Anthony Inverso lives outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This is his first fiction publication.
We threw a Purple Rain party because we wanted to fall in love. We had a fireman on our side, so nothing ruinous happened when we set off the smoke alarm sprinklers.
After we’d exhausted our supply of paper towels, I walked down to the convenience store to buy more. I saw my father there, deciding between flavors of Jell-O. I didn’t stop to say hello. Philadelphia felt claustrophobic in those days. You were always running into everybody, and it tuckered me out.
On my way back to the festivities I noticed an inflated blow up doll in the road. She lay in a puddle of streetlight, waiting for her savior. I picked her up and cradled her like she was a young girl rescued from a well. Her nudity didn’t bother me; I’d dressed in only a T-shirt and mesh shorts myself. Upon returning to the party, I placed the doll on the porch and told her to wait for me. She complied, and I fell further in love with her, even though we could never grow old together.
I went inside, towels in hand, only to find my friends and enemies asleep or gone. The Purple Rain party had dissipated from monsoon into damp floor. A girl with whom I’d slow-danced snored in the bed where I had hoped to sleep. I avoided climbing in next to her because she wasn’t the type willing to share at 1:30 in the morning.
I rescued the blow up doll from the porch. Her shutterless eyes stared at me, and her arms reached out for comfort. She would not rest in such circumstances, and I wanted to discover a safe place for her. I lifted my lady without effort and carried her up the street. That road was built on a hill, and the bottom of it held nothing but lidless bars and all-night firecracker-siren police vehicles. Too many people down there might have questioned my motives.
Several blocks away from the party, a woman sat on her porch steps blotting her eyes. She smiled at my approach, but this didn’t deceive me; I’d devoted hours of study to tear detection. I lent out my shoulder for just such events.
The crying woman looked about ten years older than me. She had the dark red hair of a sorceress. She’d color coordinated her skirt, her shoes, her mood: all blue.
She asked for a cigarette, but I owned none. Like Odysseus tied to the mast, I thrived off the second-hand taste of the hot air my friends blew in my face. Without a smoke, I opted for chivalry and bent to one knee. I intended to introduce myself as Lancelot but lost courage as the words fell out of my mouth.
“You can come with me,” I said. “I seek sanctuary for my lady here.” I patted the blow up doll on the rump. I wasn’t so much a Good Samaritan as an Available Philadelphian.
“My arm hurts,” she said.
“There are few safe places left, but I aim to find one. The bars are closing, and that will make it harder.”
A car drove past, and the sorceress shivered. I had no jacket to offer her. Removing my mesh shorts and offering them for warmth would have given the wrong impression.
“You’d think a blow up doll would warrant a solicitous honk in this town,” I said, eyeing the brake lights of the vehicle as it paused for a stop sign.
“Why do you have it?” she asked, nodding her head toward my companion.
“I’m her protector. Everyone needs a guardian, even if I’m all they can afford.”
“Oh,” she said. She picked at weeds growing in between the sidewalk sprawl.
“Join us,” I suggested again.
She laughed, but left out the humor. “I don’t think I’ll ever leave Philadelphia,” she said, although I never mentioned leaving my city behind. Only the heartless abandon a town with love built into its name.
But the sorceress in blue spoke with conviction of her future. My own fate lacked many certainties, so I doubted we would fall in love. Perhaps if it had rained we might have sparked an affair. After all, my friends and I had thrown the Purple Rain party on the thesis of romance blooming in nasty weather.
A man from inside the sorceress’s house came to the screen door. He stroked the cauldron of his belly and wore a Phillies hat. I imagined he broke buildings for a living. I bet sometimes he tore them apart with his hands alone.
“Inside,” the Phillies fan said. He didn’t mean me. He spoke through the screen as though we were prisoners, and his voice carried enough strength to strip us of our individuality.
Cradling one arm in the other, the sorceress stood. The wind pulled her ponytail in the direction away from the Phillies fan. Red hair shouldn’t suffer under the dictatorship of an elastic.
“Nice to have met you,” she said.
The man glared at me, but I had no capacity for violence. My duties were to the blow up doll. The Phillies fan let the screen door slam the sorceress on the elbow as she entered the house, and then they were gone. I didn’t talk to either again, not for many months. By that time I spoke in impossible certainties because I wore a suit and swore to tell the truth. My piety grew in the days to come with the tenacity of dandelions, and it endured like roaches.
Further up the block, I reached my father’s house. Some nights I couldn’t get away from him.
He startled himself to consciousness when I opened the front door. Sleep had conquered my old man in his recliner. His evenings began with documentaries and ended with infomercials.
“You woke me up,” he said. I never faulted him for much because he’d raised me throughout the discouraging years after mother forgot how to spell her own last name.
“I need you to watch her,” I said. I placed the doll on the couch and covered her in an afghan. I spent an eternity trying to remember if she was flesh and bone or plastic and air. It felt like a whole other night by the time I recalled the truth.
“I think you need to start sleeping at home again,” my father said. “We start there, and then we find you a job. Even in this economy. We find you something.”
“I’m retired,” I said. I was twenty-three.
“I can fall asleep in my own bed if you’re here,” he said. “It’s when I picture you out there with no money that I doze in the chair and drift between nightmares.”
How could I tell him I’d spent the whole night down the block?
“Consider her my place holder,” I said, pointing at the blow up doll. The sound of my father’s voice faded as I closed the front door behind me and returned to the streets.
Decisions, decisions. Up or down the hill? Without the blow up doll, I decided to swig a beer at a favorite bar. If its patrons bore no predilections toward violence or drama, the staff served drinks past 2 a.m. I don’t know why the cops didn’t bust them for staying open beyond the hour Pennsylvania demanded its citizens drink elsewhere. Maybe the police force owned the joint. Maybe the bartender transformed into a detective when the sun bloomed.
On my way, I ran into a man dressed as Santa Claus but beardless. He stared at a car with a flat tire, wringing his Santa cap in his hands. I said hello, because I figured if given the chance he might impress or enrage me. I invited him to come to the bar, and he agreed.
Seated and holding a beer, he said, “I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t shown up.”
“We’ve got to commandeer the jukebox or this place will really suffer,” I said.
“I guess I would have called AAA?”
“There’s this tyrant who stays here late and will crank Dolly Parton songs until daybreak. He must know someone important to get away with it.”
“For two A’s in this country they’ll cure you of alcoholism,” Santa said. “But it takes three and a coat hanger if you lock your keys in your car.”
“Nothing is sacred anymore,” I said, which was irrelevant, but nevertheless well received.
“I’m surprised by how many good-looking women I see here at three in the morning,” said Santa. “Although most of them are attached to men. Too bad.”
“Maybe they’re attractive because it’s three in the morning,” I said. “Three a.m. desire is quite different from all the other desires of the day.”
Santa shrugged, and then forced a conversation upon a girl at the opposite end of the bar with droopy eyes and earrings big enough to serve as hula hoops.
At the jukebox, I punched in the entire Bruce Springsteen album Nebraska, selecting each song fifty cents at a time. I planned a selfish hour, but as with all egocentric acts I convinced myself that I deserved it. My head was Saturn, with all of my thoughts and dreams as the many rings swiveling around in space. Perhaps familiar melodies might soothe my psyche.
Santa’s conversation partner departed. I returned to his side and patted him on his felt-covered shoulder.
“Do you know what she said to me?” Santa asked.
“This is the saddest Springsteen record,” I said.
“She said, ‘I’m moving to California yesterday.’ Do you believe that? Not only is it impossible, but who would ever want to leave Philadelphia?”
“He recorded it by himself. No one else for miles around when Bruce bared his soul for this one.”
Mr. Claus ordered another beer and made a joke about paying in coal. I’d never seen the bartender laugh, and he didn’t start then.
“Today’s the first of July, right?” asked Santa Claus.
“Track nine on Nebraska. That one will get you. ‘My Father’s House.’ Always beware the penultimate track.”
“My father gave me some great advice once. Did your father ever give you perfect advice?”
“Yes,” I said.
“My father once told me, ‘Son, if you’re hoping to get yourself a girl, you go out and find them in the stride of summertime. June’s prudes always blossom into the whores of July.’ Now, isn’t that the best damn thing you’ve ever heard?”
I could think of more to say at a funeral for a stranger. Santa should have known two things: summer starts in June, and no one aspires to the life of a whore. Still, if my friends and I thought inclement weather bred cautious romance, and threw a Purple Rain party owing to said belief, then why wouldn’t the sunshine promote promiscuity?
Halfway into the Nebraska album, a new girl entered the bar. Santa approached, and she giggled at the sound of the bells hanging from his belt. Before long, he’d convinced her to dance. He threw his jacket on a chair, revealing a Phillies tattoo on his arm. I bet, if presented with the opportunity, he’d have no qualms pontificating on inaccurate baseball statistics.
Santa and his lady friend hugged and stumbled to their own rhythm in the corner. They clung to each other like he might abandon her to fight in the Great War the next morning. When the last song on Nebraska ended, they broke apart. A Dolly Parton song played next.
Santa and the girl left, laughing all the way. With his tattoo, and his hearty belly, Santa recalled the Phillies fan I’d seen earlier in the evening, the sorceress’s overlord. Neither one had the binocular eyes of a man on the lookout for love.
I paid my tab and exited the bar. Outside, the insects sang hymns to each other. I had a two-hour head start on getting to bed before dawn. I hated falling asleep after the sunrise. It reminded me how little I’d be missed during the labor-intensive parts of the day.
I stopped in front of the porch where I’d met the sorceress. A few beer cans slept together by the curb. The streetlights, stand-ins for stars, pooled enough light for me to notice a clump of red hair on the bottom step of the porch. The strands were different sizes; they’d been pulled, not cut. That’s the difference between a person and a blow up doll. The things they leave behind.
After pocketing the hair, I walked up the porch steps and peered in through the front window. The Phillies fan had fallen asleep by the television light as well, but his similarities to my own father ended there. The sorceress slept on the floor next to a playpen, her chest rising and falling. She had so much life in her.
I returned to my father’s house. Pops didn’t stir in his recliner upon my arrival this time. He’d turned the television off with the last of his strength. The sunlight would revive him. In the morning, he was a god.
I scavenged through the fridge for food and retrieved a bowl of my father’s Jell-O. I ate a scoop, then stopped, preferring instead to sit on the floor and uncork my tear ducts. What kind of son was I, who would eat his father’s favorite snack?
I left the unfinished bowl of Jell-O on the kitchen floor. If I couldn’t find a way to change, I’d morph into that person full time. A man who will cry about eating Jell-O, but then leave the half-eaten bowl for his loved ones to clean up.
I dialed the number on the kitchen telephone. I felt hungry and nauseous, which seemed unfair.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“There’s a woman who wants to leave Philadelphia,” I said. “But she’s having a hard time.”
“Why is this an emergency?” the operator asked.
“There’s a man preventing her from leaving,” I said. I gave the address of the sorceress while twirling the clump of red hair between two fingers.
“Is he abusing her in any way?”
“Yes,” I said. “You need to see it for yourself. I can’t go back there. I can’t protect living things. I think she has a child. I’m pretty sure she does. This is very serious.”
Upon hanging up, I returned to the living room, lifted the blow up doll from the couch, and dragged her through the front door. Standing on the porch where I had waited for the school bus through all four years of high school, I pulled out the stopper holding in her air. A car drove past as she shriveled in my arms. A little boy pressed his face to the glass of the car window and stared. Imagine the story I gifted this family on their early journey.
I dropped the blow up doll in our trash can. I had loved her but never named her. Even when I tried to do the right thing, I still felt a little sorry for myself.
The sun began its daily resurrection, and with a gorgeous morning ahead I decided to call it a night.
My father slept like Noah on the beach after God’s great flood. I knew I had made him proud in ways he would not understand until we had both died and I could explain it to him in the afterlife. I draped the afghan over his body. I wanted to wake him, but neither of us worked well in conversation until afternoon, our equal playing field.
I lay down on the couch. I had a headache, an appointment with nightmares, no money. It didn’t matter.
My heart was free to love another.