The universal symbols for the theatre are the two masks of comedy and tragedy.
I think of my comic side as my natural hand … the left side.
The left is my dominant hand to write, to eat, to point … and raised a Roman Catholic … before I was corrected dozens of times … it was the hand I used to cross myself.
I might conjecture that therefore, my natural inclination is to be funny and to make you laugh. Ah, but that would be so misleading. For the left-handed among us are also naturally ambidextrous.
Nowhere in my early writing was this more evident than in the two collections of short stories I wrote the first two years after I decided to take this writing thing seriously.
Far from the cry of the sea gull off the beaches of Brooklyn, miles of train tracks from my beloved trolley or the din of the factories, was the small Mid-Hudson Valley town where my parents met and married.
I saw the Bush Terminal Factory District of Sunset Park and the small town of Poughkeepsie as the extremes of my childhood. One minute I was a happy street urchin, a careless Tom Boy and the next, I was transported ninety-miles up-river for my summer vacation with little mischief in sight.
In the same collection where I tell of the rebellious Viola and her uber-large mother, Lucille … the same place where I poke fun at small town idiosyncrasies … is the sad tale of Betty Jean.
The fall of 1961
Not in Mrs. Johns’ House …
A narrow ribbon of light from under the door softened the pitch dark of the tiny space where Betty Jean had spent the last six hours. She should have been thinking about the onerous growl of her stomach or the long essay she surely would have no time to write.
If she had more light and a mirror, she might have seen her face bruised and swollen, and the clear tracks of tears in contrast to the smudges from the dust mop hanging next to her head.
But Betty Jean could not think of food or about Sister Mary Elizabeth’s shock to find her prize pupil had not done the assigned essay for her fifth grade English class. No, in the cramped space of the broom closet, she could process no more than the terrible sounds of assault, the crash of dishes as they hit the walls, and her father’s threats to take the butcher knife and end her mother’s stupid, miserable life.
“You ain’t worth shit. Less than a pig to slaughter. At least the fuckin’ pig would give me a decent meal.”
Betty heard him slap her again, “Move your ass and fix me something to eat.”
Time moved to the rhythm of her breathing. The long silence that followed his rage broke with the low moan of her mother’s cries. She pressed her ear to the door. She dared not speak, remembering her sister, Sandy’s warning. “Stay far away from the bastard until he passes out for the night.”
Most nights it ended with her mother taking her out of the closet with a tight hand to her mouth. She would bring her to the bath and put iodine on the latest cut or bruise or to the hospital to set a broken bone. “The girl is so clumsy; she fell off our back porch.” This time there would be no rush to the hospital to set a broken bone.
Betty waited. The next sound was of Mrs. Johns as she entered the kitchen. “I’ll not have any more of this in my house, Virginia.”
The door flung open. Betty covered her eyes against the pain of the sudden burst of light. Mrs. Johns lifted Betty Jean to her feet and guided her towards the bedroom. “Betty Jean get your things. You’ll stay with Cloe and my mom tonight.”
“What about my mother?”
She pushed the girl gently, “Don’t be concerned. Your mother and I will be there in a few moments. Now go on and do as I told you.”
Clarithe Johns stood solid in her resolve and made no effort to comfort Virginia Monihan. She nodded to the two men in brown uniforms behind her and waited until Betty Jean left and she heard her close the door on the first floor.
“Virginia, this is the last time. If you don’t press charges and put that man where he belongs, I’ll call Sandra.”
Virginia Monnihan collapsed in a chair next to the table not far from where her husband’s head sat inside his hands. She trembled, her fear divided between her drunken husband and her older daughter. “Clarithe please, please don’t. He’ll sleep it off. I promise it won’t happen again. You can’t tell Sandra, she’ll take Betty Jean away from me.”
“At least that way she’d be safe.” She leaned over and whispered her next words. “You have to get rid of this man before he kills one or both of you.”
“Sandra can’t take Betty. She’s all I have left.”
A young officer came into the room. “Ma’am, the best thing for you to do is to go down with your little girl. You don’t want to be here when he wakes up.”
The young man went to school with Sandra and Viola. Virginia remembered his face, knew his name and his family. “Please Darrell, don’t hurt him. Don’t hurt my Tom.”
The other officer, older and more familiar with the family’s history of abuse, gently took her by the arm, “Now Virginia, don’t worry about anything but you and that little girl.”
Mrs. Johns nodded, “Thank you so much, Efren.”
“No problem, Mrs. Johns.” The officers waited for the women to get to the first floor. Efren shut and locked the door, and stood for a moment; his head rotating from Darrell to Tom Monnihan. “You know about the Monnihan’s, Darrell?”
“Yeah, I was in the same history class as Sandy Monnihan.”
“Then I won’t have to explain.” Darrell’s young lips curled. “No sir, Efren. When Mr. Monihan here woke up he came at us with that butcher knife over there and we had to defend ourselves.”
Efren patted him on the back. “Good man.”
In the first floor apartment, Mrs. Johns sent the two girls to her daughter’s room and turned on the radio. “What we need are the sounds of the Lord.”
The radio filled the front rooms with the sounds of a gospel choir.
Virginia Monihan heard loud noises above her head. “They won’t hurt him, will they Clarithe?”
Mrs. John’s mother took the hot tea her daughter offered and patted Virginia’s hand. “They are like the Archangel Michael and only do the work of our Lord.”
Mrs. Johns bowed her head, “Amen.”
For some, there is no happy ending, no rescue, no way out. Often, when the sadness becomes more than a body can withstand, the mind protects itself by shutting down.
I have been blessed with survival and know that when I sink to the depths that I will rise again … laugh and make you smile again.
This other side of me comes in waves. What I love about it the most is to trifle with mood … testing the soul. I dare to walk down a lonely road at night to play with the devil on the dark side. I revel to dance under a moonless sky and tempt fate.
Tell me if you will …
Do you dare to walk down a lonely road at night?
Are you tempted to dance with the devil and give him his due?
fOIS In The City
Note: Next time I will test the affable and ever-optimistic Antoinette and explore the dark side of my beloved Sunset Park.