Vinita Parkby Lowry Pei
We’re flying over it. Not at airplane height, not at sparrow height. Maybe at the altitude of a red-tailed hawk, or a vulture. It’s late in the afternoon, close to sunset. Long shadows fill in the spaces between houses so that it’s hard to be sure exactly what we’re seeing. There is no telling Vinita Park apart from the sea of inner St. Louis suburbs around it; it’s tiny and it boasts no landmarks, no distinguishing features whatever. It contains one actual park, and an industrial “park” several times larger than the green one. From the air there is no visible difference between Vinita Park and Vinita Terrace, Hanley Hills, Bel-Nor or Normandy. No boundary between it and University City to its south or Overland to its west – although on the other side of I-170, known as the Innerbelt, Overland becomes greener. On that side there is Lake Sherwood, which may be the headwaters of the River Des Peres, if it can still be said to have such a thing as a headwaters. The shadows all but hide the so-called river that runs between concrete banks and is now the backbone of the St. Louis sewer system. Rush hour traffic has abated on the Innerbelt; it’s dinnertime. The eye of our awareness dives steeply; the ground rushes up toward us, the unceasing sound of city grows louder as we descend. When we reach the treetops, shrill cicadas can be heard.
Our awareness circles for a few moments above single-family houses, duplexes, low apartment buildings. Not at random, we choose an apartment building.
We are inside a first-floor apartment. White walls, furniture that looks like it came from yard sales. Facing a picture window without moldings sits a plaid sofa in muted shades of tan. A couple of unmatched easy chairs, a coffee table. Beneath the window, a medium-large TV; on the wall, a poster: a snapshot history of major league baseball. We try to read the personality of the apartment’s inhabitant from the furnishings of the living room, but aside from this poster, we come up empty. The other leg of this L-shaped space is a kitchen; at the kitchen table a white man is finishing dinner, alone. He’s wearing a white T-shirt, dark blue pants, heavy black shoes – the uniform pants and shoes of a policeman. He looks to be in his mid-thirties; his dark hair has a few flecks of gray in it, his hairline is receding but he isn’t balding on top. He looks physically strong, as befits his job. What is inside him? We want to share his inner life, to peer into his heart, become one with his experience, but our floating awareness cannot go there. What does it take to break the barrier between our awareness and this man’s, or anyone’s? It’s an overreaching, unreasonable ambition, and yet for some reason – even knowing what we know about how separate human beings are – it is what we can’t help but want.
We’re beside the River Des Peres on the western edge of Vinita Park, where it comes out from its tunnel under the Innerbelt. Its sloping banks, even its bottom, are mostly concrete. Old concrete, breaking up, with weeds and saplings growing through the cracks in it. In places, the concrete gives way to dirt and rocks. The water is getting low now that the weather is heating up; it flows under a disused railroad bridge, rusted iron held up by old black timbers. A thick rope hangs from the bridge, ending a few feet above the water, making us wonder uneasily what its purpose could have been. Our disembodied point of view skims along the surface of the murky water, slips through tangled thickets, notices a muskrat (but the muskrat cannot notice us). A snapping turtle is planted on a half-submerged log, immobile, glaring through heavy-lidded turtle eyes, an impregnable fortress. The banks become steeper, are vertical concrete walls in places, invaded and overhung by plant life that is self-planted, never tended, only occasionally beaten back, forming a chaotic boundary dividing this – what can we call this? – certainly not nature – from the streets and backyards above.
A baseball diamond in a city park, a day later. Chain-link backstop, aluminum bleachers. A few dozen people are watching a Babe Ruth League game between two teams whose uniforms call them the Yankees and the Twins. A food truck called Tim’s Pizza is parked behind the bleachers. Two cops are watching the game from a cop car idling at the curb next to right field. The Yankees are at bat; they have runners on first and third. We see the Twins outfielders signaling each other: two outs. The batter for the Yankees is a black kid with a bean-shaped head, dark bright-black skin. His eyes, shining with intelligence as he watches the pitcher, and his stance at the plate tell us at a glance that this kid knows how to play ball. Players yell out from the bench, “C’mon, Rickyyyy!” “Drive him in, Ricky!”
Ricky takes a called third strike on an outside pitch. Outraged, he turns on the umpire and yells “What the hell, man! No way!” The Yankees’ coach, the man we saw eating dinner alone in his apartment, starts down the line from third base, holding his hands up to tell Ricky to cool it, but Ricky throws his batting helmet down so hard it bounces, and the umpire ejects him from the game. Coach takes him by the elbow, pulls him away. “Show some respect,” he says.
“That wasn’t no fuckin’ strike,” Ricky mutters, shaking his head.
“I know. But getting thrown out isn’t helping the team, either.”
Head down, Ricky takes a seat on the bench. The Yankees take the field; the coach sends in a different center fielder to take Ricky’s place. He waves his arms to tell the outfield to play deep; the Twins must have a good hitter coming up. As the Yankees’ pitcher finishes warming up, the coach quietly says to Ricky, “What’s the matter with you today?”
We wait with him for Ricky’s reply, but nothing comes.
Later the coach gives Ricky a ride home from the game – it’s apparent that they both take this for granted – and when they pull up in front of an old frame apartment building with peeling white paint, Ricky just sits there not making a move to get out. He hasn’t said a word since he got in the car. “What is it?” the coach says.
“Mama got herself a new boyfriend,” Ricky says without looking at him.
“Terry, you know what that piece of shit did? He slapped Ladybug right in the face ‘cause she talked back to him.”
“He hit your little sister?”
“If I see that dude at our place again,” Ricky says, “you’ll be arresting my ass for fucking him up with a kitchen knife.”
“Is that just talk, or you mean it?”
“I fuckin’ mean it, man.”
“You know I can’t let you do that.”
Ricky sits in the passenger seat giving the street a burning stare, refusing to look at Terry, but he still doesn’t move to get out of the car. The ball is in Terry’s court but we can see he’s not sure what to do with it. “Let’s go get something to eat,” Terry says.
“Whatever,” Ricky mutters. Terry puts the car in gear.
Terry’s apartment. Ricky and Terry enter, Terry carrying a takeout bag that says “Lam’s Garden.” Ricky looks around and says, “You live here by yourself? I figured you’d be married, Chief.”
“How come? You just that old, that’s all.”
“Thanks a million.”
“You ain’t just a cop, you a lieutenant. I thought you must have, like, two-three kids.”
“If I do, nobody ever told me about it,” Terry says. Then he looks like he wishes he hadn’t said that. “No, I don’t have any kids. I was married for a while when I was younger. It didn’t work out.”
Ricky grunts; Terry turns on the TV. The Cardinals pre-game show is on.
Night. The blinds are closed on the picture window, but light from the streetlight outside leaks past them, enough illumination for us to see Ricky, still in his clothes, sleeping on the tan plaid couch.
6:30 a.m. Terry emerges from the bedroom in his boxers. He has a morning erection. He sees Ricky sleeping there; he goes back in, comes out with his uniform pants and a T-shirt on. He turns on the radio in the kitchen and starts making coffee; Ricky mutters, turns over with his face toward the couch, mutters again, rolls onto his back and opens his eyes. They dart around the room. He sits up and scratches his head, rubs his eyes. He looks embarrassed. Without looking at Terry, he slides his feet into his untied sneakers and stands up, starts moving toward the door as if he could slip out without being noticed.
“What are you doing?” Terry says.
“I gotta go,” Ricky mumbles.
“No you don’t. It’s a quarter to seven.” Ricky doesn’t appear to be fully awake. “Go take a shower.”
“You heard me, go take a shower. Then eat something. Then go to school.”
Ricky looks at Terry as if he has just been told to jump out the window.
“What,” Terry states unequivocally. “Go on.”
Ricky shakes his head as if he’s dealing with a crazy man. Crazy white man who happens to be a cop and owns a gun. “A’ight, if you say so.” He goes in the bathroom and locks the door; we can hear the water start to run. Terry, in the kitchen, is thinking about something intently.
The past is different in kind. When we jump to the past, as we’re about to do now, we get to speak as though we know how it really was. It’s standard operating procedure: this is how we get through every day. We always believe we know what happened. Right now our awareness, in search of story, piggybacks on Terry’s memories and the way they make sense to him. Somehow a voice inside – whatever “inside” means – puts them into words; what comes out, wherever it comes from, may not be all that reliable, but it sounds like the closest we’re going to get to the truth.
Terry grew up in South St. Louis, in a building not too different from the one where Ricky lives. His mom died when he was thirteen; she was a Christian Scientist, and when she got breast cancer, the power of prayer was not enough. That left him alone with his dad, Ray Newcombe, who only stopped hitting Terry when he couldn’t get away with it anymore. But at least he gave a shit what Terry did; Terry was all he had. Which might have been why Terry grew up to be a cop and not a knucklehead. Not that he appreciated it at the time.
As a teenager, Terry had to work in his dad’s radiator shop in the summers, the worst time, suffocating in the St. Louis heat compounded by the steaming antifreeze leaking out of busted hoses. He spent the hottest months of high school, and half of college at UMSL, cutting his knuckles on the fins of radiators, his fingers crusted with gasket cement, his hands black with engine dirt. It was a job no one could like. His dad hated the business too. There were exactly three things left in life, according to Ray: he had a son, he wasn’t in debt, and he was white. Everything else, including the God who had sat by indifferently and watched his wife die, was pretty much cat shit. All black people, according to Ray, were deadbeats and whiners until proven otherwise. He didn’t want Terry hanging around with them, but Terry’s best friend in high school was a guy named Luis whose mom was Salvadoran and whose dad was black. Sometimes just the mention of his name would lead to them yelling at each other. After he got out of the house for good, Terry resolved he wasn’t going to argue with his father about race anymore. It was pointless, it would go nowhere and drive them farther apart, but then the argument would happen anyway and they’d both walk away mad.
The hallway of a rundown apartment building. Old, thin carpet on the floor whose pattern has almost entirely worn away. Greenish wallpaper. The hallway smells like old cooking, old carpet and cigarette smoke, plus a certain tang in the air that we can’t identify. All we know about the mystery smell is that it’s depressing. Then we recognize it: roaches. Behind some closed apartment door a TV is on. Terry, in uniform, is standing in the open doorway of an apartment; a black woman, about his own age, is berating him with hands on her hips. “Just what he been doing all night in some white man’s apartment? What do you think that look like to me?”
“Ricky told me what happened yesterday between your boyfriend and his little sister. Said if he saw that guy he was going to cut him. I’d have to put him in jail. Of course, I’d charge the boyfriend too, based on what Ricky told me. That what you want?”
“No,” the woman says sullenly. “But how do I know you haven’t been waiting all along till you could get him over to your place and do whatever it is you want?”
“You should be thanking me, Mrs. Spears. Not insulting me.”
She pointedly refuses to look him in the eye or make any response.
“Your life is your business. Up to a point. That point is when it drags in your kids.”
She thinks for a while. We can see that she’s angry and, we guess, ashamed. “You going to try to take Ricky away from me? Get DSS to take my kids?”
“Not if I don’t have to.”
“I should be calling them about you and him. How do I know if I can trust you?” she says.
“Ask Ricky,” Terry says. “And you can for sure trust that if I ever hear about any domestic violence here, I’m reporting it to DSS in a minute.”
“He won’t be coming back around.”
“Don’t never forget, Ricky is my son. If you – ” Terry watches her, and we watch along with him as her bravado collapses in on itself. Whatever she may have been planning to accuse him of or threaten him with, her voice deserts her.
“I don’t want to see Ricky get in trouble,” he says. “I’m willing to go to some lengths to prevent that.”
“He’s my son,” she says again.
“Thanks for your time, Mrs. Spears.”
She shuts the door with a resentful bang.
Six years ago, when Terry was twenty-nine, his wife Vicky left him after four years of marriage. She was three years younger; two weeks after she turned twenty-six, something happened inside her, he never understood what. Terry’s memories of that day are a baffling stew in which some of the ingredients are as fresh as the day they were picked, and others have been cooked beyond recognition. Some of the most vivid memories seem almost trivial, and it’s possible that some of the most important are missing. There’s no way for us to be sure.
They were finishing dinner when Vicky told him that she was going to leave. The exact words she spoke at that critical moment are lost; maybe remembering them proved too painful. But he’s sure that he said, “Wait, what? What are you talking about? Did I do something I don’t know about?” He thought maybe she was threatening him, though it wasn’t like her. Better to imagine that than to take her at her word.
“You didn’t do anything,” she said, fiddling with the ends of her hair and not looking at him.
“Well, what do you mean, then?”
“I mean I’m leaving.”
He had a glass of beer in his hand, which he had been about to drink from at the moment she told him she was leaving; this he remembers with perfect clarity, down to the taste of the beer. Deliberately, he took the time to sip from it, as if acting like nothing had changed would make it so. Then he set down the glass. What could it possibly be? “Come on, there’s gotta be a reason to say something like that. What’s wrong? Something must be,” he said. He thought that once it had a name, he could change it.
She read his mind, as always. “You always believe you can fix stuff, don’t you, Terry? There isn’t anything wrong, there isn’t anything to fix. I’m leaving, that’s all.”
“That’s all? What do you mean, that’s all? This is where we live. This is our life, right here.”
She shook her head. “Sorry,” she said flatly.
Terry watched her get up, empty the remaining tangle of spaghetti on her plate into the trash, and put her plate in the sink. She turned to leave the kitchen. It wasn’t possible. He felt the bottom fall out of his stomach. “Wait,” he said. “You can’t just, like . . .”
She turned back to face him. “I can,” she said. Most memories wear away when you return to them over and over, but this moment stays irreparably clear. He remembers the way his heart felt when he saw her face. Ruthless, unbending resolve: nothing you say or do will move me, ever again.
It was an ambush. She had made sure that he wouldn’t see it coming, wouldn’t have a chance to prepare himself or come up with a strategy to stop her, and now the last moment of their life together was already behind him. “I’ve been in love with you for six years,” he said, and he heard himself sound lame.
Standing beside the sink, she regarded him with a level gaze. “Really?” she said.
Terry was lost, words would not come.
“Okay, maybe you have,” she said. “It’s not for me to judge.”
He managed to say “What happened?”
“I looked around, I saw everything here, it had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t bad or good, it was just . . . tofu. I don’t eat tofu.”
“You met somebody else,” Terry said.
“No. But I’ll say I did, if that would make it easier for you.”
“Jesus Christ.” He was having a hard time breathing.
“No, it wasn’t him, either.”
“Is it because I’m a cop?”
“Terry. Listen to what I’m saying. You can’t fix this. Why don’t you just go to a motel for tonight and when you come back, my stuff will be out of here. I don’t care about the furniture, you can have it.”
“I don’t care about the fucking furniture either,” Terry said. “I care about you.”
“You’ll get over it,” she said, turning away again to leave the kitchen. “Probably sooner than you think.”
A half-glass of beer was still on the table in front of Terry. He could hear her opening drawers in the bedroom. Was she already starting to pack? He picked up the glass, drank from it, only a swallow, put it down. He watched himself put it down, watched his hand rest on the tabletop next to the glass, and it was as if he and that hand were only coincidentally associated with one another. This is another moment he remembers indelibly, trivial as it seems. And if his own hand was only an oddly shaped curled thing resting there strangely in front of his eyes, how much farther removed from him was the rest of the kitchen, to say nothing of the bedroom, to say nothing of Vicky herself, whose vagina had once been wet with desire for him. Even at that moment it was already impossible to imagine that she had wanted him. The removal of her was retroactive, right back to the very beginning, and what had given his life its shape for years was a blank.
His life was not a life after all. Was that it? It wasn’t life, it was tofu.
Some colossal misunderstanding, some basic mistake.
She said he would get over it sooner than he thought, but what did she know about him, if he knew nothing about her?
Terry kept thinking he would get up and go into the bedroom and speak to her, but it felt as if she had taken a pair of tongs and lowered him into a glass box twice his height. No way he could climb its cool, slippery walls.
Through the thick glass he saw her come back into the kitchen and look in the cabinets, pull out pots and pans and stack them on the counter. She meant to take them with her, he realized. “Wait,” he said, but didn’t know what to add.
She seemed mildly surprised that he was still there. Mildly inconvenienced. “Really, it’ll be better for you if you don’t watch me do this,” she said.
She had her hair up in a ponytail and was wearing an old sweatshirt that turned her body shapeless, but more than that, he realized, she had switched off the light within herself. He had not known that was possible; the vibration of that light’s color, unique to her, had always reached him, at all times of day or night, from the first time he saw her. Now it was off, she was closed to him. She must have been making a decision every day to allow him to see her, and now that decision was unmade.
Had it been too much to ask?
She was right, it was unbearable to watch her go through the drawers and divide the utensils, so many for him, so many for her. Yet he could not get up and leave the apartment. Terry had lost many times, in many ways, but one thing he did not do was give up. If his marriage was ending in this silent, unanswerable way, he would have to see it through, whatever the damage seeing it might leave behind.
A week later, Terry and his partner Wardell Blanton were in Randolph’s place on Olive Street Road, a bar where cops didn’t have to feel like the enemy. Randolph, like Wardell, was black; he had a gray mustache like a clothes brush and gray-speckled hair. He always wore a vest and tie behind the bar, and could have passed for a preacher. His #1 interest in life was World War II aviation.
“Something isn’t right,” Wardell said after they had been there twenty minutes. “I can smell it. You been a half a step behind all day.”
Okay, Terry thought, this is what partners are for. He took a swallow out of his Scotch. “Vicky left.”
Wardell could see Terry’s image reflected in the mirror behind the bar, but he turned to look at him directly. “Say again?”
“Wait a minute. Hold on. Left, as in, left you? Like out the door, not comin’ back?”
“I’m the one that’s behind now. You gotta catch me up. What the hell happened?”
Terry shook his head and said nothing.
“You don’t want to say, that’s all right.”
“Tofu,” Terry said.
Wardell watched him in the mirror behind the bar, wondering if he had misheard. “Tofu,” he repeated.
“That’s what she said. She looked around, everything was tofu, she doesn’t eat tofu, she’s leaving. Packed up her stuff, took half the pots and pans, and left.”
“She take your car, too?”
“Yeah, whatever, she took the car. A couple of days later it was parked on the street out front, but who cares? It’s a fuckin’ car.”
The car keys turned out to be in the mailbox. No note. He searched the car for anything that might convey a message, a clue, but there was nothing. Not even the usual wadded Kleenexes with lipstick on them, no gum wrappers, no elastic hair ties, no dropped receipts. She had never once cleaned up that stuff in the whole time they’d had the car; apparently to her it was invisible. The random evidence of her daily life accumulated until he took the car to a car wash and vacuumed it out. If anything, its absence was the message: it wasn’t her car anymore. When he realized he wasn’t going to find anything at all, he wished it was possible for him to cry again. But he had already cried once over her leaving, and once, he knew, was all he was going to get.
“Jesus,” Wardell said. “When did this happen?”
“You been carryin’ this around all week and you didn’t tell me?” Wardell said, his voice climbing several notes up a scale. “Come on, man.”
Terry knew: when you’re not a hundred percent, your partner’s got to know. You owe it to him.
“That’s it? Just tofu?”
Terry nodded. “End of message,” he said.
More or less addressing the surface of the bar, Wardell said, “Bad enough to leave, but to leave and say nothing . . . there’s so much you never know about people.”
“People? She was my wife.”
“I’m sorry, man.”
Our awareness, instead of flying up into the sky of the physical world, rises into the sky of time; it traverses days, instead of miles, in one glance.
Albert, the boyfriend, turns all apologetic and regardless of what Dorothea Spears told Terry, she doesn’t kick him out of her life.
“I don’t be sleepin’ anyplace he does,” Ricky says to his mom, and that means more nights on Terry’s couch. When he’s at Terry’s place, he answers questions with three words and doesn’t even look Terry in the eye all that much, just sits in front of the TV and says as little as possible. But at least he keeps being there. We can see where else he might be: along the River Des Peres at night, some kids hang out and smoke pot — or something — and talk about how they are going to rob this or that motherfucker and fuck him up real bad. Maybe it’s just talk, and maybe it’s not.
Terry keeps leaning on Ricky about going to school: “Two-thirds of life is showing up,” he says. “You’re too smart not to be learning something.” Ricky actually does some homework now and then, maybe because he gets bored with watching TV, or maybe because Terry will notice if he does it. We’re pretty sure he cares what Terry thinks of him, even though he does his best to hide that.
From a piece of paper Ricky leaves lying around, Terry finds out that there are supposed to be parent conferences. At first when he says they’re going back to the high school in the evening, Ricky can’t believe he’s serious.
Ricky’s English classroom at U. City High. Like a thousand other classrooms in school districts that aren’t rich, but aren’t dead broke either. There’s still an overhead projector on a rolling cart in the back of the room, which no one has used in ten years and no one will ever use again. On the teacher’s desk a folded piece of posterboard displays the words “Grade 11 English / Keira Donovan.” Terry and Ricky sit down with her. She has ginger hair and freckles so big they could almost be called spots. She’s young, but her age is hard to guess. Somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five. She looks tired but up to the task. She’s not a rookie teacher. Terry, we notice, can’t stop staring at her, and we can tell she notices too; it looks like his attention halfway flatters her, and halfway pisses her off.