On First (a short story)

On First

“There were things on First that I did not like to see, like men who hit their women because of some misperceived remark. Or the dishes weren’t clean when they got home, but what did the men know when the women were taking care of umpteen kids? What perhaps was worse was the lack of action by passerby, even the lack of wonder. It was just so natural then. On a good weekend 10 women an hour could get hit on this corner. It was a near seamless tide of nasty men, dependent on their woman for hot food and clean clothes and well scrubbed children, and pissed off at them for doing it all so well. These men were pissed they had no problems at home to solve, as men do need problems to solve to make them feel whole. So they beat their wives and girlfriends to create a problem that they could come and solve with their big strong hands.”

She didn’t see him smile slightly at this string of words, for he was a man with a problem, after all, and perhaps she didn’t realize the relativity of what she was saying to him.

“Since men are boys, they delight in an endless cycle of construction and deconstruction. But some things can’t be fixed. The memories of pain and humiliation being prime among them.”

Gladys leaned back in her overstuffed chair where she sat most of the day, and every day now, for more than 10 years. At somewhere over ninety her body and mind no longer worked in close coordination. Her mind worked fine, it was her body that moved like a rusted tin soldier laying in the mud, bent all over from the blows of the little boy who played with it. There were, though, plenty of neighbors to look after her. They came around daily to help her with the mundane things of life. That was one thing she told her visitor. “Don’t worry about that,” she had said when he did ask politely about how she managed.

“You know,” she said, with much less force than the tirade just delivered, “it didn’t make a difference the nationality, the religion, the race, the age – men, all men hit these women. Except the gay men, well, we called them queer and worse in those days. And we used to joke that that was how you could spot ’em. They didn’t hit the women they were with.”

She stopped and gulped. She reached for her glass of water.

“It was the Spring of ’05, I remember it very clearly, every detail, but I like to soak up the sights, smells and sounds of that glorious Spring. Not because of the incident, but the perfect weather we had had for weeks. So anyway, this man starts to hit his wife on the far corner. I can see him walking there, in my mind’s eye, even today,” and she pointed to the corner of First Avenue and 83rd Street. “By the time he’s mid block, in front of Guerston’s Deli, he’s hitting her and she’s just standing there, taking the blows, as woman did in those days. He was really pummeling her. She dropped to the ground, crying out loudly, and he even kicked her while she was down there; people did stop and stare this time, for it was severe, this beating, but they didn’t do anything. It wasn’t their business, and that’s the way it was, men hit women, and women took it.

“Then there was a large cracking sound. It filled the block with echoes, and the man fell on top of his woman.” She paused, a gulp of water was passed down through parched lips. “Oh, that’s so old fashioned, sorry I said that, on the woman.” And she corrected herself with a louder, firmer voice. “But everybody freezes. Then everyone runs to the both of them lying there on the ground. Someone yelled ‘there’s blood!’ Than another yelled, ‘he’s been shot!’ And a tumult started, with people running into stores or crouching down. There was only one of those loud cracks, but I guess people weren’t taking any chances. Only two people stayed to drag the guy off the woman, she got up, and they half dragged her into Guerston’s. She was screaming her head off.

“The block went as quiet as the moment when the blizzard ends. It stayed that way for a good while. And then slowly the people came out of hiding. A cop came, then another. It took an hour but soon there were cops talking to everyone they could find, though life had moved on and people had continued walking, past the body on the sidewalk, and doing their errands, and going places. Maybe someone of them saw something, the same thing I did, but I don’t know. But it seemed no one saw anything. Everyone was as confused as the cops. No one knew where the shot had come from. I heard most of this from my parents, it was dinner talk. ‘Imagine that, a man gets shot in the middle of broad day, and no one knows a thing’ I remember my father saying.

“I tried about a week later to say I knew who did it. But I was shushed. ‘What does a 10 year old girl know?’ my father wanted to know. But I was just five feet from Sammy’s window, Samuel Gottend, that was his whole name, and I saw the rifle barrel poke out of the window, it was large enough to catch my attention from the fight below. At first I wondered why a big long black pipe would all of a sudden be sticking out through the Gottend’s window. Then it flashed a bright orange and smoke came out of the end, and it jumped all over after he fired it. I screamed, for it was just feet away, and I never heard or saw such a thing. He must have heard me scream because then he leaned out and saw me, and put his finger to his lips like to shush me, and leaned back in his window. He was in the apartment in the next building on the same floor. That building is gone, but it was right there, here, you can see a picture of it over there on the mantelpiece. You know, how he was able to make that good shot I never was able to tell.

“I remember my father saying that Sammy didn’t see anything either. ‘That boy is just a 15 year old, he don’t know nothing either,’ he would say. You know, Sammy was not a woman beater, he died in ’65 or ’66, lived alone in the West Village for many years. I never did ask him about what he did, and yet he would always say hello to me on the street when we saw each other. I guess he moved out of the neighborhood about 4 or 5 years after that.”

She took another sip of water, which rejuvenated her. She leaned forward.

“You know, that’s the first time I told that to anyone, young man, saying that Sammy did it, I hope I don’t get in trouble for withholding evidence.”

“No, ma’am, but it does put to an end to this case, which is one of the City’s oldest unsolved crimes.”

They looked at each other and smiled together.

“I just can’t believe you’ve lived here for 95 years,” he said as he looked around the apartment filled with Victoriana. It was more antique shop than house.

“Well, after that man got shot men didn’t seem to hit their women as much, so the block was safer for me, and my father left me the building and I saw no reason to go anywhere, even if my husband did want to move out to the suburbs. But from this window you can see a lot of life, and if I lived out in the suburbs all I’d see was trees, and then I’d have probably been under one long before this.”

The doorbell rang.

“Oh, that’d be Janey, she comes about now to help me make dinner.”

The cop closed his book and bent down and kissed her on her forehead.

The cop heard a key jiggle just before Janey walked through the door and saw him and was surprised enough to say “Who are you and what do you want?” She was naturally protective and was rearing up for a fight.

“Oh, don’t be alarmed dear, he’s just a police officer and he came to asked me a few questions about a crime.”

“A crime!” Janey was instantly nervous, and protective, and inquisitive.

“Oh, hush girl, it happened nearly 80 years ago, it’s long over.”

“Well, why did he come here today?”

“Why dear, I called him up! Cops just don’t come knocking on my door to ask questions.”

The officer stood to the side as he watched the young woman, well, young compared to the old lady, minister to her charge. She looked over at him and said “Why’d she call you?”

“A story was written in the community paper about a long ago unsolved crime, and when I got her call I couldn’t believe it, and so I rushed on over, and we talked.”

“Well, what could she know about that?”

The old lady smiled at Janey. Then the cop. Then she broke out laughing. Janey hadn’t heard her laugh like this before. The cop, who had just spent so much effort trying to listen to the quiet voice was surprised at the intensity of the laugh.

“Apparently quite a lot,” the officer said.

The old lady regained composure and said, “You know Janey, that’s what my father used to say, ‘what could she know about that’ — how funny, so many people don’t believe young girls or old ladies.” She looked up at the officer. A moment of concern flashed through her countenance. “You believe me, right?”

“Oh, yes, yes ma’am, you know far too many details, even the victim’s name, for you not to have known. Information not in the story. Anyway, well, I better be leaving …” He was saying this kind of sadly for he had a good time with the old lady and with her stories and her now slightly stilted ancient speaking patterns. It was a most interesting few hours.

“Wait, one thing more, I have to ask.”

“Yes?”

“If anyone would have listened to me all those years ago what would have happened to Sammy?”

“Well, he would have been arrested, probably, and if the gun was found then he would have been convicted, for even then they could tell if it had been fired, and if the bullet was from that gun, and well, I guess he would have gone to jail for quite a long while.”

“Oh, well, then I’m very glad no one listened to me. I hope you don’t mind me saying that, for he did a good deed, shooting that wife beater, and made it so much better for so many ladies right away, and well, he sort of lived in a prison anyway, being in that tiny apartment down in the Village for so long, alone.”

“Yes, ma’am, I guess so, I can’t really speak to that, for one crime to stop another crime is still, well, a crime.”

“Yes, two wrongs don’t make a right.”

“Yes, I suppose that is the phrase.”

“Oh, officer …”

“Yes?”

“Janey, go into the hall closet, and dig deep back in the far left corner, you’ll find a long metal pipe there, go get it right away …” And Janey looked at the old lady strangely, one eye cocked, and then did as she was told. She had to pull a few things out of the way to get the requested item. Janey hadn’t really been in too many of the closets and draws of the house, for her mission was just to make dinner and sit and talk, though she could admit to herself that she always wondered what was stuffed in the nooks and crannies of this overstuffed apartment where the old lady had been born and was likely to die. She found the item and was surprised at the weight of it as she dragged it out. She was even more surprised to see an ancient looking rifle when the cloth covering dropped away a bit.

“What’s this?” She said, her voice squeaky and weak.

“Why, that’s the murder weapon!” The old lady said this with evident amazement that anyone would even question such a thing. For her it was so obvious.

The cop whistled and walked over to Janey and took the large, long barreled and very heavy gun from her.

“You sure?” He asked.

“Oh yes, Sammy gave it to me to hold the day after the incident, he was very afraid of what would happen to him if anyone found it.”

“Why did you take it?”

“Who would believe a 10 year old girl could even pick that up!” She laughed again, at the absurdity of the thought.

“What about your father or brothers, if the gun was found?”

“Oh, I doubt that, I had no brothers. And my father was out at work during the day, that was provable, and so I hid it for Sammy.”

“And he never asked for it back, even when he moved away?”

“No, he didn’t.” She paused for a second. “Well, he did ask for it once, but I told him to just shut up and go away and forget it ever happened.”

“And …? Then what?”

“That’s what he did.”

“So you kept it for nearly 90 years?”

“Well, yeah, it was too heavy for me to really drag down, and you can’t just put that thing in the garbage you know, it’s too long and would poke out, and what would people say about a gun like that in the hands of a lady? No, I just let it rest there.”

“Now, that’s even more surprising.”

“Oh, my, young man, I have more surprises than you can imagine, 95 years does that to a girl.” She smiled at him, and Janey was going to say something, but the old lady cut her off, “Oh, go make us some dinner Janey, I’m hungry and I’m tired, and after I eat I’m going to go to bed.”

“OK, Gladys.”

“OK, ma’am I’ll be leaving. Do you want the gun back in the closet?”

“Why no, young man, I want you to take it, I can’t be having a murder weapon around here, now can I? What would people think?”

He was taken aback at this comment. “But after all these years …?

“Oh, hush, and take the gun, I’ve had it long enough, go on, and now, young man, it’s time for you to go, I’ve done what I can and it’s all over.”

“OK, sure thing, yes ma’am, thank you very much,” and Kellman took the gun and started for the door, and Janey held it open for him and he walked out, and smiled again and said thanks again, and Janey started to say something for she was bubbling over with questions, but the old lady had closed her eyes and was probably either resting or deep in thought, and so she turned to the kitchen to start dinner, every so often looking out at the reposed face, with a contented smile through the wrinkles of a long life, and wondered how a woman could have kept a secret like that for so long, and then she noticed that the old lady seemed to have stopped breathing. She walked quickly over and noticed that life had finally left her, and she cried out, and cried tears and cried out again, “Oh my, Oh God” as she knew she would at that moment when the inevitable would happen, and she then calmed down after this small outburst. She picked up the phone and called 911, though said to the operator, “You don’t have to rush, she’s dead, but just come on over.”

As she put the phone down she noticed that there were more than a few photos of the old lady as a young women, posing next to a handsome young man. She looked more closely around the apartment, and saw even more photos of the two of them, posed on the street, at the beach, in the woods, on a porch, the photos of her frail friend as a young vibrant woman, and a robust young man, dapper and more beautiful than handsome, and in her hands, when the paramedics came, they found a picture held tight in the lifeless boniness, a picture which they gave to Janey. When Janey looked down at the last thing the old lady held she saw yet another photo of the young couple, with an inscription, which she had to hold up close to her eyes, for it was faded ink, black to brown, on the yellowing photograph, in that old script of 80 years ago and it said “To my love, Sammy, kisses and hugs, Gladys.”

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