Finally, the aloneness of the hallway. I hurried down the steps and out to the street and the icy rain. Al would understand. She always did. Outside our gate, I turned in the direction of her house on 115th Street and 109th Avenue.
After walking the nine blocks from my apartment, I stood at the corner across from Al’s giant brown house where she lived with her father Andy. The house always looked huge to me on the corner of the short block it dominated, with its gables and pillared porch that ran all the way around to the chain-link fence along the street. They never used the front door that faced the avenue. You had to walk up the street around the side, under the line of giant maples now bare of leaves, to the low gate that led to Al’s small yard, with its little patches of frosted grass and frozen rosebushes, perfectly aligned along the side of the garage that faced the street.
Andy was an engineer. He liked things neat. Perpendicular, Al said. Al was the opposite. Her room was a collage of books, papers, unusual pets, the bed never made. Maybe that was why they got along so well, like Michael and me. Michael would throw his shirt in one direction, his pants in another. I kept after it, though I didn’t mind. It was better than listening to Teresa yell at him about it, even though I could never nail down a memory of Teresa cleaning anything.
Al and I were the only ones I knew who called our parents by their first names. Well, Al called her father Andy but had called her mother Mother until her mother was killed by a car on her way to the store one day.
I knocked on the glass windowpane of the back door. Al’s bicycle was there leaning against the wall. Seeing it always reminded me of when Michael used to ride me on the handlebars of his bike when I was little. I knocked on the inside door, then opened it and snuck into the kitchen. The house was quiet.
“Al?” I called. “Are you here?” I could hear Bob Dylan whining out “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. I crept in a bit farther, into the darkened kitchen where the only light seeped in through the orange curtains, then into the living room with Andy’s shadowy big chair and his desk full of books and papers in neat piles.
“Alison?” I called a little more loudly.
“Come up here, Daniel.”
I jumped, but was relieved to hear her usual voice of authority. Bossy, the kids at school had
called her, and stuck-up and conceited. I headed up the long, wooden staircase.
“How come it took you so long to answer me, Al?” I called. “You shouldn’t leave the door unlocked when you’re upstairs.”
“Some maniac could’ve walked right in,” I said and waited for one of her usual wisecracks like, You’re right, one just did.
I pushed the partly-open bedroom door. The thick, teal-colored wall darkened the room. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor, her head tilted down, looking at her cupped hands. Her thick, dark hair hung forward, covering her face. She had on her favorite bellbottom jeans and navy-blue sweatshirt.
“I have failed,” she said.
“Failed?” I asked. “You?”
“Yes, Daniel. Me. I failed. He’s dead,” she said. “I tried to save him but I was too late.”
“What? Who?” Not Andy!
“Larry,” she said.
“Larry. The last survivor.”
“Of the Stooges,” she said. “The Three Stooges, Daniel. Don’t you remember?”
“Um.” I looked around. Al’s bed was strewn with books and papers.
“First, it was Moe,” she was saying. “Then, Curly went last month. Don’t you remember?”
I stared at her.
“My frogs, Daniel. The Three Stooges?”
“Oh, right.” I tried to sound as if I remembered. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. When I looked in the tank, Larry was struggling to breathe.”
“What’d you do, give him mouth to mouth resuscitation?”
She shot me a look. “Don’t you even care?”
“Oh, sure, Al. I care,” I said, feeling guilty for my sarcasm. “Sorry. Where is Larry. Did you flush him?”
“Of course I didn’t flush him!”
“Oh,” I said.
“I’m going to bury him in the backyard next to Moe and Curly under the white rosebush.”
“Oh, right. He’ll like that,” I said.
She shot me another look.
“What’s with you, Daniel?” she said. “You’re usually more sympathetic.”
“Oh, no, Al. I’m sorry, and sympathetic, too.” I made a sad face and hers softened.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to Chow Mein now,” she said. “He’s sad.”
“Geez,” I said. She had named the catfish Chow Mein because he was supposed to be a Chinese fish and Chow Mein was her favorite dish at our local Chinese restaurant. The frogs (when they were alive) were black and tiny, about a third the size of Chow Mein. Larry the frog, when he was still with us, had been seen hanging around at the bottom of the tank with one of his little black, leathery arms around Chow Mein’s “shoulders”.
“I’m really worried about Chow Mein,” she said.
Chow Mein was frozen in place at the bottom of the tank; Larry, about one inch all around, was stiffly sprawled in the center of Al’s palm in a paper towel. She gathered up Larry’s tiny body with the miniature fishnet.
“Come on, Daniel, help me bury Larry.”
“Oh, sure,” I said. Attending a minuscule frog’s burial seemed fitting. Larry’s sudden death somehow put my problems into perspective. I followed Al in slow funeral procession down the staircase, through the living room and kitchen, and out into the backyard. She stopped short on the back stoop with me tripping up the backs of her shoes. Al remained unfazed. I waited.
She appraised the line of ice-covered rosebushes perpendicular to the garage.
“I need a box,” she said.
“Yes, Daniel, a box. I need a box to put him in.” She turned around and, for the first time since I’d arrived, looked at me.
“Al, are you okay?”
“Daniel, I’m really glad you’re here.”
“Oh, thanks, Al. So am I, but ….”
“Can you please find me a box?”
I was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable. I had problems that I needed to tell Al about.
“Where should I look for a box?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. She looked down at Larry splayed across the palm of her hand. A tear dripped down her cheek, over her upper lip, and down onto her sweatshirt. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen Al cry, not even with the passing of Moe or Curly, and not since the passing of her mother. I moved closer to her and touched her arm.
“Al? Are you okay?” I said. “I know you’re sad about Larry, but I wouldn’t think it would hit you this hard.”
She stood there staring down at poor Larry who seemed to be getting stiffer by the minute. Another tear dropped, landing on Larry’s belly, soaking into his black, leathery skin.
She looked up at me again. “Why does everything have to die?”
Life and death questions. I was itching to tell Al my problem, but….
“Um, Al, where should I look for a box?”
“Go in the kitchen,” she said. “There’s a box of matches by the stove. Dump the matches and we’ll use the box.”
Back to giving orders. A good sign. I had somehow missed Moe’s and Curly’s funerals and wondered what kind of boxes they were lying in under the frozen ground, but didn’t dare ask. I headed back inside the house and found the match box. It was full. I looked around for something to dump the matches into. There was a big red bowl on the counter with a speckled banana and a brown-spotted apple in it. I picked it up and slapped the foot pedal of the steel garbage pail with my foot, turned the fruit bowl upside down over it, then dropped the matches into the bowl.
I ran back to Al and stopped. Her eyes were closed, as if she were in a trance. I wanted to laugh but knew better. Her right arm was lowering slightly, and Larry was tilting dangerously toward the linoleum floor.
“Yes, Daniel,” she said dreamily.
“Yeah, Al. Larry. He’s sliding.”
She opened her eyes and lifted her hand.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t let him fall.”
“Okay,” I said. “Here’s the box.”
“Hold it open,” she said and placed Larry’s stiff little body into the box. I thought of Al’s mother’s funeral just a few months earlier, and the long, wooden box they had lowered into the coffin-shaped hole in the ground. Al’s mother had been struck down by a cab crossing the street one day when she was shopping and never came out of her coma. Al had asked me to stay with her that day. I did, and through that night, without sleep. Andy had seemed lost, keeping to himself, which he still continued to do.
“Al? Are you okay?”
A tear slid down her cheek. “Yes,” she said. “Let’s go bury him.”