"
"Five years," she says.
"Huh," is all he can think to say. Everything in the world must be delivered, even boys. Butterflies in glass paperweights. That is what they remind him of.
"So your plant?" he says to Frau Mohr. She looks outside, toward the alley.
"I'll be back," he says.
As he descends the steps that curve away from the alley and into the backyard, he looks for the plant, fallen, not in the yard. At the bottom, he turns toward the fence, leans over, looks into the alley. Under a street lamp, the pot lies broken, a few feet from the borders of their world. When he first began at the newspaper, every time he heard the click, his heart beat so strongly and loudly he couldn't hear the customer, and the feeling of doom surged through him, telling him to run, or not, that he was dying, and he would have to hang up. So it must be for them, stepping beyond the fence.
He steps out the gate, into the alley. What must it seem to them, as if he is some superhero forging into unimaginable dangers. The light shines upon him as he picks up the main part of the pot. He holds it above his head, then gathers up the shards, walks back. Emily stands at the entrance to her basement apartment.
"Krazy Glue," she says, opens the door. It's pitch black, and then she flicks on the light. “It is you, isn’t it?"
All over Emily's living room, pictures tumble—Maureen carried on his back, in his arms. He shakes his head and Maureen moves, the night after forgotten night flickers, a swish as Maureen is lifted into the air. Emily sits in her dark basement, paper and ink waiting for him? How can that be?
“What about the others?” he says, pointing at Maureen. “There were others, right?” She has drawn only him with Maureen, as if she were his forgotten memory.
“Oh, them. Didn't like them.”
Maureen. In the drawings, her eyes wide circles always focused on him, this stranger to himself, a bouncing and bounding Tigger. "What is he like?" he says aloud.
“He is like a moon, I guess. As they walk, he dances around her. Sometimes she reaches for him, but he knows, moves out of her grasp. Around and around, down the sidewalk.” She traces the contours of his figure. “I wait, all night, waiting, and here you are. How did Frau Mohr do it? How did she find you? But it isn’t you, is it?”
He circles around the table, the pictures animate again, Maureen’s hair flies.
“Drugs,” he says, “Ecstasy.” He reaches in his pocket, feels the folded squares.
Emily turns the CD player on. Suzanne Vega. She spins around the dark room, sings along in a whisper. It's of broken hearts, hearing and sight lost, the world frozen.
Vertigo, watching her. His eyelids flutter. And miles to go, still, in this night. He fondles the packets, Frodo-like, massaging the ring.
“You should come out,” he says, “tonight. I’m meeting some people.”
She stops her spin. “Oh no. No. I can’t go out. We don’t go out.” She pauses the CD.
“Right, right. Not ever?” he asks. The hundreds of tumbling pictures begin to make sense, the jumbled pieces coming together.
“No. Not since her son died. The Frau, I mean.”
“Well her son, dying, so young. That must be—I don't know—"
The CD begins, as does Emily's dance.
“She told you the leukemia story,” Emily says, now stopped in front of him, doing the dance of a genie out of the bottle, arms raised above her head. “Really, he was in his 20s. Cocaine. She isn’t lying. Just replaced it. I don’t think she remembers the real story anymore.”
More lies, illusions, even here, everywhere. Emily's shirt rises in her hand, more white skin, black bra. "Where is he?" she says, twirling around him. "That boy." She points to the pictures. "Where?"
"Something missing," he says. He brings the folded square from his pocket, holds it up to the light.
"Take it," she says, spinning around him. "Take it," she whispers. Her arms reach around his back and his chest. Her body rubs against his.
"Oh my children—some cake?" The voice cuts into the floating room.
"I'll be back," he tells Emily. He gathers up the shards of the broken pot, steps outside, the cold air snapping him awake, alert, and he then ascends the stairs.
"Oh--lieber gott. My boy." She takes the pot from his hands, sets it in front of her. He has pieced it together over chocolate cake, Krazy-Glued it. "What a gift! The mother of such a boy. Where is she?"
He shakes his head, looks down, at the window, anywhere but the wideness and wetness of Leisa Mohr's eyes.
"Oh my. What a joy you must have been to her. Such a heart, this one." She holds up the pot. "We must show Em this.” Just a pot. She makes it seem to be a grail, a golden thing. Such magic.
She looks at him then, over the pot, "My Em? What do you think of my Em? Such a fragile thing, yes?"
He can't keep his legs still; they bounce. His heart races. Sweats. "My boy, are you okay?"
She reaches her hand across the table towards him, and he backs away, topples over, and out of his pocket falls a square of folded paper. The white powder spills out. He rights the chair, sits back down with a thud.
The pot falls, hits the edge of the table, begins to fall apart, then smashes on the floor. Leisa Mohr stares only at the squares, the white powder; he looks down, thinks of the sugar that covered her kitchen, she like a spirit, donuts up to the sky on her stick, marching in place. The children squeal; she smiles down at them, waits for them to get into a line.
"My boy? What is this? My boy—he once had squares like this—"
She stands up, walks back and forth. "It is yours. This?"
"Yes, Leisa. But it is just—some pills I am supposed to take. But I don't like the capsules. So I ground them up."
Her hand flashes, hits him square across the cheek. He falls off the chair, ends up sitting on the ground, against the wall. She falls against the wall with him, then sits next to him.
"Oh my boy. My Robbie. I— They are cocaine, yes?"
"No. Ecstasy." His cheek feels raw, his eyes watery.
"I am sorry, my boy. But I cannot let you—you must not do this anymore."
"Yeah. Stupid to come here."
"Oh, my boy, Emily? Where is Em? Emily! My Em!"
Footsteps, quick, tiny. "What have you done to her?" Emily says, bending down. She looks at him. "Your face. My God. What happened?"
He stands up, walks out the door. His cheek stings and his ear buzzes, like the phones at work, when in a blink, the call disappears, replaced by another, blink, and then another. The nights transform into a blur only to awake to the buzz of the mornings and afternoons.
He stops at the fence. Gazes down the dim, empty alley. The Smart Club beckons, a few blocks south. Maureen and Cindy and Agnes await their deliveries of X. He reaches in his pocket, feels the folded squares.
There they go, shadows, down the alley, Leisa Mohr and her parade of children, her Karl watching from the balcony cheering her on. She raises the cane of doughnuts piled to the sky and sugar falls like the snow in glass ornaments around them all. Such a girl! Karl shouts. She looks back, searching for her boy among the squealing children, looking down the alley, toward the fence.
His pocket vibrates. He answers it. Maureen. She sounds very far away, over the rainbow.
“Come over, okay? Just you. No X. No nothing, okay?”
He looks up to the dark kitchen. Emily, the Frau, somewhere huddled within. The gate squeaks, swings in the Chicago wind, a wind full of needles now, leaves brittle, torn, turning to ash.
"My mother," he says, "it wasn't like that. She ran out of drink, found something in the laundry room, something green, drank it. It ate out her insides."
"Oh, Robbie. That—"
"No, and she called me at Penn, and I wouldn't go. Nothing could make me go. Not even my grandfather pounding on my door. I wouldn't reward her, give her what she wanted, never."
"Robbie. Come here. Okay."
"Never. I couldn't—but I thought she would have me then in her clutches."
He clicks the phone off. He didn't know that it's the road you don't take that haunts you, that you have to decide if you can live with. He didn't know he couldn't live with deserting her like that. He didn't know.
“Robbie? Are you still here?” Emily's voice, from the balcony. He turns to the house, and their faces appear in the window. Ghosts. The wind shrieks around the turret—my boy, my boy. Their need, their desire for him. That's what he hears.
He walks back up the stairs, through the kitchen, toward the rooms inside. A deep shade of red emanates from the walls, carpet. Glass cases line the wall; inside tiny figurines sled down hills, chase butterflies, reach for a fly ball. They are all children, caught before they die, grow old, but they are now forever still, unmoving. A whisper of voices to the left. He walks toward the room.
Leisa Mohr sits on the edge of the bed; beside her sits Emily.
"I told you, Em. Didn't I? He would come back. And look at him."
Emily looks at him. "Maybe you should lie down. You look pale."
"Yeah. Maybe." He lies down on the bed beside them. Leisa Mohr runs her giant hands through his hair. Fingers, as big as cucumbers, grasp his hand. Hard, the fingers feel. Petrified cucumbers. Tough and unbreakable.
Softer, tinier fingers touch his face. Emily's. They trace the outline of his features.
She bends down, brushes her eyelashes against his cheek. "A butterfly kiss," she says.
"You will stay, my boy, yes?"
So many things to bring them. They will sit on the step, wait for the purple bike. What does he have today? They will both wave him over, frantic for him. Such an offer, they have made.
"Yes, yes," he tells them, "I will stay."
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