When Tommy was
a child there was a story about a crooked man. Everything about the man was crooked.
He lived in a crooked house on a crooked road. And so on. That was a long time
ago. Tommy was also crooked, but then things went all crooked in his life, too,
and he and his father left his mother tangled in a heap with a strange man in
the bed in a dilapidated house. It was an old bed, and Tommy would hear it creak
and rock like the boat his father took him on once. The tangled heap and the strange
man were thanks to drugs, and drugs happened after Tommy's mother had started
to be a stripper to keep her weight down.
get this straight," his father had said, and then he got the puddles in his
they came north from the big city with the dilapidated house and the creaky bed
to this city, Tommy and his father did. But his father only stayed three months
because he had a calling. It came on the phone. Leaving is what you do.
Tommy is the crooked man. The avenue that he lives on wobbles uphill at a funny
angle. Tommy climbs this avenue in the late afternoon, passing the fat lady with
her grocery bags. When the old gray house comes into view, it does not stick straight
up. The sidewalk to the porch twists and turns through bushes, and the boards
of the porch seem to have collided together like pieces in a kaleidoscope. Tommy
must be careful climbing the steps to the front door. Like Tommy himself, everything
is just a little off. A little off is what his mother used to say when she didn't
just a little off today, Sweetie. Pass Mama that bottle and that pillbox like
a good boy."
staircase also twists and turns, and the ceiling of Tommy's room in the attic
slants down toward the outer wall. Only someone as small as Tommy could stand
straight up by the window, which Tommy himself cannot do because he is always
bent thanks to being born that way almost thirty years ago. If you put your pennies
and nickels or your pack of gum on the windowsill they might slide off, because
the windowsill tips down like the lip of the man who puts things in bags along
the early evening, Tommy stands in the window, which looks out into a backyard
with trees. Further off, the different avenues are lined with houses, and the
avenues and houses are scrambled all the way down to the lake. People tug their
shadows up the hill like overcoats, and when fog comes in from the lake the people
Tommy walks the different avenues, even when the manager reminds him to go straight
home. The manager has a scar on his cheek like a pirate. On Tommy's own avenue
is the blue house where he saw an old man crying on his porch. And one day on
one of the streets, which go the other way from avenues, Tommy saw a person leave
in an ambulance. He had things coming from his nose, and they slid him in the
back door of the ambulance like when you slide a stick of gum back into the pack.
days Tommy is late, and Aunt Susan scolds and talks about God at dinner as Tommy
bends over his bowl and stirs a wreckage of crackers in his tomato soup, or as
he squirts a wiggly line of ketchup along his hot dog. The scolding makes him
want to go away, which is what you do, and he tries to think where he would go.
is shaped like an egg-an egg on two toothpicks that certainly are about to break.
I'm Humpty Dumpty, Tommy thinks as he stands in front of the mirror before bedtime.
He must clean the toothpaste from the mirror or Aunt Susan will scold about that,
too. I'm Humpty Dumpty in a nest, Tommy thinks, pulling the sheets to his chin
and waiting for sleep. I'm a little Easter Egg, but if I had the right pills I
boy who comes in Tommy's store from the Target store told Tommy about the pills.
The Target boy had to go away from his mother too. As he goes to sleep, Tommy
imagines what he would do with the pills. He would become rubber and pull his
body into any shape that he wants. For instance, if the girl he likes drops her
keys over the fence, he would make his arm long and thin and get her keys back.
Or if she wants to know, standing with Tommy on the sidewalk after work, what
they are saying about her inside, Tommy would stretch his ears out as big as a
satellite dish and listen for her. And if she says she wants a pet, Tommy would
yank himself into the shape of a puppy or turtle. Then she'd smile and put her
hands on him like his mother did.
things happen in his head. The girl works in the part of the store where they
bake things, and in another part Tommy puts what the people buy into bags after
first saying paper or plastic, which he says better than the man with the windowsill
lip. He doesn't know the girl's name. Finally, as he snuggles in his bed, these
thoughts go away, turning and turning like water going down.
as he goes to sleep, a dark person that Tommy heard about in a story, a person
from a far away country where everyone rides camels, comes in the moonlight through
Tommy's window to talk about the sadness. He has cloth wrapped around his head
and a large coat like a woman's dress, and he tells Tommy that he must keep the
sadness inside and not let it hatch. If you let the sadness hatch, people will
sew up your lips.
the story person is there, Tommy says very little. The person sits in the chair
by the window where the moonlight falls on him. After warning Tommy not to let
the sadness hatch, he gets to the good part. The good part is, if you remember
why you are here and do what you are supposed to do, the Great Powers will let
you live in a house where the porch is okay and you will have a room with a straight
ceiling and a bathroom on the same floor. Oh, and the house won't creak in the
dark. Then, seeing the hunger in Tommy's eyes, the person from far away says that,
yes, the girl will talk to him too, just like his mother did before she started
to lose weight. Tommy smiles, and the dark person finishes by explaining to Tommy
what he must remember to do. Then he leaves, dissolving into the moonlight like
brown sugar in cream. Then the moon goes away, and the night is as black as Aunt
awaken Tommy with their squabbling. Hey fuzz butt, this branch is for robins!
No, it's for sparrows! And so on. Tommy laughs to think what they are saying.
Then, with the sun bubbling up beyond the trees and the houses and the lake, Tommy
is a crooked person in his tilted window watching the birds and further away the
whipped-cream clouds that fold themselves together over the lake.
is early in May. The snow is gone, and Tommy wonders if the mama birds are laying
eggs. In the fall they will go south. All down the hill different houses jostle
each other, and maybe they squabble like the birds. But we can't hear how houses
talk. Above the houses, treetops are hands stroking the sky in the wind. Then,
looking down to the ground below his window, Tommy thinks about all the king's
horses and all the king's men.
window is very dirty, and one of the panes is cracked. When Tommy moves back and
forth and looks through the different panes the world outside wiggles. He pretends
that the dust on the panes makes little scenes from stories and that the crack
is a giant hill. He must look through the story scenes to see the real scene outside.
And then there are the tiny squiggles like Tinker Toys that float in his eyes.
There are many things to see through before you can see.
man standing on the next avenue, pausing as he walks his own crooked mile, might
gaze up past the nearest house, past the trees, and through the dusty attic window
where a ghostly shape stands and looks down on him. But the man would not see
from such a distance that Tommy's eyes are lost. Certainly he would not see the
eyes turn inward in grief and rage as Tommy tries to recall the words of the story
person who came at night in the moonlight. Nor would the man on the avenue hear
Tommy howl at his inability to remember what he has come here to do. The howl
would stay in the attic.