Threads of Old Baltimore
In my late 20s there was a period of a few years, when I worked 45-hours per week, kept a regular midnight to eight schedule and walked home at a strolling pace, thinking of what I had read the previous day, what I would write. During this period of the late 80s there was some black crime infiltrating the area, but it had not become virulent and was confined to night.
I worked in the 5900 block of Belair Road, U.S. Route #1, which threads the east coast from Key West to Maine, back down to the 4700 block, an easy 2 mile walk. I lived with my wife and oldest son just below the ridge line that overlooks the Herring Run Valley, a quarter mile above Holy Redeemer cemetery, where my younger brother Gerard is buried. At this time, the spruce seedling that Vance had planted when he was seven, was grown as tall as him, a smallish 12-year-old boy.
My wife and I had grown further apart with every year and my return to boxing had ended with injury, so I became lost in books, would only watch documentaries on TV, and spent much time in the basement with my books and boxing gear. She knew I was in no hurry coming home and that hurt, I supposed.
I used to make a right turn off of Belair onto Woodlea, which was a curving street that served as a shortcut to the portion of Southern Avenue that met Luerssen, the street I was unsuccessfully buying a house on. I had stopped walking up Southern. Bear, the savage black terrier I had given to Rich the Prison Guard, had not forgotten me and would bark painfully for me to come visit. When I’d get to the fence, Bear, all 15 pounds of him, would savagely attack the pitbull and German shepherd he shared the fenced yard with, so that I would pet only him as they gave back and cowered, and I scratched his head and he snarled at me as if to say, “You gave up on me, you two-legged prick!”
When he would howl for me at the fence as I walked by, it got to be too much, so I avoided it.
Rich told me once, when I came to visit, “I feed this motherfucker steak, and when you show up I’m chopped liver!”
Woodlea was also a side street, no speeding jerks cutting 30 seconds off of their commute, like on Southern, which was a secondary street.
Once, as I turned left on the steep side street that crested the ridge just above my house, the old Italian couple who kept a rose garden on the side of their house befriended me, having seen me pass many times. They were in their seventies. Asking if I was married, the old man gave me a pair of roses for my wife and said, “If you ever get in trouble with her you can stop by and pick her a rose.”
I often stopped and looked at that rose bed, but never did take him up on the offer.
Further down the way, just above the old Hacienda Mexican restaurant, which was, at this point a bake-off house for the Woodlea Bakery, lived two old men. One always had a ladder leaning against his house, which was a wreck, as was he, looking like some ancient peasant.
Next door lived a fellow who maintained an ornamental garden, his house pristine, he dressed in slacks, dress shoes, shirt and tie, even when watering flowers out front.
He had a light sweep of short hair which might have been blonde before it grayed.
He was a gentle gentleman who often stopped, waved and said, “Good morning.”
We spoke casually as I walked by on many occasions, usually about the weather.
He was a nice, lonely man.
One day, a hot summer morning, as I trudged by in my frozen food attire, carrying an extra shirt, he invited me inside for an iced tea, up two flights of white, concrete stairs, into…a lady’s palace.
The living room was the sitting room of a delicate woman, the kind of room my Grandmother LaFond would have arranged had she the space. There were many brass-framed photos of a young man and a beautiful woman of the delicate kind.
There were photos—all framed in brass, of this woman as a girl, as a baby and as a dancer. The type of dancing she did reminded me of ballet but in a dress. I do not recall what he told me about her art. He was an expert in everything she had done. He showed no interest in the drab job that had paid for this house and put his son through college. He spoke only of his dear wife, the dancer and of his son, who had made good and moved off to start a family.
Here this man stood, alone, in his suit, having put on his jacket to invite me in, next to a short man in worn and dirty work clothes, giving a tour of the room that was the museum dedicated to his wife.
There was one particular display, a wedge-shaped piece of elegantly tooled furniture with glass shelves that fit into the corner of the room. Pictures of his wife winning awards for her dancing were there. But the thing he treasured most was her brass slippers, made from a mold cast of her baby shoes. These hung before a silver plaque shaped like a leaf.
He handed me the pair of shiny brass slippers to hold on their watch-chain cord. Noticing that I was reluctant, he said not to worry about smudging them, that he polished them every day when he talked to her. I cannot recall any of his exact words as I had so few conversations with people at this solitary stage of my life that I was unpracticed in memory. Unless it was a work or violence situation I could not recall a person’s words.
While taking the slippers back and hanging them in their place, the man, who never told me his name, as if that were unimportant, shed silent tears and spoke of waiting too many years to be with her again, of how he had begun to doubt God for taking her and prayed every day to be with her again in heaven.
He was the gentlest, most wounded man I have ever met. His skin was so soft and thin, when I shook his hand I wondered if he was well.
I saw him in his yard a few more times, stood and talked of plants and things I knew or cared nothing about, like the weather.
Later that year, my life became hectic, work hours long, my toil-stained mind work-absorbed with the nuances of my enslavement.
I never walked up Woodlea again, once the streets got rougher and I began leading people that followed me up Southern, where there were more hard objects scattered in the gutter to fight back with.
The last image I hold of him in my mind is of him standing bent and tall in a cream-colored suit, watering plants besides the stairs as he waved with a slight smile at my pacing and I aped him.
Ever since, any time I see a brass thing or notice my skin thinning with age, I think of him crying, holding that pair of tiny brass slippers in Her living room.
(c) 2017 James LaFond