erome Rosenthal stares out the bus window at brick row houses sliding past. A low August sun casts evening shadows down the sidewalk. Along Allegheny Avenue, mothers sit on the stoops, fan themselves and gossip. Their children dash about in the waning light. To Jerome, the scene looks like a Norman Rockwell painting, except most of this crowd is black or Puerto Rican. The neighborhood was different before the war, filled with Eye-Tyes and Polacks, good-looking shicksas with their ponytails and bobby socks.
A loud bang shatters his daydream.
“Christ almighty,” the driver groans and muscles the bus to the curb.
“What is it, LaToya?” Jerome asks.
“Sorry, Mr. J. It’s the damn motor. Look at all that smoke.”
He twists around, grimacing, and stares out the rear window. Black clouds billow from the engine compartment. LaToya pries the front doors open and disappears with a fire extinguisher. The smoke lightens, then disappears.
“That sucker’s really fried,” she says, dropping her heavy body onto the driver’s seat with its cracked upholstery.
“Will they send another bus?”
“No. I don’t have enough riders, and I’m near the end of the route anyway.”
She speaks sharply into a radiophone then makes the announcement. A half dozen glowering passengers file off the bus and scatter.
“So how am I supposed to get home?” he complains.
“You’re gonna have to walk. You’ve only got a couple blocks.”
“Yeah, easy for you.” He frowns and motions with his cane.
“Sorry. I know your hip probably hurts like a son-of-a-bitch. My Mama’s got bad arthritis too. Keeps her awake at night.”
“That’s why my doctor prescribed these new pills.” He pulls a small box from his jacket and removes the bill bottle with its information sheet. “They’re supposed to take it all away.”
“Lemme see that?” LaToya unfolds the sheet, adjusts her granny glasses, and reads the fine print. “My Lord, Mr. J, these things are heavy-duty. They’ve got all sorts of nasty side effects. You best be careful and not take too many.”
Jerome’s eyes widen and he looks away. “Wh… why would I do that?” he murmurs.
“I didn’t mean that you would… but… but pain can make people give up, ya know. Do stupid things.”
“It’s okay, LaToya. I haven’t gotten that stupid just yet.”
“Sorry. It’s none of my business.”
A steady tremor shakes his body. He pushes himself up and steps gingerly from the bus. He clutches a small white bag containing a turban roll from Rasmussen’s. On weekdays, if he gets to the bakery right after four, they sell him pastry at day-old prices. Sometimes he finds a Danish with raisins, a special treat.
Jerome hobbles along the sidewalk, ignored by the mothers and their children. Only the teenage punks, wearing gold chains and crooked baseball caps, give him the once-over. Four black studs stand and move toward him. He quickens his pace and ducks into the corner market. The punks hesitate and stare inside, but move on. He takes deep breaths. His heart slows.
I used to spend my allowance in this place, when it was owned by that hawk-nosed Italian lady, what was her name? Ah yes, Mrs. Cosentino…what a character, but generous with the penny candies. He glances around. An oriental woman with cropped hair sweeps the wood floor and watches him.
Near the cash register he studies the candy selection. Jeez, they’ve got Necco Wafers, Tootsie Rolls, even Sugar Daddies. God, one of those suckers lasts all day.
“Mista, you buy someting?”
Startled, he stares into the woman’s flat face.
“Sorry, it’s been a long time since – ”
“I close now. You buy and go…please.”
“Oh, all right.” He grabs a Sugar Daddy and drops a crumpled dollar onto the counter.
Outside, the streetlights blink on. The teenagers are nowhere in sight. Jerome sucks in a deep breath. His bus stop is a block down, and across the street, a tiny balcony clings to his silent second-floor apartment. I don’t want to go inside yet, those hot airless rooms. Martha would make lemonade on nights like this…spike it with gin and pour it into iced glasses. And that first summer in Philly… we moved the TV onto the porch and watched Uncle Milty, Jackie Gleason and Red.
He moves slowly up the street, as if in a dream, fingering the pill bottle in his pocket. The sidewalk crowd has vanished. A single black boy, maybe ten, sits on a stoop, head down, hands clapped over his ears. As Jerome draws close, he hears them. A woman’s voice booms through the open front door.
“If I catch ya touchin’ my cousin again, I’ll cut your fuckin’ balls off.”
“Now, Leona, don’ go getting’ –” a man begins.
“Just shut the fuck up!”
A whiskey bottle flies through the doorway, narrowly misses the child, and shatters on the sidewalk. Shadows dance across the entryway walls. There’s a loud smack.
“Don’ talk ta me like that, woman. You ma wife.”
“I ain’t your fuckin’ bitch! Get you hands off…”
More sounds of a scuffle come from the house then silence, broken only by the boy’s sobs.
“Is…is that your mom and dad?” Jerome asks.
The boy’s head jerks up and he stares, then nods.
“You know, my wife and I used to go at it pretty hard… but we never hit each other. You know that’s wrong, don’t you?”
The boy sniffs. His body shudders.
“My name’s Jerome…but people call me Mr. J. What’s your name?”
The boy remains silent.
“I live down the block. I’ve never seen you before. Are you new around here?”
The boy wipes his nose on his arm and nods.
“I remember what it feels like to be the new kid. My family moved here from Minneapolis when I was eight. You know where Minneapolis is?”
The boy shakes his head, covering his eyes.
“That’s all right… it’s just another big city, only colder in winters. So where are you from?”
“I was there once in the ’80s at a conference. Used to sell cleaning products, you know. Was damn good at it.”
The boy wipes his face on his T-shirt.
“All I remember about Atlanta was everything was named ‘Peach Tree’ something or other.”
“Yeah, so?” The boy looks at Jerome with narrowed eyes.
“It was confusing. I got lost trying to get around town.”
On the avenue, the last trolley of the day rolls past, its steel wheels rattling in the rail slots. The boy watches it pass.
“Have you ridden the trolley yet? Gone downtown?”
“Na… nah. My Mama won’ let me go by myself.”
“That’s wise of her.”
“I just wish they’d stop hitten on each other,” the boy blurts.
“I know. People do stupid things…especially when they drink too much. Just stay away from them when they get angry like that.”
“Yeah, sure. I gots no place ta go.”
“Do you know the people next door?”
“Nah, Mama never leaves the house…don’ like folks nosin’ in our business.”
Jerome lowers himself onto the step next to the boy and rubs his bad knee. The hiss of evening traffic washes over them as the last vestiges of daylight fade. A cool wind blows along the asphalt corridor. Jerome unbuttons his vest to let the heat out.
“You know, I have this problem.” He grins and slides the Sugar Daddy from his coat pocket. “Somebody gave me this sucker, but I can’t eat it because I’m a diabetic. You know what that means?”
“Yeah, ma auntie’s got it. Can’t eat no sugar. Has ta give herself medicine with a needle.”
“Yes, that’s right. You know, if I eat this candy I’ll get sick. So you’d better take it.”
The corners of the boy’s mouth twitch upward. “Yeah…thanks.”
“WHAT THE HELL’S GOIN’ ON OUT HERE?” A man’s voice booms from behind them.
Jerome struggles to his feet and turns. A muscular black man stands at the door, clutching a very dark woman with long straightened hair falling stiffly to her bare shoulders.
“Ah…hello. My name’s Jerome Rosenthal. I live down the – ”
“Just what the fuck you doin’ with ma boy?” the woman demands.
“Just talking, miss. I was walking home and…and he seemed frightened… your fighting…”
“What’s a white dude like you know about anything?” the father growls.
“I know a scared boy when I see one. I used to be like him. This neighborhood didn’t like Jews when I was –.”
“What’s that you give him?” the mother screeches. She staggers down the steps and rips the candy from the boy’s hand.
“I just thought he’d like something sweet. I’m diabetic and can’t…”
She glares at the boy. “Didn’t I tells you nevah to take nothin’ from strangers.” She draws her arm back, hand open, muscles stretched.
“DON’T HIT HIM,” Jerome shouts and raises his cane.
Her forearm crashes down on its polished wood, sending Jerome sprawling backward.
“MAMA,” the boy yells.
The father vaults down the steps, glances up and down the boulevard, and extends a trembling hand.
Jerome grabs hold and, with great effort, pulls himself up. “Listen…. listen…it wasn’t your son’s fault… and… and I should have asked you first. Your boy just needed a quick fix of happiness and I figured…”
“Mista, we could all use a quick fix,” the father says. “But this is our business. We don’t need no stranger – ”
“I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 70 years. I figure I’m not a stranger.”
“Yeah, well, it still none of your business.”
“Maybe for today. But five years from now, when your son heaves a brick through my window ’cause he’s angry about something, it’ll be my business, and the Law’s.”
“You don’ know the half of it.” The father sighs.
The mother fixes the old man with a cold stare.
Jerome suddenly sinks onto the step, rubbing his chest. “I’m… I’m sorry. My old ticker’s not what it used to be. Just let me rest a bit.”
“Mama, can I get Mr. J some lemonade?” The boy’s jaw is set in an unsmiling face.
“Uh…yeah. Make sure you take it from the pitcher in back of the fridge and not the grown-up lemonade.”
The boy disappears inside the house.
“My wife used to spike ours with gin,” Jerome says, grinning. “What do you use?”
The mother scowls and looks away. “Vodka… but… but I’s tryin’ ta cut back.”
“Me too. The booze was killing my liver and screwing up my blood sugar.”
“Look, we’re sorry about…” the father begins.
“Your son tells me you’re new to the neighborhood. I’m up and down this block all the time. If you need to know something, or just want to, you know, visit…”
“Thanks, mista, ah…”
“Rosenthal… but just call me Mr. J.”
The father smiles weakly. “All right Mr. J.”
The boy returns with an iced glass. The lemonade is bitter but he doesn’t complain. The father sweeps up the glass from the sidewalk while Jerome and the boy continue their stumbling conversation. The mother stays silent, watching. As the black night comes on, they stare at cars cruising the boulevard, enjoying the traffic breeze. Jerome feels his body tingle like it hasn’t since before lung cancer took his wife. He thinks about his dark apartment, not such a lonely cell anymore, but a safe space in a neighborhood filled with talking people.
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one skinny cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, an occasional play, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than 100 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including the Fifth Wednesday Journal, Birmingham Arts Journal and Boston Literary Magazine. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his story “The Sweeper.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.