Baltimore Roulette


St. Louis, Fourth of July; two sea gulls from the nearby Mississippi get curious. I’ve been buzzed before. Dad’s instructions are to slide your feet. Keep the pole loose in your hands; let it do the work. But this time my steps wobble the wire. The street is below, buildings on either side. I’m four stories up without a net. I can see right into the beady eyes of those gulls. I see mischief. They want in on the action. I let my eyes stray, which is a rule I’ve never before broken. My eyes stray to the faces down there looking up at me.

The flinch happens that quick. I know Dad has seen it, and I can hear him calling to me from the roof.

“Come on in, Jackie.”

It’s no good that day, but the faces never know the difference. I end with a kneeling salute, and that’s plenty. Later, Dad harps about the gulls. “We’ll never work St. Louie again,” he assures me.

But of course we do work St. Louie again. What choice do we have? It’s the end of the eighties and the high wire is dying out. “Technology is taking over everything,” Dad says. “People are entranced.”

That next year, the Fourth of July, is our last in St. Louie. I turn twenty-one. One good thing, there aren’t any sea gulls.


~

I’m twenty-six now. My mother has a new husband, Howard. Together they live in a condo north of Baltimore. The building is twelve stories, a red brick rectangular structure visible from the nearby expressway. She lives on the tenth floor, and I drive over, take the elevator up, visit for an hour.

She talks on the phone in the bedroom while I study a painting in the hallway. She has many paintings hanging, but this one, a side view of a woman’s bent knee on a chair, I remember from my childhood. It was in her bedroom on Springer Avenue, placed over the king bed she and Dad slept in. Five or six years old, I would lay backwards between them; I’d gaze up at the woman’s bent knee, not questioning it, not even noticing the painting. And yet I remember it so well now. Except I can no longer see the painting as I did then. It’s just a woman’s knee.

I turn away; my mother has hung up the phone.


~

The way I used to see the painting, without questioning it, is the way I watched my father in our backyard on Springer.

Early morning, into the kitchen in my bare feet; I get up on my tiptoes at the window. I’m little enough that my eyes barely make the bottom ledge. He aligns his stance on the six-foot practice wire; he kneels on one knee, holding out his arms for balance: gazing forward, still as furniture, a silhouette in the rising sun. This is the salute. Usually the salute comes before leaving the wire. It is the high wire walker’s dedication, and it is something to see.

He has other salutes, too. Flat on his back on the wire or the sitting salute. The best is the standing salute. He folds his arms over his chest, his back arched, his posture erect; he balances on one foot, his other foot off the wire, the toes pointed at the ground, his head bowed. He poses as if upon a stage.

This is the dedication; I’m seeing it firsthand. My watching at the window takes on a different intent. Without awareness, I’m studying him.


~

Howard owns a gun, a revolver. He keeps a bullet in it, just one, and he likes to spin the chamber. “Baltimore Roulette” he calls it. He’ll come into the living room of their condo carrying the gun and ask if I want a spin. He says he knows I wish he wasn’t with my mother, though I’ve never said any such thing. Then he hands me the gun and asks if I want to spin it right now and fire at him. He acts like it’s a joke, or like he’s in a movie. Last week he put it to his head and asked if I wanted him to pull the trigger. He doesn’t do it when my mother’s around.

In fact, she doesn’t even know about it; at least I haven’t told her. Howard says, “C’mon, play along. Or are you scared?” He won’t let me leave the room. He’s a powerful man. He has the shoulders of a bear and a lot of curly hair on his chest and his head. He walks around in a silk robe. You can see his belly. “I can’t believe you’re scared,” he says. “You used to work without a net.”


~

Dad shows me things. How to hold the balancing pole, how to endure the wind. He has his hair slicked back as usual. In the backyard, teaching me.

“You need to find your balance. The balance in which you can do anything.”

“How do I find it?”

“By not looking for it.”

There’s a logic to this that suits my ten-year-old mind.

“One day, when you’re not even paying attention, it’ll be there,” he says. “It’ll come in flashes at first. But the flashes will widen. You’ll get a grip on them, like opening a door. After that, it’ll always be there. This will take practice. Weeks and months and years even.”

I don’t like the sound of years. Yet, though I don’t know it at the time, the desire to go upstairs is already inside me. I’ve seen him up in the sky, and I must go up, too.


~

Dayton, Ohio; I’m older now, seventeen. Nothing to do but wait for my seven PM show. Dad, bent, has both hands on the cane, a human tripod. He’s crippled from two years ago. I want to walk off somewhere, Bobby Kemp and I, eat a hot dog, try to catch some girl’s eye. It doesn’t feel like there’s a show, my show. Bobby Kemp, who’s come to help on the rigging, has discovered he likes beer; no doubt he’s thinking about one now, coveting his fake ID.

In a parking lot behind the rides, a flea market. Food booths, a stage for music, the band tuning up. Everyone milling. I get my hot dog. Kemp checks his watch.

“Is every fair the same? Is every fair like this?”

Dad is where we left him. “Wipe that mustard,” he says to me.

About sixty people show up. I climb the rope ladder up to the first platform, forty feet high. Our King Poles are portable and the rigging, staked and standing, looks like a suspension bridge. We never use a net; it’s not the same. I walk across and back and throw down the balancing pole, a dramatic gesture. Without the pole you’re without an anchor; you have to trick balance using your arms. If any thought of falling comes—you get used to that. Dad says you can get used to anything, like getting into a cage of lions. You have a hold over the field, the people with you. You want to go on and never come down.

I begin juggling three red rubber balls; I learned the year before. At last, the blindfold. I stand on the platform after; two or three hundred down there now. The applause is something I never anticipate. It separates me from Dad, from Bobby Kemp. I come back onto the wire to do the kneeling salute and get more applause. At the end of the performance I wave from the platform, waving bye-bye.

Over that winter we lose Kemp. He wants to drink, to sit in his room; he’s forgotten who he is. In the spring we drive to Indiana. What I like most are the highways, driving in our truck, Dad moistening his lips, syrupy music on the radio. We live on junk food; Dad has started smoking again, crumpling his packs. At the next stop we forget to throw out the collected garbage, and he complains about the mess; his own father wouldn’t have put up with it, he says. “Even a single crumb drove him crazy.” But he doesn’t really mind. It’s better to anticipate cleaning up, a kind of completion at the end of a trip.

“I saw you crying once,” I tell him, two hundred miles to go. The middle of the night, my mother at home drinking gin and tonic, cutting the limes with great deliberation.

A semi is dogging me; I can see its bright lights in the oblong mirror. Dad tapping his cigarette on the dash. He’s been tapping a half hour, trying to resist.

“It was my fault in Binghamton,” I say. That was when we were a team, but I was green, and I stepped on the wire before he could see me. Our spotter tried to catch him, but he landed hard and wrecked his hip and broke the spotter’s back in six places.

“Ancient history,” he says.

“We going to St. Louis next summer?”

“Maybe we’ll fly. We’ll ship our gear and get on a plane. How would you like that?”


~

My own place downtown is a fifth floor walk-up studio. I take classes and wait tables in a restaurant nearby. The owner, a Chinese man named Henry, says he’ll make me manager. We serve French in a brass and tablecloth setting. I carry trays on my shoulder and do well Saturday evenings. I count my tips after, and one of the waitresses joins me at the bar across the street. Karen, a redhead. We drink too much wine and end up back at my studio. I want to show her my scrap book some time, the photos of me on the wire. The articles, too. But so far I haven’t. Karen’s twenty and wants to party. I like that, her seeing me only as a guy with long hair.

I have no one else, either. My mother could never watch me perform; it made her a wreck to see me on a high wire. Though when she first met Dad she performed Acro Dance. She quit, though. She divorced Dad the day after I turned fourteen.

I keep the scrap book under my bed, stored there; also old slippers I once wore and other stuff. No one at the restaurant knows of my past. Not even two years have passed; not two years since the morning in Vegas.


~

“One step on the wire, that’s all it takes,” Dad says. “I’ll be right there with you.”

He always says I have ice water in my veins, but it isn’t true.

We’re in Vincent Scarpetti’s Manhattan office. Mr. Scarpetti wears his eye patch, says it hides his lazy eye. Says, like a chorus, “One step, Jackie, is all.”

“You guys are great.”

The office is like a forties Hollywood set, the clunky desk, folders and filing cabinets, the buildings on view out the one window.

The idea is Mr. Scarpetti’s. He once managed my father; he arranged Dad’s walk in Vegas years ago. A walk nine stories between twin hotels, the Duke and the Duchess, east of the strip, on Flamingo Road. I watched from one of the roofs and decided then against such heights. Nine stories could spin you down, the wind an egg-beater, the ground a magnet.

Mr. Scarpetti’s idea is the son repeating the father’s walk. But nine stories is not three or even four stories. Nine stories is a daredevil height; I don’t think I can take the step.

“Listen,” I tell them. All I can do, though, is high-tale it out of the office. I take the elevator downstairs. Then out through the air blowing in the entrance and onto the street. “He’ll be back.” “He’ll do it.” Those are the words they’re saying. “He wants it, just doesn’t know it yet.”

I buy coffee in an up-town shop. Squirm in the red booth, seeing my life as predetermined, as if I’d always known I’d be in this corner shop on Duke Ellington Boulevard; always this moment.

Back on Duke Ellington, I pretend I’m headed somewhere else, a party say, or a jog in the park. Maybe I’ll meet a girl, we’ll jog together. A blue flyer on the pavement makes me pause. I keep walking.

“Where’d you go?” Dad says when I return. “You just walk out like that?”

“All right,” I say. “Vegas.”


~

Flying out to Vegas, our shins together. Dad’s seat belt on the whole trip (he doesn’t like to fly). Scarpetti asleep while a woman in a dress squints at the eye-patch; now I understand why he wears it. He wakes up, blinks the one eye. Dad snaps his newspaper.

I pretend again, this time that I don’t know them; I wonder what the blue flyer said; I never picked it up. Now there are only clouds. Nine stories, I remember, needing suddenly to get up again. “Excuse me,” forcing my way to the aisle. Nowhere to go, the compact restroom. My face in the bathroom mirror. “Land this fucking plane.”


~

We eat breakfast the next morning in the Wild West coffee shop, head back to the hotel. The sun piping hot. We have to go over the rigging, test it out for my walk at one o’clock the next day. On the elevator up to our suite, Dad puts his arm around my shoulder. He says he has things he wants to tell me. But he’s forgotten his newspaper. He’ll be right back, he says. Using his cane, he keeps the elevator doors from shutting while I step out. He heads back down without me, and that’s the last I ever see him alive. Outside, he steps off a curb, has his life erased by a van that keeps moving.


~

I never get my chance in Vegas, the walk gets scrubbed. The man driving the van eventually turns himself in, even spends some time in prison. His name is Willie Saunders and he writes me saying what a terrible thing he’s done, that he’s suffering for it, that he doesn’t sleep at night. He prays for our family that the pain will go away.

Eventually I forgive Willie Saunders. Yet I can never let go of the notion that my future has been changed, irrevocably; that it’s lost, wiped out by Saunders’ van.


~

Since the accident my mother’s stopped drinking. She mostly stays home with Howard. He’s an ex-lawyer, and my mother says he talks about me all the time. He’s seen the photos of me in the air, thunderous clouds in the sky above. My mother keeps them in a hat box in her closet. The photos speak of daring and skill, and Howard wonders why I hide away in a restaurant. I must be in sad shape, he says. I told my mother he’s on an ego trip, which is true. She’s his fourth wife. They got married only six months ago, after a brief courtship.


~

“Your mother thinks I’m argumentative,” Howard tells me, sitting on a high white stool at the kitchen counter in their condo, a black and white mini-TV in front of him. I’ve come over to drop off a bill my mother has to pay for me. Also on a whim, to show him he doesn’t scare me, perhaps to provoke him. He stuffs his pita bread sandwich into his mouth and bites, shredded lettuce falling onto the plate.

“She thinks I tend to bully. What do you think?”

“Where is she?”

“It’s just my style,” he says, ignoring my question, food bits still between his lips. “I can be a prick, I know.”

I don’t let him continue and instead disappear into the bedroom to drop off the bill. When I come back out, he’s not there. I’m standing in the living room when he returns with the revolver, holding it flat in his palm, showing it to me. “This what the trouble is? This what’s bothering you?”

I notice his pita sandwich on the kitchen counter, half-eaten on the plate. He follows me into the foyer, then he cuts in front of me before I can leave.

“Let me pass, will you? What’s your problem?”

He blocks the door with his heft. “You’re mistaken if you think I have a problem,” he says. “I’m going to take this gun and put it to my head for you. I’m going to do it for you. I haven’t got a problem. I’ve got everything I need. I’ve got your mother’s love and enough money to last the rest of my life. What problem have I got?”

“You’re crazy.”

“This from someone who worked minus a net.”

“Let me by.”

On my way out the door I hear him say, “Stop over again real soon.”


~

When I know my mother’s home, I come over to tell her about Howard’s antics, and maybe to even confront him.

“Where is he?” I ask. “Where’s Howard?”

“He’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“I’ll wait,” I tell her.

I open the sliding glass door and step outside onto her balcony. She has a view of the Jones Falls Expressway looping around wooded hills. I lean against the brick ledge and have an urge to step up, to climb onto the ledge and walk back and forth. I want to so much that I hurry back inside, closing the sliding glass door behind me.


~

Jangling his keys, Howard stands in the doorway of the darkened den, where I’m waiting at my mother’s desk. “Hey,” he says. “You have something you want to say to me?”

“Do it. Put the gun to your head.”

He returns a moment later. The weapon is in his right hand at his side. I hear my mother opening and closing drawers in their bedroom, oblivious.

“You think I’m afraid?” Howard says.

“Don’t fake it, do it for real,” I tell him.

“I’m not afraid. I’m ready.”

“Do it, then.”

He spins the chamber, then he lifts the gun to his temple and cocks the trigger. Fires.

“It was empty,” I tell him.

My mother comes in and demands to know what’s going on. Neither of us acknowledges her. Howard pulls the chamber out and twirls it, and he retrieves a single silver bullet.

“It was a trick,” I say.

“You know better than that.”

“Put down that gun right now,” my mother says, but Howard only grins.

He hands me the bullet, squeezes my fingers over it. “This is for you,” he says.  

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