Poison of the soul - Editor
A Hot Time in the Old Town
by Desmond Warzel
I had the park almost to myself, which is just how I like it on a Saturday.
The benches were all vacant except for mine. Across the way there was a guy consistently losing a perpetual tug-of-war with an overenthusiastic dog; there was an old-timer in a worn suit coming down the sidewalk toward me, snacking on peanuts. And that was it. Nice.
But as the old fellow drew closer, I tensed up.
And my instincts, as usual, were dead-on.
Twenty empty benches in the park and he sits down next to me.
I know there aren't many things worse than being old and lonely (except maybe being young and lonely), and I don't even mind a nice conversation with a stranger. But I have to be in the mood.
Besides, I already know how World War II came out.
We both stared ahead into the distance, watching the dog's antics. One minute, two. Very awkward. I was way beyond relieved when he finally broke the silence.
"I remember when this was all houses here," he said, indicating the park's vast expanse.
Yeah, I know. And Coke was a nickel, and there were no Japanese cars, and your movie came with a cartoon, a serial, and a newsreel.
"I used to live right around here," he continued.
"Right up until they tore it all down."
"All at once?"
"Not for most people."
I turned and looked at him for the first time. A comment like that one cried out for elaboration, but he just watched the dog as it continued trouncing its master.
"Bad for you?" I persisted.
He poured himself a handful of peanuts and chewed on them. I regretted my question, thinking maybe I'd touched a nerve.
"It's good they put a park in here," he finally said. "Picnics, kickball games, young lovers. It's all good stuff."
"And it's safe. I've walked every inch of it a hundred times, just in case, so I know it's safe."
"A lot of people in the neighborhood didn't want to sell. Me, I was first in line."
It was beginning to dawn on me that the old guy was hinting as broadly as he could; that there was a story he was hoping to lay on me, and he was waiting for consent. I wondered if he was unburdening himself after a lifetime of silence, or if everyone he met got the full treatment.
Anyway, I bit.
"First in line, you say?"
He offered me some peanuts. I declined. He finished off another big handful before continuing.
"The city tore the house down, of course. I let them do my dirty work. If I had any guts, I would have burned it to the ground myself. Although come to think of it, I don't know if that would have done any good."
He glanced sidelong at me, hopefully, expectantly.
"Let me have it, gramps," I said. "You hooked me."
He launched into his tale without even taking a breath.
"When I got out of the army, I found myself a very fortunate young man. Two things happened: I got an office job that was a welcome departure from digging ditches and peeling potatoes--and that paid a lot more than a simple fellow like me needed to live; and my aunt passed on and left me a nice wad of cash that I had absolutely no idea what to do with.
"So I bought a house--a nice three-story Victorian. It stood right over there.
"I spent a year's worth of evenings and weekends dividing it into apartments. Did all the work myself. Never knew how to do it any other way. Put in a kitchen and a bathroom on each floor. Finished the basement and partitioned it into rooms. Almost made me think I'd missed my calling.
"I advertised the basement and the first and second floors for rent, and kept the third floor apartment for myself--I'm a simple fellow, like I said. And it wasn't two weeks before I had my first set of tenants.
"Bill Lundy, Frank Conway, and Ezra Bowman. And they weren't exactly welcome additions to the neighborhood. Partly because people who own their homes look down on renters, especially in their neighborhoods. Don't ask me why. I guess they forget what it was like for them when they were starting out.
"The other reason they were unpopular was the impression each of them gave. Bill and Frank were pretty rough around the edges. They looked like the sort of people whose names showed up in the Police Blotter section of the paper, followed by 'no fixed address'. Ezra? His only fault was being black.
"Is it okay to say 'black'? African-American, maybe, but that hasn't really caught on in casual speech, has it? At any rate, either is better than what the neighbors called him when he wasn't around.
"Bill Lundy took the first floor. He had a decent job down at the glass plant. You probably don't remember where that was. He was rude and abrasive, and he poured most of his money into a shot glass. Frank Conway was a carbon copy of Bill, down to the job and the bad habits. He lived on the second floor. Both were pretty despicable characters, really, but they paid their rent on time. That makes up for a lot. Probably more than it should.
"Ezra took the basement, which was the cheapest. He studied chemistry at City College by day and waited tables by night, and so he needed to economize. I didn't see too much of him; between his work and his studies he was gone most of the day. When he was home, he usually kept to himself. It was hard to get to know him.
"Already I can see you're thinking this was a pretty volatile situation. But God's honest truth, for the better part of a year we lived under that roof together and nothing bad happened. Oh, I'm not saying that Bill or Frank ever invited Ezra up for dinner or anything like that. But the three of them could sit on the front porch in the evening, the two of them at one end with their booze and their portable radio, Ezra at the other with his books and papers, and end up having an actual, civil conversation.
"So it was okay, you see?
"Which made what happened next even more of a damn shame than it already was.
"The first I knew anything was wrong was when I was jerked out of a sound sleep by someone hollering at me. I opened my eyes and there was a damn fireman standing at the foot of my bed. Helmet, raincoat, axe, the whole package. He yanked me out of bed, yelling something about a fire, and started dragging me toward the door. I tried to tell him there were three other men in the house, but he said they already knew. He practically carried me down both flights of stairs. I didn't see any fire, or even any smoke.
"Of course, when we got outside, half the damn neighborhood had turned out to see me in my shorts and nothing else. Smoke was billowing out of the basement windows--now smashed--and two trucks' worth of firemen ran here and there. I didn't see Bill, Frank, or Ezra anywhere.
"Hardly anyone would look me in the eye. They'd expected trouble from me, and now their suspicions were confirmed. Atwater, my neighbor from across the street--the best of a pretty sour bunch--told me he'd been sitting on his porch, trying to get the best of a bout of insomnia, when he'd seen the flames flickering in my basement window and called the fire department. He said an ambulance had already come and gone, taking Bill and Frank with it, both unconscious. Ezra he didn't know about.
"The police showed up. The way the neighbors whispered among themselves, you'd have thought I was Al Capone.
"When the fire was out and things had settled down to a dull roar, the cops took me into the basement. And oh, my holy Christ, what a stench. Smoke, ashes, gasoline--yes, that's right--and other smells, too. Hair, flesh. You don't want to know.
"Poor Ezra Bowman, burned practically beyond recognition, lying there among blackened boards and jumbled springs that had once been his bed. No chance in hell.
"Took them no time at all to piece it together. Frank and Bill had gone down to the basement where Ezra was sleeping and nailed him a good one with a crowbar to make sure he didn't wake up. Doused him in gas, struck a match, and that was it. And there was no doubt that those two were responsible. See, they'd had so much to drink that they both passed out halfway up the basement steps. If Atwater hadn't called the fire department, they would've cooked right along with Ezra.
"Now, I can't say for certain what made those bums do that to that poor boy--I know you shouldn't say 'boy' to refer to a black man, but he was, damn it. Just a boy, by any useful standard. Just a boy.
"I can't swear before God as to why they did it, but I think I know. And I think it was nothing more than the usual reasons.
"Frank Conway and Bill Lundy had both been laid off from the glass plant that day. So that evening, when they sat on the porch, drinking liquor they could no longer afford, they looked over at Ezra, with his youth, with his job, with his books whose titles they couldn't even understand, and what they saw was some--I can't make myself say it, but you know the word--who could still pay his rent when they no longer could. Who had no earthly business being better than the two of them.
"Nothing more to it than that."
The old guy ceased his narration and tipped the nearly-empty bag of peanuts up to his mouth, shaking loose the stragglers and crumbs.
Pretty heavy stuff, that story of his. Yet that kind of thing couldn't have been easy to share, and I was glad he'd done so--and a little ashamed for my near-revulsion at the thought of sharing my bench with him.
He balled up the empty bag and tossed it in the trash can next to our bench. "A real hot time in the old town that night." He laughed bitterly. I must have looked perplexed. "It was a song," he explained. "Before your time. Before mine, too, actually."
"So you sold the house after that?" I asked. "They probably ran you out of that neighborhood on a rail."
"Oh, no," he said. "I stayed. There've been a few people in this life whose opinion I cared about, but none of them lived on that block. I fixed up the house easily enough--the damage was confined to the basement, and I made it habitable again pretty quickly.
"It was a while before I got tenants again, but I got them--for the first and second floors, anyway. A cheap apartment in a safe neighborhood was a desirable thing, even back then. But that basement, well, it was quite a long stretch before I found someone to live down there. Oh, I'd get a prospect every now and then. I'd show him the apartment, we'd dicker, maybe reach an agreement, sometimes even get a lease signed. But then he'd get fifty feet down the sidewalk and one of the neighbors would strike up a conversation with him and 'casually' mention Ezra Bowman's murder. And sure enough, I'd get a call later in the day, asking to cancel the deal.
"I always let them off the hook. But eventually someone took the basement in spite of its recent history--or maybe because of it, who knows?
"And life went on. Tenants came and went without much incident--in fact, I never did serve a single eviction notice. The old fossils in the neighborhood went to their rewards, and some of their houses were bought by enterprising young folks. Pretty soon I wasn't the only landlord on the block. And as time passed and memories faded, my basement apartment became less and less of a liability.
"Of course, I probably don't have to tell you, it was one hell of a long time before a black face showed itself at my door again. Who could blame them?"
"How long did it take?" I asked. "You know, until you had another black tenant?"
"Oh, ten years at least. At the time, the basement was occupied by some college kid. Troy something, I think. I'm not sure--except for those first three, most of the names just kind of blur together. I don't know how the kid paid his rent or stayed in school--I could count on one hand the number of times I saw him leave the house. The first floor I rented to this young married couple. I wouldn't have thought two people would have fit in there comfortably, even sharing a bed, but they didn't seem to mind. God bless young people.
"Of course, I'm the last guy who ought to be giving advice to married people anyway. I never did tie the knot.
"Anyway, the second floor was vacant, and stayed that way for a long time. Then came Bob Harrison.
"I remember the day he showed up. Can't help but remember. It was a spring day, but one devil of a hot one. The house was so stuffy that afternoon, I just had to get out, so I went for a walk. Bobby was sitting on the front porch when I got back.
"My mouth dropped open when I saw him there. I introduced myself, friendly as could be, but I was still barely able to look him in the eye. Partly because what had happened all those years ago still gnawed at me--no, I know it wasn't my fault--and partly because he reminded me of Ezra Bowman. God alone knows why; Bobby was older than Ezra, much more outgoing, and looked nothing like him. Maybe it was just because he was so darn smart.
"You probably think it was because all black people look alike to me, don't you? Not so, I promise.
"The heat was getting to him, too. He had a bright red handkerchief in his pocket and he kept mopping his brow the whole time we were talking. Anyway, I showed him the second floor and he took it. Easy as pie.
"He was in and out of the place for a week moving his stuff in. There was a lot--hell, he spent two days just moving books. And all that week, the weather was screwy--it was still that damn heat, oppressive and heavy, but it came and went. I tried making conversation with the neighbors about it--what kind of neighbor would begrudge you a chat about the weather?--but they all looked at me like I was nuts. Said whatever was bothering me, they hadn't noticed it.
"Bobby finally got himself completely moved in. Late in the afternoon of his first full day in his new digs, he knocked on my door--said he'd made too much supper and he offered to split it with me. Great guy. Great food, too. Some kind of blackened fish, a really spicy vegetable stew--I don't know what they were. Better than my usual bachelor fare, that's what they were.
"The house was too hot to eat in, so we adjourned to the front porch with our food. It wasn't much help. In fact, it was so hot out there we could sit and watch the shrinking ice cubes in our drinks--we could see them changing shape. It couldn't get us down, though. We shot the breeze out there for hours, waiting for evening to bring some relief from the heat, but no such luck. If anything, it got even hotter after sundown.
"And don't even think for a minute I was able to fall asleep that night. An hour I lay awake in that third-floor hothouse, staring at the ceiling, sweating into my mattress. I opened every window in the apartment--nothing. Not the slightest breeze. In fact, the window glass itself was warm to the touch.
"I got dressed and went downstairs to check on everyone else and see how they were coping. Still early enough, I figured. It wasn't even eleven o'clock yet.
"The kid in the basement didn't answer my knock. No surprise there--that was par for his particular course. The door was locked, so I left him to his own devices. Didn't break my heart a bit.
"The newlyweds on the first floor did answer. They were hot--they looked like they'd been out swimming, their clothes and hair were so soaked--but holding up well. Nothing ever bothered them.
"Making my way up the stairs to look in on Bob Harrison, I felt like I was wading through molten lead. My eyes stung from sweat, and the air I breathed might as well have been from inside an oven. When I reached his door, I knocked. There was no response. I tried the door--unlocked--and jerked back even as it swung silently open. Bobby's doorknob had singed my hand as surely as if I'd grabbed hold of a new horseshoe still glowing from the forge.
"His living room was dark. I called out his name--nothing but silence. I pushed open the door and went in. I know landlords aren't supposed to do that unannounced, but I didn't really care at the moment. I crossed the living room on tiptoe, not for stealth but because the floor was burning the soles of my feet.
"Bobby's bedroom door was ajar. He was in bed, asleep. I could tell by the moonlight that shone in the bedroom window. Good for him, I figured, and I turned to leave. The temperature in the house seemed to shoot up even higher. It drove me to my knees and squeezed the air right out of my lungs. I began to crawl toward the door. I was desperate to get outside.
"Suddenly, there was a flash, bright as daylight. It lasted less than a second but it lit up the entire apartment. I could see every piece of furniture and empty cardboard box in Bobby's living room. Then, just as suddenly, the place was plunged back into darkness.
"I forced myself to my feet and ran back into the bedroom, fumbling for the light switch and yelling for Bobby to wake up. When I flipped the switch, my throat closed up in the middle of a syllable.
"Bobby wasn't there anymore. There was no trace of him except for a man-shaped silhouette of fine ash in the center of his bedspread and a slight smell of smoke in the air. I couldn't do anything but slump against the wall and try--and fail--to make sense of this.
"See, this was different from Ezra. He'd died in the middle of an inferno, burned from the outside, and he'd looked it. Bobby looked almost like he'd burned from the inside. He was gone in a second, and the bedclothes around him were completely untouched.
"I called the cops. They combed the place like IRS auditors, but I knew they wouldn't find traces of gasoline or any other flammable liquid. Accelerants, they call those. And they didn't. They questioned me all night. What could I possibly have told them?
"I couldn't concentrate on what they were asking me, anyway. It was cold in that apartment. My arms and legs were covered with goose bumps. I don't know how that much heat could have dissipated so fast.
"During the interrogation I snuck a glance at the thermometer on the furnace control. Would you believe it read seventy degrees? Felt like a refrigerator in there to me. All relative, I guess.
"The cops left at dawn. Nothing more came of it, except that the newlyweds found out what happened and hit the road soon after. So did the college kid. Left most of his stuff behind, too.
"I never had another tenant. Never advertised for any. I stayed there myself, though. For decades. Grew old there. I was stuck, you see.
"I couldn't very well sell the place. Oh, I could choose who I sold it to, but what if those people then went and sold it to some unsuspecting black family? I couldn't live with that possibility. So I hung onto it. The neighborhood went downhill a little bit, as neighborhoods do. Then the city made me an offer. They said they wanted to rip it down and build this park. I nearly sprained my wrist, I signed the paperwork so fast.
"See, nobody ever figured out--officially, at least--what really happened to Bob Harrison. Nobody but me. I figured it out.
"Bill Lundy and Frank Conway, when they burned poor Ezra, they just thought they were ridding the world of one more unwanted black man. But it was worse than that.
"Those two sons of bitches poisoned my house. All that hate. The worst kind of hate. Unwarranted hate. Idle, thoughtless hate. They left it behind. And poor Bob Harrison walked right into it."
The old man sagged against the back of the bench. I exhaled, suddenly, violently. My breath had been caught in my chest for some time and my head ached. Across the park, the excitable dog and his indulgent master had ended their game and were on their way elsewhere.
"You probably don't believe me, do you?" His voice cracked, whether from emotion or because he was unaccustomed to talking this much, I couldn't say.
"Well," I said, "whether I do or not, I definitely believe that you believe it."
He nodded, satisfied.
"And you come back sometimes to check and make sure things are okay--that it won’t happen again?"
"Ever find anything?"
"No. A hundred times I've been through here and nothing's felt wrong yet. I think it's gone. Maybe it disappeared when the house was destroyed. Maybe it stayed, but all the happiness and fun of this place buried it deep down or snuffed it out altogether. Who knows?" He sighed. "I don't think I'll be back again. I'll do one more patrol today, just for old time's sake, but that's it."
I stood, stretched. My vertebrae and shoulders popped like a string of firecrackers. "Maybe I should come with you this last time. You never know. Maybe I'll sense something you've missed."
The old man looked up at me, considering this. "Yeah," he said, "you might be right. If nothing else, some company would be a welcome change."
I reached out and helped him to his feet, his pale, blue-veined fingers practically engulfed by my strong, young, dark hand. We set off across the grass together, a cool afternoon breeze at our backs.