Irene Lesserman was a nurse, a live-alone widow who ministered to ancient men and women. But she was heavy-hipped, which excited the skinny ten-year-old, Jack Kopinsky, and she wore the white nurse's uniform, anchored in a hem wide and round as a tent, and she would stand on the grates of her fire escape in the very center of her white, spreading tent, on pillars of white nyloned legs - always gartered, always girdled. This was the view Jack had, the view straight up from underneath, because his family lived one story beneath the nurse. All summer long he took advantage of Mrs. Lesserman this way, violating her with his eyes through the spaces in the grates, cringing tight to the bricks of the building and the green door of the stairwell like a leering troll.
Occasionally Peltz, the spidery landlord who came knocking each month, door by door, for his two dozen rent envelopes, would appear upstairs on the fire escape alongside Mrs. Lesserman. Or he would appear, disappear behind her screen door and his spider arm would appear again, pulling at the white sleeve of the nurse's uniform until Mrs. Lesserman's legs would pivot and move towards him, and the screen door would open wider to take all of her inside.
Jack found a rope, an old piece of clothes line. He fashioned it into a lariat after his mother took him to the Great Rodeo at Boston Garden. He watched the palomino horse, Trigger, and Gene Autry in rhinestones, then he rode the subway and a succession of streetcars home. With his lasso he roped tree limbs and bicycle handlebars and the arms and legs of playmates, when they would let him. Each morning he coiled it, as the cowboys did, and hitched it to the butt of the silver cap pistol, and went down the fire escape to look for friends and enemies. He avoided the inner back stairs of the stairwell. They had a ratty smell that rose from the cellar, where Peltz kept his rent records under a bare bulb and Fishkin, the janitor, shoveled coal into the yawning furnace so the apartments would have hot water. As the heat of the day subsided so did the high cowboy spirits. He went back up the fire escape and hunkered into his spot, the stairwell door to his back and his mother, behind her screen door, sucking in coffee and cigarettes at the kitchen table, as obsessed with her crossword puzzles as he was with the anticipated underview of Irene Lesserman. Further into the apartment, beneath another cloud of smoke, Harold Kopinsky roused himself from his final burst of sleep and fished around in the closet for his deli pants and shirt. Like Mrs. Lesserman he also worked in whites, but nocturnally, feeding fat meat to the sun-starved.
Silent as an insect, Jack backed himself tight against the bricks. He crouched and drank with his eyes, thirsting to be a chameleon, his body colored and patterned exactly like the bricks. He was so struck by Irene Lesserman's looming entrance onto the fire escape above, his senses were shut to everything else: the squalling and bickering from other apartments, the mewing of pigeons on the hot asphalt roof, the squeal of a doorknob turning behind him and venomous eyes drilling the back of his neck.
The bite of sharp fingers sinking into Jack's collar flesh turned his insides from pleasure to pain. He screamed, and the fingers dug in deeper, and he screamed like an animal fighting for its life. The screams drove Mrs. Lesserman back indoors, batting and clenching the bottom of her dress. In the Kopinsky kitchen, the screams ripped Sylvia away from the crossword and the ashtray. She burst through the screen door - so murderously Peltz actually loosened his grip.
"Little vahntz," hissed Peltz. "See what he was doing?"
"Give him here. Give him. How could I see what he was doing?" She pulled Jack away from Peltz, her plump paws digging into his sun-browned, scrawny arms.
Peltz aimed a bony finger like a pistol. His whole hand, bristling with knuckles, was streaked black from coal and ridges of hair."Tell mama what you were doing. Little momser."
Now that she had a grip on him - and Peltz had none - Sylvia aimed all of her rage at Jack. "What's he saying about you? What were you doing? You better tell... "
Peltz pointed a finger that stabbed the air with righteous wrath."What were you doing with your hands? Where were your hands?"
By this time Irene Lesserman had returned to the fire escape. She glared down through the grate, holding her dress tight against her.
"He knows what he was doing with his hands. Don't you? And Mrs. Kopinsky, you know when your lease runs out," snarled Peltz, aiming his words so Mrs. Lesserman could hear him lording it over Mrs. Kopinsky.
Peltz wheeled, pushed through the green door and slammed it behind him. A few moments later he surfaced on the grates above, his spider arms pawing the nurse, his tongue dripping promises of protection and revenge. But by then, Sylvia had dragged Jack into the kitchen, had grabbed the rope from the loop on the cowboy belt and had it bunched and raised in her right hand. She was joined by her husband, who had heard everything. He held Jack for her; held him so hard Jack could barely kick his legs.
Sylvia gave him his rope back - threw it into the room where he was whimpering on the bed and slammed the door on him. Just touching it brought back the fire of rope-strokes cutting his legs, and the ice-wave of hate that came over him was like camphor, chilling the burn of welted skin. He clutched the rope and ran to the street, sick of hearing himself weep, sick of hearing the two of them yelling at each other in the kitchen, bemoaning the shame, and the odds of whether or not they'd be evicted, cast out by Peltz. He stood in the dust under an elm tree, tying it this way and that, trying to figure out the hangman's knot they fashioned so neatly in the cowboy pictures. Nearly an hour passed and the knot eluded him, but it dawned on him at last - how could Peltz see my hands? He was behind my back, behind the door.
"Peltz knows everyone who works for the city," his mother said, not even looking up from the stove burners she raked with steel wool. "He knows the Chief of Police. He could put you in reform school. You'll live in a cage."
Cells, walls, towers, guards with clubs and guns. Jack began to picture these things and buckle under, a prisoner of fear. Sylvia went back to her crossword puzzle and her stub-filled ashtray. He sat on the floor simpering, cemented in a circumference two yards from her at its widest, tied to her like a chain to a ball. There he stayed as it grew dark, waiting for a knock on the door, deep in a cage of his own making.
Sylvia spread out the newspaper with the half-finished crossword puzzle and set two plates on it. She found a can of salmon, listlessly cut the tin off, forked the pink and gray mass into a bowl and mashed it with mayonnaise. The odor of the fish rose up, bonded with the cigarette haze and hung over the table. She foraged in the bread box for a heel of pumpernickel, then opened the refrigerator and found random, wilting vegetables and a single hardboiled egg.
"It's all I'm making tonight," she said, dropping a piece of paper towel and sparse dinnerware beside each salmon plate. "Get up here and eat."
He sat beside her at the table, picking at the greasy mound, his palate dead and his ears alive. The night had no breeze, not a flutter, and the heat seemed to have risen and grown bloated with the heavy press of darkness. The air was wet as ooze from an infected sore, and the thickness of it gave the summer sounds an echo, so they reverberated, screeched and boomed through the thin walls and the screen door and wide-open windows. The bleat of the crickets had an urgent edge, as though they were warning of something, or ticking off moments on an alarm clock. The radios - and the few televisions - of twenty four apartments were a howling chorus of the damned. Jokes fighting jokes; songs fighting songs. And right overhead were the footsteps, the footsteps of Mrs. Lesserman, ceaselessly criss-crossing the ceiling, faster and faster, as though she were trapped in her own apartment and combing the floor and walls for a crack to crawl though.
About the author:
Paul Silverman has worked as a newspaper reporter, olive packer, sandwich man and advertising creative director. One of his commercials won a Silver Lion at Cannes. His short fiction has appeared in numerous literary magazines, both online and print. His story, "Getaway," published by Verbsap, is on the 2006 Million Writers Award shortlist of Notable Online Stories. He's been a Spotlight Author in Eclectica, which has nominated his story, "The Home Front," for Best of the Net, 2008 and The Million Writers Award, 2008. He has three Pushcart nominations for stories in Byline, Lily and The Worcester Review.