By MAURA CANDELA
It was August when a young balding man and his fat mother appeared behind the counter of the corner deli. No grand opening. The previous owner, Herman, had cleared out one night. Gambling debts, neighbors said. Herman’s Deli had always been a beat-up place on the corner, and the new owners didn’t seem very ambitious either. The pushpins that held Herman’s rick-rack borders were still on the shelves—half of which were bare and unlined, exposing warped wood. The glass case that held the cold cuts was smudged even on that first day.
A good deli deals in disarray of a kaleidoscopic kind: colors and products and signage stacked tightly to the tin ceiling, cans and boxes and cylinders piling up and giving the eye nowhere to rest, over-burdened center aisles ready to collapse if you brush by too quickly, and good-smelling meaty things cooking in the back. If you need something from the dry goods section, the owner gets the mechanical-hand pole from its resting place in the corner and pokes around. Other things might fall by accident to the linoleum floor before the metal fingers grasp the crackers or the kosher salt or the box of kitchen matches you’re pointing to.
But the disarray in this deli was not enticing. We went in only to buy safe things: small glass bottles of Coke and little bags of salted pumpkin or sunflower seeds. Then we would go outside and eat the seeds and spit the shells on the gum-spotted sidewalk or shoot for the corner mailbox—or down the steps of the subway station a few feet away. We were girls waiting for high school to begin. Josie and her cousin Lisa lived in the third floor apartment directly across the street from the store. They liked Slim Jims. It took some doing to tear apart those speckled sheets of dried meat. You have to be a friggin’ barbarian to eat this, Josie would say, holding it up to the boys who arrived on the corner by bike. She had a beautiful mouth—bow lips and the straightest teeth—and the boys we knew would laugh as she made a show of her ability to rip and tear.
In September, the number of kids who stopped every day after school at the deli burgeoned. Fifty or so would emerge out of the subway onto the avenue we called ‘city-line’ because it straddled the border between Brooklyn and Queens—a designation that would never appear on any map.
The disorder of the store allowed us to loiter. Actually, the son encouraged us to loiter. The mother with her stockings rolled down like cinnamon doughnuts sometimes yelled and cleared out the place. But then there would be no customers—or few. The son Jim seldom came out from behind the counter but he talked to us relentlessly, arms folded, his pupils pinpoints, betraying excitement. He always seemed surprised when he was asked to wait on someone.
By October, it was windy standing outside on the corner in our plaid Catholic school skirts, rolled up at the waist to minis. We wore knee socks so the tops of our bare legs were mottled and cold until we went inside and warmed up. We sat in the window bay on top of the unsold morning newspapers, spitting the seeds into our hands or into the ripped-open cellophane bags. When Jim’s mother retired to the back for a nap after cooking her unappetizing foods, Jim gave us free range. We entertained him. It was usually three of us: Josie and Lisa and me. Susan would come from her vocational high school later and we would wait for her there, roosting on the warm papers.
There were morning and evening newspapers then—so much news to disseminate. Photos of the war. We left the stacks of the evening newspapers accessible to buyers by squeezing to one side of the bay. Still the girl who got stuck on the end would have to jump up if a man—it was always a man—came in to snatch a paper. Jim would joke with the customer as if he were part of the grownup world in his sleeveless, white button-down shirt, black vest and too-tight black pants, a uniform like ours. But we knew it was an act. Just the fact that he let us sit in the store was weird. That didn’t go over our heads. But we were getting used to men—men who slowed down in cars, yelling out, men on the subway saying perverted things because of our uniforms, drunken or stoned men standing in doorways on the avenue saying,
How you girls doin’ this afternoon?
We thought of Jim as a man over thirty, but he said he was twenty-four, which might’ve been true. He wore granny glasses. His dirty blond hair grew straggly on the sides and he had mild blue eyes and a longish nose and chalky white skin. He looked like someone who would work a farm in the late eighteen hundreds. Being in costume was common in that era: most boys affected long hair and old-fashioned foppish clothing, if their parents let them. But Jim not only looked strange, he also he said stupid things to us. When we would sit in the bay, he said: I see London I see France I see someone’s underpants. We knew how to pull our skirts around our legs in the right way so nothing was showing. You do not, we would say blandly. Once he singled me out and said my underwear was red. I was still protesting that it wasn’t—and it wasn’t—when Josie impulsively tossed a seed at him. It hit the bald top of his head. I was surprised at her disrespect. But there was something about Jim that made you want to humiliate him.
That first seed sailing across the counter set a precedent; Josie threw one at Jim whenever he attempted double entendre. He blinked a lot, acting like it hadn’t hit.
Once when Josie picked out her usual Slim Jim from a box on the counter, he leaned over and grabbed my wrist, “That’s me. Slim Jim.”
I pulled away, “You’re not that skinny.” He was flabby without being fat.
“No, I mean, I’m like that.” He elucidated, “My thing. It’s long and skinny.”
I was taken aback, but Josie could always be counted on to be glib. “You should sell kielbasa then.” Her retort really didn’t make much sense but it cemented our assessment of him: he deserved our abuse.
As bold as he was with us, he was cowardly when the boys came in. For every snack or soda the boys bought, they stole two, but Jim just stayed behind the counter, ignoring the obvious. From our perch in the bay, Josie would say, Would you look; they’re stealing from you!
The boys denied it, even though anyone could see the outline of a Coke bottle hanging inside the waistband of a thin jacket or hear the crinkling wrapper of a palmed Drake cake. Jim kept smiling, working the cash register, adding up the few items they claimed. Outside the boys knocked on the window and held up the pilfered drinks and snacks.
“That is why I can’t respect you, Jim,” Josie said. “Why don’t you stop them?”
“I don’t believe in fighting.”
“You’re not even ashamed to say you’re a coward.”
One day he gave us a reason that seemed manufactured. “I’m a Quaker.”
“Do you say thee and thou to your mother?” My interest was suddenly piqued. I remembered seeing Pennsylvania license plates on his mother’s blue Buick. We barely knew any Lutherans, never mind a Quaker. Everyone was either Catholic or Jewish. Some people were what we called ‘nothing’; they might’ve been Protestants, too.
“See, Eileen knows,” Jim said. He said to Josie, “Those who steal are in truth stealing from themselves.” When he wasn’t being lecherous, his long face could look quite serene.
“You own the store, moron.”
“I need a tough girl like you, Josie. To put a stop to everything.”
“Find someone your own age.”
“But I like young girls.” A seed went sailing and hit.
He rubbed his forehead. “Actually, I’m a direct descendant of William Penn.”
“Yeah, right,” Josie scoffed.
He told us to get the Quaker Oats box from the shelf. Susan brought it back to him, her brown hand wrapped around the cylinder. He held up the box, posing Penn’s face next to his.
“They do look alike,” Susan said and put her hand on her chin like she believed him.
But Josie and I were skeptical. He’d also compared himself to a Slim Jim. Maybe that’s what he did all day. Imagined connections to products in his store.
Quickly I looked at the name on the store license that hung over the register. Sarah Radelinger. “So you’re saying your name is Jim Penn?”
“My mother remarried,” he said, following my eye.
When we left the store, Josie said, “I always thought that was Ben Franklin on the Quaker Oats box.”
“Stop throwing seeds at him,” I said. “Don’t you see he likes it?”
Susan was the smallest of us, a quick-moving girl with a good nature. She had a foster mother and got by on very little kindness. “Wasting food is a sin, Josie. And you pay for the ammunition.”
“He’s not getting rich on sunflower seeds,” Josie laughed. “And that thing about his mother getting remarried. Who would even marry her once?”
Every afternoon Josie led the interrogations from the window bay. She wanted to catch Jim in his lie. She doubted he was a real Quaker—a real American. Josie said that a real American couldn’t be so poor. She said if her ancestors had come to the country when his had, she would at least have property. She told him he was descended from the moron branch of the Penns.
I felt a little bad when she said that, so I told Jim if I had to be Protestant, Quaker would be my pick because of the pacifism.
“Richard Nixon’s a Quaker. And he’s a hawk.” Jim enjoyed bursting bubbles. “He deeply disappointed his mother.” He always made a sucking-in sound before he laughed. “I can’t disappoint Mother. She’d kill me.”
“Ha! She wouldn’t kill you if she was a Quaker! See, he’s a liar,” Josie said, leaning over her bare thighs. She looked up at Jim. “Maybe she needs to kill you and put you out of your misery.”
“If you only knew.” His milky blue eyes got so crossed with hurt that I felt sorry for him and Josie relented.
One afternoon he told us Quakers really called themselves ‘Friends.’ He said the meetings were boring, with long periods of silent times when he was supposed to be praying but found himself thinking about sex.
Josie called him an idiot but didn’t throw anything. “How come you came here to buy a deli?”
“My mother read an ad in the paper.”
“I’m asking your mother if you’re lying,” said Josie.
“The Quakers were the first to help free the slaves.” I was feeling helpful.
“That’s why I like all kinds of women.” He looked meaningfully toward Susan, who pretended she hadn’t seen that glance. Josie wouldn’t let anyone say Susan was half-black. Not because we didn’t believe that to be the truth but Susan denied it and Josie was enough of a bully and a good friend to convince everyone that Susan was a ‘dark Italian.’
Josie went on the attack to protect Susan. “All kinds of women. That’s a laugh. You live with your mother.”
“Jim, how come your mother only drives the car? You’re not allowed?” I taunted, following her lead.
“Jim, why don’t you have specials? It’s so abnormal for a deli not to have specials.” Susan twisted her tongue in her mouth after she spoke, like she already wanted to take the words back.
Only Lisa, who sat in the bay, was quiet, absorbed in her math homework. She liked to get it done early.
“Is this place a front?” Josie said.
That got Jim’s attention.
“Why, do you know any mobsters?”
Josie gestured for quiet. “Jim, why don’t you go to the social club on the next corner and ask them if they want sandwiches? Make them a tray of your shitty cold cuts. Then give them the bill.”
Lisa slammed her book shut. Even she had to laugh.
Jim rallied with his usual quip. “Keep lounging in the window, Josie. That’s how I get business.”
Josie told him to shut up. But I could tell she was flattered.
From her bedroom window, Josie could always see what was going on in the street below: the opening and closing of the store, the boys drinking beer on the corner. Beer that Jim sold them after dark. That was not such a big sin in our book. But he took it a step further by letting the boys who hung out on the corner drink in the back of his store. Josie said late one night she saw Jim’s white face hanging like a mask under the side door light. He was holding the door open as the boys stumbled out.
The next day she had questions.
“Where’s your mother, Jim? I haven’t seen her for awhile. I want to talk to her. I saw you last night.” Josie ripped apart the jerky she’d just bought and started chewing.
“What are you going to do? Have me arrested? That’s not such a big deal.”
“How do you know?” I blurted.
“Quakers get arrested. Our social conscience makes us think differently…” It seemed to me he’d caught himself just in time. I looked at my friends’ faces for confirmation but they were not getting it.
“Who cares what Quakers think? What you, Mr. Quaker, should do is clean this place. At least wipe down the cold cut case.” Josie looked out the window. David Biegarten, who lived down the block, was outside on his bike.
She got up and opened the door for him so he could ride in. He would never have ridden the bike into the store if Jim’s mother was around. But David preferred to conduct all conversations seated up high. Especially with Josie, who was tall at thirteen, already five-nine. He was so short and slight that he didn’t even look like he was in sixth grade, never mind high school.
Jim had to turn around to see David because he’d taken Josie’s direction and was wiping down the cold cut case. “Biegarten, how are you?” David was one of the few boys Jim addressed by name. Jim sold beer only to the kids that David trusted. That made David something of a celebrity. Since David knew everybody, Josie would mention some boy or other that she liked, and sooner or later a skinny kid would show up at the store with him. It wasn’t like Josie gave David assignments; it was more like he had the soul of a publicist.
She didn’t need David for her most recent crush though. I knew him through my older brother. Brett Bender, a tall lanky boy, walked two Great Danes on long leather leashes past the store every day. Brett was a senior, like my brother, who considered Brett useless because despite his height he’d never gotten any good at basketball.
My sister Patti was friends with Brett’s little sister Giselle and so I knew something about his hair: his father had forbidden him to grow it long. It was thick and curly and made a lopsided pompadour that bobbed along with him as he walked his giant dogs every afternoon past the deli.
My sister Patti had a lot to say about those dogs. She’d gone to the Bender apartment with Giselle after school and the dogs were lying on the couches like sphinxes, but when Giselle tried to make them get up, they growled. My sister said she and Giselle had to run and squeeze into Giselle’s shoebox of a bedroom until Mrs. Bender came home from work. When my mother heard that, she said the family must be insane and Patti must never go there again. Of course, Patti went back on the sly, but that story lowered the Benders in my sights. And Brett Bender too; those two dogs seemed to me a naked plea for dominance and power, although I wouldn’t have phrased it so then. I think I just exclaimed that jerk when Josie declared that she liked him. Josie didn’t care when I tried to tell her about the dogs and the bad family. “You’re always such a snob,” she said, dismissing me and turning to her cousin Lisa. “My mother thinks he’s cute too.” Sometimes Josie and her mother looked out the bedroom window together, assessing the boys hanging out at night, drinking or smoking pot. Certainly not doing their homework, which would have been my mother’s totally-out-of-reality comment. Homework, God. My mother had no idea what went on.
Since Brett waved to me every day as he passed the deli, Josie gave me the commission of talking to him and finding out if he liked her. She was convinced that he had been studying her for weeks because the dogs took a dump at the mailbox on the corner almost every day. Brett had to stand there waiting for them to produce their huge mounds of excrement and he often seemed to be looking into the deli.
I knew Brett to be really shy, and I couldn’t readily think of a lead-off topic as I timed my stepping out of the deli with his passing. I called his name. Luckily he had a question about my brother. “Is he still smart?”
“Yes,” I said, feeling sorry for his awkwardness.
He had very good control of the dogs, but still I felt like I didn’t want to get too close. He and the dogs stood under a pin oak, its curled-up leaves falling one by one. He told me how the dogs listened only to him. Bragging about that really made me think less of him, but it gave me time to look at his face objectively. His sister was pretty and they resembled each other; both had almond-shaped hazel eyes and nice noses, but he seemed frail. Josie liked boys who were skinny to the point of femininity—rock-star androgyny her ultimate aim but she was working with what the neighborhood had to offer. According to her instructions, I told Brett not to look now but Josie liked him. The dogs became alert. One seemed to be studying me in an unfriendly way, the bones of its shoulders shifting underneath draping skin.
I looked into the deli. David was on the bike inside the store. Susan and Lisa were sitting in the bay, Lisa doing her math. Josie went into action, moving over the front wheel, holding onto David’s handlebars and throwing back her waist-length hair and putting on a real show.
“How old is she?” Brett was quietly incredulous.
“Fourteen.” She would be fourteen in November.
He smiled, then spoke looking down at the ground. “Your brother’s probably going to get a scholarship to college.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going into the electrician’s union if I can. My mother’s brother might get me in but it takes awhile. I want to buy a car.”
“Oh yeah, what kind?” I knew this would be information that I could bring back to Josie. She could set her fantasy in a particular make of car.
He shrugged. The dogs took that as a signal to stand up, saliva dripping. “I’ll probably get drafted first.”
I touched his hand. Quick, because of the dogs. “We’ll all write to you.”
“You shouldn’t hang out in that store, Eileen.”
“I don’t. I just buy pumpkin seeds there sometimes.” I was suddenly afraid he would get in touch with my brother. My father would punish me for ‘hanging out.’
“That guy is a perv. He gets really weird in the back of that store.”
I was surprised Brett had been back there. “Jim’s mother is back there now, lying down.”
“I haven’t seen anyone’s mother, believe me.”
“Josie was just saying she hasn’t seen the mother in awhile! Maybe he killed her.”
He laughed—for the first time forgetting his shyness.
“One morning,” I said hurriedly riding the wave, “when Josie was going to school, she looked in and saw his mother jabbing his ankles with the bottom of the broom and he was jumping all around. He calls her ‘Mother.’”
Brett found that hilarious too.
I became aware of Josie and David and Lisa and Susan and even Jim watching us laugh through the window. The dried leaves shook in the trees, making a metallic sound, not yet ready to fall en masse. Brett let the dogs sift through the leaves and cartons and papers that collected along the curb. One idly peed. An enormous volume. They kept these creatures in an apartment!
“You have to give me an answer,” I said. We’d become collaborators. Pigeons flew up from the knitting factory ledge. The ground trembled: heads came up the subway stairs.
“Tell her we can go out when she’s sixteen.” The pigeons rearranged themselves on the ledge, suddenly gilded in the afternoon illumination. The red bricks benefited too from the rays, mellowing to pink. Light struck Brett’s eyes, picking up flecks of gold, and he abruptly seemed more vivid. Or maybe too alive to be saying, “She’ll probably have to write to me in Nam.”
Josie clapped with delight when I told her she might be writing to a soldier.
“I have automatic Conscientious Objector status,” Jim said, grinning.
David wheeled his bike up to the counter. “Why?” His long stick-together eyelashes and his bumpy nose seemed particularly mismatched today. He looked like he just woke up.
“That’s some bullshit religion,” David said and guided his bike out the door. I followed him out because I was getting sick of Josie’s cries of happiness.
Brett came walking back from wherever he went with his dogs.
David rode as close to Brett as he could get. At last Brett made the dogs sit to see what David wanted.
“That guy, that marshmallow fuck in there gets a deferment.”
I stood with David, my hands on the center of the cold handlebar. “There’s history behind it,” I said. “He just got lucky.”
“Where’s your brother?” Brett asked David.
“We haven’t heard…maybe Cambodia! I’m Jewish. I can say I don’t believe in war either.” David had only begun to say he was Jewish since he went to Bronx Science. When he was in grammar school he used to say he was Catholic like his mother. His father was dead anyway. But before David could elaborate, Josie came out the door. She scampered towards us as daintily as a tall healthy girl could. The dogs growled and she screamed all out of proportion to the threat. At that, they lunged.
“Back!” I commanded, as Brett jerked back the dogs. He had to pummel one on the skull to get it to sit. Lisa and Susan, who’d been following, screamed and ran across the avenue without looking. David flew after them on his bike and a car had to screech to a halt. Josie was still rooted to the spot, her bow lips open in horror.
“Eileen, get her out of here!” Brett yelled at me.
I grabbed Josie’s hand and we ran across the street into her building as the dogs leaped around Brett, seemingly taller than he was.
Susan and Lisa soon appeared. We squeezed together on an old damask couch in the foyer; Josie was talking about her two-year wait. Should she just act natural when she saw Brett around? Or should she talk to him? Susan and I discussed the crazy dogs—what they could’ve done if they got loose. Susan doubled over laughing at how scared David was and how I yelled Back. She said I held up my hand like a traffic cop. I couldn’t even recall doing that. Josie said it showed something that Brett had yelled at me to get her away from the dogs. She thought it was an act of valor on her behalf. Her comment upset me; it implied that I was less female than her. Less worthy of protection.
I walked home with an odd feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had seen something in Brett’s eyes, his surprise that Josie had a crush on him. But I had also seen something else: the way he could hardly let himself look at me. Maybe I would marry him instead when I grew up. The electrician thing threw me; he was too dumb. But at least he would know how to fix things, and I was really sorry about his having to go to Vietnam. At the very least, I would honor his request: I wouldn’t go into that stupid store again.
So I began to stay outside. We all did for a few days, standing in front of Josie’s building, waiting for Susan and fooling around. Brett had stopped passing by. But Josie waited, lovesick and hoping to see him.
Jim came out of his store and began to sweep the leaves and the debris caught in them. That was a first. He never swept the sidewalk like other shopkeepers. He looked at us and waved. None of us waved back.
But when Brett didn’t pass with his dogs for a whole week, Josie transferred her anger to me. And to the promise that Brett had extracted from me. She saw other boys hanging around the store and she was missing out.
One afternoon, David came riding up with a message from Jim: No more dirty talk.
Josie and Lisa went to the deli to see what Jim had to say but I stayed in front of her building alone and waited for Susan to come out of the subway. The first day Susan walked home with me. She lived five blocks and I lived seven from the corner. But the next time I waited for her, Susan said she wanted to buy something in the deli. I started walking home alone fast, pushing through the leaves, making them whoosh; not my friends, not my friends.
The next day I rode home alone in another subway car. Josie and Lisa were ahead of me on the subway stairs. They darted into the deli. I saw their backs in the store window. Josie was leaning forward and laughing. I knew she was play-acting but I still felt like she was having fun.
Brett appeared on the next corner with his dogs. He started walking my way. I gave him a wide berth. But he ended up walking me all the way home. He said it was good for the dogs to get a long walk.
Long dog walks starting at the subway station went on for the next few days. Josie never turned her back to look at us.
Brett’s reserve was gone. He talked like he’d been saving up words and needed to expel them fast. He said he wasn’t afraid to go to war. He told me his father didn’t live with them anymore. Where is he then? I didn’t understand that he was talking about divorce. Then I remembered the Bender father was Protestant. I said divorce was okay if you’re Protestant. But he wasn’t consoled. His mother was Italian and it wasn’t okay with her. He said Giselle was upset. I noticed his hair was growing out. I blurted: At least now you can grow your hair long. He had a puzzled look on his face but he just went on. There was more: his father had been a Marine. Maybe he would join up. Things he was saying sounded rehearsed but I kept interrupting. Who’s going to take care of your dogs? I could tell he hadn’t thought of that. I told him that I hadn’t gone into Jim’s deli since that day I’d last seen him. I told him I had lost my friends. He said the expected: Then they weren’t really your friends. But they were! I couldn’t really explain my sacrifice to him since I didn’t understand it myself. He was saying again that bad things went on in the back of the store. Jim had put up a sign: The Boys’ Club.
On the third day, when we got to the corner where I lived, it was still light out and I could see the sliver that would later light up to be the slipper moon. I could also see the whole of the faint dark side—I took it as a sign. I wanted to tell Brett that he would be safe. But my brother came out of the house and spotted us. The dogs sat like lambs as my brother approached. “Get in the house,” he said to me from the corner of his mouth, then went on to speak to Brett normally as I walked up our stoop.
Later my brother said I better not like someone who was too old for me and a freak who had to arm himself with the dogs of hell.
Brett was there the next day when I came up from the subway. There was a longing look in his hazel eyes. The dogs looked at me in tandem. Even they seemed to be pining for our walk. David came riding up. He followed Brett and me. I started to hang back and talk to David instead of Brett because I was afraid for Brett to come anywhere near my house. Brett dropped out on the next corner. Then David delivered a note from his jacket pocket. I don’t care about Brett. You can have him. He looks like Gumby. Despite myself I laughed. It was the way his hair sprung up asymmetrically. Can we be friends? Yes or No. There were boxes to check. I thought that juvenile so I wouldn’t check either.
PS. Jim is keeping his promise. He isn’t saying anything dirty.
“Tell her all right. And I don’t even like Brett.” I was thirteen; I had never admitted to anyone who I had a secret crush on. I handed back the note. David was smiling ear to ear because he knew that Josie would be happy.
The next afternoon on the train, Josie and I sat arm in arm, exclaiming how neither of us liked Brett. “I tried to tell you about the dogs,” I said. “I know!” she agreed. I was almost happy to open the door to Jim’s store.
“You’re a good boy now, right, Jim?” Josie was showing off her powers.
“Yes, ma’am,” Jim agreed as we flopped into the window bay.
After I drank a Coke and ate a package of pumpkin seeds, I was suddenly so bored there, sitting on the newspapers. They had put me through so much—for this? I had cried myself to sleep the night before and my mother had come in to ask what was wrong. When I said nothing, my mother sat on the bed talking about the blues and a girl’s period. I did have my period and because of that and the Coke I had to pee badly, but I didn’t want to leave too early. I felt like I was still on probation with Josie. I decided to wait for Susan to show. Then I could ask for us to leave and go to the bathroom in Josie’s house.
Susan came and I explained that I had to go immediately. Josie looked for her apartment key. I stood up, hopping a little. Josie couldn’t find the key. Digging around in her pocketbook, she said, “You have a bathroom in the back, right, Jim?”
Jim made the sweeping motion of a gallant. I would have to pass him as he stood behind the counter. “Go in the back. Just don’t awaken the witch; Mother is sleeping.” Jim flattened himself against the wall. His vest-bound paunch stuck out.
I began to walk behind the counter on the rickety wooden slats. Discarded lettuce leaves were caught in them. “Are you sure it’s all right?”
“It’s right there. First door on the left.” He held up his arms theatrically to show he wouldn’t touch me. I smelled his deodorant as I passed—Old Spice. At the last moment, he bumped his stomach into the small of my back and I fell forward into the counter and had to scramble on the slats.
“Sorry, I slipped,” he said.
“Ew,” said Josie. I heard them all laughing as I pushed open the swinging door.
“Is she back there? Be careful!” Jim called, still joking. But his arch fear of his mother was a contagion. Maybe she was the crazy one.
The backroom was empty. And dark. I made a quick sweep of it as I felt for the bathroom doorknob. Flattened cardboard boxes were stacked to the ceiling on top of an old table. More were stuffed underneath, bulging out like the table couldn’t quite keep them squeezed between its legs. In all the corners, more boxes created crazy-angled landsides. On the stove, empty beer bottles gathered in a squadron next to a dirty bubbled-over pot.
I had to step down into the dark bathroom. I pulled the string cord from the ceiling light bulb. I yanked again. It was out. A good thing not to see the filth. Tiles were gouged out of the floor, which sunk deeply around the base of the toilet. I looked for the lock. Nothing. I’d be quick. It was freezing. I put toilet paper on the seat. The water level in the toilet was low. Paper was already in it. I peed explosively. I felt the blood coming out in gobs. I looked down at the pad; it was soaked. I should’ve gone right home to change it. When someone banged on the door, I jumped and called: Stay out. I was fumbling, pulling up my underwear. The wet cold of the pad touched me.
“Who’s in there?” It was the mother.
“It’s me,” I answered stupidly. “Jim said I could use the bathroom.” I was trying to flush, but nothing was happening.
“He knows better. Get out!” She began banging again. “Are you decent?” She barged in.
“It won’t flush.” I kept jiggling the handle. I didn’t cry. I was too shocked by her entrance, by her black nun shoes, her rolled down stockings, her potato smell, her bun with the net over it—as if she cared about sanitary.
“That’s because it’s broken. Oh God, what a present.” She was looking into the bowl! “And on the floor!” I looked where she was pointing, a stepped-in smear of blood. Dropped out of me because of the banging. She stepped out of the bathroom and half opened the swinging door, calling to her son in that voice that over-pronounced every ‘r.’ “I hope you’re happy. It’s a disaster area. There’s blood everywhere!” I elbowed past her. I had to pass Jim. He must’ve seen my face because he stepped fast out of my way.
Josie took my arm but I shook her off. “Eileen, I’ll ride you home,” David offered. Jim had made a beeline for the window. He picked up the newspaper I’d been sitting on and put it to the tip of his long nose, mock-inhaling. “The menstrual molecules embedded, ahh.” Josie’s face, frozen with disgust, was the last thing I saw.
I was running fast, my book bag slapping against my side like a punishment. After a few blocks, the pad was hanging so heavy and low between my legs that I had to slow down, afraid it would fall out of my underwear.
“Are you crying?” David rode up alongside me. His asking made me shed tears.
I choked out that I would never go back there. He said, Did I remember when the salt paste from the pumpkin seeds was smeared on my bottom lip and Jim made some crack about not swallowing all the sperm? I shook my head; I hadn’t heard that. Well, never mind, David said, but he’d stuck up for me that time. I looked into his lash-tangled eyes. His eyes were always a little droopy but I could tell he was high. I had to reach up to put my arm around David’s slight shoulders and squeeze. I said he was like a brother to me.
He held up his chin. The leaves spun in a circle next to his front bike wheel.
“Look, a witch, like Jim’s mother.” I started trudging through the leaves. David followed me. The leaves clung to my knee socks, making soft boots around my shins. “He needs to be killed,” I said. “I would tell my brother, but if my father found out I was in that store—” I was feeling vicious with truth. I turned to David. “You love Josie. So why go get her boyfriends?”
David’s face reddened, and without answering he rode off. But then he came riding back, his expression stricken. “I don’t—” he started.
“Don’t lie and I won’t tell her.”
“Okay, I do.” He reared on his pedals.
“I want Jim punished. If I was a boy—”
“If anything happens to my brother over there, I’ll kill that Quaker bastard myself.” David wiped his eyes with the arm of his jacket. He said the wind was making them water.
That night in bed, Jim’s watery blue eyes flashed before mine—fearful and triumphant at the same time. I thought that Josie might be in on some plot with him. Because she hadn’t gotten out her key. But I knew that was crazy.
And then it was Halloween and the Catholic schools had off because the trains were too dangerous and the next day was a holy day of obligation.
At the nine o’clock mass on All Saints’ Day, Lisa and Josie sat in the pew directly behind me. I was ignoring them but Josie pulled my hair several times until I turned around.
“Don’t be mad,” she whispered.
“She’s sorry,” Lisa added. “We had to wait outside until my aunt came home from work with the key. We were freezing.”
After communion I prayed for forgiveness to enter my heart.
Outside of church, Josie said, “Come see what happened last night.”
As the three of us walked to her apartment, both she and Lisa interrupted each other with details. Jim’s store had been broken into. No alarm, no gates. Too cheap, Josie said. Someone had smashed through the window and thrown all the stuff on the shelves to the floor. We turned the corner: heart-stopping spikes of glass made a huge starburst in the window. How the vandals had even stepped through the hole was something that would make you hold your breath.
The cousins were saying that neither the mother nor Jim had come out yet to clean up. Broken shards of quart-sized beer bottles were strewn all over the street. Most of the window glass had fallen back into the store, shattering onto the green linoleum. A large sign advertising Marlboro cigarettes hung sideways, the horse and cowboy swinging in and out of the gaping hole.
“My mother said maybe they did it themselves for the insurance,” said Josie. “Just made it look like Halloween vandalism. They weren’t making any money.”
David came riding down the block. “Trick or treat. You hear the big crash?”
Josie shook her head: the cousins had slept through the whole thing. We could tell by David’s face that he knew who did it. Josie demanded facts.
“I saw the afterwards. The mother had a coat over her nightgown and she was crying to the cops, Why? She opened the front door with a key even though you could step right in. She took the money out of the cash register. Once the cops saw it wasn’t robbery, they got less ballistic. One of them helped the mother load the car up with suitcases. And all the cigarettes. The whole time Jim is hiding in the car. The mother drove.”
“Who broke the window?” Josie demanded.
“It’s like Julius Caesar; everyone had to stab.”
“So then you did it too?” Josie’s voice leapt with delight.
“There were people you might know involved.” He turned to me, “Oh, yeah, and some dogs.”
I felt my legs give way. “How did the dogs not get caught on the glass?” I pretended that was the point.
“They can jump high.” David paused to look at our clothes. We were in dresses. “What—did you girls go to church? For a freakin’ holy day of obligation?” He seemed disappointed by our provincialism and rode off a little ways, circling in the street. There was too much glass on the sidewalk for him to chance riding where we were standing.
“I have to go back home. I didn’t tell my mother.” I wanted to get home to picture in private the dogs jumping through the jagged hole at Brett’s command, immediately knowing how to throw down the bags of flour and, in the mayhem, their black noses coming up white.
Josie rocked my hands with hers; she was chastened and sweet. “Call your mother from my house. We’ll go down city-line.” She went on with our new plans, completely ignoring David and the mess at our feet. “I want to buy a shirt for my birthday at Krepner’s.” Krepner’s was a skinny store owned by a skinny old man who somehow got the latest teenage styles. He didn’t even display them in the window; availability spread by word of mouth. “It’s a button down with a collar, all lace.” Josie was showing me with her hands. “You can see the whole bra so you wear the same color as the shirt.”
“Your mother won’t let you wear see-through!” I objected.
“I already asked my mother and she said yes,” Josie said. She and Lisa began to cross the street to her building, holding hands to sidestep glass shards and cracked eggshells and dried yolks smeared along the tar.
I hung back as David followed. The avenue was lined with trees, a merry procession linked by festoons of toilet paper. The leaves were turning: Norwegian maple leaves topaz but still fresh-looking, other maples blazing red in happy combustion against a blue sky. Only the pin oaks were stingy in releasing their brown leaves, the edges of each retracting like claws.
I suddenly knew the question to ask. “How long did it take?”
“A few minutes. Not long.” David instantly colored at being found out.
“You could’ve gotten caught,” I said.
“It was weird; I wasn’t that scared. It was fun.” His front wheel was wobbling because he’d slowed down too much. “Do you like Brett?”
I answered slowly because I knew he’d been put up to asking. “I’m so afraid of his dogs.”
“Me too.” David’s smile was sly and savoring.
“In church this morning, I prayed for your brother to come home safe.” I vowed that in the future I would.
Josie called impatiently from the front of her building.
“Thanks,” David said, and he looked so happy that I didn’t even feel I had lied.
Maura Candela is at work on a novel called The Love Dogs, which tells the story of the O’Reilly brothers and how the aftermath of 9/11 affects a town on the Queens/Nassau border.
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