Today I saw the man who hurt me. He was standing in front of the deli drinking a can of beer. He was short and round like a barrel, dark-haired and dark-eyed. I was walking to the red house with my father to pick up his railroad check. He knows everybody in the neighborhood and has to stop to talk to each one of them it seems; his words buzz about my head like bees. My mother says he could talk a door off its hinge. We are hardly out the door when we stop and talk to Mr. Condemi who is cranking out the striped awning in front of his shoe repair shop when we pass by.
“Any news?” he asks my father.
“Nothing, Dominic, you know the cops.”
“Don’t worry, Ned, he’ll get his.” He pulls a Turkish Taffy out of his pocket and leans down to me. “You come see me for the best heel in the store next time you play Potsy, Peggy.”
The bigger kids send me in for the heels because he always gives me the best ones from the throwaway pile. “You’re his favorite,” they say, but I know I’m just the gofer. I don’t mind because I love the smell of leather and glue, the sawdust on the floor in his shop. I sit on the red leather seats in the booth and kick the swing door to the rhythm of Mr. Condemi singing along with the opera on his radio. “O Mio Bambino,” he sings as he smooths out the rough edges of the leather sole on the upside down iron foot. He’s like an artist, making my scuffed oxfords look brand new. My father told me he lost his oldest boy during the war in France.
As we pass by the deli, the man who hurt me smiles. I guess it’s not so much a smile but a grin, an ugly grin. I tug my father’s sleeve as he searches for his matches, first in his shirt pocket, then in his pants. I tug again. I think I might throw up.
“What, child?” he says.
“There’s the man,” I say.
“What man?” My father lights his cigarette and glances in the direction of the deli. “That bastard. That bloody, arrogant bastard,” he says.
The bastard grins again.
“Don’t worry,” my father says, squeezing my hand a bit too tight. “I know where that boyo works.” He says this more to himself than to me before stomping out the cigarette under his shoe and pulling me down the street.
Earlier today, my father and I attended mass with my mother who always attends on the First Friday, which is devoted to the Sacred Heart. Mamma says you receive truly special blessings if you make nine First Fridays like a novena. “Lord knows, we need those blessings now more than ever,” she says. I was surprised my father went with us because he hardly ever goes to mass, even on Sundays. “It’s a sad example you’re setting for the children,” I once heard her say to him.
When Monsignor shook my father’s hand after mass, I counted the buttons on his long black gown from the bottom up because I have a nickel bet with a friend on the exact number. “I’m praying for you all,” he said. He must get up at dawn just to close those buttons.
“I’m praying, too,” my father said.
“I hope that’s all you’re doing, Ned,” Monsignor said as he placed his hand on my head.
“It’s easy for you to talk, Monsignor, you not having any children, how hard it is…”
“Ned,” my mother said, catching him by his elbow.
“Pray, Ned. Be patient,” Monsignor said as he turned to enter the rectory.
My father and I quickly continue our walk down 138th Street, past Levy’s Hardware, past PS 9, past The Casino Theater on Willis Avenue. Last Saturday we saw The Three Stooges who I think are goofy because when we come out of the theater, the boys keep hitting us girls over the head with their caps. Boys are so stupid. Then we pass St. Jerome’s and walk towards The Harlem River. The whole time I take two steps to my father’s one.
Saturday morning the sun shines on the fire truck parked in front of our building across the street from the firehouse. It’s only 9AM but I yell up to Mrs. Golden on the third floor who cushions her plump arms on pillows on the windowsill. “Can Margie and Ellie come down?” Margie and Ellie Golden are both in school and soon I will be, too. I can’t wait. They’re both lots taller than me but I can read fat books like Hans Brinker better than them because Mamma has always taken me to the library to checkout books, which I read over and over again until I’ve memorized them. Sometimes Margie and Ellie come with us because Mrs. Golden is so fat it’s hard for her to walk that far. She spends most of her time looking out the window. My father calls her our local guardian angel because she sees everything that happens on our street.
On the day the man grabbed me on the stairs, I had been playing in Mrs. Golden’s apartment. After everything calmed down, I heard her apologize to my parents. “I should have taken her down to you,” she said weeping. I never saw Mrs. Golden cry before.
“She’s gone up and down those stairs a hundred times without a problem, Helen,” my mother said. “Don’t blame yourself.”
“Whatever it takes,” Mrs. Golden said to my father, as she dabbed her eyes with a flowered hanky. “Whatever it takes.”
“Let the police do their work,” my mother said looking at both Mrs. Golden and my father.
The older kids told me Mrs. Golden runs the numbers on our street. She takes bets, but on what I don’t know. I see her long-legged son dashing in and out of buildings delivering winnings in brown paper lunch bags.
A month has passed since the great blue bear of a policeman sat in our kitchen asking me questions. My mother has taken me to the police station three times since then but my father keeps saying nothing is being done.
I love the firemen because while they polish the brass bell and wash down the sides of their truck, they let us kids play on the ladder or in the driver’s seat. They even ring the siren for us. On hot summer nights, they open the hydrants so we can run through the sprinkler. Today, my father walks over to the firemen smoking cigarettes in a small circle by the truck. One has an American eagle tattooed on his right forearm. The more my father speaks, the tighter the circle becomes. When he points towards the deli, the firemen nod their heads. Then my father tips his tweed cap to Mrs. Golden. His blue eyes sparkle.
Ever since the man hurt me, my mother won’t let me walk upstairs alone, even to play with my friends. “But I’m almost six,” I keep reminding her, even though I’m still a little scared.
“But it happened in the hall,” she says, as she tugs too hard with the comb to remove the knots from my long hair. Every time I go out the door, my mother tells my older sister to go with me.
When I play Potsy or I Declare War, my sister butts in the game with her know-it-all friends. Last night, the one with the buckteeth told us a story about the Super of 537 who murdered a ten-year-old girl, chopped up her body, and buried her in the basement of the building. “I think that’s bunk,” my sister said. “People make up stories like that so girls like us stay tied to their mother’s apron strings.”
“I think it’s bunk, too,” I said, but no one was listening. Still, whenever my sister and I walk past 537, we both hug the curb more closely.
On my birthday my sister took me to mass to celebrate. “Today is also the day on which Blessed Maria Goretti was slain rather than give up her purity,” she said, as we kneeled next to each other on the hard wooden kneelers.
“What’s slain?” I asked.
“Murdered,” she said. “Slain like they say in Robin Hood.”
“I guess it’s clean like Ivory Soap. You know how Mamma always makes us scrub our ears and nails? How ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’? Maria Goretti was slain because she didn’t want to give up being good.”
“That’s silly,” I said. “Maybe that’s a made up story, too.”
“It may be silly to you, but Sister told us about it and she doesn’t lie, and she also said Maria Goretti is blessed now and soon she’ll be canonized a Saint.”
“Canonized, like she’ll be shot out of a canon?”
“Very funny, Peg. She’ll have a feast day and be on a calendar and in a Missal.”
“Do you think if I’m good I’ll get that, too? I should be canonized just for kneeling on these kneelers. Saint Peggy O’Toole. How does that sound?”
“Shhh,” my sister said, as the altar boy rang the tiny gold bell and Monsignor climbed the marble steps to the altar.
“I want my feast day in August so there’s no school and it’s not near my birthday or Christmas so I don’t get cheated on presents.”
“You’ll be dead, stupid,” my sister said as she pressed her index finger against her lips. Monsignor mumbled something in Latin and we both stood.
The following Friday as Dad and I get ready to go for our walk, my mother looks up from The Daily News and pulls off her glasses. “Dear God,” she says to my father. I’m sitting opposite her, gagging on mushy oatmeal and prunes in a striped bowl. On the box of Diamond Crystal Shaker Salt sitting in front of me, there’s a picture of a boy holding a box of salt with a picture of a boy holding a box of salt and so on and so on. I always stare at the box and think of how the picture goes on and on forever—there’s no end to it—like the priest says about hell. But lately when I stare at it, I feel I’m falling and falling and falling backwards, and I hear myself screaming, sticky spoon in hand, “I’ll eat my oatmeal, I’ll eat my oatmeal, I promise I’ll eat my oatmeal!”
“What?” my father says to my mother.
“Go pack your library books,” my mother says to me. “You can return them on your way home.” I jump up delighted to leave the oatmeal uneaten. I leave the room but stand by the living room door to listen. “A man was almost beaten to death in the basement of 613,” she says. “His face was so bad they haven’t identified him. They smeared shoe polish all over his face and in his hair. No ID.”
“A robbery, no doubt,” my father says, sipping his tea.
“No, according to this, the police don’t think so. It wouldn’t have been necessary to beat him so severely. They think it was done by more than one man.” I had to creep closer to the kitchen to hear what she said next because she was almost whispering. “The thing is, Ned,” she says, “his description sounds a lot like the description of that man. He was short, fat, dark-haired. I think I’ll call the detective who interviewed us.”
“I’m sure the police are on it,” my father says. “I wouldn’t worry yourself. Just prepare the sole for supper. We’ll be back late, I’m taking Peg for a special treat today at the diner.”
As my father and I walk down the front steps of our building, the firemen are sitting on milk crates playing Dominoes outside the firehouse. The American eagle guy runs across the street to us and says, “Rub my tattoo to bring me good luck, Peg.” He grabs me about my waist and swings me in a circle, singing “Peg of My Heart.” My father joins in. Then the fireman rubs his hands together and blows on them like he’s tossing dice. Both he and my father give our local guardian angel whose hair is all fluffed up, a thumb’s up. She thumbs back. When we pass by Mr. Condemi’s store front, he stands behind the upside down foot hammering the nails he takes from his mouth into a shoe. With his free hand, he waves backward to us like the Pope.
Liz Dolan’s poetry manuscript, A Secret of Long Life, nominated for the Robert McGovern Prize, will be published by Cave Moon Press in 2014. Her first poetry collection, They Abide, was published by March Street. A six-time Pushcart nominee and winner of The Best of the Web, she has also won an established artist fellowship in poetry and two honorable mentions in prose from the Delaware Division of the Arts. She recently won The Nassau Prize for prose. She has received fellowships from The Atlantic Center for the Arts and Martha’s Vineyard. Liz serves on the poetry board of Philadelphia Stories.