Much unexplained activity went on in the DIAL house, sometimes noisily late into the night, which was not the manner of life that people were accustomed to on Grand View Avenue. All sorts of people came in and out. It was a three-story house, in need of paint, and had many windows. It had been owned once by a well-known judge, who’d had children and grandchildren—one of whom, it was said, still occupied the top floor and suffered shell shock in the war. I would sometimes look up at what I fantasized was his window and believe that I saw him, obscured behind a thin curtain. I never saw him outside, though I would not have recognized him if he’d walked up to me and said my name.
Secretaries lived in the DIAL house. Waitresses. Married couples, young and old. Commercial travellers passing through town. Musicians who played the local tonks, and whose loud cars would be parked in front but then disappear in the early hours. Two men lived together there—young men who were window dressers downtown. They would sometimes come and go holding hands.
I understood that my and my mother’s existence bore a resemblance to the life in the DIAL house, more than to life in those shuttered, shrubberied mansions along the street. We were transients. We simply didn’t use that word about ourselves. Though, had we been able to stand outside of our circumstances, we’d have known who we were and had become.
An entire family was also living there. The father drove a cab, which he owned and parked in front. They were Irish—something I knew because my mother spoke to the wife on occasion and had learned about them. She felt that these people—the McDiarmids—were an exception to her severe views about the other DIAL house residents. She respected them because they were Catholic, which she’d been raised up to be, in Illinois, and because they were a family holding together. She saw them as brave.
The McDiarmids had a son and a daughter, and, possibly because they had not been in town long, these two did not go to school. The boy, Niall, was a year older than I was. The girl, Kitty, was younger and stayed indoors most of the time. Niall was outgoing and friendly and sometimes drove the cab when his father was sick—which was often. My mother, as I said, was very clear that I was not to have anything to do with anyone in the DIAL house. The buxom, winking secretaries, the cheap musicians, and the two queer boys—I was to be wary of all of them, as if they carried an illness.
But Niall McDiarmid was tall, sandy-haired, blue-eyed, and polite, and spoke in his happy musical way my mother liked hearing. He seemed to bring her out of her worries and woes. Some quality of being Irish, she believed, caused the world not to bother him too much. It made a widow such as she was accede to a brighter view.
Sometimes Niall McDiarmid would come across the street and perch on our porch steps and tell me about how life was in Ireland. He had gone to Catholic school in a town called Strathfoyle. His family had left there, he said, and come here for better chances. He didn’t think, however, that for his father to be driving a cab instead of working on the docks was much of an improvement. Plus, living where they were, in a rooming house, crammed into small, bad-smelling spaces, when they’d had a whole house paid for where they’d come from—it made no sense to him.
I, of course, had nothing to tell Niall that was as interesting as the things he had already done in almost the same amount of life. I knew only the one other place where we had lived—near where my father was born, in Kansas. And I knew that my parents had never gotten along well, and that I wanted to go to military school but now couldn’t. And, of course, I knew that my father had died—not long before the McDiarmids moved to the DIAL house. Niall asked me whether I’d had to see my father dead—which was how such things happened in Ireland. He’d had to see his grandfather in his coffin, ghastly-looking and wearing a light-gray suit. He would never forget it, he told me. He asked me if my mother was thinking of finding a boyfriend, which he said would not happen in Ireland. Widows stayed widows there, or left town—which was unfair. He asked if I’d talked to the “two fellas,” the window dressers. They were nice, he said. Nothing was wrong with them. He asked if I thought his sister Kitty was pretty (I didn’t), and said that the two of them were “Irish twins,” born nine months apart, to the day.
To all these questions—seated where we were on the brick porch steps—I gave, I know, unsatisfactory answers. I had seen my father in his coffin, but it hadn’t shocked me. I wanted my mother to have a boyfriend, so that she would not pay such close attention to me. I much preferred to hear about life in Strathfoyle, which was mysterious and inviting, a place I felt I would go to, when I went out to live my own life, even though Niall assured me that I would likely not be welcome. There were too many unfriendly English running things. Though if Strathfoyle was in Ireland, I could not see what English people, who lived in another country, had to do with anything.
What I did understand, though, was that I didn’t know much and possibly never would, while Niall McDiarmid knew a world of things that mattered to him and would play a part in his future, rather than what he knew being just an accident of who he was and where he was born.
As my school year went on, Niall’s father—whose name was Gerry—was more and more “under the weather,” which was how Niall put it. My mother, in the meantime, seemed to grow less agreeable about the McDiarmids. She said that Mrs. McDiarmid—Hazel—had hinted that Gerry had a drink problem, and, on another occasion, that he had a “lung condition” from smoking, and that being in the South, where it was damp, made it worse. Arizona would be better.
My mother said that Gerry’s situation was “a burden of the genes,” and I should stay away from him. Though Niall, to my surprise, she maintained a regard for, describing him to me as ambitious and attractive and smart, which I believed was true. And, because my classmates treated me the way they did, having Niall willing to act toward me as his “younger friend”—not his equal but nearly—seemed a good chance for me. An opportunity to model myself on someone with possibilities.
Harry was what Niall called me. As in, “Ain’t that just right, Harry?” “You’re taking the piss now, Harry.” Or, “Go on with ya, Harry.” I didn’t always understand these expressions, but I liked hearing them. My name, in fact, wasn’t Harry, but Henry Harding, after my father, who, my mother said, had been named by his uppity relatives for a famous painter. When I asked Niall why he called me Harry, he laughed and said, “ ’Cause calling you Henry Harding is a bit of a mashup, a word sandwich.” Whereas Niall was the commonest name in Ireland, and carrying it around made people like him and everything work out smoother—which was what you wanted. At that time, my father’s death hung over life inside our house, but it did not come up so much in my dealings with Niall McDiarmid. I knew that Niall’s willingness to befriend me had begun as nothing more than a kindness. Yet I also thought that he liked my mother, who was more than twice his age but looked younger, and that she liked him. More than once, I featured a reckless scene of my mother and me and Niall on a train bound for Chicago or New York or someplace far away from Mississippi, where people would know nothing about us and would not see us as the mismatched parts we were.
My father had died in August. But by October my mother had become accustomed to working at the hotel, and to an extent had stopped considering the world, including the people in the DIAL house, as the sworn enemies of everything dear to her. It may also have been that by then she’d met Larry Scott, who was a professor at the local college and was divorced. I did not know where she’d met him, and he did not take much interest in me.
Niall had now begun to drive his father’s taxi more, and often at night, when his father stayed in. From our front window, I would see the cab, a four-door Mercury of a late-forties vintage, sitting at the curb in front of the DIAL house, its yellow roof light lit and the motor running. The words “Irish Cab” and a phone number were stencilled on the door, and Niall would be in the driver’s seat, reading some paperback book in the dim inside luminance. Occasionally, he’d flick a cigarette or its ash out the side window. If a customer called, the phone rang in the house, and Niall’s mother or his plump sister would come out and down the walk and tell Niall where he was supposed to go, and away he’d drive. Niall had told me that his father had made the decision to accept blacks as customers, as long as they were picked up at a house and transported to another house. He would not pick them up from the street, Niall said. This, of course, was not how things were done in Mississippi. Coloreds had their own cab companies, the way they had their own everything. Niall told me that his father expected trouble—from the whites—but was not afraid. Ireland sported its own troubles, he said. You got noplace by running from them. There were too many blacks who needed to be taken someplace to ignore them.
The day before Halloween, which was to be on Saturday, Niall was sitting in the cab in front of his house when I came home from school. When he saw me, he waved as if he’d been waiting for me. He climbed out and came to the front of our house. And right away I noticed something different. He looked sharper. His hair was shorter and neater, so you saw more of his handsome, smiling face, which seemed scrubbed, since he did not shave yet. He was wearing what I came to know was an Argyle sweater and a snappy pair of brown corduroy trousers and polished shoes. There was also a fragrance about him, something like lemons—similar to the tonic you got at the barber, where I’d gone with my father, and there’d been a life I fit into. My mother cut my hair now and didn’t do a respectable job.
“I picked up a whore in the cab last night.” Niall just started off talking, as if we’d been having this conversation already. For some reason, he was looking straight at me—intense—in a way he’d never done, as if he was trying to make an impression. He seemed charged up but also to be keeping something back. He said “whore” so as to sound like “hure.” I don’t know how I even knew this word, but I did. I knew what hures supposedly did, without knowing the particulars. “She told me interesting things about the higher-ups in this town,” Niall said. “Hilarious things.”
“What are they?” I said. Again, Niall seemed changed. He seemed to me to be twenty years old suddenly—and to want me to be twenty. Only I wasn’t. I was a boy, whose mother cut his hair and who missed his father and woke up at night realizing he’d been crying without knowing it.
“Oh. I’ll have to tell yez,” Niall said. “You’ll bleed laughing and be ragin’ for new stories every time. Which I might just have, because I’ll be seeing her again, if you know what I mean.”
I guessed he meant that he would take this woman in his father’s cab again, and she would tell him more humorous stories about the officials in town—whoever they were.
“I was speaking just before to your mam,” Niall said, which surprised me. He had been speaking to my mother by himself. This meant something. I wasn’t sure what it was. “She says you like the movies. Is this a fact?”
“Yes,” I said. “I do.” And I did. On Saturdays, when my father was there, he would take me downtown to the Prestige, where we’d sit through a whole afternoon slate, taking in horse operas (he called them), short comics and cartoons, sometimes a jungle show, and newsreels from World War Two and Korea. After which we’d walk sore-eyed out into the sun, and I’d feel weak, and also as if I’d somehow done something wrong. I didn’t know what. That whole part of my life ceased when my father died. I hadn’t been to a movie since, and my mother didn’t have time to go and wouldn’t let me go alone.
“Look, then,” Niall said. I could see his pack of “smokes” under the Argyle, in his shirt pocket. “How ’bout we steal the cab tonight and go out to the Holiday. Under sixteen go in free. You’re well under sixteen, if I’m not mistaken. You’ve been old gloomy pants long enough. Your mam thinks it’ll do ya good. I’ll regale you further about the higher-ups and their perverted shenanigans.”
I was sixteen already—by several months—but I looked young for it, which didn’t make me happy. I knew Niall meant that I could lie and sneak in. “It’s a Bob Hope gasser,” he said. “We’ll have ourselves a ball.” Immediately, I wondered if he intended to take the hure with us and what would happen. I’d never been to the 51-Holiday, which was on the outskirts and was a drive-in. Once, at night, my father had driven us past there when a show was playing. “There’s the old passion pit,” he said. “You’ll be right in there someday.” On the big screen, a chariot race was in progress—wild horses and men in gold armor waving swords and shouting—all in complete silence, of course. From the back seat, where I was, these events seemed to be really happening, not in a movie, but as if a whole other exciting existence was out in the darkness, something I could see but not enter.
“I’ll go,” I said. I was surprised that my mother had said I could go and trusted Niall to look after me. This was how growing up happened, I guessed. One fine day you were not who you’d been. She would’ve known nothing about the hure, of course.
“We’ll depart half-seven,” Niall said. He put his hand on my shoulder and gave me a shove back—something he’d never done. “Tidy yourself up a bit,” he said. “You’re going on a hot date with ole Niall tonight.” He had the big smile going.
“Is anyone coming with us?” I said and looked down our street. One of the old ladies from the residences yet to be converted to a rooming house was outside in her pink housecoat, sweeping chinaberries off her sidewalk. She stopped and frowned at Niall and me, then waved her broom at us, as if she was angry. I had no idea why. “You nasty boys. Shoo. Go away,” she shouted at us. “You don’t belong here. Shoo on. Shoo on.”
Niall sneered at her and gave back the double thumbs-down. “Listen to her shite,” he said. “We’re rubbish. But we’ll show her. She’s rubbish.”
I’d never seen Niall sneer. It was strange to see his face turn to it so fast—as if he’d had it ready. I’d seen my mother sneer—at my father—more than once. Possibly an even newer pattern to life was opening, one in which people sneered and others considered me as trash.
“Put on your laughin’ boots, ole Harry,” Niall said and shoved into me again, then started off across the street toward the DIAL house. He seemed suddenly to be in high spirits, as if what the old lady had said to us had made him happy.