At first I dreaded the weekly bath that came along with rich living. I was sure that, of all the mothers of the seven families who shared that bathroom, mine was the only one that ever took the time to clean it. She sanctified the big claw foot tub with Clorox every Saturday night just before she marched us down the hall for a bath, whether we needed it or not. In her zeal to keep us clean, she nearly scrubbed our skin off. We had moved in and out of day rooms when we could afford it, but I had a feeling that, this time, my mother was going to make sure it was permanent. The room we rented was high dollar. There was a gas stove in one corner, a sink in another, a big bed along the wall on the other side of the room, and a table with four chairs between it and the stove. At the end of the room, a fold-down Murphy bed was built into the wall. For another twenty-five cents a day, we could have had an icebox, but my dad wouldn’t hear of that.
In the winter we put all of our food in a wooden box outside the window. The rats couldn’t get at it there, but the damned squirrels drove my mother crazy until my father started trapping them. When snared, they made horrible noises until my father cracked them in the head with a ball-peen hammer he kept by the window. He said it was the merciful thing to do.
I was surprised at how much they looked like rats when they were skint out, though they tasted pretty good. Tasty as they were, I got tired of fresh squirrel meat and cornmeal gravy every night. At the end of a summer of sour milk and spoiled meat, Dad grudgingly gave up the extra two bits for the icebox. High living had a price.
Around daylight every morning the iceman sang out in a clear voice that roused us from our beds. I loved going down with my brother, lard bucket in hand, to get the daily nickel blocks of ice. While he got the ice, I scrambled around with the other kids catching chips caused by the pick the ice monger used to separate the blocks. After we emptied the water from the night before and delivered the block to the bottom of the icebox, we shared the shards of ice that were mostly cold water in the bucket by the time we got around to them.
My folks left for work before we woke, so after we got the ice, we reported to our next-door neighbor for powdered doughnuts and chocolate milk before we set off for school. Edith was easily the prettiest girl I had ever known. She was my mother’s best friend, and she took care of us during the day when we were off from school. I thought her kind and gentle nature made her seem strangely out of place, and for someone who had a tragic past she was surprisingly happy. Her radiance softened the meanest people when she turned her smile on them. That radiance served as armor against everyone except her husband. It made no sense to me the way he beat her every night. She had married Lester Cross the year before last when she was fourteen. It embarrassed me, but I had a crush on Edith.
At first she didn’t work except to take care of me, but after a while my mother got her a job at the casket company. I missed her, but I got to see her everyday after school when my brother and I walked down to the factory with a hundred other kids to wait for our moms to get off work.
During the daily parade the women walked and gossiped and their children played and fought along the few blocks back up to heart of the inner city. At first the other kids teased me because I liked to hold Edith’s hand more than I liked to play with them, but they gave it up after a while.
When we got home on Fridays, we waited for the ice cream man to ride up on his bicycle. He always had a good supply of Popsicles and drumsticks. It was a tradition with my Dad that we got ice cream every Friday, and if the other kids were lucky, Dad was drunk and he bought one for anybody who got in line. Once he made the mistake of buying one for Edith. When the cold made her nipples hard I felt myself flushing as I stared at them. As I turned away I realized every man on the street had been staring. Word got back to Cross I guess, because he beat her up so bad she couldn’t go to work for a week. Every time someone whistled at Edith, she got a beating, and no matter how hard she tried to hide her good looks, she couldn’t. Once Cross beat her so badly that she was laid up for a month and the cops took him off to the workhouse. The judge gave her a thirty-day vacation from the son-of-a-bitch. When Edith got evicted because she couldn’t pay the rent, my mother took her in and nursed her back to health. Though my brother grumbled about it, I didn’t mind that my mother gave Edith the Murphy bed as long as I got a pallet on the floor next to her. I often woke up in the night and watched her silhouetted body quiver through her nightclothes as she stood in the moonlit window crying. In return for my mother’s hospitality, Edith watched over me again. She didn’t eat until I was full, and she used the little money she had tucked away to buy me treats at the corner candy store. The last thing I did at night was reach out to hold her hand, and I forced myself to wake up early so I could watch her sleep. It got so I preferred to cuddle with her on weekends rather than my family.
Edith’s husband got out of jail, and word got around that he was a changed man. It wasn’t long before he came sniffing around again like an old horny dog. He found out that Edith was with us and came one night to beg forgiveness. He swore a thousand oaths to God that he would never lay hands on her again. After a week of hard groveling she took the worthless piece of crap back. As promised, he was true to his word --- for almost a whole week. From then on the beatings were less severe but more frequent. Before long it was back to business as usual though he was careful to stop short of a beating that would land him back in jail. The cops didn’t mind if a man beat his wife as long as he didn’t leave too many marks or kill her.
The first time I ever saw a naked woman was when Cross mauled Edith and threw her out into the hall without a stitch of clothes. I watched her with a sick fascination that stirred something inside me that I had never felt before. It made my stomach hurt, and shame overwhelmed me though I had only a vague idea why. My mother sent my old man over to talk to Cross. I followed in the shadows to watch. It took Cross a while to answer the door, and when he saw who it was, he tried to slam it, but my old man put his shoulder against it, pinning Cross against the wall. My dad spoke in a low dangerous voice that I only heard when he was really mad. “My wife sent me over here to tell you that if you ever do that to Edith again I am to come over and kick the shit out of you, and that is exactly what I’ll do.” Old Cross who was struggling to catch his breath was shaken’ like a dog shittin’ razorblades. Dad growled, “You understand?” Cross waggled his head up and down from behind the door where he was trapped, and with that my dad let him go. Cross watched him until Dad got halfway to our place, then he slammed the door and shouted, “Kiss my ass!” Pop turned abruptly and headed for the door to Cross’s apartment. When he got there, he didn’t bother to knock; he just splintered door and after a struggle just out of sight, Cross flew out. The floor shook as he slammed into the wall across the wide hall. My dad followed and stood over him. “I don’t think I made my point.” With that he kicked the hell out of Cross. “This is my last warning!” While Cross was begging and crying for him to stop, I high-tailed it back to our place and waited for Dad. I was always proud of him, but never as much as I was that day.
There must have been some code of how far a man could go when beating his wife. The little talk my old man had with Cross must have worked because he never put her out in the hall again though we all knew he stepped up the abuse behind closed doors.
Dad always said, “He must be good in bed if she puts up with that shit.” I had no clue what that meant when I nodded and returned his wink though, I figured, that must have been the only place where he was nice to Edith. Cross, who was a sometime security guard, used an old pair of handcuffs to shackle Edith to the cook-stove in their room on Friday nights while he went out drinking. With the help of the fatback grease she kept on the stove, she usually slipped out of them and joined us on the fire escape where we talked and laughed the nights away. In the winter my mom made vanilla snow cream, which Edith loved. Mom even gave her the secret family recipe.
Edith was always careful to say please and thank you, and she made sure I got the last bite from her bowl. If the snow cream made me shiver, she was quick to wrap me in a quilt and warm me with her body, often kissing me to sleep. I grew to love Edith, and I think she loved me.
My mother whispered, “I wish her baby hadn’t died. It would have been a comfort to her.”
“Her milk soured and poisoned it. ” “Why didn’t she get milk from the store?”
“Her man told her they didn’t have no money to waste on store-bought milk.”
“Too bad she didn’t give him some of that poisoned milk.”
Mom gave me a half-hearted, “Now,” to show her Christian nature.
Edith always sat with us while Mom went out to search for my old man when he went on a drunk. That usually took half the night. We often went over to her room when my brother was gone out with his friends. She ironed clothes and I played. The iron was old and heavy as lead, and it wore her out as she used it to put the razor-like creases in her husband’s pants. When she got tired, we cuddled up next to one another in her big chair and waited to hear “Love Me Tender” on the hit parade before we drifted off to sleep. I began to doze in dreams that I was afraid to recall in the daylight. I don’t know how she managed it, but I always woke up back in my own bed.
By the time I was ten, I despised Cross so much that I plotted ways to kill him. Often times when I thought of Edith, I had to hide out in the bathroom for fear someone would see me and make fun of the huge bulge I got in my pants when I did. Between what my brother and his friends called “thrashing the monster,” and thinking of Edith, I plotted ways to do away with Cross.
At the climax of one of my bathroom sessions, it struck me that I could drop something out the window onto his head, so I watched every day to see when he usually got home. After several days I discovered it was always at the same time, give or take five minutes either way.
I got a jar of my mom’s pickled beets and set it on the windowsill. The first day I put it close to the edge, hoping it would fall of its own accord. That night he knocked Edith senseless and left her cuffed tight to the stove while he went on a drunk.
I spent the next day in the bathroom plotting how I would kill him until I was so exhausted that I had to sleep for several hours. At the end of the day I got up and found an iron skillet and made it teeter, still afraid to take responsibility for the murder I longed to commit. That night I watched through the fire escape window as he held her face down in a pan of dishwater until she passed out. The next day I hid in shame because I was too much of a coward to help Edith. I intended to play hooky again and hatch a real plan to kill Cross. When I got to the bathroom the light was already out. I just figured the bulb was blowed, which was okay by me because I didn’t want it on anyway. I locked the door and began one of my planning sessions, and right at the crucial moment, I was shocked to hear stifled laughter. My God, I wasn’t alone. Oh, Jesus! Everyone would know I was a pervert. “Who’s there? I got a knife.”
With that, Janie Igner twisted the bulb. There I was with my pants and underwear around my ankles and my pecker in my hand. To make matters worse, she wasn’t alone. A red-faced Peggy Cherry stood not three feet away gawking at my crotch. I was mortified, but Janie had a strange look on her face that made me nervous. As I jerked at my pants she strode across the room and checked my frantic hands.
“It’s okay. We won’t tell nobody.” She turned to Peggy who still hadn’t moved.
Peggy made a low groan, but did not move. Janie had her hands on my arms to prevent me from getting my pants up, and in a soothing voice she whispered, “Let me see it.”
I struggled hard to get away, but Janie wouldn’t let me go, and to my surprise, Peggy joined her and they both held on to me until the tug-of-war made us all fall on the floor. As the struggle ensued, they began to giggle, and so did I. I finally gave up and let them have their way with me. Between bursts of laughter, they got my pants back down around my knees and put their faces very close to my pecker.
I drew the line when Peggy tried to touch it. I clamped my hands over it and did not loosen my grip until Janie said, “ What will it take to let us touch it?”
I froze in fright, but began to think of what I wanted to let them examine IT. There was a long silence before I broke it with what I thought was the most original thought ever uttered. “I want to see yours.”
They looked at each and giggled loudly.
I blurted out, “I want to see them both.”
They stopped laughing and turned with the same weird look on their faces. Janie didn’t hesitate for a second. She was out of her bloomers in a heartbeat, but Peggy did not move. When Janie jumped her, I joined in immediately and we wrestled Peggy’s drawers down to her ankles. There I was, face to face with Peggy’s peeper. After a little bit, she stopped struggling and I got a real good look, and as if she felt left out, Janie raised her skirt so I could see hers too.
For some reason Janie got on top of me and pushed me down on Peggy. We lay there in a ball for a good two hours. At one point Janie got to moaning, and I started breathing hard, and Peggy got to gasping for breath. It was the strangest, most exciting experience of my life though all we really did was lay there on each other. When it was all said and done, I felt like a guilty limp rag. Janie finally got up and pulled Peggy out from under me. They hunted around until they found their panties, and after Janie looked to see that the coast was clear, they left. I didn’t get up until there was a knock on the door. It was my mother, who asked me if I was sick. I said I was and she helped me off to bed.
When I woke up that afternoon I was in time to fling my mom’s biggest iron stew pot at Edith’s old man. I don’t know if it was dumb luck or good aim, but it clanged as it glanced off of the top of his head. Though there was a lot of blood and commotion as they carried him upstairs, he didn’t die. At least he was laid up for a week, which gave Edith some time to heal. Lucky Mom didn’t use that pot much.
I heard them fighting shortly after Edith nursed him back to health, and I went out on the fire escape to peek into their room. With the windows open to catch the summer breeze, I could hear everything. She was naked again and he was beating the hell out of her when I jumped in through the window. I grabbed her heavy iron that was still plugged into the light socket and when he turned to confront me, I cracked him in the head. I dazed him but he cold cocked me before I could hit him again.
While I was out, I had a series of disturbing dreams that had Janie and Peggy urging me to put my head up under Edith’s skirt and take a good look at a big peeper. I woke up later back at my place with a busted nose. As my mother cradled me she said, “You’re too little to get between a growed man and his wife. That’ll get you kilt.”
My dad whispered, “Next time use that Louisville Slugger you got for your birthday.”
While Edith’s husband beat her again later that night, he shouted, “I’ll kill that little bastard if I ever catch you with him again.” He screamed every vile name he could think up while he gave her another savage beating. It was weeks before she could come out in the daylight.
She never came out on the fire escape again. When I went to knock on her window, the shades were pulled, and she didn’t bother to acknowledge that I was even there. She never came over again, and she began crossing the street to avoid me.
About the time her bruises healed and the bandages came off, I noticed she began to sneak out when Cross was at the bars. She got all painted up and put on tight sweaters, ironed her hot-pink pedal pushers and began to frequent beer joints in the red-light district. Over the next couple of years, I often saw her letting men feel her up and slobber all over her when I was out on the streets, shining shoes. Those same men began to follow her home as she staggered out of the late-night dives along the strip. At first they just felt her up, kissed her hard, and fondled her breasts and ass, but then they started stopping in the alley next to our building to take turns banging her up against the wall. I tried to get Dad to help her, but he said they weren’t really hurting her and made me go to bed.
Cross was too chicken-shit to confront the men, so he contented himself with beating her after they stumbled off home. I guess she figured she might as well do what she was accused of if she had to take the beatings for it.
I got so jealous I wanted to hit her myself. Her husband finally gave her one last good pounding that would have landed him in jail again if he hadn’t run off. Before he left he pronounced her a worthless whore to everyone who would listen.
From then on her door was always open to everyone but me. There was a man every night, sometimes two and three. I grew to hate the sounds she made with the new men more than I did the sounds of the beatings her old man had given her. I often sneaked over to watch the men she brought home rut and grunt on top of her. I was shocked by the violence of the act, and then I was fascinated. Was that what men and women really did together?
My mother finally caught me and pronounced me a “filthy little peeping tom!”
That was the only time she ever used the razor strap on me, and I never peeped again when she could have caught me. The bigger Edith’s client list got, the more my imagination went wild with writhing bodies doing things I couldn’t quite understand. The sounds that came through the walls drove me so mad with jealousy that I thought I would go out of my mind. I had to make her stop!
I waited one night until all of the erotic noises died in groans. When I was sure my family was asleep, I got out of bed; put on my clothes, coat and gloves; and went out onto the fire escape. I watched at the window until the man she was with threw some money on the bed and left. I waited to be sure he was gone before I quietly opened the window and crept into the room. I watched her for the longest time, hoping she was asleep, thinking of what she had become.
I stripped silently, and after hesitating for a while, I climbed in next to her. She opened her eyes slowly, expecting one of her johns. A flicker of shock came over her, but then she did a curious thing. She smiled and kissed me in a new way. I had trouble catching my breath. I kissed her back again and again and that night I finally knew why those men were anxious to pay her to rut around with them. I could not believe what I felt as I lay there spent.
After a little while she pulled my face up and looked into my eyes, but that smile disappeared in revulsion as she pushed me away violently. Shame flooded my mind and paralyzed my body. After a moment of indecision, I pushed my way back into the bed, and she shoved me out onto the floor, glaring at me. I made one last attempt to get back into the bed but she shoved me again and screamed, “Get dressed and get out!”
I obeyed. When I was fully dressed right down to my gloves, I turned to look at her for what I somehow knew would be the last time. As she lay there with her eyes closed, I remembered something my dad said to me about the squirrels we caught before he put them out of their misery.
“It’s cruel to let them suffer.”
That phrase echoed in my mind as I picked up the cold iron, which Edith had used so often, and brought it down on her head. Her startled eyes opened then closed slowly as she seemed to smile at me again. I was sure she was inviting me to end her misery? I hit her so many times that I lost track, then after I don’t know how long, I stopped and put the iron down. I took off my gloves so I could touch her one last time. The warmth I had always known with her turned to the icy cold of death as I held her.
I could not bear to leave her until I had cleansed her of the filth that had been ground into her life. I washed her blood-matted hair, and I bathed her clear, white skin from her temples to her slender feet. No one, I was determined, would be able to say she had been dirty. I changed the bedclothes, put her in the dress she had worn to be baptized and left her, finally, at rest.
It was still dark when I eased myself off the bed and let her hands lie where they fell. I climbed back out onto the fire escape and went down to the basement boiler room. After taking off all my bloody clothes and burning them in the furnace, I sneaked, naked, up the stairs into the bathroom to wash myself. I made it back to our room without anyone ever knowing what I had done.
Several days later the landlord used his passkey to open her door when neighbors complained of the smell coming from her apartment. The women at the factory took up a collection; with that and her discount, Edith was buried in a fine casket lined with pink satin.
The cops took as many statements as they could get from normally tight-lipped neighbors. The ones who would talk testified that Cross had beaten Edith regularly ever since their baby had died and that lately she had begun to whore around. After a quick, sloppy investigation, the police pronounced it murder and arrested her husband. The newspapers printed lurid pictures of the crime scene and the headlines echoed in the judge’s verdict that it had been a “crime of passion.”