The Ten Commandments (February 2019)
This was his city, but DP had only so many ways through it. He’d taken one path this morning—from his apartment building to Preble Street. That was a route. Back was another. To the supermarket yet another. And the AA meeting at St. Angelo’s. That was mostly it, though it wasn’t like he never strayed. DP liked to stray.
He liked to think about straying.
Tomorrow, the first day of the month, he’d have to walk, but for now he still had his bus voucher. He could go anywhere on public transportation. He could visit the beach, just to see the waves. Hello and how you doing water? Only today it was too cold for any activity that wasn’t absolutely necessary. They were fixing to take away his SNAP and his Mainecare, so he had come to Preble Street to figure out what to do. Last week, he’d seen Nancy, but she said he’d missed an appointment the previous month when he was supposed to fill out paperwork and that was the problem. But how was he supposed to show up for an appointment that he didn’t even know he had? And how was he supposed to get to an appointment without money for the bus? A lady at the supermarket had given him a voucher for this month, but last month he hadn’t had one. He lived four miles outside of town. First apartment in … he didn’t know how many years.
Sometimes he hoofed it in. He didn’t mind going for a walk. Kind of liked a stroll actually. It took exactly two hours to get to Preble Street, but that was when it was a good day, not when it was five degrees, not when he had a bum leg. It had always been a little off, but now it was red and swollen. “Ham hock,” he thought, when he looked at it, which wasn’t something you wanted to think about your own body. He must have fallen down, but he didn’t remember falling down. There was a lot of black ice out there, this time of year. You had to be careful.
DP was by the front desk at Preble Street, waiting for Nancy Osbourne. Nancy O.
In the main room, people were playing cards and board games. Others were waiting for the phone, the laundry, the shower. The usual. On warm days, people sat on the stone wall outside. A few diehard smokers were there, even today, bags and sleeping bags bundled about them, five-degree weather be damned. DP eventually snagged a folding chair and set it up outside Nancy’s office door. Directly across from him, a man was cutting another man’s hair. The little bits that fell to the ground reminded DP of the magnetic filings in a toy he’d had as a boy. You used a wand to drag the filings onto a bald man’s head or under his nose for a moustache. A deeply lined, flat-faced woman with a dark, hairy mole on her chin sat on another folding chair near DP. She was selling cigarettes for a dime to passersby. Loosies. She kept them in a little plastic cup on the floor.
How’d she manage to sell them for so cheap?
DP could have asked. He wasn’t exactly shy.
As it turned out, though, she was the first to speak. “Why are you wearing two hats?”
“I’m wearing two hats?”
“Yeah. You have on a baseball cap and a knit hat.”
DP reached up to his head and took off one hat and then another. Well, whaddya know?
“What happened?” she said.
When he didn’t respond, she said, “You’ve got a scrape up there.”
He touched his forehead, registered the slight sting of an open wound. He must have ripped some skin off, but he didn’t remember that either. His left hand was bandaged. He did remember that. He’d cut it when he’d slipped on the pavement last week and grabbed at a railing. You had to wonder why anyone lived in Maine, why the whole state, not just the rich snowbirds, didn’t up and move to Florida for the winter.
It was lousy to have a hairy mole on your face, especially for a woman. He’d try to get it cut off, if he were her.
“Do you have scissors?” he said to the woman. The word “cut” had reminded him of something. What was her name again? Maybe she hadn’t said?
“So, I can cut this off.” He pointed to the bandage, now ragged and gray at the edges. “I don’t need it anymore.”
“No,” she said. “No scissors.”
Scissors were probably considered a weapon at Preble Street. Staplers had been banned awhile back, after someone had grabbed one off the front desk and whacked a guy who’d been looking at him in a funny way. You couldn’t even whack a pedophile here—a known pedophile! They took being kind to real extremes at Preble Street. DP had no problem with whacking a pedophile.
Fair was fair.
“I’m losing my SNAP and my Mainecare,” DP told the woman. “I’ll be sixty in just a few more years. This shouldn’t be happening to me.”
She made a clucking sound of sympathy but didn’t share her own hard luck story.
“Now I don’t know what I’m going to do. Gotta eat. Gotta have my medicine.” He was quiet for a moment then sighed noisily, in case her attention had wandered. “I might get back into religion.”
“Yeah?” she said, as if this were a rather novel thought. “Do you believe in God?”
“I sure do.”
She grimaced, as if all things considering, she found this rather unlikely.
He’d been raised a Baptist, though his parents didn’t take him to church to learn the Ten Commandments and all that “Thou shall not” business. His parents had him go with the next-door neighbors. Why was that? Who knows? Just another item for a list titled “No Fucking Idea.”
“You look up in the sky, and you see the first night star?” DP pointed to the fluorescent lights mounted on the drop ceiling tiles rust-stained from an old leak.
“Sure,” she said.
“He put that there!”
“Yeah,” she said, though not exactly in amazement or assent.
“It’s shit down here, but that’s because of that Little Bastard. God threw him down here, said, ‘You do Your work,’ and He’s done it. Do you believe in Armageddon?”
“Like the end of times?”
“Yep, end of this shit. Satan said no one’s going to worship you, but God said, ‘Let’s see.’ God’ll be back. I don’t think I’ll be here to see it, but I believe in the resurrection, too. It’ll happen, but like I say, I’ll be long gone by then.”
“Well, give me your address,” she said. “If I’m still here, I’ll write you a letter and tell you all about it. I’ll send it by post.”
“A joker,” he said. “I should have known,” though, in fact, he hadn’t pegged her for a comic. She seemed like one of those people made mild by misfortune.
“What joke?” the woman said, and DP felt a little dizzy. Was she making fun of him?
Nancy O. came out of her office and said, “Hey, DP.” She was a cheerful gray-haired woman who wore a lot of purple. Today she sported a purple fleece vest, purple corduroys, and regular sneakers. She motioned for the woman with the cigarettes to come into her office. “Aren’t you supposed to see me?” he said.
“Today?” she said. “I don’t think so.”
She went back into her office then came out with a datebook. “Day after tomorrow. That’s your day.”
Today was the last day of the month. “I don’t have a March bus pass.”
Nancy cocked her mouth in a half grimace. “Oh, no, DP,” she said, sounding truly upset. “I have to help this woman right now. After that, I have someone else. I’ve got people all day. You’ll have to come back when it’s your time.”
“When it’s my time!” DP said, spooky-voiced, trying to make a joke, though his voice wavered on the final word. He reached up and wiped the corners of his eyes, just in case he was crying.
When DP stood to go, he stumbled then caught his balance. Nancy reached out to steady his shoulders. He’d told her, hadn’t he, that his vision was bad, one eye always (and increasingly) blurry? And about the bum leg? If they cut off his Mainecare, what was he going to do? He had high blood pressure and cirrhosis of the liver. And the diabetes. He’d probably have a stroke pretty soon.
Which might not be so bad.
Once, a long while ago, he’d fallen and broken his neck. He’d gone to the hospital for two months then, and they’d been the best months of his life. He had three meals every day, and there was a TV, mounted high on the wall, and you could get all the channels. Everyone came to visit him in the hospital. People from Preble House and also the AA.
He might go to the AA meeting at St. Angelo’s today. He liked to get out and see people. He was a sociable guy. Still, it wasn’t like you could go to a meeting, and come out and never drink again. Only twenty percent of people who went to meetings got sober, and you know who told him that? The people at AA! So, there you go. But St. Angelo’s was warm, and there was coffee and Oreos. Also, those Nutter Butters. Not long ago, a married woman he met at St. Angelo’s found out he’d moved off the streets, and she just showed up at his place with a kitchen table and chairs. Then she wanted to fool around. He wasn’t going to say no, though you’d think since she’d been an alcoholic and an addict herself, she’d know how that was going to go when it came to the actual consummation of the act. After, he wondered if it was technically adultery if you only tried to have sex. If you didn’t actually do it.
Well, maybe he didn’t feel like going to the AA today, after all.
OK, so whatever. He was just going to head home. Call it a day.
On the walk to the bus stop, he passed by the 7-11. It was his favorite store, so what was he going to do?
He was going to walk in and get something.
He already knew what he had in his pocket: enough for two PBRs. He’d have one now in the bathroom, and save one for later.
Inside the 7-11, he looked at a newspaper in the rack. He was a customer, why not? It was his God-given right. He was glad he had the money for the two beers. He used to wander around town, feeling for change in the return trough of pay phones and sometimes slipping a tall boy into his pocket at a convenient store. But, of course, there were no pay phones anymore. And, today, he was happy to pass some limp bills over the counter, doing it all on the up and up. Then, he ducked into the bathroom for his usual glug-glug-glug. When he came out, he waved to the clerk and said, “Thanks, buddy!” The man gave him a dirty look. Did he know what DP had just been doing? But how would he know? Maybe they had a camera in the bathroom? What kind of job would that be? Watching people crap, just to make sure they hadn’t slipped some beef jerky or whatever into their pockets.
Well, it was time to make his way home.
The beer … drinking the cold beer. That was the best moment of the day.
He didn’t like to say it, but it was true. Even on a cold day, there was nothing like a cold beer.
He meant to save the second beer for when he got home. He wasn’t the sort to drink out of a paper bag in public, old-time wino style, but then he really couldn’t see the point of waiting. He got off the bus near his apartment, but instead of continuing on, he sat down on the bench inside the shelter. The sky was a flat light gray, almost white, and tiny specks of snow appeared in the air, barely even flakes, more like coconut shreds falling on the jelly roll of the earth. Hey, that was a good one! Jelly roll of the earth! When the bus pulled away, he had the second beer.
Once Nancy asked him how many beers he had a day, but he had no idea. He’d had some this morning and now these. He’d need more later. When he stood, he weaved then had that same old problem with the entrance to his apartment building. It was down one step then up one step, and there was a shadow on account of the little roof at the door, so there was always black ice there. But he got in OK. Upstairs, he put the key in his door but nothing happened. It fit but didn’t turn. He felt dizzy so pressed his head against the wall. They must have come and cleaned, because usually there was a little pencil drawing on that wall. Just a stick figure about as high as DP’s knee, but it was gone. Maybe someone had erased it? Only the wall wasn’t smudged, and they couldn’t have painted it over, because the wall wasn’t wet, and it wasn’t exactly clean. There were still scuffmarks. Where had that stick figure gone?
And come to think of it, where was the stick figure that he’d drawn above the stick figure? He’d done that just this week, last Sunday, in fact, when with a sudden burst of energy, he’d decided to go bottling, return his own cans and see what he could find in trash barrels around the neighborhood. He’d come home with a few bucks in his pocket, feeling good, and then he’d looked at that stick figure. He always thought of it as a little girl drawn by a little girl. “Well, God damn it,” he decided. “She needs someone to protect her.” So, he’d gone into the apartment, stored the beers, found a pencil, and come out and drawn a God on a cloud, looking down on the little girl and smiling. He didn’t even know why he wanted to do it. He just thought it should be done.
He liked protecting people, even in this little way. He remembered once really smashing up a guy who he’d seen raping a woman in an alley. He’d told everyone about it after, maybe exaggerated what he’d actually done, calling himself the “dispenser of enemies” and all. In truth, he’d broken his hand punching the guy’s face and the fingers had never quite set right. They hurt to this day, but he’d saved that woman, and he also felt good about that, to this day.
DP must have fallen asleep standing with his head resting on the wall outside his apartment, because suddenly he found himself starting awake. For a second, he was confused about why he was standing outside his own door, but then he remembered about the key and the missing drawings, and then he saw, only he wasn’t sure how he could have failed to notice this before, that there was a sign on his door—a fancy piece of paper, almost like handmade paper—and on it in very neat lettering, “We are celebrating our grandmother’s life. Come in. Tell a story. Have something to eat. She would want us to be happy and LOVE her and not grieve. We WELCOME you to join in her praise. Do not KNOCK. Just come JOIN us. We will be here from 2-4.”
This required some consideration, but not much before he realized he was on the wrong floor. He walked back to the elevator. Sure enough. He was on the fifth, though he lived on the sixth. He pushed the “up” button then went back to the apartment door. Some food would be nice. Were people still gathered inside? He couldn’t really hear. That was a surprise of this building: Section 8 but with thick doors and walls.
Just then, but it might not have been just then, because he didn’t really have a sense of how long he stood and considered, the door opened. Two women appeared before him, both waving goodbye, one thin and departing and one fat and remaining in the doorway. The one in the doorway was doughy and girlish looking, her big loose dress falling almost to her ankles. She smiled warmly and said, “Were you knocking? You should have just come in.”
Behind her, ten people were crowded into an apartment, which was laid out exactly like his. A kitchen counter separated a living/dining room area to the right from a kitchenette on the left. Without looking, he knew the hall to the left led to a single bathroom and small bedroom. Here, the living area was full of plants on small tables, which themselves were covered with that whatchacallit fabric. Batik! He remembered the word. Well, that was a blast from the past. A quick sexual memory: his arm up the skirt of some woman wearing a batik skirt and no underwear, the dark wet between her legs. But when and where might this have happened? Perhaps he was remembering something that didn’t happen but something he once wanted to happen? He’d never married, though there were girls along the way. Only sooner or later, there was always a fight. Some woman wanting to know when he would stop drinking. “When they put me in a casket,” he remembered telling one woman. “When I’m six feet under! I’ll quit right then.”
Though actually he had quit once. For three months, he’d felt neat and clean. It was a girlfriend who helped him through it. Gave him a lot of water and talked about how he’d been polluting himself and now he was going to rid himself of toxins. He had given up the cocaine a long while ago—too expensive! —so she thought he could do this too. But then, his muscles bunched in a certain way, a certain kind of pain that only a beer could reach.
In the apartment, a few people were sitting at the dining room table and a handful more on a couch and chairs. Food was spread out on the kitchenette counters and on the dining room table. A big bowl of fat purple grapes, a platter of mini-quiches, carrots and celery with dip, peanut M&Ms, potato chips, pretzels, mini boxes of raisins, Danish pastry with what looked like apricot filling, small red jam cookies, and homemade chocolate chip cookies
All the platters and bowls were full but no one seemed to be eating.
The heavy woman said, “So many people knew Grandma who we didn’t even know. Will you tell me your name?”
“DP,” DP said.
“That’s an unusual name. And how did you know my grandma?”
“Well, I live in the building,” he said, which was a true statement, even if it was also a lie.
The heavy woman’s hair was fine, another thing that made her seem like a little girl, but her manner was kindly and maternal, and DP guessed she was at least 30. There was a tall man standing behind her. Very clean cut looking. He put his hand on her shoulder, so he assumed they were a couple. He wasn’t sure how the rest fit together.
The heavy woman said, “Will you please make yourself comfortable? Get yourself something to drink in the frig and have a seat?”
“OK. Thank you.” DP pushed past a very lovely girl, with long flowing blond-red hair, crimped in waves, sort of mermaid-like, and opened the refrigerator. “Help yourself,” the pretty girl said. The frig was full of PBRs. He closed the door then opened it again. It didn’t make sense. There was nothing in the refrigerator save for six packs of PBRs. PBRs on every shelf, PBRs in the door, PBRs in the cheese drawer and the vegetable crisper. As many as you could possibly stuff into the space. He opened the freezer. It was just full of ice bags.
He looked around then slipped one beer into his left coat pocket, took another with him to the dining room table. The only open chair was next to an older thin woman with scraggly black-gray hair and a drawn look, so he took it.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” DP said.
“I’m not,” the woman said abruptly. “She was 72 and died in her sleep. That’s a blessing, if you ask me. No one could ask for better.”
“Mom,” the mermaid girl said in reprimand. She scooped up a boy who was running across the room with a blue toy train in his hand. She gave him a kiss on his ear, patted him on his rear-end—you could hear the crackle-scrunch of his diaper—and he ran down the hall to the bedroom.
“Well, what?” the older woman said, tense.
“Some of us miss Grandma, because we loved her, because we loved to visit with her, and we will miss talking to her,” the mermaid-girl said equitably.
“Yes, of course,” said the tense older one. “You loved her and her mumbo jumbo.” She waved in the direction of a small brass Buddha, sitting on one of the windowsills.
The heavier woman turned to DP, “Can I get you something to eat?”
DP tried to work out who was important in the room: mermaid, older bitch, and fat/benevolent. He could get in a lot of trouble with this one or that one, if they were able to crawl into his head and take a glimpse of this shorthand. They can’t crawl into your head and take a glimpse at your shorthand, he reminded himself. So why did it feel like they could?
The older bitch seemed to be the mother of mermaid and fat/benevolent, though the two women looked as different as two women could—hair color, body shape, everything. Maybe they had different fathers, though it was hard to imagine the older bitch getting two separate men to fuck her. Who’d want his dick in that nasty bag of bones? That was another thought he didn’t want anyone spying on.
The pastries on the table, flaky with jelly in the center, called to DP, but he didn’t see how he could eat, if no one else was going to.
The mermaid woman came over from the kitchenette and sat cross-legged in the middle of the floor. The mother and DP remained in their chairs, the heavier woman stood, but they all, more or less, formed a circle, a little discussion group.
“What did you think of Grandma?” the mermaid woman said to DP.
“Someone told me about the Buddha once,” DP said. “I can’t remember the details now, but it all made a lot of sense to me. I can see why people might want him over our God. Why people believe in him. I’d like to get into a little religion myself now.”
“My daughter didn’t ask you about the Buddha,” the tense woman said, annoyed.
“Give him a chance,” the heavy woman said.
“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure,” DP said, meaning to confess that he did not know their deceased grandmother/mother, but they misunderstood him.
“I’m Josie,” said the mermaid woman. “Eliza, my sister,” she pointed to the heavy woman. “And Mom, of course.”
The mother extended her hand. “Janis,” she offered, then, perhaps smelling his breath, abruptly pulled her fingers back. She said, as if she couldn’t believe it, “Are you drunk?”
“A little,” DP admitted then stood for the refrigerator and another beer. He’d made a space in the refrigerator, when he’d taken the previous beer, but now that space seemed to have been filled up with another beer, as if the refrigerator was a magically replenishing source. DP put his hand out to steady himself against the refrigerator door.
“Do you have a story about Grandma?” Josie the mermaid said, after he’d returned to his seat.
“We’d love to hear.
He wanted to say something very nice, like that the grandmother brought him oatmeal and orange juice when she heard he had a cold, or that she’d always waved hello with a snowy mitten, when he passed her on the street.
“Well, you know she gave me a bus voucher once. We were in the supermarket, and I told her of my troubles, and she just offered the voucher. Just to be nice. I thought that was awfully sweet of her.
“Grandma?” Josie said, confused. It seemed to DP that she might be the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. “I don’t think she really went to the supermarket. Because, you know, with the wheelchair and all.”
“Ah, that’s right,” said DP.
“And not just the wheelchair,” said Janis, the mother. “There was the fact that she never did anything kind for anyone but herself.”
“Mom,” the mermaid said in reprimand. She cocked her head at the guests in the rest of the room, as if reminding the mother that other people could hear what she was saying.
“I believe I’ll just help myself,” DP muttered, and he stood for the refrigerator again, though the brief route to the kitchenette was a little more crowded. Had extra people entered the apartment, since he’d gone for his last beer?
“I know, I know,” Janis said. “You don’t get how New Age thinking can be narcissistic. Me, me, me, take care of me, my well-being, my inner peace. If she were your moth-er,” Janis spit out, clearly furious, “and you just wanted someone to show up to your school play, and she had to go to a yoga class, because she’d ‘committed” to it, you might have some other thoughts.”
“Grandma had a rough life,” the mermaid said.
“I’m not arguing that,” said Janis.
“She never talked to me about her past,” DP said musingly, as he reoccupied his seat. Something was wet on his face. He put his hand to his mouth. Had he spilled his beer, or was he actually drooling? He grabbed a napkin and wiped himself.
“She had a lot of stressors,” said the fat woman.
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Janis said, her voice loud enough that the rest of the room quieted and turned its attention to the daughter and granddaughters. “You know who had a lot of stressors? I had a lot of stressors. I had the two of you and a dead husband, and you know what, I still had a sense of personal responsibility. I still provided for you. I didn’t use the fact that I’d had a negligent mother who was, let’s be frank, a slut, always with this one and that one, because she had no sense of self-worth without a man, make me forget to come to your school play.”
“It was just a school play,” the mermaid said softly, as if by talking quietly her mother would lower her own voice.
“And did I mention my high school graduation?” Janis said. “Did I mention that I was the valedictorian, and that my mother wasn’t even there? Did I mention that?”
“Mom,” said Josie, consolingly, “of course, we know. We know.
Once, in a rage, DP had called his own mother “a fucking whore.” He was just a kid, didn’t even know what the words meant, just that they were bad, but it stuck with him a long time after.
“We don’t want to put you too much on the spot,” the mermaid said to DP. He’d already forgotten everyone’s name. She looked hopeful. The sisters were so beautiful, even the heavy one, though the mother was not.
Sometimes you were gifted with a vision, and DP had such a vision now: The girls had each other, but the mother was alone with her hate.
“I do have something I’d like to share,” DP said importantly. He worried that his speech sounded slurred. “But let me just ….” He held up his finger and stood again for the refrigerator. His eye was bothering him, blurring more than usual, and his left leg felt a little like it had fallen asleep. He stomped at it, once, then twice, trying to get the feeling back. Again, the refrigerator seemed completely full, as if he had not consumed … well, he wasn’t sure how much he had consumed, but certainly plenty since he’d arrived. It seemed to him he had entered a space where not everything was 100% real, and the granddaughters’ beauty and the abundance of the table laden with food that still no one had touched were part of that.
The tingling in his leg was, he realized as he sat, not really just in his leg, but in the left side of his face. Again, he felt something wet in the corner of his mouth.
“Well, what I have to say about your grandmother is that she did … um … as your mother said … have a thing for the gentlemen.” DP thought about the woman from AA, the one who had come to his apartment, after she’d gifted that furniture, and the way she’d tried to kiss him and kiss him, hoping his body would come around, and when it didn’t, how she’d sunk into an angry silence, as if it wasn’t just a problem of alcoholism, as if it was a slight against her, his dick not rising in salute. “She did make some overtures to me. Over time. She did do that.”
Things were fuzzing out, and in a rather dramatic way, for DP: more wet formed at his lip, more numbness on the left side of his body, and suddenly a booming headache. This was something more than a black out or a bad hangover, but still he pressed on, as if there was one last thing he needed to do, before his case was complete, before all the summing up and adding and tallying and weighing of this and that could be done. He didn’t know why he wanted to help the angry woman, instead of her lovely daughters, save he could guess the kind of shit she’d been through. He’d seen a lot over the years. Probably people had made too many excuses for the dead grandmother, and she’d been allowed to do damage just because she’d been hurt. Wasn’t that the tune that everyone liked to sing at Preble Street? He remembered back in high school, when he’d been sent to reform school. Everyone there said the same thing: “I didn’t do it,” or “It’s not my fault.” “Well, whose fault was it then?” one of the teachers had asked. Was the teacher to suppose the whole lot of them were innocent? More likely they viewed the Ten Commandments as something like a “to do” list. Thou shall steal. Thou shall murder. Fuck you, DP had thought at the time. There were whole years of his life, when fuck you was almost the only thought he had. Now, though, a Biblical imperative scrambled and reversed itself. DP stood again, but not for a beer. He realized he had something to say, and he wanted some height to do so. He wanted to … to bear false witness against his neighbor, to turn the story about the AA woman with the table and the chairs and the annoyance when he couldn’t get it up—and so what? that didn’t make him less of a man, did it?—to a story about the Buddha-loving grandmother. He started to tell the group, more plainly, that the woman had tried to seduce him.
He teetered forward.
Oh, Jesus Christ, he heard the tense mother say. She stood abruptly and reached out, as if to catch him in her loving arms.
And then nothing, as it turned out. Not a thing. The null set or, as he liked to say, when he was still alive: End of times.
Debra Spark has published nine books, including (most recently) And Then Something Happened: Essays on Fiction Writing and the novel Unknown Caller. Her book reviews, essays, and articles have appeared in places like Dwell, Food and Wine, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, and Yankee. She teaches at Colby College and in the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and lives with her husband on a former chicken farm in Maine.