~This story was first published in The Madison Review (2008).
The neighbors’ infant is screaming again. Something is wrong. It’s been twenty minutes and the kid hasn’t shut the fuck up. Your headphones are welded on and the stentorian Screamin’ Jay doesn’t dim it.
“Dadda… Momma… Dadda …” In hefty moans, the voice broadcasts a woeful mantra through your open window. You think to close it, but consider your obligations. Why is he still crying? And is he okay? If you hadn’t just smoked that joint, maybe you could gauge the severity of the situation. But you can’t. You decide it’s your duty to get involved. That’s you: Mr. Friend to the Goddamned Community.
You cried that way as an infant when you were scared. Your father was always downstairs working on his H.O. model trains. He had his headphones on, and he couldn’t hear you. Luigi Luccarini would climb a ladder to your window and sing the theme song from The Greatest American Hero. Luigi was retarded, but you didn’t know that. All you knew was some lunatic with one tooth was peering through your window ranting into his feather-duster microphone while you screamed your eyes teary and nobody intervened. From that day, the policy was: always intervene.
In college you intervened at a performance of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. You had newly discovered Dostoevsky and vodka. The hot, black-eyed Russian girl sat two rows back and blotted her gloss when you checked her out.
You’d seen her on campus and took her home in your thoughts. Her name would be Natasha, or Sonya or Katerina and she’d call you her little kapoosta (cabbage). You’d get drunk and screw on the floor beside Crime and Punishment opened to the part when Marmeladov says, “…I drink because I wish to multiply my sufferings.” You thought after the show you’d ask if she’d like to get her Marmeladov on.
One row up, an old couple approached their seats. The guy had to be at least one hundred-fifty years old. With two canes, he poled cross-country through the aisle. He shuffled with wife in tow. Her movements were molasses, a slug in mud. She wore a pair of hearing aids and the tremor that shakes old people after a stroke. She helped her husband wiggle out of his jacket and assisted him into his seat. Then the lights dropped.
The old lady struggled, nearly capsized as she shed her wrap. The scene unfolded directly in front of you, and audience members rubbernecked with the expression that publicly ponders, “Who will help her?” The Russian was among them.
You leaned over, offered assistance. But the overture was up and blaring.
You asked again.
She shook her head, but you couldn’t determine if it was the stroke or the woman gesturing. You grasped the wrap fringe and pulled. That sent her spinning like a top until she tumbled into the seat in front of her. In slow motion, the husband clubbed you with his canes as you thrust the wrap out to cushion the blows.
“Stop, thief!” the woman gurgled from the lap of the gentleman in front of her, whose wife was on the phone with 9-1-1.
You bolted, still clutching the wrap in confusion. A mob of ushers chased you out of the auditorium, which shattered the night and demolished all hopes of you getting any Marmeladov.
So the kid’s still at it and you can’t write a thing except about the yelping and all the possible scenarios, horrid and wretched.
You imagine the kid is locked in the house. Maybe some screw job dressed as Big Bird pursues him, cucumber in hand. Maybe the babysitter’s tied him up and is reading Danielle Steele. Or maybe his parents are boinking in the basement, unaware the kid slipped and cracked his melon. You don’t know. The parents seem responsible enough from your point of view.
They live in a big two-story Victorian. The backyard is in plain view of your studio window. During summer, you see them outside. The kids are dressed in OshKosh B’Gosh and play in the yard with Mr. Potato Heads and hula-hoops and bikes.
The mother reads celebrity smut, sips Starbucks in a lounge chair, and talks on the phone. Sometimes other young mothers come over with their kids and they all scream together. The father drives a Volvo. You often see him trimming the hedges when you’re out walking Bingo. The kids seem happy, but you haven’t seen them lately.
You remove the headphones, light a cigarette, and advance toward the window. Then you scan the house. Second floor, middle window. A spaceship mobile spins. Kids shouldn’t cry for this long. A kid blubbers without pause and you think no one is there to hear it. Nobody but you. And you’re not doing a goddamned thing about it.
But really! You live in Northwest Portland, close to Twenty-third Avenue and the kid’s probably crying because he can’t eat ice cream instead of his dinner. Then you recall Screwy Lewey. You should definitely do something. And soon.
But how? And what will you say? Are your parents home? What if they are home? What if the father has a shotgun? No. Nobody in the city has a shotgun. Maybe he’ll yell out the window, “The kid’s fine. He’s crabby because he couldn’t eat the ice cream, you sick bastard! Mind your business!”
It is your business. Isn’t it? You pull on the cigarette and decide to put the beer bottle down. A beer bottle attached to anyone, Gandhi or the Pope, makes him appear unpredictable and menacing. A beer bottle attached to you, while you’re standing naked by the window, makes you look about as loony as Luigi Luccarini.
“My dadda wouldn’t let me eat ice cream for dinner,” the little voice will probably answer. He’ll add, “Why don’t you get to work and stop being such an asshole!” Or he might remember you as the guy who saved him from his own Screwy Lewey. So you finish your beer and head down the stairs toward the little one’s salvation.
You knock on the door. You think about running away, but you don’t. You wish you had a piece of gum or a breath mint, but you don’t. And it’s okay because nobody answers. You knock again. Nothing.
You stroll around back and lean a ladder against the side of the house. You ascend and peer in. You spot the little nipper. He’s sitting on the floor in his diaper staring up at the ceiling and crying for no good goddamned reason at all. His eyes fix on you and there’s a lull. You smile, wave. Then he belts it out so resoundingly you think the windows will shatter. You realize you have become this kid’s very own Luigi Luccarini.
Your impulse is to descend the ladder as quickly as you climbed it and abandon this as a bad dream for the both of you. Hopefully there will be no recourse to this strange visit, perhaps some discordant déjà vu that won’t mean a thing to him twenty years from now. But you don’t want this. You want to explain.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” is what you hear yourself say. Then you realize this is exactly what a man would say who’s about to bash in brains with a baseball bat. The screaming amplifies and for good reasons.
You try to explain why you’ve come, but it’s about as likely as explaining to a spider you don’t want to kill him; you only want to scoop him up and escort him outside to safety. There’s no such thing as communication. But you want to try anyway. So you enter through the window and walk over to the kid. You squat down to his level.
“Look, I’m not a screwball pederast.”
Silently, he stares.
“I’m your neighbor, and you’ve been crying for so long I thought you were in trouble. So I came to make sure you’re okay. That’s it. What’s the goddamned rumpus anyway?”
He smiles. A thick strand of drool connects his upper and lower lips.
You check his diaper. Nothing. You don’t know why he’s been crying. You don’t think he knows. You don’t think it matters. You want to tell him all about your lousy childhood and about Luigi Luccarini but you don’t. He won’t understand. You pat his head then exit the same way you entered.
You walk back to your place. When you get there you open another beer and sit down at the keys. The crying has stopped for the time being. You think that maybe now you can get some work done.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
Sometime in the year 2000. There really was a kid screaming. And it was a good thing because up until he’d started, I had nothing to write about. Nothing except for what a loser I was and how I couldn’t write my own name in the mud with a stick.
After work—I case-managed retarded sex offenders, prostitutes, and drug addicts in a supported living program, which was basically like running a group home out of my car—I’d get back to my apartment in Northwest Portland, walk my dog, eat dinner, and write.
But in my mid-twenties, I really didn’t have anything to write about, so when the stories went to shit, I’d start drinking and spend hours bashing myself on the page—always in the second person. From those years in Portland, there are probably hundreds of pages of me deprecating myself. It was during one of those vituperations when I heard this little voice crying out. It grew louder and louder and it sounded as if the kid were in pain, and before I knew it, the voice made its way onto the page. The story kind of took off, and I let it do its own thing. It felt good to forget about my own pain for a minute and explore someone else’s.
It took eight years to get the story published, and I’m not saying this piece is any good, but I like it. I like it because it taught me to get out of my head and allow my characters to make their own decisions and act on their impulses. The story works because the character leaves his world to check on the kid in his. In doing so, the character solves his problem. I didn’t plan it this way. If I had, I probably would have fucked the whole thing up because that’s usually what I do.
ABOUT CHARLIE BOODMAN
Charlie Boodman’s fiction has appeared in The Madison Review, Lullwater Review, First Class, Talking River, Literary Orphans, Seltzer, Maritan Lit, Blue Lake Review, and other literary journals. He teaches English in Singapore.