“I’ve got some good saints out there—
that’s right—that pray for me constantly.
You’ve gotta have that! You do.” Whitney Houston
that’s right—that pray for me constantly.
You’ve gotta have that! You do.” Whitney Houston
SAINTS AND ANGELS
“Weeya-a-al-liv in a yellow subway car, a yellow subway car, a ya-a-alow subway car. Weeya-a-al-liv—c’mon pe-e-eople. Sing!”
Dina Frey is in no mood for the teenager prancing through the subway car like some hopped up bantamweight. She takes in the braided woolen pigtails flapping from a colorful knitted cap pulled low over the girl’s ash blonde dreads. An unzipped parka slides from her plumpish frame revealing a tee shirt that says: Beaches are hotter in LA. Other passengers—veteran riders in winter coats slung open—simultaneously ogle and ignore the fifteen-year-old.
Dancing girl is in her underpants.
Dina thought she’d left her old friend Gaby’s apartment late enough. She had hoped to miss the onslaught of near naked riders on No Pants Sunday. By the time she’d left 103rd Street and reached her place on East 2nd Street, the pant less mob would be slapping each other’s butt in Union Square, falling about in crapulous abandon, mugging for iPhones in competitive undress. This girl was late for the party.
“And the ba-a-a-nd begins to play
Ev’ry one of us la-la-hey
Yellow suhmarine, yellow suhmarine
We all live in a yellow suhmarine
Yellow suhmarine, yellow suhmarine…”
Ev’ry one of us la-la-hey
Yellow suhmarine, yellow suhmarine
We all live in a yellow suhmarine
Yellow suhmarine, yellow suhmarine…”
A squat, disheveled character boards at 96th Street. She is of indeterminate age, roughly hewn. Her stiff outer clothing appears to be the only thing keeping her upright. Her putty colored face appears contorted against her will. She makes squinty eye contact with the girl, putting an abrupt halt to the singer’s refrain before she shuffles through the moving car, dully chanting her mantra, eluding hunger, invoking the Divine: “Excuse me. Good afternoon. Trying to get something to eat, spare change or a sandwich. Have a blessed day and evening.”
Dina pokes a dollar bill into a paper cup gripped in the woman’s small, grimy hand.
Ignoring Dina, the woman rasps: “Enjoy your concert.” She heads toward the next car, her expression that of one never having been heard.
Dancing girl hovers. At Dina’s silent reprimand the girl spins from the overhead handrail like a planet that has lost its trajectory, falls backward, and is gingerly steadied by another passenger.
No harm done, Dina figures, sneaking a peek at the girl. She feels only slightly sheepish at forcing a disquieted withdrawal. The girl’s friends huddle at the end of the car. They don’t egg her on, nor do they attempt to stop her. One of them guards a backpack, a jacket and sweat pants on an otherwise empty seat. They are all fully dressed.
Dina closes her eyes, leans back and remembers she’d read: “There’s something delicious about finding fault with someone.” It is Dina’s nearly constant quest, to rise above things. Not like her sister, Sandra Grace, whom she had not thought of for years and who is back hogging Dina’s frame of reference. Thanks to a phone call the night before from her sister’s son, Garth, Dina’s 44-year-old nephew. He’d managed his escape at the ripe old age of fifteen, petitioned the courts, and got himself fostered.
“She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is gettin’ married,” he drawled. “This’d be what, Aunt Dina, husband number four?” Four? Even Dina was unsure. It was not worth thinking about.
The red-faced girl is, at least in Dina’s opinion, some kind of brave. Unlike other riders, gormless, earbud zombies who, almost to a one, vibrate to an inaudible beat, stare into some intangible distraction, or slide practiced fingers across little screens on hand held devices.
Dina was audacious, but age empowered a more considered approach. She is public housing stock; product of an infuriating, erratic mother, whose moods she’d struggled to keep up with and a father who was a reluctant traveler, at best.
Dina is pale, petite and fine-boned, deceptively fragile. Her once long and lustrous raven hair is still long. She outwits the gray and keeps it dark, often swept up in a ponytail or braided down her back, but it is thinner now. Dina hates getting older, just hates it. These days, in the wrong light, which is nearly every stage light that blinds her, and with the wrong camera, which is every cruel digital result posted on the Internet; she looked like Iggy Pop in drag. She is a lot prettier in person. Her sister, Sandra Grace, was in every fiber of her being the opposite of Dina—blonde, full bodied, girly and angry; except the laugh. That they share with a vengeance.
In the summer of her fifteenth year, Dina Frey was in a girl gang in Astoria, where she grew up. They were the Angels, self-appointed groupies who followed her dad’s drum and bugle corps. Stalked, more like. The band was called The Saints. The boys had cool jackets of thick, black, felt-like wool. The band logo swept across the back of the jacket like the pearly lip of a wave on a dark sea. First names were stitched on the front in elegant cursive under the emblem of the Veterans Of Foreign Wars. Her gang had black jackets, too, but the cheap cotton kind they’d embroidered themselves. Tricia lusted after Louie, the loveable and dull witted bass drummer. Angie dogged the cymbal player, who, like her, was height-challenged. Dina favored the lanky, stoop shouldered snare drummer called Irish. Skanky Sharon had a thing for buglers—the entire horn section, in fact. Dina quit when they hid razor blades in their bird nest hair and challenged the Catholic schoolgirls. She had been in it for the boys and the jacket. It didn’t fit with her new life at the High School of Music & Art. Her spiteful, younger sister had taken a pair of scissors to the jacket.
Dina lets her gaze drift around the subway car, seeking distraction.
She guesses the older, white haired couple that boards at 86th Street are tourists from their frozen, non-committal smiles, sensible walking shoes and the zoom lens on expensive digital cameras in hand, ready to capture urban wildlife.
A man hops in as the doors close. He is dressed in tight, rust-colored trousers pegged at the ankles and holds a carryall emblazoned with the name of some hotel in Williamsburg. An orange-beaded mala bracelet encircles his delicate wrist. Tortoise-shell sunglasses hang from his neck on a thin gold chain. He stands, rigid, against the door ignoring the girl. Dina suspects he doesn’t notice anyone in the car. Suddenly, she wonders: There’s a hotel in Williamsburg?
At 77th Street Dina slides over to make room for another woman, a Black woman, carefully turned out in her church-going coat and matching rose-colored hat. She carries a pocket-sized Bible with a white leather cover. Dina guesses they are nearer the same side of sixty-five, the far side.
“People! Sing! We-e-e…”
Next to Dina, the woman makes a low, clucking sound with her tongue. She nudges Dina and they exchange the brief conspiratorial smile of provisional intimates. Across the aisle twin girls press under their mama’s protective arms like wary chicks. With wide-eyed scrutiny they sneak glances, through bangs of multi-colored beaded braids, at the gamboling white girl.
Resigned, the girl finally returns to her friends, slender boys with dark, spikey hair and marmoreal complexions. They could be gay. Hard to tell these days, which was a good thing, Dina reasons. One of them helps bare legs into sweat pants, and then hugs the girl like she’s won a marathon. Another useless event, Dina thinks, half-expecting him to produce a shiny foil blanket.
She’d spent the afternoon, on the Upper East Side, visiting Gaby Schaffert on her friend’s birthday. Gaby was laid up from a fall that summer, which left her with skinned knees, a broken front tooth and painfully uncooperative back and shoulder muscles. During the visit Gaby took calls from three of her four sisters, a cousin, and her mother in Switzerland. Dina listened, amused, aware of her own diluted strain. Between calls, the women bitched laughingly.
“How do we make those hipsters disappear, Dee?”
“Dunno,” said Dina.
“Ask Magic Man. Bet he can do it.”
“I asked Stephen, Gaby. Even he can’t perform that trick.”
Responding to Dina’s news from her nephew, Gaby rolled her eyes.
“He’s speaking to her? He’s talking to the vitch?” After nearly forty years as a New Yorker, Gaby’s Swiss German accent had not lost its edge.
“No. That won’t happen, I’m sure. Someone he knows saw it on Facebook.”
Before Gaby could ask: “We’ve blocked her.”
They were longtime friends, had known each other since their early 20s when Gaby arrived from Switzerland to attend the School of Visual Arts. They once lived on the same block where Dina remained. Second Street, between B and C. They had seen their neighborhood—burnt out buildings with blackened windows like toothless maws—suffer the indignity of the city’s abnegation. Until squatters drifted in like seeds on the wind and life began, again, to sprout from the wreckage.
But the mid 80s brought unwanted attention from Hollywood. Avenue C was oddly transformed into a movie set. The director, not content with reality, had built his own tenement, a veneer that suited his vision. Debris was brought in by the truckload and dumped in a vacant lot. Irony was not lost on the residents.
A decade later, on a late spring morning, in the neighborhood that was by then known as Loisada, helicopters thundered above 13th Street like agitated birds, monstrous, intimidating birds intent on raiding another’s nest. Resilient homesteaders had battled for homes for the poor, for attention to be paid to the homeless and drug addicted lying on filthy mattresses in the rubble-strewn streets. They wanted to grow what they needed and remain comfortably situated on appropriated picnic benches in community gardens. They wanted nothing more than to groove with long term residents to salsa blaring from the boom box, dig through mountains of used paperbacks resold on street corners and rediscover favorite reads. They wanted an end to the war zone, the razor wire that separated encroaching condos to be taken down, to take charge of their own safety. Graffiti as legend: NO POLICE STATE, PROPERTY OF THE PEOPLE OF THE LOWER EAST SIDE. This land was theirs and it was not for sale to the highest bidder.
Beneath the angry pulse of helicopters they’d linked arms in a human chain and passively resisted cops in riot gear. They faced down the sniper, the automatic weapons and the tear gas. What they got was an armored tank rolling up their street.
“Is the Umbrella House still there?” Gaby asked.
The building with a leaky roof—another raided of its inhabitants—became a celebrity of sorts after a judge ruled in favor of the squatters who then paid a dollar each and returned to their apartments. The umbrellas that had been required indoors gravitated to the fire escapes of the renovated building in a quirky, decorative homage.
“Uh huh. I think they pay rent to the city now. I’m not sure. The umbrellas are long gone.”
Their conversation, as always, revolved around transformation. It was happening on the Upper East Side now. Spanish Harlem was getting to be less Spanish, less Harlem.
“How’s the subway construction going?” Dina asked. She’d expected a rant and got merely a shrug. After the hurricane in November that hit lower Manhattan like a bomb and crippled everything below 34th Street, Gaby carped less about interminable construction on Second Avenue, sensitive to her friend who’d suffered pitch black freezing nights, cut off from everything, for five long days. Manhattan had always seemed impermeable. Maybe not so much anymore.
When Gaby’s building downtown was demolished, she’d had no recourse but to move. Even fifteen years ago rents were out of her reach and she’d called it quits. Newcomers were heartless, she said. The neighborhood was changing too quickly. Streets were quiet midweek, its defectors somewhere else making the kind of money that afforded the new narcissism. On weekends, crowds funneled through the area like they were at a heritage theme park, marveling at the metamorphosis of the clutter of rag and bone into spare, high-end style clothes emporiums. Sports bars, once unheard of in that part of town, spilled rowdy fans into the streets at every big game. Artisanal cocktails took out cheap beer and live music. The garrulous brunch crowd today resembled a juiced up fire sale.
Affordable brought Gaby to the walk up on First Avenue and the hackneyed jokes about nosebleeds from her old downtown friends. Until they, too, had to join the artists’ migration farther north and resettle in neighborhoods like Washington Heights and Inwood.
Dina hung on. She’d made it through sweltering summers made worse by arson. Cherry pickers had craned throughout the neighborhood, searching for hot spots. But she remained downtown. The death mask facade of a drug store chain appeared where once the prow of a sailboat had jutted onto Avenue B from the wildly inventive gates surrounding the Gas Station. Her friend, Osvaldo, had run the poetry and music venue with an unflagging pursuit of the radical. It was her go-to place, an extension of Osvaldo’s artistic life. He’d lived and painted in the tiny apartment directly above hers until he died, nearly 25 years ago. Since then, her partner in music and life, Mark Fairweather, had called it home.
Dina had battled her landlord in court more times than she could count, but she still had the rent-controlled apartment on 2nd Street. At her age, she was in no mood to restart in another neighborhood. There were still pockets of her kind downtown—fewer, but recognizable, nonetheless, by that urban twang and a quick draw response like, “Fuck atta heah,” that suggested multiple interpretations.
Nearly eight years had passed since she’d lost natural light in a matter of weeks.
A characterless brick building rose alongside her five-story tenement from the pitted hollow of the community garden next door. It shouldered her building like a disagreeably boring stranger in a cheap suit that would not be budged.
It would have been easy to give in to the gloom. The neighborhood’s patron saint of gardeners, Adam Purple, had lost the fight years before that and had watched helplessly as bulldozers dismantled the Garden of Eden.
But when it was completed, Dina hooked up a timer and affixed daylight bulbs at each of the three windows on the newly sunless airshaft. The lights shone for twelve hours, from eight in the morning, and then the fairy lights kicked in. She arranged fake plants in brightly painted window boxes. The bathroom window had a built-in fountain. In the main window she’d installed a brass Buddha. This went a long way to lighten her psyche.
Dina and Gaby drank green tea and wolfed the coconut custard pie Dina’d brought. The phone rang again. Gaby ignored it. “I don’t take this one. Vee talk. Any gigs coming up?”
“Maybe. Mark is thinking about it. Reforming—.”
“Vit you?” Gaby asked.
“Yes,” Dina replied, “But maybe only going out, just the two of us.”
Dina had removed herself from public performance. She’d been singing and playing guitar for over forty years. She’d needed a break and she’d taken one.
“I’ve been working on some new stuff, personal songs, but more abstract. Maybe, just with Mark on bass?”
“You should. You let me know. I come see you.”
Gaby had not been downtown in some time. Compromised mobility and irregular income cramped her style. Her graphic novels—limited edition masterpieces once prominently displayed on the shelves at Printed Matter in SOHO, and now only available on her website—still brought buyers from Japan, hungry for folk lore of the Lower East Side. She had finally resolved to sell off her formidable Barbie collection on eBay.
“I vas just being stubborn, you know? My mom never let me have a Barbie. She was right, but I didn’t know it then.”
Now, apart from her physical discomfort, she seemed content with her cats among her collection of vintage wind up tin toys. She crafted fanciful knitted cat toys for consignment in local pet shops. She’d branched out into children’s dolls.
“I make more tea.” Gaby struggled from a chair, waving off Dina’s offer to help. “It’s good for me to move.” She made her way to the tiny, compact kitchen. “How about you and Mark? I haven’t been down there since before Sandy, even.”
Gaby stopped in the doorway, turned and covered her mouth with her hands. “Oh my God,” she cried. “I chust realized. Your sister’s name is Sandy! How perfect is that?”
Dina shook her head, laughing: “Good one, Gab.”
“So, Dee, what’s with your sister? When was the last time you saw her?”
“You remember,” Dina said. “I think twelve, maybe fifteen years ago, maybe longer.” Dina looked up from her tea. “Um, she faked cancer?”
She’d accommodated Sandra Grace as much as she could stand, imagined that sibling simpatico would eventually materialize. Dina had once invited her for a weekend visit. Dina stayed with Mark. She’d returned the next morning to see her studio trashed, her sister gone. Dina learned that lesson and never again allowed her sister to be alone in her apartment. Changed the locks. Guitars were far too dear to replace.
“All mouth and no trousers,” Mark said. But that was the last time he had anything to do with her. Dina had persisted until the cancer.
“Ya ya, I remember,” Gaby groaned. “You don’t see her for a long time before that. I remember you telling me she used to keep a neck brace in the trunk of her car.”
“That’s right,” Dina cracked. “Just in case she had to sue someone for her own crappy driving.”
Gaby shouted from the kitchen. “Four husbands now? Vaht a lunatic.”
Dina followed Gaby and leaned in the doorway. Four husbands and Dina hadn’t had one. Once, nearly, many years before she’d met Osvaldo. She had just turned 21. Marriage was proposed after an unexpected pregnancy. Abortion was still illegal in New York. She’d rejected marriage and took her chances.
Even Mark had been married, just not to her.
At the door Gaby thanked her for bringing groceries, picking up her laundry, saving her a laborious trip down and up four flights.
“Give my love to Mark. You’re an angel.”
“You’d do the same for me,” Dina said, hugging her.
“Ya, ya, of course.” She handed Dina her jacket and scarf. “That vas Osvaldo’s, right? You still have it. Nice.”
* * *
“We are being held here in the station due to train traffic ahead. We should be moving shortly. We are sorry for any inconvenience.”
Dina, still thinking about Osvaldo, jerks from her reverie.
Stalled again at 68th Street. How long have they been in the station? A live voice over the PA system is a rarity these days. And the spiritless intonation of the recording is not even close to a real New Yorker’s voice, which has nothing neutral about it. A man sitting across from her mumbles to no one in particular: “They don’t ask us to be patient any more, at least.”
Osvaldo had once been the great love of Dina’s life, no doubt. He was a downtown fixture, avant-garde impresario. They were inseparable. He never understood why she chose the Country Western route, but he dug her let’s-fool-around hairdo, the whole Loretta Lynn thing, as he called it, and he loved rummaging at Cheap Jack’s with her, dressing her for gigs.
He did once ask her to marry him, for the green card, and she’d wished she had. When he died in ’88 she’d risked months of bourbon-fueled, grievous sexuality.
While on tour, a year after that, she’d met Mark at a bar in San Francisco. Originally from London, he was dismantling an American marriage with liberal pints of Guinness. He was a bass player in a rock band whose claim to fame had been a gig in San Quentin playing, as he’d put it, to a captive audience. He’d been to New York. He knew a lot of the places she did, played in some of the same venues.
Offstage and dressed down, she’d recounted stories of her life in Manhattan, about Osvaldo and the Gas Station, the Nuyorican poets and the once fabulously pervasive Gay scene that was still reeling from the epidemic.
“I’ve lived in the Haight for ten years,” he’d told her. “I know.”
Animated banter about her neighbors made him laugh: Johnny Ramone, in head-to-toe black, tripping down the front stairs of his building, forgetting the count midway and having to do it all over—again and again. Mark cheered at the news that Quentin Crisp and his lavender chapeau had left England, lived around the corner from Dina. He knew of those community gardens.
Intrigued, and hardly put off, he listened raptly as she described warehoused apartments that turned into crack dens, coming home to a spaced out junkie huddled in the shadows, the front door lock perpetually broken. Dina mimed the superintendent in her building, a well-baked, thickset Polish lady in her 70s who’d swing a baseball bat, hollering: “Get da fuck outta my building!” When the freak was routed she’d mutter, “Got a piece of it.” Dina told him about the dealers who yelled “Goya!” when the lookouts at the end of her block signaled the all clear and moved the line of users closer to a hole in the wall of the abandoned building across the street. How, before they recognized her as a tenant, they’d yell at her to “Get in line, Bitch!”
“Shooting galleries?” Mark had asked.
“I don’t know, maybe…” she told him, “…too scared to find out.”
Mark was easily persuaded to Dina’s show in The Mission. Afterward, his reaction was surprisingly swift and furious. Rhinestone studded cat eye specs? Shit kicker cowboy boots? A beehive? She had a great voice, but why the fuck was she channeling dead country, calling herself L’il Dee?
She’d been too long in the music she’d chosen for her safe place.
Her father had offered what he could, always wrapped up in the problems of boys who would be in jail, if not for the band. Dina ignored her sister’s wisecracks when she caught Dina in the bathroom with the transistor radio, mirror-singing to girl groups. There was gonna be ‘one fine day’ but it was gonna be considerably ‘easier said than done.’
Among Dina’s classmates, one girl had already had a hit tune recorded by a popular group. Dina’s best friend, Dorrie, raced up the steep hill from Jerome Avenue every day after school to catch American Bandstand on the TV. Dina headed downtown and across the East River, the same river her nephew would ceremoniously toss every photo he had of his mother before he set out for the West. When she’d alighted at her stop in Astoria she’d listen for the canorous chorus of a doo-wop group that greeted her like the voice of an old friend
Only you can make this change in me…
It never failed to echo her desire.
It had taken nerve to put her out there. To single handedly insert herself in the scene. She’d fallen into Country to be different. Mark’s reaction reminded her she’d grown tired of that cheerful, knee-slapping stage presence.
“How is it you’re not a lot grittier?” Mark had asked. “You’re a native New Yorker. You must have stories, for fuck’s sake!”
He’d offered a conciliatory gesture to her pained expression. He told her about winning a bet with Bleecker Bob in his famed record shop. Challenged to name a band he didn’t have on vinyl, Bob had lost the bet to Van Der Graaf Generator, the Pawn Hearts album.
She’d laughed for the first time in a long time. She fell in love. She fell hard.
Mark followed her to Manhattan, maneuvered his gear down a dimly lit, impossibly narrow hallway like a tomb raider. He’d stuck in with her in her suddenly claustrophobic apartment for a few months until Osvaldo’s old apartment opened up. They formed a songwriting partnership and eventually, a band. They were both together and separate and it suited them.
The doors crimp a lanky, ragged tree limb of a man forcing his way into the subway car. His scalp is shaved, his skin darkened by circumstance. There is loathsome hilarity in the man’s grin. His teeth shear the air. His arms fling about with prophecy.
“God is saying to all the ladies: “Long coats, ladies!” He veers from wary passengers. “I tell Satan to get thee behind me.” He turns his fury to the young woman who had been dancing and Dina is relieved he had not shown up earlier. “The men lust after you every time you wear short coats. You will go—.”
Bible lady shushes him. Another passenger carps, more forcefully, that nobody cares about his stupid rant, that he is no goddamn saint. This only increases the man’s caterwauling.
Knots of passengers disembark at 59th Street. The arrival of a trio of Mexican musicians sends the preacher scurrying to the next car.
The train edges slowly out of the station. It bangs to a halt in the tunnel. The musicians—celebratory and loud—quit after a few thumping beats. The trio heads to an adjoining car. Dina is not all that sorry to see them go. Still, she places a dollar in a black Stetson as they pass.
“They are doing their best, just like us,” Mark would say.
Dina had felt, for some time, like she wasn’t doing her best. That’s why she stopped. Mark had been put out, at first.
“It’s what we do,” he said. “We write songs. You sing them.”
But Dina needs to stretch. They have been in a comfortable place for more than twenty years, too comfortable. It seemed like every song they wrote became a kind of love song. They had—still have—stories. All those years on the road together—but she is on an inward course now, and she wants to see where it takes her.
She, quite simply, is ready to tackle the dark side.
Her idea is to incorporate spoken word, sing as she sees things in a bluesy Annette Peacock kind of way: grief in the newly homeless, dignity in the more enduring, how she found pleasure in the details and pain in the big picture. Never having flown too high she doesn’t have too far to fall. She wants this. Mark’s resistance gradually gave way to the cheerleading that suited him.
“Let’s do it,” he said. “We can do whatever we like. As Randy Burns always says, “Folk rap has not been invented yet.”
She doesn’t read on the subway so much as she used to. She likes to know what’s going on, listen to conversations. Dina slips a small spiral notebook from her jacket pocket. Before this news of an impending marriage the only time she’d thought of her sister came at natural and very unnatural events that inspire those out of touch to reach out, like the hurricane in November and 9/11 before that. Her sister had not reached out and for that Dina was grateful.
“Some people lack the guilt gene,” she writes. “Sandy dismembers it.”
The last time Dina saw her sister was in Connecticut, another attempt at reconciliation. At the time Sandy was between husbands.
Sandra Grace had headed straight for Connecticut right out of high school. She hated where Dina lived on the Lower East Side. Seedy, she’d called it. Her neighbors were gross. Plenty of opportunity in the insurance capital of the world, she boasted. She’d bounced around Hartford and husbands—until she found the ‘home of her dreams’ in a gated community of colonial brick townhouses in Farmington. She had a pool and a tennis court and neighbors who believed in rules.
“Decorating is my life!”
Dina remembered her sister’s exclamation, and then spluttering into her drink on the eve of Sandy’s supposed surgery for a non-existent cancer. They’d had cocktails on the little stone patio, eerily surrounded by scowling plaster gnomes.
The patio faced a Cimmerian wood, which Dina was sure crawled with characters from the pages of Stephen King and a mushrooming dread. Still, it was better outdoors than in the screamingly ostentatious interior. The visit was a disaster. A lie, meant to draw Dina back after yet another falling out, had finally caused the irreparable rift.
Dina writes furiously, describing her sister as a child, the explosive tantrums. She was the little girl with a loose pin, the world’s angriest dog.
Dina notes that her first guitar met its fate when Sandy accidentally dropped it from the third floor window of their shared bedroom in the projects.
And then, Dina remembers the kitten.
Their grandmother was the superintendent in a run down building off Steinway Street in Astoria. Dina and her sister were fascinated with the coal cellar, and heedless of the filth, scrabbled around in the black pit looking to unearth treasure. She must have been six or seven when they discovered a litter of newborn kittens, mewling and still blind. Their grandmother swiftly gathered the brood into a pillowcase. Sandy’s relief turned to horror when she realized they would be drowned. She’d screamed with a force that shocked her grandmother. Dina pleaded with the old woman not to kill the kittens. Disgusted and bemused, their grandmother removed the tiniest of the squirming bunch and handed it to Sandy who promptly named it Joe.
At home she was shown how to feed the kitten with an eyedropper filled with milk. Sandy had anxiously cupped the frail body. “Gently, gently,” her mother prodded in a voice burdened by impatience. She took the kitten from Sandy and handed it to Dina. “You try.”
Sandy’s cheeks swelled into angry red blisters. “Mine!” she’d shrieked.
“No,” her mother said. “Share.”
With the force of a miniature cobra, Sandy’s small hand struck out. Trembling with rage, she held the kitten high above her head of tender blonde curls and flung it to the hard kitchen floor.
Dina shivers as the train jerks to life, remembers staring in sorrowful fascination at the lifeless handful of fur.
The train cranks into 42nd Street. Dina catches sight of a familiar, nervy little guy on the platform as they pass. Delays are announced. Train traffic ahead. Agitated passengers head for surer routes home.
The last Doo Wop guy, the one she recognizes on the platform, the one she still sees occasionally. There had been four of them once. Over the years their quartet has dwindled. Dina recalls, with a start, the time they saved her.
It was her sister’s first marriage. Months before that Dina had confessed to an abortion. Sandy could still change things, Dina urged her. She didn’t have to marry the deadbeat.
“I am having this baby,” Sandy insisted.
There was no church wedding. The reception unraveled in the Shipwreck Lounge of a Greek diner on Farmington Avenue. Relatives and friends on both sides went to great lengths to ignore the burgeoning life under a milk froth of lace. Sandy ignored her new husband and made the rounds, her satin purse gaping, like she was collecting a debt. Dina’s mother was an overdressed turbulence that sent everyone to the bar, including Dina.
Drunk as she was, Dina had the sense to turn down her cousin’s offer to drive her back to Manhattan. They had been guzzling Martinis since the “I dos”. “Don’t leave me with them,” he’d pleaded. Somehow she made it to the Greyhound station in Hartford. She remembered nothing about that bus ride except the driver’s name was Ernie Budlong, and the sign above him promised he was safe, courteous and reliable.
She’d landed quite alone on the subway platform at Times Square. Four Black men had approached her. They surrounded her. She’d roused and articulated a fury at everything alcohol had dimmed. They responded with perfect Doo Wop and an a cappella harmony that enveloped her like angel wings.
She hears him rushing through why fools fall in love before he stands before her, flat cap in hand. Dina looks up at his now toothless grin.
“Hey,” he says. “I know you.”
“I know you.” Dina returns his smile and lands a fiver in his outstretched cap. He hops off at 14th Street followed by the dancing girl and her friends.
Dina decides not to transfer to the F at Bleecker and exits on to East Houston. She can still catch up with Magic Man at the National Underground. He’d promised to revive his straightjacket escape routine. Nelli McQueen will be there. Dina will ask Nelli about booking her and Mark again. She’ll start to explain that they are doing something very different and Nelli will interrupt, flash a smile of pure warmth, and say: “Anything you do is alright with me Darlin’”.
It’s a balmy, dark night and the walk will do her good.
For GB who somehow survived the storm
Heartfelt thanks to Beatrice Schafroth and Diego Semprun Nicolas
SAINTS AND ANGELS is an original short story by Linda Danz.
STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work. © JUNE 2013.