Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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In 1967, I loafed at Limbo's Tavern in Pittsburgh, a joint about the size of four wrestling rings where ironheads, as ironworkers were not unsymbolically called, leaned against a bar of scabby formica four feet high.
At the five o'clock whistle, Snakes Senicki, Joe Antoli and I, Stan Adambroski, would doff our hardhats and grab an 88 Frankstown bus to the East End, lurching through the rush hour traffic to Limbo's. The bar owner, Lemmual Bolinski, would serve us beer and whiskey (boilermakers) and tell us which stock and race numbers had hit.
Ancient hillbilly music mourned in the place, music made for drunkards, made in a still.
On payday somebody would buy the house, which did not include Applejack, an old cripple who was the only colored who went into the place. Applejack quaffed liquor left behind by paying customers and occasionally earned a muscatel by running errands for Limbo.
Snakes, Joe and I would stand beside spittoons at the bar, howling and swearing, teething pirogis, gasping after straight slugs, and wasting time. We'd complain about the coloreds pushing whites out of union apprenticeships, praise absent friends, and agree ironheads must work as teams to stay alive. We'd knock our team, the Pirates. We'd plan excursions to the ponies at Wheeling Downs. We'd play pool on the tiny tattered table. We'd talk politics at the level of the ward chairman, whom we all personally knew. We'd separate humanity into good guys, foul balls, whores, and women. The summer days came like cornstalks, in long identical rows. Life was not a learning experience. I knew there were other kinds of living out of the sky and out of Limbo's, but I wasn't interested. I riveted beams forty floors above the concrete and nightly drank myself stupid.
Life's changes have made me no more satisfied than I was then.
My girlfriend in 1967, Lynne, had left me. I said that was the reason I drank so much. She said she left me because I drank so much. There was more to it.
I wanted to be blue as the singers of hillbilly songs, so I closed down the joint every night in May, the month of Lynne's departure to East Moline, Illinois. At 2:30 or 2:45, Limbo would lock it up and I would trudge home.
On one of those nights, on quiet Negley Avenue, I found Applejack curled under a buckeye tree, his black face almost a shadow, languishing.
"Hey, Applejack, get your drunken ass up and go home."
"Shit, man," he whimpered, "I done lost my other leg." His one good leg had buckled; he couldn't walk.
I shouted down a meandering, nighttime cab. The driver reluctantly agreed to take us to the Garfield Projects, the public housing complex where Applejack and hundreds of other coloreds and two dozen whites lived. Applejack remembered his address. He was so skinny I carried him in my arms through the hall and up the cement steps to his apartment. A group of colored guys were on the steps, hanging out late. They glared.
A young woman answered my knock, opening the door a crack. She seemed confused. Her face was swollen with sleep. I told her Applejack couldn't walk. When she saw him, she opened the door. "Oh, my God!" she exclaimed. I carried the old man inside, and dropped him on a yellow couch with cushions burnished by age.
"I lost my other goddamned leg," said Applejack.
"Oh, my God."
I prayed the cab was still waiting. "Gotta go," I said.
In the morning the incident didn't seem real. I mentioned it to Snakes when Applejack didn't appear at Limbo's the following night. "Do you miss him, Stan?" he asked.
Applejack returned to Limbo's three nights later, on crutches. He didn't have the price of a glass of wine and failed at cadging one, then slumped brooding at the bar, his crutches propped beside him. Impulsively I bought him a double muscy. "My buddy," he said.
Advanced alcoholism makes easy drunks, as I found in later life. So it was for Applejack. Three or four wines, a few bottles of beer, precious little reduced him to groggy somnolence. Once asleep, he could be awakened only by another drink. Applejack slept with his forearms under his head on the bar. His hat, the color and configuration of a dog turd, had fallen on the floor.
At best, Limbo's was no In Spot, and on this summer night there were only three of us: Applejack snoring, Limbo gazing at the tube, and me.
A colored woman entered the bar. She peered for a moment through my cigarette smoke stirring grayly, then took a stool beside Applejack. She seemed taller, blacker and prettier than when I'd last seen her. Her body was thin, even lithe. She crossed her legs twice, once at the thighs and again at the ankles. She wore plaid slacks and a v-neck sweater. Three large bracelets rode her arm. She did not seem to notice me as I resumed my seat, having hit the john.
Applejack slept on, grumbling vacantly as she tried to rouse him. From Limbo she ordered the potion, muscatel, and placed it before the old man. For herself she had a gin and Squirt, and she sipped it silently while Applejack began to stir.
Without speaking, I waved across the bar at her, wondering if I would be recognized. She nodded.
Applejack made a chinrest of his hand and once again closed his eyes to the world. "Drink your wine, man," she insisted. "We gonna go home."
It was a funny sight.
She heard me laugh, but such was her nature that she clucked mirthfully and warned me, "You keep laughing at me, honey, and I'll make you carry him home again."
"You want me to do that?" I asked, astonishing myself, astonishing Limbo, who delivered a paternally censoring frown.
Even more astonishing to me than my words was the keen pulse, the bubble of air I felt in my groin. Believe it or not, never before had I been sexually interested in a black woman --aroused, yes, but in the same way I was aroused by the grainy girls in the airbrushed nudist magazines which passed for pornography in those days. With them sex was simply impractical. Now a woman, dark as mahogany, with flared nostrils and large lips, drew from me the first bonafide passion I had felt since Lynne had bolted for East Moline.
Even as I questioned myself--was I, as we said, prejudiced?--I rose from my stool and crossed the room to take a stool beside her. She averted her eyes from me.
"No kidding," I said. "You'll never get him home. Besides, I'm Applejack's sidekick, I'm his buddy. Ask him."
She shrugged, not denying permission. "You don't gotta help," was all she said.
I draped his arm around my shoulder and carried him out of the bar, holding him at the waist. She carried the crutches. Limbo ignored us.
We hailed a cab and it was a fast ride. I learned her name, Gymetta, Applejack's daughter. When we arrived at the projects, I carried Applejack, as before, in my arms, dumped him on the yellow couch.
On Gymetta's instructions, the cab waited outside. This confused me. Should I take her in my arms? Should I ask if I could see her again? Should I tell her to write down her phone number? What do colored people do?
Insidiously came the fear of being refused by a colored. I had never thought of myself as a bigot. I no more disliked Negroes, I thought, than I disliked, say, cats. The silliness of that idea struck me in my prejudiced heart, and with it a thin slice of shame.
"Hey, Gymetta," I ventured, "how about making me a cup of coffee?"
She smiled. "That meter's running, and you got to run, too. Go on, get your cab." Quickly, however, she added, "You can call me up if you remember my number."
Throughout the drive to my apartment, I repeated the number to myself. As soon as I got in I wrote it down.
In the morning I discovered I wanted to see Gymetta as much as I had the previous night. All day at work, as I riveted beams, I thought of her, having difficulty remembering the exact lines of her face. I fingered in my pocket the scrap of paper bearing the phone number. By quitting time I was so nervous I decided not to call her immediately, as I had planned, but to wait until I had gone to my apartment and showered. A beer or two would help, a Seagram's 7. Snakes and Joe asked why I wasn't going to Limbo's with them. I didn't tell them what was going on.
An hour later I dialed the number.
"Hi," I said. "This is Stan."
"I'm cooking now, Stan. Can you call me back a little later?"
"Sure," I replied, crestfallen.
I sat stewing by my telephone, finishing three cans of beer before I again spun the dial.
'"Hi, it's Stan again."
"Hi, Stan." Her voice was calmer. I could tell she was sitting. "Would you like to come for dinner tomorrow?"
When we finished eating, we made for the living room, sat on the yellow couch, leaving the sink a cornucopia of unwashed dishes. Applejack, under some M.D.'s sedative, not his own, snored audibly from his bedroom. The door was ajar. One of his crutches, his long initial A, was propped against the wall; the other had fallen.
During dinner I had done most of the talking. I had rushed to fill a vacuum, for I had foreseen lulls in which we could have spoken of nothing but romance or race. I talked about baseball, Snakes Senicki, riveting, and my army days.
Shy Gymetta spoke little about little, in simple ungrammatical sentences. Solicitously she refilled my beer glass. Ray Charles sang on the hi-fi. When I kissed Gymetta, her skin felt brown and her lips were pillowy under mine, and with my right hand I could feel gentle kinks of hair at her neck. It was new pleasure, the perfume of miscegenation, and my shame returned to me.
"Gymetta, I said, "Shouldn't we talk."
"Shush," she hushed, and kissed my cheek.
"We should talk," I said.
"Honey, you don't have shit to say," she murmured, smiling. Consigning myself to that wisdom, I abided with her, missing work the next day.
By miracle or medication, Applejack's leg was restored. Within a week he was without crutches, cadging drinks at Limbo's, or so we inferred, for I spent every night that week with Gymetta at the projects.
Before, during and since those days, I have been unable to leave well enough alone. As we lay in a shaft of afternoon sunlight, I suggested we go down to Limbo's for a couple of drinks.
"No, sir," Gymetta said.
"I gotta get out of this room, Gymetta. Let's go out for a drink. I'll go to your favorite bar, then."
"No way," she said.
As I have not said what a tender, elegant woman Gymetta was, so have I not said that she was a blindly agreeable soul. I persisted, and that afternoon, we three, including Applejack, wound up in Limbo's.
We took a back booth. Limbo nodded without expression and served us gin and Squirt, muscatel, beer. Eddie Arnold sang and twanged under a worn needle. Applejack, unaccustomed to the role of paying customer, left us for a moment to complain to Limbo about the volume of the music. Limbo prescribed an impossible act of self love. Joe Antoli saluted from the bar but did not join us at the booth, as he had many times when Lynne had come in with me. Snakes had not yet arrived.
All the while Gymetta uncharacteristically chatted. She spoke lightly of clothes and booze and eightball pool. She talked of her aunt and her broken vacuum cleaner and of her sick and ornery father. Applejack nodded and nodded.
Snakes entered the bar, aggressively amiable, rose-faced, half lit already. He bee-lined to our booth, patting and stroking his enormous belly, a pride and joy, and sat down beside Applejack, facing Gymetta.
"Stan The Man," he grinned, "what are you drinking?"
"A cold one. Hey, Snakes. Say hello to Gymetta and Applejack."
"Hi, little lady," said Snakes to Gymetta. "What are you drinking?"
He ordered a round, then another, paying twice. He told a twisty, punny, funny joke, complained jovially about his wife, broke us up with an anecdote about an ironhead we knew, revealing that the man kept an extra pair of teeth in his lunch pail. He became solemn for a moment about the prospects of his son who wouldn't seek work, then topped himself with a crack about a Wheeling Downs racehorse named Great Balls of Fire. I was proud of him. Gymetta hooted and cooed in helpless mirth, and Applejack snorted in his cups, too happy to fall asleep.
Finally Snakes said, "I'll leave you young people alone," gallantly bowed, and gravitated to the bar.
Gymetta was still laughing, tinkling ever more slowly, as a music box winds down. "Oh, me," she said, "I have to go to the ladies room." While she was gone, I went to the bar to order another drink and, gratefully, to buy Snakes one.
Snakes thanked me in Polish. Then he leaned into me, the posture when sharing confidences.
"They're hell on wheels, ain't they?"
I didn't get it. Then I did.
"What's hell on wheels, Snakes?"
"Those nigger gals, son, the darker the hotter."
I was not angry. I had heard this before about nigger women. Snakes might have said any number of hackneyed things. All politicians are crooked. All Pontiacs give you transmission trouble. And hadn't I assumed, based on that lore, that Gymetta would be no Lynne? Snakes meant no harm. Still, the word sounded different.
"Snakes," I replied insouciantly, "they're all hell on wheels for me."
When I returned to our booth, the first thing Gymetta said to me was, "Honey, let's have another one."
Applejack snoozed now, his face propped on his two-toned hands sticky with muscatel. He missed two rounds during which Gymetta's speech lapsed into halftime, swung back to the Alabama fields of her parents; while the cadences of my voice escalated, fluted up flatly, speeded past dipthongs, returned to my boyhood locutions when I spoke English with a Polish accent. We were speaking words of love. Gymetta suggested we go home to bed. We ordered a muscy to waken Applejack.
In the taxi, the driver adjusted his rear view mirror so as not to watch us.
As we mounted the steps, Applejack stumbled between Gymetta and me, his arms on our shoulders.
Three men waited at Gymetta's door, their eyes balefully generating heat. I recognized one as a singer Gymetta and I had watched and heard from her window, a doo-wop bass, very lank and dark, with shades and a purple shirt.
Gymetta whispered, "Do what I say." In a cheery voice, she said hi to the three, then to me, "Thanks very much for your help. Appreciate it. My friends here'll help get Daddy in."
"What's going on here?" I demanded, knowing it. "Who are you guys?"
I was struck hard in the face, and I fell, then punched twice again, harmless blows. From the concrete floor, I looked up at Gymetta, who shrieked in fear just before she, too, was punched, then punched again. Her nose bloomed blood. I tried to scramble up, but the singer's purple shirt appeared before me and I was stunned by a kick to the head, another, weirdly, to the leg. I thought I was going to black out. Instead I vomited.
Gymetta became hysterical. She began screaming threats, signaling malevolently, cursing. I heard a man say, "Let's get on out of here." I peered through murk to see two blurs pass over me, one purple. A third blur kicked me once again, but I felt no pain. "Don't you go on in there tonight," he warned. "Find you a white woman."
Presently I was able to stand. I said to Gymetta, "Are you okay?" No answer. The hall was empty. I knocked on her door. Another minute, no sound, then a click and the door opened, half an inch.
"You all right?" Gymetta asked.
"Yeah, I'm all right. Let me in."
"Go home, Stan," she pleaded, then closed and locked the door. I didn't argue. Nonexistent colored guys lurked behind cars, and the walk home ached.
For about a month after that night, I saw Gymetta often. She visited my apartment and twice I insisted upon visiting her, soon learning how afraid we both became and how badly those evenings went. She suggested we drink at Limbo's, but I made excuses. I had stopped drinking there. When Gymetta was not with me, I spent solitary nights in my apartment, becoming drunk and bathetic. I missed a lot of work and was told my union card was in jeopardy. Snakes and Joe assumed Lynne had returned, and I didn't deny it.
Gymetta said little of the incident at the projects, allowing one of the men had been a former boyfriend, attributing the whole matter to unrequited love, and pretending she had not heard his warning to me. Her shiner was the reminder, but after the contusion disappeared we never again spoke of the incident. We made love and drank and ate. Once I asked Gymetta to marry me. She found the idea amusing.
Two weeks later I quit my job. Immediately I took another at half the pay as boiler room attendant, dropping from the skies to the basement.
Gymetta visited me less and less often, for I was churlish, morose. Never before had I felt so defeated and I was not certain what had vanquished me. My life was a quiz with sad questions and trick answers. I concluded something was wrong with Pittsburgh, with Limbo's, and with me. Naturally, I began to think about leaving town.
I did not see Gymetta before I was to fly away. We spoke amiably, woodenly, for the last time, over the telephone. I stopped in Limbo's for a beer. The place was crowded and a new song from San Francisco played on the juke. Everyone offered to buy me a drink. Declining, I bought the house, which included Applejack, which woke him up.
Richard Tanski writes: I have published short fiction, book reviews, poetry, nonfiction, and a monthly column, not to mention a lot of un-bylined commercial effusions. Publications include East Bay Express literary supplement, Minotaur, Ideas and Figures (University of Pittsburgh), Skyscraper Engineer, Bay Area Opportunity, and Scimitar & Song. I am a First Prize winner of The Atlantic's nationwide scholastic writing contest.