In which Buzz remembers the first backroom tenant,
Frank had been our first backroom tenant, separated from us by a flimsy painted plywood partition between the kitchen and what had been the breakfast room in our elegant home's genteel past. When we ate we could hear Frank snapping his fingers and arguing with the radio or clapping in time with the commercials. When he did my sister refused to eat with us. She also refused if it were too quiet, suspecting that he was listening at the flimsy wall Jerry himself had put up. She'd take her plate and go to her room, a habit I imitated, eating meals on my bed in front of my own small black and white TV. It was only on special occasions that we'd eat together, my sister, Jerry, my grandmother and I, gathered at the dining room table to eat a traditional meal prepared by Babi--pork and sauerkraut or "Spanish Bird" (egg and pickle and hotdog wrapped in pounded-flat meat and bound with twine and toothpicks) or my favorite fruit dumplings.
The tenants were never invited and we tried our best to ignore them but I liked Frank because he had an extensive collection of pornography which filled the broken-down rolltop desk where Jerry had been forced by my mother to sit after they had first been married to translate his poems into English so he could fulfill her dreams of his becoming a famous emigre poet, a project abandoned after her untimely death. I would sneak into the room when Frank was out and rummage arolind f or the magazines he cut to pieces. The walls were decorated with his collages, unnerving groupings of breasts and pubic mounds. Fish tanks empty but for kaleidoscopic rocks were stacked everywhere.
The room stank, body odor and cigarettes. The magazines were years old, coverless and cut-up, words from the following page showed through the translucent skin of waterdamaged pages. I let myself in with Jerry's spare key, breathing altered by anticipation as I rifled the drawers where I was sure to find them. I'd lie on the floor with my small erection for as long as I dared, not even thinking to touch myself. I didn't know there was anything more to it than lying face down, enjoying the pressure.
Frank's father came to take him away. There had been a scene in our dining room where Jerry had to talk Frank out of calling a radio station to tell them E.T. was signing off. E.T. was what all the kids on our block, me loudest of all because he lived in our house and I was always trying to live that down, called Frank as he walked down the street with his earmuff radio headphones for which he never had live batteries. He only wore them so he could pretend not to hear our taunts. When he saw us held look at his wrist (though he never wore a watch) and turn around as if held just forgotten an important appointment somewhere. He saved dead batteries in the drawer beneath the magazines, along with parts of scissors, spools from used up rolls of tape, foil from gum wrappers, broken watchbands, straightened paperclips, the caps to used-up pens, the plastic tripod 'tables' that kept pizza boxes from crushing down, and other nameless broken bits strikingly similar to what Jerry let accumulate in the myriad drawers of all our crowding bureaus, buffets, desks, endtables and wrought iron magazine racks.
"They're all saying I'm paranoid," Frank said.
"They do say that," Jerry consoled, "which only proves you right and them wrong. Paranoia is unjustified suspicion, whereas your suspicion is correct, thus you are not paranoid."
Jerry's English was perfect in a way that a native speaker's isn't. Held learned it from a book, an antiquated English text from England which frowned on the use of contractions and made his speech slow, precise, and infuriatingly proper.
This logic appealed to Frank, who was crazy.
I turned on the radio and scanned by ear, the red needle frozen at one end of the dial ever since I'd turned the knob too far. and something inside snapped. I was trying to be helpful, happy to help Frank in his bid for celebrity. Jerry explained to Frank in his most reassuring tone that no one cared whether he lived or died, so why waste a gesture? "We do not know what lies beyond the grave, so it is best to hold onto life; the time will come when you will no longer have a choice." I found the number of a local station on a school calendar; we were supposed to call there to find out if school were closed on days when it snowed. But Jerry was already on the phone with Frank's father Upstate.
All the next day his meticulous father moved most of Frank's stuff while Frank sat in the car playing with the knobs, reading the owner's manual or just rolling the windows up and down--up when his father approached the car, down after held deposited more junk in the trunk or back seat. The magazines were gone but the tanks remained in the garage, nested one inside the other like Russian dolls.
It was this house, patched walls, flimsy walls, cracked walls, the legacy of rent-paying loners just passing through, empty aquaria in the garage, the furniture all crowded into the three converted groundfloor rooms and semi-finished basement where my grandmother finished her days, the paneled over solarium that was my bedroom, the windows paneled over to save on heat although poorly insulated and always dark and drafty, the living room cut in two to make Jerry's bedroom and the dining nook where we nuked our food and ate facing the television, the subdivided rooms of tenants since evicted but with walls yet in place a dead-end maze--this was my inheritance and my only thought was to sell it and get the hell out of town, set out on my own, hit the road with the safety net of a hefty bank account.