The Stranger

My story begins in the west elevator of 211 E. 18th Street. I shared a top-floor apartment with Lynea, a travel agent also in her twenties. The six-story building had an elevator on each side of the lobby. On an April Monday after work, a black teenager slipped  behind me as I turned my key to open the lobby door. The guy carried a delivery package and pushed the glass door open when the lock turned.

When we were in the building, I sensed his hesitation. He needed to know if I would walk across the lobby to the left or the right. I went to the left elevator and he followed. I pressed the Up button, the door opened, and we both got on. As soon as the elevator door closed, the two of us were locked in a small, soon to be dangerous space. He backed against the panel of buttons, and in one motion his right hand pulled a switchblade out of nowhere.

Of all nights, where the hell was Gus? The Cuban superintendent usually hung around the lobby to greet tenants as they came home. Since his wife left, Gus liked to make small talk and hint to the single women that he’d like a home-cooked meal.

I stupidly let a stranger follow me into the building. I stupidly did not turn around and walk back on to 18th Street. I never saw the kid outside. In fact, I only saw people walking closer to Second Avenue. Where did he come from? And, where the hell was Gus?

I stood in the elevator with an addict in need of a fix, that much I knew. I read those Daily News stories about women stabbed to death in basements or pushed off rooftops for a few dollars. I may have been stupid, but I had to stay smart enough not to be killed. Gus was probably shooting up in his basement apartment and getting high in his own druggie world.

       — Give me your money.

I looked at his dark skin, bloody-red eyes, white teeth, and determined expression. Werewolf, I thought. His knife looked keenly sharp. I did not want to see my blood on the blade. He pushed the tip into the shoulder strap of my bag and asked for money again.

       — Okay, okay. Just don’t cut my purse.

My hands trembled to slide the zipper open. I haggled for the bag on Orchard Street the day before. I’ve had the bag one day and this punk is looking to cut the strap. My left hand fished around at the bottom. I pulled up my wallet. I fumbled to open the bill section and took out some fives and a few singles.

       — Is that all you got?  He grabbed the wallet.

       — There’s a twenty in there. I’ll find it.

He pushed the wallet back into my hand. I found the twenty dollar bill in the secret compartment. My insurance money for emergencies came right to the fore. In an elevator at knifepoint, I had the unexpected need for twenty dollars. Good advice from my mother, I thought. Always have extra money tucked away, she said, money you only use when absolutely necessary.

       — Here. That’s all I have.

He grabbed the wallet again and opened the change pocket. The nickels and dimes were of no interest. My thoughts scrambled as he pushed the wallet toward me and pressed the Open Door button. As he stepped into the lobby, his left hand pressed all of the buttons and the door closed. I stood alone shaking and wimpering. I felt the upward motion of the car. What next?  My mind tried to sort things out. The car came to a stop somewhere between the lobby and the 6th floor. The door opened and I faced the two men and a woman who called for the elevator.

       — I’ve been robbed.

My hands shook and the loose change began to jump. Maybe from their own fright, nickels and dimes fell to the floor.  One of the men walked me out of the elevator. They talked in concerned voices and took me to their apartment. I didn’t know them, never saw them before. The scenes were blurry, but I knew that the kid was gone and I was mostly okay.

       — I’m calling the police. Would you like a drink?

       — Yes. Yes, I would. I was on my way up when a kid got in the elevator. I thought he was making a delivery.

I sat on the living room couch and starred back over the last few minutes. Fright and surprise began to creep in as an afterthought. Most of all, surprise that I came away unharmed.

      — You better let Gus know, too.

* * *

 

 

Checkers

I want tell you about a summer pasttime that remains as clear and as sharp as a Kodak moment. If I had a picture of George Korasi sitting opposite me at the checkerboard, the  image would tell the story of friendship and competition. You would see a lanky boy wearing leather sandals and lederhosen with a white tee shirt. I would be wearing shorts, some kind of jersey, and sneakers. We sat on my porch with our feet on the last of seven steps above the sidewalk. George and I lived in side-by-side, 3-family houses on W. Runyon Street in Newark.

From the end of June until the day after Labor Day when the new school year began, I had to fill endless hours with something. The coolness of an early summer morning was the best time to play checkers. Most mornings had a calm, just awakened, starting to stretch kind of feel. The kids on the block slept late, but 13-year-old year George, a Hungarian refugee, was up early and always came looking for me.

I heard George open the door in the back and start down the narrow, one-car wide driveway that separated our houses. His boney legs lurched side to side. His arms stretched out like airplane wings trying to balance a body ready to crash. He exhaled a gurgle of happiness when he reached the sidewalk.

   — Hi, Georgie. I have the checkers and the board. You ready to play?

I yelled down from the space we called a porch. My mother had a wooden Adironack chair in the corner aside from the vestibule doors. The space wasn’t a real porch, not like my grandmother’s in Scranton with a long railing, a gilder, and a pull-down awning that kept out the sun. We called it a porch anyway and just pretended.

George gripped the bannister with his left hand and lifted one leg at a time over the concrete slab cemented into the sidewalk. The next six steps took a while, and I’ll not ask for a Kodak snapshot of the struggle. George was born with cerebral palsy and a joyful spirit. He kept his eyes on me waiting at the top. One foot dropped on to the first step, and he torqued his body upward a step at a time. As he climbed, he laughed a honking sound. He grinned when he reached the top step and saliva slipped from both sides of his mouth. High off the ground, George folded his legs as if he were a giraffe and dropped on to the landing.

Every checkers morning, George climbed those steps, and I waited for him to reach the checkerboard. As he climbed what seemed to be Everest in Newark, I wondered. I wondered if George was unhappy with his body. Did he know why Peter, his brother, had a regular one? How did George ask questions without using words?  I understood his sounds, but we were only playing checkers. When he dreamed, did he have legs that ran with a horse’s gait? Did he want to kiss a girl? I did not know, I only wondered.

     — Your move, Georgie, and I’m gonna beat you this time.

George let out a laugh and extended the shakey pointer finger of his right hand. He moved a black checker diagonally to an empty space.  

* * * *

 

A Summer’s Rain

A Summer’s Rain

“We’ve got to hurry,” said Grandpa Jake, “a storm’s coming.  Look at those clouds.”  He pointed skyward  at the fast-moving, changing weather.  A summer storm would soon drench the streets and us.

Jake was sent to Hyde Park on the monthly errand to pay the electric, gas, and water bills. Grandma told him to buy oranges, too.  As we were leaving the house, she put money in my pocket for paper dolls and an ice cream cone.  Grandpa and I quickly passed Mike’s Barber Shop, Abe Liss’s Flower Shop, and McCrory’s where I had spent my pennies. Jakie cut short the small talk with people he knew.

Taking my hand in his rough palm, he wrapped his fingers around mine and guided me along the sidewalk. We took the shortcut leading down and away from Main Avenue. From those steps a path skirted by neighborhood houses with front porches and gardens protected by white picket fences. The lots sat high and flat above Luzerne Street traffic.

“Grandpa, when I get home I want to cut out my paper dolls.”  My skinny legs wanted to run but grandpa walked slowly in his Sunday shoes.

      We started across a wide field that had enough space for a garbage dump. The outer path was worn by footsteps, bicycle tires, and wagon wheels. A mound of rubbish filled the center of the field — rusty bed springs, tires, broken toys, cabinets, and old mattresses. Sheets of newspapers caught the wind and became airborne. Dogs, cats, and rats ripped open bags of kitchen garbage and feasted.

      On Saturdays a man burned the trash. He lit small fires and stirred the flames with a wooden pole. Sometimes I would go to the edge of the field to watch. I especially liked the flame colors as the daylight dimmed. Flickers of fire and charred bits eventually melted to mounds to red and black embers. Pockets of light gave the dump a magical glow.

      “Hurry up,” said Jake, “the clouds are getting darker.” Jake’s feet didn’t have the hurry of his youth. I easily kept the pace and kept quiet. The wind blew through his unbuttoned suit jacket and whipped at my overalls. Raindrops began to fall — small and gently at first.

     “Suzie, you go on ahead. I’ve got something I have to do.  Alone.  Just go on,” said Grandpa in a shooing voice.

     Walking along the path was fine. I could move closer to the trash and take a better look. I might see something like a good doll and come back for it later. Pushing hair out of my eyes, I turned to look back. Grandpa Jake put the bag of oranges on the ground. His trousers were at his knees. He squatted as raindrops rolled down his back.

      The wind rushed colder air over the field. Dark clouds raced each other to deliver splats of rain to the tops of my red sandals. “Hurry, Grandpa. The lightning’s getting closer.”

      Thunder roared.  My mother always said the booming sounds came from St. Peter rolling the barrels. Beer barrels, I guessed.

      Jake looked around for a piece of loose paper to wipe his soiled part. He fumbled with his trousers and tightened his belt. Raindrops speckled the brown paper bag holding the oranges. Small drops at first, then larger. The rain softened the paper as drops blended into larger and larger dark brown spots.  Jake took shuffle steps toward me, tucking in his shirt at the same time. He was mumbling to himself and held the bag the same way Grandma gripped a chicken’s neck before she wrung it on a Saturday afternoon.

     The storm soaked the paper and split the bag. Oranges rolled like balls on a pool table. They scattered across the dirt picking up bits of grit that stuck to their skin.

     “Gramps, I’m getting soaked,” I complained as I walked back in his direction. “My paper dolls will be ruined.”  We bent to pick up the oranges.

      Grandpa Jake took off his jacket and folded it into a shape round enough to hold the fruit. The rain pelted us, and drops splattered mud on my white socks. My blouse and pants stuck to my skin. It took a while, but all the dirty oranges were gathered into the suit jacket. The bag with my paper dolls went on top. With heads bowed, we walked into the wind. I peeked after every few steps to see how close we were to the side gate.  A few more houses, and then the only two people crossing the dump would be out of the rain.

      “Don’t tell what happened on the field,” Grandpa whispered as he unhooked the gate latch.  “It was the rain that made us late.”

 ***

Mrs. Bell

Mrs. Bell 

As a kid, I had an angry father who seemed to dislike some people. He made remarks about kikes, wops, spics, and colored.  I didn’t understand his belligerence but felt it came from his parents and the Great Depression.  It wasn’t my fault that grandma made him go to work instead of college, which his high school principal offered to fund. Maybe it was standing in the breadlines on the Bowery or the drudgery of shift work for Westinghouse in Newark. Most of my childhood I wore a bull’s–eye, and he shot his anger straight at me.

* * *

“Where were you?” he asked in that ready-for-an-argument tone when I came home close to suppertime. I never went far from my street, and he usually didn’t ask questions.  To answer his question, I will tell you a story.

On sticky August afternoons when Newark’s air was heavy with humidity, Mrs. Bell sat on her front porch. Her weight filled a flowered sleeveless cotton dress. She wrapped her spongy arms across a broad jelly belly. Sometimes she fanned herself with a folded newspaper and at other times with a Japanese paper fan. Without using an ounce of energy, she watched traffic and neighbors go up and down Runyon Street. Her swollen ankles were set wide apart in house slippers. She seemed to like the little breezes that danced up the steps and found their way under her dress, between her legs, and into the dark, warm spaces she dared not fan.

“Honey, come on up here and talk to me,” she said, using a sweet voice. Sometimes Mrs. Bell scolded me when I made a screeching roller-skate turn in her precious driveway. “Stop that noise! Go skate someplace else! I have a headache!”

I pretended not to hear and had almost reached Johnson Avenue when she called again. I wanted to look for Bobbie Bufanio or any other kid who might be on the street. The afternoon was hot, and I was tired of reading. I spent hours every day of my fourth grade summer playing checkers and reading. George, the boy with cerebral palsy who lived on the second floor next door, smiled and garbled sounds I barely understood. I knew he loved playing checkers, but reading and playing checkers on every summer day had become absolutely boring.

Mrs. Bell broke into my search for some neighborhood kids. If only a fire truck would come to the corner, a fireman might open the hydrant in front of Ziegler’s grocery. An open hydrant always brought kids running into the streets. We would jump into the spray wearing our regular clothes, even our shoes. Sometimes I’d undress to my underwear and prance in the cold water. Abram would even let his dog Measles join the fun.

“What the heck,” I said to myself after hearing Mrs. Bell’s second call, “I’ll look for Bobbie later.”

I went up the steps and plopped into the chair next to hers. Mrs. Bell had curly white hair cut short and combed back from her face, and large breasts that heaved up and down as she sucked in air. Mrs. Bell didn’t have a husband, only a son named Sanford. Someone said her husband had a jewelry store and had died in a bus accident.

Mrs. Bell liked to wear jewelry. Maybe she has the stuff from her husband’s store. Gold rings and rings with pretty stones circled her chubby fingers. White and red plastic bracelets flashed colorful streaks as she fanned. As she exhaled, her breath smelled of onions. The air entered quietly but pushed out through her mouth in a noisy rush. I sat way back in the chair, leaning away from the onion smell and wondering if Sanford might be home. Just sitting on her porch put me that much closer to him.

Sanford worked as a cameraman for CBS Television in New York City. I always made sure I was around when he washed his car on Saturdays. More than anything, I wanted him to make me a television star.  From my backyard, two houses up the street, I’d twirl over the metal pipe cemented into the concrete leading to our cellar. I’d twirl and belt out Ethel Merman show tunes in Sanford’s direction. “There’s No Business like Show Business” was my favorite. Sanford just kept washing his car and listening to a Yankees game on the radio.

“How’d you like to do some work for me?” Mrs. Bell asked.  “I’ll give you fifty cents if you straighten out my jewelry and my sewing drawers. Would you like to do that for me, honey?”

I thought about the money. With fifty cents I could actually buy the September issue of Photoplay magazine. Without money I’d hang out at Moe’s store and look at the magazine one page at a time. Moe owned the store on Hillisde Avenue, and lived in the back with his family. He sold magazines, newspapers, ice cream, candy, and gum. He liked kids and never seemed to mind me just looking at the magazines.

A more serious thought interrupted my fantasy.  I thought about my father and what he would say if I did anything for Mrs. Bell. It was okay if I walked little kids to school and baby-sat and took that money, but my father didn’t like Jewish people. He said they were stingy and always wanted something for nothing. Mrs. Bell was Jewish, and I didn’t know whether she was stingy or not.

“Okay,  I’ll help with your drawers,” I agreed, thinking about movie stars and Sanford. Maybe my father wouldn’t ask any questions.

I had barely finished agreeing when she put both hands on the arms of the chair and began to rise like a whale heaving up from a calm sea. Lacking nature’s grace, she stood a second to balance her weight and took flat, heavy steps toward the foyer door. When we were inside, she opened the inner door, and we entered a cooler, darker space.

I blinked to adjust my eyes to the dim hallway that led to her rooms. Mrs. Bell’s flat smelled of fried bologna, just as my mother’s kitchen did sometimes. We walked through the parlor and a middle room. I glanced around for signs of Sanford but didn’t see him. Mrs. Bell went into a large room on the right, her bedroom.

“Come on in. I’ll show you what I want.”

Sunlight beaming through the back window made slashes across her bed. The red spread glowed with rows of fire. She put her weight down at the foot of the bed and reached to open the wide dresser drawer with both hands. Slowly pulling it forward, she revealed a drawer that sparkled with rhinestones – animal and flower pins, circles, beaded necklaces, rings, earrings, and bracelets – a jumbled treasure of beautiful, colorful things. My mother had a pearl necklace and a dragonfly pin with colored stones, but they didn’t compare to Mrs. Bell’s treasures.

“There it is,” she said, holding her palm up to the jumble. She picked up a glass perfume bottle from a collection on the dresser, took out the stopper, and dabbed Crepe de Chine behind each ear and on each wrist. The floor fan combined the aromas of fried bologna and perfume. My senses began to swirl, and I had a job to do.

“You put the rings with the rings, the pins with the pins, okay? You do that, and then we’ll look at the sewing drawer. What you don’t finish today, you’ll do tomorrow. Can you come back tomorrow?”

“Yes, I can do that,” I said with eyes that had just caught sight of one of King Solomon’s mines and the September issue of Photoplay magazine.

Pulling two pillows behind her head and shoulders, Mrs. Bell stretched out long on the bed, holding her fan. With one arm she fanned her face, and her other arm rested across her chest. She pulled her legs close together, and an earthy sweetness drifted through the room.

“I want you to put the jewelry into the boxes, and, if there aren’t enough boxes, put the pieces together nicely into the compartments.  Just make the drawer look pretty.” Her soft voice seemed to drift toward a nap.  I moved the jewelry pieces here and there – rings with rings, pins with pins. I had the drawer pretty much together and thought I had better go home. No one knew where I was. If my mother looked out, she wouldn’t see me on the porch or on the sidewalk. She’d start to worry, and I’d be in trouble. And, I still had to go to Moe’s for the newspaper.

“Mrs. Bell, I better go now. I did the work, and I’ll be back tomorrow.” Her eyes were closed and she let soft puffs of air pass between her lips. She didn’t know I went home with a dab of Emeraude behind my ears.

* * *

“Where were you?” demanded my father from his place at the kitchen table. My mother was quietly peeling potatoes at the sink, getting ready for supper. He had the graveyard shift this week and would go to sleep after we ate. I knew he disliked Mrs. Bell. If I lied, he would hit me. If I told the truth, I could be punished for his stupidity.

“Out. I went to look for some kids. Then I went to talk to Mrs. Bell.”

“What’d you talk about?”

“Nothing much. She asked me to help straighten out her jewelry and sewing drawers. Said she’d give me fifty cents.”

“What? You were working for that Jew?” His white face flushed red, and blue veins popped on his neck.

“It wasn’t hard work, just putting rings and things together in her jewelry drawer.”

“She pay you?”

“No, I’m going tomorrow to do her sewing drawer.”

“The hell you are! You’re not going to work for some Jew lady who won’t pay you anything.”

“Yes, she will. She said so.”

“Shut up! I said she won’t!” He pointed his finger in my face, and his face took on a rage of red – redder than Mrs. Bell’s bedspread.  “You’re not going there again.”

My eyes burned hot with tears. “Ma, make him change his mind,” I pleaded. “She will pay me. It’s not hard work.”

“Your father doesn’t want you to go there anymore. You have to listen to him.”

I ran to my bedroom and threw myself across the bed. Tears rolled down my cheeks and soaked the pillow. I sobbed and sobbed.

“He’s stupid!  Just plain stupid!” I cried out between wails. I wouldn’t have a Photoplay of my own. There wouldn’t be a chance to actually meet Sanford Bell in person. There wouldn’t be any more sorting jewelry in Mrs. Bell’s bedroom.

“Why is he my father?” I yelled, but softly enough that no one would hear. “I want a better one than him.”

* * *