I’LL GIVE YOU POISON
(Excerpt from a novel in progress)
“They looked like two children,” she told me. And that thought frightened her, because she always felt that only children are capable of everything.
—- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold
Dog Lady must’ve been a regular person once, before she got to the sorry state she wound up in when we kids watched her daily shuffle along the street in dirty slippers and threadbare bathrobe. She wielded a long crooked branch, Whitey the dog limping along, nipping at her sagging socks. Nip might not be the right word for Whitey. He couldn’t move fast enough at the end of his life to nip his mistress’s or anyone’s socks. Maybe poked better describes how his rheumy snout nudged Dog Lady’s ankles while she coaxed candy wrappers, bottle caps and crumbling brown leaves along the curb, heading them to the sewer. She fed any old trash through oval holes and slots at the top of the iron grate, which didn’t keep much from passing through and falling into the black water of the city’s drainage system. One kid said he watched the DPW dredge up a full horse head from the sludgy sewer muck with their steel jaw machine. We never saw anything like a horse head. But that brutally hot 1967 summer we waited each day for the arrival of the machine, and hoped for the resurrection of little Carl Gallagher’s toys: dump truck and fire engine, milk delivery van and sporty Corvette, a plastic machine gun, and one full size, twenty-nine ounce Adirondack Slugger. A few weeks earlier, we – my so-called best friend D.R. and I
– had dropped them in the sewer, just to hear the toys plop. They had floated on the surface. Only the Slugger sank. D.R. said there must’ve been some kind of metal in the center of the bat, though I knew, first, that real bats weren’t allowed to be anything but wood in those days, and second, D.R. made up the explanation to hide one more thing he didn’t know about. Right after we had tossed them that day, little Carl ratted us out, crying over his sunk toys.
“They were poison,” D.R. told his mom while we stood in front of their house. He winced as Mrs. R whacked him around the corner, back to the sewer, then dragged us both to apologize to the kid, just five, way younger than us, and Mrs. Gallagher, too. Mrs. R got D.R. first and then me, forced our faces inches from the sewer’s grate to view the unfetchable red, yellow and blue plastic, bobbing in fetid water.
“See that?” she said. “You put the goddamn toys in shit water.” She whacked us twice more.
The real trouble came two weeks later, the hellish last ones of the summer. August 15, to be exact.
“I saw Dog Lady throw a baby down there,” Frankie, D.R.’s brother, told us. We were sitting on the curb next to our sewer, catty corner from Dog Lady’s.
Fourteen to our twelve, smart as hell, Frankie was born deaf, so in those days he got called dumb, too. Deaf and dumb, even though he could speak almost as well as any of us. Saying the phrase to his face made him crazy, so D.R. did it whenever he could. Frankie wore thick glasses and a hearing aid that buzzed, squealed, and which D.R. declared sent out signals to attract flies and cockroaches.
“No way, dumb ass,” D.R.said, though he hustled over to Dog Lady’s sewer, scrunched his face against the grate for a look. “How could you see any baby?” His forehead and cheek bore the imprint of the oval opening, skin pocked with grit like heavy duty sandpaper.
“It’s gone, you dope. She weighed it down.”
“You’re the dope, Frankie.”
Me? I liked Frankie, or at least liked that he owned a great collection of Thor, Hulk and Silver Surfer comics that he let me bring home. I kept them under my bed, read each as many times as I wanted, returned them with jelly stains and bread crumbs. Frankie never asked where they were or cited any problem at all with the returned reading material. He was closing in on Eagle Scout, already a patrol leader, an altar boy to boot. No reason for him to make things up. He even went to the grocery store for Dog Lady, getting Whitey each week’s worth of doggie treats, no matter that D.R. chucked mud balls at the lame mutt. I couldn’t figure why Frankie would lie.
“You’ll see,” Frankie said. “Maybe it’s from their plantation.”
Not fifteen minutes later, the dredging machine showed up. Five fat DPW workers came along with the dump truck and the crane that held the steel jaws. All the men but the crane operator stood around as we watched from mid-block, pushed back by the workers. The machine’s fierce teeth dipped in and out, dripping black muck, sticks, thick clumps of leaves, our lost balls. Also bottles, cans, and newspapers. None of Carl’s toys, though, from what we could tell.
“Last haul and we’re done,” yelled one of the workers. The dump truck started up, the jaws went in again, came up dripping in a few seconds.
“Holy shit. Look.” D.R.’s yell got us closer. “It’s an arm. A hand. You fucking see it?” He pointed to what looked more like a mud-black stick with a handle or spade end. It dropped into the dumptruck’s hold.
“What? It’s a stick,” I said.
“No frigging way. That was a baby’s arm. You saw it, Frankie. Didn’t you?”
“You never know.” He laughed his nasal, throaty laugh. “You bet. Baby arms.”
“You were the one who frigging said Dog Lady did it.”
“Could be. Maybe you should ask them.” He nodded to the workers, all smoking, sitting in the idling truck. “They’ll let you look. Ha. I’m going to Tony’s for some comics.” He took off down the block, laughing like he wasn’t alone.
D.R. trotted across to the sewer once, twice, crouched and stared.
“I know she did,” he said. “Someone’s gotta investigate this.” He pulled me close, grabbing my tee-shirt. “We’re going in their house.”
“Are you crazy? Frankie’s busting you.” I pulled away from D.R.
“No. I saw the hand. We gotta.”
“No way I’m gonna mess with Dog Lady.”
“You gotta come. Don’t you have any balls?”
“I got them. I have brains, too.” It wasn’t only from fear of decomposing dead babies in Dog Lady’s house. No. It was also because she always spooked me. She’d set her hands on her hips, face off from across the street and start in.
“These telephone poles? They’ll crack in half during storms” she’d say. “They did already and electrocuted two families. Their dog and cat, too.” Another time: “You watch for those blackbirds. See up in that tree?” She pointed her stick. “They’ll hook their claws onto your skulls and scratch out your eyes if you look up for more than a minute.” Dog Lady had something that I wanted to stay away from.
Later that afternoon she yelled at us while we played punch ball. “Playing in the street is against the law. If a truck runs you over and kills you, you’ll be gone. Like the other kids.”
“See.” D.R. nudged me and whispered. “Murder. She knows all about it.” He spit out his gum and rubbed it into the soft street asphalt.
“You. Dark boy.” Dog Lady pointed her bent finger right at me, and I felt as if she’d poked between my eyes. “You don’t come from here. Your parents got you from a bad country. They kidnapped you from your real mother. You watch out. If anyone finds where you are, they’ll kill your American parents and bring you back and lock you up.” Dog Lady stared, always longer than she would at D.R. or Frankie, or our friends Brady or Lenny. Her gaze fixed five, ten seconds. Whenever she did it I believed she was memorizing a specific part: the cowlick at the back of my head, the purple birthmark on my cheek, that I threw left handed and bore a scar on my right elbow. She got me thinking in those few extra seconds that maybe she had something and would report to kidnappers who’d bring me back to whatever country I came from. Or maybe she’d have her husband, Mr. Milner, corral me into his old Chrysler Imperial and drive me to the Virginia farm he supposedly owned – also as per Frankie – and make me shovel horse shit out of his stables.
Dog Lady’s pronouncement terrorized me. She confirmed my difference, which could be seen by simply looking at my skin, darker than anyone’s in the neighborhood, way more so in summer. Her statement rang true since I’d read Southern Italian families like mine had roots in Africa, and if pigmentation could be a clue to that origin, one look at me would support it as fact. On top of that I thought maybe D.R. was right. I tried to understand why she’d kill a baby. As much as I told D.R. he was full of crap, the idea stuck.
D.R.’s challenge to go into the Milners’ house, to find some crime they’d committed was just the right thing to get me involved those days, that particular summer. I needed to have him think I had the balls, that I could be counted as a fearless accomplice. Problem was, D.R. had no concept of when to call off dangerous, stupid ideas. He regularly executed a slew of mildly bad ones – swiping Milky Ways from Tony’s candy store, pulling the emergency brake off his Uncle Chooch’s car so it rolled down the hill and caused an accident; sneaking into the Embassy through the side entrance for an afternoon of movies and cartoons, stealing not only candy but cash from the till. He got me to go along with some. But things took a major leap when he laid out the plan for getting into the Milner’s. The dicey part, that it’d have to be done in daylight while the entire neighborhood’s activities continued, stood out as particularly lame – stupid, to call it like it was. I listened only because I’d convinced myself I wouldn’t go along.
“Once we see old man Milner pull away, we’re clear. Dog Lady’s out the whole day and so is he. They probably leave their door open. It’s gonna be simple.”
“But why?” I said.
“Didn’t you hear Frankie? Dead babies. And I saw it.” D.R.’s spit peppered the air between us.“This could be some big shit. We’ll never know who they are unless we get in there to look. How else you learn? From books? From maps?”
“Yeah, so what’s it get us?” Even though I considered the source and the ploy D.R. used, he hurt me with the barb about maps, which I’d come to love. I’d learned to read them my first year in Boy Scouts. Mr. Greco, troop leader and former G.I. Infantry, taught us to navigate with a compass, use a map. D.R. quit the Scouts after a week. Yet his words hurt.
“You’re coming in. That’s it,” D.R. said.
“But nothing. I say you’re in. I’m not even gonna listen. Here’s the plan.” D.R. didn’t lay out any more than he had a minute before. “Once Milner’s gone we find the open window. Better than the front door, now that I think of it. Less obvious if someone passes by and is watching. So we get in and take a look around. See what’s there. We’ll have hours. He won’t bring back Dog Lady ’til dark and we’ll be out by then.”
“But what for? You didn’t answer.”
“I did, too. To look for babies.” D.R. shouted. “Who knows what we’ll find in there? There could be lots of them. Maybe they’re mass murderers and we’ll report them to the cops. Maybe there’s a reward.”
“You’re nuts. They’re nothing like that.”
“We’ll never know until we have evidence.” D.R. couldn’t stop.
“You told Frankie he was crazy when he started talking about killing babies from farms, all that kind of shit. Who’s ever seen a dead baby around here?”
“I did. I saw it from the sewer. We’ll wait a week. Then we’re going,” he said.
“Maybe next week.”
I don’t know what got me to say maybe. I’ve tried to figure it out over the years, but so far only come up with D.R.’s seduction, which got me so many other times to go along with him. His persuasion came down to having balls, whatever that meant, or still means. We just acted in ways that he and I thought boys were supposed to.
Mr. Milner let Dog Lady roam the whole day, every season, when sunlight first poked up and over Manhattan’s skyline. He wouldn’t bring her home until street lights snapped on, tracked her down at dusk, wherever she happened to be. Then a slow walk back through the coming dark. The next day she’d materialize on the street, appearing in house dress and slippers, maybe an overcoat. She didn’t go out in bad weather. At least Milner had some kind of heart.
In all the years I lived on the block I never witnessed Dog Lady exit or return home. Milner shooed us away if he saw us watching. On bad weather days D.R. and I stood on my enclosed porch, looking through the storm windows, waiting for the rain to clear so we could run out, maybe catch Dog Lady actually leave the house, come down the steps, and find the right stick for the day’s task. Crazy Jensen Chouczescu, Frankie’s pal, told us Milner carried Dog Lady up and down the stairs. Another version claimed she hovered two full inches over the brick steps, descended by homing her vision on the tree opposite their front door and used an inverse, lateral gravitational pull to move her body from point A to point B.
“We gotta get in,” D.R. said, on maybe the most superbly hot day, when a too-brief tease of a rainstorm broke hard. Bullet-sized drops whacked our sweat-soaked tee-shirts and forced us onto my enclosed porch, forced Milner to gather his wife, pushed Brady and Lenny home. We waited out the downpour, looked diagonally across to the Milners’ rear window. “Once we’re in, we’ll find out if she’s got any others.” D.R.stuck his hand in a bag of greasy French Fries and slugged a gulp of Yoo-Hoo. Hair plastered over his forehead, the few sprouts of budding black whiskers on his lip thickened with beads of sweat. “Frankie says they have a ton of money. Dog Lady’s rich. That’s why Milner married her, ‘cause his farm’s always losing. She’ll go completely crazy any day, like everyone in her family. They’re all in the Snake Hill mental house. He’s keeping her out so he won’t lose the dough.” D.R. revved up, spinning the idea of getting into the Milners’, everything accelerated, sentences collided and collapsed while he drummed his fingers – his right thumb blown half off the previous Fourth of July by an M-80 – on the hood of my father’s 1962 Rambler. Just bought, that five-year-old model was the newest car we ever had.
“I’m not going in there.”
“Figures you’d say that. Freaking Tommy. You’re afraid of everything. I don’t care. I’ll get Lenny. Brady. One of ’em. Maybe we’ll tell you when we find some of the maps you’re so hot for.” We also heard from Frankie that Milner owned a great collection, huge Atlases, fancy old globes.
“Not me.” I wanted no part of the scheme, even if there were a hundred maps. I collected small ones I got my father to take from gas stations when he drove through Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, beyond that to the Midwest. He hauled furniture, food, and new tires for Ward Trucking. Thick folded maps came home with him after his trips, a fingerprint in oil on the whiteness of the vast emptiness between Allamuchy and Altoona, PA, a sign that he used the guides, that their practical function existed for a guy like him and not only some object of my infatuation. Didn’t matter the thumb print smudged the map. It was a trace of my father doing his job, information that gave me a sense of where he drove during the long weekdays when he stayed out over two or three nights, missing from the dinner table. I could at least imagine towns and cities, great rivers that ran through contiguous states, the topography on the international ones I sent away for, searching ways to get from one place to another. I was sure I’d be studying one someday while sitting in the dining car of the Trans-Europe Express. At the border I’d hear, ‘Documents, please.’ The words would slide from the mouth of a shifty-eyed guard, like in old movies I watched on Saturday nights.
Despite my amorous cartologic affliction, the trade off – breaking and entering into the Milner home – didn’t seem worth the risk. The crime could lead to serious trouble. Even back then, on my way to seventh grade, I knew guys that were picked up. Older kids hauled to juvie, some jerks landing first in reform school, then jail at eighteen.
Why would I go? To see inside the murky world of Dog Lady and Milner, a dark view of such an odd couple? Or for the slim chance that Milner had some special, secret maps, ones that might reveal locations I never heard about and could dream about visiting, maybe one that could answer the mystery of my origin? Could that be worth a criminal record? There was more, though. What if Frankie and D.R. were right about Dog Lady as a baby killer? Mr. Milner her accomplice. Or vice-versa. Whose babies would they have been? What would we do if we found other kidnapped children, maybe from Africa or who knew where?
Dog Lady came out late the next day, already another dry and hot one by ten a.m. Newspapers and radio broadcasts had counted the days, then weeks without significant rain and listed restrictions. The state demanded change. No lawn watering, no long showers, no car washing. No one in the neighborhood listened.
“We might run out of water, Dad. We have to conserve. It’s only fair.” I argued with my father at noon, while he hosed our scruffy backyard before going to his summer night-shift run.
“I’m paying. I’ll use what I want,” he said. “You think it’s never gonna rain again?”
Of course it would; of course he did as he pleased.
“It’s on the news. The government says so.”
“The hell with the government. I make up my own mind. Ok?”
“Yeah. Sure. Do what you want.” I made my way through the alley, out to the porch steps.
Dog Lady pushed a soda can and cigarette box, a cluster of leaves already fallen after the dry June, July and first half of August. Her head and back bent over the small pile, stooped for too-long stretches every hour, for entire days. Her housedress flopped. Torn sleeves blew the hem that swirled around her calves when light breezes sought out and found Dog Lady and no one else. The air didn’t move through the rest of the block, or anywhere in town, so still that dogs’ barks and kids’ shouts hung mid-air for seconds before they dropped, sunk into the dusty squares of earth that enclosed sagging trees, parched and dying on the street. The temperature hit ninety-eight by noon. I wished I could tell Dad to hose me off, but he’d for sure get on me for ‘wasting the goddamn water that was so goddamn precious.’
I sat and sweated, eyeballed Dog Lady the way she was me. Our stares met. She won; her force made me blink.
“You be careful, dark boy,” she said. “Watch what you’re doing. Don’t think no one notices what you are. I do. I’ll let everyone know, too. I got you in my sights.” She pulled in her neck, head retracted into shoulders, back stooped.
I shivered, goose bumps up, positive she put a spell on me that I’d have to contend with for the rest of my life.
Dog Lady’s skin wrinkled under her chin and on her hands and forearms. Her face, though, lay smooth, like a fifteen year old’s; as smooth as our tenant Susan Filkus, soon to be a high school sophomore but already fixed on college, the University of Delaware, the only place she wanted to go.
“To study animal science before I train to be a vet,” Susan said when I asked why Delaware. “Not many other schools have it, at least not close enough so I can come home if I want. Mom’s alone with Granny. Sometimes they need help.” Susan’s green eyes flashed, brown spots within the iris that drew me close to inspect. If anyone asked to classify how I felt at twelve, I’d have said I loved Susan. She told me, “Don’t mess with Dog Lady. She’s not all there.”
“Be careful, you.” Dog Lady dropped her gaze, but the slight pressure remained in my spine, the back of my neck. I tried to shake the feeling away, but couldn’t escape the gaze. “Even when I sleep, I’ll be watching.”
“Time for supper,” Mom called. She and Dad, me and Sissy ate early on summer nights, right at five. Dad would leave by five-thirty for his night shift, get to the job by six and head out with a truck. The company sent him on long runs in summer. Ohio, Indiana, once in a while all the way to Colorado. I wished he didn’t have to go so far, gone days and nights at a time. He’d sleep in little highway motels. “They only have two channels on their TV’s,” Dad laughed. “And all they have to eat is roast beef and brown gravy on white bread.” Bigger laughs came with the menu description. The county and state maps he brought back from gas stations gave some compensation for his absence. I drew red circles around the places he told me he stopped, small letters printed between the spread of cities and towns.
Before he left that night, he pulled out one from Esso and one from Mobil.
“I like this logo, Dad. With the flying horse.”
“It’s not a horse, it’s a Pegasus. From the Greeks. Read about them and when I get back we’ll see what you know.” He grabbed the bag of food Mom packed, picked up the green valise, and whistled good-bye. The Rambler started. I ran to the parlor window to watch the brake lights flash, zip around the corner, up the hill, out of sight. Dad and the car had one smell. Not an aroma, not an odor, definitely not like the cologne he wore when he and mom went out to dinner dances. The smell was a little stale, some burnt cigar, sweat, and too-hot-to-touch plastic upholstery, all overlaid with motor oil and diesel. I never thought a man could smell any other way.
I switched on the radio an hour later. I’d missed the weekly announcement of which song made number one a few days before. My stomach flitted at the thought of the song, a beautiful buzz.
“Here it is, guys and gals in radio land. This week’s number one-one-one-one.” The last word echoed, the DJ cranked up the volume and reverb, played out the hype before a drum beat and organ chords made way for the sweet voice from my transistor’s tinny speaker.
“Yeah! It’s Light My Fire, Ma. Still number one.”
She gave me a crossed eye look, twisted her lips. But she didn’t ask me to lower the volume. She took Sissy out of her high chair and got her washed for bed. “Not a bad song.” She bobbed her head until she and Sis disappeared into the baby’s room, her gurgles and mom’s humming along with the music. I switched on TV news. Protests for fair housing in Chicago. Black men and women, a few whites, carried signs. After that, the weather report.
Look at your southern sky, folks. A meteor shower starts ten p.m. tomorrow night. Let the kids see it, all right mom and dad?
“Shooting stars, Mom. I’ve never seen one. How about it?”
She looked out the back window at our small patch of grass. She stared for a while, as if she’d seen something beyond the crabgrass and dust. “How about it?” she echoed my question, floated out like a tiny kite, airborne, as if she wanted to hear the words twice. Sissy had gone down, Dad away for days. Just mom and me, alone in a hot house on a hot dry night. “Sit in the yard. That’s all. Just don’t leave.”
“Why would I?”
Mauro Altamura lives and writes in Jersey City, NJ. His non-fiction piece, “Our Boys From Jefferson Street,” regarding the movie “The Irishman” and the legacy of Jimmy Hoffa was published in Crimereads.com. His short story “Sinatra Owes Us” was published in OvunqueSiamo.com. His short story “Mink” was published in yolk literary magazine. He received an MFA in Visual Art in from SUNY Buffalo and an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers, Newark.