Transit strikes happen in the dead of winter, but Sanitation saves the big walkouts for summer. Deep, high, hot summer. Joe tried holding his breath as he passed the wall of garbage that was still growing along the avenue. No use. Breathing through his mouth just slicked the back of his tongue with that awful sourness, making him gag.
The relief of getting into the air-conditioned apartment lasted for all of eight seconds.
“What took you so long?” Dolores’ lispy little girl voice had once enchanted Joe. He went straight to the kitchen with the groceries, hoping this wouldn’t wake the kid. “Hey! I’m talkin’ to you! You was gone like a hour just to walk over and buy some beer and lunch meat?”
“It’s nice out tonight so I took a walk.” He didn’t even care enough to keep the lies believable. Sure enough, she was heaving herself off the sofa and plodding into the kitchen. He still wasn’t used to what pregnancy did to Dolores. Why hadn’t he gotten that vasectomy?
“You lie.” She waddled into the tiny kitchen, squeezing in behind him to wrap her hammy, shiny arms around his waist. “The talks broke down about an hour ago. No work for you again tomorrow, baby.”
“Daddy daddy daddy daddy!”
“Nice.” Before she’d loosed her grip on him, the little one had latched onto his left leg and was beaming up at him, all giant gleaming eyes and messy hair.
“Daddy home!” It was only in the past month that actual words had begun to emerge from her own private language, which she now launched into at double speed. Joe wanted to shake his leg and get her off him, but reached down instead to rub her head like he would a dog.
All the guys Joe had dropped out of high school with had knocked up some chick before they got their union cards. When Joe disappeared from the corner, it was to get his GED and start taking classes at the community college. Some English professor started talking law school and Joe got a head full of crazy ideas. His pop had died when he was nine, but his mother didn’t want to hear all this crap about law school and a cushy job in the city. She eyed him from the kitchen table where she stayed put with her bottle of dago red all day long, shaking a cigarette out of the pack and lighting it.
“We ain’t good enough for you, huh? Guess Dolores better forget about making those googly eyes at you, huh?”
Joe was nothing if not hard headed and had gone on to get his Bachelors’ at the state university and started law school. But then Ma had that stroke and none of his sisters would move back to help take care of her. And Dolores, she was so great helping out with his mother and not complaining about how he was gone all the time, working and studying.
But, man, law school was a lot tougher than he’d expected. He’d fall asleep at the kitchen table with his head in some book and have dreams about cases and lectures. Then Uncle Donnie came through with his Union card and next you know, he’s out on the garbage trucks and finally making some real money.
And that’s when Dolores goes and gets pregnant. After like five years of unprotected sex where she swore she was taking the pill, she comes to him all weepy and says that she’s gonna have a baby. What’s Joe going to do? He’s going to be a man and marry her, that’s what.
“How long you gonna keep lying?”
“Keep it up and I’m out of here.” Joe made no move to leave, instead pulling Marcy closer. It was getting late and he’d have to go soon anyway; he just had no answer for her.
“Poor lover, you can’t catch a break, can you?” He liked her laugh, it was throaty and easy.
“You know I won’t leave my family for you.”
“Who said anything about leaving your family?” Now Marcy did get up, pulling her beat up kimono on and flipping her hair in Joe’s face. “But living a lie is gonna give you cancer or something. If Dolores really loves you, she’ll accept the truth.”
Anything Joe had to say to this stayed put. He never expected Marcy to get it, that what they shared was, by definition, unspeakable.
The strike ended, Joe pulled double shifts for weeks cleaning up the mess and Dolores had another girl. He sort of stopped seeing Marcy; it was too hard to leave her and walk back into his real life filled with diapers and yelling little girls and hungry Dolores. He read a lot and took to sitting out in the park late at night, both watching and not watching the parade of talent. It had to be enough to sit in the vicinity of those long legs, sashaying back and forth flaunting and hiding their secret at the same time.
“Daddy, Mommy wants you to come in.” His older girl plopped down on the bench next to him.
He didn’t say anything and tried to shift over a little, to break contact with her plumpness, but she shifted too and then leaned against him, pulling his arm around her and smiling up at him. Why anyone thought this was a man’s world was a mystery to Joe as he rose, defeated again and headed home with his daughter’s hand tucked into his.
Six days into January, the transit authority called a strike and the city all but shut down. Joe took to getting up an hour early to walk down to work, silently glad for the excuse to be out of the house before anyone else was up. His new daughter was night to his first girl’s day; sullen and watchful. He was actually sort of relieved that the younger one ignored him for the most part.
On the third day of the strike, Joe was walking home in a light rain. He was on the early shift now so it was only two in the afternoon, but without buses or trains, the sidewalks were packed. When he collided with the tall, slender woman, his first impulse was to keep going until he heard her voice.
“Hey, stranger.” It was Marcy.
“Oh, damn, Marce, sorry about that.” Now he really wished he’d kept going. She was more beautiful than he remembered with tiny jewels of rain layering her hair.
“Buy a girl a drink?” She hooked her arm through his, pulling him into the heaven of a warm, quiet bar. They tucked themselves into a booth in the back and chatted, catching up. Clearly, she was doing really well and Joe wasn’t altogether very happy about that. He didn’t have much to talk about himself, so he kept drinking.
“Want to come up?”
“Huh?” He’d been framing tonight’s excuse for being late and missed that.
“Still the stoic family man, hmm?” Marcy pushed some bills over to the barman and smoothed her hair. “You need some relief, baby, come home with me.”
Joe really was going to say no; he really was going to get up and go home to his wife and daughters. Then Marcy leaned over and he fell into the richness of her kisses. He’d think of something to tell Dolores. He’d have to because there was no way he was walking away from this.
They gathered their things and grabbed a cab over to Marcy’s new place. Joe was surprised to find himself just a little unsteady on his feet and definitely did not like the way the doorman smiled at Marcy. Once in the elevator, he reached over to pull her into another of those somersault kisses but she just smiled and flicked her eyes towards the glossy black bubble in the corner of the car. Joe slumped back; since when did his Marcy care about being caught kissing on a security camera?
Her place was intimidating as hell; floor to ceiling windows with the money view of midtown and a fully stocked bar. He lurched over to pour himself something, but she was already pulling him over to the couch saying something about her big news. Docile as a big dog, he let himself be settled into the cushy sofa, filling his hands with her warm softness. God, he had so missed this and slid his hand down her hip, going for her crotch.
“You didn’t hear a word I just said, did you?” She pulled back, smiling.
“Mmmmm, come here, Marce, baby. God I need you.” His hand cupped down between her legs and found….nothing. Startled, he yanked his hand back. “What did you do?!”
“I told you! I’m completely myself now! What’s wrong?”
Joe jumped up, swaying, confused.
“Why? Why’d you do it, Marce?” He backed away from her. She’d become the enemy, going over to the other side with their endless needs and ideas and yammering. The drunken fuzziness broke and he wasn’t even mad, just so sad he thought he’d start crying right there. He had to get out of this place. She was saying something, explaining he supposed, but it didn’t matter. She was a woman now and he had too many women in his life as it was.
“Daddy, daddy, daddy!”
The old twitch of revulsion hadn’t gone away, but Joe was better at ignoring it and put a smile where it belonged as his chubby daughter raced toward him, waving her diploma. Dolores was beaming and the younger girl, still going through her goth phase, rolled her eyes. He took them to dinner at Red Lobster, letting Dolores and their eldest natter away. His younger daughter made a great show of sighing and watching other people eating.
“Thanks.” Joe took a chance while the other two were in the bathroom to actually speak to his black clad, scowling child. “I’m glad you came.”
“Yeah, well I’m glad you came, too.” She sure had the sneer down pat.
“Busted.” He shrugged. She was right; he’d really tried to come up with some excuse to get out of this. “But now that I’m here, it’s not so bad. Nice to see them all happy and shit.”
Joe sipped his coffee; letting the silence be. This kid was a mystery to him. Oh hell, who was he kidding? His whole family was a mystery to him; they existed in this chatty little world that he funded but only visited from time to time.
“You quit seeing those tranny hookers, right?” Her tone was defiant, but she looked like she was ready to run.
“Uh, yes.” He almost doubled over from this kick to the stomach. “Yes.”
“Good. I was afraid Mom would find out and, Jesus, that would about kill her. You know?”
When Dolores and Becky came back to the table, they probably didn’t see anything had changed, but Joe knew it had when Jenny ghosted a wink in his direction. He supposed there were worse things in this world than being a married garbage man with kids headed for college.
Stepping outside with his family, though, Joe couldn’t stop his eyes from following an unnaturally tall woman. Putting his arm around Dolores, he began counting down the three years left until Jenny went away to college.
Photograph by Kathy images/Adobe Stock