S. FREDERIC LISS | Buried Along With Her Name
On her first day on the job, her first morning on the job, her first hour on the job, Heidi Doula found a dead spaniel in one of the alleys assigned to her in Ilion Heights, the last neighborhood at the end of the world. Ilion Heights was a neighborhood of tenements, walk-ups dating from the era of gas lights and horse drawn wagons, the era when elderly women selling eggs from pushcarts shared the streets with the chickens who laid them. Alleys rather than air shafts separated the buildings. Dogs and cats, once domesticated but now feral, thrived in Ilion Heights. As did rats, crows and other scavengers, including some who walked upright on two legs. From the teeth marks and the way the carcass had been ripped open, Heidi guessed the spaniel was the victim of a feral dog.
Heidi imagined the spaniel alive, diminutive and golden brown with ears that once begged to be scratched, identical to the spaniel Heidi’s mother, Eleanor Doula, refused to buy her for her eighth birthday. As she stood over the dead dog, Heidi thought she heard her mother say, Guppies have more brains than you, in that mocking voice intended to make Heidi feel as dumb as the guppies her mother had bought her for her birthday. When Heidi refused to name them, Eleanor flushed them down the toilet. Heidi didn’t believe in voices from the grave. She didn’t believe in mediums who made their living talking with the dead. Nor did she believe in ghosts, but she made an exception for her mother whose life spirit had usurped an unused corner of her brain like a squatter in an abandoned building.
The union hated Heidi and the others like her. As a condition of receiving workfare, the recipients each cleaned fifteen alleys a week. Three per day. Five days per week. Fifty-two weeks per year. Rain or shine or snow. Hot or cold. Workfare didn’t observe holidays and didn’t believe in sick days or vacations. At one time, the city sanitation department cleaned the alleys, union jobs performed by members of Local 132 of the International Brotherhood of Sanitation Workers, an affiliate of the Teamsters. Under workfare, the city gave those jobs to non-union workers like Heidi Doula, saving itself the living wages and good benefits once paid to the members of Local 132.
Someday, maybe, Heidi would retire from cleaning alleys, perhaps to panhandle like the homeless man who stationed himself outside the Bonner Elementary School. Nicknamed The Apostle by the residents of Ilion Heights, he carpeted the sidewalk where he sat with newspaper. A pizza box scavenged from Slam’s, the local palace of pizza, lay open at his feet to collect whatever coins the poor of Ilion Heights might toss his way. A scrawled sign, ‘God and His Apostle Blesses You’, hung around his neck on a necklace of string. Nobody stole the few coins he collected each day and Heidi wondered if he had the protection of one of Ilion Heights’s street gangs or if the Bible which he read aloud in a soft, soothing voice as if he were telling a bedtime story to a young child frightened thieves away. After her mother’s death, Heidi’s demons had driven her to seek refuge in the Bible, but Eleanor, like a broken record, kept chanting the Fourth Commandment, Honor Thy Father and Mother, until Heidi swore off religion. She wondered whether demons drove The Apostle, but she doubted any did because he had the eyes of a priest who believed in the existence of God, not the eyes of a man who heard voices. Heidi didn’t remember her mother’s eyes.
A car horn blared and Heidi jumped as if she were about to be run down. Her supervisor, Agnes Abruzzese, had parked in the mouth of the alley.
“I need gloves,” Heidi yelled.
Leaning out of the car window, Agnes shouted, “If God meant for you to have gloves, you’d have been born with ‘em.”
“You want fucking healthy, work in a fucking hospital.”
At the time, Heidi believed Agnes refused to furnish proper work gear to the alley cleaners out of spite. No slickers for the rain. No boots with steel toes. No gloves. No goggles. No breathing masks. Just a broom, a shovel, and a garbage can mounted on wheels that could be pushed like a shopping cart or pulled like a child’s toy. When Heidi asked about a clean, dry place where she could store her lunch while she worked, Agnes laughed and told her to tie it to the handle of the garbage can. By week’s end, Heidi would stop packing a lunch because by her lunch break, it had absorbed the stink of the garbage and reeked too much to be edible. Six months later, after Heidi would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor and her picture would be on the cover of both news weeklies, six months later after the guest spots on two of the three morning television shows and Larry King Live, six months later after she would learn that the city was at fault, Heidi still would blame her supervisor, convinced Agnes would have withheld the equipment if she had it to withhold because she was the type of person who rejoiced in the misery of others, especially if she inflicted that misery.
A woman after my own heart, Eleanor said of Agnes.
Shut up, Eleanor!
I’m not the ogre you think I am.
You are what I remember.
With the toe of her shoe, Heidi nudged the spaniel, then wormed her shoe under the carcass and raised it off the pavement so she could slide the shovel beneath it. Lopsided from the displacement and partial liquefaction of its internal organs, the dog hung over the sides of the shovel. Its weight surprised her. As she struggled to lift it, Heidi felt a strain begin in her lower back and move down her left leg. Since the health club where she used to exercise daily canceled her membership because she had not paid her dues, physical activities previously ingrained in her muscle memory now caused twinges and aches and left her short of breath. Before she could prop the shovel on the rim of the garbage can, the carcass fell and splattered on the pavement. The spaniel’s eyes popped open, staring at her as if it were begging for a treat. Heidi thought she heard the dog panting with anticipation, but it was her mother taunting her.
Is there anything you can do right, Eleanor asked.
“Use your fucking hands, Doula.” Agnes punctuated her command with three blasts of the car horn.
Heidi considered shouting ‘please’, but ‘please’ had never worked with Eleanor and Heidi wasn’t in the mood for the abuse Agnes would vomit at her. Rhys Martin, Heidi’s boss at the investment bank, had never used obscene language. He was polite, a gentleman, and he addressed her as a lady, which she was. Heidi had good people skills and a facility for abstract math that made econometric equations and formulae dance. The bank’s clients praised her to Rhys Martin and to his boss and his boss’s boss. Your next raise, Rhys had hinted, will move you from the income tax tables to Schedule X. Heidi celebrated by buying a plasma screen TV and a wisp of a dress that cost about as much.
To that point, Heidi’s career at the investment bank had advanced faster than a dot com stock and, egged on by Eleanor, she spendthrifted from paycheck to paycheck. After the stock market crashed in 2007, after the Depression of 2008, the bailouts of 2009, the bank downsized her and several thousand others. On that Friday, a security guard whose uniform looked like it had been rented from a costume shop but who carried a sidearm, hovered beside her as she dumped her personal effects in a small cardboard box with her name and address stenciled on the top, bottom, and all four sides as if the care with which the investment bank prepared the box would provide her consolation. From the door, the guard watched while she folded a cashmere scarf, royal purple with her name embroidered on one end, the bank’s logo on the other, and placed it in the box beside its matching beret. After closing the first Enron limited partnership, the bank had rewarded Rhys and his staff with a trip to Quebec for Winter Carnival, the scarf and beret one of the many gifts in the goodie bags. Eleanor, like a devil that could not be exorcised, traveled with Heidi, bitching about the cold, the snow, and the ulterior motive of every man who smiled at Heidi.
As Heidi packed, the stencil reminded her of the box with her mother’s belongings she had retrieved years earlier from the penitentiary morgue. Eleanor had been sentenced for felony welfare fraud, creating false identities to collect multiple welfare checks. She was caught when she sold false identification to a government investigator. Eleanor’s box had been stenciled with her name and address and sealed with clear tape as if it contained Christmas presents ready for mailing to a distant relative. It was large and bulky, but light enough for Heidi to carry without assistance. Because there was no crushed newspaper or packaging pellets, its contents rolled around, thumping against the sides, and Heidi remembered how she tried to guess what was inside by the sound. Open sesame, Eleanor said, but Heidi resisted. I wouldn’t have collected your box, Heidi reminded Eleanor, except the warden warned me I’d be billed a disposal fee. At the time, the investment bank still in her future, Heidi could not afford it. Lacking money to pay for the funeral, Heidi did not claim her mother’s body, something, to Heidi’s amazement, Eleanor never nagged her about.
As Heidi moved from place to place, Eleanor’s box moved with her, never opened. It encapsulated, she assumed, Eleanor’s life and Heidi’s interest in that life was as great as her mother’s interest had been in hers. Now, her own life, at least her life at the investment bank, was also encapsulated.
Like mother, like daughter, Eleanor’s voice hissed.
Other than a small severance check, Heidi’s assets on that Friday consisted of a savings account with less than a month’s living expenses, a retirement account full of penny stocks that once were the new generation of blue chips, a collection of unpaid credit card bills on which she had paid the minimum balance each month for several years, and no income except for unemployment compensation, 26 checks of approximately $362.00 each before taxes to be paid over a maximum of 52 weeks after which her eligibility expired. Because the investment banking firms, the mutual funds, the stock brokerage houses, the places where her experience had value, were firing people as fast as they could, the few available jobs went to entry level people. Heidi would have accepted one of those positions except each human resource person - they sounded as if they had all memorized the same speech - told her she was overqualified. She shopped herself to insurance companies, universities, consulting companies, accounting firms, any place where her facility for abstract math might be useful, but the speech accompanied her like a severe case of body odor or halitosis.
Eleanor, if she were alive, would blame the President of the United States or the governor or the conjunction of the planets or the boy who took Heidi to the high school senior prom and cursed her with the evil eye because she wouldn’t fuck him. Eleanor never accepted responsibility for anything she did or for anything that happened to her, including giving birth to Heidi. Heidi she blamed on an Elvis Presley movie, Love Me Tender, that had so enthralled her she did not realize what her date was doing until he had done it. Inventorying her life on the morning she entered prison, her mother reminisced with too much fondness about that date and Love Me Tender and how he bought her a second popcorn because she was still hungry after eating the first. Heidi wished she had been conceived at a Beatles movie, preferably Yellow Submarine, or to a Beatles song, preferably Eleanor Rigby, because she considered her mother to be one of the lonely people, a woman who when she died would be buried along with her name. Better an Elvis freak than a Jesus freak, Eleanor said and for once, Heidi conceded her mother was right.
Unlike Eleanor, Heidi accepted responsibility for everything she did or that was done to her, good or bad. By constructing her identity as being the anti-Eleanor, she had condemned herself to a life of maintaining a barrier between herself and her mother. She imagined that if Eleanor breached this barrier, they would cancel each other out in an explosion like matter and anti-matter. They argued. Whether corporate America forced her to buy a plasma TV or a wispy dress or enough shoes to outfit a battalion of women. Whether corporate America forced her to invest her retirement funds in IPOs sponsored by the investment bank or forbade her from cashing out and repositioning her assets in United States Treasuries to preserve her gains. For 26 weeks Heidi and Eleanor argued until Heidi’s unemployment ran out and she found a cash job waiting tables on the third shift at a truck stop and applied for welfare.
I won’t become you, Heidi vowed, when she submitted the application for welfare.
Working a cash job and collecting welfare, you already have, Eleanor replied.
Now, her feet aching from standing for 8 hours at the truck stop, Heidi studied the dead spaniel searching for a handhold. She rubbed her eyes and Eleanor appeared beside the carcass singing Happy Birthday, a store-bought birthday cake in one hand, a plastic bag with two guppies in the other. Her mother was transparent like a wraith and through her Heidi could see the maggots eating the carcass. Heidi blinked and with each blink Eleanor faded as if she were dissolving into the spaniel. After her vision cleared, Heidi fetched a discarded newspaper from the trash that surrounded the dumpster and wrapped several pages around her hand, by coincidence, the business section. The name of the investment bank where she once worked caught her eye as did the photos, head and shoulder shots, of the Chairman, the President, Rhys Martin, and Rhys’s key assistant and her primary competitor for promotion and raises, Theo Chopp. The bank, the paper reported, is under investigation by the SEC and the Department of Justice. Indictments are expected against Rhys and an unnamed assistant for aiding and abetting Enron, for conspiring with Arthur Anderson. Probably Chopp because he worked with Enron and other Arthur Anderson clients. And she sensed he was Rhys’s favorite because he golfed with the bank’s clients and played squash or handball with them at the Metropolitan Athletic Club. To save himself, Chopp would devour her and the other assistants the way maggots now devoured the spaniel.
With the tip of her shovel, Heidi positioned one of the spaniel’s paws on Chopp’s photo, slowly closed her grip so the paper would not tear or separate, then jerked the carcass upward. The dog’s coat and skin and flesh peeled away from the bone like meat from an overcooked leg of lamb, leaving the innards piled on the pavement like discards from a butcher shop.
Agnes pounded on the horn, alternating long and short blasts, like the bells in the training center operated by the Department of Transitional Assistance that sounded when it was time to change classes. As a condition for receiving welfare, Heidi had reported to the center for two weeks of training. The first session was a confessional, everyone offering a brief biography and explaining why they applied for welfare, how they intended to get off welfare. Heidi would have spun a tall tale about her mother dying in prison, beaten to death by a guard for not granting sexual favors even though she had died of complications from pneumonia, but she knew most of the people in the class either because they once worked with her at the bank or because she had dealt with them on various investment deals and she didn’t want to destroy her image in their eyes. One day, she hoped, one of them may hire her.
The training itself consisted of classes on how to write a résumé, how to dress for an interview, how to act at an interview, how to recognize sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination, how to fill out a job application, which questions were illegal to ask and did not have to be answered. Job counselors conducted mock interviews that were taped and critiqued. Heidi or any of her friends could teach the class better than the instructors, but they all sat quietly like well-behaved elementary students saving their jibes for coffee breaks or beers after class. At the end, a ceremony, diplomas, coffee and donuts, then the announcement: If you want a real job, the Director said, you have to find one on your own. If you want a welfare check, you have to work for it, menial work that won’t qualify you for nothing. Assignments were drawn like bingo numbers and Heidi drew Agnes and the alleys of Ilion Heights.
I always knew you’d go places, Eleanor said.
Now, in her peripheral vision, Heidi saw something fly by, a brick that left a crater in the hood of Agnes’s car. The second brick dented the roof. The third bounced off the street where Agnes had been standing. A woman with teeth as yellow and brown as an overripe banana leaned out of a window on the seventh floor, waved, and dropped a pair of rubber gloves.
On the second day of Heidi’s second month cleaning the alleys of Ilion Heights, the newspaper published a piece, a couple of thousand words with three color photographs, about her new home, the abandoned subway stop at Aberdeen and 88th Street. The Apostle had introduced her to Father McKenzie - only aliases were used in the subway tunnels - who arranged her accommodation. Like The Apostle, Father McKenzie refused to suffer workfare. He preferred to panhandle, squeegee windshields, collect bottles and cans for the deposits. Unlike The Apostle, Father McKenzie wore a disguise above ground. Nothing radical. A beard. Shades. A new hair color every few days. Heidi assumed he was on the lam. Maybe from the police. An ex-wife. Himself. The etiquette of the tunnels prohibited her from asking about this or why, a Hispanic, he chose a Scottish pseudonym. Until it was too late, Heidi did not appreciate the danger he posed.
The Transit Authority had closed Aberdeen in the late 1950’s, ‘58 or ‘59 according to Father McKenzie, when the trains outgrew the platform and had rebuilt the stations on either side of Aberdeen, extending their platforms to accommodate longer trains. The newspaper article described Aberdeen with language Heidi remembered from her former life: mosaic, fresco, bas relief, terra cotta, other decorative flourishes designed by artists and installed by skilled craftsmen when the station was built in the 1930’s. Heidi did not associate these artistic elements with the steel girders, concrete floors, broken turnstiles, metal bars, and graffiti - Aberdeen had been redecorated in the 1970’s at the height of the graffiti wars - of her new home, but she agreed with Father McKenzie that once upon a time there was real beauty in the subway station.
Heidi chose to live in The Aberdeen, as she dubbed it. Shelters lacked security and privacy. Dope dealers and crack heads infested the SROs and Heidi preferred fending off the tunnel rats to them. There were three kinds of tunnel rats, one four-legged species and two two-legged species, each dangerous in its own way. Heidi protected herself against the four-legged species, by storing her food in tins, circling her bed with a Maginot line of rat traps and poison, and elevating her mattress off the floor with pallets stolen by The Apostle. In less than a week, she learned how to sleep through the scurries of the rats and the roar of the trains.
The more common of the two-legged variety were the construction workers and maintenance men who kept the tracks and lights and switches functioning. Occasionally, if there were a rookie on the crew, he’d hoist himself on to the platform and inspect the station out of curiosity, but Heidi knew the station better than the work crews and hid in places they could never imagine.
Because Father McKenzie had warned her, Heidi was not at home when the reporter and photographer visited. Someone from the Transit Authority, he explained, had tipped him off. If they had found her, she would be evicted, arrested, convicted, jailed, and terminated from workfare. For this kindness, Father McKenzie asked nothing in return.
You owe him a fuck, Eleanor said.
Fuck you, Heidi replied.
On the Friday she was fired by the bank, Heidi had lived in a two-bedroom, tri-level apartment with two exposures and a terrace facing the river. Within the month, she broke the lease and moved into a small one bedroom on the seventh floor of a walk-up in a neighborhood described as being in transition. To pay the security deposit and first and last month’s rent, she sold her plasma TV and other electronic toys as well as her living room furniture. When the movers could not maneuver her dresser and bedroom set up the stairs of her new apartment building, she sold those. In the tri-level, she had stored Eleanor’s box in a closet. In her new apartment, she used it and her own for tables. Two months later, Heidi moved from the one bedroom to a basement studio without closets. Another broken lease. Another security deposit, first month’s and last month’s rent. She donated most of her wardrobe to Goodwill, keeping the wisp of a dress because it would make a good dish cloth. Heidi declined a receipt because she no longer needed the tax deduction. The cardboard boxes became living room furniture. The following month, into the tunnels. The Aberdeen. The cardboard boxes, still unopened, moved with her.
You should have been so loyal when I was alive, Eleanor complained.
Heidi’s life developed a rhythm. The graveyard shift at the truck stop where her boss looked the other way when she scavenged dinner from leftovers during her meal break and breakfast at the end of her shift. A long walk, except in extreme weather, to the sanitation department transfer station where she collected her garbage can, broom, and shovel and avoided, as best she could, the union members hanging around while their garbage trucks were being unloaded. The day shift cleaning alleys. A few pieces of fruit from the Korean grocer for supper. Sleep at The Aberdeen. On Saturdays, Heidi worked two shifts at the truck stop, but on Sundays she read books borrowed from the local library, on a park bench if the weather was dry, in The Aberdeen when it was wet. Virginia Woolf, Saul Bellow, Salman Rushdie, the criticism of John Berger, or, to avoid feeling sorry for herself, Frank Herbert’s Dune series or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars novels. She avoided the romance fantasies the other women in Agnes’s crew recommended, angering Eleanor who, when alive, read them as fast as she could shoplift them. On Sundays, Heidi fasted, an exercise in self discipline to prove to herself she still controlled at least one part of her life.
Slowly, Heidi accumulated money, something she never did at the investment bank. Someday the economy would turn and she would be ready with enough money to buy an outfit for interviewing, clothes to wear to work until her first paycheck, a room at a budget motel until she found a studio apartment. As for The Aberdeen, she collected a few pieces of furniture from the curbside before the garbage pickers reached them to go with the boxes and Father McKenzie helped her convert an abandoned storage closet into a small bedroom where she slept behind a locked door no longer surrounded by rat traps. She found comfort in the muffled roar of the trains that sped through Aberdeen every seven minutes because the sound reminded her of the street noise outside the tri-level. Father McKenzie spliced into an electrical line that powered the signal lights and she outfitted the room with a lamp, a space heater, a hot plate, and a radio tuned either to all-news or classical music. He also repaired the pipes in the subway station’s men’s room and opened the flow valve so Heidi had a working toilet and sink, cold water that she warmed on the hot plate. As the days passed, Heidi began to appreciate how a person could settle into the lifestyle she now had. There was an ease about it, an absence of ambition refreshing to her after the culture at the investment bank where the people who earned five figures lusted for six, the people who earned six lusted for seven, and the people who earned seven lusted for eight. Her new lifestyle was addictive and Heidi felt herself slipping into a narcosis as deep and insatiable as that of the crack heads who lived in the alleys she cleaned.
I knew sooner or later you’d see it my way, Eleanor said.
Go to hell, Heidi cursed.
I’m already there, Eleanor said.
On the third day of Heidi’s third month on workfare, goons under the direction of Archie Stepnik, shop steward of Local 132, stole the boxes, Heidi’s and Eleanor’s, from the locked room at The Aberdeen while Heidi cleaned the alley of another dead spaniel. Stains from the carcass of the first still discolored the alley and Heidi, perhaps out of superstition, perhaps out of respect, refused to step on them. As a young child, Eleanor had scared her with warnings of what would happen if she stepped on a grave. The dead will pull you into the coffin, her mother had said one time. Their souls will be booted out of heaven, she had said another. The stain was probably the only grave the spaniel had. Heidi feared if she stepped on it she might dissolve into it so she cleaned the alley around it rather than tempt fate. At the time of the theft, The Apostle told Heidi that Agnes had set her up; but later as the result of her celebrity she learned Father McKenzie, in exchange for a no-show job, ratted her and the other tunnel rats out to the city.
Move out, Eleanor advised, but Heidi, stubborn and territorial, changed the locks.
This time boxes, next time you, Eleanor warned. The Apostle gave Heidi a handgun.
You’ll die in jail like me, Eleanor said. Heidi borrowed a book on the law of self-defense from the library.
Find my box, Eleanor demanded.
When Heidi made no effort, Eleanor nagged, so relentlessly that Heidi wondered if spirits had a replay button. During her lifetime, Eleanor certainly did. Nagging was one of Heidi’s most striking memories of her mother. Cook my dinner. Clean the house. Do the laundry. Take out the garbage. Make the bed. Eleanor never nagged about anything that was good for Heidi. No do your homework. No study for your test. No shut off the TV and read. Heidi felt like Cinderella at the mercy of her evil sisters and mother, rescued not by a Fairy Godmother or Prince Charming but by the judge who sentenced Eleanor to prison for felony welfare fraud.
The week after the theft while waiting in line outside a storage shed at the garbage transfer station to sign out her garbage can and tools for the day - Heidi knew little about the transfer station except that it incinerated and compacted garbage collected by the trucks and by workfare recipients like herself - she thought she saw a sanitation worker on the loading dock point at her. She thought she heard her name whispered, hers and another, Archie. In the dim light of an overcast day, Heidi could not see the whisperer clearly except for the color of his hair, bright red, the only flash of color against the cinder block walls.
Who’s Archie, Heidi asked the person ahead of her in line, the person behind her; one shrugged and the other said a comic book character. She asked a truck driver, who responded by flooring the accelerator, bathing her in exhaust.
Throughout the day as Heidi cleaned her alleys, Eleanor mocked her as a coward and chickenshit. The taunt haunted her dreams and continued during her shift at the truck stop while she poured coffee and served pie a la mode to drivers who called her Babe or Honey or whistled at the way she walked. By the middle of her shift, business had slowed and the boss sent her home rather than pay her for sitting on a stool at the end of the counter doing a crossword puzzle. Instead of going to The Aberdeen, Heidi went to the transfer station where she waited in an alley across the street from the main gate.
I bet that’s Archie, Eleanor said, when a late model Escalade, all black with tinted windows and brass tire rims, drove into the yard. An American flag flew from its antenna. Another was attached to the roof above the driver’s seat with a suction cup.
Do you think, Heidi asked.
Heidi watched the driver of the Cadillac unlock the door covered with sheet metal and protected by a security grating. He looked like a short fat kid who grew up to be a short fat man who would require a double wide coffin when he died. Heidi doubted he could chase her ten yards before collapsing.
Go, Eleanor said.
Because I said so.
Heidi sneaked across the yard, keeping in the shadows of the incinerator’s smoke stacks. As she approached the door, the heat from the incinerator engulfed her. Eleanor told her she was entering Hell and Heidi had to agree. She pushed open the door and before the fat man could lift himself out of his desk chair she was inside. On a couch beside the desk she saw her boxes, both open, both empty. “You Archie?”
“Who wants to know?” The flesh hanging beneath his jaw shimmied as he spoke.
Heidi pointed at her name stenciled on one of the boxes. “Where’s my stuff?”
“The stuff from those boxes.”
“Notice them white clouds coming out of the smokestacks?” the man asked. “Used to be your stuff. Except for this.” He waddled over to a bookcase that had a dead plant, several grease stained loose leaf binders, and a framed photograph of a group of men in football uniforms squatting around a trophy. From the top shelf, he retrieved a brushed silver cylinder that bulged in the middle. “Who?”
“My mother,” Heidi said. “Of blessed memory,” she added at Eleanor’s prompt.
“The initials?” the man said.
“What’s it worth to you?”
Before Heidi could reply, Eleanor interrupted. A fuck, Eleanor said.
I’ll sing Love Me Tender and you won’t feel a thing.
The melody to Eleanor Rigby filled Heidi’s head and before she could stop herself she was humming it as she unbuttoned her slacks, switching to the lyrics when Archie unzipped his pants. By the end of the third replay, she was walking out of the transfer station yard with her mother’s ashes.
The fourth day of Heidi’s fourth month on workfare was a Friday and on Fridays Heidi walked by the Walter J. Bonner Elementary School to get to her assigned alleys. No one remembered Walter J. Bonner who must have been important in 1911 to have an elementary school named for him. The building had not worn well, decomposing brick by brick; but the city lacked funds to replace it or to bus the children of Ilion Heights to a better school.
Heidi’s route brought her by the Bonner School in the morning before classes began for the day and the children, especially the fifth and sixth graders, would traipse along beside her inside the school yard fence, taunting and teasing as she pulled her garbage can. The fence was as old as the school, ten-foot wrought iron rods topped with sharp points, rust its predominant color because so much paint had chipped off. Heidi didn’t mind the jibes. She knew they were not directed at her as a person, but at what the children saw. These children had so little, she was grateful she could provide them with a moment or two of entertainment. On most Fridays Heidi waved and smiled and the children scurried around hiding behind each other; but, when she was in the mood, Heidi made faces and clawed her hands as if she were a monster in a fairy tale hunting children to cook and eat.
The back and forth between Heidi and the children amused The Apostle who set up every morning against the wrought iron fence halfway between the corner and the entrance to the school yard to panhandle and read aloud the Bible. On this fourth day of Heidi’s fourth month, The Apostle was halfway through the Book of Psalms. If tippers at the truck stop the previous night were generous, Heidi would drop a dollar, sometimes two, in his pizza box; on slow nights, fifty cents. The Apostle would bow his head as if he were reciting a benediction, then bless Heidi with his eyes.
Soft head, soft heart, Eleanor chastised her.
It’s a sign God hasn’t forgotten us, Heidi replied.
He never knew me to forget.
Brilliant blue was the sky on this particular Friday, so bright it hurt Heidi’s eyes. She could walk on the other side of the street where the tenements cast shadows as black as her room at The Aberdeen with the light off, but it had been a very good night at the truck stop and she had $5.00 for The Apostle. As bright as the sunlight was, it did not bring color to Ilion Heights. The street Heidi trudged up was a muddle of grays and Heidi visualized it as a film negative, black and white, mentally marking out the places she would dodge, the places she would burn, what she would crop out of the print. In her spendthrift days, she took classes in black and white photography - real photography according to her instructor who disparaged the new wave of digital cameras - with an eye toward doing a series of urban landscapes to decorate her office at the investment bank. Ilion Heights had not been one of her intended subjects, but now that she walked its streets on a daily basis, she regretted selling her Hassleblad. Cheap point-and-shoot disposable cameras would never capture her vision of Ilion Heights.
A block from the Bonner School, Heidi noticed two royal purple splotches, part of The Apostle’s outfit, one atop his head, one around his neck. He wore a fluffy ankle length down filled coat, cement gray in color, like the ones that crowded the coat rooms of the city’s five-star restaurants and business clubs in January or February. Heidi preferred fur and had had her eye on a black sable before her lay-off.
“You’re out of season,” Heidi shouted. The Apostle looked in her direction, then returned to his Bible. As she reached the corner of the school yard, Heidi realized he sported her beret and scarf from the Quebec Winter Carnival.
What’s yours is yours, Eleanor said.
Better him than the incinerator.
Heidi paused, angering Eleanor. Attack, her mother demanded. Take what’s yours. Eleanor’s war cries filled Heidi’s head and she feared her skull would shatter into a thousand bone fragments. She imagined snatching the beret from The Apostle’s head, unwinding the scarf from around her neck, but this did not placate Eleanor. Attack, God damn it, Eleanor screeched.
The Apostle put aside his Bible as if he, too, could hear Eleanor. He smiled at Heidi, then slid several boxes of candy bars out from under the gathering of the down coat and waved the children toward him, dangling candy bars as bait. The children crowded around The Apostle, the older children shoving the younger ones out of the way. Eleanor’s bellowing drowned out their squeals of happiness as The Apostle distributed candy. One, two, three, large candy bars for each child seemed to appear in his hand out of thin air. The sounds in Heidi’s head became unbearable, reminding her of the after-hours clubs she once frequented where the music was amplified through a feedback loop and replayed in an echo chamber. Seeking only to silence her mother, Heidi raced toward The Apostle, dragging her garbage can behind her as if it were her tail. Panic flashed across his face. Lurching to a standing position, he struggled to unzip the down coat; but the zipper, caught on a shred of cloth.
Shoving children aside, Heidi reached for the beret. The Apostle flailed at her, his blows as weak as those of a first grader. Children screamed. Some called for help; others for their mommy. The police officer directing traffic at the crosswalk in front of the school rushed over and grabbed Heidi around the waist, wrestling her away from The Apostle. She lunged at The Apostle, but the cop slammed her against the fence and cuffed her to one of the wrought iron rods. Shut the fuck up, he said, when she tried to explain the beret and scarf had been stolen from her. While the cop examined The Apostle’s head and face for injuries, The Apostle tugged at his zipper, but his hands shook as if he were a drunk with the ‘DTs’. Let me, the cop said, slowly pulling the zipper up until it was free of the cloth, then down. Children, dropping their candy bars, screamed and ran in panic, some into the street, others into the school yard, a few toward Heidi. As two raced by, Heidi heard one of them say, dynamite.
For the rest of her life, Heidi never knew what really happened on the fourth day of the fourth month of her workfare assignment in Ilion Heights. The historical record, she knew. She kept a scrapbook of that record for her daughter and grandchildren, articles published in the local newspaper or downloaded from newspaper web sites across the country. She preserved in sealed plastic bags copies of Time and Newsweek and the other magazines that reported the story or featured profiles of her. She preserved on DVDs the television specials. She had several copies of the instant biography one of the publishers rushed out and the documentary made from it: American Heroine. She sold the movie rights to her life and utilized her mathematical skills to multiply her wealth in the securities markets by deriving arbitrage equations that predicted price anomalies for complementary securities in competing marketplaces. With her wealth, she anonymously endowed several dozen college scholarships for graduates of the Bonner School. She framed the joint resolution of Congress and her citation for the Medal of Honor which lauded her as the woman who foiled the first Al Qaeda homicide bombing attempted in the United States. She knew all these facts and she knew how these facts had changed her life and she knew that she had not earned these changes, but she did not know the truth of these facts, the why of these facts. She said as much in the book she wrote to the bemusement of her readers and the disappointment of her publisher who wanted a final chapter devoted to the meaning of it all. I was not anointed like Joan of Arc, she wrote. Unlike Esther in the Old Testament, I did not perceive the danger from which I rescued my people. I was just trying to get my beret and scarf back. She said these things again when she was interviewed on the 10th anniversary of that Friday, then repeated herself on the 25th anniversary. By the 50th anniversary, her name relegated to the ‘Today in History’ column that ran on the comics page, no one interviewed her at the hospice and, a few days later, she died peacefully. By the 100th anniversary, Heidi, like Eleanor, had been buried along with her name.
Liss whose first novel was published in July, 2020 is a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee, a nominee for the storySouth Million Writers Award, and a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Prize sponsored by University of Georgia Press, the St. Lawrence Book Award sponsored by Black Lawrence Press, and the Bakeless Prize sponsored by Breadloaf Writers’ Conference and Middlebury College. He has published more than 55 short stories. Please visit his website at www.sfredericliss.com for more information.