Dennis Vannatta

I and the Village of Rockaway Park

Strangely enough, considering how often he has stared at it, Robert Simon can’t remember the color of the cow.  Brown, logic seemed to demand, cows are brown.  Robert watches the paint spread like brown satin as he moves the brush smoothly from left to right across the clapboard, then back.  The cow must be exactly that color.  But then he stops, lowers the brush, and frowns.  “Wait a minute,” he says. “Who are we talking about here—Marc Chagall, right?  That cow can be any color you can dream!”

He would continue in this vein except for two things:  he’s promised to cut down on talking to himself—aloud at least—and it’s getting too dark to paint.  You’d think you were getting good coverage, but when you checked in the morning light, you’d find all sorts of places you’d missed.  And Robert prides himself on doing a good job.

He unhooks the bucket of paint and begins working his way down the ladder, then stops when he notices a blue car coming down the street toward him.  Robert presses himself against the rungs of the ladder and holds his breath.  The car seems to slow momentarily, then moves on.  Robert doesn’t relax until he sees the driver.  No, it’s not the black man.


It’s dark by the time he gets home.  On his way into the kitchen, he’s ambushed by his wife, Sylvia, who demands an accounting.

“Well, how much did you get done?”

“One gable.  I told you at dinner I’d probably have enough light to do one more gable.”

“So just because you said one gable you had to stop at one gable?  What’s the object here, Bobby—to verify your powers of prognostication or to finish the job so you can get paid and I can buy some of the finer things of life?”

As she says “finer things of life,” Sylvia leers, hunches her back, and wrings her hands in a caricature of greed.

But Robert isn’t in the mood to be kidded. 

“I didn’t stop just because I’d finished one gable!  I stopped because it was getting so dark I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.  Besides, I was so exhausted I could hardly hold on to the damn ladder.”

Disgusted at the sound of his whining voice, Robert turns and heads for the stairs.

“I’m going to take a shower.”

Sylvia follows him to the base of the stairs.

“Couldn’t you get one of those miner’s hat things with a light on it so you could work a few more hours?” she calls after him.  “And drugs!  How about drugs to give you more energy?  I need you working, Bobby, finishing that job.  Money money money, Bobby!”

Robert slams the bathroom door.  He waits until he’s sure she hasn’t followed him, then goes back into the hall and listens.  The big house has the feel of a museum after closing time.  He climbs the stairs to the attic, turns on the light, walks bent over beneath the low-slanting roof, and stops before the painting, which hangs from an exposed roof beam.  He squints against the glare cast by the shadeless bulb suspended on its kinked and knotted cord.

Of course.  How could he have forgotten?  The cow is red, white, and blue.


Robert has just gotten the ladder up against the house and is stirring the paint when Mr. Berger comes out of the back door and stands on the deck looking down at Robert.  He’s wearing worn, floppy house slippers, a red velour robe that shouldn’t be seen, Robert decides, outside a French whorehouse, and the sort of patient smile of a man who’s all set to watch somebody else work.

 Robert finishes stirring the paint, secures the can in one hand and the brush in the other, and starts up the ladder.  He’s three rungs up when Mr. Berger says, “Well, at least today you can paint without guilt.”

Robert stops.  Without turning around he says, “What are you talking about?”

The little, white-haired man cranes his face up at Robert.  “It’s Sunday is all I’m saying.  You don’t have to feel guilty about working on the Sabbath, not like yesterday.”

Robert leans into the ladder and sighs.  “Look, Mr. Berger, I work at the bank during the week, you know that.  If I didn’t paint on Saturday, how long do you think it’d take me to finish your house?  I even came back after dinner last night to hurry things along.”

Mr. Berger lifts his palms, eyebrows, and shoulders in a great shrug, holds for a count of three.  “I’m just saying, is all.  I hate to see a Jew working like a nigger on the Sabbath.”

Robert knows he should let it rest, but he can’t help himself.

“I’d take this Sabbath stuff more seriously if this wasn’t Rockaway Park, New York,” he said.

Mr. Berger shrugs again, this time a rapid up and down of the shoulders.

“What are you saying?  You can’t be a Jew in the Rockaways?  There are as many Jews here as Catholics.”

“I’m not sure you can be a Jew in this world,” Robert says, then goes on up the ladder.


A dozen long smooth strokes with the Chinese-bristle brush following the horizontals of the clapboard and Robert begins to calm down.  Yes, painting is good for something, although his arches ache from standing a half-hour at a stretch on the ladder, and if he doesn’t wear gloves he gets a blister in the palm of his right hand from holding the brush, and if he does wear gloves his skin sweats and itches and peals.  And he sunburns easily, doesn’t much like heights, and has a genuine horror of birds, especially seagulls, which are monstrously large in flight and will one day knock him from the ladder and spill his brains on some oily cold driveway, he’s sure of it.

“You think I like to paint?” he imagines saying to the guys down at the bar.  “You think I’d be doing this if the old lady didn’t nag me to death?  Buy me this, buy me that, buy me something else.”

He never says that, of course, because he never goes to the bar and has no friends.  He’s forty-eight now, too old for friends.  Friends are for young people.

The “guys at the bar” are just one of the imaginary audiences that Robert, up on the ladder, lectures about life and painting, two things he tries hard to see significant relationships between.

“Now, paint’s not glue,” he would like to point out.  “You got a splinter of wood about to drop off, don’t think paint will glue it on.  And another thing, paint’s not filler.  It won’t fill in a hole or a gouge.  Oh sure, you’ll think so when you slop it on wet, but you come back when it’s dry and there’s your hole again.  So remember this:  paint is not glue; it is not filler.”

Robert feels there’s a deep significance to this observation, although he can’t say precisely what it is.  He decides it’s one of those things that can’t be explained, but all you had to do was point it out and everyone would instantly see its wisdom.  The one time he’d tried it out on a live audience, though, Sylvia had canted her head, batted her eyes, and, in her perky “valley girl” best, said, “Neat!”  And Robert had to walk away quickly before saying something he’d regret.

In fact, what Robert likes best about painting is, unless some tiresome old fool like Mr. Berger comes along, he doesn’t have to talk to anybody.  He can be alone with his thoughts, which naturally include his grouses against the world and scenarios in which after a hypothetical wrong done him at the bank, he tells Bernard the Prime Ass Kupperman to take his job and shove it, or knees him in the groin, or throws him bodily through the frosted-glass door of his office.  Eventually, though, Robert’s thoughts carry him to that pleasant realm where the mockery ceases and the pain is assuaged.  His village, with the red, white, and blue cow, the green man, the floating woman, houses of many colors, Death with his scythe just another peasant, perhaps a friend you could smoke a pipe with, and —

“So this is another goddamn father-in-law, I guess!”

Startled, Robert drops the paint brush, fumbles to catch it, loses his balance, and for a wild instant thinks he’s going to fall.  But he catches hold of the ladder and, breathing hard, holds tight.  He doesn’t even have to look down.  He knows who it is:  the black man.


Robert thinks of the black man as “George,” although they’ve never exchanged names.  Robert has considered the possibility, though, of George asking him his name, and he has one all prepared:  Guido Parelli.  He doesn’t want George knowing he’s Jewish; any information at all might be used against him in a case like this.

His first encounter with the black man came when he was working on Solly Bateman’s house, a sweet job, one story, not much trim.  George had seemed a nice enough guy at first, just making small talk about the weather, the Mets and so on.  In fact, Robert thought he was softening him up to ask for a job, but instead George had asked him, “What’s your local?”

“Local?  What do you mean?”

“Local, you know, local.  What’s your local?”

Robert shook his head wonderingly, edged a step back.  He suspected the black man was from one of the city-run “homes” farther down Rockaway Beach Boulevard.  Generally these people were harmless, but you couldn’t be sure.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, buddy,” Robert said.

“Ha, I knew it!  You don’t belong to no damn union at all, do you?”

Finally, Robert understood.

“Oh, you’re talking about a painter’s union.  No, I just do this part time.  I work down at the bank, that’s my regular job.”

Up until then the black man—heavy-set and balding with a tiny mustache and thick-lensed glasses that caused him to look bug-eyed—had seemed amiable enough, but now he wrinkled up his nose, mimicked mincingly, “‘I work down at the bank,’“ then burst out, “Well, while you’re picking up a little chump change on the side, you’re taking the food off my goddamn table!”

Robert was stunned.  Before he could think of anything to say, the black man went into a stern lecture on unionism—how a union man has to struggle for a living at the best of times and then some jerk comes along and offers to do the job for chicken feed in his spare time.

Robert brought him to a halt by asking, “You mean a man can’t paint his own house?”

George did a double-take from Robert to the house.

“You mean this is your place?”

“Yessir.  Here,” Robert said, fumbling for his wallet, “you can check the address on my driver’s license.”

“Naw, naw,” the black man said, waving the wallet away.  He looked a bit embarrassed.  “We kinda look the other way when a man’s working on his own place.  ‘Course, it still is taking a job away from a card-carrying union worker.  I mean, I don’t go into no bank and try to take your job for half the wages you earn.”

Robert was assistant head loan officer at the bank on 116th Street.  Few black people lived in the Rockaway Park-Belle Harbor-Neponsit area, but occasionally one would come in from Far Rockaway or Arverne looking for a loan.  Generally all they could offer for collateral was their television set.

“I know you don’t, and I appreciate that,” Robert said in his most conciliatory voice, the one he used when he had to turn down some especially desperate person for a loan.  “And I appreciate your being so understanding about me painting the house.  I didn’t even think about the union angle.”

“Folks don’t.”

“I’ll bet that’s so.”

They shook hands, and George got into a blue Nissan and drove off.

Their next meeting wasn’t so cordial.  Robert was painting the window trim on one of the little bungalows in Neponsit when he heard a car pull up to the curb behind him.  He grew a little uneasy when the car just sat there, engine idling.  Then came that voice, not really a New York accent at all, sort of Southern in a way:  “Well, I’ll be goddamn.”

If on the first encounter the black man delivered a lecture, this time it was a full-scale diatribe accompanied by arm-waving and sweat breaking on his face and running down his neck to his white collar.  It was a Sunday morning, and the man was wearing a suit and tie.  Probably going to church, Robert decided.  But the Baptist church in Arverne was a long way from Neponsit.

When the man paused for breath mid-tantrum, Robert broke in, “I thought you said it was okay if I painted a house for a relative.”

“What the hell are you talking about, relative?  I never said nothing about no damn relative.  I said painting your own house your own damn self.”

Robert slapped his forehead.

“Oops!  My fault on that one.  It’s just that my father-in-law just moved in here—his wife died recently, you know, so he’s all on his own—and I thought I’d help him spruce up the place a bit, that’s all.  I guess I just didn’t think . . .”

“Hunh!  Father-in-law!”



“Really, truly, he is.  Here, come on in and meet him.  Come on,” Robert said, taking the black man’s coat-sleeve between thumb and forefinger and giving a little tug.  “He just sat down to lunch.  Come in and have a cup of coffee with us.”

The black man jerked his arm back.

“Don’t be putting your hands on me, now.”

“Sorry.  Come on inside, though, and have a cup of coffee.”

The black man was still scowling suspiciously, but after a moment he shook his head.

“No, I ain’t got time for no coffee.  I don’t want to see you painting no more houses, is all.”

“Oh, I won’t, I won’t.”

“There’ll be trouble if you do.”

“I understand, but trust me, this is my last house.”

It hadn’t been his last house, of course, and Robert, climbing slowly down the ladder, has no hope the black man will let him off a third time.

Once on the ground, Robert has a hard time looking him in the eye, rather—even though he’s a head taller than George—stands staring down at his feet like a guilty twelve-year-old before a truant officer.

“Well, ain’t you got anything to say to me?” George demands.

That’s the problem.  Even though he’s played out this scene many times in his mind, Robert hasn’t been able to come up with an even marginally plausible excuse.

As if he’s read Robert’s mind, the black man says, “Say, why don’t you take me in and introduce me to your grandpa or old maid aunt or whoever it is you’re painting for now?  Sure, I’d be happy to have a cup of coffee with ‘em.  A damn doughnut, too.”

“I was just trying to earn a little money,” Robert says.  “Is that against the law?”

Before, the black man had appeared disgusted and exasperated.  Suddenly, though, he’s furious.

“Law!  Don’t talk to me about no law.  You think the guys are going to give a damn about the law when I tell them about you undercutting the union like this?  What do you think they’re going to do when I tell them that?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t want to know, I’ll tell you that.”

“Well, don’t tell them, then.”

“Why the hell shouldn’t I?”

“Because this is my last house.  I mean it this time.  This one is it for me.”

“No, you got that wrong.  This isn’t your last house.  This is your last stroke.  That sorry-ass stroke you made with the brush up there just to the right of the window—that one—that’s the last stroke you’re putting on this house.  You put one more stroke on this house and somebody’s going to pay you a visit.”

“But you can’t expect me to leave the house half done.  What’ll the Lederers do?”

“Let ‘em call a union man to finish it.”


The green man gazes lovingly at the cow.  The cow gazes lovingly back.  Rather than loin-warming lust, love for the cow is a milk-maid stroking its full udders.  That at least Robert believes to be the meaning of the tiny cow and milkmaid superimposed on the red, white, and blue cow’s head.

He sits in the old stuffed chair under the slanting roof of the attic, the Chagall print, hanging from the beam opposite him, lit by the afternoon light flooding through the gable window.

He’s finally calmed down after his latest run-in with George, then his retreat home and subsequent encounter with Sylvia.  No, “encounter” is the wrong word.  “The nagging wife” is a role Sylvia jokingly assumes to kid her husband out of his black moods, he knows that.  Doing the painting jobs on weekends and even after work during the week had been Robert’s idea, after all, and Sylvia goes along with it like she goes along with all his other weirdness—because she worries about him, she loves him, she’s his wife, his helpmate.  It was the worry she could not hide from him when he —routed—fled home earlier that morning that drove him up to the attic, where he has sat with the Chagall for hours now.

They bought the print, oh, it must have been twenty years ago, in the gift shop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  That was after walking around a corner and, voila!, there was the original itself.  Robert had been stunned.  He wasn’t an art enthusiast—didn’t go in for high-brow stuff of any kind, usually—but the second he saw I and the Village . . .

“That was painted by a Jew, you know,” Sylvia, noting his enthusiasm, had said.

He nodded:  “That I could have told you.”

They bought a cheap frame for it and hung it in the living room where it stayed until maybe ten years ago.  Then Sylvia got new furniture and put up that flowered print wallpaper and declared the Chagall didn’t go, the colors were all wrong.  So it went up to the attic.

Gradually, more and more, Robert began to go to the attic, too.  The sense of well-being he feels when gazing at the painting worries him. If not an intellectual, Robert is reflective enough to understand it’s a sad thing for a man to feel more at home in a painting than in his own life.

When had Robert begun to feel an alien in the world around him?  Perhaps from the beginning.

His father, half a century older than Robert, had raised him after his mother died in childbirth.  He had been an ambivalent man and bequeathed a confused cultural identity to his son.  Jake Simon never went to temple and spoke of those who did as “great kidders, they kid themselves.  They’re jokes. They’re dinosaurs, walking relics.  Keep away from them, Robert, or they’ll contaminate you with their fantasies about God and Golems and all that.”  He called himself “Jake” and refused to answer to “Jacob,” named his son what he thought of as the culturally-neutral “Robert,” changed the family name to “Simon,” and advised his son not to waste his time trying to find out what it had been.  (“Simonofsky” or “-ovsky,” Robert guessed, since his father had come from Russia.)

But if his father had wanted so badly to escape his Jewish heritage, Robert wondered, why hadn’t he changed their name to “Smith”?  “Simon” surely didn’t fool anybody.  And why did he speak with such affection of the shtetl in Russia where he’d been born, telling his little boy tales of village life as he gave him his bath.  Jake never called the village by name, though.  It was always just “the shtetl,” and the details of village life—Robert realized years later—smacked of the short stories of Singer and Aleichem that Professor Rosen had made them read at CCNY.  Had his father actually lived in Russia, or was it all a tale to beguile himself as much as his son?  If it was a tale, it had the power of those from a child’s storybook, dazzling the boy with colorful images—men in bloused pants with long clay pipes sticking out of their bearded faces, fat-cheeked peasant women arguing with the baker, goats in the streets, chicken on the roofs, and the smell of wood smoke and cow dung ripe in the air—that never left him and caused him to ache with nostalgia for a life of simplicity, purity, and communal well-being that he wasn’t at all sure had ever existed.

America was a fallen world, and Rockaway Park, where the Simons lived in a fine house with a maid and a cook, was twice removed, drab and soulless when compared to that prelapsarian shtetl, but also an anemic shadow of robust, teeming Rutger’s Square in the city, where Jake had fought his way up from poverty to prosperity.  How did he do it?  “This is how,” he’d say to his son, pounding himself on first one shoulder and then the other.  “I lifted more, I carried more, I fought harder.”  First hawking coal from a wheelbarrow and hauling cinders, then buying a wagon and mule, then two, then a truck, finally a fleet of trucks running Maine to Florida and coast to coast.  But the early days were the best, “when it was all assholes and elbows and knuckles,” not later, when he became nothing but a “damn pencil pusher.”

Not for Jake the “my son the doctor” routine.  Those Jews with their thin wrists and pursed lips gave Jake a pain.  He took Robert to Ebbets Field to see the Dodgers (before that “mick son-of-a-bitch O’Malley who I’d like to choke with my own hands” absconded to California), then to Shea Stadium to see the pitiful Mets, and into the Garden to watch the Rangers.

Robert went to public school and was six-four by the time he was a junior.  He longed to be the next Hank Greenberg, but his eyes were weak and he couldn’t hit a curve ball.  He found to his surprise—because his father had never cared much for it—that he liked basketball even better than baseball and had, if not a shooting touch, a penchant for getting the ball off the boards and terrorizing opponents with wildly flying elbows and, at the slightest provocation, fists.  Eventually Jake grew to appreciate the game, too, and became a “character” at courtside, harassing referees and opponents and opponents’ parents.  It was always a tossup whether the son would be thrown out of the game before the father was thrown out of the gymnasium.  By his senior year, Robert had visions of playing college ball.  But then one January night against Boys High he came down awkwardly with a rebound and broke a bone in his foot.  He tried to come back too soon from the injury and broke the foot again in March, then that summer broke it a third time walking down the front steps of his house.  His athletic career was over.

What would he do with is life now?  He had no idea.  He went to CCNY, majoring in business although he had no passion for it, and somehow managed to graduate.  Along about then his father sold the trucking company, which hadn’t been doing all that well of late, and two months later died of a stroke.  Robert was left with the big house and enough money that he’d be embarrassed to ever complain about it, but not enough that he didn’t have to work.

He got a job as junior loan officer in the bank where his father had done business ever since moving to Rockaway Park.  He married a woman who loves him so much and works so hard to save him from his self-doubt that sometimes he can hardly bear to be around her.  They never had children.  Maybe there were medical reasons for this, or maybe it was just bad luck.  Looking back, Robert wonders if in his heart he was afraid of having children, having a son to whom he’d bequeath the family cultural schizophrenia or malaise or whatever it was.  Sylvia seems unaffected by their childlessness—she has him, her “big baby,” after all—but as he gets older Robert more and more misses the son he never had.

With no son, Robert fills up his days with work, mostly at the bank where he’s a glorified  pencil-pusher—yes, yes, nothing more than a pencil-pusher—whose chief function seems to be to cause anxiety, humiliation, and despair to people with none of his advantages in life.  He knows he’ll never rise higher than his current position as assistant head loan officer, and he’s surprised and angered that this realization bothers him so much.

He began to paint houses in his spare time not because he needed the money but because he holds his soft life in contempt.  It seems incredible to him that he’ s lived almost three decades since he broke his foot in the Boys High game.  He has spent those years drifting.  He would like to anchor his life to a place and community where he could use his large-boned, long-muscled body to heft and haul.  The closest he’s come to such a place is Chagall’s I and the Village, which explains why he’s so often found in the attic.  But he knows that an explanation justifies nothing.


He would not demand to be the green man, whose color, Robert assumes, signifies his youthfulness and rootedness in the earth.  Nor would he demand to hold the sprig of flowers—almost as beautiful as the bouquet of roses and baby carnations that Sylvia carried at their wedding—which the green man presents to the cow.  The green man, in fact, is welcome to the cow.  Robert’s only experience with cows came at the state fair in Syracuse, which his father took him to one weekend when Robert was six, maybe seven.  They got up before dawn one Saturday and drove for hours up through the winding Hudson Valley and then out into spaces so wide and open—”Trees.  There, Robert:  trees.  And look at all the other green stuff”—that Robert was disoriented.  In the carnival he threw a softball at a stack of leaded milk bottles, rode the Ferris Wheel and got sick, and in one of the cow barns got separated from his father and ran blindly until he came nose to nose with an animal slightly smaller than a garbage truck, at which point Robert let out a bellow that nearly precipitated a stampede.

So Robert does not demand to be the green man and stand nose to nose with the adoring cow.  Perhaps he’ll leave that to his son—his name will be Moses or Saul or perhaps Isaac—who’ll have his place in Chagall’s village.  They’ll be real pals there.  Sylvia will be there, too, of course.  She’ll be the woman in blue, miraculously floating upside down. 

What does Robert do in the village?  He paints, of course.  He starts on the right and paints the yellow house first, then the white, the blue, the red one, and so on.  When it’s time to paint the gables and trim on the upper stories, the houses (Chagall has thought of everything) invert for him so he doesn’t have to use the ladder.  At the end of the day his muscles are pleasantly tired.  He stands back and surveys the result of his labors, and he’s satisfied.  His father, who lives in the green house, leans out of the upper window and says, “Good job, Robert.  You’ve done the work of a man.”


Late that afternoon Robert returns to the Lederer house, not defiantly but abjectly, hopelessly.  What else can he do?  He’s afraid of the black man, but explaining to the young couple why he can’t finish their house . . . no no, not possible.

Robert is up on the ladder painting the 1x6 trim that rises to a point under the ridge of the roof.  He’s so tense that he runs the brush across the wood in stuttering jerks.  All he can think about is the black man, what’ll happen if—not if but when the black man appears again.

Somehow, though, Robert is caught off guard when the ladder suddenly begins to shift under him, and he looks down to see the black man, glaring furiously upward, shaking the ladder.

“Get your ass off that house!”

Terrified, Robert clings to the ladder as the black man gives it another violent shake.

“Get your ass down from there!”

Robert begins to move down the ladder, a slow process because his legs don’t seem to be working right.  Even when he gets his feet on the ground, he has to keep one hand on the ladder to steady himself.

“I had to finish the house.  Those kids were just married,” he says pleadingly.  “Besides, I need the money.  You can understand that, can’t you?”

This apparently is the wrong thing to say.  Behind the bottle-lens glasses the black man’s eyes gleam with rage and malice.

“Bull shit you need the money.  I seen your big-ass house.”

“You’ve been to my house?”

“Yeah, tailed you over there.  Big as a damn hospital.  And you got the balls to tell me you need the money.”

Robert shakes his head.  He feels his fear ebbing and being replaced by an emotion he cannot yet identify.

“You don’t know anything about my life,” he says.

“I don’t, huh?  Well, I saw your big-ass house and your big-ass car and your bony-ass wife driving her own damn car and—”

Robert lashes out with his right hand and hits the black man, a blow that surprises them both.  Robert in fact has not even clenched his fist, and the blow does no more than knock the man’s glasses down off one ear.  The man fumbles for an instant with his glasses, then, panting loudly as if he’s just finished a long run, raises his fists in a John L. Sullivan pose and takes a hesitant step toward Robert.

Robert feints with a left and then loops a right over the black man’s upraised fists and hits him over the eye, then launches a barrage of blows, some missing, some glancing, but several landing solidly enough on the man’s head and chest that Robert feels their force vibrate up his wrists and arms to his shoulders.  The black man reels back against the hedge of Japanese holly, then goes down.

Fists at the ready, Robert stands over him a moment, but then steps back and lets his hands fall.  It’s all over. 

After a moment, the black man sits up and rubs his face, smearing blood from his nose across his chin and cheeks.  When he sees the blood on his palm, he begins to cry.

“I never could fight,” he says, snuffling and hiccuping.  “Never could.”

Suddenly, Robert feels awful.  Why did he have to hit the man so many times?  He’d like to comfort him, but he doesn’t know how.  Instead, he says with a surliness he regrets, “Well, I guess you’ll be telling your union friends about this.  I guess you’ll come back with help next time.”

The black man, glasses lost and eyes red and watery, squints up at Robert.

“No sir, no sir.  You whipped my ass fair and square.  Maybe around here they do things differently, but where I come from, that’s the end of it.  You can go on and paint your house now.   I won’t bother you no more.”

“Where do you come from?” Robert asks.  That accent—he couldn’t have come from Far Rockaway or Arverne.  Or even Brooklyn.

“Billtown,” the man says.  “A little bitty place in Florida.  A good place to be from, if you get my drift.  All the folks there was colored and poor as dirt.  I heard a guy once say he was poor but didn’t know it.  That’s a load of crap.  You that poor, you damn sure know it.  And we didn’t even live in Billtown.  We lived on a damn farm.  We thought folks in Billtown had it good.”

The black man ends his explanation with a long drawn-out snuffle, then rubs his forefinger under his nose.  It comes away bloody once more, and the black man says, “Shit.”

Robert extracts the man’s glasses from the holly hedge and hands them to him.  He puts them on, then takes them off again and tries to straighten the bent frames.  He puts the glasses on and snuffles again.  Robert pulls his handkerchief out of his pocket and offers it to him.

“Thanks,” he says, taking the handkerchief and pressing it to his nostrils.  But he seems little comforted.

Robert sits down on the ground next to the black man.

Regardless of what “George” said and threatened, Robert feels guilty.  It hadn’t been necessary to hit him, had it?  What has Robert ever done, in fact, that was necessary?  I have lived a foolish life, Robert says to himself.

He thinks about confessing this to the black man, but he doesn’t.  Instead, he smiles shyly and says, “I come from a small place, too.  A village.  That was back in the old country, of course.”

“Yeah?” the black man says, snuffling against the handkerchief.

“Yes.  And we had a cow!”

The black man removes the handkerchief and turns to look at Robert. 

“Yeah?  Bet you didn’t have no colored folks there,” he says.

Robert smiles again.  “Yes we did.  We had a colored man, and he was the biggest person in the village.  The center of attention.  Sort of a hero, I guess you’d say.”

This doesn’t have the desired effect, though.  Maybe it reminds the black man of his recent humiliation, for he hangs his head and clenches his eyes.  Robert puts his hand on the man’s shoulder.

At that moment, a man in a black suit and black hat with hair curling over his ears comes walking down the sidewalk.  When he notices the two of them sitting there, he gives them a wide berth, as if they might be a couple of desperate characters.



(photo by Robert O'Nale)