Above the Ed Sullivan
Copyright © 2005 by Jessica Hayes. All rights reserved.
A high pitched, pre-verbal scream of terror pierces my sleep. It forces me to jump up and I stumble, clumsily falling down the stairs in a rush to get to the front door. I scratch at the lock in a fury to yank it open to get to her. Still hearing the screams, I race into my front yard; the wet grass on the bottoms of my feet ground me into consciousness. A frenzy drives me forward; I have to get to her. This time I have to get to her.
“Where are you? Where are you?” I yell into the damp air.
Silence. The street is empty. The southern California fog is settling over the little valley we live in, twisting around my hair as it drops in slow lazy swirls. The street is weakly lit by the pinkish shine of the sodium streetlight. The rows of stuccoed houses lining either side are dark. There are no sounds at all.
“Where are you?” I call out.
I cross into the empty street. There isn’t even the whine of a car echoing off the hills and homes. The pavement feels rough under my feet, and the ground is still radiating heat from the day this far into the night. But the clammy air grips my exposed calves and forearms and makes me shiver. Trying to will my noisy heart to stop, I strain for another sound of her. There is nothing save the quiet, sleeping houses of my neighbors. A peacefulness exudes well-being over the middle class suburban neighborhood. Far away a lone dog barks.
“Where are you?” I shout again.
Abruptly the street, the matching stucco houses, the dog in the distance mutate under my feet. The clean smell of fog and the dusty smell of old asphalt are replaced by urine and mold. Again, I am a seventeen year old runaway in a seedy hotel room in New York City above the Ed Sullivan Theater. Again, I feel the rough nub of overworn carpet under my feet. And again, too slowly, I recognize that the quick tickling over my toes are cockroaches. The clock says 2:13 am. The street outside the window emits variable noises of traffic, cats, and drunks. But odder noises have pushed me from a fitful sleep.
My ear is chasing after a dull fleshy sound accompanied by a breathy grunt, and I cannot tell where these sounds are coming from, but they are regular, rhythmic. Images flip through my mind like flashcards as I scrabble for an explanation. As I come fully awake, it is the sick thud of it that makes me understand: someone is being beaten.
The thudding spawns from the walls, squirmy fish, quickly swimming past me, brushing my eardrums with their slimy tails. The grunts swell up from the floor, their lower tones rolling across my feet in slow waves; I hear the faint skittering as the waves drive the cockroaches in front of them. The smack of flesh on flesh and the grunt of effort that rides along with it fill my dirty room, pinning me to the bed. I grab the phone and call down to the front desk.
“Yeah,” the man answers.
“Somebody’s getting beat up!” I say in my loudest whisper.
“I can’t hear you sugar. You want me to come up?”
“No! Somebody’s getting beat up!”
“I don’t know! I can hear it, but I don’t know where it’s coming from! I don’t know where it’s at!” My throat clamps and my last words squeak past my lips shrill and reedy. “I don’t know where they are!”
“Yeah, okay.” The man on the other end says, and hangs up.
I sit there on the scratchy bedsheets in the dark, my feet cold on the floor, my hands folded in my lap, my heart a hummingbird, listening. Listening for somebody to stop it. But there is nothing except the soft sound of his fist meeting her flesh, as rhythmic as a heartbeat. No one comes. I hear gurgling, and as quickly and as quietly as I can, I get dressed and pack my bag.
2:15 am. While I throw my few toiletries into my duffle and scrape my jeans over my hips, the beating refuses to end. His endurance is super-human, sub-human, non-human. I look up once in what I think is her direction and study the wallpaper that is coming apart at the seams. I marvel at how it curls back in perfect uniform spirals on either side of the fissure. She begins to speak now, no longer silently taking it. She is saying his name over and over in the gaps between blows: “Donroe . . . ”
Her pleading propels me out of the room. At the same time, a woman from across the hall walks out of her door. She has tied her hair up in a scarf to keep it from getting mussed while she slept. It is as fascinating as the wallpaper. Frothy white and luxurious, striking in comparison to the rich black-purple hues of her skin, startlingly clean in comparison to the hallway. In comparison to life.
“Donroe. Donroe. Please. Donroe.”
We listen together to the rhythm of dull thudding and gasped “Donroes” as we stare at each other in silence. Quilted white robe with pearlized buttons and chenille slippers, long flat ashy feet she has, arches fallen. The sounds are coming from the room next to hers. Now I know where they are. I know which room. And I know what he is doing to her. But I do not go back inside and call down and say, “I know which room now! I know which room!” Instead, the woman and I look at each other, and without saying a word she walks back inside her room and I walk back into mine. 2:16 am.
I get my bag, go to the elevator, get in, and it is finally the descent that silences the noise.
The lone dog that is barking in the distance stops. The fog has filled my street, now obscuring the other homes; it glows pink from the streetlight.
“Where are you?” I call again.
I turn around to go back inside and she’s there, swaying under the street lamp in my front yard, barely able to stay on her feet. Her eyes are puffing shut from the pounding; her face is so bloody, so pulpy, I can’t tell what she looks like. Her hair masses out in wiry, spiky, electrocuted curls. She holds her arms up in front of her chest, her blackened and bruised chest, fists together in a distorted prayer. The screaming starts again. The inside of her mouth is shell pink, and it is grimacing open, open, wide open screaming, high-pitched. She is backing away from him, cornered, trapped. I can’t understand the words, but I know what she is saying: “Donroe. Please. Donroe.”
My gut pushes a screech out of my mouth. “No! Stop it! Donroe! Stop!”
My knees buckle into a swift squat. I drop and curl my whole body over itself, and just as quickly I shoot back up, unfolding, leveraging enough force to scream as loud and as hard as I can, arms stiffly vibrating by my side, hands clenched, my entire body a ramrod straight scream. “You’ll kill her! For God’s sake, Donroe! Stop!”
And she vanishes. In her place the little black dog that lives two doors down stops sniffing the opossum and looks up at me, tail wagging. He trots toward me, proud of himself. The little opossum closes his bright pink mouth and stops screaming. He scurries up the bank, disappearing through a hedge. Lights begin to flicker on behind the curtain of fog.
I stand sobbing in my nightgown in the thick pink air. “I’m sorry,” I say twenty-five years later. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”