Where You Belong

FOUR

 

I go south on Bryant Avenue. I know Bryant Avenue. It must be six thirty. It’s almost dark. There are lots of cars and people. Some kids here and there. Some with mothers, most by themselves. I keep my head down, try to remember the sidewalk cracks. I pass the fire station on the corner of Freeman Street; two old men are talking to a fireman. The old guys are wearing heavy flannel shirts and hunters’ caps. The fireman’s in a T-shirt, as if to show everyone he’s even less afraid of cold than he is of heat. I try not to think of how cold it is, how mean for early October. The wind is sharp.

I can smell Mrs. Nagle’s fish store coming up on the corner of West Farms Road. She’s out front, has on her husband’s dull brown jacket over her long apron with stains the shape of continents. She’s sweeping, sweeping, still sweeping the little fish guts and scales away from the front of her place, as if the slightest accumulation might scare away a customer. When someone approaches, she greets them, ready to lean her broom against the brick and escort them inside, tell them her specials. She doesn’t seem to know who will enter and who will not. She’s tense, her head moving quickly this way and that like a hungry bird’s. I’m afraid she will remember me, but she doesn’t. She looks through me as I walk past. I am not a buyer.

I go a few blocks more and cross Westchester Avenue where it meets 167th Street. I’m tired now, scared. This is way past where we were allowed to go when we lived on Byrant. There are a lot of Puerto Ricans, colored too. The stores and houses are pretty run-down. Something’s in my shoe. It hurts, but I leave it there, not wanting to stop. The harmless pain keeps my mind off how hungry I am, how scared. My legs are weak, and I feel lightheaded. From the hunger, I guess. I’ve been hungry before, but this is worse, maybe because it’s mixed with knowing that it’s up to me to find something.

I go a few more blocks to Aldus Street. It’s badly lit here, creepy. Some boys whiz by me on bikes. They’re making hooting sounds to each other, or to me. I’m not sure. They don’t come back, and it gets quiet again. In the distance I can hear a radio playing, an announcer’s static voice introducing something by Ike and Tina Turner. Across the street there’s a bench facing into a park a block long. I cross over and sit down, look into the park. The place is dimly lit and shadowy, a set of slanted cold metal poles at the heart of it, the swings gone. The slide has a step missing. I know enough not to go in, so I just rest on the bench.

The songs are still in my head, Liam’s songs. I let one in after another, let them chase away the scary silence. The silence is awful; Liam’s face is in it, the bleeding, my name. In between the songs, I try to think about what I’m going to do. I can’t stay out in the cold. I have to eat. I have to think, make a plan.

No one is around. I lower myself onto the bench, easy, on my side, so the record won’t break. I find it then, settled between the wooden slats, hard and cold, a baby bottle left behind. I picture it getting tossed away by some ornery kid mad at her mother. I think of when Owen was small, the frantic searches for his bottle, always lost. Mama would hide it from him, hoping he’d give it up, but it never worked. He clung to it. Once he had it in his mouth, his face would change, go slack. Sometimes, if he was tired, his eyes would roll up, and he’d look as if he’d escaped somewhere.

The bottle is full and the weight of it feels oddly familiar in my hand. No one’s here. It’s dark. I can taste it once. No one will see. I take a small sip. The milk is cool and doesn’t taste bad, but I put it down again because the feeling that comes over me is too scary, like a baby who’s been left behind. I see now how alone I am, how lost, and I decide it’s best not to look at where I am. Instead I stare into the night sky. But it is too big, this sky, too far away, and I still feel so afraid.

The wind changes and brings a woman’s song, a voice like my mother’s, and I know suddenly that I cannot keep from crying. I turn away from the sky and the bottle is there. I take it and close my eyes, settle into the bench, use my shoulder bag as a pillow. I try to focus on my mother’s voice, but it breaks up and I drift into somewhere else, someplace safe, a place I can’t remember knowing.