by Ray Kemble
No one in the neighborhood had seen Anthony Tindell wearing his mother’s clothes for some time. In fact, hardly anyone had seen him, period, not since he quit high school and moved out of Alma and Frank’s apartment. He would come back to Pelham Bay to see his parents every month or so. On a few of those visits I saw him coming from or going back to the El station. We were both nineteen at the time. I never said a word to Anthony Tindell on those occasions. And of course I saw him on the night he was murdered.
* * *
I arrive home late that night, after two in the morning, after last call. I park near the grated front of Jimmy the Butcher’s, three blocks from our house—the nearest I’m sure I’ll find—and start out on foot through the dead streets. A bothered dog is making a repetitive yelp in some far off yard; otherwise, my footsteps are the only night sounds. I cut a familiar corner at Katz’ Candy with its buckled steel shutters and start down the narrower residential streets, moving in and out of pools of weak lamplight, walking as best I can down the centerline of the lemon ice-stained pavement, past clipped boxwood hedges and deserted front stoops, empty porches and trash-clotted courtyards. Turning the final corner, my shoulder rubs the rough brown brick of the bulky six-story apartment building, the Mayflower, that sits next to our house. I’m expecting another quarter block of quiet pavement. Instead I find a knot of NYPD squad cars, roof lights swirling round and round red, yellow, blue; front wheels hooked on the curb; doors hanging open. They’re pointed at the alley separating the Mayflower from my house. A dozen people stand around clutching flannel robes to themselves. Others sit in upper-floor windows, backlit by living room light. I stop, shift about. I decide I’m not involved; I make a wide pass around the people and go up my front steps.
A light is on in the kitchen. My father is there, barefoot, in his pajama bottoms, struggling with a wet matchbook he’s rescued from a spill on the countertop. “What the hell’s going on out there?”
“I don’t know,” I say softly, wanting only to go to my room. “Something. I don’t know.”
“Oh, thanks be to Jesus, he’s home,” my mother says prayer-like from her bed.
I close the door to my room but don’t turn on the ceiling light. At the window I part the drapes and look down on the alley. Flashlight beams crawl about. They work the edges of the alley. They light up old brick walls badly in need of pointing, grilled basement windows, battered ash cans, sacks of garbage, shredded litter pressed into recesses. Men’s voices, muffled, professional. Every so often one of the flashlight beams crosses the cracked and tilted concrete of the alley floor. Oh shit. I see the body, the dead man, facedown on the ground. His arms are thrown wide as if greeting the ground. He sleeps in a broad pool of blood that seems to spread from his head. Black when not illuminated, the blood reveals itself a rich carmine only when swept by a flashlight beam. I stand there for several minutes looking down, watching the beams glide about—ash cans, broken concrete, trash, dead man. Fascinated by the dead man. Then new voices come, with them the clatter of a wheeled gurney. At that, my fascination fades. I let the drapes fall shut and go to bed.
* * *
The next day we start to hear. When my father comes back from buying the morning paper, he tells us he learned through Paddy Shea our next-door neighbor who himself had heard from Fiona Casey the parish secretary who the dead man was. “Anthony Tindell,” my father says, “Alma and Frank’s boy.” When my father says Anthony Tindell, my mother turns to me and says, “Oh, Ray, I’m so sorry”—as if Anthony’s death might have some special impact on me.
“It was murder, probably drug-related,” my father says. That was the rumor going around, that Anthony Tindell was into drugs. “No arrests yet, but they say Tindell was dead before they threw him off the roof.”
I knew Anthony Tindell, that was true. Or, I should say, I knew of Anthony Tindell; I knew of him from the block, but we weren’t friends. We were never together. I knew very little about Anthony Tindell. None of us did. Alma and Frank had bused Anthony to parochial school across town, while the rest of us neighborhood boys would walk an easy few blocks to P.S. 71. The same was true for high school: Alma and Frank had somehow found the money to send their son to Cardinal Spellman HS across the city line in Westchester; the rest of the boys (I was the exception, going to art school in Manhattan) went to Christopher Columbus, the district high school.
It was more than just us going to different schools. Anthony Tindell was an enigma because, obedient to our parents’ wishes, we boys shunned him. It was his own fault, our parents said, because of the way he acted. In all our growing-up years, Anthony rarely came out of Alma and Frank’s apartment. When he did come out, it would be a show. With no warning, Anthony, in broad daylight, would explode into the street, balanced on a pair of his mother’s heels, draped in one of her dresses, his hair wrapped in one of her scarves, his face decorated with a sampling of her makeup. He would pirouette about singing full-voice some nonsense tune, a song made up of only melodic syllables, to the confusion of everyone—to the adults talking in the street, to the boys playing stickball, and to the girls skipping rope—everyone would stop and watch in embarrassment at Anthony Tindell’s performance. After a few minutes, privately satisfied he’d bow theatrically to the street and teeter on his oversize heels back inside.
“That damn Mary,” my father would say, “you don’t want to be seen with him.”
And I wouldn’t. None of us boys wanted to be seen with Anthony Tindell. Until the day he moved away, we shunned him. My father said, as did all the neighborhood fathers, It’s his own goddamn fault.
In the months that followed, stories trickled in. Anthony Tindell had moved to Manhattan, to the West Village. He’d moved in with friends, friends he’d made outside of the neighborhood, outside of the Pelham Bay, who knew where. He had built a new life for himself with these friends—friends, we heard, who made for a bad crowd. And a bad crowd meant drugs. He was going to a cosmetology school—at least that was the word on the street. (Well, that figures, people said.) He would come back into the neighborhood only to see his parents, nothing more than sprints on and off the block. (Come back to beg drug money from poor Alma and Frank, that’s what. It’s a goddamn shame.) We took Anthony Tindell’s aloofness to mean he wanted nothing to do with us. Who could blame him?
I’d seen Anthony Tindell on a few of those return visits, although I never spoke to him, nor do I think he saw me. I’d seen him walking rapidly, not looking right or left, striding between the Buhre Ave. El station and his parents’ apartment. Even from a distance, I could see he was different, not the same Anthony Tindell. The vulnerability, the girlishness that everyone claimed was proof positive of his sexual otherness was gone. In its place was a toughness, a pose of defiance, a look amplified by (as my mother would call them) his juvenile delinquent clothes: sheaves of black leather, cinched jackets and rod-thin slacks. The only hint of the “old” Anthony was his hair, a shaggy brown in years past but now a bottled and styled carmine. Visible, too, even at a distance, was the black mascara he wore.
I would have shunned Anthony Tindell, even if I hadn’t been warned. Anthony Tindell terrified me. He was not a physical threat; that would have been laughable. It was his very existence, his flamboyant presence on the block that terrified me. I was afraid the more people studied Anthony Tindell’s otherness, the more adept they’d become at seeing signs of otherness in others. For instance in me. I dreaded the day I might see a neighbor giving me a questioning look. I dreaded the day a boy from the block might ask, “What the fuck is it with you?” Fortunately, my studied masculinity—as with all the neighborhood boys’ rugged posturing—provided us with immunity.
Nonetheless, I lived with the truth I had joined in the shunning of Anthony Tindell—not because I feared in the least his sexual orientation was infectious, but because my own was so uncertain.
* * *
My father comes home from placing a few bets with the corner bookie and tells us the latest he’s heard. The haunting worst: Anthony Tindell was alive when he was thrown from the roof. “The coroner says he died from the impact.” We hear of a last despairing struggle: “When they pried open Tindell’s hand,” my father says, “they found a button, probably ripped from the killer’s coat when he went over the edge.”
Minutes later at the supper table, my father, sawing at his minute steak, says out of nowhere, “I told you…”
“What’s that?” my mother asks.
My father waits for effect. Timing is everything. He deflects: “We got any A-1?”
“What was it you told us, Bill?”
He reaches to take the A-1 from my mother’s hand. “I told you fairies can’t fly.”
I say nothing.
Later that night back in my room, I again part the drapes. The alley is poorly lighted: a soiled 60-watt suspended over the sacks of garbage. It is enough, however, for me to see the irregular darkness on the pavement where Anthony Tindell’s body had been. Someone has tried to scrub away the darkness—probably Günter the immigrant super—but he only succeeded in widening the stain. Dried foam on the edges suggest some cleansing paste, something Günter probably found in a tin on a dirty shelf in the boiler room: leaves of litter are dried in the residue. I look at the wider stain Günter made, trying to see within it the stain Anthony’s blood made. I look until I convince myself I see the blood stain, the one Anthony made after striking the ground, bleeding out until his heart stopped—the last of Anthony Tindell’s otherness, beyond which is only the vacuousness of the alley.
In bed that night I’m ill. It’s thinking of all the years I’d been part of shunning Anthony Tindell that is making me feel this way. How alone he must have felt. How alone we made him feel.
I’m ill too because I’m thinking about my own secret otherness in those same years. And of my cowardice. I hadn’t shunned Anthony Tindell because my father told me I had to; I shunned Anthony Tindell because I was afraid if I didn’t, it would reveal something about me. How many times in those days did I look out our front window to see people staring, to follow their eyes to the sight of Anthony Tindell pirouetting on the pavement, wearing something pulled from his mother’s closet and singing a nonsense tune? How many times did I want to run down into the street in time to catch him and to say to him something friendly? Anything. “Great show!” if nothing else.
I’m ill because a few hours earlier at the supper table, I’d had my chance, my chance to say, “You’re right, Dad, fairies can’t fly. But you know something, Dad? None of us can.”
BIO: Ray Kemble spent most of his working of his working life in theater, as an actor and administrator. He has published numerous plays and stage adaptations of classic novels, including Libbie, an odyssey of the American West drawn from the journals of Elizabeth Bacon Custer, and All That I Have Lost, a panorama of the devastation of war as chronicled by the world’s great poets, from Homer to the poets of today’s many global conflicts. Ray lives in Denver.