When he was a child, his father went to work for Mr. Albert B. Ashforth, cleaning filthy toilets in the dance hall for thirty-two cents a week. His mother thought it was the living end, absolutely, that she was stuck home nights with a bunch of wise-guy kids who picked through her powder tins and drew on the wall with her best lipstick. He was six and his sisters were seven and eight, and he was always following their orders, it seemed, dangling dolls from the laundry line outside the window, chewing his meatloaf to bits and spitting it into a napkin, writing ‘Mackenzie’ in a deep red across the bathroom wall, till his mother burst in wielding a fly swatter and a bottle of beer. The fly swatter had a personality of its own, he and his sisters knew, and they scurried to the tub for shelter, their shoes clanking the bottom, clanking the bottom while their mother swatted furiously at their legs. It was a regular dance number they did.
In the kitchen, ragtime was rolling out of the radio, Joplin on piano, the music swift and sweet as though it were a part of the Chicago air. Their mother liked listening to the radio show, goddamn it. What did they want from her, she yelled. It was something he would remember as an old man, the look of her mouth twisting with anger, the sound of the music, his sisters crying out, trying to catch the fly swatter in their hands, and then just as suddenly, it all stopped, his mother left, the song on the radio changed. He couldn’t move for the fear in his chest.
Young Mackenzie was a crier, a time waster. He often felt as though he’d lost something important, a bag of fish marbles or his secret collection of cat whiskers, and he awoke from dreams with a sour taste in his mouth. When he cried, his mother told him to drink his water and go back to bed; sometimes at night, she leaned over laundry or a dirty dinner table in her daisy apron, and he could sense her sadness.
When his parents fought, over the rent, over the stars it seemed, his father, the antagonist, pressed his body against hers, as if to smother the distance between them, and finally, breathless, she’d turn to choke him with dish-wet hands. Hidden in the hallway, Mack saw this, and it scared him: his father gurgling Stop it, my God!, and his mother possessed, so that it seemed too real, like the Robinson Crusoe serials, ending on a nail sent into the coffin lid, ending without ending, cliff-hanging in the most awful of ways. Mack, caught in it, cried out, betraying himself, startling his parents in their erotic struggle. But afterwards, they had no more to do with each other, and his father ushered him to bed, sitting at his bedside and taking swigs of Mack’s water. His father had a brilliant singing voice, and he often sang his children to sleep. But that night, and the next, and the next, he wouldn’t sing, and finally he would stop coming home at all and Mack only slowly came to understand his loss.
His mother once took him to see a doctor for all his crying, and the doctor told him to be a brave boy. It was only a little earache. After swabbing his ear with a long cotton-tipped stick, the doctor said there was nothing else to do. Keep his fingers out of his ears. Perhaps she should have fewer daughters and more sons. Perhaps the father is around?
‘He isn’t, much,’ his mother said, turning her eyes down to the boy. Mack noticed she was using her good manners with the doctor, even though they’d run out of things to eat for breakfast, and the milk was late. His mother had struggled with the kitchen window, and finally shoving it up, had yelled after the milkman’s cart, but his horse kept jangling its rusty wreath and boys in the street jumped out of its way. ‘Maybe we should ask Mrs. Witmark for a bite,’ Darlene had said with importance, but their mother shook her head and scurried to her bedroom, appearing again wearing a pretty dress the color of pansies. She’d walked so quickly to the doctor’s office that Mack had tripped twice and had had to catch up. Now, as the doctor washed his hands in a porcelain basin, she kept rearranging her skirt. A thin smile pulled at her mouth as though it were a fishhook, catching one side and turning it into a kind of grin. She shook slightly so that the hem of her dress jittered.
‘Ah, then,’ the doctor said, wiping his hands on a towel. ‘Young Mack must be put to work. He needs the exertion.’
‘Yes, I suppose you’re right,’ his mother sighed. She had been holding onto Mack’s hand since he jumped off the examination table, a sturdy wooden thing that looked more like a butcher’s block, with its carved and scuffed face, and now she let go and took out her powder compact with its tinny flowers. The doctor wrote on a yellow notepad, tore off the sheet, and held it out for her. She powdered the moisture from her nose in a flurry of indignant movement, her skin took its chalkiness and soaked it in, and it coagulated in the lines of her nostrils.
‘My it’s hot,’ she said, closing the compact with a tight click and slipping it into her purse. The doctor held out the paper, but she didn’t take it. ‘Isn’t it just terrible?’ she asked.
‘Mmm,’ the doctor said, and finally, she took the paper and folded it slowly in half. They stared at each other for a long time, and Mack had to pee. He crossed his legs tightly. Outside, his sisters called each other sissy-cat and fiddle-brain. It was a riot of a time that sent them laughing and galloping about the sitting room. The nurse seemed to be out on an errand.
‘Your nurse is quite competent.’
‘Yes, I’m sure.’
Mack waited for his mother to stand and pull on her worn, lace gloves, but she didn’t. Both she and the doctor seemed to be nearly panting with the heat, their voices cracking because of it. The doctor eyed him with a hard glance.
‘She’s gone the afternoon to her sister’s,’ he told her matter-of-factly, as if that explained everything. ‘You can just pay me.’ His mother didn’t seem to be satisfied.
‘And in this heat,’ she murmured without acknowledging what he had said, smoothing the hairs at the nape of her neck. ‘Who can concentrate on days like these?’ Her question hung in the air like steam, and tiny beads of sweat appeared above her lip. The doctor shifted his legs, uncrossing them. He cleared his throat, and it seemed to satisfy her, because she set her purse on the floor beside her chair, carefully as though not to soil it.
‘Mack, go and see what your sisters are doing, you hear?’ Her voice was soft, almost pleasant but for an edge of restraint. Her voice often said two things at once. At the grocer’s, she spoke smoothly as though reading from a magazine. Mack had peeked at them from behind a carton of fruit and pretended their bodies were the sticky-smelling peaches. His mother and the grocer stood over the bread loaves, their bodies fat fruits, and she spoke to him as nicely as Mack had ever heard her talk, but the grocer only shook his head. His mother became indignant then and called for Mack. We are leaving this place, she said when he jumped out of the aisle.
But there in the doctor’s office, Mack felt his stomach cramp with the pressure of having to pee. ‘I can’t,’ he said, picking at the side of his shorts.
‘You can,’ she said, impatiently, sweetly, ‘and you’re going.’ She reached for his hand and pulled him through the doorway and out into the seating area.
In the sitting room, a man with an abscessed tooth held ice to his cheek, one of his eyes drooping with the pain. Darlene and Roxanne played cat-and-mouse between chairs, shrieking and kicking up their skirts as they scuffled. They ran up to Mack and his mother, faces radiant, teeth showing as they gasped, and Mack felt sick, as if something bad would happen.
His mother slapped him across the mouth. ‘You stay out here,’ she commanded. Then she turned and walked back into the room, her dainty boots hitting the floor in quick, hard bursts.
‘What’s matter with momma?’ Darlene, the younger sister asked.
‘Nothing,’ he said, stubbornly, but his lip felt swollen. He sat on the floor and waited with his hand to his pants. Roxanne kneeled down next to the door and tried to get a look.
‘Is momma sick?’ she whispered. When she sat up, her brow was smudged with dirt like a chimney sweep, and she blew the hair out of her eyes.
‘Don’t ask me,’ he said trying for toughness. He pretended not to care that she was older and could probably figure it out. Roxanne snorted and squirreled down close to the floor with her hands flat like little paws. He crossed his arms over him and decided never to tell what he knew. Then the outer door swung open and a neighborhood tough, John Kristianos from the Greek slum, nearly fell in. His shirt was new and white, as if he’d been to a wedding, with sleeves that rolled gently down from the shoulders and puffed when he moved, which he did with apparent pain. Even so, Kristianos was beautiful to them with his dark skin and rigid torso, the way he walked in the street with a large apple in his hands, biting from it with untamed relish. Roxanne stood immediately, brushing down her skirt, and Darlene sucked on her fingers. Something scuffled outside nearby, a rock was thrown through a window, cutting ribbons of crashing glass, then a distant siren gave rise and the bodies ran away, hard-paced heels hitting the pavement. Kristianos leaned against the door, holding his fist to his ribs, panting, glancing furtively into the street.
‘Where is th’ nurse?’ he demanded, but they didn’t answer. He seemed desperate to know, coughing up his words as if they were hard in his throat.
‘It is a matter of life!’ he said, and Mack felt his stomach ache. He’d forgotten to relieve himself and felt he might pee on his shorts like a baby. But he didn’t. Kristianos, crazy with words, shouted something un-understandable into the street, as though in answer to someone. The glinting sunlight turned his eyes yellow until he blinked them, shuddering.
‘Nurse! Fucking Nurse!’ he said, and they mimicked him, but softly. He seemed to have forgotten them, and turned to stare, giving them all a quick sizing up.
‘You come over here, little children!’ he gestured, sleeves filling with air and deflating.
‘No,’ Roxanne said, but her voice was all wrong and scared. Darlene tiptoed toward the man with the abscessed tooth, but found that he’d fainted from the pain, his eyes rolling back their sockets.
All of it frightened Mack and he wanted so much for his mother to come out that he yelled ‘Mami!’ but she didn’t come. The Greek cursed his luck, his new shirt, his godforsaken new shirt that’d ruined him. They were a choir, he and Kristianos, with voices that harmonised like the snarls in a cat’s meow.
When his mother came out, Kristianos was gone. Kristianos had cried himself quiet and then Mack had crawled over to the nurse’s desk and found a yellowed roll of gauze in one of the drawers. He didn’t know what the Greek would do, but he held it out to him with a shaking fist. Kristianos slowly opened one eye and squinted at him. Then the man smiled with quivering lips.
‘Tank you,’ he said. ‘Oh, tank you!’ but he merely held the gauze to his mouth and gazed at Mack as though he were drinking him in. Then his two brothers found him and dragged him away, speaking to him with their foreign words. Darlene shut the door behind him so that no one else would come in. Minutes later, his mother stepped out of the doctor’s room, her lipstick vibrant, and she held her gloves in her hands. The doctor didn’t follow her.
‘What in hell’s been doing out here?’ his mother asked, yawning. She seemed drunk, stepping lightly in place, her skirt fluttering lazily. She turned and thanked the doctor, or his door, rather. Then she reached for a magazine and stuffed it into her purse, a corner of it sticking out like hair from under a hat.
‘Let’s go,’ she said, smiling as though nothing were ever the matter. They walked alone back to the apartment, the girls ahead, Mack holding to his mother’s hand and dragging his feet.
‘Keep walking,’ his mother said, tugging at his arm. Motorcars blew past them on the street, gasoline putting in their engines, the air filled and smelling of smoke from the meat market on the corner. Kristianos had disappeared and all trace of him scattered into the gutters. They passed Ashforth’s dance hall with its purple awning and square row hedges on each side as though to hold it all up. It was closed in the daytime, when the janitors scrubbed busily inside, mopping and waxing the floors over and over again. He wondered if his father was there, whistling to himself. Where did Papi go? Mack wondered. It seemed like yesterday, but he couldn’t remember. He touched the cotton in his ear, and his mother swatted his hand away.
The nights were extensions of the long days spent inside their apartment, his mother taking in extra laundry: the living room filled with shapeless dresses and yellowed bloomers strung up on old sashes from his mother’s curtains. His sisters put the fan on them and they billowed like hot air balloons in the park. The nights were so hot, he’d watch the strange clothing and get chills.
Mack put his fingers in his mouth. They were past Papi’s place. He couldn’t keep walking. Up ahead on their street, some of the neighborhood kids splashed in the white water of an open fire hydrant, their clothes the color of mud and sticking to their backs. A mutt stood at the curb and barked excitedly, yapp, yapp, shrill and hoarse at the same time. The noise hurt his ear. His mother was talking about dinner, what lovely potatoes they’d have. Mack pulled his hand away from hers and began crying. He’d never felt so lost. His mother bent down to his good ear, her hand on the back of his neck.
‘You little beast,’ she whispered. ‘Get moving!’ She was smiling, always with the same look of fear in her eyes. He knew nothing good would come of it.
‘Mami, Mami,’ he cried, squeezing his eyes shut. He didn’t want to see her—he hated her.
‘You stop it. I don’t care why you’re crying. When we get home—!’ She looked ready to kick him with her heel. Mack knew he was at the limit of his mother’s patience, but he didn’t know how to stop. Down the street, his friends shrieked and played in the water; and he felt the mist of it across his face. His mother stood akimbo, staring at him the way she stared at the grocer or the shoe salesman, with black, furious eyes.
‘My poor child,’ she said then, sniffling, taking out a handkerchief from her purse. She nodded to a woman from their apartment building, smiled. ‘We have to go home, Mackisita, my boy. It isn’t so bad. We’ve the kids to take care of tonight. Rudy, Valerie, Franko, you see? Take my hand.’
She smiled at him and he felt that she was right after all. He allowed himself to be led away, holding tightly to the handkerchief, shielding his eyes from the bright sun falling from the rooftops. The closer to the apartment they got, the higher the buildings rose to shade them. Franko, his neighbour, would tie balloons into lucky rabbits for him like they did at the circus. They’d play cards and Franko would tell of his strange adventures working at the glass factory. His stomach grumbled and he wanted dinner. Soon the water was extinguished, and the street began to clear. By the time his mother unlocked their door and threw open the windows to let in the evening air, Mack felt better, as though he was never lost nor had ever lost anything at all.