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The Rose City: Excerpt


Chuck Paa, not five and a half feet tall, his eyes gold and set deep beneath the brow, asked, "What do you need, Mr. Boyal? Chips? Cake mix? Corn oil? Where's your shopping list? Get out your list."

Mr. Boyal, glasses slipping down his nose, pointed to the breast pocket of Chuck's parka. Only a quarter of an hour before Chuck had picked up the list from the telephone table next to Mr. Boyal's front door, zipping it into the parka and patting the flap for good measure. Then Chuck had forgotten all about it. He must have been thinking of something else at the time: his paycheck arriving in tomorrow's mail; the red-and-black HELP WANTED sign in the window of the liquor store; the call he needed to place to Mr. Riley. Yes, something.

Now Mr. Boyal was leaning heavily on the shopping cart as he pushed it down the baked-goods aisle. It rolled slowly, its back wheels trembling, until Mr. Boyal seemed to lose track of what he was doing, steering the cart into a display pyramid of canned pickled beets. The pyramid collapsed on itself with an extended clatter, and Chuck Paa tried to look the other way.

But worse than the racket of the cans rolling down the aisle was the sight of Mr. Boyal himself. His knees were wobbling, his blue hand was grasping the cart's handle, and Mr. Boyal was on the verge of crumbling into a heap. Here we go again, thought Chuck, moving to catch Mr. Boyal. More than once Chuck had told him it was time to buy a walker, preferably the kind with the little white skis. But Mr. Boyal had—as Chuck expected—resisted. Yet when Chuck mentioned the walker to Mrs. Boyal, Mr. Boyal's sad-mouthed mother who lived far away in Pasadena, her tongue snapped across the phone line. "I couldn't agree more. I just didn't have the heart to bring it up myself." "Well, I have the heart," Chuck replied. And Mrs. Boyal, with her poof of silver-blond hair and pinched oily nose, said, "Oh, Chuck. Aren't you kind to us all."
"Here, Mr. Boyal," Chuck said at the bakery counter. "You like sugar cookies, don't you? They're on sale this week, only five cents each. Two bucks will get you enough for a week." Chuck placed the sack of clover-shaped cookies into the cart's baby seat. His hand, which was a small hand, even Chuck knew, scampered into the sack and pushed a cookie to his mouth. And then Chuck snapped his fingers, wet with saliva and decorated with green sprinkles, and he realized this: He had asked Mr. Boyal where's the list? to test his mind. Dementia was so common, after all.

But that wasn't the real reason, Chuck knew. No, the real reason was he'd simply forgotten what he'd done with it, thinking of something else.

"What's next?" Chuck glanced at the grocery list and directed Mr. Boyal to the seafood counter. Mr. Boyal liked to order his fish on his own, and so Chuck Paa leaned against the Mexicana rack that clutched bags of tortilla chips and jars of green-pepper salsa and pull-top tins of refried beans. Mr. Boyal's hair, yellow but somehow colorless, lay flatly on his skull. It hadn't been like that when Chuck began working for him. No, Mr. Boyal had once possessed a full set of hair, or almost. His face, too, had passed from man to cadaver before Chuck's eyes: cheeks as deep as saucers now, and this morning some sort of infection curdling white in his eyes; Chuck had had to take the damp corner of a tea towel to dab them clean.

Even so, Chuck had seen worse.

Mr. Boyal worked the numbered paper pennant out of the dispenser. His fingers, all bone, fluttered, tugging on the bit of blue paper. He held it up, showing Chuck that he was 43, four behind Mrs. 39 who now was ordering tuna steaks from the fish man, chattering about how the Star Market's fish prices were becoming insupportable. "Your prices are higher than they've ever been!"

That was it!

Chuck had forgotten what he'd done with the list because he'd been thinking of Ben. On his way to Mr. Boyal's this morning, he ran into Ben in front of the liquor store. Six months had passed since Chuck had seen him, a period of time that had quickly but thoroughly picked away at Ben's health: wrists thin and nearly strangled by the kudzu vines of his veins; skin scaly and a clammy gray; a colony of white nodules on his throat, like little toadstools. For the first time he had spent a night in the hospital, Ben reported breezily, as if it were a rite of passage, as if Chuck had known all along Ben had been ill.

"Did you have a nice room?"

"It was okay," said Ben. "Say, who are you working for these days?"

"Mr. Boyal."

"Jimmy Boyal? Right here on Columbus?"

"Mr. Boyal? You know Mr. Boyal?"

"Sure. He's an old friend."

"Mr. Boyal is an old friend of yours?" asked Chuck, who was heating up under his parka. "Maybe it's a different Mr. Boyal. My Mr. Boyal has blond hair and a tiny little chicken pox scar just here."
Chuck Paa touched his face.

"That's Jimmy." Ben giggled slightly, as if something were a secret. "But I haven't seen him in over—"

But Chuck stopped listening. He studied Ben from the corner of his eye. With his cold skin and his unsteady gait, Ben looked as though he might need a helper sometime soon. A pang entered Chuck's chest as he realized he couldn't offer his services to Ben as long as he worked for Mr. Boyal. And so Chuck, who was about to be late, said, "Maybe you'll stop by and visit Mr. Boyal someday." He added, "We—he—would love a visitor." And then, this time with a wrinkle of pain in his voice, "You're managing on your own? You can still do everything on your own, can't you, Ben?"

As the fish man called number 43, Mr. Boyal cheerfully waved the tag of paper. Chuck smiled at his employer and then began to pick at the rim of his face. At twenty-three Chuck's pores had yet to abandon their adolescent flow of grease and grime. The quality of his skin remained immature and frustratingly clogged. Not that he thought of it that way: No, in fact he was more obsessed with his skin than that, finding its condition both better and worse than it actually was. And despite his best efforts—the bar of Lifebuoy soap, the washcloth worn bald, the straight-up rubbing alcohol—Chuck knew no one would ever examine his skin and comment on its healthy glow. On Tremont Street he felt as if the young men could see only the oily dents in his face, tar pits he called them, though if pressed Chuck would have to admit that was an exaggeration. Boyz, the young men called themselves, men with laundered dress shirts and tassel loafers, their faces perpetually lit from a step aerobics class and a steam at the Metropolitan Gym. Not that they were the only ones roaming the South End, though sometimes it felt that way. No, there were others, women and families and shopkeepers and meter maids, and the clutch of ghostly men who ventured out with trembling canes. Just like Mr. Boyal, who was still waiting, his neck dewy and draining of color, for the fish man to wrap up his perch. Or Ben, who had waved good-bye with an awkward plea in his cloudy eyes.

Seeing Mr. Boyal blanch even more, Chuck asked if he wanted to sit, although Chuck couldn't think where Mr. Boyal might rest in a supermarket. On the little bench in front of the fish counter where the loaves of French bread were stacked like sandbags? In the shopping cart itself?

Chuck had never trained as a helper, nor as a boy had he imagined that this was how he'd pass his days. He had no particular inclination for this sort of profession—all this fussing over men who could no longer fuss over themselves. But work was work—his heart still quickened whenever he heard that inimitable rip! of a check being yanked from its book—and now he could no longer picture himself doing anything else. The pay was good, and in these bleak times of raging plague the jobs so bountiful that Chuck's biggest problem was deciding who to work for and how to regretfully say no; nothing balled him up more than having to turn down a chance to earn another dollar. When he was eighteen he abandoned his Finnish-blooded mother in her two-room apartment in Maine and moved to Boston. Out of the woods and into the big city: That was how he liked to think of it, even though he'd grown up on a rough street in Portland. Upon arrival, he walked from the bus station to the Charles River, then cut across into the South End: Columbus Avenue, St. Cloud's, the Purple Iris flower shop, a corner bookstore with a neon rainbow in the window. When Chuck saw a man talking to another with a goatee and a little white dog, Chuck knew to stop. This was the place. These were the men—or the Boyz—he was meant to live among. His next thought was of work—of survival, really—and he eyed the storefronts for HELP WANTED signs: a video rental, an ice-cream counter, a wine shop that also hawked baskets of tube cheese. Under closer inspection, the awning of the Purple Iris flower shop flapped in the breeze with a gash through its canvas, and the buckets in the refrigerated window sat half empty, and there was a sheet of paper taped to the door that said: GOING OUT OF BUSINESS! EVERYTHING FOR SALE. You see, Chuck had arrived in Boston during the recession a few years back, and not a single window displayed a HELP WANTED sign. Yet this moment of panic—How will I feed myself? Where will I sleep?—was not the first to clamp its clammy cuff around Chuck's wrist; no, Chuck had wondered before—and he somehow knew he would wonder again—from what dented pot would he scrape his next meal.

When he was thirteen, his mother, a shoplifter who had trouble holding a job, took a position as a summer maid at a house on a private island named Little Thule two hundred yards off the coast of Maine. After school let out in May, she and Chuck settled into a room with sloped walls above the house's stable. There were five girls in the family who summered on the island, and a boy a year older than Chuck named Bennett. After a few days, Bennett, eager to get away from his sisters, turned to Chuck for friendship, offering him his Red Sox cap when he saw Chuck squinting and his face burning in the clear blank summer light. From then on Bennett took Chuck clamming and fishing for scrod and out on his gray-planked dory, Bennett Boy, to pull up the island's lobster pots. Bennett, with his long brown feet and the downy tendril of hair on the nape of his neck, taught Chuck to clean a cod and to rinse the black waste from a mussel. Almost every day the boys would dirty themselves with lobster tomalley and the blood of alewife. Or they would rake the manure in the pony ring and then, together, ride the old horse, Danny Boy, round and round.

Or they would paint the peeling toolshed wearing nothing but gym shorts, their backs becoming speckled with the splatter of paint—to say nothing of the time Bennett silently painted bright white circles around Chuck's hardening nipples and then a thin upturned smile beneath his navel. Each evening Mrs. Wriston, Bennett's sun-damaged mother, would direct the boys with her talonish finger to the claw-footed tub in the service bathroom. "Soak for as long as it takes," she'd demand, latching the door behind her, leaving them to the moist-aired room with the pillowy towels. Chuck would eagerly yank himself out of his soiled clothes, except the Red Sox cap, and plop into the tub where he'd sit knee-to-knee with Bennett. It was what Chuck liked most, even more than the fishing or the horseback riding or painting the toolshed. The steamy water. The lavender-scented soap. The red sponge in the shape of a heart that Bennett used to scrub Chuck's back. "Boys are allowed to wash each other's backs," Bennett would say, his whispering voice growing deeper almost by the day, his fingertips carefully picking away at each whitehead of paint until Chuck was clean, his body pink, and his child's fist of a heart swollen. Every night they bathed together, their hands interlocked, their faces becoming as clean and shiny as plates, and Chuck found it remarkable that everyone—his small-faced mother, Mrs. Wriston with her dug-in eyes, but especially Bennett himself—thought it was the most natural thing in the world for each day to end like this. And so Chuck came to believe this was how things were meant to be: the direct summer sunlight, the cold green ocean, the friendship grounded equally in solidarity and intimacy. Chuck could look no further than the present, his memory forgetting where he'd come from, how he'd arrived here, and his imagination suddenly unable to envision, or plan for, his future, his own survival. But then one humid morning in August Mrs. Wriston witnessed Mrs. Paa, with desperation permanently etched across her forehead, snatch a dolphin-shaped brooch from her mother-of-pearl jewelry box. Within hours Chuck and his mother were ferried off the island while Bennett sat on the anchored bow of Bennett Boy, his feet dangling into the dimpled water, his valentine face following the heads of Chuck and Mrs. Paa thirty feet away as the outboard motorboat captained by Mrs. Wriston herself puttered toward the rocky, pocked shore. You'll come back, Bennett's face seemed to be saying. Pretending a lifting breeze had come along, Chuck knocked his Red Sox cap into the boat's wake—as if to say, Yes, I'll come back. Never again with her, but I'll come back.

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