I drive slowly past the apartment building I lived in 33 years ago. Red brick, white peeling paint on the window casements, concrete steps to the wooden screen door that opened into the stairwell. Six apartments, two on each floor.
That one was mine. The second floor on the right as I face the building. A tiny foyer, a tiny living room in the front, tiny kitchen, a tiny bathroom and a tiny bedroom in the back.
The bedroom overlooked an alley and an old white house beyond. A large picture window without any concealing curtains opened to the alley. Inside, a naked wooden dining table with four chairs awaited the family.
Many nights, I lay across my bed, lights out, watching the family in that house. The house became my entertainment. Live entertainment. Better than TV.
A middle aged couple lived there and their daughter and her husband. I gave them all names: Earl and his wife Maggie. Daughter Debbie and her husband Ricky.
Bald, huge, Earl always dressed in a stained white sleeveless undershirt and khaki shorts. Gray headed Maggie wore a faded cotton house dress as she cooked a meal for four.
Every night was the same routine:
Maggie set the dining table with plain white dishes and ordinary glasses, a spoon, fork and paper napkin at each place.
Earl sat at the head of the table and demanded a another beer. He lit up a cigarette and drew on it. He complained that dinner was late, again.
Maggie called Debbie to dinner and the girl with dark stringy hair entered the dining room from deeper in the house with long haired Ricky trailing.
They sat at the table while Maggie served the food to each one. She took her place at the table. A Norman Rockwell family. Except, no one smiled because they knew what was coming.
Earl wiped food from his mouth with the paper napkin, demanded a bottle of whisky and poured it in his iced tea glass. He drank it all in a single go and lit another cigarette. He yelled at Maggie because the gravy had lumps, he yelled at Debbie because she married badly. He yelled at Ricky because he wasn’t working. Debbie countered that Ricky was going to college.
Earl drunkenly yelled that no college degree ever helped anyone ever and Ricky is a lazy freeloader. Earl told Ricky to get out of the house. Every night, Earl threw Ricky out–a young man who never complied. Debbie cried and screamed at Earl for being unfair. Earl swept the dishes off of the table with a single brush of his meaty hand. Glasses broke and the melamine plates clattered loudly.
Maggie cried because more dishes are broken. She grabbed a broom so she could clean up the mess.
Earl tossed the empty whiskey bottle against the wall, shattering it on the ancient plaster. Maggie swept up that mess, too. Every night.
Families sitting down to dinner together are so nice.