Back then, Yale sat behind the front desk counter in the resident section of the Y and I sat beside him. Reggie worked maintenance and had the gray cast and steady hands of a true alcoholic. He was always on time and reliable. Robert was a resident and lived on the sixth floor. He had a sweetness in his face, looked always as though he knew a secret or a good joke, and wore his white afro in a cloud around his head. Juozas stood at the farthest end of the desk with a newspaper in his hand and searched for horses to bet on. He was handsome enough that I sometimes flirted with him though he was missing his front teeth. He had lost in his mind in the GM plant and his entire retirement with it and he liked to go to the racetrack in Hazel Park. Sometimes he’d pay me twenty dollars to drive him there. Annie we’d find sometimes in the dumpster searching for cans. Enough of them, and she could get a bag of dope. I watched her with wariness and sympathy but she never had much use for me. Milton managed the service desk and liked to fuck the female residents upstairs, including Annie. Matt was the Christian social worker turned manager. Heather had just had a baby a few months before—I was there when the baby was born—but she gave it up for adoption soon after. She had a pretty face and blond hair she wore in a curtain down to her tail bone. She was cross-eyed and mean spirited and antagonized everyone and had been fired more times than I could count. She worked for Milton in the service desk area and rumor was she fucked him, too.
Grace Church on Davison offered free lunch three times a week. They rotated meals with the soup kitchen on Holburn. After lunch, I’d watch folks filter in through the heavy glass doors. They brought in their cups of coffee and bright red apples and paper plates of lasagna and meatloaf and mac and cheese. And sometimes someone would leave me an apple I’d pretend to throw away but would dump into my bag for later.
The desk where Yale and I sat faced a lobby and it was a fortress of green Formica that separated the staff from the residents, though I’d lost count how many residents were also staff. Big Mike sat on one of the vinyl sofas with his headphones on. He wore them to drown out the voices in his head. Big Mike worked off first one shoe and then the other until the stench filled the room. Yale stood up and shouted at Big Mike to put his shoes back on. I jumped in my seat. Big Mike sat up surprised and put them back on right away.
A few minutes passed and then Big Mike groaned and pushed himself off the couch. He lurched up to the counter and I handed him his key. Room 724. He put his earphones back on and lumbered over to the elevator. Reggie—who knew everything about everyone at the Y—had told me that Big Mike came from Iowa cornfields to play football at Michigan and he’d had some kind of breakdown. His people had never come for him.
The elevator was slow and shitty, barely hanging on by a wire, the way everything around here felt. It came to a stop with a sick thunk and rattled open. Matt the social worker stepped out as Big Mike lumbered in. I rifled through a pile of scrap paper, each one with a tiny cut-out head of a child glued neatly in the corner, thanks to Yale, and handed Matt his messages and he headed into his office without a word. When I saw I’d forgotten to give him one of the messages: Call home regarding Mom, I threw it in the trash. I’d tell him later. He was always getting messages about his mother.
The snow stopped. A heavy blanket of white covered the cars parked out front. The weather front moved out and the clouds lowered and the temperature outside rose. I took my packed lunch to the resident lounge where I ate my peanut butter sandwich at one of the tables. When I was done I bought coffee mixed with hot cocoa from the vending machine and carried it back to the desk. Yale was packing up to go, neatly putting away an ornate pair of silver scissors like the kind old ladies had in their sewing kits, as well as glue sticks and newspaper mailers into a briefcase. I pulled out the incident reports so that I could pretend to be alphabetizing if Matt walked by, but really I couldn’t wait to get back to my book.
I was reading Justine by Lawrence Durrell at the time. I loved the winding dirty dusty Alexandria and the ragged inhabitants and the poetry. I set the book down with its spine facing up, when I heard the door behind me unlock and open. Reggie sat down on the chair beside me.
What’s new? I asked.
Yeah, I said. Just now.
Did you hear what happened? Reggie said. He went too far this time and pasted dolls’ heads all over Matt’s mail.
He get in trouble?
No! Reggie said. Of course not.
Reggie went to work changing out the garbage bags. Give me your can, he said. He had new trash bags shoved into his belt to line the cans and he worked with an efficient elegance until he had three neat trash bundles lined at our feet. I bent down to help him with the fourth but he stopped me. I got it, he said.
Across the desk Big Mike was in his usual spot, half dozing. Robert in his big winter parka sat across from him and watched out the window. Robert would stare out the big front window and then glance back at me every few minutes. Sometimes he’d come up to the counter and stand close by, opening and shutting his mouth like he was about to speak. I got the sense he wanted to tell me something.
That night after my shift ended I drove my old Chevette down through the unplowed roads to a room in a house in Hamtramck off Caniff Street I shared with six roommates. Some were ex-students, some were dropouts like me, and some were waitresses. One guy was in a band and another was a cable guy. I kept to myself. I’d dropped out of school because one day nearly a year ago during the summer session, I thought I was being followed by a flock of crows. They followed me from tree to tree as I went to class and walked about campus. At night they would caw and caw outside my dorm room window. One morning not long after, I woke up and I couldn’t get out of bed. Outside the window, the crows cawed and scrabbled. Everyone thought I had the flu, but I knew better. One crow perched on my window and peered in at me in a friendly, curious way. Finally, the resident advisor took me to the hospital and the hospital called my parents. My mother walked into my room with her lips drawn tight in a furious line. She wasn’t paying for any kind of therapy, she said. And I always ruined her summer vacation. The nurse, who’d brought my mom in, stood with her mouth hanging open and then she disappeared. After my mom left, the staff softened toward me.
Sharing the room with me was a Chinese girl with bulimia. My parents are far away, she told me. Together we watched British shows on PBS on the TV that overhung our beds. She left before me—I guess she was cured—and later, she sent flowers.
I’d been diagnosed depressed, which they said was situational but they thought I’d need to take some time off from school, adjust to my meds and my new reality. My mother begged me to stay in school. She said she wouldn’t help me financially if I left and that I wasn’t welcome back home. I needed to finish things I started, she said. I needed grit. But after I got out of the hospital I dropped out officially and took a job at the Y. I liked it. I was happy there. I felt at home. I loved the residents. They liked me. They left me little gifts of apples and candy bars and let me read in peace most days. I was reasonably good at what I did. Handing out keys, taking rent, and giving them four quarters for a dollar. I kept the peace. I put out fires. And in exchange they let me be.
I got to work a little late the next day. Birds high up in the trees, scrabbling and fractious. My car wouldn’t start. I’d had to turn the engine over again and again to get it started. I sat shivering on the cold vinyl seat praying the engine would catch, my limbs flooding with relief when it did. When I got to the Y, I parked the car on the street and stepped through a deep puddle of slush and ice. My shoe filled with icy water. Above me the sharp little swallows swooped through the gray sky in a crowd.
Reggie buzzed me through the heavy iron doors to the back area. I picked up my paycheck. I stamped my time card and hung up my coat. I scrounged up enough change from my coat pocket for coffee from the vending machine later and then headed back to the front desk with my book. Reggie said, Did you give Matt a message about his mother?
I thought a moment. No?
His mom passed in the night and Matt said they called so he could be there at the end but he never got the message.
Always get the last word.
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My insides went hollow. No, I said in a weird high voice. No one called. At least, I said, I don’t think so. Reggie looked at me a moment and then let me behind the desk and then headed off to make his maintenance rounds. I sat a long while at the desk looking at my shaking hands but then the phone rang and I answered it and the day began.
Only Robert was in the lobby this morning and he was restless. He sat on the sofa then stood up and perched at one end of the desk. He’d circle the desk and stand on the other side, resting his elbows on the counter, and stare at the door or out the window. He fiddled with his key, hummed a tune, snapped his fingers, and pulled out a pick comb and picked at his hair until it was smooth. Then he put the pick comb away and fluffed his hair back up with his fingers. He asked me for change, which I gave him, and he left to get coffee from the vending machines. Finally, he moved in front of me and leaned over the counter and beamed down at me his sweet shy smile.
Hey miss, he said. Can you give me change, four quarters for a dollar?
Again? I just gave you four quarters five minutes ago.
I know, miss. But the machine ate them.
All right, I said. I set my book down. I punched in the cash register code and the drawer sprang open. Give me your dollar.
Can you front me? Robert said, again, very sweetly.
Robert! I said. You just got your disability check!
I know, he said. But I can’t cash it until the bank opens tomorrow.
I was annoyed. I can’t keep loaning you money! I gotta pay my rent too, you know. Why didn’t you go to breakfast? They give you coffee for free. I nodded my head in the direction of the church. There’s still time, I said. The truth was, I had four quarters in my pocket I was saving for the vending machines. Go to the church, I thought to myself. Go on.
I hunched over my book and tried to find my place.
Robert smiled at me and didn’t answer. He rocked on his heels. His neat fingers drummed the counter. Miss, he said, leaning in. Can I tell you something? I been wanting to tell you this for a long time now. I think you’ll understand.
It was one of those days, I thought. Where I’d get no reading done at all. I marked my page with one of Yale’s decorated scrap pieces of paper and set my book on the counter.
What is it, Robert? I said. What’s going on with you?
You know why I sit here and stare out that window?
No, I said. Why?
You see, he said. Every day I sit here across from Big Mike and every day I’m looking at the side of that building across Garland St. That wall over there? You see that one? With the brick?
I see it, I said.
On that wall is the face of Jesus.
Yeah? I said. I leaned over the counter toward him and looked out into the street.
He nodded. He put his hand up into his hair, fluffing it out. You don’t believe me, he said.
I believe you, I said. I mean, I believe that’s what you believe you see.
Well, my doctor, over at the VA, he doesn’t believe me. He gave me this medicine, but I don’t really take it. It’s got all kind of side effects. Makes me feel like I got to lay down and sleep all the time. Sometimes, I sleep until noon! Some Sundays, I sleep through church. And also, when I take it, I don’t see Jesus no more and I get lonely. I get really sad like I don’t have anyone to talk to.
I get it, I said. What else happens when you don’t take the medicine? His eyes widened and he gripped the counter and his knuckles turned white. Nothing. Nothing else! I have no crazy symptoms. But they say I better take my meds ’cause what I see isn’t right. It isn’t real.
What do you think?
I don’t know, Robert, I told him. It seems to me that if you are just seeing Jesus, then maybe it is Jesus. And whether it is or it isn’t real, what’s the harm? If it comforts you. If I were seeing Jesus’ face, I told him, I wouldn’t take my medicine either.
That’s what I thought! Robert grinned his wide sweet smile and his shoulders settled back down with relief.
I sat back down in my chair and pulled my backpack out from under the desk. I fished the four quarters I’d been saving from the pocket of my jeans and handed them to him. It’s a gift, I said. Not a loan.
Thank you, miss. Robert turned to the big windows and the glass double doors and whistled. He said, See the wall? Behind the dumpster? The brick one? He’s there right now. I know you don’t see it. But I do, and once I saw Him wink at me. Just like that! Robert stepped away from the desk and looked down. He looked up again at me and said, You believe me?
Sure, I said.
Yes he did, Robert said. He winked at me. And you know what it meant, when he winked at me?
He wanted me to take a shower!
And you did?
Yes ma’am. Last week. I’m just waiting on him to wink again.
Wish he’d wink at Big Mike over there, I said. Robert turned and glanced at Big Mike snoring softly on the sofa.
Yeah, Robert said. He laughed. That’d be something.
After my shift I drove over to Battel’s where I bought some cheese and crackers and a bottle of Coke for dinner. I paid Al and he asked me how I was doing and I told him I was doing pretty good. He told me business was picking up and he was happy. I drove down Grand until I turned off on Conant Street and then I was home and as I climbed out of my car I saw two doves cooing on a wire above my house. I had the sense that spring was coming.
Back in my room I ate my little package of cheese and crackers with the cheerful Keebler elf on them and thought about the day Heather gave birth. I’d just arrived for an early morning shift when Annie called down to the desk to tell us the baby was coming. Call an ambulance! Annie barked into the phone. This baby is coming with wings. No one would go up, none of the men, who—it was true—were not allowed on the women’s floor. I was the only other woman in the building and I took the stairs two by two, not trusting—because I never did—the elevator. The door of Heather’s room was wide open. Annie stood with a wad of clean white towels from the maintenance closet in her arms. She took one look at me like, What good are you? Heather was on the bed yelling her head off. You bitch, she screamed at me, Get the fuck out of here. Her knees were up under the sheet that was by now stained with blood. She screwed up her face and held her breath and then shouted, It’s coming, in a way that felt final. I stepped into the room and pulled the bloody mess of sheet off her legs and sure enough, there was a dark mass as round and significant as a planet coming out from between her thighs. I gotta stand, she said. She wrenched herself off the bed and half stood, half squatted. I was afraid of the baby’s head hitting the floor so I hovered on my knees in front of her. Time did that weird thing it did for me sometimes where it felt as though my movement sped up four times faster than normal and I tried desperately to slow down. I was talking too fast, saying push push push until Heather screamed at me FUCK YOU WHAT DO YOU THINK I’M DOING and the baby fell into my hands just like that.
It was only as big as a very small cat and slime-covered. I didn’t feel what I thought I would, holding the baby. I felt good. I felt peace. The baby was the color of a blanched almond with two bright spots of red on each cheek when it started yelling. When it opened its eyes, I could see that one brown black eye crossed just slightly into the other. It’s yours all right, I said, and handed the baby off to her wrapped in a towel. The paramedics burst into the room and Heather’s face flooded with relief to have the paramedics there. They were far kinder to her than I’d ever seen them on their regular calls at the Y for overdoses and heart attacks. They smiled down at her and murmured encouragement and congratulations and they lifted her gently onto a stretcher with that sweet cross-eyed almond-colored baby in her arms. They carried her out and she lay back as beatifically as a saint. The baby was given up for adoption a few days later and Heather returned to work soon after.
Sunday morning Matt called me early, apologizing for bothering me on my weekend off. Reggie had worked all night, he told me and asked me to come in for just a couple of hours so Reggie could get some sleep. I got ready fast, not bothering to shower. I stepped out of the house. The morning felt warm and damp. It was the first of March, I realized, and soon the robins would pop up. About the point in the calendar where I started to feel hopeful again. One of those rare days when you could feel the planet turning back toward the sun. The crows were out around the Y and they didn’t feel sinister, or friendly. They were crows, I realized. Just birds like any other birds. I pushed through the glass front doors.
Reggie was at the desk. He’d worked all night.
What are you doing here? I said. Go on upstairs and get some sleep. Where’s Yale? I threw my book bag on the counter and pulled off my gloves.
Oh man, Reggie said, shifting his chair on its wheels from side to side.
Matt said you been here all night, I said.
Yes I have. And things got crazy. You not going to believe what Yale did.
Is it weirder than this, I asked. I pulled a crumpled envelope out of my bag and held it up to Reggie. It was my paycheck envelope with a note taped to it. A cut out of a small girl with bright blond pigtails glued to the paper and next to it in Yale’s neat script: ‘Little Debbie was always in the kitchen.’
No shit, Reggie said. He wrote that?
I shrugged and pulled my book out of my bag. I was back on Justine. Rereading the whole quartet. I wanted to disappear again into that world but it was harder the second time around. Even with spring right around the corner, I could still feel the cold of the Detroit winter. Well, Reggie said. You don’t have to worry about Yale anymore.
They fired him.
What do you mean? I said.
Reggie sipped his coffee. So listen to this, he said. Robert comes in to get his key—Yale’s working the desk. So, Yale tells Robert he’s busy but of course he’s not busy. Just making a little pile of cut-out magazines. Robert gets mad. Real mad. He loses his shit and Yale loses his shit and says, I don’t work for you and Robert says the hell you don’t and takes his paper cup of coffee and pours it all over the desk. All over Yale’s cut out doll heads. All over the phones. All over everything. Yale is furious. His face turns bright red like he’s on fire. But Robert’s shouting at Yale and you won’t believe what Yale does.
Heavy dread flooded my arms and legs. What?
Reggie stood up. Yale jumps from his chair, grabs the pepper spray, and sprays Robert right in the face! Robert falls to the ground. He’s crying and moaning and snot is pouring out of everywhere.
The phone rang again. I ignored it. I felt something irrational and crazy and hopeless come over me at the same time. I was afraid to move. My God, I said.
I know, Reggie said. And that is some fucked up shit. Where’s Robert now?
Oh, he’s at the VA. He’s been crazy for days.
The phone rang and Reggie answered and transferred it. Reggie set the receiver down. He lowered his eyes and said, I don’t want to have to tell you this. But you should know. They going to fire you. I heard them talking. Matt’s coming in a couple of hours.
Oh, I said. I was stunned. But I love it here, I said. I felt my eyes sting. They say you told Robert to stop taking his meds.
I nodded. I guess, I said. I guess I kind of did.
Reggie shook his head. That’s not good, he said. We’re not social workers, he said gently. We’re not the doctors. I know you liked Robert and all but. Reggie sighed heavy. Some people have to take their meds. Look at Big Mike over there. You don’t even want to see what happens to him without his medication.
It didn’t make sense to wait to be fired so I packed up my book and my bag and my coat and left through the back door of the front desk. I could hear Reggie calling after me but I kept walking. I passed through the big iron doors that separated the resident side from the membership. I passed the service desk and felt the warm heat from the dryers for the last time. Heather sat on a stool, folding towels, Fuck you, she said to me but I didn’t respond. I closed my eyes and I saw Heather’s baby girl. I passed the vending machines where a group of residents had gathered around a chess game. I didn’t want to see Matt, or anyone else. I walked out the back door and onto the street and some weeks later when the weather had warmed up and there were actual little robins hopping around the sparse grass and it didn’t hurt so much I drove over and parked my car on the street and then walked up to the building and peered into the big glass windows. Above me the sky was that rare optimistic blue. Through the vinyl green curtains, I could see Reggie sitting at the desk and beside him was Yale. Big Mike was on the sofa. Robert stood at the counter looking out the window. He gave me a little wave. I waved back. I thought about going in to say hello. I thought about asking Matt if I could get a shift or two, if I could be forgiven, if I could come back but instead I kept going. I walked away. I kept going.
Bethany Ball is the author of the novels What to Do About the Solomons (Grove Atlantic) and, most recently, The Pessimists, (Grove Atlantic). You can read “The Y” in Issue 121 by purchasing your copy of the issue.