I should have made a film about my landlords. A documentary. A document. It would have started in darkness. You’d hear an odd skrik…skrik…skrik. Fade in on the inside of a window; zoom close to peer down into a backyard. A man pushes a hand mower across a tiny lawn. Words appear:
The man hitches up his pants, draws the mower back for another push. Frankie: He’s old and stocky, with unruly white hair; a cowlick sticks up. He wears cracked shoes, paint-stained chinos, an age-thinned beige shirt.
The yard lies at the center of a block of brick row houses in Boerum Hill; it’s separated from the neighbors’ gardens by a chain-link fence. Over one side drapes a trail of impossibly bright roses, a shock of magenta in this world of summer green. A picnic table at the far end sits next to a fig tree, its broad leaves rounded like patterns for a fat person’s glove. Wind sifts down through the trees in the center of the court; in the corner, an orange swing-chair creaks.
Sparrows chirp aggressive single notes—Brooklyn birds are too tough to sing.
Beyond the block, a distant swirl of traffic, voices, sirens. Every now and then a plane slowly tears the sky overhead, La Guardia airport bound. Some of the neighboring yards are carefully tended, with fancy gardens. In Frankie’s a few weeds spray up and the flowers, stubborn perennials, seem random, but the place is neat. A tabletop made out of the door of an old stove sits on a curlicued wrought iron base he found on the street—when it comes to lawn furniture, Frankie improvises. Three pots of basil perch on a slab of marble, which rests on two porcelain toilet tanks.
Over his head, up in the house, a face peeps out of a window; recedes.
Finished with the lawn, Frankie walks down the foot-wide concrete path sunk around the grass and pushes the mower into a shed at the back of the house. The walls are a patchwork of old boards, tarpaper, and rusted metal. Inside, light filters through dusty windows onto rakes, clay pots, the hulls of dead wasps. Frankie travels through a basement hallway, past the open door of his workshop, where neat rows of coffee cans hold nuts, washers, bolts; his tools hang from time-stained sheets of pegboard.
He mounts the stairs in the dim light. At the top, he reaches down and tugs a string slung below the banister, clicking off the 40-watt bulb below. The ground floor hallway is also dim, illuminated only by the front door’s narrow panels of frosted glass. The potted plant is plastic; Astroturf carpets the floor. Behind the mail slot sits a tray, also Astroturfed, like a tiny lawn. Under the solemn gaze of a statue inscribed to the Miraculous Infant Jesus of Prague, Frankie continues on up the stairs.
On the second floor, he pushes a door open. Inside, his sister Rose bends down to pull something from an old oven. The stove is massive and streamlined, like the front end of a DeSoto. Rose reaches a hand back to support the base of her spine, turns, holds up an angel cake. She smiles a crinkly big-toothed smile and her dentures shift, click. Her hair is white as sugar.
“Siddown,” she says. “Have a piece a’ cake.” Her voice is deep, husky, kind.
She reaches up into a cabinet over the sink, lifts down a plate webbed with faint cracks over an enameled picture of Niagara Falls. From a shelf below the window, covered with the same delicately flowered beige paper as the walls, she pulls down a box of Lipton’s tea. Next to it a stack of grocery coupons sits in a Tupperware container.
Rose crosses the cracked linoleum floor, which slopes toward the center of the room, and fills a teapot at the sink.
Frankie reaches into the refrigerator and pulls out a cold can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Rose shakes her head, puts the tea back in its place, and returns to a pot on the back of the stove. Every Wednesday she makes her macaroni and basil soup. She gets the basil from the garden, fresh.
The room is ripe with smells: herbs and garlic simmering in the pot; figs ripening in a bowl; the sour essence of old bodies in summer heat.
“Hey, Vincent,” Frankie calls. “Cake’s ready.”
His brother shuffles out of the doorway; it was his face peering out of the window before. Vincent’s slack smile reveals only a couple remaining teeth. His hands lift nervously from his belt to touch the buttons of his blue-and-green Madras shirt, which hangs open over an ancient undershirt. He peers shyly through heavy black-rimmed glasses and runs a hand over his slick gray hair; in back it’s faded sea-water-green.
The brothers and sister sit in their usual chairs as they eat cake from their usual plates. They’ve lived in this house for sixty-seven years. Frankie rules the yard and basement, Rose the kitchen, but the front parlor is Vincent’s domain. He sits in a spavined armchair and watches life pass in the street outside.
Over the years it ebbs and it flows.
Now some of the brick houses across the way have been sandblasted and resurfaced, the iron railings lining the stoops given a fresh coat of shiny black paint. In front, bundles of swanky catalogs are bound in twine and set out at the curbs; new tenants push blue-eyed babies in strollers. But Vincent knows the street will never be completely fancied up, not with the public housing project looming around the corner; from the window he can see its towers glowing in the dusk like a honeycomb, squares of yellow and orange and red.
He sits in his chair. He’s seen the stock market rise before, and seen it fall. Some day soon he won’t be surprised to see the swanky catalogs disappear and the iron railings return to rust.
At night Vincent peers out from behind the curtains as two men meet outside the gate in front of the house, under streetlight filtering down through summer leaves. One offers money and the other palms something into his hand. They go their ways.
At midnight couples conduct bitter traveling marital spats all down the street; Jeeps with tinted windows swing by broadcasting angry chants. Later still, the pop! pop-pop! of gunfire in the projects punctures Vincent’s sleep. In the morning, when he goes down to sweep the sidewalk, he finds tiny brightly colored pieces of plastic. He doesn’t recognize them, the stoppers of crack vials.
An ice cream truck endlessly repeats the same bars of the Maple Leaf Rag.
On holidays, a relative from Staten Island drops by. The stories flow like the shots of Seagrams 7. Frankie and Vincent talk about their early childhood in a Little Italy tenement, about the years they took a bus to Jersey every morning to work in a tool-and-die plant. Rose had a job outside the house, too, in a bakery out beyond Prospect Park.
“Oh, yeah.” She grins shyly. “I had ta get up at three in the mornin’ ta take the bus up there. I used ta work on the donut line. I got the job because of my brother-in-law Francis, he worked in the office. His wife was the supervisor, but we didn’t get along. She wanted Francis ta fire me, but he wouldn’t do it on account ‘a my husband bein’ his brother and all, so she was always lookin’ ta make my job harder. Sometimes she used ta speed up the line, so I could hardly keep up, but I never said nothin’. Wouldn’t give her the satisfaction.”
She tells how she quit the job after twenty-seven years, one year shy of her pension, because the neighborhood was changing–one time a drunk accosted her outside the bakery and her mother was afraid for her to take the bus anymore. She tells how her husband broke his back at his factory and how she supported them, how he finally had to go into the hospital for good, how she would visit him until he passed away.
Her brothers never married.
Vincent goes off to the parlor and comes back with a photo album. He sets it on the kitchen table and flips through the pages, stopping at a picture of him and Frankie in soldier’s uniform, the time they met up in Paris. He was on his way to Normandy after the invasion and Frankie was on leave from being an orderly in an English field hospital for amputees. With an arm around each other, they smile at the camera, two Brooklyn boys.
In Manhattan, they’ve never gone above Times Square.
Vincent turns to a series of snapshots he took when his infantry unit liberated the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. In one he stands next to a pile of emaciated corpses. I’ve seen such images on TV before, but there’s been a distance to them—they almost looked like cords of wood. With two of my landlords in the foreground, they look like human beings.
Vincent disappears into the back again and pulls out his prize possession. He opens a browning copy of Life magazine to a picture of a cobblestoned Paris square filled with proud people. They smile up at the photographer perched atop a light pole, hundreds of them, holding up copies of The Stars and Stripes with the banner headline “Victory Over Japan.”
“Look,” Vincent says. He extends a bony finger towards a face in the center of the crowd. It’s his own face, solemnly looking back at him across an ocean and nearly fifty years of time.
Just after sunrise Rose and Frankie step out onto the sidewalk for their monthly trip to Atlantic City. (Vincent never travels; he stays behind, holding down the fort). Brother and sister trek up the street and around the corner, where they wait for the senior citizens’ special bus.
Later in the morning, they stroll down the Jersey boardwalk as gulls swoop overhead, cawing into the wind. Frankie holds Rose’s elbow and she clutches her purse against the shore breeze. Later still, her broad shy face fills with wonder as a small avalanche of quarters clatters into the tray of her slot machine. But she and her brother are not really here for the gambling—they spend most of their day out in the salty air. On the way home, Frankie’s tousled head droops forward in sleep as the bus rolls past the bizarre industrial moonscape sprouting alongside the Jersey Turnpike, stalky refinery towers winking red through the haze of dusk.
When they’re safe at home, a car alarm whoops out in the street in front of the house. Just before midnight, bottles clink as they’re dropped into recycling bins. The next day, the important clang of the front gate announces the mailman; church bells ring in noon. Another month, another day.
I never made the film.
One night Rose turned away from the stove complaining of a pain in her chest. Her brothers continued their pinochle game at the kitchen table while she trudged off into her bedroom, lay down on her neatly made bed, and died.
Four years later, Vincent went to the doctor to check out a pain in his stomach. The x-rays showed it was riddled with cancer. Vincent was gone within a week.
One week after September 11, 2001, Frankie had a stroke and lay on his kitchen floor for hours until I found him. He had to go out to the Midwest to live with relatives, had to leave his beloved Brooklyn house behind. He eats store-bought soup out there now, and he’s getting very old, fading into the unrecorded history of the world.