Friday, December 4, 2009


It’s a stunning autumn day. Unfortunately, on Fifth Street, there are no trees that have turned electric yellow or bright orange, or even dull brown. On Fifth there is only grey concrete and black asphalt.

I come to a gate that is wrapped with a padlock and chain. The large linked chain looks as if it could haul the anchor of the Queen Elizabeth. Signs are wired haphazardly to the rusting fence, tacked to a battered door, nailed to a post that holds up a porch that angles dangerously. The porch looks like it is a kilo from collapse.

“Beware of Dog,” “Beware of Dog.” “Beware of Dog.”

The door, and any hope of knocking, lies across a wasteland, a concrete moat of cold, urban nothingness.

I call Mr. Murphy on my cell phone.

“It’s D, the Visiting Nurse. I’m at the gate.”

“Jimmy will come an get you.”

“Where’s the dog?”.

“There ain’t no dog.”

Jimmy opens the door to the house and squints into the daylight. He’s wearing a leather jacket and black pants. His frame is stick-like, and he walks loosely, like his joints are barely connected. A key jangles from his right hand and he reaches for the lock, inserts the key, and I watch the lock pop apart. Jimmy holds the gate, looks down Fifth Street, and I walk through into this middle earth, a limbo that exists between the seen and the unseen. Jimmy starts locking the padlock behind me.

“You lock it behind you?” I ask.

“Yeah. It’s bad out here.”

I check the height of the fence and figure I can get over it if I have to. This is feeling a little too weird already, and I am still only in this concrete limbo. I don’t mind locking a door behind me, if the latch is on the inside, the key accessible. But Jimmy’s holding the keys. And who’s Jimmy? And look at the size of that chain.

“He’s upstairs,” Jimmy says to the chain.

“Are you his son?”

“Nah, I just live here, help him out.”

Mr. Murphy lives in a smoke stained room on the second floor. The stairs creak as I climb. The walls are laced with an assortment of cracks and holes. Lathe is exposed like bones in an x-ray, and plaster dust crunches under my feet. The house smells of cheap incense and fuel oil.

He sits on the edge of his bed as I do my various assessments. A picture of him as a young GI hangs at the head of the bed. Across the room there is a framed portrait of Martin Luther King. Otherwise the walls are bare. A sheet covers the window, and filters the incoming light, giving the room a sepia wash. When we get to the part about Mr. Murphy’s medications, he pulls a battered attaché case from beneath the bed, flops it on the crumpled red blanket, and begins to scroll through the tumbler of numbers near the handle. He lines up the correct combination of digits and the lid pops open. Inside, rolling around, are an assortment of brown prescription bottles.

“You keep all your pills locked up?”

“Got to.”

Mr. Murphy begins to show me all his medications, as I check them against the hospital paperwork.

“Jimmy,” Mr. Murphy yells, and I jump.

Jimmy comes to the door, and he looks sheepish now, smaller and thinner than he did in the light of day.

“Not all my pills are here.”

“I don’t know nothing about that.”

Mr. Murphy is scattering the bottles, picking them up, shaking each one, listening to the various rattles as if he can identify them by the noise they make.

“I’m going to kill the motherfucker that took my pills.”

I’m thinking now about the lock on the gate, the key, the height of the fence, and about Jimmy, who may or may not may have reason to worry, My thoughts are careening along like protons in a particle accelerator. They consist of questions that are not answered in the hospital referral. They go something like this:

1. Who is Mr. Murphy, really?
2. Has Jimmy’s been picking the lock?
3. Does Mr. Murphy’s have a gun?
4. Does Jimmy’s have a legitimate reason to worry?
5. If he does, then I certainly do, because I am in between Mr. Murphy and skinny Jimmy.
6. People get shot in this neighborhood.

The argument continues, heatedly, and I am interjecting at every expletive, which is to say, very often.

“I need to go now Mr. Murphy. Jimmy I need you to open the gate for me."

It seems I am being ignored, but then I see clearly how frightened Jimmy seems. He’s not really hearing me. Mr. Murphy pokes around again in his attaché case.

“They all ain’t in here.”

“If you don’t let me out now I’m going to call 911.”

“Where the fuck are the rest of my pills?”

I reach into my pocket and pull out my cell phone.

Jimmy looks at me, at Mr. Murphy, then plunges his hand into his pocket, and turns toward the stairs.

“Someone will call you tomorrow Mr. Murphy. Someone from the Visiting Nurses.”

“That motherfucker stole my pills.”

“Uh, maybe you should call the cops.”


Jimmy opens the lock and pulls at the gate. He is looking down at the cracks in the concrete, and I am at a loss for words. It’s a relief to be across that concrete moat, on the other side of the fence and into the openness of Fifth Street. I start to say something and stumble over my words.

“It’s cool,” Jimmy says as he locks himself in.

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