By Ed Meek

In the summer of 1985, I was painting triple-deckers in Roxbury, Massachusetts. I came up from Carol, Pennsylvania, which is where I grew up.  People ask me where Carol is near and I just say, nowhere.  Really, it’s forty miles west of Philadelphia. What was I doing in Roxbury?  Well, as my roommate, Janie, said to me, I was cherry–fresh off the farm and I didn’t know any better.  I came up to stay with my aunt while I found a job and my own place.  I brought a thousand bucks with me, cleaned out my savings.  Found a job through the classifieds:  Painters, No Experience Necessary.  I was the only female, worked with three guys.  One of them knew what he was doing.  He’d mix the paint and tell us where to go and what to do.  He was an artist, he said, but made his money painting houses.  It was slow, hot work in the summer.  Did I care?  Not when I was getting ten dollars an hour.

Janie I met when I answered another ad: “Woman looking for roommate to share expenses:  $500 per month.”  It was the cheapest rate I saw in the paper.  Now I know that was because of the location.

So there I was ten days after I left home, eighteen years old, living with Janie in Roxbury and making money.  Roxbury seemed to be mostly, but not all, black and Hispanic.  That didn’t really matter to me because where I had come from there were no black people, no Hispanics either.  You might think this would make me prejudiced but that’s not the way it worked.  I had no prejudice.  The only image I had of minorities came from TV and movies and the news and I knew enough not to trust that.

Anyway, Janie was from the neighborhood.  She worked at the cleaners on Washington Street. At night, Janie and me would go to this little hole in the wall bar called the Quarterdeck where they never checked ID’s.  The bar was owned by two white school teachers.  I felt safe there even though most nights Janie and me would be the only white women in the place.  The Puerto Ricans mostly kept to themselves.  They would hang around a couple of the booths.  The other booths would be filled with black men and women, and men would line the bar.  Janie and me sat in stools down the end of the bar near the office.  

One thing I found out fast was that people from the city tell you anything.  A friendly woman named Willa May gave me advice on men:  “Keep your eyes open honey–they be after you cause you a white girl and black men like to git them a white girl on their arm just to show the world.”

I told her that boys weren’t really ever interested in me.  I’d always been heavy and I knew I was no beauty.

“Don’t matter,” Willa May said holding up her empty glass and pointing to it.  When she got the bartender’s attention she said to him:  “This time put Seagrams in it.  I wanna see you open a new bottle.  That ain’t Seagrams in that bottle.”  She turned to me.  “They always tryin to get over girl.”   She leaned back and looked me up and down.  “You call yerself heavy?  What do you call me?”  She laughed.

Willa May outweighed me by fifty pounds, but she had curves. She had boobs the size of watermelons.  Plus I had straight, dirty brown hair, freckles, and skin so pale I never went out in summer without a hat.

“These niggas like a woman of substance.  Ain’t that right Jerome?”

Jerome was Willa May’s husband and he was about half her size.  He had come up to the bar to order another drink.  “That’s right,” he said patting Willa May on the butt.  He ordered a Seven and Seven and a Bud for me.
You have to understand that a couple of weeks before this I was in Carol, Pennsylvania working at George’s Hardware in the strip mall.  The other guys who worked there called me “the girl.”  I pretty much just covered the register.  The men who came in would never ask me questions about what to buy or how to do things.  I only had the job because George, the owner, lived next door to us. We lived on a small farm.  We had a cow, some chickens, two horses and pigs.  My dad worked part time at the post office and the rest of the day he’d spend working on the farm. 

Nights I would hang out at “the rock” which was this place in the woods where all the high school kids would go to smoke and drink.  Boredom was the main event in Carol, boredom and church. When I was a kid I believed.  My daddy said you had to work at being a good Christian and if you didn’t the devil was always waiting for you.  Everyone, all the kids anyway, talked about getting out of town but what most of them got was pregnant and married and they never went anywhere.
When I was little, I liked it there.  It was corn country and in spring and summer the air had that sweet country smell of hay and alfalfa.  As a kid you could play by yourself.  I could go down to the pond and fish, or I could throw stones, or catch frogs.  There were redwing blackbirds and bullfrogs and foxes and raccoons and deer.  But by the time I was in high school, nature bored me, I didn’t care about my soul and I wanted out.

I figured Boston because I had an aunt from Boston who used to come down and visit us and she was everything I wanted to be.  Tall and thin, she wore her hair back.  She always had make up on and wore short skirts that showed off her legs.  She was a legal secretary and she always had a new car.  She was my mother’s sister.  Talk about opposites.  My mother was plain as milk.  Momma was a homebody and she went around the house in her bathrobe until noon. My momma cried when I told her I was leaving and my dad told me to keep my eyes open.  He had been to the city, he said, and it was like walking into the lion’s den.  My momma gave me a cross to wear around my neck, but the first thing I did when I got to Boston was to take that cross off and put it in my bureau.

So, as I was saying, Willa May was always telling stories.  “Watch your back,” she said to me, “you could end up like Willy.  See that light-skinned nigga with no teeth–skinny one down the end of the bar?  He wears them painter’s pants like you all.”

Willy wore his painter’s pants without a shirt. 

“A couple of years back,” Willa May said, “he come here from Detroit.  Walks in with a white linen suit, a cane, a what-you-call-it?”

“Panama hat,” Matthew said.  Matthew was standing right beside me at the bar.

“That’s right,” Willa May said, “Italian shoes, big motherfuckin smile on his face.  You know what everyone like here–they all be friendly to him and he sets them up with drinks.  Every time he buys, he flashes this wad of bills.” 

“All twenties,” Matthew said.

Willa May had her hands on her hips.  “We all see the roll and you know that nigga ain’t goin nowhere.  When he goes into the Men’s Room, Matthew here and Andy and Russell follow him in.”
“We didn’t beat the boy.”  Matthew said.  “We got him high on herb.  And we give him a couple of valiums.”

Willa May smiled.  “When he comes out he can barely stand.  Then Pat comes in.  This is back when Pat looked good–when she was doin half the home-boys in this bar.”

Matthew nodded and smiled.

“Pat puts her arm around Willy.”  Willa May put her arm around Matthew.  “Then Pat starts buyin drinks with Willy’s money.  Buys a drink and pockets the change.  After a while she takes Willy out to the alley.  Willy comes back in zippin his pants and smilin.” 

Mathew laughed.  “His hat and cane is gone and so is Pat.”

“That’s right,” Willa May said.  “Willy walks out the front and Matthew and Andy follow him.”

“We rolled him,” Matthew said.  “Got a couple hundred.”

“A week later the nigga comes back in.” Willa May said.  “His teeth are gone.  He’s wearin the same suit only now it’s a mess.  He ain’t got no money and he done lost that uppity attitude.  Meanwhile Matthew, Andy and Russell all come down with the clap.  It hits us that Willy musta give Pat the clap an she give it to all these other niggas.  So Matthew says to Willy, ‘You betta git your ass back to Detroit boy.’

“Now, you can see by the look on poor Willy’s face he don’t know what’s happened to him.  ‘I ain’t got no money now,’ he says. ‘I gots to stay put till I can save me some before I can go back home.’  Then he says, ‘Cain’t none of you all buy me a drink?’  ‘None of us is drinkin man,’ Matthew tells him, “we’s all on the penicillan.’  That’s when Willy laughed.”  Willa May laughed thinking about it.

“I woudda hit him,” Matthew said, “but the mutherfucka didn’t have no teeth.  I felt sorry for him.  So I says, ‘bartender, give this boy a beer.’  Willy and me was friends after that.  And don’t you know that Willy been here goin on two years now?”

I bought a round for Matthew and Willa May and Jerome.

“Tell that story about Ann,” Willa May said to Matthew.

“Nah…”  Matthew smiled.

Willa May took my arm.  “I know you a little bit afraid a Matthew cause he’s so dark.  Put your arm next to his.” 

She pulled me over next to Matthew.  It was true.  He made me look like a ghost.

“Even women of color sometimes afraid of Matthew.  He looks like he’s right outta the Congo. Don’t he?”  Willa May laughed.

Matthew was still smiling but his eyebrows were up.  “Watch yourself girl,” he said to Willa May.

“Honey,” Willa May said to me, “you know Ann?  You seen her in here with me.  She’s just about five feet tall.  You don’t want to git that girl angry.  Am I right, Matthew?”

Matthew nodded.  “When we was first livin together I come home once after bein out for two days and two nights.  There’s nobody in the house so I goes into the bedroom and falls asleep in my clothes.  Few hours later I feel somethin cold on my throat.  I’m havin trouble breathin.  I open my eyes and there’s Ann sittin on my chest with my 38 stuck in my throat.  ‘Where you been boy?’ she say to me.  I tole her ‘I’m sorry honey.  I tried to call only there warn’t no answer.’  ‘This ain’t goin to happen agin is it?’ she say.  I say, ‘No mam.’  Ok.  Two years go by and I run into this ole friend Sweeney and we end up out all night at the after-hours bars and throwin that dice.  About nine in the mornin I roll my Buick into the driveway.  I see Ann at the door.  I just start to git outta the car and Ann shoots a hole right through the windshield.  I jumps back in the car and worm down below the dash, back the car out and take off.  An hour later when I stop shakin I give Ann a call from here.  I say, ‘Honey, can I come home now?’  She says, ‘You stay out on me agin I’ll kill you.’  I say, Yes dear.'”

We all laughed and laughed.  They were funny stories.  Now that I look back on them I guess I should’ve known that if I hung around long enough I’d end up one of those stories. My big mistake was having sex with Matthew. What happened was that Janie and me had gone back to Willa May’s place one night after the bar closed and Matthew and me ended up in Willa May’s bedroom.  Willa May had passed out in the living room on the couch. To tell the truth I don’t remember all that much of it.  I was pretty buzzed. He was the first man I been with. Part of me wanted to say no and the other part wanted to get it over with. It did feel good when he kissed me. I liked the smooth feel of his skin and the way he smelled. It reminded me of home somehow—in spring when we’d turn the earth over to do the planting. I remember Matthew was mad at me. “Don’t just lay there,” he said. “I tried to please him but I didn’t really know what he wanted. Later, when he was getting dressed he sat on the edge of the bed talking half to me and half to himself: “Oh man, I am in big trouble if Ann finds out about this. You gots to keep this quiet, hear me girl?”  

Couple of weeks later I was in the Quarterdeck after work, working on my third Bud.  I still had my painter’s pants on.  Like most nights I had met Janie at five o’clock and we got a sandwich at Ugi’s Subs and then headed to the bar.  Janie was sitting at one of the booths with Sean–her boyfriend.  Janie was sort of cute.  She was thin with red hair and sharp features.  She wore tons of make up.  If her nose hadn’t been broken I really think she could’ve been a model.  Sean had broken her nose.  She told me it was by mistake one night when he’d been drinking.

Anyway, Willa May and Jerome and Matthew were there as usual.  Matthew and Willa May were having a fight.  Willa May was angry with Matthew because he had quit his job even though Ann was pregnant. 

“Why you walked out on that job?”  Willa May asked him.

“I ain’t talkin to you,” he said.

“Your own wife is expectin and you got to pick this time to quit?”

“I couldn’t stand workin in that gas station no more,” Matthew said.  “It was bad enough when old Jackson owned it, but when them Iranians bought it my days was numbered.”

“You go back there and ask them for your job back.  Maybe they give it to you.”

“Woman what you gettin on me for?”

“Cause Ann is a friend of mine,” Willa May said.  She put her hand on her hip and pointed her finger at him.  “Hear me now,” she said.

“No,” he says.  “I ain’t listenin to you.  You still mad cause Jerome got laid off and you has to work more.  That’s what this about.”

Jerome had been laid off and Willa May was working more hours at the prison.  She was a prison guard. 
“You ain’t nothin but a lazy old cow,” Matthew said.

I walked up to the bar beside Willa May to order a round for Janie, Sean and me.

“And you best kept your hands offa this white girl,” Willa May said to Matthew. “Ima tell Anne about it.”

Matthew stepped around Willa May so he was beside me. “What I tell you about keeping your mouth shut?” he says to me. He was drinking a beer. He had a mean look on his face.

“I didn’t tell anyone,” I said. You’re just angry. Don’t take it out on me.”

I thought I heard him growl.  “Shut the fuck up,” he said and that’s when he hit me with his beer bottle–smashed it against my forehead.

I put my hand up to my face and Matthew walked out of the bar. I remember falling down. After that I was half-awake. Janie told me later she had called the police.  An ambulance took me to City Hospital.  A woman doctor sewed me up–took fifteen stitches.  The police came to the hospital and I told them what happened. They asked me would I testify against Matthew and I told them I would.

Six months later there was a trial.  Willa May admitted that Matthew had hit me with the bottle. Janie testified too and Matthew was convicted.  The judge gave him six months for assault.  It wasn’t the first time he’d been arrested. I had already moved back home to Carol. I drove up for the trial.  Even though I was six months pregnant it wasn’t obvious with my body.  No one at the trial said anything but of course my momma knew, and soon after that, when I got back from the trial, everyone else in Carol knew too.  I had picked up a job in a nursing home twenty miles north of town.  I worked up until a week before I had the baby and I went back to work as soon as I could leave the baby home with momma. 

Janie and me still keep in touch.  I sent her pictures of William–that’s what I named him.  I figured it wasn’t no use telling Matthew about it–what kind of daddy would he make?  Janie moved from Roxbury to a better neighborhood in Dorchester.  Every once in a while on the news there’s a murder near where she lives but Janie tells me it’s fine.  Fine for her maybe.  Me, I realized when I was being sewn up at the hospital that my daddy was right, living in Boston I was like one of those Christians walking into a den of lions.  I sometimes think that bottle Matthew hit me with was held by the hand of God.  I put that cross my momma gave me back on soon as I got home from the hospital and I been trying to be a good person ever since.  I plan to bring my baby up that way too.  He’s four years old now.  At first my daddy didn’t want any part of him but momma and me just keep working on daddy and he’s coming around.  He don’t even use the N word no more.  Willie ain’t black like Matthew was.  He’s coffee-colored, with freckles.  Every night before he goes to sleep, we get right down on our knees and pray together. I mean, who knows? Maybe there is a God.

ed meek

About the Author:

Ed Meek is the author of Spy Pond (poems) and What We Love (poems). “No Experience Necessary” is included in a collection of short stories, Luck, coming out this year with Tailwinds Press.