Authors: Joyce Johnson
For Hettie Jones
I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.
I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green.
âVINCENT VAN GOGH
Arles, September 8, 1888
My house burned down
And I can't go there no more.
T'S A GOOD NAME
, you once said, for a vanishing act.
To be called Tom Murphy is to be about as ordinary as grass. America has Tom Murphys everywhere. You told me you found them in phone books in every town the year you got out of the navy and were moving around a lot. Sometimes, having drunk enough, you'd dial each number, standing at a pay phone putting the nickels in. You were nineteen. The war had made you crazy. Strangers would answer suspiciously. You'd ask if a Thomas Murphy was there, and if he was, you'd ask the other questions. “Sorry I disturbed you.” Sometimes you wouldn't apologize either, just hang up quickly.
Tom Murphy steps back into a doorway, slips into a crowd, takes a ride toward some fresh start, some different identity in uncountable locations; dies in a rooming house with an empty wine bottle on the dresser, or on an operating table under white lights or a wooden bench in a railway station, or is still alive, eighty years oldâit's not impossible. Anyone with the slightest hope of finding him would have to know where he'd gone to, at least roughly. Or have amazing luck, unthinkable persistence.
ISSING PERSONS DON'T
die. Time congeals around them. They remain as young, as unfinished, as when they went away.
In 1925, there was a Tom Murphy on Tenth Avenue and Forty-thirdÂ Street. He was a good-looking boy of twentyâblond, blue-eyedÂ, slim-hipped, half Norwegian. The other half was as Irish as the neighborhood. This Tom Murphy was addicted to cars and appropriated them when he could. He was light-fingered,Â too, when it came to women. He ran around with a lot of girls and got one of them, Marie Dixon, in trouble.
It was late in August when he took his leave of permanent absenceâthe time of year when tenement families, choking for air, slept on mattresses on rooftops and fire escapes. Summer closed in on Hell's Kitchen like a vise of heat. Grimy children plunged yelling into streams of water from hydrants and begged for pennies to buy shaved ice doused in syrup. Soot from the railroad tracks of Eleventh Avenueâcalled Death Avenue by someâgrayed the sheets and bloomers hanging out over the backyards.
One August day Tom Murphy took a bunch of pretty girls for a ride up and down Park Avenue in a yellow touring car. He sat on the leather seat behind the steering wheel like a Princeton boy on a holiday outing, a straw hat on his head, striped shirt sleeves peeled back to the elbows. The excited girls in their rolled stockings, their bright, flimsy dresses, draped themselves around him, hooting and waving at the sedate pedestrians on the clean, gray sidewalks. The automobile had been stolen for the afternoon.
Tom Murphy was a newly married man by that time. But his bride would have been too pregnant to have come along. On August 16, her mother brought her into Polyclinic, the hospital just across the street from Madison Square Garden. It was famous not for its maternity ward but for its other clienteleâboxers carried in unconscious straight from the ring, gangsters whose bullet wounds were treated in its emergency room. The child born to Marie there was a boy.
Tom Murphy stayed around just long enough to see that his son was named after him. A few days later, he borrowed his new brother-in-law's car and disappeared. He was remembered in the neighborhood, with a certain admiration, as a driver of stolen vehicles, though his son's birth certificate listed his occupation as cabdriver. He may also have been involved in the trafficking of bootleg alcohol.
But there was another side to this Tom Murphy. Somewhere he'd learned to play the trumpet. He seemed to have dreams of becoming a musician. It was said he had the trumpet with him when he left.
Everyone told little Tommy Murphy he looked just like his father. When he looked in the mirror, he saw a little boy; he didn't see his father at all. Later he began to see him more and more, as if Tom Murphy were hiding in his own face. Tom Murphy got him in trouble all the time. His mother said bitterly, “You look like him, you act like him.” She smacked him to make her point. She'd never wanted him, she told him that. She didn't even like him when he was a baby, when he couldn't have been doing anything wrong.
When her son was born, Marie was eighteen, fast and flighty. Motherhood didn't slow her down. At times a dangerous pitiless glint flashed off her like a knife. She got rid of her wedding ring, marcelled her auburn hair, rouged her small, thin mouth into the arcs of a valentine. She frequented the Arbor dance hall on Fifty-second Street, got a job checking hats in a speakeasy. She met other men, it wasn't hard. She was an I-don't-care sort of girl.
The neighbors thought she acted strangely with the baby. She'd stick him in his carriage, park him out in front of the stoop for hours and forget to bring him in. He'd wail and kick and scream. Someone's kid would have to go running up four flights to bang on the door, wake Marie from her daylight sleep, make her come down and tend to him. She'd rub her eyes and say, yawning, “Come on, what's wrong with a little fresh air?”
Once Marie almost lost the baby. An old German woman who wasn't right in the head passed the house each day on her way to do her marketing. Seeing the baby always out there on the street, the German woman got the idea that he belonged to no one, that he was hers for the taking. A neighbor, looking out a window, spotted her wheeling the carriage away. The neighbor got the child back with the aid of a cop. But the next day the screams of the baby could be heard as usual and the carriage was again down in front of the stoop.
Marie hadn't always lived in Hell's Kitchen. Given the opportunity, she'd remind people of that. She'd speak of piano lessons, crepe de chine party dresses, property her father had owned in Brooklyn. But her father had died and the property had been lost, and she'd moved with her mother and sister to a cold-water flat on Forty-ninth Street with toilets in the yard.
At sixteen Marie left school to become a telephone operator. For two years she'd plugged people into each other. “Number please” nine hours a day on a high metal stool in an enormous room that never stopped buzzing, as if a million flies were trapped in it. A good job compared with some she could have gotten. The telephone company drilled its girls in politeness and enunciationâthey expected them to be perfect ladies, of course. They fired her for lack of “moral character,” for the big ugly belly she had, thanks to Tom Murphy, that had nothing to do with her diction or the speed of her fingers. “You're through at Bell Telephone, miss,” they said.
Men she met at the speakeasy gave her extrasâsometimes a little cash or a pair of stockingsâbut her boyfriends never stayed around. The kid, as he grew older, cramped her style. She could no longer leave him so easily at night with a bottle tied to the bars of the crib. A few times when she couldn't dump him at her mother's, she had to cart him along.
He had memories later of strange, crowded tobacco-smelling midnight places, of smoke and light, of a back room occupied by a large, heavy, green-covered table and his mother making him lie down under it, saying, “You shut your eyes now and stay there. And you keep yourself quiet, or else.” And waking up later in the darkness hearing odd cries and noises, thinking his mother was on that green table above him with some man.
Marie brought one new boyfriend home who didn't go away like the othersâa cockney seaman with a big bald head and the reddened, belligerent face of a drinker. Frank Crosby worked on a British freighter docked at the North Pier. In Marie he found something so compelling that he decided to jump ship. Marie told her mother that they were crazy about each other, but maybe it was anger that connected themâhis the blind anger of the fist, hers darting, glittering, insidious.
“Stay out of Frank's way,” Marie told the little boy. “Frank doesn't like kids, so don't get him mad at you.”
He asked, “Is he my dad now?”
“You don't have a dad,” she said.
In a few weeks Frank drank through all his sailor's pay. Marie began yelling, “Get a job!” She locked Frank out one night, bolting the door from the inside, shoving a trunk against it. Hiding under his blanket, the little boy could hear a tremendous racket, fists crashing against wood, terrible threats of what Frank would do to Marie, and his mother shrieking and laughing, strangely exhilarated.
Then suddenly Frank was back in Marie's good graces. He'd found a job in the Bronx as a super and a free apartment in the basement of the building where he worked that had steam heat and a real inside bathroom. It seemed they'd be coming up in the world if they moved in there with himâand besides, Marie was going to have another baby.
A green truck arrived one day, and everything they had was carried down the stairs and loaded into it. They got into it, too, the little boy squeezed in up front between his mother and the driver. The driver called him Sonny and gave him his first stick of chewing gum, and they left the neighborhoodâTom Murphy's old hauntsâfor good, the dark red tenements with their broken stoops, the summer sidewalks aswarm with kids, the blue river with its mournful bellowings of ships, the rattle of freight trains down Death Avenue.
There are things that happen to little children that can't be distinguished later from dreams. Sometimes a picture would come into Tommy Murphy's mind of a room with a brown carpet on which he'd been told to sit and wait, and the memory of someone rubbing his face with a wet cloth and handing him a pink rubber ball to play with and closing the door. The room had furniture with heavy, clawed animal feet that greatly interested him, and he remembered also some patches of light on the carpet, which kept gliding back and forth and seemed to glow with all the colors in the world. The door had opened and a stranger had come in, a tall man with yellow hair who seemed awfully glad to see him. “Well, hello there, Tommyboy,” he said, and the man gave him a nickel and lifted him so high he could almost touch the ceiling. He could never figure out where that room might have been, or be sure it had ever existed, or whether the man who'd come in and lifted him up had been his father.
His mother said, “Your dad's in jail, the last I heard. You'll end up there, too, if you don't watch out.”
In the new neighborhood, he was drawn to a gang of older boys. They teased him and sometimes made him cry. Whitey, they called him because his hair was so light. “Go home little Whitey, your mother wants you,” they'd jeer if he trailed after them on their adventures. They hung out on his roof, where they smoked stolen cigarettes and dared each other to walk the narrow parapet. “I can do it,” he told them, but they chased him away. “Get lost, kid. You're too young to die.”
He went up to the roof one day when no one was around. The sun was hot and bright, tar stuck to his feet. He ducked under the flapping sheets on the clothesline and walked to the edge, and after staring thoughtfully for a while at the parapet, climbed up on it the way the big boys did, holding his arms straight out from his sides, seesawing against the breeze.
Mapes Avenue glittered six stories below, the slick tops of cars, the shop windows, the tin lids of garbage cans. He stuck one foot out into blue space and told himself he could make the other foot follow, why couldn't he take a walk in the air? But then he started trembling. All of a sudden he knew what was out there.
The apartment Frank had moved them into was near the boiler room. A buzzer would sound, and other people's garbage would travel down to them on the dumbwaiter. In the winter it was tropical down there, but the sun never reached them even in summer, and there was a thick, damp smell, as if some black river flowed beneath the surface of their lives. The boiler forever demanded propitiation, devouring mountains of coal, spitting ash that would have to be hauled out to the courtyard in barrels. A fine grit appeared everywhereâon their windowpanes, their furniture, their skins. He used to think he could taste it in everything his mother cooked.
He was known to the families who lived on the floors above them as the super's kid, although he did not belong to Frank in the way his little brother Kevin didâFrank had made that very clear. Frank, Marie and Kevinâthey were the real family, the Crosbys. He did not even seem to belong to Marie. He was someone they permitted to live with them because he was too young to work; meanwhile they allotted him a bed and food. “You're a lucky boy,” Marie once said when he'd angered her. “I could have given you away when you were born.”
Most children seemed to take their belonging for granted. He watched the other families in the building, the other mothers with their sons. He noticed that even when these women yelled and got mad, there was a torrent of passionate sorrow, a warmth, as if the worst thing these boys could do to their mothers was to damage themselves by their acts of foolishness, as if the women somehow bore on their own bodies the scrapes and bruises of their children. He liked the Jewish families best, and it didn't matter what Marie said, that they'd killed Jesus Christ in the old days. Their strange customs appealed to him. Every week they gathered around a table with a white cloth on it and burned candles over which prayers were said in their foreign language. Even little kids like him were allowed to be present on these grand occasions, eating their roast chicken as the candles melted all the way down. He would stand in the courtyard and look up, and if the blinds weren't drawn, he could see the golden insides of their rooms, the small flames flickering, casting shadows that lapped at the walls. When he grew older, sometimes he got into their housesâon Saturdays, when Jewish people were forbidden to work. Women would call to him from windowsâ“Little boy! Little boy!”âand offer him pennies to come up and light their stoves. Their kitchens would still smell of baked bread and roasted meat, and he'd catch glimpses of other roomsâphotos of somberly dressed men and women in gilt frames, upright pianos, rows of books behind glass.
In the warm weather, the mothers came down from their kitchens in the evenings to offer each other advice and opinions. Some brought folding chairs and set them up in front of the stoop. Until the sky darkened and the air cooled off a little, they'd stay out there. Then they'd sigh and say they still had to do the dishes. Marie would be out on the stoop with all the rest. Anyone could see she was the prettiest, the slenderest; even the women made flattering remarks about her figure. She'd be laughing and smoking cigarettes and showing off the fat baby. She'd stretch out her legs so her trim ankles could be admired. He felt proud to see his mother thereâbut also uneasy, as if any minute the others would discover she was only pretending, that something was wrong, something he couldn't name.
For a while Marie was all the rage. A couple of the women were her best friends. She was always finding excuses to take the baby and run off and sit in their kitchens. She'd return excited from her visits, brimming over with things she'd sworn not to tell.
Frank kept warning her, Don't get thick with the neighbors. He got mad when he couldn't lie around the house and drink and know her exact whereabouts. He didn't believe she went where she said. Marie made up to him by telling him bad things her friends had said about their own husbands. She saw nothing wrong in repeating these things to others as well, women for whom she had no particular liking. For Frank's benefit and her own amusement, she'd make fun of all the women in the building, doing hilarious imitations of their voices. For Marie any secret seemed its opposite, something to be broadcast to the world. Implicit in any promise was the forbidden power of breaking it.