“I had a feeling Jack didn’t read the New Yorker. I had a feeling that he didn’t listen to jazz either.” A story of a young couple who meet a mysterious, gift-bearing, neighbor after moving from Harlem, New York to Harlem, Montana…
by: Jeremy Stelzner
I’d never held a gun before we moved out west. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d ever even seen one when Annie and I were back east other than on television. You see, running with gangs or driving out of town all decked out in camo to go shooting at a range, well those are social circles in which I’m more of a square. In fact, I don’t fit into many circles anymore. Maybe it’s because the folks in town know about how it all went down. They don’t know what to say to me and I can’t say I blame them. I wouldn’t know what to say to someone who went through what I did either.
But there was a time, a time before. A time when people seemed to genuinely enjoy my company. At parties, with a drink in my hand I could have a group of strangers hanging on my every word. I had opinions on independent movies and New Yorker articles and obscure underground hip-hop artists. Hell, sometimes I’d even have opinions on New Yorker articles reviewing independent movies about obscure underground hip-hop artists. If I’m being honest, I was never the life of the party, but I wasn’t the death of it either. Not then.
I first met Annie at The Florentine Club in Harlem. It was somewhere off 115th street, right below an independent publishing house that specialized in taboo and grotesque literature — a niche market to be sure. The editorial staff at Prohibition Publishing, that’s what they were called, liked to come downstairs after work and have a couple of pops. That crew was a good time; the lot of them were heavy drinkers with loose lips, which if you didn’t know, are the best kind of heavy drinkers. They’d spin these wonderful yarns about the newest office gossip. Being that they worked in the world of stories, they could tell great ones.
The Florentine had a European café kind of vibe to it. A small, dimly lit, place with good drinks and a Juilliard student in a rented tux who’d tickle the ivories during happy hour for tips. He was playing the night I met Annie for the first time. I was in a metallic blue suit that would end up being her favorite. The pianist swung into an old Count Basie number when I first laid eyes on her. She wore tortoise-shelled glasses that framed those big brown eyes. She wore saddle shoes and a vintage knee length A-line dress from the 40’s that was short enough to display her smooth brown skin but long enough to leave something to the imagination. Her dark hair was pinned back into a tight bun with just a few loose curls hanging over her forehead. Those hanging locks were placed with a careful precision to look as if they weren’t placed with a careful precision. Annie was cool, and she knew she was cool, and the coolest part about her was that she wasn’t a dick about it.
I was at the bar having one of their signature cocktails that pulled in the occasional tourist who got lost on their way to the Apollo. I don’t remember which drink, there were so many and it was so long ago. Maybe it was “The Edison”, the one in the martini glass with the organic distilled gin and non-GMO cucumber slice cut to look like a green orchid. Or maybe it was “The Candied Rusky” which had no candy but rather a watermelon cube with lemon vodka and a beet cut to look like a beet-colored orchid. The pianist was between songs when she walked by. Her heels made a clicking sound on the worn parquet floor. She caught my attention.
I asked if I could buy her a drink, an old line sure, but she looked like she’d had a long day and could use one. Annie lit a cigarette while considering the proposal. She smiled, making me wait, noticing me through the tilted frames of her glasses. I checked my watch and waited for her reply. I checked the watch again, and then nervously checked it for a third time. Annie loved that watch. She loved it because there was a story behind it and Annie loved a good story.
It was my grandfather’s gold watch and it was handed down to him from his grandfather who started as a sharecropper in Tennessee and ended up a club owner in the West Village. My grandfather, now he knew how to fire a weapon. He wore that watch when he traveled from Harlem to basic training with the 452nd Airborne Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion after Pearl Harbor. He wore it after landing in Normandy when he shot down three Nazi fighters and he wore it at the Battle of Bulge when he took out four more. “I’m no killer,” he’d say, “but there ain’t nothing like killing a Nazi.” He left me that watch after he died. He was shot during an armed robbery at a bodega uptown while shopping for some mangos for my grandmother who loved mangos. My grandfather, he tried to stop the robber and caught a .44 in the gut for his effort. They say it’s a slow and painful way to go, a stomach wound.
My leg was shaking. Annie was staring. I noticed her pretending not to notice me. She instinctively averted her eyes from my tapping foot. It was as if she’d had practice in the avoidance of making others feel uncomfortable. I’d never had such practice. I feared she’d already figured me out. That a few brief moments of casual observation gave away that I was what some called, a nervous Nelly. That I was what others called, a jumpy Jack. That I packed for business trips weeks in advance and that even the slightest unexpected noise could send me into a flop sweat.
“I’ll have what he’s having,” she said, taking a drag from her cigarette.
Annie had a kind of seductive rasp in her voice that made her sound like an old timey Hollywood starlet.
Pleasantries were exchanged. A second drink arrived. She requested some Nat King Cole and the pianist nodded as he slid his way into “For Sentimental Reasons.” He didn’t sing, but he didn’t need to, the proficiency in his keystrokes set the mood just fine. Annie told me about a dreadful manuscript that she had spent the last week editing.
“The story takes place in the future, when football’s played with robots and humans on the same team. The quarterback on the New York Astrowolves, he’s this young kid right out of college who’s got a cannon for an arm. Anyway, this quarterback becomes obsessed with fame. He’s rather famous already after having secured the starting gig, but as is the case for most rather famous people, he wants to be more famous and he’s secretly feeling blue because he has a tiny penis. So he makes a deal, this young quarterback, with an alien genie who’s thirty feet tall and purple, in order to make his penis bigger. The alien genie agrees, as granting wishes is kinda her thing, even though servicing the request went against her better judgment. The end goes like this,” she said.
“The quarterback wakes up the next morning with a four-foot-long dick that terrifies women and puts an abrupt end to his professional football career. Because who could run downfield evading robotic defenders with a four-foot-long dick?”
When she finished the story, I laughed. She touched my hand and the spark took to flame.
We went on to discuss our love of irony, unironically. Annie sipped her cocktail and left cherry red lipstick marks on the rim of the glass. I didn’t smoke but I asked her for a cigarette anyway. Maybe it was because I didn’t want her to know I was such a scaredy cat. Maybe I just wanted her to think I was cool. You’d imagine that a grown man wouldn’t be concerned with such matters, but I still was. I still am.
I took a deep drag and coughed. Annie thought my jitteriness was adorable. I know this because she told me as much the night before our wedding. We’d gotten drunk on a bottle of vintage gin that was gifted to us by our neighbor Sandeep. He said that the bottle cost him a cool three grand. He said that it once belonged to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. He said that he purchased it at an auction of items from the Fitzgerald estate some years back as a consolation after losing out on Zelda’s infamous ivory hair clip. Sandeep was a nice enough guy. He had a job as a programmer for a sex tube website and worked from home. He’d get our mail for us when we’d go out to the country for the weekend. He’d feed our goldfish, Ezra. But as nice as he was, Annie and I still thought he was full of shit. We drank the gin anyway. You know what they say about beggars.
Annie and I sipped our way through that bottle to the orchestra of police sirens and taxi horns melodically playing though our open apartment window. The noise didn’t bother us. After all, we were cosmopolitan people. I’m sure you know the type. We enjoyed cafes like the Florentine and art museums and the ballet and going to the theatre to see avant-garde one-woman musicals about testicular cancer in empty Brooklyn warehouses. That was our life and it was wonderful. Which is why it was so surprising to hear Annie talk of leaving the city.
We were both rather drunk, but if I recall it correctly the exchange went a little something like this.
“I hate Harlem.,” Annie said, kissing my neck.
Sher ran a finger down my forearm and then began the rant while sipping on the last of the gin.
“When we were younger, when we first got together, it was still romantic, don’t you think? I mean it was Harlem! It was historic, and unexplored, and exciting. But now, it’s all just the same lounges and restaurants on every block. Not exactly the same but the same enough. And when a spot is unique, like the Florentine, some Daddy Warbucks, CEO, investment type who wants to dabble in the restaurant biz swoops in and buys it and rebrands it as Harlem ‘faux chic.’ All of a sudden you have fit white men from Iowa with manicured beards wearing rolled sleeved tuxedo shirts trying to explain to you, a black man, the cultural richness of Harlem while frothing an egg white for a thirty-four-dollar whiskey sour.”
While she preached, I lay on the bed with my top two shirt buttons unbuttoned tapping my thumb and index finger together.
“Your anxiety is adorable,” Annie whispered in my ear.
She crawled closer to kiss my neck again. I got the chills.
“I want to move out west,” she said.
She rested her head on my chest. I breathed her in. She smelled like home.
“I do too,” I exhaled.
I didn’t really want to move out west but I didn’t want to stay back east either. I just wanted to be with her. Forever.
Annie and I made love, got married the next day, and started our destinationless drive in a rented U-Haul truck about a week after tying the knot. We spent 2,000 miles sorting out the specifics, and you’d be surprised how many logistics can be arranged with a cell phone and 32 hours of open road at your disposal.
By the time we’d reached the Allegheny Mountains, Annie had told me the whole story of how she’d always wanted to be out on the plains. She said her mother would read her this book before bed each night called, Manifest Destiny, about a little black girl named Ruth whose family moved from the city to a small farmhouse in the Dakotas. Annie said that Ruth was sad at first because she missed playing hopscotch and Double Dutch outside of her building with the other little girls from the neighborhood. She missed her friends and she missed the sounds and the smells of the city. But then one morning, she was sitting with her momma and papa who were having their coffee on the front porch and a beautiful black horse wandered right up to them, as if it appeared out of the thin air. Ruth dropped her bowl of soggy Corn Flakes and begged her folks to keep the horse. Momma and papa obliged. She named the horse Destiny and rode her every day through the open fields with the wind at her back under cloudless skies. Annie said there was some kind of moral there, as there are with most children’s books, but she couldn’t remember what it was. She said she loved that book. She told me if we ever had a daughter, she’d like to name her Destiny. She said that over a couple of years, her and her mother read the book so much they wore it out, that the pages separated from the binding against their will. She told me she thought that was the saddest kind of separation. And she told me all this right before revealing the destination of our resettlement.
“Harlem,” she said, turning toward me.
She cracked a window and lit a cigarette exhaling confidently into the cool autumn air.
“We just left Harlem.”
“Baby, there are no black people in Montana,” I explained.
“Well, there are about to be,” she said smiling.
I wouldn’t have cared if she said we were moving to the surface of the moon. My bags would be packed.
Annie found us a cheap rental a couple of miles outside of the city. City, I guess is a relative term, our new Harlem only had around 700 residents. The rental looked like something out of an old Norman Rockwell painting. A red farmhouse, sans the farm and a single majestic oak with a tire swing twisting from one of the strong limbs. That land, about a hundred and fifty acres, had been sold off decades earlier. The owner lived out in Helena. She’d told us it needed some work but the place had strong bones and if we liked it she’d give us a good price on an outright purchase later on down the road. That was enough for Annie who never minded hard work and loved a good price.
We unpacked quickly while drinking warm beer. Annie brushed the cobwebs from the rafters with an old broomstick. I struggled to lug the mattress up into the lofted bedroom. I hadn’t slept in over 48 hours and my mind started to drift. We were tired, sweaty, and happy. We made love on the sheetless mattress. When we finished, I watched a heavy purple sunset through the skylight. She slept soundly, with a careless smile on her face. Annie always slept this way.
Maybe I was overtired but I couldn’t sleep. Most of our belongings were still on the front porch. It must have been around 8 or 9 in the evening and I’d been tossing and turning for at least an hour. So I threw on my jeans and made my way shirtless out front in a post-coital, sleep deprived haze of euphoria and exhaustion. I sat under the porch light drinking a beer while looking out into the endlessness of the valley. An empire of glittering stars appeared out in a moonless sky. I’d never seen a night sky so clear. I’d never seen so many stars in all my life. A crisp breeze blew in from the east and the coolness of the wind felt good on my bare chest. The Harlem of the west couldn’t have been more different than the Harlem that we knew back east. I guessed it probably looked a lot like Annie’s storybook. The leaves on the giant oak rustled in the evening wind. I thought, I could get used to it out here.
Then an old man stepped out of the darkness.
“Evenin’ stranger,” he said.
I jumped up, startled, spilling my beer.
“Whoa, there boy. Didn’t mean to scare you none,” the stranger grumbled pulling up the brim of his cowboy hat and squinting.
He was the whitest man I’d ever seen.
“Name’s Jack McQuaid. I’m your neighbor,” he said, taking another few steps toward the house.
Jack was stubbly, and silver haired, a lumberjack type with a work-worn face. He had on a pair of old Lee jeans, faded cowboy boots, and a shiny belt buckle that I imagined he’d won in a rodeo or something like that. Jack was smoking a hand rolled cigarette that made him look like right out of a cowboy magazine.
“Neighbor?” I asked.
“Yes indeed. I know you can’t see it but my place is closest to yours, just over to the east ‘bout a quarter of a mile. I think you’ll like it here in Harlem, most people do. We don’t have a lot, not much opportunity anymore, but the folk in town, we’re God’s folk. We help each other out. We look out for one another. Which reminds me.”
Jack McQuaid excused himself and ventured back to his muddy green truck. When he returned to the porch, he came carrying two large boxes.
He came with beef that was salted and dry aged, a tray of mac and cheese, another of roasted broccoli casserole, and another of scalloped potatoes. He came with apple pies, a large jug of cold beer that he had home brewed, and a long box, gift wrapped in dusty Ho, Ho, Ho, wrapping paper with little images of Santa Claus all over it. The box was tied up with a red silk ribbon.
“Just a little something to welcome you to the neighborhood.”
“Thanks, Jack. That’s really very kind of you, we certainly appreciate it.”
“We?” Jack asked, rubbing his stubble.
He began to roll a cigarette and I thought maybe I should start rolling cigarettes for Annie. I thought maybe it’d keep my hands busy. In social situations I never really know what to do with them.
“Sorry, I don’t know where my mind is. My wife, Annie, she’s sleeping upstairs, long trip and all.”
My hands were in my pockets. I didn’t know where else to put them. Jack shot me a crooked glance.
“I see,” he said. “Now don’t be rude, son. Open the gift.”
Jack approached me with purpose. I nodded, slowly untying the red silk ribbon, my eyes affixed to his. I opened the box. Inside was a vintage rifle. It looked like one a sheriff would sling over his shoulder in the old westerns while strolling through town rounding up wayward bandits.
I had to ask, “Don’t I need a license or a registration or something for this?”
“Not in Montana. Not if it’s a gift,” Jack moved closer to me.
“Is it a gift?” I asked, holding the rifle awkwardly.
He was so close I could smell the whiskey on his breath.
“I wrapped it didn’t I?” he said, reaching over and snatching the bottle of beer out of my hand. He took a sip and handed it back.
“Well, thanks for the gift, Jack.”
I thought it was an odd gift but I was already starting to get lost in the kaleidoscoping oddity of my unrested mind. It felt like I was trapped in all that openness out there. I didn’t know what to say. So a long uncomfortable silence followed. Back at home in such situations I’d open up about a political cartoon in the latest New Yorker or a new jazz musician I had fallen for after a show at Dizzy’s Club. I had a feeling Jack didn’t read the New Yorker. I had a feeling that he didn’t listen to jazz either.
“It’s fully restored. Still shoots straight. I thought with all the bears out there, it’s the least I could do. Those monsters, they’ll come in your front door and maul you to death in your sleep if you’re not careful boy,” Jack warned, slapping my back.
Jack reached over, took the gun from my hand and placed a single loose bullet from his pocket in the chamber. He cradled the weapon softly like he was holding a newborn baby.
“You bet,” he said. “There, now she’s loaded. Just keep her close, point and shoot.”
He handed the weapon back to me.
“What kind of rifle is it?”
“Does it matter? It works.”
“Any other need to lock our doors in these parts?” I asked, sipping my beer.
“Other than the bears?”
“Yeah, other than the bears?”
“You never know,” he said with a wink.
I was ready for this introduction to be over. After a cross-country drive, an eight-hour unpacking session, and another hour of fulfilling my spousal responsibilities in the bedroom, my mind was starting to play tricks on me. Staying up that long, it brings on a kind of fuzziness, a kind of lack of clarity that intensifies with each waking hour. It was time to pack it in and get back to bed, time to get back to my Annie.
“Thanks again for all the food Jack…and the gun. It’s nice to know we’ve got someone looking out for us.”
“The gift,” he said sternly as he retreated back toward his truck, his eyes remaining locked on my own.
“Not the gun, the gift,” he explained again, reaching sightlessly for the door handle on his truck.
“Right. The gift. Thanks.”
I fumbled with the trays of delicious smelling food and the loaded rifle. He grinned at me, Jack McQuaid, his face half in shadow.
“I’ll be back…” he shouted from the darkness.
Our new neighbor scared the shit out of me. Though after getting back inside the house, I rationalized that my fears were just projections of stereotypes that Annie and I had been warned about by friends before we left home. Watch out for those racist rednecks, they said. They probably got the Klan out there, they said. But you see my momma always told me to give people a chance. She said, you never know, they might surprise you. So I buried my reservations about Jack’s uneasy kindness. I locked them up deep in that vault within our minds that harbors all our secret stereotypes.
As he drove off, the dust from the driveway wafted into the country air. I shook off my fogginess and stumbled back up to the bedroom. Annie was still lying on the mattress surrounded by a fortress of sealed moving boxes, a satisfied smile on her dormant face. The boxes housed books and clothes and records and photo albums and other knickknacks we’d collected together. These things were important to us and no one else. Bubble wrapped items like the gold Denzel Washington bookends we picked up as a gag at a designer thrift shop in Tribeca, or the nautical compass we found on holiday in Montauk, or our original pressing of For Sentimental Reasons. These items served as a collective record of our coupled life.
I opened a box labeled, “comfy stuff” and sifted through robes and slippers and fluffy socks. Removing a heavy white fleece blanket, I draped it over Annie, snugly wrapping it around her slender shoulders. She liked to be hot when sleeping. I liked to be cold. I placed the loaded rifle up underneath the screenless window before cracking it half open, allowing the cool air in.
Feeling the comfort of Annie beside me, it wasn’t long before I slipped into a heavy sleep. I guess it couldn’t have been any other type of sleep given the severity of the exhaustion that weighed on me. Looking back, we probably should’ve stopped along the way. Maybe stayed a night at a motel to rest or something. Or maybe I should’ve let Annie drive for a while. She always bugged me about letting her drive when we took trips out to the country. For whatever reason I’d always say something like, “Nah, I got this, you sleep.” Well that night I slept. I didn’t sleep long but I slept deeply, becoming lost in a dreamless sleep so deep that I was acutely aware I was sleeping. That awareness must’ve been what made the crashing sound from out front so startling.
There was a reactive alarm, I guess, that jolted me from the heaviness of that slumber. Maybe it was all of Jack’s talk of wild bears. Maybe it was the threatening nature of the man himself. I don’t know, but I popped up with a lightness about me and rushed toward the window.
With no moon illuminating the dark sky that night I could only barely make out something beyond the farmhouse. All I really saw was a shadow of a shadow. You’ve got to understand I was still lost in that sleepless fog so I wasn’t entirely sure what I saw while looking out the window. I remember what I felt though. It was fear. A harrowing fear that danger was nearby.
The rifle was resting beside me. I woke it up. My breathing steady, my hands calm. I closed one eye and stared down the long, polished sightline with the other. The trigger gave after an easy squeeze.
I only fired one shot.
The violence of the blast echoed throughout the empty valley. The sound repeating itself and then repeating itself again like a torturous reminder of the deed. Scanning the darkness, still lost somewhere in my half-woken dream state, I could see a silhouette of a lifeless body lying in the cold dust. It was no bear.
I still don’t know how I didn’t know. I thought about rushing downstairs to investigate further, I really did. But for some reason that I can’t explain, I stopped myself. I just turned from the cool window and stumbled blindly through the dark room, crawling back into my empty bed.
Jeremy Stelzner teaches high school English in Silver Spring, Maryland. He is currently enrolled in the Creative Writing program at the Harvard Extension School.