A Song for Mary, Page 2Dennis Smith
I want to tell her that since I was just a baby my arm and my hand and my thumb and my thumbnail would have had to be little.
“Oh, how you howled, even after we bandaged it all up. You must have howled for three days. I felt so bad, because I guess I just wasn’t paying attention, but it does show you how you have to watch out for yourself in this world, and don’t ever rely on someone taking care of you. So if you lost the eraser job, there is not much you can do but find some other way that might bring you the joy and satisfaction that came from the erasers. You have to take care of yourself, Dennis.”
She is a pretty woman, Mommy is. I know because the guys on the street sometimes whistle to tease her. The sun is bouncing off the window box where we keep the milk in winter so that we do not have to buy ice to keep the milk cold. And her teeth are sparkling as she speaks. She reminds me of the pictures the nuns are always showing us of the saints and the Virgin and the Divine Trinity, where their heads are always in halos and shining, except for the Holy Ghost, who looks like a bird, and God, who looks like Moses. She wraps her arms around me now. She is always wrapping her arms around me and kissing me on the head.
Her voice sounds as if she is singing.
“I just let my eye wander for a moment, and there you were on the ground. Your own mother let you down. And now you have to find something to replace the erasers.”
“Are there any bottles?”
“Look under the tub, and I think you’ll find some. But change your shirt first.”
“What’s wrong with my shirt?”
She is always making me into a quick-change artist.
“Look at the collar. It’s dirty. Just remember that you’ll always think about yourself the way you feel you’re dressed. Do you feel dirty?”
“Well, you should feel dirty, because you don’t have a clean shirt on.”
“If I’m dressed like a circus clown, I’ll feel like a circus clown?”
“If I have big fireman’s boots on, I’ll feel like a fireman?”
“Maybe you need more than boots, because the boots alone might make you feel like a fisherman, but right now I want you to feel like a young man who is going out in the streets with a clean shirt.”
I want to ask her how I would feel if I was wearing Sue Flanagan’s clothes, because I would do anything to be that close to Sue Flanagan, but I know that she’ll just say that I’m being silly, and that Sue Flanagan is ten years older and I shouldn’t be thinking about her. But it’s like the faces. I can’t help it.
The bathtub is in the kitchen, next to the kitchen sink, and is topped by a shiny metal cover. It is too high for me to get into, and I have to use a kitchen chair to step into it when I have to take a bath. Taking a bath is something I have to do, like saying night prayers or doing homework. Sometimes Billy is doing homework at the kitchen table when I am taking a bath, and I flick water onto his page, which is always a mistake. If there was no place to run in the apartment, there was really no place to run in the bathtub, and he would give me knuckles until my mother came from the living room and reached for the belt. I don’t mind the belt so much when it stops Billy from giving me knuckles.
I study the three Rheingold bottles. They are in the shadow under the tub, and I can barely see them. They are worth six cents, but they are also pretty risky, I know. I can’t just pick them up, and so I put my hand in toward the bottles slowly, carefully, and shake one. I make as much noise as I possibly can, hoping that if there are any roaches there they will scurry away. I take the bottles out from under the tub, one by one, by the neck and with two fingers, and lay them side by side on the floor, rolling them over and over to make certain they are clear of the roaches.
Mommy told me that the builders put the roaches in the walls when they built the place because they had a grudge against the Irish and the Italians. There are fifty roaches in the walls for every one you see, and sometimes I think, when I am lying on the top bunk at night, that the walls are shaking with all the roaches running around behind the plaster. There are more roaches in my building than there are fish in all the five oceans, and I think that I could get used to just about anything, but I can never get used to roaches. Some nights I just can’t go to sleep thinking about the shaking walls.
Taking back the empties before my brother gets to them is always a special treat, and six cents is a penny more than we put in the collection basket at church. The sacrifice, my mother calls the collection. It could take a half hour at Abbie’s candy store on First Avenue to spend six cents, because it isn’t easy to decide between the candy corn, the dots on the sheet, the banana marshmallows, the juju fruits, the caps that I can bang with a rock on the pavement. All two-for-a-penny treats, and you have to fight through a crowd to get to them, for the boys in the neighborhood are always trying to create excitement in Abbie’s so that the old Jew doesn’t see them stuffing their pockets. The bottles are a chance-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and they come two or three times a week if my brother doesn’t get to them first. They are like an allowance. Anyway, the only kind of allowance I have.
But the bottles do not come without the risk. I once put an empty to my mouth and had to spit out a cockroach. If you do that once, you will never do it again, and so I turn the bottles upside down over the sink to drain them and then shove them into a paper bag.
At Rossi’s grocery I wait in line until Mrs. O’Bannon gets her roast pork sandwich, the guinea hero I dream about. Almost a foot long and oozing from the sides with mayonnaise sprayed with salt and pepper and topped with lettuce leaves, the roast pork is the most expensive one you can get at Rossi’s, except for the roast beef at sixty cents. We hardly ever get sandwiches, and when we do, it’s just salami or cheese, but I had the roast pork guinea hero once when Mr. Dempsey from the delicatessen on First Avenue gave me a half dollar for sweeping up, and Mommy said I could keep all of it.
The nickel and the penny chime together in my hand as I walk down the First Avenue hill in the shadow of St. John the Evangelist Church. My church. The traffic light changes as I am about to cross 55th Street, and I have to wait for a few moments for the cars to pass through from Sutton Place. I look next to me, at the twelve steps of the church, and decide to pay my Uncle Tommy a visit. A navigator, he went down with six others in a B-29. In a fog. In Bayonne, New Jersey, searching for an airport on their return from Germany. He had been on forty missions in the war, and so St. John’s put a plaque up just for him in the back of the church.
Forty missions in Germany and lost in Bayonne. My Uncle Pat says it is like winning the Kentucky Derby and then getting killed by your horse in the stall.
I genuflect at the back end of the center aisle and eye the red sanctuary lamp which signifies that Christ is present in the tabernacle. It is burning at the side of the altar. He was always there, I found out from Sister Maureen, except for the time between the three hours’ devotion on Good Friday and the first Mass on Easter Sunday, and I think that they would save a lot of candles if they just burned the red lamp when he wasn’t there.
The church is huge and beautiful, with paintings on the ceiling from one end to the other, and great big columns going down either side, maybe twenty or more of them. I walk up to the shrine of the Immaculate Conception at the small altar to the right and kneel before it. I always do this because the Virgin, her hands spread far apart, smiles at me in return for any kind of a request. She lived for requests and applications, Mommy says.
I know that I have to say a prayer, and so I begin the Hail Mary. I know all my prayers. Even the Hail Holy Queen, which took a long time to put into memory. The Hail Mary is easy, and you get to say a lot of them because that is what the priest always gives you for penance when you go to confession. Five Hail Marys and two Our Fathers is what I always get.
Confession is great, because if you did anything wrong you can just say it in confession and then forget about it. You don’t have to carry it aroun
d with you like a bag of bad apples over your shoulder.
I look up at the Immaculate Heart of Mary and wait for her to smile.
“Hail Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy wound, Jesus.”
I always think about this wound of Jesus, and what wound it is, and what kind of fruit they are talking about. I suppose it is the bloody gaping hole in his side where the soldiers put in a big spear, and I am thinking that the fruit might be bananas and oranges because I don’t think they grow apples in Bethlehem, which is the neighborhood Jesus comes from.
Today I ask the Immaculate Conception to make my father better, and she says she will and smiles at me. She doesn’t actually talk but gives me a message. I always close my eyes and think that I am swimming in the bottom of a deep well, and looking up I see just a small circle of light in the middle of the blackness, and there in the light is the Blessed Virgin.
Maybe, too, you can make sure that Uncle Tommy is in good shape up there. That he doesn’t need much.
Now it is time for the deal. What am I going to do in return for any favors? Last time I promised to wash the kitchen floor for Mommy, and so now I look up at the Virgin and promise to wear a clean shirt whenever I can remember. She seems to think that is a square deal, and so she smiles at me.
I return to the back of the church, which is really the front, and pass the big plaques with the names of all the St. John’s men who were in the wars. The first one and the Second World War. Uncle Tommy has his own plaque, a small one.
I never knew him, my Uncle Tommy, never even saw a picture of him, but whenever I look at his plaque, I invent his face, and I put words in his mouth, just like I do with my father. Sometimes I put my father and Uncle Tommy together in a room, and they always argue about what ball game they want to take me to, for I think my father likes DiMaggio and the Yankee Stadium and Uncle Tommy likes Pee Wee Reese and Ebbets Field.
And so I stand before the plaque and talk for a few minutes to my dead uncle, kiss my fingers, and touch the cold bronze of his name. Just next to him is the heavy wrought-iron poor box screwed to the wall, and I separate the penny from the nickel. For a second, I hold the penny up like an offering, and then I reluctantly drop it into the poor box and bless myself with the sign of the cross. I do not want to give the penny up, but I picture my mother saying that if you forget the poor of the world, the world will someday forget you. It is what I remember each time I pass the poor box. So there is no choice.
That is two rolls of caps, the poor-box sacrifice, but I still have the nickel for Abbie’s candy store, and a nickel will go a long way.
On the church steps, though, holding tight onto the black-painted handrail, I stop to think about the poor. Where were they? I don’t know any poor except those in Ireland that my grandfather talks about. He lives with my Aunt Kitty in Sunnyside, and he is always talking. I can hardly make out what he is saying, what with his brogue.
“D’poor wuz dare, a always be dare. Dey was ten o’ us ind a room an’ dare was a lot less meat dare den dare wuz some music and a bit a da song.”
He sounds like this, and he is always talking about music and being poor.
“You’re not poor if you don’t miss a meal, Pop,” my mother tells him.
Uncle Tommy would have laughed at that if he heard it. And my father.
There’s a family of coloreds that lives down on 54th Street, the only ones in the neighborhood. The father is the super there, and they don’t look like they’re as poor as colored people are supposed to be. They are all pretty fat. Like Mommy says, they don’t look like they miss many meals. But their clothes are always dirty, and they go to public school.
There are so many things I don’t know, like when people are poor and when they’re not, or what this decimal point is that Sister Maureen keeps talking about, or why my father can’t get better and come home.
And then there are so many other questions, like what is the story about the front of the church? Here I am standing on the steps of the church, and I know that, without an argument, this is the front of the church, but as soon as I walk into the church I am in the back of the church and have to walk all the way down the center aisle if I want to be in the front of the church again. So I guess there are two fronts of the church, but only one back.
C’mon already,” Abbie is saying, “there are things to do instead of waiting for you to make up your mind. What’s your name?”
“Moniker,” I say, because I might be seven but I know it means a different name. My Uncle Tracy always says that his name is Tracy, but his moniker is Your Lord Worship Tracy.
“Monica is a girl’s name,” Abbie says. “What’s your name?”
Abbie is always rushing you. If you have the nickel for an egg cream, he stands in front of you until you drink it, saying, “C’mon already.” And he always asks your name, so that if he catches you stealing, he can tell the cops if you squirm out of his grip. A lot of the guys in the neighborhood steal every time they go into Abbie’s.
“Just an old Jew,” the guys say, “that gots lots of dough. He’ll never miss a little candy.”
I guess everybody thinks that stealing candy from Abbie is like stealing a pair of leather gloves from Bloomingdale’s or a million dollars from the Rockefellers. There is a lot more where it came from, money and stuff, or Abbie’s candy, and it will never be missed.
So it’s probably a venial sin, and you’ll get a few Hail Marys in confession, and it will be over.
But if you steal a nickel from an old widow woman that’s on pension, you are sure to go to hell. Because that kind of sin is worse. No one ever said why.
Mommy says that if you steal from somebody one day, the next day you’ll lie to somebody else, and your life will be worth nothing, because nobody loves a liar. If you’re a liar, you’ll never have a true friend, and what’s the point of being alive if you don’t have true friends?
I have red wagon wheels in one pocket, and licorice in the other, and a bagful of Good & Plenty. It is like a miracle what a few beer bottles will do. Abbie is now helping someone who wants an egg cream, and I could put a hundred wagon wheels in my pocket. But I guess Abbie paid for that candy, and if everyone stole some, Abbie would wonder what he paid for when he looks at the empty tray.
Kips Bay Boys Club is just around the corner on 52nd Street, and I am going there to have a game of Ping-Pong, and maybe pool if the big boys ever left a table free. Near the corner, I see Peter Shalleski and his brother Harry, who is my brother Billy’s age. I know that I should put my Good & Plenty in a pocket as soon as I see Shalleski, but he is on me before I can take another step, punching like he was wound by a twisted rubber band. The bag of miniature white and pink logs goes out of my hand, and the candy spills everywhere, across the sidewalk, into the gutter, all over First Avenue. I am so mad that Shalleski does this. I want to fight back, but Shalleski has me by my shirt collar, screaming about his twisted ear, and how I got him into trouble with Sister Maureen.
What is the matter with me? I am frozen with something. I am not afraid. It’s a kind of mixed-up feeling. I’m getting smashed and I can’t help thinking that Shalleski shouldn’t be doing this. Why does Shalleski have to punch and knuckle people all the time?
Shalleski is just a little bigger than me, not much. I could dodge him, and floor him with a roundhouse on the blind side, like I heard on the radio at the Joe Louis fight. Why don’t I know how to hit him, instead of just putting my hands up to protect myself?
Shalleski is yelling with every punch. “Take that, you sonofabitch,” he is saying.
Stop, stop, stop, I am thinking as I press my arms into my face.
Finally, Shalleski stops, I guess because I am not fighting back.
No one says anything, not another word. The two brothers just walk away, and I look at my candy all over the ground.
Could I kiss it up to God? Is there any of
it that isn’t too dirty to pick up? No, I am thinking. I don’t want it because it’s now dirty like the devil’s ashes. Shalleski did that, and someday I will make him pay for it.
Both my ears hurt, and I feel the blood at my nose. I put my fingers to the top of my lip. It’s not dripping too much, and so I throw my head back as I walk down 52nd Street.
Archie is standing at the top of the stairs at Kips. He is always there if he isn’t playing dodgeball in the lower gym.
“Where’s your club card?” Archie asks.
“Come on, Archie,” I say, “you know me.”
“Doesn’t matter if I’m your brother or something, you have to have the card.”
I have the black “midgets’ card,” the youngest age group. Midgets can just go to the lower gym to play school yard games, but the intermediates, like Billy, can use their gray card to play full-court basketball on the third floor.
I know that Billy will be in the upper gym. He’s always playing basketball, or baseball, or reading. Mommy goes to the library every week to get the books, and Billy always reads them.
I have lived with Billy all my lifetime, and when you live with someone, you don’t think a lot about them. They are just there like the kitchen sink. But, recently, I’ve been thinking that Billy has been pretty good with me, making sure I learn things that he has found out, like how to play rummy.
A few weeks ago he took me to Kips to teach me how to play Ping-Pong. We were hanging around 56th Street, doing nothing, and he just grabbed me by the neck, and like that we walked to Kips. All the while he was telling me that to get good at any sport where there is a ball, you just have to keep your eye on it, maybe just a little bit of your eye, but never take your eye off the ball completely for even half a second because someone was sure to do something just right then that you don’t expect.
Since he took me to Kips for that Ping-Pong game, I have been playing as much as I can, and now I am getting pretty good at it.