The Chinese restaurant turned nightclub turned deli is out of business again. Further down Penn Avenue, I pull into my Grandparents’ lot. The high school turned apartment building turned senior care facility still looks like a high school. The halls are double wide, the apartments perfectly square, and the cafeteria? It’s a cafeteria. A vast shiny floor reflects rectangular folding tables. The elevator rumbles up to the third floor, the doors shimmy open, and the heat claims me. The school couldn’t have been this hot. It’s the old people. The residents love to crank the heat.
“He’s out for his walk,” says Grandma.
She sits at the narrow table dividing the living room from the kitchen. With a magnifying glass hanging over a jumble of wires and beads, her pearly white locks freshly curled, she constructs Christmas ornaments. In the forced air heat she’s making Christmas ornaments. And it’s June.
“Where’s he walking,” I ask.
More a destination than a direction, Grandma’s ambiguous assessment sends me on my way. Outside, the street and sidewalk resemble the bottom of a recycling bin, damp and sticky. Penn Avenue is stamped with melted gum, decomposing cigarette butts, and broken bottles. But he’s not hard to spot. Pap Pap. Most Penn Avenue locals are black. The older gentlemen wear uneven beards that speckle with sweat. The younger folks flaunt oversized pants and sports jerseys, chains big enough to secure a zeppelin. Rich in color, their clothes could marshal a fighter jet. Then there’s Pap Pap, the only white man on the street other than myself. His hair, gray on the sides, is softly sparse on top. Brown dots decorate his scalp, and his eyes relax behind oversized rectangular sunglasses – the clunky kind that turn everything blue. His pants flop into new shapes with each step, the polyester refusing to conform, and his standard white dress shirt, short sleeves, tightens in the middle at his paunch.
Step after step, Penn Avenue slips to either side of Pap Pap. The older gentlemen scratch their beards and lean against plywood-boarded storefronts, the stores long dead. Young ladies smile and turn to the side. They move at a slant past Pap Pap. The young men, they wait until Pap Pap gets close. They wait until they’re sure this old mother-fucker is gonna keep on walking.
Pap Pap doesn’t use a blind man’s cane. He’s got a cane, but it’s the wooden variety, the kind all old people use, thick and lacquered with smudges of paint where the person whacked the instrument off a doorframe or wall. He uses the cane on his left side for support. His other hand, it sways with each step. Pap Pap moves with a sureness in his step known only to him. He approaches me. Step. Swing the arm. Step. And I doubt he can tell I’m here on Penn Avenue. Unlike the locals, I don’t move or side step. I wait. I let Pap Pap close within a foot of me.
“Hi, Pap Pap.”
He flicks the cane at my shin and the snapping pain expands like a rock tossed into a pond, wave after wave.
“What’s wrong with you,” he asks.
“You don’t sidle up on a man.”
“I was standing still, Pap.”
Pap Pap brings the cane back up to my shin. Kerplunk. Another rock in the pond.
“Watch your mouth,” he says.
I move to the curb, and Pap Pap shuffles past. His shoes sound like cat tongues licking the sidewalk. His lips open as he passes me, and with his plush pink tongue slipping in and out of sight, he makes a pshht noise.
“I need a break,” he says.
Pap Pap knows I’m not here to sidle up to him. He knows I need to talk. Pap shuffles to the front of the senior care facility, puts out his free hand, and leans as if propping up the maroon bricks, fingers splayed. He leans his cane against the building and extends his other hand. A park bench is situated in front of the building, and Pap Pap’s hand, wrinkled but strong, meets the bench’s back with the delicacy of a space shuttle docking.
“Sit,” he says. “Join Edward and me.”
He pats the back of the park bench, his hand smacking the picture of a man in a suit.
“He won’t bite,” he says.
Edward Ryder advertises more than a politician. The entire city knows Edward Ryder, attorney at law. I sit down and ease back onto Edward, his smooth bald head peeking out from under my arm.
“What’s gnawing at ya,” asks Pap Pap.
“I need some advice.”
“Aw hell, Jacob. Don’t ya have any friends?”
Pap slaps his knee, flesh meeting polyester in a muffled womp, and a grin slinks across his scruffy face. “Last time you asked for advice, I told you to stop drinking so much pop.”
“I couldn’t get to sleep when I was little. All the caffeine.”
Pap Pap slaps his knee again then whacks me with his cane. “I thought you were pissin’ the bed.”
“Now what’s the matter?”
“I don’t know if I like my job,” I say.
Laughter climbs out of Pap’s throat, and his polyester takes a beating.
“You don’t have any friends, do ya?”
“I’ve got friends,” I say.
“But you don’t like your work,” he says. “What’s it been? Two months?”
“You gotta long road aheada you.”
The cars glide toward the red light on the corner, and in between two sedans, I can see a cement statue of Jesus in front of the funeral home across the street.
“Do you have friends, Jacob?”
“Sure,” I say.
And it’s my turn to slap my knee.
“Naw, Pap. I haven’t seen them in years.”
“At the work you don’t like?”
Pap exhales, his lips forming a ring to create a slow whoo as the air squeezes out. “It’s a long road, Jacob.”
A car bottoms out as it pulls into the parking lot, and Pap Pap smiles.
“Visitors,” he says.
A block down Penn Avenue, a lady taps her foot at a bus stop, a malnourished pit bull at her feet. The dog’s stomach reminds me of a radiator grill. Across the street, two men sit on a stoop next to the funeral home. Jesus can’t see them. They’re hidden from view by the building’s far wall.
“What happened to your college friends,” asks Pap Pap.
“My roommate, Kevin, he took a job in New York and now he lives in Hoboken.”
“Wasn’t he the poof?”
“He wasn’t gay, Pap.”
“No, he’s the one. The actor.”
“Yes, he’s an actor, but trust me, he liked women.”
The cane connects with my shin with impressive precision.
“Anyway,” I say. “The rest seemed to take jobs all over, up and down the coast. And I stayed here.”
Another car bottoms out, the sound of a bowling ball dropping to the floor.
“Visitor,” says Pap Pap.
“I took my position with the firm and stayed.”
Pap Pap’s glasses, the brown rectangles, catch every cent of the sun, its whole worth. They cast a pale mirror as if looking through a beer bottle. But on the inside? Pap Pap can’t see. If he could, he’d see the world in a tint of blue. At least that’s what he said back when he still had a speck of vision left.
“You don’t have any girlfriends,” he asks.
“How many should I have?”
“As many as possible.” A denture filled smile and not one, but two knee slaps. “You’re a young man with a college education and a solid job. They’ll be lining up.”
I want to tell him, “Not exactly.” But I don’t. I want to tell him everyone’s got a college education. I should tell him I haven’t met a girl since last semester, my last semester. My last girl. But I don’t.
“Trust me, Pap. I don’t have any problems with the ladies. This isn’t about women.”
“It’s always about women.”
“Aw hell, Jacob.”
He swings for my leg, but I dodge the cane and it cracks the bench. Sullen, Pap retracts his weapon, a fresh green smudge on its shaft.
“Why’d you become an engineer,” he asks.
“To make a solid living.”
“I made a solid living selling tires.”
“But you make more than a solid living. You were able to by that fancy car, that sporty thing.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“And boy, you can tell me how the new model’s retro look, how it looks like a ’67, does it for ya, but that car’s got one purpose.”
A woman, her face lined with time, pushes a wire-framed cart past us. The cart waddles back and forth as glass bottles within clink together. It’s as if a toast occurs with each step the woman takes.
“One and only one purpose,” says Pap Pap. “Gettin’ laid.”
“Shame on you,” says the cart woman.
Pap Pap turns his head to her, his eyebrows jumping above the rectangle sunglasses. “Sorry, mam.”
The car waddles, and without looking up, I know she’s moved on, further down Penn Avenue.
“Ok, Pap. It’s all about the women.”
But I don’t mean it.
I don’t tell him a girl’s never ridden in my car. Girls don’t care if you’ve graduated from college. They don’t care if you’re an engineer. I don’t tell him. I can’t.
“Pap Pap,” I ask.
“It’s the job.”
He takes off the rectangle sunglasses, lays them on the bench between us, and faces me. Blue eyes. Blind.
“I know, boy.”
“I work, go home, then back to work,” I say. The thought chokes me, wrenches the moisture right out of my throat. “I know I’m lucky to have a job. A lotta people don’t. But I mean, there’s got to be something else.”
Pap Pap clears his throat. “My father in law, your Gramma’s dad, he had this bird. The thing’d sit on his shoulder at breakfast. It’d even say hello when he came home at night.”
Swing and a hit, his cane cracks my shin. “Buy a bird.”
“I don’t want a pet, Pap.”
Pap Pap looks away from me, across the street, past the traffic and the pedestrians. The statue of Jesus stares us down, and Pap Pap faces him. But I know he’s looking beyond the statue. “A lady or a bird,” he says. “You need something to look you in the eye when you get home.”