Edwin Balder took a deep breath and the rang George Pollard Jr.’s buzzer, secretly hoping that no one would hear it and that he could leave this wretched place. Edwin didn’t bother to look around his old corner, for behind him was where that dog had died. There was hardly a sound on Luquer Street, a far cry from the good old days of gang bangers and murderous Pit Bull’s. The only sound came from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in the near distance, the constant clatter of commuters stuck in the constant and unforgiving traffic in New York City, a traffic whose tide never abated and never quelled; a traffic who never gave one single human soul a bit of solace on their journey from home to work and back again. New York traffic was vicious and vile, Edwin thought, standing there. Of course so were Luquer Street and George Pollard.
The solid red door of the apartment building began to open after some struggle. Well, at least they haven’t improved that yet, Edwin thought. Then it opened and before him stood a beautiful brunette woman dressed in a blue flannel shirt and baggy cargo pants. Her eyes were in ice blue yet immaculately kind. “Edwin?” she said
“Hello, Guillermo,” Edwin began. “Have the girls arrived safely?”
The flannelled woman gave him an odd look. “Excuse me?”
“Ah, you would have had to have been there.”
“Okay. What are you doing here? Lawson said that you weren’t coming.”
“Well, you know…” Edwin started. He tried to remember the woman’s name but, sadly, could not. However, he was intrigued by her retro ensemble of flannel shirt and baggy pants, and wondered if perhaps Pollard’s birthday party was some sort of costumed gig. “Do we know each other?”
“Edwin, it’s me, George’s sister, Arlene.”
“That’s it,” Edwin said, snapping his fingers. “I’d forgotten that the Pollard’s had found it necessary to spawn again. Well, long time no see.”
“That’s because you don’t come around much,” Arlene said. Then she sniffed into the night air. Edwin wondered if she was sniffing for dog. “What’s that smell?”
“Depression? Car Exhaust? The pungent remnants of sour cream and cheddar potato chips with a dash of grape cola, perhaps?”
“Edwin, have you been drinking?” Arlene said.
Edwin extended his thumb and index finger. “A smidge. But only in the spirit of the night.”
Arlene smiled at him. He liked her smile and smiled back, but let it drop when he remembered that he was fraternizing with the enemy. “Let’s go inside,” she said. “It’s cold out here.”
Arlene led Edwin into the lobby of the apartment. The neighborhood may have changed, he thought, but the building had remained just as decrepit and dilapidated as that front door. The stairwell was still a cracked, wobbling lawsuit waiting to happen, and the floors were a dusty gray and white, faded Linoleum, and Isaac Cole had his assortment of ladders and buckets stacked toward the back of the hallway just as he had in Edwin and Natalie’s heyday. He never used them to fix anything back then, and Edwin supposed that he did nothing with his assorted maintenance tools now. The lobby still smelled of cabbage and ass sweat. Edwin turned up his nose to it. Some things you just never got used to.
“It’s a pleasant odor isn’t it?” Arlene said.
“I believe they developed it in Nazi Germany,” Edwin said, causing the sister of Pollard to laugh. It was something that surprised him and made him smile.
“So where have you been keeping yourself?”
“I’ve been here and there,” Edwin said.
“Still processing invoices?” Arlene asked, although not to be smart, he noticed. Edwin reasoned that she could live.
“Yes,” he said. “I hope to be the manager soon.”
“Are you up for a promotion?”
“No. But my supervisor, Mr. Chase, is an overweight buffoon. He’s bound to choke on a chicken wing or a tub of white cheddar flavored Crisco on another of his lonely Saturday nights.”
“Gross,” Arlene said.
“May I ask you the purpose for you ensemble tonight? It’s very retro, the whole flannel shirt and baggy pants get-up.” Arlene gave a slight spin on the steps, as if modeling. “I like it.”
“But it’s not retro,” she said. “Check the fashion mags, Balder. The 90’s are coming back.”
“Had they ever gone anywhere?” Edwin asked. He liked talking to Arlene. Where they flirting? He wondered.
But then the door opened from the second floor and George Pollard Jr.’s ugly goateed face peered over the railing. “Who was at the door, Arl?” he asked.
Arlene ducked, exposing Edwin. “Good evening, Pollard,” he said.
“Hey, Edwin,” Pollard said, a little too chummy for Edwin’s liking. “Lawson said that you were busy tonight.”
“Lawson Thomas is a compulsive liar. It was my every intention to come here tonight.”
Arlene and Edwin reached the top of the stairs. Pollard tried to embrace him in one of those “bro hugs,” but Edwin wasn’t having it. He settled for the handshake instead, and then they went inside. “Can I get you a beer?”
“Scotch and water on the rocks,” Edwin said handing George his coat, as he looked around his old kitchen. Pollard had kept up the yellowed blinds, and the floor was the same gray as in the lobby. The ceiling still had that brown spot from the time the neighbor’s pipes had burst, creating brown water puddles on the kitchen floor.
“I don’t know if we have any scotch,” Pollard said, tossing the jacket the kitchen table with a pile of other coats.
Edwin sighed. “Fine. Then I’ll take a beer or a brewski, or whatever it is that you call it.”
“Arl.” Arlene rolled her eyes at her brother and then went to the fridge to fetch their new guest a beer.
Edwin looked around the apartment. People were crowding the tight rooms and the apartment felt claustrophobic, which was precisely why he and Natalie had never hosted any parties. That, and according to Natalie, which she’d told Edwin at the climax of their relationship, their friends simply did not like him anymore. If only she could see him now, Edwin thought. Back in Pollard’s apartment, surrounded by the very people whose opinion helped to break them up. Edwin began picking some of the people off in his mind. Charles Shorter and his nag of a wife, Shannon. Shannon had been good friends with Natalie, and had always hated Edwin. Well, she left the both of us, didn’t she, Edwin said to himself, making slight eye contact with the couple. And there was Seth Weeks. Poor, unlucky Seth Weeks. What was he now? Thirty-six, thirty-seven? Most probably still in the closet and living with his mother, using New York City as an excuse to keep his growth stunted. Edwin told himself that he must sit down with Weeks and get the low down on his life. That would be good for a laugh in his down time, he thought.
Arlene came back with a beer, and handed it to Edwin. Mechanically, he took a drink and then cringed. The brew was American and bland, just the sort of beer George Pollard Jr. would have at an intimate gathering of friends. It was sad that his tastes had not evolved since the college days. And Pollard with a graduate degree, Edwin thought. It just went to show that education did not account for taste and knowledge. He looked around some more, at all of his old friends and associates sitting in their tight spaces, having banal conversations and still trying to dress the part of hip, city dweller, when many of them had turned gray and had begun to wrinkle under their tired eyes. Many of them had gotten fat, or were getting fat. Why the poet, Barzillai Ray, hardly looked the part of angry, black militant anymore. He looked like an old man wearing his son’s clothing. Edwin had to laugh. Arlene took a sip on her beer too, and then clinked bottles with him, as if they were co-conspirators in the pedestrian happenings of the night. Edwin felt some kind of private connection with her in doing this. Pollard just stood there looking confused.
“So, you want a tour of the place?” he asked. Edwin looked at him. “I guess you know it pretty well.”
Edwin looked into the eyes of his estranged, old friend, and felt a new, blazing hatred. “Why not? I’m sure you’ve done loads with the place since I moved.”
Pollard took the lead and Edwin and Arlene followed. First it was the narrow room right off of the kitchen. Edwin had put his bookshelves and computer in that room. It was to be the writing room, the place where the magic happened. Mostly it had become a staging area for any new household furniture that had to be assembled, or where Natalie wrote out their bills every Sunday morning while Edwin paced the narrow strip of the apartment, his head in his hands, moaning that they were broke, when he knew damned well that there was plenty of money in their bank account. Edwin felt the negative drama heightened his joy when Natalie rose from her seat to inform him that they were not only not broke, but had managed to save money in abundance. Pollard had left the room a blank. He had an old couch in there, and his bike was fastened to one of the walls.
Next it was the bedroom, and Pollard hesitated in walking Edwin through there at first, which just confirmed his guilt in Edwin’s mind. To be honest, Edwin did not even want to go into that room. There were too many memories held within its sliver of walls. There were too many days wasted in bed, a bottle of wine on the floor, as Natalie and he read books or made love, or listened to the classical station instead of the neighbor’s bass. When they entered, Edwin nearly passed out.
“Are you all right?” Arlene asked.
Edwin put his cold beer to his head and turned to Pollard, motioning toward his unmade bed. The bed was so big and the room so small that the three of them had to stand sideways in the room. This had also been the case for Edwin and Natalie. “So, is this where it happened?”
“Edwin, God damn it,” Pollard said. “I knew you would do this.”
“How was she, George? Level with me. Was she desperate? Could you tell it as you rode her on this vile, soiled mattress? Did you take her with reckless abandon and make it all better?”
“Christ, Balder. You know damned well where Natalie slept when she was here.”
“Yes, in your thick, hunky arms!”
“She slept on the fucking couch, man!”
“Whoa,” Arlene said, coming between Edwin and George. “What’s going on here?”
“You’re brother made a cuckold of me with my long-term girlfriend, near fiancé, if you will.”
“He’s lying,” Pollard said, turning to his sister. “We…we were all friends. They were having problems.” He looked at Edwin. “Problems for a long time. And Natalie was fed up. Frankly I understood why. You can only take so much lunacy in your life.”
“Ha!” Edwin said.
Pollard returned his gaze to his sister. “It’s true. Natalie left him. She had nowhere else to go, so she came here for two days. Two Goddamned days, Edwin! And she slept on the couch, before taking the train up to her folks.”
“A likely story, you philandering public servant!” Edwin said. He pointed back down to Pollard’s bed. “This bed is a bed of sin!”
“It’s not even the same bed, Edwin,” Pollard said.
“Well, I’m sure the old one was of a similar make, or it was placed as such in the room.” He took a pull on his beer; felt his face flushed, burning. “You get my drift.”
It was then that Edwin’s best, black friend, Lawson Thomas, entered the tail end of the bedroom. “I thought I heard you,” he said to Edwin. “I thought you had that thing tonight.”
Edwin turned to Lawson. “That thing came home with her rock star, skater boyfriend.”
“Yes, I’m sure they’re doing ollies or fakies or grinds, or whatever it is that skaters say.”
“You’re up on you skater terminology,” Arlene said.
“Just because my clothes have suddenly become retro, doesn’t mean that I am outdated,” Edwin said to her. He turned back to Lawson. “I came here tonight to confront the damage done.”
“He’s still going on about me sleeping with Natalie,” George said. He turned back to Edwin. “I don’t know what it’s going to take to convince you that I didn’t.”
“I told you two years ago what it would take,” Edwin said.
“I’m not giving you my blood and semen, and taking a lie detector test, dude.”
“Then our relationship must continue to hang in limbo.”
“Whatever,” Pollard said. He left Edwin, Lawson, and Arlene standing over the bed, going back the way that he came, toward more understanding friends back in the kitchen.
“So that’s why I haven’t seen you around,” Arlene said to Edwin.
“That and this neighborhood you live in gives me the night sweats and tremors,” Edwin said.
“I don’t live in Brooklyn.” Arlene looked at Edwin as if he’d insulted her. “I live in Manhattan.”
“You do?” Edwin turned to Arlene. His eyes nearly bugged out of his head, as it was rare to meet a person who could actually afford to live in Manhattan. It was Edwin’s deep, dark dream to live in Manhattan. “My Manhattan.”
“If you say so.”
“Edwin fancies himself a Manhattanite in training,” Lawson added.
“What part?” Edwin asked, ignoring his friend’s comment.
“Ah!” Edwin clutched his chest, for it was too much to bear.
“I pegged you for an Upper East Side kind of guy,” Arlene said.
“Why?” Edwin asked. “Don’t you know it’s not correct to presume?”
“Oh yeah? Then why are you giving my brother a hard time?”
“Because I have fact and God on my side.”
“No you don’t, Edwin,” Lawson said.
“Shut up, you!” He turned to Arlene. “Your brother was attracted to my Natalie. He said as much.”
“Yeah, when we were all like twenty and no one was dating her yet,” Lawson said.
“She chose you,” Lawson said.
“And look what happened,” Edwin said. He took a pull on his beer, and tried to forget the past. “I need real alcohol this evening, if I’m going to make it.”
“I think George has some bourbon,” Arlene said. “If you promise to leave him alone, I’ll go and fix you one.”
“I’ll do more than that,” Edwin said. “I’ll even be civil toward him.”
“Good. It is his birthday, after all.”
Arlene left the bedroom, and Edwin watched her as she moved. Retro and she lives in Manhattan. If only she weren’t a Pollard, he thought.
“Do you need to sit down?” Lawson asked, motioning toward the living room, where Edwin could hear Mary Baldacci flapping her gums to another small set of Edwin’s former friends.
“I believe I do,” Edwin said.
Lawson smiled and put his arm around his best, white friend. “Come on then.”