For Crying Out Loud
In the fall of 1927 fans roared as Babe Ruth set an all-time record for baseball when he sent home his sixtieth run of a 154-game stretch. Frederich was a fan of the Babe but he hadn’t gambled for 60.
“You owe me, Skinny,” Schwartz chuckled, showing gapped teeth.
“Schwartz, you need a bath,” Frederich quipped, sniffing and pinching down the corners of his mouth
Frederich paid off Schwartz in Indian head nickels he had stored in a paper bag under his mattress, an ongoing savings account these past ten years. He dug out twenty that morning having had a premonition he was going to lose the bet. He’d had a dream. Frederich was a believer in dreams.
Frederich pulled the cord to buzz his stop before he continued. “Schwartz, you’re toupee is walking clean off your head. Next the lice, they nest in your nose.”
Schwartz’s belly jiggled with delight at the remark, and even Frederich managed a wan smile before he treaded the three steps down off the bus to the street.
“See ya later,” Schwartz yelled, but his words lay caught between the clamped shut doors.
Fog rose up from the sidewalk, and a brittle breeze fanned an icebox of sleet. Frederich shivered, pulling at the lapels of his jacket, crisscrossing them under his chin. The steady mist glistened under the street lamps. Chills started Frederich’s teeth chattering as the dampness seeped into his clothes. With his left hand holding fast the lapels of his coat, he felt deep into a pocket with his right. Just feeling the slim necked bottle offered him a measure of warmth. He did not give into temptation, but waited out his journey to the brownstone where he lived. Inside the front door he uncapped the small soldier, raised it quickly to his lips and swallowed deep into his body, warming his insides to his toes. He leaned against the row of mailboxes inset in the foyer wall. A drug-induced metamorphosis engulfed his brain. Anger overtook him. He could not define its source, any more than he could control its intensity. His mind, buried in deep fog, struggled. Failed. Looking around him, in that tiny passageway lined on either side with golden grates of mail, he began to shiver. Not with fear, but with rage. Rage irrational and relentless both weighed him down; buoyed him up; gave him meaning.
Frederich eyed the empty soldier with suspicion. “You are no friend of mine,” he whispered. “You have forsaken my trust.” A grimace lined Frederich’s mouth marking a straight line from cheekbone to cheekbone. “Coward!” He admonished the soldier, holding it at arm’s length, staring at it with knit brows and all the animosity his facial features could conjure.
Friedrich staggered, hiccupped. Life had dealt him a bad deck that was for sure. A wife dead of some female thing had left him with two daughters to raise. Frederich shook his head. “What was the matter with that woman, she could give me only girls?” If he’d had boys to take care of him, he wouldn’t have to marry the widow, Selma, and put up with her two kids.
“Bye, Bye, Birdie”
“Thought you were goin’ to the movies with Alice tonight,” I said, watching my sister Mary pencil in deep red lips, thick with lipstick, to a perfect bow.
“Hans called,” Mary said. She began yanking her brush through mouse brown hair, bobbed to the style of the times—her face an iron shield of impatience.
I sat on her bed, swinging my legs. “She’ll cry all night,” I said.
“So what should I do? Pass up a date with Hans for pushing a wheelchair three blocks to the movies?”
“You’re rotten, Mary. You promised,” I pleaded.
I stared at my sister through pools of unshed tears. I was hurt, but her mouth was set as if she had received a personal affront. Mary returned my manner with an icy stare, and frosted out of the room.
In a moment she was back. “Tell Alice I’m sorry.” she said in a soft voice.
“Tell her your…” I began. But Mary was gone.
I popped past Mrs. Fichter and darted to the girl sitting across the tiny parlor.
Alice giggled at my appearance, and my imitation of Groucho Marx. I wiggled an imaginary cigar while my eyebrows jumped up and down on my forehead. “How about a movie, kid?”
“Mary’s taking me, “Alice replied, “but you come too, Kitty.”
“Uh, well, Mary’s been detained. It’s you an’ me, kid, if ya know what I mean,” I mimicked with eyebrows raised, and made my eyes roll around like marbles.
I averted my eyes from Alice’s wasted legs, hanging limp from the seat of the wheelchair. I concentrated on her eyes, kibitzing to make her laugh. Alice had been a pretty girl once, before the accident that left her crippled for life. Now, she looked older than her eighteen years. Shriveled. Even her once vibrant auburn hair was limp, and her blue eyes had lost their sparkle. But tonight, some of the light that had once shone from her former spirit seeped through and I was glad she’d taken the chance.
The Fichter’s were sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee when I wheeled in Alice. “Long movie?” Mrs. Fichter asked, a smile spreading like sunrise across her face.
“We stopped for a sundae,” Alice said. “Black and white.
“You know,” I explained, “chocolate and marshmallow.”
“Did you have enough money?” Mrs. Fichter worried aloud. She hadn’t supplied Alice with more than enough for the movie.
“Kitty’s friend, Willy, bought it for us. He told us his dad gives him all kinds of money.”
“Aw, his dad’s a cabbie. Willy swipes tips,” I told them. “Well, I gotta get goin’.”
Mrs. Fichter walked me to the door. “Will you be all right?” she asked sounding apprehensive.
“Sure,” I replied.
The street lights cast ominous shadows across steaming sidewalks. Not a breeze fluttered in the still night heat. It was August in Brooklyn; the humidity raced the temperature for first place. Yellow lighted windows made grotesque images of tenants, who with pillows and mattresses, were draped like laundry on the fire escape landings. Fans whirred from basement pool halls, batting dead air, and live flies. I shivered despite the oppressing heat. “Let him be out like always,” I prayed, looking about at formless shapes, lurking everywhere.
Walking up the steps of the old brownstone was a nightmare in slow motion with me pausing nervously at each step. I looked about, blinking in the darkness before turning the key in the latch.
I guess I was a little scared, but I used to feel so bad about it. Mary and Alice had been such close friends before the accident that glued Alice to a wheelchair. After Mary dropped her Alice had nobody. I couldn’t let my sister hurt her again even if my dad did say I couldn’t go to the movies at night. I figured, “How will he ever know? He’s never home, and I’m always there all alone.” So I took Alice to the movies.
When I came in the place was dark, and he was standing behind the door in his long johns, and oh, he started punching me. We used to wear those combs in the back of our hair? He split the one I was wearing in three pieces, and he kept punching me and punching me. I was screaming but he would not stop. He knocked me down on the floor. I scooted back into the bedroom, and crawled under the bed. He kicked me until he couldn’t reach me. Then he lay in my bed because he couldn’t get to me anymore. He passed out. I was fourteen.
I went to school the next day; I was in the eighth grade. I showed everybody my black and blue marks. Even my face was black and blue. I was black and blue from top to bottom. The kids oohed and ahhed.
Alice lived three doors from us. When I called the next day she was cryin’. Her mother heard me screamin’, and she bawled Alice out for lettin’ me take her to the movies. She felt bad because she thought it was her daughter’s fault, you know. I said, “It wasn’t her fault. I didn’t have to go, but I was all alone, and she was all alone, so I figured, ‘What the heck!’”
He never came home early. Never.
It was payday. The machines at Kaiser Industrial stopped abruptly at six p.m. “ Meet ya at the Roller Rink, Kitty?” Nellie yelled over the scuffling feet headed for coats, or the door.
“Funny, how you never seem in a hurry to leave on payday,” my co-worker Willy teased. He walked the same blocks home I walked. He lived with his folks in the apartment below my folks’ and harbored a long-term crush on me. I stuck my nose in the air. “Go on,” I said. But Willy hung back, dusting the power machine next to mine lightly with his hand.
“I’ll give ya a quarter if you’ll meet me some place,” he said, staring at his polished brown oxfords. My hands began to sweat. My father would be waiting, tapping his foot, at the corner. Willy knew. My pay envelope grew damp in my hand. “Meet me at the Roller Rink?” I asked, shame and anxiety smarting my eyes.
“Forget it,” Willy said, and turned to leave.
“I’ll go with you after if you’ll pay my way,” I offered.
Willy stopped. Without turning around he shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe,” he replied, and was out the door. I’d hurt his feelings, I knew. He’d meet me at the rink and pay my way, I knew that too.
I looked about; a room of sewing machines stood dormant, asleep. Minutes ago they were chattering like cackling hens, and spewing cloth yards per minute. Getting up heavily I threw my coat on aching shoulders, sighed deeply and left the building.
The evening was crisp. It weaved between chill and cold as the sun faded deeper out of range. I scrunched my thin coat tightly to my neck. It was going to be a frosty night.
There he was— part of the pavement, cemented to the sidewalk like the fire hydrant, except that he was only visible on payday. Father! What mixed emotions of dread and loathing the sight of him produced in my thoughts. “Don’t worry, Mom,” my heart whispered, “he can’t hurt me anymore.”
With hands stuffed deep in my pockets I plodded to the corner where a frail figure waited, dressed in black overcoat and brimmed hat. We exchanged no greeting. We avoided eye contact. He held out his hand; I handed over the wrinkled, white envelope. From it he extracted fifteen cents, dropped the coins in my outstretched palm and walked stiffly away, leaving me alone on the corner. All that remained of him was the odor of Aspergum, bitter and medicinal.
I stared at my palm as I did every Friday at this time. The same grimace-like grin played up my lips as I mumbled the same words to a day as gray as all the others: “Fifty hours a week in a sweat shop.” My shoes were stuffed with cardboard to cover the holes. My stockings were mended many times over. My coat was threadbare. I was fifteen years old.