Not for the first time, Susan wished she was a shadow disappearing into the walls. Edging further back into the dark corner, she hushed her sister Jane and held her ever closer. There was no place that guaranteed safety, she knew that only too well. She spent too much time crammed behind this furnace in the musty darkness of the basement in the Brooklyn tenement her parents’ currently called home. She smelled the odors of too many different meals, garlic, cardamom, curry, basil, a little sausage and the scent of cabbage wafting over it all, a conglomeration of cultures in pots, her stomach an ever constant reminder that it had been some time since she had last eaten. Grease, mold, mouse urine and coal overlay the rest of the smells.
The floor was littered with the relics of past tenants’ castoffs. . . broken chairs, an outgrown highchair missing a leg, rusty bed springs, even an old dresser missing the faces of two of its three drawers. Spider webs gathered in the corners, threatening to overtake the rest of the area. A few strands of the web had found their way into the hair of both girls. Soot smudged the walls, growing in intensity nearer the furnace; their little hands and clothes attested to it.
Gently Susan held Jane, crooning lullabies over and over, the only proven way to keep the child quiet. The toddler may have stilled her voice but her fingers danced around the crawl space, collecting spider webs and coal dust, dead bugs, and paper wrappers. Her little legs drummed a beat only she could hear. When Jane fell asleep, Susan passed her time counting cracks in the cement walls. The damp basement was drafty, aided by a couple of broken windows facing the back alley, jagged glass still dangling in the frames. Their threadbare pajamas were no match for the room’s cold, but still, it was better than being upstairs in their apartment, at the mercy of their father’s rage, watching their mother be smashed from wall to floor and back again. Or becoming punching bags themselves.
Susan knew it was up to her to keep she and her sister safe in this life . . . her parents were not going to do it. The vivid effects of their combined alcoholism affected each member of the family. She had been in that musty, coal dust filled, cold floored space for the last two or three hours but she could see, from the dirty, cracked window across the room there were still too many feet to be seen on the street of this September evening; Gerard would not pass out for a while yet.
This evening her father had been out at the local bar, nothing unusual, and the three females, mother, and two sisters had a quiet evening. Their mother, Astrid, had made them cabbage and boiled potatoes for dinner and watched as Susan labored over her school work at the kitchen table, especially math, while Astrid rocked Jane to sleep in the corner of the kitchen, cooing the Norwegian lullabies of her childhood in her younger daughter’s ear. The family’s only common room was stark, with a scarred, battered table and wobbly chairs along with a creaking rocker. The walls were free of ornamentation; the floorboards rough to the touch.
Once Susan had tackled her math and washed up in the grimy, filthy community bathroom, with its constant drip of water and broken toilet handle, Astrid sat by the children’s iron bedstead (left over from a previous tenant), the two of them talking about Susan’s school day. “Mama”, she asked, “Isn’t there any way to stop Daddy from hurting you and yelling all the time?” Astrid shook her head, her features mirroring despair. What Susan didn’t know until much later was he mother was an illegal immigrant who had assumed the identity of Gerard’s first wife. It was the machete he held over her head. One word from him and she would be sent back to Norway, without the children she loved.
When both children fell asleep, Astrid made Gerard’s dinner with food she couldn’t spare for the rest of them and placed it on the table. Sitting across from the plate, she drifted off to sleep, her head in her arms even though she knew better than to drift off before Gerard came home.
Gerard could be a funny, persuasive man, but when he was drinking, he was vicious and took it out on his family, his anger erupting in manifold ways. With spindly legs, a barrel-shaped chest, a sneer across his face and large, hard hands, he was built for brutality.
Tonight was one such evening. He roared through the door, throwing it back so it caught in the hole previously made in the wall from past slammings. He charged in, grabbed Astrid, by the hair, jerking her to her feet, hurling accusations and obscenities into her face. “What do you mean falling asleep? I work all day long and I come home to find you lying about asleep? You expect me to eat this shit? Heat it if this is all there is. Get to work, bitch, justify your miserable life.” Astrid never replied. His accusations could be true or not; Susan suspected Gerard didn’t believe them himself half the time; he just needed to vent his rage.
Gerard immediately started into a tirade about (well, did it really matter what it was about?) . . . The subject was always something about Astrid and how he couldn’t trust her, his work or lack thereof, what someone had said at the bar. If it wasn’t Astrid’s turn under the ax, it was Susan who came under his scrutiny.
Susan knew in her heart it wouldn’t do any good to rail against the beast, but she was not one to simply bow down and take his hurtful ministrations. She was innately a fighter, just like her father, and she would seek ways to best him at his own game. She hated seeing his brutality upon her mother, the injustice rankled her young mind and she had yet to learn to balance anger with discretion. “Daddy Stop!!” She would flail her fists against his back, trying to stop his attack on her mother until a backhand would send Susan sprawling, bouncing her off the walls like a rag doll.
Still, Susan could never say a word of truth that could sink through the mists of his drunken fog. Most of the time, the best she could hope for was to grab Jane and escape to the dark, silent furnace corner until he wound himself down and collapsed on the bed. She had to keep Jane quiet – no small feat for a toddler – until she could slip back upstairs and put her to bed. If Susan was caught down there, her neighbors might feel compelled to bring her back to the apartment – at least that was what Susan most feared.
Many nights Gerard focused his rage on Susan rather than her mother . . . he would wait until she was absorbed in some task and come from behind to clip her unawares. He would start pinching and shaking her around until Astrid diverted his attention onto herself while Susan would run out the apartment door, her father shouting for her to come back and storming after her. “Get back here you little monster!”
Quicker, and sober, these were the times she would race to her friend’s home, four blocks away, in her underwear, pajamas weren’t affordable on Gerard’s leftover income after the bars kept their take, and sought refuge. Mrs. Fayette always welcomed her to safety, putting her into her best friend Anne’s old clothes and tucking her into bed. Susan did what she could to cover any bruises rising to the surface and Gerard had the sense to leave no marks within easy sight. When her schoolteacher began remarking that Susan was wearing the same clothes every day, embarrassing her and raising questions, the Fayette’s church found a woman who donated clothes to be kept in safety at the Fayette’s.
Susan was no easy child but she found sources of strength outside the home, in her minister and her best friend’s mother. She was pig-headed, driven, obstinate, and once she had decided on a course of action, there was no dissuading her. Inside the apartment, she would be helpful and compliant. But she had a strength of purpose that drove her toward good actions. When outside the apartment, Susan lived a life full of mischief and daring. She had an irrepressible sense of humor her home life dampened but never completely extinguished.
Through the Fayette’s, Susan found a second home – a place away from all the madness she normally had to deal with. Their comfortable living room was filled with furniture made for curling up in. Lace curtains covered the windows. A phonograph stood in one corner, a large radio with shortwave, FM, and AM channels was in another. Anne had her own bedroom with a matching furniture set. Everything was clean and well maintained. The two girls would curl up in the bed together and whisper for hours.
Susan went to the Fayette’s church, joining youth groups and going to special functions. She and Anne loved to buy extra sour pickles and sit in front of the choir. As the choir would start to sing, Susan and Anne would bite into the pickles, making sour faces and spitting out juice to throw choir singers off their notes. After church, Susan and Anne would strap on beat up old roller skates, grab the back of the trolley, and catch a free ride, saving the money for a movie. Or they would grab garbage cans after the collectors had gone by and roll them down the steep hills, cheering and whooping as the cans clattered and clanged, banging into cars and curbs alike.
One Christmas Eve, Susan was at church service when her father staggered into the building and up the aisle shouting, “Where is she? No child of mine is coming to this church! Let me have her! I want her now!” As the men nearby grabbed him to take him outside, Susan, shameful but afraid he would be hurt, tears running down her face, called out, “Stop! That’s my father. Don’t hurt him. I’ll go with him.” The old ladies stared in shocked disapproval, whispering behind their programs to each other; as mothers gathered their children closer to their sides. In front of a completely still congregation, she walked down the aisle, took her father’s shaking hand, and left as he muttered low curses, her borrowed patent leather shoes clacking down the length of the church aisle.
They moved often to escape the landlord’s knock, asking for the rent. As such, everything but clothes would be left behind. One would think, in the Bowery of New York, word would get around those few miserable blocks. But landlords were slum lords and there were many apartments crammed into those tenements. Their swift get-a-ways meant nothing was ever purchased that wasn’t a distinct necessity. Susan never had a doll, or any other toy, no books, just her imagination and her times with the Fayette’s. As an adult, she bought herself a Shirley Temple doll and all the videos of Shirley’s career to try to make restitution for the memories.
As ten-year-old Susan lay sleeping one night, with Astrid passed out at the kitchen table, herself having consumed too much to drink, her father came quietly into the bedroom. Susan woke as the bed creaked and Gerard pressed himself against her, naked and stinking from cabbage and cheap gin. She froze, shaken to the core, unable to think of a way out of this, deeply knowing it was wrong. She couldn’t question him, not knowing what the repercussions might be.
She squeezed her eyes shut, willing the time to pass until he would leave or her mother would appear (which never happened). He never said a word, just lay there, spooned against her back, silently stealing grains of his daughter’s innocence and soul. From then on he would periodically make his nightly visits when Astrid was passed out, never staying more than an hour or so, never doing more than he had the first night, but it was enough to shatter a young girl’s image of what a man should be and forever irrevocably break her trust in men.
Gerard’s crimes were legion, certainly when it came to Astrid and Susan. He never bothered with Jane, didn’t hit or hurt her. When his abuse finally focused on Jane, Susan realized she needed to act. It was one thing to tolerate and excuse abuse to herself; it was a far different thing to see it done to another, especially a baby. Once, one-year-old Jane, sitting in her high chair, was fussing at the scarred, cigarette burned dinner table, where Gerard was hunched, nursing a banger of a hangover. He grabbed the oatmeal bubbling on the stove and threw it at Jane, where it slid down her leg. She had third degree burns the length of her thigh, horrific scars she bore the rest of her life. Susan knew he couldn’t hurt Jane again without her taking action.
However, when the world went according to Gerard’s way, the family gave a collective sigh of relief. Astrid unfolded before Susan’s eyes. Her spine straightened, her shoulders drew back, the furrowed lines of her face smoothed, and her gentle laughter could be heard throughout the apartment. Gerard would sing songs as he and Astrid danced about the kitchen. As he threw her into the air, Gerard would elicit Jane’s giggles. And Susan, the ever-present witness and protector, would, for just a while, become a young girl – one who loved her parents and lived for those brief moments in time.
All too soon, Gerard would head out the door for the neighborhood tavern and shadows would pull down over the females’ souls as they accepted the night would likely end in just as much violence as virtually any other.
Susan couldn’t help loving her father and wanting to please him. When he smiled, his demeanor completely changed. No more the bully, a lightness of being would descend on him for a short while. The truth was Gerard was the person in the family who smiled the most – he was the one with the least to lose. When he was smiling, the rest of them could breathe easier. But they always knew the dark side of him was just out of reach, waiting for a flame to ignite his temper into a fiery blaze.
To that end, Susan would search the sidewalks for cigarette butts that still had tobacco and bring them back to him to re-roll into fresh cigarettes. She would think of little ways to earn a few coins, bringing the money home.
Astrid did everything she could to ensure Gerard’s needs were met and he was pleased. Susan had his way with words, his persuasive manner, and his sales ability. She often said he could have sold the Brooklyn Bridge if he only stayed sober long enough. He would bring his friends home for a night of cards and beer, and while they were there, laughter filled the apartment. He made friends easily and lost them just as fast. He would break the furniture in a drunken rage and replace it the next day from trash bins and gutters once he sobered up.
Jobs came and went with the cycles of drinking . . . when things became too desperate, Gerard would sober up just enough to earn some money to get by. But gainful employment was not a concept he understood very well. He was filled with self-important dreams that had no basis in reality. A salesman by trade and nature, he had a natural aptitude for convincing people they absolutely needed some product or another but not the ability to work hard to provide for his family.
The problem was he couldn’t stay sober long enough to make any real money. He conned employers into believing he would be the best, apartment owners that the rent would be paid next week, and the bar the tab would be cleaned up with the next check. (Actually, that was the one he held to most – he didn’t want to stop access to booze.) He saw himself as wronged quickly and often, finding faults and resentments to fuel his rage and cost him countless jobs.
And then there was Astrid . . . an immigrant from Norway, she had never acclimated to American society well. Plain, slender, and blonde, she spoke with a heavy accent and often relied on Susan to bridge the gap between what she needed to say and what the shopkeepers understood. Even though she had come through Ellis Island like so many immigrants, she was an illegal alien and lived under threat of deportment.
In the early 1940’s women still had few rights and too few knew how to pursue what little they had, certainly not a barely literate one from another culture. As they never stayed in an apartment long, quiet, and quietly alcoholic Astrid didn’t have the time or ability to reach out and make friends.
The few family members she had in America hated Gerard and Astrid felt she couldn’t lean on them or look to them for any support without making a bad situation worse. It was a time when women did not leave their husbands or report them for abuse. There was no money for a divorce. Men held all power. Astrid fell into the trap so many women had before, thinking she had somehow caused Gerard’s behavior, somehow she deserved it.
There was little chance the neighbors would report the abuse. People in Brooklyn tenements tended to keep to themselves where strangers were concerned, and Susan’s family was never in one place long enough to become known. There were too many people living in cramped quarters, trying to pretend they didn’t hear the noises coming from the apartments near them, needing to think they themselves were not so easily heard. Strangers seemed to feel that Astrid had brought this anguish on herself; no one could be that merciless to another without a good reason. Occasionally, a kindly woman or man sitting on the front stoop might give Susan a treat, but that was where charity ended.
In the still of the night, Astrid would wake from dreams of freedom to the smell of sweat and gin rolling off Gerard in waves, the threadbare blanket barely warding off the chill, the mattress creaking beneath them as his snores filled the air. In her dreams, she had never met Gerard, never left Norway, never endured the event that led to her banishment from the land she loved. Waking, she would force her thoughts back into her reality, not daring to seek redemption, safety, a new start in life.
When she left Norway, it was in disgrace, pregnant with the child of a man who raped her. She gave birth to a boy while crossing the Atlantic in a cargo ship. When she arrived in America, she had no one that wanted to carry the additional burden, nothing, and no recourse except to leave the child at an orphanage. She never saw him or spoke of him again. To her, it was a deed nothing would ever make right. To Susan it was one whispered drunken confession of a woman crying for the child she had never known, always to be wondered about but not pursued. Gerard knew though – he held it as a threat to her continually. Should she not please him . . .
Astrid’s life in Norway was of pure air on the fjord, her family fishermen for generations. Here, trapped by circumstances beyond her control, she turned to alcohol to numb the pain. Prematurely hunched over like an old woman, as if always warding off blows, she was a lost soul, in a land she wasn’t comfortable in, living in an area where many cultures blended, making their differences stand out, with a man who relished raising his fists in her direction far too frequently. She rarely left the apartment; her time spent caring for Susan and Jane and fulfilling all the household responsibilities aggravated by not enough money. If errands needed to be run to the market or elsewhere, Susan was likely to run them, and she almost always went with her mother if she didn’t run them herself.
Astrid’s life was spiritually, morally, and physically cruel. The new life she was supposed to have found in America had proven to be a bitter disappointment. She longed for those simpler days in Arendal, tending to the garden, going to the market to sell the fish her father and brothers had caught at sea, going to church on Sundays, seeing the same people she had seen every day of her life. Her hands had never lost the calluses she had gained pulling in and mending nets because she had so much work to do now. She ached for the crisp cold, piney scent of Norway’s coastal ocean air, instead of the soot and squalor she saw in Brooklyn.
Susan called Astrid an angel on Earth, always discounting the fact that Astrid liked her drink, too. She couldn’t reconcile the fact that Astrid had abandoned her children in her own way by relying on alcohol to get by. In that hazy never, never land of alcoholic fumes, the cries of children had little meaning. What Gerard did to Susan had no meaning. if she even knew of them. However, Astrid was a quiet, passive woman who did what she could to make their days a bit brighter without incurring Gerard’s wrath.
The Bowery, and their life in it, was a disorienting world where a day could start off looking one way, and by the end of the night, they would be adjusting to new furniture, new smells, new sounds, new people, new lies to tell. Only the run-down, beaten up appearance of the apartments stayed the same – that didn’t change, no matter how many times they moved. Susan always counted the cracks in the ceiling to see if the number matched the same as their last apartment. The burden of the frequent moves affected Susan’s schoolwork; she was always playing catch-up and her grades tended to suffer, particularly in those subjects that didn’t come naturally.
But Susan had a strong sense of justice and righteousness. The actions of her father, no matter how much she loved him, created a deep chasm of rage in her. Her own wellspring of violence would seep out throughout her life, tainting and corrupting what she held sacred. She was a survivor. The childhood verse “When she was good she was very, very good and when she was bad she was horrid” seemed expressly made for her. Had she not been such a fighter, she herself might not have survived. Jane certainly wouldn’t have without Susan’s protection.
Susan could never justify the reality of who her parents were with who she wanted to believe they were. She would sometimes paint a picture of them that had little to do with reality, but fed a need deep within her for normalcy, to be a little girl protected and cared for by attentive, loving parents.
The day inevitably came when the dam broke and the violence became too much for even June to bear. Late one November night, after the bars had closed, Gerard came home, so drunk he could barely stand up, but with murderous intent in his eyes. Astrid had let his dinner grow cold once it was six hours after the rest of them had eaten. He went at her with fists flying. It didn’t take much to have her down on the floor where he proceeded to kick and hit her senseless. Susan jumped out of bed and tried to stop him but he just threw her off. Jane woke up and started to cry but Susan couldn’t take her out of the apartment because Gerard was blocking the front door. His daughters’ cries didn’t stop him. He grabbed Astrid’s ear and bit it off, feeling the tendons pop between his teeth, wrenching it until the skin ripped from her head, yelling that she better listen to him from now on. Astrid was whimpering as blood rushed down the side of her face, spreading out on the floor beneath her, but even those cries ended as she lost consciousness.
Gerard slowly looked at his hands and the blood on them. He methodically dropped the ear on the table, its sticky blood smacking against the surface, and went down the hall to the community bathroom to wash. Susan quickly took Jane and the ear. She had reached the end of her endurance. She knew she could never fully protect either Jane or herself after 1what she just saw. Susan wrapped Jane up in the blanket and headed out into a chilly night.
The nearest police station was five blocks away. Streetlights created pools of light in the dark, scraps of papers danced across the streets. There were few cars to be seen – in the Bowery, most people couldn’t afford cars. A can skipped across the street, pushed by the wind, rats skittered into allies, bricks lay tumbled in a heap beneath the crumbling façade of a tenement front, garbage spilled from tipped garbage cans.
When she reached the station, she went inside to the front desk. The institutional grey walls were lined with benches and posters referring to bail bondsmen. Desks were crammed behind the long counter. Tired officers rattled typewriters while their nights’ booty, the scummy, corrupt cast-offs of the Bowery, hunkered in chairs, handcuffs clinking to chair arms. The room was a haze of cigarette smoke.
An overly large officer, with his belly riding over his pants, and his eyes bulging from his sockets, looked askance at her. A cigarette dangled from his mouth. It was unusual, to say the least, for an eleven-year-old girl, holding a screaming baby, to be out on a night like this, without a coat but composed. Her manner was that of an adult, expectant of results. She opened her hand, put the ear down on the counter, and told the policeman where her parents were, what had happened, and what condition her mother was in.
She then said she was taking her sister to relatives to be out of harm’s way, saying it like that, self-possessed calm to outward appearances. The officer’s eyes moved back and forth between her face and the ear, his mouth hung open in shock. Susan turned around, walked across the cracked linoleum and through the door before he regained his wits enough to try to stop her but she disappeared into the darkness of the night.
The winds of change swept Susan along the streets of Brooklyn, with leaves and garbage rustling in her wake as she left the police station and made her way from one side of the Bowery to the other, leaving the area. Those blocks in Brooklyn were long, but she kept to her mission. Shortly after two in the morning, carrying a toddler for close to two hours straight, the eleven-year-old reached the doorstep of her aunt, a stoic, forbidding woman who had never shown her a warm emotion but was the closest relative Susan could reach.
Her aunt was willing to keep her, in exchange for chores at her boarding house, but Jane would have to go to an orphanage. There was no place, and no one, who was willing and able to keep her. Jane would never have a memory of her mother. The orphanage was often a nightmare itself. Doctors tested electric shock treatments on children who had no voice for themselves, including fetal-alcohol affected Jane. It wasn’t until Susan married, years later, that she could remove Jane from the orphanage and raise her herself.
For years, Susan’s days began early, helping with breakfast for the guests and changing sheets and towels before school. After school her hours would be spent cleaning, waxing furniture, banisters, and stairs to a gleaming, burnished gold, washing floors and linens, only to leave the doing of her homework late until late into the night and Susan considered herself lucky. She wore her cousin’s hand-me-downs which were often better than what she had in her previous home but her relationship with her cousin was difficult at best.
When she was sixteen, a friend’s family informally adopted Susan. She wouldn’t make it formal because then she would lose her rights pertaining to Jane. Even though her new mother was cold, never welcoming her into her heart, her new father did. He was a wonderful, gentle man and Susan was grateful. It was an entirely different world from the Bowery. Here, she had the license to be her age – to laugh and flirt and have fun.
When Susan left the police station, she assumed her mother would be safe, but in the 1940’s authorities rarely, if ever, interfered with household matters. Even with something of this severity, it was assumed Astrid had provoked Gerard. The police went to stop this “current problem” but left the rest to chance.
In the end, on yet another drunken night, Gerard would kill her, and was never tried in court for the crime, making his violence appear to be accidental. He knew enough of the right words to worm his way out of arrest.
He never stopped drinking, never faced the consequences of his actions, and managed to drink away the remorse and guilt that consumed him. He only contacted Susan when he wanted money; the visits didn’t last more than a handful of minutes. He would play the doting father on rare visits to the orphanage, and leave Jane to be both motherless and fatherless once again. He destroyed a family, the cost irreparable to each member.
In the end, he was no more than a pitiful wretch – someone who stole from his family members and drank to ensure the guilt wouldn’t rise to the surface. Occasionally he would end up in jail for petty larceny or drunken fights. He was bitter, true, but only so because of the injustices he believed life had dealt him. There was no real remorse, no true desperation. He failed to believe in his own culpability, his evil intent, the innate truth of his inner being. Other than any psychic pain he had, he finished his days alone and free from the encumbrances of family and law. His death was unattended; in a beggar’s grave. No one honored him or cared enough to go. Potter’s field was good enough and all he deserved.