The door was an old, heavy oak, turn of the century thing, beaten and weathered, with years of damage around the area of the latch. A fairly new key set was about a foot above it, but as he pushed in, it opened without resistance. The moment it did, the smell hit him in the face.
Predominantly urine, but a sickly sweet, acrid odor too. And a hint of Lysol. His eyes adjusted slowly as he slipped in, and closed the door behind him. There was a bare light bulb at the end of the hall, to the right of the stairs which started just past the steel panel that read "Super". He thought about knocking, but decided not to. No sense in drawing attention to himself. In his light raincoat, worn against a threatened rainstorm tonight, and worsted brown suit, the tie loosened on his white shirt, he already stood out too much in this neighborhood.
As he struggled to take it in, this place, this awful place, a guy staggered down the stairs who looked like a homeless man. With a heavy, ratted beard, a knitted hat pulled tight to his head, but hair still sticking wildly down from under it, and three layers of dirty clothes, he was the picture of destitution. As the man slithered past Dan, the body odor added to his horror. Susan, lovely, earthy Susan. Here? In this hell of a walk up?
There was a wood door to his left, and squinting, he could read the number. 101. 221 would, presumably, be upstairs. He started up. As he did, a low moan echoed, he couldn't tell where it came from. Jesus, he thought, it's Dante. At the top, the hall turned right, and he looked down at the two rows of flimsy doors on both sides. The only light came from a dirty window at the far end. His stomach did a jump, as though he was going to throw up. He took a deep breath.
His mother's voice came back to him, whispering over the phone from Phoenix. "You have to find Susan, dear. I can't ask Bradley. She called me yesterday and sounded awful. Begging for money. I told her to come out here, we could try to work things out, but she wouldn't hear of it. She sounded drunk, dear. As though she could hardly get the words out. She started crying when I told her I wouldn't. You know how Bradley is about her. Anyway, use your credit card for anything you need for her. I pay those bills. This is the phone number."
He found the address at the library in a reverse phone book, and looked in the Atlas for the street map. Even though the train ride from Boston was five hours, it wasn't far from Grand Central, so he caught the seven o'clock. He was afraid he had remembered this area from stomping around years ago, but it was even worse than that. The last two blocks toward the river, the derelicts, bums, whores and scavenging teens were thick, even at noon.
One skinny black teen solicited him. "Ten bucks, baby, a nice blow job, right in the alley there hon." He asked where 1517 was, and she just glared and turned away, muttering "Crackhead." He finally found it, without help. There were about five of the ancient brownstones, right in a row.
He was standing in front of 221. It had been listed as Crockett, A S. The little tag in a green brass holder hung at an angle said "Doke". He took another deep breath, and turned the knob. As he stepped quickly inside, looking guiltily down the hall to see if anyone noticed his trespass, the smell changed to a strong, thick perfume. It was awful. Susan was sprawled on her side on a cot in the corner, her back to him. She turned when she heard the door, and smiled at him. "Hi, baby. Bliss'll take care of you, honey. What chou like, honey? You know what, thi's yer lucky day, baby. You carryin', I'll take you to the moon fer fifty and a nice hit."
He stared, feeling the impulse to gag again. He had last seen her waving gayly from the back seat of a convertible, heading into the city from Cambridge, after taking him to dinner with a couple of "dear friends". That was, lets see, a year and a half ago. Her blonde hair spinning crazily around her head, giggling happily, her pretty, sensual face laughing. The two guys had been happy to get going, they didn't like her attention to her "Little brother", a year and a half younger than she was, too smart for his own good, she boasted to them.
She had been born the day her dad killed himself at 17 Wall street, as Bradley sat outside the waiting room, already after their mother. They had often giggled that Mum must've been pregnant the day the two were married, otherwise both of them would have wanted to wait longer, a "proper interval." As it was, he and Susan had grown up together, raised mostly by a nanny, and what emotional support they had came from each other. Bradley had hated her from the beginning. He and Susan had decided in their teens it was because she reminded him Mother wasn't a virgin when they married. Perhaps, in a way, that really was the reason.
He walked over and sat down beside her on the cot. Closer, he could see how red and watery her eyes were, and she seemed to have trouble focusing as he neared her. One arm was thrown out to the side, and looking down, as the springs squeeked, he saw raw, red dots on the inside of her elbows. One was bleeding. His stomach heaved hard, and he tasted the railroad tuna salad as it tried to come up. He fought to control his nausea.
She was mumbling "Whassa matta, honey. Look, I know I... well yeah, but looka these tits, baby." Her fingers started wrestling with the two buttons on the dirty cotton shift she was wearing. He whispered "No, No Susan." She stopped, and tried harder to focus on him. He whispered "It's Danny, Susan. Danny."
He thought he saw brief recognition for an instant. But then, she sighed, and said "Come on, honey. Don't jive. Doke tod ya, din't he? Jus' fifty an a hit. Take ya tuh heaven, baby." The tuna came up, spraying over the bare mattress as he twisted his head away. He could hardly smell it over the stench of cheap perfume. He remembered how nice she always smelled, as they cuddled to each other in his bedroom when he had the frequent dreams about robbers, or goblins, or, when he got older, Viet Cong.
He ran over to the sink in the far corner, letting the rest of the sandwich out, explosively, as he turned on the water. The noise from the tap dominated the room. There was something nasty looking already in there, but he shut his eyes, though he knew it was too late. The anger was starting. That rage he used to get, that led him into boxing, light heavy Champ two years running at Yale. Bradley loved to get him to shadow box for his friends' amusement. He had always just gone along, unlike Susan, who began rebelling about the year they threw her out of Wellsley. They had grown apart so fast, she thinking he lacked courage, he thinking she was a latter day hippy.
He cupped water over his face, then sipped some to cover the taste in his mouth. He turned, trying to control himself, pictures of grabbing her, dragging her down the stairs, out in the light, heading for a hotel, dancing in crazy sparkles in his mind. He heard her mumbling "Danny?" when the door flew open. A short, very black man came running in, brandishing a knife. He had black, waxy, shiny frizzed hair, a leather jacket, and tight jeans over a pair of black cowboy boots. Susan started to scream "No, no Doke, don' hit me. Ain't my fault, baby. Ain't..."
The man took two long steps to her and backhanded her face. He lost control. Even as Doke turned, and brought the knife up to a ready position, he grabbed the skinny wrist, and pounded his well practiced right uppercut into the man's solar plexus. He felt the wrist go limp, twisted it, heard the knife clatter to the floor, drew his arm back, then watched as the man slowly sunk to his knees, eyes bugged out in pain. "Wha, wha..."
He'd seen it before. If they were out of shape, only one punch, in just the right place, was all it took. But it wasn't enough for him, as the man struggled, raising his head with obvious effort, and his sister wailed "Doke, Doke." He punched down on the grizzled chin with every ounce of strength he could muster, and watched the eyes roll up, then close as Doke collapsed into a heap. He felt his head clear slowly, the adreneline still there, but satisfied, at least a little. He felt pain on his knuckle. Enough to keep control, he thought.
Susan was staring down at the huddled, bleeding body beside the bed, on her knees, a hand over her mouth. She was sniffling softly. He recognized that, the sad, belittled sound of a daughter becoming more and more estranged from her mother, with only her half brother to turn to. He remembered that, the sound, when his mind was buzzing with her closeness, the feel of her breasts pushing against him, her smell. His stomach heaved again.
She looked up at him, still no recognition in her face. He looked around, saw a canvas bag under the window, open, with clothes pushing up through the top. It was bright red. There was a pair of dirty white high heeled shoes at the foot of the cot, and he grabbed them, speaking in as normal voice as he could manage, that still sounded threatening, telling her "Put these on."
He stuffed the clothes back in the bag, zipped it up, then pulled Doke's wallet out of his pants. There was a huge wad of dirty bills, and he counted out five hundred. He wondered later where he got that particular number, what was she owed for services rendered? He threw the rest in a messy heap over the crumpled leather jacket, along with the plastic wallet. Then, because he was still angry, he kicked the black man in the ribs. "Lets go, Bliss."
.... There is more of this story ...