This excerpt introduces the man who will become immortal, George Arnold, the last horseman. Through audio tapes, George explains the US, and more specifically Baltimore, four worlds ago. You are about to encounter a sea of voices trying to explain his immortality. You will find it is even more difficult to accept it.
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT GEORGIE?
It’s me, George Arnold, sports fans. This is just a tape with vital statistics and biographical background which Hilda, I gotta explain Hilda. . . . I could never really do that, but gotta try anyway . . . but later. Anyway she wants this included. There is a dozen tapes already but my life is still not up to date. But my true love says I’ve gotta go back and tell you some background before I begin disclosing all the errors I’ve made since I walked away from The Johns Hopkins University so many moons ago. No, forget moons. That’s not an appropriate measurement.Make it at least three worlds ago. Yeah. Three worlds is getting pretty close.So I may as well begin at the very beginning, right? Bet your ass.
In the beginning . . . .Drum roll . . . .All of us come on this earth covered in blood and slime, blind, alone and screaming our indignation. During our years on this planet we’re trained, even help to train others, to stop seeing what is not familiar.We are carefully trained how to numb our sense of social justice and our natural love for our fellow man.
All this allows us whether or not we want to, leave our earth blind, terrified, alone and screaming our indignation . . . Amen.
I was born February 22, l918, which is the last year of the War To End All War. So, from the day of my birth, war and I have been buddies, twins even. That war, which was called TheWar for a few years, was also fought to save the world for democracy. Ten million men, more or less died, but none of their governments have ever officially admitted just exactly how many of their male citizens they allowed. . . .Shit, encouraged to be slaughtered. Twice that many were maimed, wounded, driven mad, or just partially butchered.
When it was over, there was great homage paid to the concept of peace without victory, a forgiving and binding up of each nation’s wounds, a general caring for all its victims. That lasted about two days. Had it lasted eighteen months there is no doubt that my life would have been entirely different, perhaps even productive.
My birthplace was Baltimore, which in l918 wasn’t a city. Just globs of neighborhoods clustered about a harbor which was slowly silting up, threatening to end maritime commerce. Like all populated areas at that time, Baltimore’s roots were segregation. Racial came first.
Blacks lived on an island whose supports were three open air markets and the central police station. They lived in houses they mainly rented, which on the whole, were over a century old. I was told all Blacks were happy because they didn’t have any responsibilities, nothing worth stealing and loved living together, getting blind drunk and . . . . Well . . . . Of course I believed it.
The second segregating pod was wealth. The rich lived in Gillford or Roland Park. Anyone with a car was allowed to drive through, admire and perhaps even be awed by the size and beauty of their mansions.
However, the major force of segregation was nationality. Languages forged strong chains. My neighborhood had two names. First it was Laurieville. Except for my family and a few others, all inhabitants were German. Predominantly North German, mainly first and second generation and for the most part, Protestant. My family is Polish.Well, Mom’s side is. And we were there before the Catholic Non-Germans moved in so they had no choice but to let us stay. Here and there were a few South Germans. Since they were Catholics, they were mostly shunned or ignored. Dad use to claim the difference between the two was, ‘The Southerners laughed a lot and sometimes they even directed it at themselves. North Germans were a dour lot who blamed their woes on others because North Germans are all positive they are perfect.’ So said my father.
To live in Laurieville a person also had to have enough money to buy his lot and be able to prove that at least one of his parents was of German extraction. The building association had a simple little test . . .If you could read, German you were in.
It was about a mile and a half square. Major boundaries were three city parks, which somehow I think are still there, more or less, and a long low ridge plastered with some scruffy woods, which hid old shacks where the unemployed squatted for as long as homeowners let them. Periodically the good hard working bastards demanded that the police run them out, burn the shacks and enforce the law.They were obeyed, but in six months the squatters were all back.
Laurieville disappeared at least off the official city maps in 1926, swallowed, annexed would be more appropriate, by Hamilton. Hamilton at that time was about ten times the size of Laurieville and very multi-cultured. The Germans finally admitted, after a long siege, that isolation could not save a culture. They surrendered, but since they were Germans, it took twice as long as normal. By the end of the 30's no one, not even the old market men, called it anything but Hamilton. And, oh yeah, in 1928 they were forced to drop the nationalistic qualification, so from then on anyone could move in.That was when the original garden farmers and market men divided up their small farms, sold them off as building lots and got enough money to move to the country.
For me the end of Laurieville centered around our telephone. When we first got our number, it was 763. Had to pick it up and wait for a lady to ask for the number you wanted to call. Then it went to 763-J and then 7263-J and somewhere between the last two, Laurieville ceased to exist. So let’s blame the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company for doing in my first neighborhood. They erased it just like many other mistakes they made later.
Erased or not, the neighborhood I grew up in was about thirty blocks square and it only had two types of houses . . .Look alike and others. The largest group was built by Sears & Roebuck whose houses came in three styles. There was the one floor bungalow, which had an attic the owner could improve into two extra bedrooms. Then there were the two story bungalows, different because it had three bedrooms finished on the second floor. And last there was the estate house which was ‘Bigger and Better.’Sears like to exaggerate. Don’t we all?
No matter what style they were, they were all shingled, had a front porch and a bay window which could be joined to either the living room or the dinning room. All the first floor plans were identical, with four rooms. They all had a stairway off the living room which led to the attic or the second floor. The estate house had four finished bedrooms and a bath on the second floor, plus two extra bedrooms or an attic as the case or needs may be, on its third. I only knew one family who lived in one of those. Oh yes, there was one other thing they all had in common, a basement too low for a grown man to stand straight in and damp enough to keep the coal dust down. This second type of home was individually built, usually large, occupying double lots and they were not on my street, which was Halcyon Lane.
I’ve tried to tell Hilda no one would ever be interested in this, but she has always had a way of getting me to believe what I thought is not how normal people react or what their interests are. So . . .Anyway, here’s some more about my home town. As soon as I get something to drink.
I’m back. One . . .Two . . . Okay. Let me get my bad knee better seated. Okay again.We lived in one of the bungalows with bedrooms upstairs. We were my Dad and Mom, my older brother Martin and my three sisters, Martha, Freda, and Agnes. Halcyon means a place of peace and I guess that’s why it’s not a through street. It began at Hartford Road where the street cars ran north, but did not cross it. It was four very long blocks from there to its conclusion.That was a very abrupt halt at the edges of the woods which bordered one of the three city parks. The park had an official name but we just called it ‘ Down In The Woods.’ Those woods seemed eternal to us as we grew, but they were torn down, burned just after the next war , and the second world was forming, to make room for a new development.
If I walked to the streetcar, it was about eleven hundred steps unless there was snow or ice on the pavements. But if I ran, which was usually the case, it was about six hundred and fifty. Until I was about thirteen, the world began once I was out, and there is certainly nothing unusual about that, is there?
I’ve been told the street was originally cement, but I only remember black top, possessing that strong clean smell of tar during the hot months. Curbs and sidewalks were in as long as I could remember.I can recall when gas lights were changed for electric. Why they wanted to do that I’ll never know. There was and is no record of a crime ever being committed not just on our street but the entire neighborhood for as long as my family lived there.
Both sides were lined with trees, mostly maples, whose leaves burned each fall then fell to earth and got burned again. But there were early mornings when I ran across those spreads of flames so softly, my feet sprang up without effort. I always swept past men walking to catch their street cars, and they would all call out, ‘ Morning,’ or just ‘Hi.’ But only after I had said good morning first. ‘ Good morning Mr. What’s-Your-Name.’ It was always men I passed. Our married females stayed home as respectable ladies should.
We had two or three widows who had to work and all the unmarried girls and women who could find jobs also worked, but quit as soon s they got married and pregnant. So in early mornings, whether the walks were flames or ice cold sheets, I passed only laborers. Men possessing the skills the nation needed to run just for one more day. It was those who propelled me into the world just a little faster with each greeting.
From spring to late fall the lawns were always neat, cut once each week, early Saturdays when it was still cool enough to keep some kind of a shirt on. Nakedness was never a part of God’s Kingdom For The Chosen . I’m certain there were very few along my street who ever had a single doubt that there wasn’t a comfortable life waiting for them after death. God was male, of course, and he spoke only English. ‘America, America, God shed His grace on thee!And crowned thy good with brotherhood, From sea to shining sea. ‘ Back thenI guessed that meant him and her and me.Now I say the last line should be, Just as long as you look like me.
Being North German my neighbors were mostly Lutherans. Their churches issued the same sternness; always demanding silence and obedience. Later on there was a sprinkling of Methodists and even a few Catholics. My Mother’s family came from South Germany so she was a Catholic.My Dad was a Lutheran but he had to convert so he could marry my Mom. Most of the Catholics lived at the far end of the lane, in the last section of homes, the ones no one thought would last because of the slap dab way they were constructed.They’re al still there fifty years later. Most non-Catholic adults agreed that, ‘Catholics deserved slab dash crap because they have so many damned kids.’
My Father agreed with them after a couple beers. Life at home for us was milk and honey. But Dad said usually Catholics were poor because they had too many kids. He claimed Catholics even got drunk enough times for the cops to be called and that most of them never even finished high school.
Well I did. I was taught by the Nuns that it was the Protestants who were doomed. On earth as well as in Heaven. That’s what I was taught. For all I knew, I thought there were separate places up there for everybody anyway. Not even God would want people to mix. It wasn’t natural, you see?
Our parents sent us to one of four segregated high schools after eight years with the sisters. That was because most of us couldn’t afford paying for a Catholic High School education. Segregation meant by sex. I never thought of that, but there’s another form to add to the list. Most of our parents thought girls didn’t need to be so smart and mixing teenagers produced the misery of unwanted births. Those of us who wanted to become scientists and engineers went to Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.If you were really bright you got to go there for four years and take the Accelerated Course. Graduates from it usually got accepted to their second year of college and saved a whole year’s tuition. If you didn’t want to be an engineer or scientist, you went to Baltimore City College with rich Jews.
Most Gentile girls went to Eastern High School which was right next door to City, but there were two high wire fences between them which helped to set their parents concerns at ease.
When a girl graduated, if she was lucky like my oldest sister, Agnes, she got a job with the Telephone Company or the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company. Both concerns never fired anyone they hired unless they were out and out thieves. Everyone also admitted a job with the phone company was the best a girl could do because they even paid their employees a week’s vacation. Well only after you had worked five years. Of course they only took the top girls from Eastern High. You had to have an almost perfect attendance record and no tardiness. Right then all us guys thought that girls, had a very uncomplicated world.
Since I didn’t have a single Jewish girlfriend, I don’t have a clue what went on over at Western High. It was on the opposite end of the city and all I ever heard about it was how much Western girls liked sex. Somehow even that didn’t draw me over there.Three street car rides. That seemed like it was far enough away to be another planet
Most of us just tried to finish high school. Because we were better off, most of my neighbors made it. I can only recall three of my gang going to college and the only reason we got there was because all four of us were good in sports. I don’t know if any of us ever graduated. Anyway, the rest of the male population went out and found jobs. They usually started work the week after they graduated, quit or got kicked out. Of course from 1930 on,just getting a job, any job, was the standard of success.
My neighborhood was unbalanced sexually. I think there were 47 boys. That was everyone less than twenty. I’m sure there were only five girls. Three of them were my sisters. All five of them got married and looking back on it, did fairly badly. Jesus, we guys had to run away from hone to even find dates. I asked Mom once why we had so many guys and she said it was the way nature did things.She sighed and Jesus, I can still recall her saying, ‘ We’ve just been through a terrible war George, and this is the way it goes. Men got killed so boys are born. God makes it all work out in theend.’ Mom was no better a prophet than our street’s name. Didn’t do any good to tell her that it was the French and English and Germans who needed lots of new men. I’m sure she would have told me, ‘God rewards and punishes as He sees fit,’ and smiled.
The War, they were just starting to call it The World War, was the major historical event in our history classes. Every one of us knew the names of every country.Who fought on which side; who won, the names of all the major battles, and the generals on both sides. Well, except for the Russians, but then again they quit. We all thought that happened because ‘ They were yellow.’We all knew that on November 11, at exactly 11:00 a.m., The War had stopped and each year on that day, at that time, we all stood by our desks for exactly one minute in deep silence for those who had paid ‘The Supreme Sacrifice.’If that’s still done, every one of the kids all over the world should yell, ‘Bull Shit!’
When you stood, and some of us counted sixty to ourselves, you could always hear the factory whistles blowing. For a while I remember the bells at St. Rita’s rang, but I think that in the end, the American Legion made them stop.I’m not sure why or even if that’s what happened.
Of course, there were wars still going on.It’s funny how a kid can discover wars almost as soon as he learns to read a bit. Wars always start out on the front page. And they lead the News Reels at the movies. If they’re between ‘ the other races’ their staying power isn’t too long.
I remember going to the movies every Saturday and the News OF The Day always had shots of planes with open cockpits flying over cites, the bombs falling . . . Big splashes of smoke flowing from below. Then a shot of some baby sitting in the flames and smoke crying.
George was the last of our children. He was a breech birth , so his face was all flat. Everyone tried not to tell me he was ugly but I knew that’s what they were thinking. It was all just a matter of time till he’d fill out and became beautiful. He was not only a beautiful baby, George was a big baby.Big for his age and always happy. Happiest baby I’ve ever seen . . .. I loved him so.
There were two other so called sports I guess I should discuss. First was raiding the neighborhood fruit trees. The second was fighting. God, it was such a nice place to be a boy!White and not a Kike. There were lots of different fruits getting ripe at different times all through the summer. First came the cherries in early June. There were three kinds . . . Black hearts . . . Wax hearts which were two tone waxy ivory and red . . . And the sour variety.
I use to sit in cherry trees, eating until my stomach ached, and spitting out seeds like they were machine gun bullets, and I was flying a fighter plane zooming in behind a German Ace!I recall cherry belches that went on for two maybe even five seconds because of all that gas I gulped. Sour cherries were only for pies, or so our parents thought. Most of us liked to eat them just before they started to rot. Ever notice how the crack in a sour cherry is like a pretty lady’s ass? ‘ There’s as good an ass as you will ever eat!’ we’d call out, holding it up to the sunlight. I tell you there’s no red on this earth as lovely as the red the sunlight makes shining through a dead ripe sour cherry when you’re still young enough to be fooled by lies.
Then came the June Apples, the green kind with the mushy centers that our parents used in pies. Hell, we did more battling with them than eating, but when they were still really hard, just starting to turn yellow, they were wet, delicious, crunchy and really juicy. You had to be careful that none of that juice got in your eyes because it hurt for about an hour.
After the apples came plums. The Jones’, across the street from us,had the best of those. The kind that grow in California and you buy in stores. They also had a big German Shepard named Rex who liked to bite any ass coming out of his plum tree. Guess what?Thatmade Jones’ plums something special when you did get ‘em. The blue ones were still okay and there were millions of those.
It went on like that all summer. Damsons, bitter unless really ripe, but they make the best preserves in the whole world. I’d fight another war if I could have Damsons on my toast every morning.
Red apples were everywhere. Everyone had a red apple tree, big and juicy, but once they arrived we knew summer vacation was on its stretch run. Oh, I forgot that grapes were late bloomers too. We had mostly Concords, deep purple triangles hanging down below thick green canopies, summer’s last great gift.
Fall brought more apples, walnuts if you had the patience and liked your hands as black as a coon’s. And I almost forgot persimmons! If you have never had one you haven’t lived completely! But you gotta be sure they’re ripe, or your mouth’ll close up tighter than a frightened asshole. They aren’t any good until the first frost hits.
Depression and soup kitchens did not poise a threat in summer as long as the fruit grew and you were fast enough to out run their owners when they took off after you. Of course, there was the Sach’s farm with watermelons and cantaloupes, but you had to risk a load of salt and pepper from a shotgun and somehow most of us considered that to be theft. A farm was a business, even that late.
So it went. Growing up with the pockets of your pants bulging with something good to eat, with stained lips and purple tongues. Hey! I almost forgot the berries! All over our woods.and best of all, wild strawberries in the fields in early July. The back dirt roads were banked with black berries and along the trails in the sunny patches, free from danger, there for the taking ,so they went begging unless our Moms made us pick them for jams. Things are only wanted when they are difficult or dangerous to get.
Our other major sport was fighting Southern Avenue. All those ‘Dagoes’ living over there kept us busy. We fought with everything we could find, make or buy. Our wars graduated as we grew. What was taboo last year became standard procedure the next. I t was like shifting gears for more speed. Green apples, dirt clogs, Hollyhock stalks, rocks, pea shooters, bows and arrows and finally Bee-Bee Guns. The escalation was endless. Snowballs are a good example.
First they were regularly packed, but those soon turned to icers from the wet slush. Then we froze our own over night in our ice boxes. They could draw blood catching you full on. Pretty soon no one hesitated inserting rocks, coal and finally we graduated to ball bearings one of the dads got from his workplace and we stole out of his work box. A snowball with a ball bearing packed exactly right didn’t waiver in flight, and left bruises where ever it hit.
By the second snow storm of the winter, it took real guts to charge the fort we all built on one of the hills down in the woods. But every day, fifteen or so of us would make up a storming party while about the same number became defenders. The fort became a priceless point to be won at all costs. I couldn’t imagine the fort wasjust like some other objectives I’d be asked to assault later on.But in this world I’m describing,it was all just a game, I guess.
We also played the Southern Avenue Dagoes in every sport we could manage from soft ball and roller skate hockey, to football which always degenerated into tackle without equipment on cement and tribal warfare at its lowest baseness. Any provocation was never too small to incite armed conflict. Looking back on it, we were all silly shits, just restless kids, sexless, with nothing to do doesn’t explain it satisfactorily. But God it was so important! Such a huge hunk of our time taken up in it. I really honestly thought at the time it was life or death itself.
I can’t remember how our bow and arrow phase got started.We were too old so Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, came after we got into bows. Once one of us got a bow, nothing else seemed as much fun. We stalked each other in the woods.Dropped on each other from trees and made prisoners run through a field while we fired arrows in volleys, howling with delight every time one of us scored a hit. So no one would get hurt, we took the metal tips off. Yeah, we were that stupid. God only knows why someone was not maimed for life.
Everything came to a head when Southern built a tree fort and five of us decided we had to burn it down. Southern Avenue built it right on the boundary line separating our nations. Even now, I’ve got to admit it was a neat tree fort. There were four good sized oaks that formed a rough square, and one of their fathers got a telephone pole which they sank so they had a five sided figure to work with.
Of course, being Dagoes, they stole all the lumber and nails and the roofing paper fromnew houses going up about five blocks away.It took them almost all of June to finish it, but it was a good-looking place.A palace in the sky, just like Tarzan’s home, almost. We really hated them for that.
Worst of all, even more terrible than realizing none of our parents were ever going to let us build one, was the Southern Avenue Dagoes were never going to let us get up in theirs. Fact was, they taunted us from it heights like the defenders of some castle. They were so damnedpositive that there was nothing we could do that would win a siege. They thought they were simply too high up and it was too well constructed. So, therefore, invincible to our weapons and the forces we could muster. Well, not exactly.
Late one night in August we set it on fire by shooting two flaming arrows through the open window. The resulting blaze damned near caught the real houses on either side of the tree fort on fire. One of the Dirty Dozen, Julius Gambia, the oldest son of a large Italian family, whocould run like hell, woke up and saw the thing blazing about ten feet from his window. Both fathers were bright enough to start spraying water on the sides of their houses before the firemen got there. The tree fort burned right to the Goddamned ground. It fell like a cardboard box, showering flaming stars in all directions. It was after dawn when the last of the firemen left and about eight when the fire inspector and police arrived.
There was lots of speculation about who ratted to Luke Heinze’s parents. At least they never got our names.But that evening all our parents had a meeting about the situation. Right there they demanded thatpeace be declared and they made it prevail. It was a good thing they did because the way things were going, sooner or later, someone was gonna get killed.
So in reality Halcyon Lane was a strip of peace which led no where, lined with German Army veterans who didn’t want their sons ever fighting another war. Its maples were mint in early Spring, umbrellas of sweet coolness in August and nesting flames for Fall. Our lawns were always trimmed, the house paint always fresh, so the whole damned place was only too willing to allow destiny to go somewhere else. All it ever wanted was tranquility, not mystical events; not even mystical revelations.
One such event did occur, however, and it was funny the way it all happened . . .God, why the hell can I remember this? Anyway . . .One day a hawk, a red tailed hawk flew, into Heiniman’s apple tree and couldn’t fly out. Whether it was spring or fall I can’t recall now, but there weren’t too many leaves.The hawk brought people from as far away as Grinder’s Hill,which is on the other side of Hartford Road.
This magnificent brute was sitting in that tree, its beak twisting first this way and then the other. Its amber eyes glaring through the green as we gathered in more and more excited groups. I’ve always noticed eyes. Sports starts that. You can learn a lot about what a guy’s thinking watching his eyes. I’ve seen all kinds, eager, dead, dull, suspicious, whipped . . . .Even some that were loving. But no matter what kind of emotions they showed from amused to desperate, I can’t remember a set of eyes that went through me like that hawk’s did. I didn’t know it then but they were asking me lots of questions I still haven’t found the answers to. Still, if I get another lifetime, I’ll be out looking for them. Those eyes went right inside, to where I lived. All my life, I wanted to have answers for them. Wish I had . . .Really.
Shirley Wachter was twenty and still had the figure, which had driven them all mad until she chose her husband, Donald. She had a spacious apartment, over top her mother, filled with really nice new furniture she and Donald had bought. He had a good job making something for bombs or guns he couldn’t tell her and she didn’t really care anyway, and their eleven-month-old son, Donald Junior, whom she hated.
Every time Shirley realized how much she despised this tiny person because he had interrupted her youth and pleasure, she became remorseful . This baby, according to every woman from her mother to their land lady, was ‘ The best child ever seen.’And Shirley knew she was lucky because it never had the croup, or colds, and went right to sleep. He hardly ever cried and was even content to amuse himself for much of the time he was awake; which got longer each passing week. He had no defects, a wonderful head of hair, curly brown like his father’s, and always so alert even she thought Junior would go really far and be a pride and delight to them.
Yet, she hated him and that hatred managed to solidify and nourish itself so that now shehad to fight herself every time she was near him to keep from reaching out and slapping his face.
If only she had been more careful, whatever that meant. Her mother had said that over and over for years. ‘ Got to be careful Shirl, honey. Hardest time your Father and I had was after you. Didn’t want no more children, so we had to be real careful. Only way not to have babies is to be real careful.’
She had loved married life, for those seven baby free months. Saturday mornings in bed, holding each other, planning what they could do that day. They loved the freedom his job gave them. There was always enough money for movies , even getting a sundae at the Arundel Ice Cream store when they wanted it. Donald demanded she get the Banana Split, the most expensive thing at fifteen cents, which was as much as it cost for one of them to get in the Arcade Movies. They never went to the Cameo even though it was only a dime after six in the evening. The Cameo was for skin- flints or the down and outs and people, ‘ Poor as Job’s turkeys.’
She bought almost anything she wanted and when she saw a pattern she knew she would like, she just went and bought enough fabric to make it. Donald always beamed when she showed him what she had gotten or made. He would take her in his arms and tell her she was the best looking thing in all of Baltimore. ‘ You should enter the Miss America for 1936!’ he boasted and he laughed every time she told him she couldn’t pass the physical examination.
They were even thinking about looking for a house, not anything big, but something in Laurieville near her folks. She never called it Hamilton, even though that’s what the telephone
company started calling it a year before. It said Hamilton though, right on the face of the phone they got two weeks after she was sure she was going to have a baby.
The May sunshine was filling the upstairs back porch, begging her to go out and sit for awhile, to get some early tan. She always liked her skin a little brown even though mother said it made her look ,‘ Just like some nigger’, and ‘ A decent girl never got that black.’ Donald liked her two-toned, her backside and breasts white like fresh milk and the rest of her like mild toast; the kind he liked with his hard-boiled eggs. She decided it would be nice to sneak up on him. Get just a little each day until he noticed and then wouldn’t he be surprised and happy?
That convinced her to take the baby out on the porch; even bring the table radio Donald just bought her the other week so she could listen to some of the soap operas that were on all day now. She looked at the clock and was happy she was in time to hear her two favorites, ‘Helen Trent’ and ‘ Ma Perkins.’
As she collected the radio, she thought about leaving the babyin his crib even though he’d been wide awake for almost an hour. She was guilt ridden at the joy she felt whenever she could get her mother to watch him so she could go off on her own. Sometimes she didn’t even buy anything.It was just the joy of getting free from his constantly increasing needs.
That compulsion only lasted for a brief second or so.She decided the sun would do him good. It had been a horrible winter.The worst one she could remember, even though her father always claimed, ‘ We don’t have winters and snows like we use to.’ But then that really didn’t count when it came right down to it. He had spent his childhood in Poland and she guessed his familyleft there because the weather was so bad they couldn’t stand it. So, she went into the bedroom, gathered her son and one of his favorite stuffed dogs and took him out through the kitchen onto the second floor porch which faced South. She and Donald had chosen this place because of the porch. It really wasn’t an apartment, just the second floor of a large semi-detached house, the only one on the entire street. Her mother hadn’t liked that.She claimed that semi-detached were the homes of White Trash.
Well, her landlords, the Sturllas were exactly that. He didn’t have a job and made no effort to find one. Maybe because he was too busy getting buckets of beer from Dunn’s Saloon. His wife was loud and profane. Jesus, Mary and Joseph fell from her lips almost every other sentence or so it seemed. And she drank! Donald claimed youcould smell it on her breath almost all the time! They fought. Actually slugged each other! Once she threatened to use her flat iron on him while he was asleep. And their son Howard was a nitwit, who had to leave school as soon as he was fourteen. But then they found him a job, and he paid room and board, the poor dummy.
To top all that off, they were Catholics, ‘ stinking ones,’ like her mother always said when she wanted to separate the halfway decent Catholics from the low-lifes. The Stullars werereally stinking because they went to Mass Saturday night, half drunk, sometimes even dead drunk, so they could sleep late on Sundays. They even drank that day! But to Shirley the most damming thing was the way he and his son sat on the front porch in undershirts whenever it got warm! Donald better never try that! Worst thing a man can do, almost. Drinking beer right out of a porcelain bucket and being in an undershirt! Her own mother had always said,‘That’s exactly what happens when them East Baltimore Pollacks get enough money to move out of their slums.’
The sun was lovely. She pulled a wicker chair over to the far edge of the porch so she could get all its force. She laid the baby in the playpen they always kept out there ,so it was out of the way.It really wasn’t an apartment because they didn’t have their own entrance, which was why they were looking at houses more. They couldn’t take, ‘No more of them peopleyelling all the time’, and because they thought they needed a real apartment. She was also sure of another thing, and that was they would soon need more room. Soon, the baby could sleep by itself. Him in his crib in their bedroom really cramped their love making terribly.
Slowly her attention drifted to Ma Perkins. Thank God her and Donald had never, ‘Beenthough anything like that family!’ Ma had enough troubles to sink a battleship. But you had to give her credit.Ma never gave up. Her son had been stretched out in the hospital, and the only thing that could be done for him was going to cost her the lumberyard, which her husband burned down just when the bank finally agreed to lend her the money she needed to pay the specialist to help her son. Right whenher daughter’s husband had just fallen off the wagon again, and was drinking up all his pay!
But Ma never gave up! Women had to be strong. Even her mother had told her that. She hadn’t told her what being careful meant, but Mom had told her she would have to get use to her husband going hunting both Thanksgiving and Christmas days. About how he was going to get drunk on Fridays and want to mess around when he got home.‘Wait for him to get to sleep and then go through his pockets and get your house money before he drinks that up too, or loses it playing cards or something.’ According to her mother that meant he had been out with ‘Some hussy’, which was okay as long as he didn’t catch anything and bring it home. ‘ Let him abuse someone else.’ Well her Donald hadn’t done any of that so far but if he ever did, she was ready for him. ‘ Strong as the next,’ she was, she guessed.
The sun was so warm she gradually drifted in and out of a gentle slumber. She loved to sleep. Her mother always had to yell at her on Saturday mornings to get out of her bed to come and help. Now she could sleep as long as she wanted because Donald hated breakfast and usually slipped out in the mornings so she didn’t even know he was gone. Now only the baby kept her from sleeping till at least ten. ‘ The baby,’ she thought and opened her eyes because he was sobbing.
Knowing that he was more than likely wet, she went inside to get a diaper and the powder can. He had never even gotten diaper rash, which was one thing her mother-in-law could not complain about whenever she dropped by for her regular inspection tours.
As she went back to the porch, she wrinkled her nose hoping he had only wet, but also aware that it was time for his morning movement. Changing didn’t bother her but washing was a chore she despised, dreaded, and delayed as long as possible. Her mother claimed that six dozen diapers each week was an outrageous amount.
Just as she suspected the baby had messed. She detected his strong scent before she opened him up. Donald always laughed and told everyone that his son had the most stinking movements, as if that were something special. It embarrassed and angered her. ‘Come on you big fat thing. Let me get that off you and in the bucket. Why do you have to poop so much? How are you going to get to be a big man if you poop everything right out as soon as you eat it?’
She lifted him out of his pen, ignoring the strain on her lower back. Every day he seemed to double his weight, even if he didn’t keep anything in his body. Her mother said he was going to be big and a politician became he had such thick eyebrows. The only place she could place him to change the diaper was on the side railing. The summer screens were not in and she was leery because he was getting to be a real armful. The radio banker had just started to tell Ma why they had to have the mortgage interest or take away what little was left of the Centerville Lumber Yard, which was something not to be missed. This was exactly what her mother-in -law had claimed would happen three weeks ago and she was hoping against hope that she was wrong. She laid Donald length wise on the wide railing and commenced her unpleasant task while praying for a miracle for Ma.
Sure enough it was mush! It was his only fault. Its softness made washing it down the toilet impossible. She thanked God that she had remembered his wash cloth and thanked Him again that she had never made a mistake of using it when she took her daily bath.
She unfastened the pins and gave Donald a little tickle as she lifted him by his feet, taking time to carefully inspect him for signs of diaper rash. The wash cloth wasn’t too wet but she made do.‘For an eleven-month-old you sure got a big peter,’ she thought. She was sure it was too big, but how could she ask a doctor something like that? What would he think? How could she know it was too big unless . . . ?
Shirley was finishing cleaning her son’s bottom just as the banker told Ma there was no possible chance he could give her another month, even though he knew she could meet the mortgage payment by then. He was protesting that he had to meet his own bills, when a cat jumped onto the railing right behind the baby’s head, its yellow eye glaring at her son’s face. It startled her terribly. Its huge black head was filled with scabs and scars. The good eye was running a yellow puss which immediately made her think that it was rabid. Desperately she swung at it with the wash cloth, not affecting it at all. She was positive it was about to jump right in Donald’s face. ‘ Oh Jesus Christ! Where did you come from? I’m on the second floor for God’s sake!
She lunged forward across the baby’s body and blocked the cat with her right forearm. At the same instant she felt her child arch his back. The series of events which followed was never clear to her but she remembered forever the horror of that next second as her son bucked, rolled over on his side and fell off the railing.
Without a sound she crumpled to the floor.Her last conscious image was the cat arching its back then leaping out into the warm May sunshine, ready to fall on the broken body laying on the cement patio twelve feet below, and begin devouring it.