Eyes closed, deep in his poem, his own voice sounds distant to him. On its surface this piece, No Rose for Mrs. Haupt, is about the black South African whose heart Dr. Barnard recently transplanted into a white dentist. He spits out each Haupt, thumping a sandal for emphasis, carrying the beat in his pale, T-shirted body.
He recites as he always does, from memory, never standing at the podium that others clutter with their nervous papers. His words turn to an Aztec tearing out and beholding the heart of a living being—a sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli. Then, a string of racial epithets by some steamfitter in Maspeth, Queens, his quiet voice suddenly gone tough. Silence follows, when the audience doesn’t expect it.
He’s got fans, this Milkweed, and for him poetry worshippers of the East Village crowd this Tenth Street storefront. In its window hangs a banner: “Poor the pen without the gun, poor the gun without the pen”—though, with the exception of this poem, he’s not given much to politics in verse.
He receives a standing ovation, whistling and hooting for more. But he gets nothing from that one at the rear, with a close-cut Afro and a blond Barbie’s head for an earring. She of the dimpled smile, given to him under a cloud of hashish and incense near the drum circle in Tompkins Square Park. He invited her to see him perform this piece, and while the others applaud, she sits unmoved in a folding chair, hands squeezed between her thighs. By the time he gets through the crowd, she’s gone.
A hot gust up Avenue B delivers enough street filth to set him coughing, tearing up, bent over.
“Hey, whatsamattayou?” A deep voice for a woman. Fingers, gentle on his shoulder. She brings her face close, skin blue-black in the summer glare, incandescent.
“A little asthma.” He straightens up, both hands brushing embarrassment off his awful, wrinkled undershirt. “Nothing evil.”
She holds kielbasa on a bun, dripping relish close to a denim shirt knotted at her belly. It’s unbuttoned, he will long remember, to her solar plexus. She wears white, leather half-boots and hip-hugger bellbottoms with wide, indigo stripes. “You’re too damn skinny is your problem. Here.” He bites the sausage she holds out. Her patchouli scent goes straight to his pants.
They’re walking north now, nearing Vazak’s Bar. She’s Donna Lee, a student at Cooper Union in sculpture and art photography, and she lives on Avenue C, right over the Penelope Bodega. She likes his freckles, she tells him, and his flat nose. You got a lamb’s face, she says. And he’s Raymond, not Milkweed, he admits.
She gives him her phone number. He owns no phone. Her arm brushes his and it’s clear to him that if they sat on stools and sipped icy beer, he would get to kiss each of those dimples and—
She stops near a garbage can, shading her eyes. “I didn’t like it, you know.” Her eyebrows arch, full of apology.
“Why?” He’s reaching into his cutoff jeans, hoping to find a few bucks to treat her at Vazak’s.
“I should be tougher, Ray—” There’s a tremor in her voice, and with a napkin she dabs a corner of her carmine lipstick. “—but race words hurt. Especially from the lips of a white boy.”
And before he can answer, she’s crossing the street, tossing back a wave that tells him not to follow.
He finds a shut-off notice from Con Ed in the hallway mailbox. He’s got a week to come up with about ninety dollars, or there will be no gas and electric. For smoking weed in the men’s room, Mobil fired him from his part-time job. No more piling metal plates into an addressograph machine while his co-worker, a 35-year employee in suit and tie, cha-chas and rumbas to the pounding. His descent has been rapid. His Sixth Street landlord pasted a notice of eviction on his door, and for food these days he steals canned tuna and Velveeta from the Avenue A supermarket.
His dining room table is a cable spool on its side, painted black. There’s little else in his slant-floored railroad apartment, four small rooms in a row. Along the walls stacks of books, dog-eared and marked up. Face down on the floor, under a dictionary, lies a photograph in a silver frame. He’s raised his mattress up on milk crates and hidden under it, in a hard case, a classical guitar inlaid with nacre hummingbirds. His kitchen, circa 1905, has a bathtub covered by a drain board and a porcelain stove that looks like a set of pipe bombs. Over the toilet a flushbox with rusted pull chain threatens to crash mid-shit. Throughout, roaches abound and he starts many a morning slapping them dead on the peeling paint.
It’s time to work. He sits on the floor, cross-legged, open hands resting yoga-style on his knees, eyes closed. He creates the way he recites, without paper. Occasionally he scribbles the end product on the walls. Streetlight pours through the rusted accordion gate on the fire escape window, the barrier between him and the meth heads or gang members lately preying on the neighborhood. The superintendent’s Dominican music, trumpets and maracas, echoes up the airshaft.
He returns to a work in progress, about a local Ukrainian woman revealing all the secrets of womanhood in her stance. One foot on the curb. One foot off. And try as he will, he can’t quite wring the Sinatra out of that line or focus on the next phrase because he has to scrape up quarters and dimes and run down to a pay phone and call her and explain himself. That was my father speaking those words, not me. Like in sculpture, Donna Lee, if you chisel nails into the palms of a marble Jesus or you loop ropes around the bronze necks of the Burghers of Calais, are you doing anything wrong? Nah, that’s not it. He’s knocking over books and turning out his pants and sweatshirt pockets. No goddamned money. He’s already picked the place clean. He can’t phone and he can’t concentrate on his poem and where in hell is the Penelope Bodega?
He and his guitar (in its case) crowd a phone booth on Houston Street. He begged change from Tyrone, the chubby Carolinian porn writer across the hall, and now he dials Donna Lee.
Yes, she remembers saying he doesn’t eat enough. She’d love to come to his place for dinner. Does he really cook? Puttanesca sauce, he swears. His mother showed him how. Italian? Not quite, he says. She tells him she’s been missing him. How about, she says, they go food shopping together and split the costs? The supermarket at six.
He runs through a sun shower to a pawnshop on Orchard Street. In the window saxophones, guitars, watches, necklaces, wedding rings collect dust under the watch of a stuffed, monacled African green parrot.
The pawnbroker has no eyebrows, and his entire head seems buffed to a shine. “For this piece of shit?” He clutches the guitar by the neck like it’s a plucked chicken. “Not one penny.”
“My mother performed on stage with this,” says the poet. “The mother-of-pearl alone—”
“Listen to me. Kids with money come here for Martins and Gibsons and Fender electrics. Andre Segovia doesn’t drop by.”
Milkweed leaves with a naked guitar, the proprietor having given twenty dollars for the hard case.
No rent. Next week, no gas and electric.
There’s a knife at his neck. Someone grabbed his curls from behind, tugged back his head, and brought a sharp edge to the flesh just below his Adam’s apple. Like her, the poet’s holding a box of groceries with both hands, and he can’t turn right to see Donna Lee because the blade is pressed so tightly that any move will break his skin.
The voice tells him to go ahead and finish unlocking his door. Another voice, higher pitched: “He walks in first, bitch. You follow.”
They’re sitting, as ordered, on his bed, feet on the floor, next to each other. He’s handed over all of his change from the groceries, four dollars and some. They emptied her purse on the floor and took loose change, a student ID, and gold loop earrings. They’ve pulled a ring with an amethyst birthstone off her finger. And now, he thinks, these men should be going, shouldn’t they?
But the one with silver bracelets continues to watch over them, holding a long blade. The other, older and with a goatee, ransacks the apartment, throwing books and clothes, flipping the table, dumping forks and plates, throwing the photo into the wall to smash out the glass and take the silvery frame.
Bracelets gestures toward a window, open to an airshaft. “You trying to signal someone out there?” Before the poet can say no, the man slaps him hard enough to pitch him into Donna Lee and leave his ear ringing.
“C’mon, he’s just a kid,” she says. “There’s no money in a place like—”
“That sister thinks she’s too good for us brothers,” the bearded one shouts from the bathroom, over the sound of his pissing. “She goes for that white bread, don’t she?”
Bracelets grabs Donna Lee’s right hand and presses it to his crotch. “Is that true, my sister?”
And the poet finds he’s yanked the man’s thick fingers off Donna Lee’s hand. Everything after that happens fast as a car crash. Milkweed was there, sitting on the bed, and now he’s here, against a wall, a knee to his groin, held by the throat in a grip that’s choking off air. And a man, crazy with methedrine, is scream-spitting a question into his face: “What else you got in this place that can buy back your life?” Donna Lee too has been dragged to her feet, a knife at her throat.
“The guitar,” he sputters. “It’s worth thousands of dollars. Under the bed. By the wall. There, in that sheet. That’s pure pearl,” he tells them. “Those birds are worth a fortune.”
Tyrone is pounding at the door now, and the super’s out there too, demanding that someone open up the door. “What’s that screaming? What the hell is going on in there?”
Two men with knives—one hugging a guitar with hummingbirds and the other holding a twisted silver picture frame—barrel out like linebackers, bowling the saviors onto the hallway floor.
No point calling the police. Not in that neighborhood. They won’t come and if they did, they’d only bring trouble. Donna Lee and the poet know this.
They hug the super and Tyrone and turn to the business of cleaning up, of seeming strong, though for a long while, neither manages to speak.
When he comes out of the kitchen, she’s kneeling, holding the photo where the frame landed. The woman next to the soldier, he knows, is dark-skinned. The man is pale, with reddish hair, and they link fingers at the foot of a palm.
“Dominican?” Donna Lee forces a smile but doesn’t lift her eyes to his.
“Brazilian,” he says, folding the sheet that wrapped his guitar. “I think they were in Panama, where he was stationed.”
“She has your nose and curls.”
Exhausted and suddenly cold, he sits on the bed where they sat at knifepoint. She tucks the photo into a book and joins him, pulling a blanket around their shoulders.
“Is your mother alive?”
“She got away from him when I was seven. Went to São Paulo, I think. ”
After a long silence she says, “I get your poem.” She rests her head on his shoulder.
“But you don’t really like it.” His hands lie knotted in his lap, and he looks straight ahead, at the front door, slashing the men with their own knives, cutting out their hearts, bashing their heads with his mother’s guitar.
“No, I do,” she says. “I do like your poem.”
He doesn’t smell her patchouli or think of turning and kissing her or lying back on the bed with her. Her voice drowns now in the words that his father, a steamfitter, said of him and his mother.
He wakes up to discover they’ve fallen asleep in their street clothes, a dull overhead light on, muggy air blowing from a window. Her back’s to him—intentionally, he thinks—and he senses she’s awake.
“Hey.” She doesn’t turn.
“I never said I was white.”
“That’s none of my business,” she says. “You get to be who you want to be.”
“You took it as a lie—”
“How would you know how I—”
“The way you looked at that photo.”
She turns, sits up, and faces him, drawn, exhausted. “I took it as why do you want to be with the likes of me when you can’t be with yourself.” And there’s that tremor.
He kneels on the mattress, brings her hands to his chest, his lips. Shouting and the shatter of bottles on a stoop waft in from outside, give him a start. “I feel,” he says “like scared is never going to leave me.”
She brings his fingers to her lips. “They were some motherfuckers.” He smells her morning breath and stale lipstick. “But you did okay…for a white boy.”
In the heat of their laughter—he will scribble this on his kitchen wall and recite it at the storefront—he took her by the shoulders and kissed her dimples. There will in fact have been a smile, not laughter. And the deepest of kisses.