He wondered now, as she sat quietly on the bed in his apartment, if it was a joke, the way that some people called big, strong men Tiny. Or if perhaps she had been a loud baby, a real screamer, and had just grown out of it with age, become calm and circumspect as her baby-ness wore off and the accidents of her personality began to overtake her. Babies are not quite people yet, he thought; they haven't figured it out. They touch things, thinking nothing will hurt them.
The apartments were small, they were poor-people apartments. He had never been in Screamer's, but his was a box, an "efficiency," they called it, to make lemonade out of lemons. He had a bed, usually rumpled and unmade, a paper-strewn desk, a small coffee table with a large TV on it. No sofa, no room for one. A refrigerator and an oven, no microwave. He could have had a microwave but a year ago his had broken and he found he ate much better without one and so he had not replaced it. He wondered if they had more than one room, and he hoped they did.
They were almost certainly poor, Screamer's family, since these were poor-people apartments, and he guessed he was poor, too, or at least it looked that way. But he was poor by choice, or, it may have been better to say, he lived modestly. He had been what they call a "laughing heir," someone so far removed from the estate that he had never known the relative from whom he inherited and so had presumably laughed all the way to the bank. He had not laughed. A lawyer administering her estate had tracked him down and called him and he had flown from Rhode Island, where he had been attending college, to Atlanta, where he was informed that he was now 1.3 million dollars richer than he otherwise would have been. He considered it a strange and a solemn responsibility that this woman, who had worked hard for her money, so hard that she had had no friends and no family closer than he, had left such a sum to a stranger. She didn't leave it to you, the lawyer had had to clarify. It's called intestacy. It's what happens when you don't leave a will.
So now it was an even more solemn responsibility. She hadn't even meant to leave it to him.
He did not work, because he didn't have to work, and he spent his days on Internet comment threads and forums as a staunch advocate of the rights of Americans--sometimes he thought he was the last advocate--from a perch on his beat-up paisley sofa. The Internet believed he was an investment banker in Atlanta. He wasn't, but he read widely and thoughtfully and considered this small subterfuge excusable, even noble, in the face of all the ignorance he had to correct. He did have to keep his forums straight, though, because although in most of them he was an investment banker and no one had ever challenged that, in a few he was a lawyer, and in one he was a teacher. People just didn't believe you if they felt you had no rightful claim to your expertise. So he established rightful claims and persisted.
He was being an investment banker in an unwieldy fark.com thread about the Citizens United decision when Screamer's mother knocked on his door. He knew things across the way had been bad for a while, and he knew they were getting worse. He knew that the walls in this whole place were paper-thin and that even if they did have more than one room, Screamer's vocabulary probably now included words like slut and motherfucker and hitch and cunt. He had heard things being thrown on occasion, but this was mostly very late at night, when the husband, or the father, since these days you couldn't assume anything, got home from his late shift at the bottling factory and an hour or two of tall boys afterward in the parking lot. Because it was usually so late when things were being thrown and he was usually sleeping, he was able to roll over and make himself believe that it was just a dream or a part of one in that way that people are able to make themselves believe things that are convenient for them, or that will excuse their not becoming involved. And it was none of his business anyway.
But tonight they had started early, eight or so, when the skies were just beginning to darken. It was a hot night in Atlanta and he had opened the window. He turned on the TV to drown them out. He heard glass being broken. A moment later there was a knock on his door.
He turned the TV off, because he wanted to call attention to it having been on, so that he could blame his not having heard them on the TV. He opened the door, not knowing which of them to expect or what they would expect out of him. It never even entered his mind that it might be someone else, a friend of his, a pizza delivery boy at the wrong door.
It was the mother. Her pretty make-up was ruined, face tear-streaked, clothes in disarray. "Please," she said. "Just for a minute. Just take her for a minute. He gonna hurt her otherwise."
He was paralyzed. He was being asked for help. He stared at her. "Where's the baby?"
"He at his granny's, thank God. Please, mister ... mister." She didn't know his name. He didn't know hers. He knew Screamer's, though. "Just until the cops get here. They on they way. Please."
"Of course," he said. "Of course." He stopped. If he offered her shelter, he knew the man would come looking, and he knew she knew that he knew that. Her eyes forgave him and she pushed her little girl at him and she went across the way and back into her own apartment. She slammed the door and the yelling started again and something, again, was thrown. And it was just Screamer and him in the hallway.
He backed inside, and she stared at him, unsure if she could follow. "Well," he said--and in his voice he heard the hollow, full bodied pretense of adult voices assuring children, the pretense that he had resented in his own youth--"Well, come on in."
She walked inside the apartment and sat gingerly on the bed, the only thing there was, truly, to sit on at all. He closed the door and in the apartment he went over to the spare kitchen table and he stood next to it. He had never bought seats for it. He never had anyone over. He had some friends from a local bar and then a soccer league started out of that local bar, but he had never had them over. Now Screamer was over.
She looked at him, then out the window, and then back at him and then down at the ground, and she scratched her kneecap. With nowhere else to look, he looked at her kneecap as she scratched it.
It was a serious kneecap, brown and scrawny and aged beyond its years with carpet-burn, tricycle and bicycle accidents. Her small fingers scratched it with purpose, their tiny nails dotted with the nail polish of two weeks ago, probably put on by a friend during recess. Childhood smacked him in the face.
He remembered his own now, and it had not been pleasant, and he didn't seek to remember it often. He remembered hiding under the bed from something, but he also remembered this as strange, because most children are scared of what is under the bed and would not choose it as a place to hide. He remembered being a teenager and trying to guess his aunt's ATM number by methodically entering, over a period of months, the four-digit birth dates of all of his cousins until he got the right one. Then he remembered a time when he had helped substitute-teach Sunday school, and this was the right memory, and he tried to latch onto it. Something about the widow and her two mites. Should he teach Screamer about the widow and her two mites?
He began to open his mouth and there was a crash and a scream from the apartment across the way. He started and Screamer did not. He could not hear police sirens in the background but he wished he could.
Screamer stared at him, with her eyes as calm and round as the wheels on the bus.
Alllll daaaaayyyyy llooooonng.
He blinked at her, and she at him.
"It must be rough," he said, breaking the silence. "Them fighting all the time."
Screamer scratched her kneecap again and said nothing.
Then it came to him, what she had been holding, in the hallway. A box of popsicles. Not the bad kind, the new-age conscientious-parent kind that contains real fruit and costs several dollars apiece, but the good kind that comes in hard-to-open stiff plastic wrapping without sticks and that you suck on and wait until the bottom half melts and then it becomes this wonderful cold sugary blocky thing that you tilt back into your mouth all at once. That kind.
He wished he had some to offer her, but all he had in his freezer was a cardboard box of drugstore brand Neapolitan ice cream. He had only gotten Neapolitan because it reminded him of his grandmother, the only person he was related to who had ever liked him. She had kept Neapolitan in her freezer because she thought it would please everyone, when in reality it pleased no one and was picked at until it melted into a schizophrenic puddle that had to be drunk and left everyone wanting water. But her intentions had been good; they had been pure. And she had liked him, or said she did, and that was what mattered.
He had turned to the freezer while he was thinking about it, and now he turned back to her. She stared at him. He opened his mouth to ask her if she wanted some ice cream when she started to take off her shirt.
It happened so quickly that he was not able to stop it. She took off her shirt, fluidly, over her head, and put it on the bed next to her. Then she stared at him, as he stared at her, dumbfounded.
There was silence in the room. Across the hallway, her fathers yelling could be heard, but the words could not be understood. Crickets chirped in the hot night outside, and farther up the road, by the gas station a block away, brakes screeched.
Screamer said, "You gonna do it?"