Port Authority Orchids
It was the summer we tried to save lost girls from their fates. It was the summer my mother remarried and left on a long honeymoon. My best friend sent one postcard from Russia. June melted into July. I’d been dumped at Great Aunt Dorna’s. “You’ll have fun. Girlfriends together,” Mummy said, depositing me into a cab.
I wasn’t looking for a friend. Not one sixty-nine years old, not one six feet tall, but I had no choice. I was Dalloway, a fourteen-year-old with a bad attitude, and Mummy’s new husband, who happened to be the most treacherous man in New York City, had stolen her. My aunt (who insisted on being called Dorna) and I spent time with our binoculars on the roof. The only person who sometimes bothered us was the Albanian concierge who materialized like the Grand Canyon, thick forearms popping from his white shirt sleeves that cuffed at the elbows. “Vladis looks out for me,” my aunt liked to say. Every other week she tipped him with a piece of sterling silver flatware. Dorna, the road warrior who’d driven across the country in a Triumph while women her age were mixing Manhattans for the cocktail hour and crossing their garter-belted legs, now needed some looking out for.
I was half in, half out of the shower. I’d drawn the face of Mummy’s husband in the fogged-up mirror and then sprayed Windex into his mouth. There was a knock on the bathroom door.
“Dalloway, would you like to eat supper on the roof?” my aunt asked.
I jumped into jeans cutoffs and a Save-the-Chimps tee-shirt, and then I wiped the lenses of my Duane Reade reading glasses. “Sure, Dorna,” I said, running a comb through my wet, dirty blond boy-hair.
“We have work to do,” she said in a low voice. “I’ll carry our equipment up.” I heard the intercom buzzer and Vladis’s bark, “Food guy’s here!” He announced the Jukebox Café delivery boy.
I tiptoed out. Dorna stood by the intercom, two pairs of binoculars roped around her neck, a backpack slung from her shoulder. “Dalloway, pack the silver and plates and I’ll meet you up on the roof,” she commanded in her soft tone, her turquoise eyes aglow as if witnessing a radiation release only they could see.
“Aye, aye,” I answered, saluting.
“At ease, Dalloway!” With that Dorna marched into the hall wearing her favorite piece of apparel, a too-tight aqua dress which bore the mark of her hand on the right hip, the waist cinched with a purple belt. Her body smelled peculiarly of wood chips. A six-feet-tall woman, my aunt towered over her neighbors like a nervous California redwood with a mole on her cheek. In fact, there were soft moles scattered over her forehead and chin. If she could blend into the forest, I could pass for the twig. She had eloped as a teen to San Francisco (Frisco, she called it) with Harmon, an older Kodak salesman. After he died she ferried herself back east in a convertible followed by two Mayflower moving vans. Blue-green must be the color Dorna was wearing the last time she saw her husband. Her closets were stuffed with blue-green water glasses and lemonade pitchers and armloads of blue-green dresses. Harmon must have told her the dress brought out the color of her eyes. Those pools of turquoise algae. The flying apart of sunlight entering water. It was my aunt’s one feature you could call beautiful
I shuffled into the townhouse kitchen. Mummy must never have come inside when she picked Dorna up for lunch. She’d never mentioned the trails between the six-foot-tall stacked boxes that gave me an underwater feeling like swimming in the deep end. The a/c couldn’t penetrate the maze. It was stuffy even when you watched a movie from Dorna’s heart-shaped bed, the air catching in the curtains like a sob. My aunt made it her business to keep outsiders away. They wouldn’t understand about her crates of cracked eight-sided plates. Her dust-covered Victorian champagne flutes or ruby port glasses. I didn’t at first. She and her dead husband never had children; instead she gave birth to tableware.
I packed plates (hand painted with blue English cows and thatched roofs), setting them into the wicker basket and tossing in forks and knives. Dorna had traveled to London once to buy a Victorian silver service for 1,500 guests. “It’ll be yours someday, Dalloway, my great aunt had announced. “I can hardly wait,” I’d muttered to the ceiling. But since she’d told me of my inheritance I found myself searching out the pickle spoons and bread forks, the grape shears and cantaloupe scoops. My favorite—the crumb scoop.
When I headed for the door I saw that an envelope had been slipped under it. In bold block letters PRIVATE CONFIDENTAL was printed. Immediately I opened it.
Your neighbor Mick Rooper is born trouble maker. Spent half his life in jail. He promise 20 year girl she model for cover of romance novel. When she got to his studio he take pictures of her and force her to do sex act. He spend time in prison for luring girls. Drugging and videotaping them. If they perform porno he’d introduce them to high-powered entertainment people. Prison release him 1 year ago.
I tucked the envelope in my pocket and started to laugh. Not the Mick Rooper who lived with his fiancé directly below us. He was a middle-aged baldy who hauled his bike up and down the fire stairs for exercise. When he decorated himself in his photography equipment he took the elevator. Right, that guy’s a pornographer. Who else but Vladis could have penned that? It sounded just like him.
Still chuckling I climbed the hot stairs to the roof. The air was cooler. Dorna had already set up our lawn chairs and takeout bags. Although all my adult relatives were flaky, my aunt was the whole pie crust. Binoculars raised, she leaned out over the edge of the roof. A perfect view of the river prostitutes. The Navy was in and everywhere the sailors swarmed drunkenly in their too-white uniforms and jaunty hats, cruising the orchid whores. The dusk was a poisonous sex flower.
My aunt wanted to protect young women and hinted that a man in her distant past, someone she’d trusted as a child, did something he shouldn’t have. She followed the hookers’ doings, especially one girl who resembled Orphan Annie with a halo of blond curls and the body of a fish skeleton clothed in see-through lingerie. That summer the same ones seemed to congregate near the railroad tunnel and empty parking lots, the gates wearing necklaces of razor wire. They gathered along the docks. In the past when we’d seen some girl being abused we called 911. Often Dorna and I walked to 11th Avenue over the bridge of dog turds. No one curbed after 10th Avenue and the train bridge was a minefield of turds. But we’d never approached a girl.
“Serve the veggie burgers, Dalloway. I think I’m about to see action.” Her aqua eyes brightened. Like they’d been tainted with luminal and everywhere she looked she saw glowing spots of forgotten blood. I could see a lost child in her eyes.
After I set out our burgers I unfurled cloth napkins. Then Dorna handed me my binoculars. On the rooftop across the air shaft two ultra tan men stirred their charcoal briquettes. My aunt was allergic to barbeques; the smoke in which dead flesh smoldered upset her stomach. “It’s lamb chops they’re sacrificing over there,” she announced. Once in Chinatown my aunt and I witnessed a chicken’s execution, all flurry of flying feathers and spout of blood in the shape of a celery stalk. I’d covered my mouth, trying not to gag. My aunt fainted.
I ate my veggie burger as the greasy smoke entered my nostrils. I imagined curling up next to the lamb in cedar chips. Our Diet Cokes we drank from rummers. Victorian rum tumblers. Afterwards I lassoed binoculars over my head and joined my aunt on the parapet. In a vacant lot below near the wharf I watched the large girl in an off-the-shoulder orange bodice. The girl was broad shouldered like Dorna.
“Dalloway, guess what came yesterday?” My aunt unzipped her backpack and lifted the new purchase. “Do you want to take the Sonic Ear for a test drive? It’s high-end surveillance equipment. The FBI uses these. We can hear everything within a three-mile radius that includes the side sounds. Dogs barking, sirens, horns. If anyone tries to hurt these gals we’ll know.”
The Sonic Ear was a miniature satellite dish on a ping-pong paddle, all done in black and silver mesh, ear phones plugged into the dish. I was thrilled. I put on the ear phones, held the binoculars in one hand, the Sonic Ear in the other. I aimed the dish at the tranny in the orange dress on the docks. He was talking to the fishbone Orphan Annie. The waif. “Yes, they’re Babe slingbacks, size 11. My feet are cramped.”
I felt pity for his feet and pointed the Sonic Ear at them. Two beagles crossed paths. I could hear them cut the air with glass barks. Then the tranny’s voice. “I found a great shoe place in the Meatpacking District. There’s a special shop in a penthouse. The doors stay locked. You need a code to get in.” The waif in pink camisole moved her lips. The beagles kept barking. A yellow cab honked. I pointed the dish towards her mouth.
"You have a runner in your stocking," the waif said in a belligerent voice. “Your shoes are pathetic. I bought mine at Payless and yours look just as trashy.”
"You’re jealous!” the tranny huffed. “You promised to be nice. The dress will fit me once I start having surgery."
“You're not size three,” the waif accused. “The dress doesn't fit you."
“I’d rather be thick than a boneless chicken breast like you.”
My aunt nudged me and I handed over the Sonic Ear. I strolled to the other side of the roof and looked toward midtown. The Empire State Building not yet lit red white and blue like a Bombpop Popsicle, basked in the late afternoon sun. Aunt Dorna pointed the Sonic Ear towards the Hudson River.
“The fleet’s in. In the Park N Shop across the street prostitutes are negotiating price. Most are asking for twenty-five dollars,” she said, excitedly. “How can we stop it?” She was panning the battleship cruisers. "I see our hooker! There she is. Oh, no. What is she up to?” Pushing the plastic disc farther out over the side of the roof, my aunt balanced her trunk on the parapet.
Into the path of my binoculars teetered Orphan Annie in champagne flute high heels. She hobbled toward a car parked in a vacant lot. After exchanging words with the driver the waif was shaking her head. About to walk away, her hand trailed over the hood of the car.
“Dalloway,” my aunt’s voice burst out. “I can hear the fire truck at the Lincoln Tunnel. Now those men in the car. They want her for a group rate. Forty bucks."
I watched the driver get out of the car and try to pull the girl in. He raised his hand and smacked her. Another man got out of the car. I could almost smell his lean gristle, his muscle like threaded pipe. Acrid and unpleasant like melting plastic. He reached under the back seat and pulled something out. A tire jack. The tranny kicked off a shoe, picked it up as a weapon and charged the tire jack man. The tire jack man ripped the spaghetti straps and pulled the unsightly orange dress to the tranny’s waist. The tranny was running away, carrying a high heel in each hand. The men pushed the waif against the car.
"One of them has a tire iron in his hand. I think they're going to kill her. Call 911. The car door is flying open and the man in back jumped out. They’re pulling the waif into the car.” My aunt’s voice went high. “Huh? There’s our neighbor down there with his camera. He’s taking pictures. There’s Mick Rooper. What’s he doing?” Dorna exclaimed. “Let’s go! We have to save her. I want to grind that man’s genitals to sawdust.”
“No the man from the car.” She set down the Sonic Ear. “Let’s go.”
The car was gone and the waif sprawled on the sidewalk. Dorna rushed toward her. “We’ve seen everything. We called the police.”
“What are you talking about?” The waif was groping for her bag with one hand; the other rubbed her head, a trickle of red streaking her forehead. A Latina prostitute knelt and handed her a cigarette. The Latina wore a string bikini under a gold windbreaker, her eyes dark and angry as the coffee swill in the Kraft Diner. A sailor waited for her at the curb. Another prostitute was crossing the street.
“Let us help you,” my aunt cried.
The waif scowled at me. “Get the do-gooding old lady out of here.”
Dorna let out a long sigh. “You don’t have to do this. There are shelters. I have cards right here.” She fumbled one from her pocket.
An older girl headed for the docks trailed by two sailors. A black prostitute with gold hair caught up with them. Her hoop earrings were big enough to be bracelets. They followed the murkiness of the river. The deadness where fish couldn’t breathe. They were girls from somewhere else. Jersey City and Newark, the land of dollar store perfume and wickless scented candles. The girls along the river were of flawed beauty, specialty mollomars and apricot jams that ended up in Jack’s 99cent Store, backward glancing girls too unstable to work at Nails Nails Nails or Costco. Arrayed in ringlets of broken glass they swam in the river of love. It was their stab at glamour—the bites, bruises and rips, arrests and assaults.
“Get your ass out of here, old lady!” the waif ordered. “You’ll draw the police.”
“Hey, she was trying to help you,” I said. .
“You too little bitch. Evaporate.”
“I’ll help you,” my aunt pleaded. “You can come live with Dalloway and me.”
The waif let out a shrill cry that turned to laughter. “Yeah, right.” She struggled up to her feet and tottered off into the sunset. An overheated sky, bruise-colored, purple and yellow shot through with red.
Dorna wanted to say a prayer for the girls. We walked to the Roman Catholic Croatian Church, a bulky fortress on 41st Street surrounded by burnt-out buildings and tunnel entrances. The black and red Croat flag hung from a pole. There were bars over every window and the doors had no handles on the outside, only metal plates. An iron fence topped with concertina wire separated the church from the sidewalk. We went inside and knelt. I couldn’t pray. It was their choice, wasn’t it? To get in the front seats, the back seats, or the no seats. To stand against a wall. It was their choice to get little sleep, to hear no mourning doves, except a muffled pitiful sweetness in their chests, a coo woo they tried to smother. Instead of wedding bells it was car alarms for these girls who knew the heft of white bread and French fries, who ate breakfast at 4:00 p.m. served by street vendors—Chili by the Quart and Big Fat Gyros.
On the way home we saw a young guy standing on Ninth Avenue in a diaper and cowboy hat and boots strumming a guitar. Farther down the sidewalk an older man in a white suit was lying on his stomach humping the concrete, raising himself up enough to slam himself again. “Uuug!” my aunt cried out.
We were both happy once the door locked behind us. Dorna curled up on her bed, hugging the pillows like a bird, tucking her big head under her wing. I cranked the a/c up to high and suddenly it worked. The goose-down comforter made her cozy and pushed back the hugeness of Manhattan.
“Oh, I forgot to give you this envelope. Someone slipped it under the door,” I said. “It sounds like Vladis wrote it. Weird.”
“Let me see it,” she said, eyes widening.
That night my aunt dreamed she watched the waif get beat up. Each time the thrust of fist broke the orbit of the waif's eye, the flash of a ring splitting her lip, the cartilage in her nose cracking, then the fist coming again. Dorna tasted something gritty and round like a peanut, only harder. It was her tooth that had been knocked from its socket. She bolted upright, running her finger around in her mouth feeling for fragments of teeth. It had been a dream. The taste of blood was from where she’d bit her tongue. Both arms were above her head. How brown the skin on her arms, those wrinkles at her wrists like bracelets, the loosening of skin at her neck like a chicken simmering too long.
She was sure Mick Rooper had been watching her in her sleep. Something had to be done.
After the letter arrived my aunt shifted our surveillance efforts from outside the townhouse to inside. Rooftop dining moved to the lobby. We stationed ourselves in the Queen Anne’s chairs with a view of both elevator and mailboxes. Vladis hovered behind us. “Nasty, nasty,” he muttered. “Both man and woman.” He was taller than my aunt. Another tree, an Albanian one. His hair shone silver although he was in his thirties. His eyes peered out over his hawk nose and missed nothing. Sniper’s eyes. Once I saw Dorna pass him an envelope stuffed with money. “It’s courtesy cash,” she told me. With Vladis’s permission we could loiter in the lobby and monitor our neighbor’s comings and goings.
Mick and Brittney Rooper could pass for arty Broadway people, the costume changers and prompters, not the stage singers. Since they lived under us Dorna cleared space between the enameled cups and gravy boats where bedroom sounds might rise into the Sonic Ear. “She’s his mistress,” Dorna exclaimed, “I don’t believe they are married although they both use Rooper as their last name.”
Before long the Roopers started to notice our interest. Brittney Rooper wore frame glasses like her husband. She was much prettier than him. Her eyes glittered. They were a crystalline green and matched her luscious, dark red hair.
Setting the Sonic Ear on the floor we took turns listening. My aunt agonized over how a jailbird like Mick Rooper could have enough money to live here. Who was bankrolling him? “They’re talking about me,” she whistled. I took the earphones.
“Don’t let that old woman upstairs bother you, Mick,” Brittney said, like she wasn’t really living in her words. Her voice said it wasn’t that big a deal. “She’s just lonely, babe.”
“Lonely, hell, she’s got the kid with her. The old witch is training the young one to be just like her.” I heard the sound of footsteps pacing back and forth until the Croatian Catholic Church bells began to clang. “Just like her. Those two witches won’t leave me alone.”
True, I did follow his every movement in the lobby. I would stand on the sidewalk when he went to the Kankahan Deli and watch him through binoculars. Mick Rooper had lost his hair and his pale eyes were blue raspberry popsicles sucked of their fruit juice and very cold. He was slender and of medium height. Once I tailed him to Smiler’s where he bought two onion bagels with cream cheese, a quart of orange juice and rolling papers. “Get lost, lollipop,” he said when I followed him out.
“He’s strong, Dalloway,” Dorna warned me. “Do you see how he likes to carry his bicycle up the stairs? Never get into an elevator alone with him. Promise me right now, Dalloway.”
Vladis told my aunt that there was almost nothing in the Roopers’ apartment. They couple had taken out the carpeting and after sanding it put polyurethane over the wood floors. We had smelled the fumes. The two of them kept putting down coats of it until Vladis threatened them with the police. “They’re sniffing it,” he accused. “They’re bringing girls in and getting them drunk on polyurethane.” I wondered if Mick Rooper refused to give Vladis tip envelopes. Or did Vladis have his hawk eye on Mrs. Rooper?
Whatever his reasons he allowed my aunt to stand for hours at his lobby desk and sort her mail. She gifted Vladis a sterling silver tea service and passed on a clock with real gold hands. He claimed he repaired and sold them to his needy countrymen. Dorna enjoyed mail. It would soon be a thing of the past, she predicted.
The Roopers buzzed themselves in and strolled through the lobby. Vladis’s turf. When Dorna spotted them she made her way to the mailroom and excitedly pulled envelopes from her slot. “Oh, look, Dalloway. A letter from the Young Women’s Christian Association of Belarus.” Her voice disturbed Mick Rooper. Just seeing my aunt in her aqua dress with the purple belt flustered him. The f-ing redwood tree again. He slid his key into his mailbox. “Do you mind?” he said to Dorna between clenched teeth. “I’d like a little room here.”
“I’ve nothing to hide. Do you?” my aunt sniffed. “I’m sorting my mail.” Her speech turned monotone. “It was after Harmon died and the twin towers came down I knew I had to come home. I crisscrossed the country. I drove across Canada. Now I realize I shouldn’t have come back. This city will be underwater before another fifteen years passes. There is so much evil. Sometimes it lives right under you.”
Mick Rooper went red from his chin to the top of his bald head. He whirled and shook his fist in my aunt’s face. “You’ve been sorting your f-ing mail for weeks. You’re a crazy witch. Leave us alone or you’ll have to answer to me.”
“Like those girls did that you drugged and videotaped. Did they have to answer to you?”
The first smile I’d ever seen crossed Vladis’s face. He uncrossed his arms from his chest, his grin growing when Brittney Rooper came bounding from the elevator. Waving her hand in my aunt’s face, she spurted out "YOU’RE NOT HIS PAROLE OFFICER, OLD LADY. HE’S DONE HIS TIME.”
Each time Rooper passed me while I ate my veggie burger on a plate populated with blue English cows and wheelbarrows, he’d snort. “Blow off, lollipop.” When I’d given up on Mummy she returned from the Italian leg of her honeymoon. It was time for me to go home and prepare for school. I protested that she had her husband and Dorna needed me. A sex offender lived under her. “She’s a big girl,” Mummy said. “A sex offender won’t bother her.”
I only visited on weekends but my aunt stayed busy. The Roopers consumed her every waking minute. She kept notebooks of their exchanges:
Rooper bolted from outer lobby to desk where I was standing FIST CLENCHED DIRECTED AT MY FACE, shouting many, many obscenities. YOU F--KING OLD BITCH, ETC, ETC. I was stunned and speechless. WITNESSED BY CONCIEGE. I told the police someone had slipped the envelope with newspaper article under my door. First time I knew of his infamous reputation. Told him I wanted to hear no more. If he didn’t stop---I’d send him back where he came from. HELL! He then threatened me and said , QUOTE—WATCH OUT! Rooper made a VIDEO TAPE of me and concierge Vladis standing outside building. WITHOUT PERMISSION. During October hot spell I saw a bright photographer’s light shining down from his 5th floor balcony.
After Thanksgiving Mick Rooper called the police and accused Dorna of harassment. They came. My aunt resisted arrest and was taken away in a police car. They released her later that day. Then her neighbor filed a civil suit against her. The townhouse board politely asked my aunt to leave. In her wedding photo, she is big and straight like a redwood only younger, and towers over her husband. She decided to move back to California. It would be nice to visit Harmon’s grave. If Mummy’s husband ever was too disgusting I was welcome to move too. It took four movers three days to pack her tableware and Victorian silver for the meals she would never serve.
She called me every day. Her heart wasn’t in Sacramento and she missed me. I was her one friend. In the spring the call came that Dorna had died. Mummy and her horrible husband and I flew to the west coast. “Oh, my God!” Mummy kept saying, “She was a hoarder just like those smelly people on TV. I never knew.” I saw the half-hearted walk trails between the bed and the kitchen and bathroom. The boxes standing in walls, none of them unpacked.
There was enough room in the kitchen for one person to stand and use the sink or open the refrigerator. On the island stove dirty blue tumblers made a pyramid and overloaded trays of silverware obscured the burners.
“What in God’s name is this?” Mummy cried. Next to her bed covered with newspapers and tablet paper and Little Debbie cupcakes was the Sonic Ear.
Dorna fell on the Sonic Ear with cell phone in her hand. Her last call had been to me. I was in school. Ringer off. “Why didn’t she phone 911?” Mummy’s husband kept asking. Her pride kept her from it. The shame of dusty eight-sided plates.
Her money she left to me in trust with a bequest to Mummy. It’s waiting for my 21st birthday. The hoard of silverware and table settings is mine entire. Mummy wanted to sell or give away all of Dorna’s “junk.” I knew better and insisted it be sent to Pilgrim Storage. The silverware for 1,500 people I keep in my room. I use the bread crumb scoop and pickle forks. “Dalloway, we should sell that set. It’s craziness,” Mummy complained. “No!” I shook my head violently. “Never.”
I sometimes dream of the wharf and sailors emerging from the misty hulls of destroyers, rain hitting the walk trails, the skin of the high wire poles vibrating. I hover, a night-blooming cirrus with a single white bloom, miraculous petals erupting into fog fragrance. The dusk moves. A girl appears in a gold windbreaker, white flat sandals, and eyes as dark and angry as the coffee swill in Tildesburg, PA. Another in lime-green tube top and forest-green fingernails. Girls disappear in the murkiness of river fog. They are the flawed, the spoiled, the marmalade and honeyed, those already blurred into grayness. I call out to the Jersey City and Newark girls. Have they moved on or are they still plying their trade? Awake I think of that summer often. I want to ask the girls of smoke and tin foil if my lost aunt is wandering among them. “Where will my footsteps be when the fish take the city back?” I imagine her saying. “Who isn’t alone here?” She tells me I’m wrong to judge. The girls are like the burning lambs on rooftop barbeques. Lamb smells sweet and you can hear its baaahing even in flames. What a fate. To endure terrible fear and suffering only to end in the digestive tract of a predator. Not even an afterlife to look forward to.