Literary Yard

Search for meaning


By: Ruth Z. Deming


I drove over to the huge Barnes and Noble shopping center and parked by Heavenly Ham. As a Jew, forbidden to eat pork products as a kid, I developed a lusty appetite for bacon, pork chops, and especially for ham. What could be more delicious than a ham sandwich on Jewish rye?
At Heavenly Ham, I asked for the works: Ham, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayo and hickory honey mustard on a croissant. It came to eight dollars with a tip. Since I refuse to pay for water, the woman gave me cold icy water in a cup with a lid. There was no where to sit down and eat it and I didn’t feel like going home.
Walking back to my car, I had an idea.
Across the street was a historic boarding house that had been built at the time when John Philip Sousa and his orchestra played at the now-defunct Willow Grove amusement park. I had often driven by and seen an odd brotherhood of men sitting on the front porch.
Summoning my courage, I carried the little white bag with my lunch inside and boldly approached the house. A plaque on the lawn read: “Parkside Boarding House, built 1901.”
Sure enough, men of all ages sat on the front porch. I stood at the bottom of the stairs and looked up at them, like a little girl.
“C’mon up,” said a man I would soon learn was Gerry.
I’d been invited! I walked up the gray porch steps, which reminded me of my childhood in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, when we all sat on the front porch in the summertime.
Nodding to the men, I took a seat on a white-painted bench. My back was hurting and the hard bench didn’t help. We were in the heat of August but a cool breeze fanned all of us on the porch.
“What brings you here?” asked Gerry.
“Curiosity, I suppose,” I said. “My name is Ruth.”
Gerry introduced me to the other guys. They were all drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. I recognized one fellow from MacDonald’s. He talked to himself and had strange fingers. They splayed out at the fingertips. Probably some sort of syndrome. It was good to know he had a place to live. Gerry introduced him as a veteran from the war in Vietnam. He avoided eye contact.
Who were these men? Did they work? They certainly had to pay rent.
Gerry told me he was a contractor who was unemployed. He also said he had recently lost his wife, the love of his life. She was a nurse, he said, and died from cancer.
There was no reason not to believe him.
I bit into the croissant and moaned aloud with pleasure.
With my mouth full, I asked, “Can you give me a tour of the rooming house? Just a quick one to give me an idea what it looks like inside.”
Gerry stood up and towered over me.
“How tall are you?” I asked.
“Guess,” he said.
“Six-seven,” he said.
He unlocked the front door and we walked into the lobby. Dozens of mailboxes lined the walls. The rooming house had seven floors. From the outside, you could see the black wrought-iron fire escape on the side of the house that overlooked the Danneker’s house. Mr. Danneker was a beekeeper I wrote about for the local paper.
We got onto the little elevator and I could smell the beer on Gerry’s breath. I was only half finished with my ham sandwich and held the cup of water in my hand. When we got off the elevator, we walked down the uncarpeted hallway – the place resembled a prison – and he unlocked the door of his apartment. When we got inside, he bolted the door shut.
This was the moment I first felt afraid.
“Do you have any napkins for me?” I chirped.
He gave me a roll of paper towels and invited me to sit on a burgundy-colored couch with the stuffing poking out. It was most uncomfortable. The place looked like it hadn’t been painted since the turn of the century. A couple of Jesus Christ crosses hung on the walls. There were no books in the apartment just a television set covered with dust.
He was holding a 24-ounce can of Coors Beer. Instead of actually drinking it, he poured it down his throat, gulping it like a force-fed goose for pate de foie gras.
“See these hands?” he asked.
I looked at them.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Touch them. I can tell you want to.”
I did not want to touch them.
“That’s all right,” I said. “I’m eating my ham sandwich” and I took a bite. I had lost my appetite.
“My hands are deadly weapons,” he said.
I looked at him sideways. And said nothing.
“I was a boxer. A very good boxer. If I want, I can kill a person with these hands.”
I nodded my head.
“Are you afraid of me?” he said.
I gave a little laugh.
“I was in jail because of these hands. I almost kilt someone with them.”
He offered up his hands as if we were playing show and tell. They were huge. They looked like they had flesh-colored boxing gloves on them. If Gerry was six foot seven, then his hands were, like, nearly a foot long.
He gulped some more Coors, finishing the can, then crushed it and went over to the mini-fridge to get another. He looked like a giant striding around a mouse hole.
He offered me a taste.
“Sure,” I said, hoping it would make me relax. I tried to drink it like he did, not touching my lips to the can.
“Thanks,” I said. “That was good. I enjoyed it. Tell me about your wife.”
“You ever heard the term ‘soulmate’?”
“Yes,” I said. “The eHarmony website on television.” I didn’t tell him but I was on dating websites, including eHarmony, where I’d met the most awful men you could imagine. I knew I was attractive, skinny, with nice hips and butt, but I had yet to meet someone decent.
He and Karen had met in high school in the Juniata section of Philadelphia. They went together for a while, then went their separate ways. She got married, had kids, then “the bastard divorced her” for a younger woman.
“Don’t you hate people like that and want to punch them out?” he asked me.
They met again by chance at a high school reunion right here in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania at Dimarzio’s Willow Inn.
“Oh, I know that place,” I said. “Great eggplant parm.”
Gerry stood up to stretch his legs. He shook his mop of gray hair off his forehead and offered me another sip, which I declined.
“I went home with her that night,” he said, “and we renewed our relationship. Boy, was she a beauty.” He pointed straight ahead to a shelf which housed a coffee maker, some coffee mugs, and several picture frames. He went over and brought the frames back to the couch.
He pointed to a woman in cap and gown. “Here she is when she graduated nursing school at Gwynned Mercy and here’s our wedding photo.” Karen was wearing a short white dress and elegant long white gloves, while Gerry had on what looked like a tuxedo with a lavender shirt with ruffles.
I took the photos in my hand and gave them a good looking over.
“The best six years of my life,” he said. “We moved into her condo in Horsham. Since I’m a carpenter, I fixed it all up. We were as happy as two pigs in shit.”
I braced myself for I knew it was coming.
“She was a nurse and she felt a lump. She told me when you feel the lump it’s too late.”
He got up for another beer. I stood up myself. I told him I had a bad back and I had to be going because my back was killing me.
“We’ll move to the kitchen table,” he said.
He asked if I liked instant coffee and I said yes, though I can’t stand it.
Putting the mug in front of me, he said he couldn’t get over the loss of his wife.
“Those were the happiest years of my life. I feel like killing somebody to make myself feel better.”
I took a sip of the hot Nescafe.
“They’d find out and you’d go back to jail. This time you might never get out.”
“I still think you’re afraid of me.”
I stood up, took one more sip of coffee and thanked him for the tour of his apartment.
“Would you mind undoing the latch?” I asked him.
He did.
“Which way are the stairs?”
“I’ll walk you down,” he said.
We ended up on the front porch again. None of the men had moved. They were sitting, laughing, drinking and smoking. My back was killing me but his heart was killing him. I felt bad for Gerry.
From the front porch, he showed me his truck in the side parking lot. It looked new to me, a wine color, shiny, with one of those silver tool boxes in the back, waiting, just waiting, to be called on a job.
I told him I’d come back if I saw him on the porch again and I meant it. Five years have passed. His truck has never moved from the parking lot when I drive by. I wonder when his liver will give out and he’ll die a painful death by intoxication.
Will I ever forget Gerry? No way. But I sure can’t fix him.


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