Cover Me, Baby
by Gry Hala
Their glassy eyes were grey and cold, like abandoned metal in snow. The room, with its tarnished memories and pale walls, was just as empty as the city beyond the windows.
She watched the day until a flash of light streaked through the room and arced against the far wall. She saw him against the melting plaster, walking at an angular trot through a fleeting dawn like a beaten racehorse uncommitted to the challenge of another day.
She folded the letter and tucked it beneath the pillow. She didn't understand his reasons, the words a mess of scrambled black ink written by a loose wrist and drunken tongue.
She gathered the blanket around her and dug deep, reaching through sheets and through an eternity, groping for what felt like divine revelation, pressing stiff cotton against her tears before reading the letter again.
"Baby." "Sorry." "Lost." "Love."
She dropped her hand and pushed out a breath, looking around the vacant room.
The blanket, thin and old, and stitched by timeless hands, its tiled-fabric carrying the funk of cigarettes and sweat, covered their love, keeping it warm. The walls held what had been their private world, a small box-of-a-life controlled by another man, but that was life in any big city, staying in one's place, walking just enough and looking just enough, avoiding the eyes and the heart of another, your wits given to some unknown force that pulled you through days of confusion and nights of loneliness.
She fell back on the mattress that, come midnight, had screamed of love, rusted springs rising and falling like the well-worn rhythm and blues records blaring from the neighbor's door.
All was quiet now.
She glanced at his rocker standing next to the window that opened to the violence of Detroit. She could hear the high-rise banter of women beneath hair rollers and stocking caps, cigarette smoke streaking past their lips like smoke over a ruin, their words so cold they struck concrete as Mother Nature's hail. He would sit in that chair most mornings, staring at the world and listening to its fury. The sun would shine on him, blinding him to the ways of a woman and to the scheme of the streets, then the sun would disappear and the night would take over. He lived within the darkness of this shadow-world, where a man's weakness couldn't be seen, only sensed, and then one couldn't adequately attach a face to this weakness, leaving half-way men like ghosts searching across East 45th Street for a body to infest.
She searched for him once over grey stone, stepping into the danger of the sunless world, rushing past unlit churches and unlit walk-ups, past 606 Horse Shoe Bar and all through Winder Street, past addicts and thieves waiting on a score, past women on street corners waiting on the same score, holding themselves at the elbows until some faceless man held them at the waist.
She found him in a dim poolroom, aiming for a shot at the bottomless heart of a hustler, not a lover. He looked at her –that is, his eyes ran over her body in the manner tears fall over a face, but he didn't recognize her in the same way he never seemed to recognize the source of his tears. He turned to the table and slurred a bet, then slung the stick forward, his strike knocking a ball in a corner pocket as if to enact judgment on the bow-legged hustler across the table. She called for him. He laughed and slapped hands with his friends and raised a bottle and tilted back his head and sucked fire. She called again, calling from very far away, as if standing on a mountain that overlooked the soot-stained streets of Detroit's Black Bottom. She almost screamed. The men surrounding him turned to her; their eyes had never truly left her.
She was the type of girl who earned a man's attention by way of physicality and grace. She was like a rare butterfly that flutters between one's eyes and fingers, never to be fully captured and understood. No one ever knows from where such butterflies come. Perhaps they're moments of beauty sent down from heaven as a spark of inspiration. She felt this way, walking the streets, lighting fire in men's eyes. But no one in East Detroit knew exactly what she was doing with a wayward drunk too poor to afford his own drink after midnight.
And in the way a butterfly knows not its beauty, she knew not her reasons for loving him.
He didn't turn to her until he finished his bottle. His face seemed loosened with fatigue; his shoulders slumped from the burden of the day, the pool stick resting between tobacco-stained fingers too limp to fight back. He looked like a lost boy searching for manhood in a poolroom and a bottle.
Lifted cheeks held hope. She often prayed for her beauty to catch him in the way a streak of light catches dust, turning it gold, if only for a moment, before the reality of its futility casts it a shade of grey. Amidst the poolroom's soft fire, his face, like the high, blank wall that stood around the city, cracked at the sides, slowly, cautiously, and then the teeth surfaced as light first touching earth, and his face spread open, bright and brown in acknowledgement of the sun.
He turned back to the pool table, his fingers like a caterpillar over the stack of crumpled bills. It wasn't enough to cover the rent, just enough to delay the ridicule of the Jewish landlord who only showed his face the first of the month. She wondered if it would be enough to buy a ring, any ring, or, perhaps, to buy two tickets to a Broadway play (any play), where, under a marque of flashing gold and red, her face would shine like a cluster of stars.
He stuffed the bills inside his pockets, deep inside himself. She knew the money wouldn't be enough to pay for her hopes and dreams, or for a new set of wings that would fly her into tomorrow. Still, the five bills, like his arms, would be enough to cover her one more night.
The plaster was bubbled and broken, splitting into a series of unintelligible lines and shapes. She studied that ceiling often at the first light of day, while he slept beside her after having dropped his burdens onto her lap.
Now, the ceiling was full of words without meaning, the heavens above cracked plaster and the tar-stained rooftop no real direction for a girl without hope.
She wondered on which street he wandered, on which corner he stood, leaning against a pole or bent over a garbage can, holding on, anchoring himself to the city which never claimed him as kin, drinking fire and laughing sin in order to deny the silence of his confusion.
She had met him in her last year of high school, on the rare day he ventured into those halls set like chasms between the hopeful and the hopeless. The bell had rung, as loud as a church bell or police siren. He was late. She was delivering a note to the same principal's office to which he was sent. They walked together, unplanned, unintentional. But she knew the universe designs its plans and sometimes man, in his ignorance, falls in line. He smiled at her and she smiled back, something within him attracted to her purity, something within her attracted to his defiance. She had seen him before. She knew he smoked reefer behind the school and slapped girls on their backsides for fun. He was crude and vulgar, just like every boy in East Detroit. Most girls, dressed in Cinderella heels or ballerina flats, avoided stains on concrete. But she knew it was the crude and vulgar that left truth so blatant for all to see and understand.
His was the spirit of her father. She never had to wonder about his love. It caught fire over themed cakes on her birthday and was gift-wrapped on Christmas. It guided her thrift-store bicycle over concrete, catching her when she almost fell onto broken stone or shattered glass. It screamed and laughed on roller coasters, its arms over her body, holding her with all its protection.
And so it was with him. His eyes wandered as all boys tend to wander, but his heart had found a home, or, rather, some form of shelter in her arms. Life had been a storm for him. Trapped between a father's rage and a mother's silence, all he could do was run the streets and search for cover, the type of velvet-smooth blessing his parents couldn't ever afford to buy.
But in her he found fire. Her love burned his walls down. He came to school more, even tried to open a book and concentrate. But, blinded by truth burning in his loins and rising in his woman, he told her he couldn't be expected to sit still and find truth in a book. They kissed. He joked that her lips tasted like honey. They teased. She knew it would be a matter of time before he asked for her nectar. In time they did that too, over and over, completing the spin of the world by carving into the body of the other an emotion she hoped would last a lifetime.
Yet as the world turns, all things begin to fade and fall and die.
He left school and lost jobs, was picked up by policemen and thrown in jail. He was beaten. He was released. Sometimes she couldn't tell the difference between his bruises and his dark skin.
After searching for jobs as a delivery driver for pizza kitchens or Chinese restaurants (where he could find heat and food), he searched for other covers and found them, first cigarettes and alcohol and reefer. Then, when winter fell over America and dumped all of its snow in Detroit, he discovered the warmth of heroin. His innocent, vulgar tongue turned old and hateful. He started to lose his baby fat and carry the hollowed weight of an addict. He once cursed the same as he laughed, jocular, the stuff of boyish wonder. Then he began to curse for no apparent reason, damning the rising sun the same as he damned the landlord. Fuck! Shit! No room for laughter in his voice, only the back-throat rasp of a cough and a cry.
It was January, the time of year people make amends with yesterday and search for the strength to last another year. Her breath rose like a ghost toward the streets. She glanced at the radiator by the window. The landlord had stopped answering her calls to fix it, one time snarling something like, “If you pay your rent I can pay my telephone bill and listen to your complaints.”
She pulled the blanket around her and fell deeper into the mattress, searching for the type of protection only a man can give. She drew her legs to her chest, holding on, seeking the warmth of her beginning, when hope was the delicate glow within her father's face the day of her June birth.
But June turned cold in January, the years rolling on. After her mother's death her father sunk deeper into his bottle, bitter at the city that refused to carry the financial burden of a sick woman, bitter at the landlord who was blind to the roaches beneath the sink and the mice hiding within the stove, bitter at the cars that were too slow and by the buildings that were too tall, by the pigeons that were too dirty and by the taxi cabs that refused his dollar and dark skin.
Still, he had warmth for her. He tried hard to carry his weight through the streets in the way a man finds honor in carrying burdens and lifting dumbbells. He balanced that weight for years: dead-end jobs and disappointments, insults and underestimations, until, a few weeks after Junior Prom, he, too, died, his heart breaking beneath the pressure of an unforgiving universe, an empty bottle by his hand, its bitter warmth pooled beneath his face.
Fatherless, jobless, she was cast from that apartment the same as her mother cast her from the womb. She walked the streets a few nights, searching for a home the same as she searched for a job. She was pretty, too pretty and prideful to work the cash register at a pizzeria or Chinese restaurant, and was too pretty (and much too prideful for a black girl, she was told) to find cover in some high-rise building downtown. She walked the streets a few more nights, searching for a home and a job the same as she searched for a man. But she was too pretty to be handled properly by most men in Detroit, and too pretty (and much too dark, she was told) to be taken seriously by the men downtown.
All that was left for her was the church, where she could cover herself in holy water and divine word; the corner, where she could find cover within the backseat of a man's Cadillac or Lincoln; or a man's bed, where she could find cover beneath a man's committed touch.
It was that touch that failed to keep her warm now, within walls that entombed every memory and sought the warmth of yesterday's sun.
She held her body: bones and flesh and blood and heart, and baby. She thought the news of the pregnancy fractured his world, splitting the sky into fragments of rain and responsibility, tearing down his idea of freedom and manhood. It fractured her world, awakening her from a dream, turning over in her stomach, leaving her shaken over tiled floor and concrete where she hacked up Spam and cornbread and potato chips and her last bits of innocence.
She kept the pregnancy a secret for weeks, undecided, growing with hope, waiting, set to burst any day with fear.
She wandered the streets at daylight, watching men with newspapers and mothers with their young, thinking birth and family and baby carriages and diapers not so big a problem. The world was full of men and women, and children. She flipped through magazines, studying advertisements of smiling mothers in high-waist skirts and obedient children in dresses and cardigans enjoying “refreshing” Coco-Colas while discovering the “delightful taste” of sandwich spread. The world was full of families, and babies.
And, in the midst of a matinee romance movie, when the man held the woman close and declared his love for her the same as he could declare his duty to country and God, she thought divulging her every secret would give him something to hold on to, the same as new life held on to her, something that would dig down deep, past flesh and bone and concrete, rooting their future in trust.
Marching from the movie house, she met him at the door. She smiled, full of hope. He pulled her to his lap, full of lust. She held him. He hung from her. She whispered her secret. He kept silent. She felt his fingers turn cold as he looked through the window at the streets of New York. She looked at the ceiling, trying to read the message that snaked along cracked plaster and a falling sky.
She breathed her ghost, waiting. She could stay in bed, hiding within the shadow of the blanket, left invisible within white walls and fading memories. She could stay, but the landlord would be around in a few days, searching for rent and the cover of another month.
She couldn't stay.
She let go the blanket and stood, swallowing nausea and stuffing the letter deep inside her pocket, deep inside herself. She flipped on a jacket and threw cold water on her face. Her eyes were red from tears, her cheeks puffy from sleep. She twisted the knob on the door and glanced at the small room that held them like a womb. Like a tomb.
She could see the empty city in the distance; she heard the cry of a mother and the curse of someone's son drowning in the gray.
She closed the door and rushed down the stairs. The hall an empty cavern of black and regret, the streets beyond besieged with rain that licked against windows and the sides of buildings. Shadows existed beneath awnings and in the corners. Lifted high, cigarette smoke and car exhaust blocked the sky.
She thought to climb back inside for an umbrella and another day.
She turned toward the street and pushed open the door. She would search for him, starting at the pool halls and movie theaters, then beneath the subway stations and on the stoops, searching until she found him, brown skin ashen with cold, like abandoned metal in snow. She would pull him close and tell him of their love before letting go and walking into tomorrow, left with the seed of a baby and a broken dream to cover forever.