Dust motes danced in a spiral pattern, a bebop model of the DNA of want, as the afternoon sun shone through the torn and yellowed curtains that hung over the room’s only window. The boy sat on a braided rug on the floor. The rug had once been patterned with a vaguely country and western motif and could almost have been called a piece of folk art, with bright orange and red highlights running through the two-toned brown stripes. Now, however, it was merely brown, worn with use, uncared for and filthy with dirt and scraps and god knows what. The boy was playing with the one toy in the room, which happened to be a toy pistol in a stamped leather holster.
He knew that he wasn’t allowed to leave the rug, because she had told him not to and what might happen if he did. He sighed, because he was hungry and he had been there for a long time. He didn’t know how long, nor did he care. Time was a fluid concept to him. If he needed to, he could get his mind to switch off, like with the radio or the lights, and he wouldn’t notice the dirty old rug anymore.
It was late summer and the window was propped open with a wooden spoon, letting the traffic noises and shouts and cries from the neighborhood in. If there had been music appropriate to the location it would have been an edgy piece of Coltrane’s or maybe one of those numbers Bird came up with that evokes something almost as terrible as this place. But there wasn’t any music here, just the sounds of the cars and trucks rumbling by, punctuated by angry cries and curses.
The room was part of the small apartment the boy lived in. The apartment itself was a third floor walk-up, in a gritty tenement in the City’s most notorious part of town; the Skids. The apartment consisted of two rooms and a small water-closet that was far too small and primitive to be given the name bathroom. Certainly there was no chance that anyone had ever considered the idea of having a bath there.
A bedroom held an iron bed-frame with a tumble of frayed blankets on top of a saggy mattress, a nondescript chest of drawers, and a chair that did double duty as a laundry hamper. Behind dirt-encrusted Venetian blinds on the wall opposite the door was a cracked window that looked out on the brick wall of another equally squalid building.
The other room, where the boy was sitting, held a small countertop along one wall, upon which rested a two-burner hot plate and a toaster. A small rubber tub, like the kind used by busboys in cafes to gather up dirty dishes, was used as a sink. This array rested on a cabinet that had been lacking doors for some time now. A small sofa sagged against the other wall, in front of which was the rug where the boy was sitting. A scratched and dented card table with two chairs completed the furnishings. There was a fridge down the hall shared by all the apartments and rooms on the floor.
Most days the boy never left the apartment. He was permanently dirty, although often his face and hands were scrubbed to give an illusion of cleanliness, which sufficed as long as the casual observer was to keep their distance and pass by quickly.
Often the boy went hungry for long periods of time, until he passed out and went into a dark place where nobody could follow. Today at least he had been fed a bowl of porridge at breakfast and a lunch of a piece of white bread with a thin layer of butter topped with a minute sprinkling of sugar. This, along with a small carton of milk had left him feeling quite satisfied, at least in the only terms he knew. But it had been hours and hours since lunch, when she had left him on the rug, with a stern warning not to leave it.
He kept his sense of playfulness and curiosity carefully wrapped up in a warm place in the back of his mind. On the few occasions he had let them out, there had been trouble. He understood the language of pain, just as she understood it as an art form. When she took the trouble, she could make sure that the pain was bright and intense and sharp, so much so that even he would remember.
He was three years old.
He heard steps coming down the hall and tensed into immobility. The door opened and she thrust herself forward into the room, flinging her coat onto the sofa. “So, my little man”, she addressed her son, “have you been good? Did you stay where I told you?” His eyes betrayed his fear as he nodded curtly at her. “Yes, stayed on the rug”, trickled out in barely audible tones. “Good, good. By god, you might be getting some sense finally,” she exclaimed. He tried to sense her mood, but for a moment she stood over him, staring out the window without moving and without betraying the direction her emotional compass might be pointing. He waited, passively.
She might have been a beautiful woman if not for the nose that had been broken more than once and the mouthful of cracked and broken and missing teeth. She might have been a beautiful woman if not for the years of brutality and abuse and torture she had suffered, first in her uncle’s house in Krakow, then under the German troopers, then under the army of liberators lustily celebrating victory. Nowadays she worked sporadically as a seamstress, but the streets were her real workshop and the back alleys of the Skids were the office where her true pay was drawn. She might have been a beautiful woman, if not for that, but she was not beautiful or pretty or cute. Her face was god’s reflection as the world hurtled into the second half of the twentieth century, blown there by holocaust and conflagration through pain and sorrow and bullets.
With the swiftness of a ghetto survivor seizing a loaf of bread she grabbed the boy by his ankles and began twirling around in circles. “Momma takes you for a ride! Momma takes you for a ride!” she began chanting as the boy went spinning around the tiny living room, his head coming dangerously close to the few pieces of furniture that might have impeded his dizzying revolutions. Over and over she spun, her head thrown back, chanting her cry. Finally the boy began to send his consciousness to rest in the darkness and his hands relaxed their hold on the toy pistol.
The toy holster and gun left his hands just as she increased the speed of her dervish-like whirling. It was flung in an arc across the room and, crashing through the grimy single paned window, continued on its inevitable course to the sidewalk below. The pistol did not, however, hit the sidewalk directly. Instead, the tweed-covered shoulder of Miss Alice Carruthers intercepted the missile, which only then dropped to the ground with a thud.
Miss Carruthers turned around, seething in immediate anger. She assumed that one of them had hit her, but as the gun bounced to rest she realized that someone had thrown something, some object, at her. She grabbed the holster, still holding the pistol, barely registering what exactly the thing was. She scanned the sidewalk behind her but the nearest people were a block away. She became aware of a rhythmic chanting coming from overhead and looked up. One of the upper windows of the tenement she was standing beside was cracked and broken and a wisp of yellowed and tattered fabric flickered in and out, as if describing some kind of semaphore message. She measured the distance from the window to the spot on the sidewalk she was standing on and rendered her verdict faster than a Roman emperor deciding the fate of a fallen gladiator at the Coliseum.
She strode toward the entrance to the building and bounded up the stairs, if one can use the word bounded to describe the deliberate movement of a severe looking spinster, wearing a tweed suit, tortoiseshell glasses and with her hair done up in a bun under a practical rather than stylish hat. Just as she reached the door, it opened and an unshaven man wearing a torn sweater and dirty blue jeans scuttled out. Miss Carruthers seized the door handle, pushed through the doorway and rushed up the stairs. On the top floor landing she immediately turned left, as she had an excellent sense of direction and had already mapped out where the offending window must be.
Not bothering to knock, she opened the apartment door and looked in, ready to confront her attacker. Inside, she was confronted by a scene that she was later to describe as almost Hieronymous Bosch-like in its horror. A woman was in the center of the room holding a small boy by the ankles and twirling about in circles while over and over she chanted “Momma takes you for a ride”. The boy appeared to be dead, or at least unconscious. The place stank, was not just uncleaned but truly filthy, and was obviously no place to raise a child. “What is going on here!” Miss Carruther demanded. The dervish noticed the intruder, ceased her spinning and dropped the boy onto the sofa.
“Who are you?”
“What do you mean, “who are you””, came the retort. “I am Alice Carruthers, of the Children’s Aid Society. I was walking down the sidewalk when I was almost killed, by this!” she said, exhibiting the holster and gun. “It obviously came from there,” she said, pointing imperiously at the window. Then she turned at pointed at the boy, “And from him.”
The boy’s mother strode to the door and demanded “Get out, you nosy bitch. You got no business here!” Miss Carruthers squared her already formidable shoulders, drew herself up, and said with steely determination, “Oh no, dearie. That’s where you’re wrong. It just so happens that I’m a social worker and it’s my job to protect children like this from people like you. Of course you probably don’t know anything about that do you? No, you wouldn’t have people like me where you come from.”
The boy started to come to, amazed to see someone actually arguing with his mother. He waited expectantly for his mother to lash out at the strange lady, but amazingly the defiant light in her eyes flickered and went out. She walked over to the window, drew back the tattered remnant of curtain and stared out.
Across the rooftops rose the looming bulk of Hamilton’s Department Store. The waning sunlight caught the landmark’s golden H that towered on a spire over the store and the sun’s ray was, in turn, reflected back to the dusty tenement. The boy’s mother turned back to the room, laughed bitterly and said to Miss Carruthers, “Well if you want him so bad, take him. He’s more trouble than he’s worth. What the hell.”