Irvin rides the bus and scowls at the old gay man. The old gay man is black and blonde, a bee, an artist. He lavishes his eyes on the window and tells everyone how fresh it is when he breathes. He’s coy with the double chinned women and they flutter like it’s Victorian England. Stick a knife in his side, and Irvin will admit that he hates Pierre. That sonofabitch, he might mutter. That sonofabitch, he might sob.
Will Irvin do anything about Pierre? They will both collect their checks, that’s for sure. In the post office, Irvin sees Pierre. He’s got a straw hat today. Irvin’s got a stomachache. Irvin gropes in his P.O. Box like a tired drunk. Ink and impersonal stamps line up on his Social Security check. Every check is a curt nod. Yes, yes, you old fuck. Keep on trucking.
Pierre, how he stole his blonde hair, that’s what Irvin would like to know. Irvin’s gone stringy and gray on the top of his head. Gray like a little kid in a bad mood might draw rain. Pierre’s curls are all butter. He’s a regular dessert, Pierre. Blonde on black. Blonde on black. Irvin growls as he chews it again and again. Blonde on black. Blonde on black. Like tobacco. Like a benediction.
And they both ride the bus to the bank. There goes Pierre again, with the teller ladies. How can they fall for it? He’s a mayfly; he’s such a fruit. Pierre tells the bank ladies what he will do with the money: build a house for his cat. He tells them about the chess by mail he’s got going with a friend. With a friend. Irvin sneers at the wink and at the concept. The rubble inside him pounds the edges of his gut. Friends, what a concept.
Pierre and Irvin are neighbors. Irvin hears Pierre sometimes play records, and also a slow scrape, Pierre’s slippers on the carpet. It reminds Irvin of the softer bits of his long ago years. He sometimes lies awake thinking what color Pierre’s bathrobe might be. Yellow? Irvin soaks his dentures in whiskey. They turn yellow, yellow as liquor store shadows, yellow as the veins on his hands.
Pierre actually plans to do it. He plans to build a house for his cat. Irvin hopes his cat will pee all over the grass, because Pierre has a magazine lawn. In Irvin’s yard, the neighborhood kids loose their Frisbee’s and baseballs. He has every intention of giving them back, but the little bastards never ask.
Pierre actually starts building the house. The cat house. Irvin can’t believe it. He takes slow drag after slow drag, sneaking peeks from behind his kitchen curtain. Pierre is out there in tastefully starched overalls, maybe vintage, then cleaned up. Irvin smirks, thinking maybe he wore those overalls back when. Then he remembers he never worked in a garage. Then he remembers the rest of his life, and has to empty out a whole new carton of cigarettes.
Obviously, Pierre has no idea how to hold a hammer. Eventually the nail will get somewhere, but at the rate that board’s going on, there is one cat house you can kiss off when the rain comes. Poor Pierre. The thought blows in faint through Irvin’s shutters. Oh my God. Poor Pierre? It sits in his mind, one for the record books, a little orphan on his doorstep with a crooked back.
Poor Pierre? Well, let’s try out Poor Irvin. But a thought like that, Poor Irvin, that’s just flat and past the dead end sign. Such ends are vivid in his head. He knows precisely what slumping down in another slop house is like. He knows the ring of the bourbon bottle, alone, against the panels, christening absolutely shit, while sailing away above, God is just cracking up.
So rather than replay this whole thing again, rather than retreat to the silly television, or circle certain parts of the women in the catalogs, Irvin says what the hell. He gets up. He gets his toolbox. He goes outside.
Hey. Hey you. Listen. Move your ass.
Oh thank you, Mr. Cobb, but really—
You want that thing built?
Then get the hell out of the way.
And wishing desperately he still had the cigarette he left in his kitchen ashtray, Irvin kneels and hammers away. He hammers and starts swearing. Pierre stares with a half smile that’s quiet with panic and neat as grace. Just what I need, thinks Irvin. A gay black man for an angel. Irvin hopes Pierre won’t touch him. His hands shake and he can’t cry, really, so his legs sweat instead. Pierre watches his cat’s new walls appear, then the roof, then the entrance. He cups his face in his cheeks.
At the end of it all, Irvin stands up. He’s shorter than Pierre. The manners Pierre has learned dictate a handshake now, but come on, this is Mr. Cobb. This is Irvin. But Pierre’s life has been one big game of oh why the hell not. With a grin too white for his blonde on black, out comes Pierre’s hand. Irvin squints, scratches an ear, and turns like he learned in the Army. Back for the house, back for house, dear God, before this gets any worse. In the windshield of a car going by, he catches Pierre wave and wave.
Now Pierre has a new house for his cat. Many days, Irvin hides in his kitchen and watches them play.