The window, the stranger, the radio the night
It was long past curfew even though I was still up. I sat quietly listening to the radio, hypnotized by its glowing, flickering orange-red tubes reflected in the window pane. My brothers were sound asleep, or at least I thought they were. They weren’t fascinated with the radio like me. I used to disappear inside its small interior, a miniature auditorium. Seats filled with all the performers, singers, musicians and whoever felt the need to do something over the air. I’d imagine it was somebody’s turn; they would come onto the stage and do their thing.
Most of the time, my dial would be on WVON. Most times, it was the only station I knew. It played all the hits. I knew all the words to all the songs. All the breakdowns. All the shit. In the record shops and barber shops on 16th Street, they’d keep flyers about the station with pictures of the DJ’s and a list of the top twenty songs. My favorite DJ’s were Butterball during the day and Herb Kent at night. They could spin a rhyme, no trouble at all, crack a joke at the same time. There were other DJ’s, but those two were my favorites.
Along with the radio was my window. It held my night stars. The window was a point of no return for me. I’d daydream day and night by the window. It seemed I saw everything happen at the window. In many ways the window was a TV screen without the glass or having to change the channel. Everything was already live and in living color.
Next door was a large building with goldish brick. In the back was a large area—half dirt, half concrete parking space as a backyard. It corralled all the cars with front end headlights that gawked big eyes and smiling grilles with mouths that never spoke. The Chevy’s were the best. Never even heard of a Chrysler.
The cars commanded the lives that inhabited the building. One Saturday morning, while sitting and listening to my beloved radio, a lady and a man fell out of one of the first-floor back screen door arguing. They stumbled down the short, gray staircase and onto the landing. It was mid-morning summer and it was hot! Her short black skirt, white shirt sleeve blouse and flat black shoes got soiled when she kicked up dirt every time she backed up.
She wielded a large butcher knife swinging it back and forth, “Man, you better leave me alone!”
He was cool though. His black, Ivy League pants didn’t split and he didn’t scuff up his Stacy Adams when he shuffled his feet; His processed hair stayed in place while he bobbed and weaved, avoiding the determined path of the knife. They both struggled for the keys to the car.
The man feigned left and right and threatened to jump her every few seconds, “Woman, that’s my car and you ain’t going nowhere in it. I’ll die first!”
“If you don’t leave me alone, that’s what you gon’ do!”
He wedged her between himself and the car. The neighbors followed them down the stairs cheering. The lady kept making attempts to stab him with the knife and he kept blocking them. Finally, she stabbed him straight through his forearm. I could see the tip of the knife sticking out the bottom of his forearm.
“Ohhh, goddamnit! You done done it now!”
He stood half bent, frozen looking at his forearm. Then he grabbed the knife’s handle and pulled it out of his arm. He dropped the knife. Blood spurted and then dripped onto the ground. He ripped off his blood-stained shirt and wrapped it around his arm.
The lady stood gawking and frightened. He came round with his fist and planted it squarely on her jaw. The neighbors cheered again. She screamed and grabbed her face and ran back up the stairs crying. He followed her, stumbling and holding his arm. By this time, his processed conk had become undone. Somebody must’ve called the police because I could hear a siren howl in the distance.
I don’t know what became of the lady. Maybe she left and moved on to safer pastures. I do know that the man lost his arm. He stuck around and continued to live there, later becoming the source of night fears for me and my friends that summer.
* * *
The window wasn’t always a scene of despair. The summer evenings often brought a sound like the blues. We lived on the first floor and the moaning I heard came from the second-floor window across the way. They were in the kitchen. I could hear the rattling of the pots, see the shadows against a yellow wall; her naked upper body swayed back and forth. She smoothed her skirt with palms and mahogany hands. She leaned forward with bent elbows; her hands rested on her knees and her half-dollar sized nipples dangled and made me hard. His guitar chords guided her while she wailed and laughed in a high pitched voice of reason.
“Boy, you know you is crazy! Quit! I’ll scream if you don’t…“
He was charming his wife—or was it his girlfriend? Made me no difference—then it was his music that captivated my senses. He kept strumming his guitar.
You know you gonna break my heart!
Ooh, oh, baby
You know you gonna break my heart!
If you don’t come right here
and help me drink my beer!
Charmed, she threw her head back and laughed again. Then he’d strum some chords, pat his foot and bang a syncopated rhythm on the guitar box like a bongo drum. Young as I was, I knew they were having some sinful fun. No fun like I’d ever seen my mother and father have. I heard the clink of the glasses as they hit the table while they poured another brew. The shadows on the wall told me again that they were going to salute the night. I’d never forget. I turned back to the radio.
* * *
One evening, there was a slight yet firm knock. My parents were very strict about answering the door. Unless I was sure exactly who it was, I was not to open the door. This made sense, considering the neighborhood. Lawndale wasn’t all bad all the time, but we lived under a slumlord like most of our neighbors. A piss stained hallway was not uncommon. Daddy had already took it upon himself to mop several times before when that happened. Lightbulbs in the hallway would come and go as fast as new neighbors.
This time it was different. Towards the top of the door were three stained glass sections. We had had a break-in not too long ago and the middle glass was broken. The landlord had not replaced the glass and it didn’t look like he was going to do it anytime soon. Daddy had taped cardboard over what was left of the glass. My father lay out on the couch in the dining room as usual and snored as if he was under water. Mama was in the kitchen fixing dinner. She didn’t hear the knock, so she couldn’t intercept my curiosity. My bedroom was only a few feet away from the door anchored by beige walls. A cracked triangle of green, red and blue stained glass sat in the upper middle of the door. The rest was brown, unpainted hardwood. I crouched down and approached the door. “Who…Who is it?” I waited. No answer. I asked again. Then I heard a voice. A voice I had never heard before.
“Ruby…uh…Ms. Ruby…Is Ms. Ruby in?”
“Who?” I knew he was talking about Mama but was being coy.
“Ms. Ruby. Is she in?” The stranger’s voice rose and sounded apprehensive.
Before I could answer I felt the back of my shirt and Daddy’s rough palms lift me into the air. I didn’t want to look into his face because I knew I had screwed up bad. Holding a conversation with somebody on the other side of the door I didn’t know. He could have been an ax murderer or anything for all I knew. Then, Daddy pushed me behind his back and held me there. I wanted to get away because I knew I was gonna have to pay for my transgressions—Man was I gonna pay!
Daddy pulled back part of the brown cardboard he had put over the broken stained glass window a month ago.
“Yeah? Who is you?”
There was silence as Daddy pushed me back towards the hallway’s opening to the dining room. I knew enough to take my happy ass over to a chair and sit and not move. I tried my best to hear the conversation between Daddy and the stranger.
“Marshall. Marshall Lee, Ruby’s brother.”
“Marshall who? I know all Ruby’s brothers. Where you from?”
“Down south. I’m her oldest brother. I left home when I was 15. Ran away to the navy. Ain’t been back since.”
Daddy’s impatience spoke, “Really now. How come she ain’t never mentioned you? And none of the others ain’t said nothing ‘bout you neither.”
“I told her not to in my letters.”
“What letters? Don’t know nothing ‘bout no letters. If you her brother, where was y’all born? How many brothers and sisters y’all got? How old was she when she got married? Who did the marriage?” Daddy thought a barrage of questions would throw him off and send him on his way. But Marshall had an answer for every one of them.
“Greenville. Greenville, Mississippi…”
I was shocked when I heard locks clicking and the door opening. I got up enough nerve to peek around the corner. I saw this tall, gangly, dark skinned man wearing a skull cap, blue sailor’s pea coat, jeans and boots. A set of what looked like a thousand keys jangled at the hem of his coat. By then, Mama had come from the kitchen. She stood at the mouth of the hall wiping her hands on her apron. I saw her eyes well up. She dabbed them with her apron. Daddy shooed me away into the bedroom. They all sat down at the dining room table. Daddy leaned forward every now and then and peered intensely at this stranger like a doctor diagnosing his patient. Mama sat nodding her head, confirming everything the stranger said. Sleep finally took hold of me and I crawled into my bed and drifted off.
The next morning the stranger was gone. Mama nor Daddy, no one made mention of the stranger. Fact I never heard his name come up again. I never asked Mama about him either. But that image of him dressed like he had been in the navy seared my mind for years.
Terry Clark: "I live and work in Chicago. I am an Assistant Professor at Kennedy-King College’s Communications Department. I teach composition and literature. I hold a BGS from Wartburg College, and a Masters of Arts in English at Chicago State University. My publications include poetry and short stories with poeticdiversity; New Scriptor Journal; Taj Mahal Review; Art&Prose, Expressions from Englewood and Timbooktu.com."