Kurt Rheinheimer

Loes takes three steps onto his lawn, pauses, and lets his foot swing out in front of him in a little arc—barely touching the grass, as if he is killing time in the outfield between pitches. He rolls his shoulders and comes back to his chair—flimsy-looking white plastic with its little matching table and a cold unopened Budweiser can already placed into the hole cut at one corner—and sits down, directly behind his house, the last one in the set of twelve row houses that come up the block from River Street. The house is quiet and newly white behind him, and in front of him, the yard is perfect: a tended, just-watered rectangle of lawn. Fourteen and a half feet wide and sixty-eight feet deep—about the size of the center-field territory he covered for Eastmont High while Richie Ashburn was doing the same thing at Connie Mack Stadium downtown, is what he likes to think.
    Once he sits down, opens the beer, and crosses his ankles before him, he’s no particular age, though he turned seventy-seven three days ago, alone and unknown to anyone but him. In the mirror his hair is thinned and white and his face so rumpled it looks like his brain has leaked out of his head onto it. In the morning his back is stiff, and in bed he can’t angle his left arm out from under his head and the pillow because his shoulder cries like a baby when he tries. Nothing works right any more except his nose, which is longer than ever and can still smell the city coming at him relentlessly.
    But here, in the white chair where he sits every evening, he could be on the bench between innings, waiting to hit or to jog back out to center. Anything in the world could happen just now, is what he feels when he is in the chair, when the lawn is wet and the golden color of early evening surrounds him as if it could be youth itself. You don’t hear the car horns, the yellow air is easier to breathe, his tall wood fence at the back blocks the view of the alley, the loud skinny young people with all colors of skin and their pants falling down and their hats on sideways don’t look as dangerous. His yard somehow holds it off, the onslaught he knows will kill him before anything else does.
    Last evening at this time, sitting, thinking, watching his grass do nothing but be grass, he got up to go in and ask Barbara if she remembered the way Robin Roberts looked on the mound—the smoothest, prettiest right-hander ever. He was one step out of the chair before he stopped. It didn’t make his stomach drop the way it did the first few years she was gone; now it made him sort of a blend of embarrassed and pleased to remember her.
    “Evening, Mr. Loes.” It is Jackie, from the next house in the row. Loes is surprised he didn’t hear her come out.
    “Evening,” he says, waving toward her. Her husband and little daughter are outside too. The husband, stupidly, is also called Jackie. Every time Loes sees him, he has to talk himself out of telling Jackie-boy to call himself John, or least Jack. The baby—Brittany—is in her little walkie-walker thing that she eats her supper in most evenings these days. Loes wonders more about their names: Did Brittany get assigned to them, along with twelve thousand other girls born that day? What happened to real names like Janet and Helen and Elaine?
    The one thing Loes does like over in that yard is the real Jackie. She is tall and dark haired and built like an Italian girl, with no more than a generation or two of Philadelphia Polish creeping into her looks and the full-body construction and deep olive skin.
    “Had enough of summer?” Loes says, looking at her.
    “Oh, fall’s definitely coming” Jackie-boy says, and glances up at the sky as if it might arrive in the next few moments. He is pure Philadelphia—a small, pasty-faced punk with only two fat fingers on his left hand, like four got melted into two, and then a thumb that is way too long, like a monkey hard-on or something. Loes figures the only way he got Jackie was some lucky-drunk accident in the back of the car and a crazy old Dago with a shotgun, making a big mistake.

Loes is edging the lawn along the fence at the street side—something he does at the beginning of summer and again toward the end. It’s hotter than it’s been all summer. He’s out in the heat because he likes to be, because he likes to get the work done when he wants to get it done no matter what it’s like out. People half his age—a third—bitch about the heat and don’t come out, even for stuff they like. Too hot for the grill. Too hot to go see the Phillies when they’re still pretending they might really win. Too hot to go to the damn shore.
    Kneeling on a stack of three days’ worth of newspaper, he likes seeing the sweat drops hit the newsprint, likes seeing the edge coming clean under the cut of his little trowel. It is not until he hears the Jackies’ door that he thinks that it is Thursday afternoon, when sometimes Jackie-boy and Brittany go see his mother in northeast Philly, and the real Jackie usually disappears fifteen minutes after they leave and comes back fifteen minutes or half an hour before they get back. Clean, as far as Loes can see when he does see her come back in—hair the same way it was when she left, face the same color. Not usually carrying anything, but all he can figure is shopping. Or maybe she’s slick enough to make sure she’s all cleaned up before she comes back, like maybe from a full-course visit to a full Italian.
    Now, as Loes brings a foot to the ground next to the other knee, puts his arm on the raised knee, and pivots to wipe his face with the sleeve over his bicep, she comes into full view, taking a little of his breath. Skinny black two-piece, the good brown-gold tits brimming sweetly at the top, and three or four inches between the belly button—not as much baby fat as he’d have thought—and the top of the little bottom. He wipes again, keeping his head up to wait for her to turn around so he can see the other side. She doesn’t know he’s there, and she doesn’t turn around.
    Then—out of nowhere and taking a little more of Loes’s breath—she stretches. Not a little wake-up-and-yawn-with-it stretch, but one elbow pulled behind her head, held and pushed hard with the opposite hand, and then, after a deep breath, the other, both tits up high and both armpits into the sun. After the arms, Jackie bends hard at the waist, still facing him. The full cleavage, and would it ever be, is hidden behind her head, with nearly black hair hanging off it almost to the ground as she bends.
    Jackie and Jackie have lived in the house since maybe six months before the baby was born, replacing Eddie and Marie Carter, who’d been there forty-two years before they went into a retirement community back toward downtown after spending their whole life trying to stay out of it. Loes, who suddenly remembers he screwed Marie for three years back in the early ’70s, hasn’t seen his old neighbors since, nor the place where they live. Maybe they’re gone; he means to read the obits the way Barbara did, but why the hell do it? People are dead, they’re dead. He and Eddie used to go to Connie Mack Stadium together and get drunk enough to yell at Richie Allen until he wrote stuff in the infield dirt with his spikes.
    Jackie comes up, still facing him, and reaches with both hands at the back of herself, re-covering the cheeks Loes had been waiting to see. “You see more of that motion” is what he thinks. Pulling their panties out of their cracks in public, dipping a hip as they stick a hand back there or reaching back just like Jackie did to grab in just under both hips and pull both sides back down. He thinks all of sudden of his mother: Loes, and probably nobody else in the world except his father, ever saw the shape of her hips. Who knew if she really had any, under skirts and dresses lined with petticoats and slips and whatever all. Same with Barbara till his sixty-fourth birthday, when she got him what he wanted from her—a pair of simple white slacks he talked her into by saying she could just wear them in the house if she insisted, just a little while for him. Three months later, after she’d worn them once out to dinner, she collapsed in the kitchen in her plainest, saddest housedress—a crumpled old woman on the floor in front of the refrigerator with the door open, dead at sixty-two from a heart that quit, maybe from carrying forty extra pounds for the last thirty years of its work.
    Jackie sits on the concrete, puts one leg out straight and the other crooked at the knee with the foot at the other knee. She bends her head toward the knee of the straightened leg, like a runner. Maybe it’s a damn stretching class she goes to when Jackie-boy goes out to see Mama. Loes stands up.
    “You got a track meet tonight?” he says. He is leaning on the low fence.
    “Oh. Mr. Loes” she says, looking up but not appearing surprised, nor changing her position on the ground. “I didn’t know you were out here.”
    He holds up the trowel. “Been out here an hour” he says.
    “Too hot” she says.
    “Not stopping you, though.”
    “I kind of like the heat” she says. “And I hate missing yoga and so I guess the least I can do is some stretches.”
    “Bikini stretches” he thinks. “Put on your little swimsuit when your husband’s gone and go outside and stretch.” He scans the set of houses across the alley from theirs, thinking he’ll see rows of guys on the roof and at a window, armed with cheap binoculars from the ballpark.
    “Well, I hope you don’t hit any hurdles” Loes says.
    “Hurdles, Mr. Loes?”
    “Just George, Jackie, just George. Mr. Loes was my old man, and he died twenty or thirty years ago.” He smiles, kind of fakey, having told her a dozen times to call him George, and turns back toward his edging, the delicious body suddenly gone sort of slack and genderless there stretching and dumb on the concrete in the heat.

In the early fall—still hot, even for Philadelphia—he’s out front, painting the steps. He looks down the street at the other eleven units, and the steps are all the same—five up to the little landing and you’re there. The row houses slope down the hill, alike but sort of steps in themselves down toward River Street. But Loes’s, painted every fall, are the whitest. Same as his stucco, his door, his mailbox, everything in the front. Pure, plain white, in Pittsburgh Paints’s best paint.
    Jackie-boy comes out. They park one car in the front and one in the back—both Chevys—with his always in the front. “When you finish up there, come on over and touch us up,” he says.
    Loes laughs lightly. If he has to talk to one of them, it is genuine Jackie by a mile, but this old line is maybe the best thing Jackie-boy ever said to him. He goes down his steps, but then Loes is aware of him still being near.
    “You really love it here, don’t you George?”
    “It’s got nothing to do with love—it’s where I am.” He dips his brush into his paint tray and spreads it with a smooth, pleasing stroke.
    “Ever think about moving on?”
    Loes doesn’t look up. Once Jackie-boy asked him if he was ever going to trade in the truck. Loes looked at him, looked at the truck—the first 5O that Ford ever made, and still with only. 42,000 miles on it—and didn’t say anything. And what the hell is moving on? A cattle drive? A homeless guy in a downtown entryway? The trip to the nursing home?
    “I mean I’m just asking,” Jackie-boy says, “because of the rumors you hear about these blocks up from River, what with how hot it is down there these days.”
    “Hot as shit up here too” Loes says, ignoring what Jackie is saying.
    “There’s a restaurant in the ninth house up over on Eleventh,” Jackie-boy says, as if he is telling Loes something.
    “Fake Mexican and fakier decoration” Loes says.
    “Well but the point . . .” Jackie-boy starts, and Loes says he knows the damn point—that their property values are going up because people are interested in taking old residential and turning it into cheap-ass retail.
    “There’s people making big money down there,” Jackie says.
    “There’s people making big money all over, and it ain’t either one of us.”
    “So you’re saying you don’t even have a price?”
    “Jackie-boy is a worm,” Loes thinks. Not the worst Philly creature there is, because even out here to the west of the worst you have the drug guys and the girl beaters and the numbers runners and a thousand others who wouldn’t live in the same row house with the same woman and a little kid for a week, let alone a year. But Jackie-boy is a north Philly/ Camden classic—not smart enough to run a real scam and just punk enough to run around the edges and pretend he could.
    “I haven’t heard one, big guy” Loes says. “If you got a damn number, run it and let’s see what happens.” Loes is painting while he says this, not looking at Jackie-boy, but having softened his voice to sound like this might be a joke he’s making.
    Jackie-boy laughs, though not comfortably. “No, not me,” he says. “Not a number from me, but I bet somebody will be along before too long.”
    “Five-thirty or six?” Loes says, looking at his left wrist as if he has a watch on.
    “You know what I mean.”
    “So how many offers have you had? You’re one more step down toward it, so they must be pounding your damn door down.” “Oh, you’d be surprised, George, you’d be surprised.”
    “Ugly looking and girly coy at the same time” Loes thinks. “Yeah,” he says, “I’d be real damn surprised”

On race day, Loes goes outside the fence along the street off the alley and looks at his sign, checks the bolts and the hold. Private Parking You Will Be Towed Immediately, it says. He has the truck parked so that the sign is completely visible over the bed—giving warning even when the truck is there. In one of the early years of the race, he moved it for ten minutes to go get Barbara what must have been the last box of pussy napkins she ever used, and when he came back, there were two cars crushed into his spot. One was unlocked, and he pushed it into the street. That made him just angry enough and just bold enough to put his elbow into the passenger door window twice without success, and then take off the mirror at the passenger door with the same move before Barbara came running out after him.
    It is seven-fifteen, and already the streets are completely parked and full of people, lots of them drunk. The bikers, from all over the world, will ride by two streets up from Loes and then down along River, where the crowd, he has seen in the paper, gets twenty or thirty deep on both sides, like maybe it’s naked women or presidents riding by. Outside in the front, Loes pauses at the top of the steps and thinks, as he does every year on this day, what if he did sell? And does it feel stronger this year than it did last year?
    He has not spoken to either Jackie since he found out he was set up—back in the fall by Asshole Jackie, with the punk talk about selling. In the winter, the one time it snowed, a man knocked on Loes’s door and asked about shoveling. He had on a nice pair of pants and a new jacket. And earmuffs. Not any snow-shoveler suit Loes had ever seen. Loes told him he shoveled his own walk as soon as it stopped snowing, and turned to go back in. He felt the man still standing there, the same way he had with Jackie-boy, a few months earlier. “What?” he said, turning to the man.
    “You know who I am?” the man said.
    “Frosty the Snowman?” Loes said.
    “Percy Rincald” the man said, and stuck out his hand.
    Loes took the hand, thinking. “Leo Rincald I used to know,” he said. “In high school”
    “My big brother:” the man said. “Baseball player. Low-rent guy. Died seven, eight years ago”
    “Second baseman:” Loes said. “Smaller than you. Sorry to hear he died.”
    “He was overdue.” He took the earmuffs off. “But I’m something else to you, George Loes. Two more things actually. I’m little Jackie next door’s daddy” He let his arm raise a little toward their stoop. “And I own pretty much of the block at the bottom of the hill and pretty much of this one up to where we are standing right now, in the snow.”
    Loes felt his face et hot. “So you planted the Jackies next door to ease me the fuck on out?”
    The man raised both arms. “Total one-hundred percent coincidence.” He smiled in a way that Loes knew he could take as sincere but didn’t let himself.
    “I’m going down in the basement to get my snow shovel.”
    “Something to think about,” the man said, starting down the steps. “Property taxes and eminent domain and all that good city-development bullshit, buddy. Something to think about.”
    “Think about this,” Loes said under his breath, grabbing at his crotch and pushing the door closed behind him.
    Now, Loes is restless. Halfway up the block—six houses—the first floors have all suddenly become restaurants or bars or ice cream parlors or something. It happened so fast that it all seemed like it was just to get ready for race day. The next three are completely vacant, and then a little place that sells hats and clothes and crap from the Phillies and Flyers, the Sixers and the Eagles. The old steps are even still there, like it’s still a house. Then one more vacant and then the Jackies and then Loes. He knows this because he walks down the block to get to the store—only halfway to where the alley cuts through—and then goes across the street to cut through and stay off of River.
    Now, angry with the noise and the crowd, he feels something up in his chest, something from earlier in his life. At Connie Mack, maybe, in the dark, late, when the city was turning mean and you had to be fast and not catch anyone’s eye. He was that—fast and angry and walking with his fists ready and his face pushed forward from the chin, like it had to be when you’re by yourself in Philadelphia.
    River used to be a pretty street. He and Barbara went down to the park sometimes a thousand years ago, when it was full of trees and this part of town was new and sort of empty still, even with the row houses. When it was a far suburb of Philadelphia. When nobody even rode a bike, much less went around racing like they were nine years old. She made him hold hands once as they walked along the river, and he didn’t mind. It was only a little fruity, and the odds were nobody would see him, and she liked it, and it was worth doing things she liked back in those days, when they were fixing up the house and he got at her three or four days a week. Maybe it’s thinking about that that takes Loes down the hill past where he usually turns off, takes him through people he has never gone near in all the years the race crowds have been clustering around his house and suffocating him, throwing trash in his yard, taking a piss or worse against his fence, sitting on his steps like they lived there, or else they thought they were the damn Rocky steps.
    As people bump into him, he thinks again of the old days downtown at the baseball games. The darkest night anywhere is just outside of Connie Mack Stadium after a night game loss when you could feel the anger, when the anger was there, when Richie Allen was there, when the fires came to West Philly. This, now, all these years later and all the way out near Conshohocken for Christ’s sake . . . this walking down toward the river, is nothing really on the scale of dangerous. It’s nothing except irritating.
    The closer he gets to River, the thicker the people get and the more determined he is to get to the front and verify that all the damn fuss is about totally nothing. He’s been around here decades longer than the race, and he’s never been down here once since it got here, so who is more entitled to take a look for once? He jostles his way through, ignoring pushes back at him and two or three fuck yous, all from women.
    At the front, next to River, there is nothing. The street is empty for maybe six feet in front of him, and then there is a parallel crowd on the other side—loud, drunk, looking, shouting. Then somebody screams out that the lead pack is getting close—maybe two minutes.
    “Yo,” someone says, and Loes feels a hand at his shoulder. He does not think before he moves—his right elbow going up to head level and going back as fast as he can make it. The impact is immediate and painful. He wonders, at the same time that he sees blood gushing out of Jackie-boy’s nose and mouth, if he has broken his elbow. It feels as if bone has been moved to a new place, down his arm toward the wrist.
    He hears his name then, near and loud, but this time in a girl’s tone. He holds the right elbow in his left hand as he turns to look.
    “I really really have to pee bad, George” Jackie says. She is grimacing. “I mean as bad as I ever have.” She is holding Brittany way up near her face, as if to keep her out of the pushing of the crowd. Next to her, Jackie-boy is holding his face, his head facing down toward the street. She seems not to want to look at him, with his groaning and bleeding, let alone ask him to take the baby.
    “Please, George” she says. “Please just hold her till I get back. I can’t wet myself out here.” Loes, who has not held a baby since Eddie and Marie had a little girl, winces and tries to think of how to say he can’t do it. This is at the same time the baby is pushed onto his chest. When Jackie’s hands are free, they both go to her crotch, and then one comes up to her face, where there is some blend of fear and drunkenness and panic as the crowd moves her. She turns then, pushes past the bleeding man she seems not to see and into the crowd just as it begins to rise in screams and squeals and turn itself to the sudden arrival of more bicycles than Loes knew existed, going past him faster than anything he has ever seen.

Kurt Rheinheimer lives and works as an editor in Roanoke, Virginia, where he and his wife, Gail, have hiked every weekend for years. His stories have appeared in many magazines and been anthologized in four volumes of New Stories from the South from Algonquin Books. His story collection, Little Criminals (Eastern Washington University Press), was a finalist for the Virginia Fiction Book of the Year in 2006.

“Philadelphia” appears in our Spring 2010 issue.