Paula D. Tozer
Everywhere in the city, he could see the signs of spring. Pigeons, small finches, and red-breasted robins hunted for a meal in the vacant lots and in the parks. The snow had melted and all that remained were oily puddles drying in the naked sunshine.
Angelo sat on a bench at the edge of a ballfield, the warmth of the sun on his back. A few hundred yards away some children had taken up a game. He could hear them laughing and shouting. A few words. Names. Taunts. Excited screams when one of them got a home run.
Angelo enjoyed the game from where he sat; he wouldn’t think of going over there and scaring them away.
He was uncomfortable when he thought about looking frightening to children. It was something he tried very hard not to do. He dressed neatly. He was always careful not to smell.
His dark gray overcoat had been worn under the arms and at the elbows by one of the old men at the boarding house. It was his now. His dark green work pants were too long, covering his black rubber overshoes. Too big for the sneakers he wore underneath, they slapped the concrete as he shuffled along.
Angelo’s appearance hid many secrets. Most people didn’t come close enough to look into his warm brown eyes. He didn’t tell anyone about the large wooden cross that hung suspended under his clothes by a red knotted lanyard. Father Bob gave it to him after mass one Sunday. Angelo held it in his hands as he prayed for the poor people of the city. He prayed because he saw their hurt and tears formed in his eyes as he remembered them all. Especially Belinda.
His mother taught him to love, how to pray, and how to look after himself.
Life can be hard, she told him. It is like living in a tidy house or a messy house – it takes effort every day to keep it neat. His mother told him these things when she was sitting quietly after supper, watching the news. He remembered her gray hair that was slightly tinted with blue and her bangs that she cut square across her forehead. He could see her legs slightly apart and she was fanning herself with a scribbler because it was hot in the house. It was summertime and they didn’t have any air conditioning. Not even a fan. Angelo remembered sweating and listening to her above the voice of the announcer on the television. His mother liked to talk to him after supper.
She said the thing with messes is that they don’t go away. Look at those dishes. I dirtied them making supper. They are just lying there waiting for me to clean them up. It is the same thing with mistakes – you do dirt to someone you are responsible for making it right. Angelo, you will have to do the cleaning, she said.
It wasn’t until after she died, and Roma let him live in the small attic room of the boarding house where the pigeons roost that he understood what his mother had told him.
Angelo had no one to tell him she loved him. He felt lost and alone and hid in his room until the day he remembered that she said another thing. He had to become his own mother and father and be a man of honor.
Working through his loneliness, Angelo remembered something else she had taught him. A reminder of this now hung around his neck, and peace surrounded him as he went about his day.
Okay, he thought. It’s okay.
It was late morning and the children had given up on the game. They parted ways, each running their own path out of the park. Angelo groaned as he roused himself and began shuffling down the street.
Lunchtime at the soup kitchen. Angelo couldn’t have put words on the things he saw, the people he talked to, the ones he reached for and patted on the shoulder, helped with their coats and rumpled garbage bags. But he felt what they felt as they put their belongings into those bags with care reserved for precious cargo.
Old men coughing. Faded females. Dry bony fingers, yellow-stained, reaching uncertainly for salt, crackers. Shaking hands squeezing the plastic cracker package before opening it and crumbling it into thin amber soup. He could smell the death that clung to their skin and clothes. He loved them all – the cautious, the guarded. The whining ones. The sullen ones. The sick ones who coughed bright and bloody into stolen toilet paper.
He would pull up a chair beside each one; those he called his friends. Not the ones who spat on him and called him “freak” and pulled their children close to them. Sometimes they would hit him.
He would ask his friends about their day. After their meal, he would take out his matches and light their cigarettes and his eyes would roam their faces as they talked, and he smiled. As he helped them prepare to leave, he would offer his thick, rough hand in farewell.
Gentlemen shake hands, his mother told him. Believe the words you speak, and others will believe them, she said. Be a man of conviction. It was what his mother and father-self told him every day.
The kitchen crew was peeling potatoes for supper when Angelo left the soup kitchen. The afternoon sun was warm and bright. He squinted and felt in his pants pocket for his money.
Angelo received a pension. Roma looked after his rent and his food and gave him spending money.
At Joe’s grocery store across the street, he bought a single large orange. The kind from far away, with the little sticker on it. They were always sweet and juicy. Angelo smiled as he thought of the old woman enjoying it.
He walked the several blocks to her home, greeting people and smiling. Sometimes he cringed from what he saw. Freddie was there, sitting on the stoop in front of his apartment. Freddie always cursed him and threw trash. He crossed the street and Freddie hardly noticed him at all.
Angelo knew his mind wasn’t sharp. He understood that he would never marry or have children. You look different, Angelo, his mother said. Sometimes people will be mean to you because you have that look. Show them your heart anyway. Your heart is as strong as any man.
It puzzled him sometimes that instead of accepting him as a friend, some people got angry.
“What do you want?” they would shout. “Go away retard,” they would say.
He remembered one man he found sitting on a garbage can behind a restaurant eating brown lettuce. The man had dark fingernails and long dirty hair tied into a ponytail with a twist-tie. He had red spots up and down his arms. He shook when he reached for the lettuce.
“How’s it going?” Angelo asked.
The man shrugged. He looked at the ground.
“Go away,” he said. He turned his back and ate the lettuce.
“Is that good, what you’re eating? I think it looks spoiled. Mother told me never to eat spoiled food. It will give you the runs. Would you like an orange?”
He could go to the store and buy her another one.
The man took the orange and peeled it slowly. Angelo watched as he sectioned it and ate it just as slowly.
“That was good,” he said, and he looked at Angelo’s face and could have smiled, but it looked like it hurt.
“Listen, buddy,” the man said. “A word of advice. Don’t go around trying to talk to people. Stick to yourself. You’ll live longer.”
“Longer than what?” Angelo asked.
“Oh, for fucks sakes,” the man sighed. “Piss off.”
“Okay,” Angelo said, but he still didn’t know longer than what.
Angelo had supper with his friends at the boarding house. The table was set for the old ladies and gentlemen who lived on the first and second floors.
Maisy was the oldest. She was really old to Angelo and her chocolate brown face had light patches on the cheeks. He always helped Maisy eat her soup because she had no teeth and most of it dribbled down onto her bib if she tried to eat it by herself. When Maisy wasn’t eating her lower lip jabbered like those false teeth at Halloween, chattering and gnawing on the air. But Maisy’s teeth didn’t chatter because she had no teeth; her lips just made some wet sounds.
She didn’t talk too much, but she smiled with her eyes. They were yellow where they should have been white. He thought that maybe that was the color of eyes when they looked too much. Maisy held his hand sometimes. Of all the people Angelo knew, Maisy reminded him of his mother.
“Did you take Abigail her orange?” Betty asked him. Abigail was her friend who was too scared to come out of her house. Betty asked him the same question every day and he always said yes.
“That’s a good boy,” Betty smiled.
Pigeons roosted in the eve beside his attic room. He could hear them through the wall, cooing and fluttering their wings. In the early morning, he lay on his bed as the first rays of light pierced the steady gloom. He looked at the peeling paper on the wall and the pattern the light made on the flowers on the paper. In one place it looked like a castle. When he rolled over the bed squeaked so he lay still and listened to the birds. Sometimes he could hear the peeping of their babies, awake and hungry. He would hear the mother and father fly off to search for food.
He spent some of his money buying birdseed. When he went outside the birds would descend on him in a gray-feathered cloud to light on his hands and search the cuffs of his pants to find the hidden seeds.
The pigeons helped him remember his mother. She had loved birds. Some people call them dirty; rats with wings, she said. They don’t want them on their roofs, pooping and rotting the shingles. But I like them. They’re friendly and very beautiful. See how the feathers on their neck shimmer like a peacock’s tail? And they’re much cheaper to keep than a cat or a dog.
His mother always had time for him. She taught him how to see beauty. Like magic, it was amazing what he saw when he really learned to look.
They were all his friends now. Especially Belinda. He remembered when he first met her. She was young and pretty. He thought she was Shania Twain.
He asked her if she was and she looked sad.
“No, I’m not,” she said, and he liked her voice. He leaned up against a lamppost, close enough to listen to her talk. Whenever she took out a cigarette he would come up and light it for her. He used his own matches.
“I sang in a bar one time,” she said loud enough for him to hear.
“Buzz off, dummy,” May said. May was a Chinese girl. She got mad after she saw he wasn’t going away.
“You got any money?” one of the girls asked him. He was proud of his money and he showed it to them. Three ten-dollar bills.
“Who’d give a retard that much money?” May said.
“Don’t call him that. I had a cousin who was special like Angelo. Sweetest guy I ever met,” Belinda said.
It was dark and all the girls had dates. Belinda had two dates, but she always came back. Angelo smiled when he saw her.
“It’s time to go home, Angelo,” Belinda told him. He liked to hear her say his name. “Is no one looking for you? Go home and go to bed.”
When she walked away Angelo followed her. She swung around and she looked angry.
“What do you want from me?” she shouted.
Angelo felt his face crumple.
Then she looked sad again. “Angelo, do you know what I do out here?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Tell me what you think I do.” Belinda’s voice wasn’t so loud anymore.
“You’re one of those hoochie-koochie girls.”
Belinda smiled. “Do you know what that is?”
“You go out on dates with men.”
“Yeah,” she said with a tight grin. “I date a lot.”
She took out a cigarette and Angelo took out a match and lit it for her. She took a breath and blew smoke out and up around her head.
“But I don’t want a date.”
She puffed on her cigarette and looked at him. “No? What do you want then?”
“I like to listen to your voice. It’s nice and you look like Shania Twain.”
“Oh, for god’s sake. I’m not Shania Twain! I told you that before. Now go away and leave me alone before you get us both in trouble.”
Another car pulled up and the man inside waved to Belinda. She smiled and waved back.
“I gotta go,” she said.
“I’ll wait here ‘til you get back.”
“No. Angelo, get lost.”
Angelo felt stubborn. He looked at the sidewalk and he put his hands in his pockets.
“Why did you take such a liking to me? Why me?” she asked.
“Because I think you’re special too.”
Belinda was really still for a moment. She looked at the man in the car and when she looked at Angelo her nose was getting red. Her voice had tears in it.
“Yeah. Right. Some fucking special,” Belinda said. She got in the car with the man and drove away.
Angelo kept his promise and waited until it got too late, but Belinda didn’t come back.
The next night he went there again. This time he brought them coffee from Tim Hortons and he lit all their cigarettes.
“You like my new boots?” May said. They were red for good luck, May told him.
“Maybe I get lucky tonight, Angelo,” she grinned. “Maybe my man will take me to his condo in the Bahamas, we’ll be happy ever after, you think?”
Some of the girls grinned, but Belinda looked scared. She said that Freddie was coming.
“Who’s Freddie?” Angelo said.
“Freddie Walton. Good friend of ours, Angelo,” May said. “He is like a businessman. He looks after our money.” All the girls snickered, and Belinda looked sad.
Angelo had seen the Waltons on television. He and his mother would watch it on Sunday night after the Wonderful World of Disney.
“I know Ben and Momma and Elizabeth and Grampa. But there are some that I forget.”
Angelo thought for a minute. Then he laughed. “Oh, silly me. I forgot John-Boy.”
He heard a harsh laugh behind him, and all the girls looked scared. It was the man who threw trash.
“Yeah, that’s me. Fuckin’ John-Boy,” Freddie said. “What are you doing here, retard? Get lost. Yer scarin’ away the customers.” He turned to Belinda and held out his hand. She reached into her pocket and took out some money. Freddie handed her a small plastic bag with some white powder in it.
Seeing it made Angelo scared.
“Is that drugs? That’s drugs!” he said, his voice rising. “Belinda don’t ever take drugs. Mother said they were very bad. Oh, very bad. They scramble your brains like a fried egg.”
“Shut up, idiot,” Freddie snarled, and he slapped Angelo on the side of the head. Angelo held his head and began to cry. He looked at Belinda and then at the others and they all looked sad.
“Go home, Angelo. This is no place for you,” Belinda said, and this time Angelo went. He ran all the way home.
After that, he hid until Freddie was done with his business. Then he came out and talked to the girls and lit their cigarettes, just like before. He looked for Belinda but sometimes she wasn’t there. And sometimes she was there but she wouldn’t talk to him. She would look at the sky and the tires on the cars and he knew the drugs were scrambling her brains.
“Don’t do it anymore, Belinda please,” he pleaded. “Come home and live with me. I’m not supposed to have guests, but I know Roma won’t mind if you’re not too noisy.”
Belinda put her hand on his shoulder. He liked that. They were friends.
“Angelo, you’re a better man than my father. In a crazy sort of way, I wish that you were my father.”
“You can call me that if you want to,” he said.
It was time to wash Maisy’s face and Angelo wrung out the pink washcloth in warm water. He rubbed it on Maisy’s cheeks and her chin. He took off her bib. It was wet and heavy, and he handed it to Roma.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Angelo,” Roma said. “Let’s get her into bed.”
The sun was setting when Angelo left the boarding house. Roma knew that he was going to see his friends.
“Be back by 11 pm, Angelo. It’s lights out for you at 11:30. Remember,” she said.
“Okay,” Angelo said.
Roma knew about Belinda and May and the other girls. She knew about him lighting their cigarettes and that Belinda looked like Shania Twain and how she wished Angelo was her father, but he didn’t tell Roma about Freddie. He couldn’t tell her about Freddie saying he would beat him because then Angelo couldn’t go there and talk to his friends. He knew Roma would worry.
When people love you, be careful not to worry them, his mother used to say. Be careful not to be a burden.
He walked down the street and cut through the alleyway behind Freddie’s apartment building. He looked the other way when he passed it.
Angelo came to the street where the girls stood, and he could hear someone crying. May and the others were kneeling beside someone on the ground.
It was Belinda.
She was crawling on the pavement. He could see that her arms had the same red marks on them as the man who ate the brown lettuce.
The girls moved away as he knelt beside her. She shuddered as Angelo touched her shoulder, like the mouse he watched a cat kill in the alley behind the boarding house. He was too slow, and the cat took it away.
He could see Belinda’s pale cheeks and her dark sunken eyes and her bony shoulders jerking as she cried. Her hair looked dirty and it had sticks in it. She looked up and her lips were stretched tight and she sat back on her legs and hugged herself with her scabbed arms. She looked at Angelo, but she didn’t see that it was him and she said, “What is mine? What is mine? Over and over.
He took her face in his hands. He tried very hard to be gentle.
“Belinda, it’s me, Angelo,” he said. “I’ve come to be your father, remember? I’m ready now. Let’s go. I’m taking you home.”
He remembered what his mother told him. Home is the place where you feel safe.
He lifted her to her feet. She felt like dry air and bones.
“Angelo?” she whispered. “I’m hurt. They hurt me.”
That made Angelo sad. Tears came to his eyes. He could hear his voice shaking, “I’ll take you to the doctor. Roma will drive us. I’ll help you get better, Belinda.”
“Fuck,” May said. She had been watching and she glanced over her shoulder. A car pulled up and Freddie got out. He started walking down the alley. May and the other girls melted away.
When he saw Freddie, Angelo got angry. Freddie wasn’t anyone’s friend. He gave Belinda the drugs. Angelo turned his back and helped Belinda walk away, towards his room in the attic.
He felt Freddie grab Belinda. Angelo stopped and turned.
“Let her go, Freddie. I’m her friend so I’m taking her. She’s hurt.”
“I warned you, retard. I told you what I was going to do if you kept coming around here. I guess the only thing a dummy like you knows is what ya beat into him.” Freddie reached into his boot and pulled out a big knife.
Funny thing, Angelo didn’t feel scared. Belinda was crying.
“You keep your hands to yourself, Freddie Walton,” he yelled. “We’re going.”
Freddie reached out and hit Angelo on the head with the butt of the knife, knocking him to the ground. Belinda fell on top of him. Angelo reached out to block their fall and he cut his hands on some broken glass. As he struggled to his feet, the wound on his head began to bleed into his eyes.
He made sure that Belinda was safe and then he stood up. He didn’t care about the glass in his hands. He rushed at Freddie and pushed him with all his strength. Freddie staggered but it didn’t stop him from pushing Angelo up against the building. Hard.
He pushed so much that Angelo’s feet were almost dangling.
Freddie’s eyes looked strange as he looked at Angelo.
“I’m gonna stick you, freak,” he said, and he plunged the knife into Angelo’s side right up to the hilt.
The world seemed to go very far away as Angelo slid to the ground. Freddie wiped the blade on Angelo’s green work pants before he put it back into his boot. In a blur, Angelo watched Freddie pick Belinda up and drag her to the car. Then he slumped face down onto the pavement.
“Is he dead?” he heard May ask. The girls had come back. They were his friends and they wouldn’t leave him alone. He felt cold, but he could feel his warm blood trickling onto the pavement. Blood from his head, his hands, and his side. Maybe he was going to die. He couldn’t move, but from where he lay on the ground, he could see May’s red boots. Red for good luck…
“Goddammit, where’s that ambulance?” May was crying. “I never met a kinder man. They don’t come any better than Angelo.”
In the silence, he could hear the pigeons fluttering. He could feel them fanning his face, feel their breath on his cold lips.
“Okay,” Angelo whispered. It was a peaceful feeling, soft as angel’s wings.