Notes to be Used in the Making of a Portrait of My Neighbor
From where I used to sit, I could sometimes hear the ice cream truck. I couldn’t see the truck, but the familiar jingle always signaled its presence somewhere on Dodge Street. And that’s the thing: the way it never stopped, the way it just sang through our block, it was like none of us were even there.
Of course, we were all there.
We were in Iowa City; Bern and I had moved into apartment two in August. Scott and Erica lived in number one and Marco lived with his girlfriend, Laura, in number three.
One September afternoon, as I listened to the ice cream tune fade, trying to make out the truck’s route exactly, Marco and a skinny guy came running. They stopped short when they saw me sitting on the step. Marco, putting his hands into his back pockets, asked if I’d seen the ice cream truck.
I told him I’d heard the truck.
He wanted to know what I knew about it.
Knew about the truck? I said that probably it was just like any other neighborhood ice cream truck.
The skinny guy grinned as if there was no such thing.
Marco said he was going to give the driver a one hundred dollar bill.
That sounded like a lot of ice cream to me.
Marco figured he wouldn’t even have to say anything; he figured that the ice cream man would know exactly what he meant.
For a while, I assumed Marco owned both the cab company and the grilled cheese stand that bore his name. It turned out he didn’t. What he did do was unclear. There were rumors of rich Italian parents in New York City. There were rumors of grad school. There were rumors he flipped burgers and deep-fried cheese at a local bar. There were rumors of six-foot pot plants. There were lots of rumors, but there was also the sheriff who knocked on my door and asked if Marco was home and to which I answered that I didn’t know, I hadn’t seen him in a while, but I knew he didn’t live here with me.
It seemed like everyone was looking for Marco. Sitting on the step, I saw visitors who walked dogs or brought guitars or bags of bark mulch and visitors who carried video games and visitors who carried twelve packs and visitors with vacant picture frames and they’d invariably stop and ask if Marco was around and I’d invariably tell them that he wasn’t. Mostly, what I saw of Marco, wasn’t him at all; it was his unpaid utility bills stuck in our screen door, the undriven black Audi, the sagging ping-pong table, the smell of hot dogs on Sunday mornings. And then there was Marco’s 5th Annual Fall Fling. Rumor had it that Marco was stuffing Ravioli with rabbits killed by one of the guests.
Bern and I stayed in for the 5th Annual Fall Fling. We talked about visiting and we saw people arriving, but we contented ourselves by listening to the voices of flingers and the music of Badly Drawn Boy as it swifted through the window.
I saw Marco once in September, probably not later than ten o’clock in the morning and he was crawling through the brush behind his apartment. His face looked like there was nothing more important than what he was doing, which was collecting twigs into a pile and drinking from a bottle of Jack Daniels. I knew he, like me, had a child’s beard but I couldn’t make it out from where I watched. Nor could I make out any specific detail one might expect like a clamped brow or furious lips or speedy eyes. Only the paleness of his hands was visible, which I knew were not so doll-like as they might first appear. I’d seen him open a plastic bottle of apple juice like it was a quart of motor oil and I’d seen him knot his blue bandana at the back of his head and I’d seen him swat flies and when he smoked, his fingers never forced the cigarette; the cigarette was a sixth finger: flicking ash, punctuating sentences I couldn’t hear, drawing clouds in the surrounding space.
It was October and Bern and I were drinking pints in a booth by the door when in walked our neighbor, Laura. Behind her was Marco.
Laura had no reservations about sharing how much she loved Halloween. She loved jack-o-lanterns and spooks and the way the town came to life for the holiday.
Bern said she wanted her and me to dress up as a flight attendant and a pilot.
I said I wasn’t really a fan of costume parties.
Laura looked behind her for Marco, but he was gone. He sat on a stool by the bar. There were two shot glasses in front of him but he hadn’t touched them. He was staring straight ahead. It looked like he was trying not see anything but the streaked mirror behind the bar.
Of Marco, Scott Dragoo—my large goateed neighbor from apartment number one, the one with the wood-bead necklaces and bracelets, the one who lived with Erica and a little pit bull named Ada, the one who had a big Mona Lisa tacked askew in his living room, the one who regularly called-in Code Violations to the city, the one who sorted his recycling on the porch and batted the dust from the rug on the porch and swept the porch all the while talking about the weather, his job as a social worker, relationships, weed, our landlord, his new car, fate, hacks of all kinds, house fires, essentially nothing at all and everything as I tried to ignore him by pretending to read on the porch, the one who had known Marco “for years,” the one who hosted a weekly “Pirate Radio Show” where he and Marco read Richard Brautigan’s poetry and their own—said:
“Marco? Yeah, he’s a good guy.”
And about the yellow vans that had Marco’s Taxi Service printed in green on the side: they idled passengerless in the driveway for far too long. The vans came in all kinds of weather and the nicotine-fueled patience of the cabby suggested that the traveler for whom he waited must possess some kind of supreme charisma or spiritual blackmail or an excess of cash. Or maybe Marco was just late all the time. I watched from the step with my own cigarettes and I watched the smoke turn brown around my fingers and then blue in the bigger air and then finally disappear and when there was nothing left to watch I invented stories. In some, the cabby delivered Marco to corn mazes or caves or the zoo. But because there was no zoo nearby, I invented that too and I saw Marco there, sneaking food to polar bears or imitating gorillas. I suppose the stories were baseless, but they couldn’t have been baseless because everything comes from somewhere.
I’ve heard it said more than once that what you smoke and how you smoke says all there is to know about you. The butts littering the sidewalk were Camels and Parliaments. The cigarettes I smoke are out of a yellow pack and I put them out in an old peanut butter jar on the porch or a flower-pot by the step.
Marco and Laura were the only other tenants that smoked. When I saw Marco smoking, it was with big drags and an uncomfortable hunch. He smoked when he walked across the lawn to the cab. He smoked at the bus stop. He smoked sitting on a curb with his knees curled up to support the reading of what looked like a manuscript. He smoked on his porch through midnight blizzards and humid afternoons. Over his shoulder, he carried a patched up bag and from it he pulled cigarettes and other things I couldn’t identify. He smoked when he put something in the bag and he smoked when he took something out. It was hard to imagine him not smoking.
But of Camels or Parliaments, I never could match Marco with one brand or the other.
What I mean by a cliché of an old organ is that it looked just the way any old organ ought to look. On the afternoon it was unstrapped and taken off the bed of a pick-up, I was on the back step.
The guy who unloaded the instrument had a mustache and he carried speakers and wire into Marco’s place and then something that looked like a desk. When he drove away, he left the organ on the lawn. There was also snow on the lawn. Marco was nowhere to be seen; no one was; you could have played a whole book of hymns on that thing if you’d wanted.
What happened next happens sometimes. Staring at the organ on the lawn, I saw instead the battered instrument my family had tucked away in a corner. I was much younger then. The valve plugs had white tags with black print on them. There was a score open above the stained keys. I knew nothing about playing an organ or any instrument for that matter, but I figured out that I had to work the pedals hard just to make the old thing wheeze. And though I never did learn to make melody, knowing that I was the one making the air flow and that I was the one making those unrepeatable, almost living sounds, knowing that was enough.
Maybe my dad thought I’d be an architect because I was agile with Legos and made forts in the woods. I banged 2 X 4s into an old oak and sat up there, spying on my aging neighbors. I brought the big binoculars and a ruler, a watch, pencils, a calculator sometimes, and a hardbound notebook. I drew a legend and a diagram and arrows to mark the buildings and the movements of Bill and Alice. I noted the time a door opened and the time a door closed. Of disconnected things, like wind or crows, I took no note; they were of no use in uncovering the secret I was sure of.
Once, Bill was splitting wood and I tried to draw him. The ax was easy; Bill was not. I knew about the Mona Lisa and so after sketching the figure of a man, I worked on my masterpiece’s mouth. It was impossible to draw lips that did not look like girl’s lips. And then there was all that white space where cheeks and forehead and chin ought to have been. It was like drawing air. How were you supposed to draw what didn’t have any shape? I erased and erased and drew and drew, but I never saw Bill on the page and so I climbed down from the tree and made a hole in the leaves. I wadded Bill up and buried him. I’d heard of voodoo’s power to make dolls into men, but I thought nothing of it until later, when I went looking for the paper and found only roots and twigs and soil.
It was a cold day in April when I shook Marco’s hand; I’d shaken all the other neighbors’ hands months before. Laura had offered hers the night Bern and I carried our furniture in. One of my first mornings on the step, Erica shook my hand; she was wearing a t-shirt with an x-rayed rib cage on the front and RADIOLOGY printed on the back. When Scott knocked on my door and asked me to sign a petition, his handshake was hot and eager. It said too much because all a handshake ought to do is the simplest of things. That mutual grip ought only to affirm the fact of the two people.
But right and wrong and ought to are beside the point. What happens is that a handshake inevitably becomes more than a handshake. Those ten locked digits cannot restrain the narrative writing itself and that we read without knowing.
Marco stood there in front of me. He removed one leather glove and stuck out his hand. I was distinctly aware that my hands were discolored from the cold. He was wearing a hooded sweat-shirt. The shake itself ended up a disappointment, like when they don’t have your sneaker size, and I held on longer than I might have otherwise.
Marco said that he was Marco.
I said I knew he was Marco and I told him my name.
There was irony when we agreed we’d see each other around. Maybe I simply smiled, but his look was more complicated. Lighting a cigarette, he seemed to be expressing everything from fuck you to bless you and still there was a gap in what I saw, a really big void I couldn’t put my finger on, like a missing ear or an eye.
Bern and I drank bottled beer on the back step pretty often and when we saw Marco trudging across the lawn in tattered jeans, kicking at the grass, carrying his bag across slouched shoulders, smoking, headphones on, head down, we never said anything. What we did was sip beer. Acknowledging the fact of Marco would be like acknowledging the fact of the sky.
Of course, if the sky fell down, then we might say something. We might wonder how it had happened, how we had never expected such a thing, how we’d been so sure of its permanence, of its relentless blues, its jet planes and its arc.
That June night Marco was wearing shorts.
This was something because Marco doesn’t wear shorts. I wear shorts.
I looked to Bern.
Marco’s calves were wide white muscled things.
We watched as this unbelievable man climbed into the taxi with another Marco’s name printed on the side. The van slowly maneuvered through the potholes and we tilted back our bottles. There were small black birds hunting the sky.
No one ever told me his last name, but I remember when Laura screamed it. She screamed it and she whispered it and she said it like a disappointed mother and all this I heard one night around 11 o’clock as I flossed my teeth. Normally, at that hour, I can overhear the washing machine spinning or reruns of the X-Files. The scream sat me down. I focused hard on flossing the gaps between my teeth. Laura was talking about woman’s handwriting on a letter. She yelled, “I want to know” and then breathed something: maybe, police, maybe, please. I unwound the floss tying my fingers together. I looked at where the plumbing went behind the wall. Considering that the combined thickness of the skim coat and the paint was negligible, the wall couldn’t be more than four and a half inches thick; that’s the half inch thickness of two sheets of sheetrock—one on Marco’s side of the wall and one on mine—and the thickness of the 2 X 4 framing, which isn’t even 2” X 4” but really 1 1/2” X 3 1/2”. I sat there and I thought about what we’d all feel if some unseen hand or grace or curse suddenly disappeared the wall between us. I sat there by myself and tried to enjoy the fantasy. My feet were stuck to the linoleum when I got up and when I got to bed, Bern was asleep and I listened to the sound of breathing for what felt like forever.