Lucy Howard moved to New York from Foley, Alabama, the strip mall town over from Orange Beach on the polluted Gulf Coast. She left to escape her husband, Greg Howard, a Baldwin County cop who beat her, all the time, or at least whenever he found the need to beat on something and a suspect was not in custody. He didn’t drink or use drugs he just liked to hit.
Everyone in Foley knew Greg beat her. They’d been together since middle school. Lucy blew Greg under the student-stomped bleachers and he thanked her by stomping on her face after throwing her to the floor, her head crashing into the stove warming his dinner.
One night she called the sheriff’s office. The sheriff personally came over and even sacrificed his own handkerchief so Lucy could dab a bleed above her eye.
“Move to New York,” he suggested. “It’s another country.”
That’s what gave Lucy the idea to come up north. And anyway, her sister had been telling her a slight variation on that theme for years. She just needed to hear it from Greg’s boss.
In New York she found herself homesick for Alabama, though, even for the traffic that piles up during the high season on state route 59.
“We have Fifty-Ninth Street here,” I say, “but we don’t have state route 59. I don’t think we even have routes in New York. Unless they’re for evacuation.”
She tells me her story the night we meet, we’re in bed, it’s the only night we sleep together. In the darkness she holds my finger to a scar above her eye.
“I don’t think I’ve ever known a girl who’s been beaten,” I say. “But that can’t be true.”
And while Lucy and I are going at it, with the lights on, I observe the last of the fading bruises on her lower legs, thighs, the whole right side of her fleshy abdomen. A large blonde with light-tanned skin and, where they aren’t bruised, shiny, juicy legs, Lucy is warm-blooded with arched feet and cool, delicate hands. She’s an expert in bed, she doesn’t think too much. Her crooked row of front teeth bunch diagonally, like they’re prisoners against a high wall, in the gangster lean. She has soft green eyes that remain closed when she’s answering a question or thinking. Just before coming, she lets out what she later defines as the “rebel yell,” a corralling, yodeling sound I recognize only from the Paul’s Boutique track “Five-Piece Chicken Dinner,” although she tells me afterwards that it’s also a Billy Idol album. She tells me she hasn’t rebel-yelled with another boy since Greg in middle school.
“We don’t call it middle school in New York,” I say.
“What do you call it?”
“I guess junior high. What’s it like?” I ask her about the physical abuse. She herself uses the word “abuse” in a casual manner. “I’ve been kicked,” I say, “but I’ve never been punched by another man. You have.”
Now I’m reclining on one elbow, facing her on the bed. Her eyes are closed. She says, “I can see him, Tyrone. This is how it goes. He doesn’t think he has a problem. Beating is not his problem. Beating is my problem.”
“Do you think you have a tendency to get beaten?”
Her eyes are still closed. “No. When he’s around the tendency pops back up. Do you want to beat me, Tyrone?”
“No. I don’t think so. Let’s be friends. Like let’s hang out like all the time.”
I can’t tell what she thinks, or if she thinks anything at all. I hear a murmur in her hair, or is it just the sheet.
“You’ll be my first friend in the city,” she says.
The next weekend we’re on a bender. Our first and last stop is Brandy’s, our spot, where the bartender makes strong martinis. We sing calorie-burning camp songs all night, tunes from Tommy’s piano, but Tommy left for the night an hour ago and it’s getting late. The bartender puts up the lights and starts pushing us out. We leave the bar and sit down against one of the stoops up the street, with enough light to keep away the rats and roaches, or at least spot them before they get too close.
Two people follow us out of the bar. The woman, Becca, has short hair with styled bangs and a sharp nose that bends in the opposite direction of her bangs. She either works in hospital administration or as a buyer for J. Crew. The man, whom Becca promises us she doesn’t know, calls himself Viktor. Lucy asks him how he spells it. Becca asks if he has an umbrella. He doesn’t. Becca isn’t too surprised. Viktor is one of those beefy Germans who moves to New York and sits on his stoop all day waiting for someone to shoot him. Even in the toasty streetlight, Viktor has the pallor of an innocent bystander.
It does start raining. Becca requests an umbrella, any umbrella. I produce one from my back pocket but mention I’m not sure it’s time to use it yet. She says that since it just started raining, now seems like the perfect time to use an umbrella if you have one. From my seat on the pavement I am close to a Band-Aid on the back of Becca’s heel.
The rain picks up. Lucy plays with her lipstick. Becca stands over me, her crotch so close to my face I can smell it, and she asks again, in baby-talk voice, for my weensy umbrella. I stand up, engage its properties, hold it over our heads. She inches closer to me, ducking, and now it’s time to go. But Viktor won’t leave us alone and Lucy has no interest in him. I hand the umbrella to Becca and plop back down on the concrete. Lucy places her hand on my shoulder.
“Are you guys out of gas?” Viktor asks slowly, concentrating on his American idiom.
“No we’re out of life,” Lucy responds.
“Yes, that’s right,” I glower. “That’s it. We’re out of life.”
“Me too,” perks Becca, who is now sitting on my lap. She’s very light.
“Let me walk you home,” I whisper in her ear. “We’ll keep dry.”
“I’m at the Marriott in Times Square.”
“I love Times Square,” I say, which is true. “What are you doing all the way up here?”
“I’m not with him. This bar is famous.”
“That’s right. I guess it is.”
“You’re beautiful,” Becca says. “What’s your name again?”
“Yes. Ty is a hot guy name.”
We kiss. Becca kisses my temple like she’s known me forever. I think I need to vomit. Viktor moves towards Lucy’s lap. He has reasonable mathematical justice on his mind: if he spent all night talking to Becca, and I am now going to be with Becca, that means he deserves the privilege of being with Lucy.
“Don’t leave me with him,” Lucy whispers in my ear, using Becca’s body for balance.
“Really?” I moan, taking my lips away from Becca.
“I can’t. No.” She smiles her overcrowded, slanted teeth, the gangster lean smile, highlighted by her freshly repainted lips.
“Only for you, sailor.”
“Let’s walk me home,” Lucy says to the whole group.
The cocaine and spirits have left me impatient, and Lucy’s apartment is one block north and two blocks east, almost all the way to York Avenue. That sounds like, and is, a vast Manhattan distance. No one in our shabbily assembled foursome wants to walk that length together, pretending we’re great friends who have brunch plans the next day with a different set of great friends. But Lucy has requested monitoring and possibly protection from Viktor, who is now showing his true self. He says “at least blow on me” to Lucy and I respond, in what I think is a German accent—“no, no, that’s enough, nein, and this term, this term is not even the proper term, this term blow on me.”
We walk uptown, Viktor under store awnings, Lucy curbside, Becca and I happy in the carefree romantic middle with our umbrella built for one, but also blocking and play-tackling Viktor’s path to Lucy, who has no umbrella and is getting soaked. Viktor curses me and asks the thoughtful, interesting question: “how much does one man need?” He lunges at Lucy on the northeast corner of Eighty-Ninth Street. I stiff-arm him as we turn east. Two drugged rats follow each other out of a garbage can. Viktor shrieks. We all laugh.
At Lucy’s door, she blows us all a kiss goodnight.
“Blow on me, babe,” I say.
Once Lucy locks her hallway door, Becca and I run up the street, ditching a howling Viktor in the pouring rain, and we grab a cab back to Becca’s Marriott Hotel in Times Square.
When I wake up, I realize I’m in Times Square.
I meet Lucy in the morning and we walk to The Shops at Columbus Circle. She tells me Viktor moaned for so long outside her window she gave in and let him upstairs. He had the biggest cock she’d ever seen and he had no idea how to use it.
I don’t talk to Lucy for a few weeks. On a gray weekday morning I walk up Eighty-Fourth Street and notice Brandy’s has an awning.
Brandy’s has an awning?
Brandy’s? Awning? Really? What? So why did we need those umbrellas the other night?
Ha. Does it? It does. I never thought about it. Doesn’t every bar have an awning?
No. Definitely not.
It’s not a law? I think Viktor left some of his dick in me.
Really. Is that good? I left my umbrella at Becca’s hotel. You know, the Marriott in Times Square.
Did you ever figure out if she was a nurse or buyer 4 J. Crew?
I did, yep. The answer will shock you.
We fall into the habit of going on like this. At first we save texting for immediate plans. Otherwise it gets too easy to never even make plans, too easy with the smarts and commentary and theories. We need the phone. Especially when we’re hungover and need the crutches of saying something else that follows something else. Or the grace to break speech as ambulances race failing hearts down Second Avenue. Texting means I get to complain about the emergency. Talking on the phone means the emergency wins. The emergency, I think, should win.
We talk on the phone during my walks home up Broadway and she has me laughing the whole length of the city. I like hearing her conjunctions. The way she flubs “but” in a southern way makes me think of the oily Gulf Coast bottom. Lucy thinks she’s going to hell. She talks sin like it still exists. Most people don’t believe in sin and talk shit about sin because then it doesn’t mean they’re sinning. They think they already paid in the past or their Mom paid. But Lucy knows white Alabama and she knows the white Christ. She has a different way with Christ. It reminds me of something I read on a bar plaque that Al Capone said: when I sell liquor it’s called bootlegging, when my patrons sell it, it’s called hospitality. Lucy’s Christ isn’t the cleaned-up Christ we have up north. Lucy talks about redemption like it’s a real thing, a word until her I associate only with brown weed and Bob Marley. Redemption is a new level, just like planet earth is an oblate spheroid, not a circle, and within that drastic shift in diction lies the imperfect power of peace and forgiveness.
We’re both out of it, we’re out of life, we say, but she seems to be out of it more often and more consistently. Guys that make Viktor sound like a good catch start popping up in her stories. You can turn-out Lucy Howard for the price of an overpriced Bud Light.
By the end of the summer, she’s complaining about having to walk five blocks to Brandy’s. It’s years, she says, five block years. She starts hailing taxis. It’s such a short distance the base fare is always higher than the metered. She starts drinking earlier than I do on the mornings we’re both hungover. Late into October she’s still wearing summer clothes—boat shoes, white shorts with pinned cuffs, an Auburn Tigers sweatshirt tucked into the shorts, a braided belt a different color from the shoes. These are the same outfits she wore in August, but back then it was on Sunday afternoon, not Saturday night.
We keep going to Brandy’s and drinking gin martinis, singing longform camp songs like “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and “Paradise By the Dashboard Light.” After hours, my role is to keep strange men curbside while Lucy hugs me on the inner sidewalk. I wonder, what’s the difference between me and these men? Which one of us is luckier: the one who goes upstairs with Lucy, or the man who moves on to the next bar? My role is to get her to clean up, my role is to command her to take off her Auburn sweatshirt—maybe that’s pasta sauce, maybe it’s dried blood—and put on a turtleneck and enjoy this heartbreaking autumn weather we’re having. My role is to tell her she belongs in New York. She can’t go back to Greg in Alabama. She confesses to me they never got divorced. She’s been living in sin. Come on, I say, we’re all living in sin. You can’t go back to Alabama. You were so courageous to come here and make it yours. You can’t go back. You left, that’s the hardest part. Everything is easy after that. My role is to drop Lucy at home, boil water and dump in an entire box of pasta to restore her spirits, carb her to sleep.
Part of me thinks I’m a good friend. I don’t judge Lucy. Another part of me thinks that I receive the catharsis. I latch on to someone else’s problems while I ignore or mishandle my own. This is one of the joys of being the good listener. This is one of the perks of being the friend. My role is to kick junk mail and community handbills from Lucy’s front door. My role is to carry her up these warped, curry-scented stairs. Her place is a mess. When I flip up the kitchen light, family-sized roaches scatter around the sink top. The biggest ones don’t move, knowing there’s no reason to rush. On the stove, pasta that’s been nibbled by mice. There are mice droppings in the utensil drawer. There are roaches ollieing on the rims of her cracked serving bowls. Only the bed, a few feet away from the kitchen, seems to be safe. I fluff out a bed sheet of unpaid Bloomingdale’s and damp, rolled-up daily newspapers. On the floor they hit makeup tubes, spray bottles missing spouts.
We’re both sweating from the drugs. Lucy turns the AC on full blast. I’m tired of my role of being the friend. I come on to her and we have sex again as the sun comes up, it’s so bad we both have to be the ones to leave, even though we’re at her house. Then her sorority sisters visit one weekend. Lucy says I should come over and party with them. One is named Aurora, which means dawn. She wears only low-top lime green Chuck Taylors, no-show socks. Samantha answers only to Sammy and smells of detergent pen, strained olives, failed matchsticks. Sammy isn’t very bright. Aurora turns me on to the poetry of Essex Hemphill, I tell her Gansevoort Street is named after Melville’s grandfather. The both of them like Lucy, tall, old blonde hair, long birth-tanned arms overcome with bangles and bracelets. None of us wake up until the sun is down.
I can’t do it. Especially when I’m high. It’s five block years, sailor. It’s five block years away. I can’t walk.
It’ll take you seven minutes to walk there. This is a walkability city, that’s the idea.
It’s another galaxy.
It’s Brandy’s, not Betelgeuse!
Another problem with texting. On the phone, I joke she can take a break on every corner. Or I say it’s Brandy’s, not Mars, it’s not an icy Kuiper object, it’s not the Oort cloud, or even—maybe this is most likely—it’s Brandy’s, sailor, not Alpha Centauri. But in a text message I chose Betelgeuse, the macaroni star, an up-and-comer in Orion’s red shoulder, the second city in his constellation. I’d rather see Orion and say nothing, but that’s not the kind of person I am. I’d rather be a gentleman and not play the accordion, but there are songs Lucy must hear. And I don’t know how to spell Betelgeuse. And I don’t know how to pronounce Betelgeuse. But I know how to text it out of my stargazing.
After we clean up her apartment, and just before Lucy’s money runs out, after Sammy, after Aurora, after Betelgeuse, we lose touch. The truth is we’re both too embarrassed to look at each other. Turns out sin helps you be friends with Jesus but it doesn’t do much for being friends with other people. We really have no friends in common except for the bartender at Brandy’s. I start going there alone, figuring I’ll run into Lucy, but I don’t. I ask the bartender what he knows. He tells me he heard that Lucy’s husband, Greg Howard, the Baldwin County cop, came to New York for terrorism training. He found Lucy, or Lucy found him and Greg planned to force her back to Alabama. I send her a bunch of texts asking if she’s back in Alabama with her Greg.
No, sailor, I’m not.
A funny thing happens to Lucy on her way back to Baldwin County. She meets Andrew Pippin, a soil scientist from Madison, Wisconsin, and falls madly in love. They meet randomly in the lobby of a SoHo hotel, an odd location for a soil conference but what can you do, love can’t be arranged. Andrew takes Lucy away from New York, away from men like me, away from men like Greg, and moves her to a college town in Wisconsin. Lucy doesn’t know how to function without a man, and I don’t know how to function without a woman, so we’re both really happy she finally met someone as stable and boring as Andrew Pippin.
The last message I receive from her (but how can I say “last” unless I one day change my number) says it all happened so fast, sailor. I’m becoming Mrs. Andrew Pippin. Right now I’m volunteering at a barn dance off highway 94. Soil scientists make jokes about spending all day with their hands in the soil. I think they eat dirt when no one’s looking. So I’m scooping potato salad sunk in mayonnaise from an aluminum tray. All the other wives keep asking when I’m going to have a baby. I can’t imagine being sober for nine months, although I’ve been laying off, and I feel better. I feel lighter. I used to be so good at getting messed up, but now I suck at it. I eat a lot of greens. We’re all very agriculturally-conscious here. What can I tell you about where your tomatoes come from? Did you know apples sometimes come all the way from New Zealand?
New York feels empty, now that I know Lucy isn’t here.
I write back: Nice. Remember that morning when I realized Brandy’s had an awning?
Of course I do! Wait, Brandy’s had an awning? Then why did we get stuck in the rain that night??
I’m not invited to the wedding because, I suspect, Andrew doesn’t like me, and he certainly doesn’t like New York City, which I represent to him via Lucy, based on the select things she told him about me. He doesn’t think that men and women can be friends. And that’s not only because Andrew is a soil scientist from the American interior, his most cosmopolitan memory being bored at a luxurious SoHo hotel until the blonde southern woman of his dreams fell into his lap. Actually, I agree with Andrew Pippin. I think he’s on to something by mistrusting me. I’m merely the leftover man who turned-out his wife, a remaindered man, a threat to the budding sanctity of his new family.
Congratulations! I’m so happy for you! And I am, but I’m not invited to the party, or included on the registry information, and these exclusions aren’t easy for me to handle. I want to take a plane to Madison, Wisconsin. I want be there to celebrate the happiest day of Lucy’s life.
They say the people who need to know, know. Well, I know, but where does it get me? How do I know? I meant to send Lucy, as an engagement gift, a set of martini stems. More than anything else, martinis are what we shared together.
I am so happy for you and Andrew P. And I am so happy for what you and I shared. I feel like you left New York just as you becoming a New Yorker, but what can you do, I keep telling myself, love can’t be arranged. The city misses you more than anyone else. At least you’re in the top 100,000 of those it misses tonight. Mix a martini, think of me. Do they have gin in Wisconsin? You and I, sailor, are redeemed by the days of olives.
I write the note on my dark gray stationary with light gray trim. It hurts to write all those eeee’s in redeemed. This is wrong. I can’t tell Lucy I love her. But I love her more than anyone else. Maybe it’s because I never got to beat her. I lick the envelope closed. I feel like my hands are falling off. I pick up the box of martini stems. They crash to the floor, shattering like flowers.