The Tenement

Short-listed Entry: Fiction Category

By: Barbara Bixon

The lobby at 2254 Bathgate Avenue was hotter than it was out side; Sanchez thought when he stepped into it.  Like most of the older buildings on the east side of the Bronx, this one also reeked of cabbage, onions, rotting garbage, and human feces and urine. The smell was a tenement smell-a smell Sanchez knew only too well.

The lean teenager made his way across the littered floor to the worn marble staircase. “Someone’s gonna break their Goddamn neck,” he mumbled, avoiding places where chunks of marble were missing.

Colorful graffiti covered the walls on the first floor.  Exotic street scenes and sun drenched meadows depicting places far different from the run-down slum where this building sat.  The second floor had pictures of hot rods, cartoons, and sometimes the artist was bold enough to scrawl his name below their work. Some of the pictures appeared three dimensional because they were cleverly painted over the raised and flaking paint that was peeling off the walls.

Three steps from the top of the third floor, Sanchez halted. His mouth dropped open and he sucked a deep breath of hot air into his lungs as he stared at the image before him. Tears filled his eyes. It was Rosita-beautiful Rosita who was killed by a stray bullet that was meant to hit a neighborhood pimp. Rosita smiled back at him.  He could almost taste her strawberry-sweet lips and feel her silky-black hair slip through his fingers. He could no longer hold her in his arms and listen to her dreams of tomorrow. She was gone, but her beauty-her face was now immortalized on a crumbling wall in a depilated building.

Sanchez walked up to the mural and tenderly placed two fingers on Rosita’s lips, then brought those fingers back to his lips. He swiped the tears from his cheeks.  T. Perez was the artist’s name; Rosita’s brother. He was only twelve, but everyone in the streets knew his work was good.  Not good, brilliant. The kid should be going to one of those special art schools in Manhattan, but Sanchez knew it would never happen. T. Perez was born on the wrong side of the Bronx. If he were lucky enough to stay alive, he’d probably wind up painting apartments in slum buildings  like his old man.

At the fourth floor, Sanchez stopped and listened to the sounds echoing in the hall. A baby wailed behind one locked door.  A man yelled and cursed a whimpering woman behind another. Sanchez stopped and listened to the familiar sounds. He saw his drunken father battering his mother’s face–a face that would be bruised and swollen for days–a nose that had been broken so many times; he’d almost forgotten how lovely she once looked.

The screaming and yelling continued, and the slaps rained down on the woman blow after blow. Sanchez held his breath and debated. Should he kick the door in and beat the man to a pulp, like he did to his old man on that last day he ever saw him. He decided not to. He had enough problems with the law as it was.  Let someone else save her, he thought. He quickly headed down to the end of the hall and apartment number 4H; the old couple’s apartment. Bertha and Bernie Greenspan, or was it Greenberg. What did it matter? It was Green something-or-other. He remembered seeing them earlier that morning, buying a couple of things in the downstairs bodega.

He glanced down the long hallway. It was empty, but the baby was howling louder than before. Maybe its mother was drugged and lying unconscious on the floor. Maybe she wasn’t even home, but working the streets to make money for her next fix. It didn’t really matter? The kid was probably better off dead, he thought.  The man down the hall finally stopped yelling, but the pathetic woman still sobbed.

Sanchez wiped the sweat off his brow and pulled a black woolen ski mask out of the pocket of his worn jeans. He slipped it over his head and adjusted it so he could see through the eye slots.  He was ready. He put his ear against the door and listened. He didn’t hear anything, but the faint aroma of newly baked cookies had his mouth watering and his empty stomach growling. He rapped on the door three times. No answer. He tried again, louder this time.  Finally, he heard the muffed sounds of someone walking toward the door.

“Who’s there?” the old woman called out.

“The plumber,” Sanchez answered.  “The super sent me to check your apartment, because there’s a leak in the bathroom above yours.”

“Just a minute,” she answered, fumbling with a lock. Then a second one, and finally she released the chain lock and opened the kitchen door.

Sanchez pushed the door open, rushed in, and slammed it shut behind him. The woman’s mouth dropped open and her eyes widened with fear.

“Okay, lady. I don’t want to hurt you,” he said in a low, gravelly voice. “Just give me your money and jewelry and I’ll leave quickly.”

“What?” she stammered, bringing her clasped hands up to cover her heart.

“Bertha, who’s there?” a stooped old man asked, tapping his cane on the floor as he hobbled into the kitchen. “Bertha?”

“Shaa, Bernie. It’s all right, my darling,” she said, trying to sooth him. “Just the plumber to fix the leak from upstairs. The super sent him.”

Bernie started across the floor again with small, uneven steps. His frayed woolen robe slipped open, revealing an oversized diaper. Bertha rushed to her husband and tightened the belt on his robe.

“What’s he got on his head,” Bernie asked, staring at the masked man through cloudy blue eyes. “Make him take it off, Bertha. It scares me.”

Bertha eyes filled with tears. “Don’t hurt him, please,” she whispered to Sanchez.  “He can’t really see, so maybe you should take that off. Besides, you must be very hot.”

“No. I can’t let you see me.”

“My eyes don’t see so good. Take it off. Please. My Bernie is sick,” Bertha pleaded softly. “He has a bad heart.”

Sanchez looked at the old man who had now managed to sit down at the table. His head dropped forward, and his eyes slowly closed. Then he looked back at the old woman. Both of them must be in their eighties, he thought. Her cotton dress looks like it’s been washed so many times; I can hardly see the flowers on it.  And she has my mother’s lemon-soap smell. He shook his head to clear those thoughts, because he couldn’t let himself go soft.

“Take the mask off and sit down young man,” she said. “I’ll give you a glass of soda and some cookies I just baked” She didn’t wait for him to answer. She slipped the thin gold wedding band off her finger and placed it on the table before him, then got her handbag from the counter and opened it as Sanchez watched.

The old man started to snore and dribble made its way down his chin and onto his robe. Bertha sighed and rummaged in her handbag. Sanchez watched as she took out two crumpled dollar bills, and a few coins.  She put the money down on the table next to her ring.

“That’s all I’ve got.” She sighed. “Doesn’t matter though. There’s not enough to buy anything.”   Sanchez slipped the hot ski mask off his head and sat down, never taking his dark brown eyes off the money. “That’s it? This is all you have? I thought all you old people hid money at home. What about your Social Security money?”

“We used it for medicine.”

“Joey! Is that you Joey?” the old man said, suddenly alert and sitting upright.

“Yes! Yes! Bernie. It’s Joey. He’s come home for a visit.”

Sanchez looked from the old man to his wife, who rushed to her husband. She stroked his balding head, trying to calm him.  The old man smiled; a slight toothless smile. “So why’d you stay away so long, Joey? Mama and I were worried about you.”

Sanchez sat speechless, staring at them, as they stared back at him, waiting for his answer.

“He had to take care of a lot of business in California,” Bertha quickly said, moving to the old refrigerator and then bending to take out a can of orange soda-a refrigerator that Sanchez noticed was empty  except for that can of soda, a bottle of milk, and a box of dry cereal. “He did write us all those letters though. Remember Bernie? I read them to you, over and over again.”

“Yes, I remember,” Bernie reached across the table and took one of Sanchez’s sweaty hands and squeezed it gently. “Joey you’re a good boy.  Thank you for writing all those wonderful letters,” he said, staring through unseeing eyes to the young man. “Those letters were the only thing that made us happy.  We just wanted to know you were all right and that you remembered your mama and papa. “

“Joey never forgot us, Bernie,” Bertha said placing the glass of orange soda and a plate of chocolate chip cookies on the table in front of Sanchez. “Joey’s a big business man now. He has lots of responsibilities and lots of things to take care of,” she added, smothering a sob. She dabbed her eyes with a crumpled handkerchief. “Joey, eat the cookies. I just made them. Her eyes pleaded with him to go along with her Joey story.

Sanchez took a cookie from the plate. “Delicious,” he finally whispered, afraid to say more. He didn’t want the old man to realize he had a Spanish accent.

“Bertha, I’m tired now,” Bernie said as he tried to get up. The chair fell backwards hitting the floor with a loud bang. Bernie teetered, ready to fall. Sanchez rushed to the old man and steadied him on his feet before releasing him. Bernie suddenly threw his arms around the boy and hugged him close. Sanchez felt the bones in the old man’s chest and back.  Finally, Bernie released him and sniffed a couple of times. “Bertha help me back to bed,” he said.  Bertha placed her arm around her husband’s waist and walked him out of the kitchen. By the door, the old man turned back.  “It’s good to have you home again, son.”

Sanchez listened to the two of them shuffle down the hall to their bedroom. He sighed, then quietly let himself out of the apartment.

“I’ll give you the rest of the soda,” Bertha said when she returned to the kitchen. “He’s gone,” she mumbled, looking around. She rushed to the door and triple locked it, then went to the kitchen window to see if he had left the building. Sanchez was walking on the opposite side of the street when she looked out.  A moment later, he stopped walking, turned, and looked up at her. Bertha opened the window and leaned out.

“Don’t open the door to anyone!” he shouted.

Bertha smiled and waved to him. He smiled back; a wide, glistening smile.  Then he blew her a kiss and sauntered down the street.  Bertha waited until she could no longer see him.  When she went to clear the table, she stared down at it. There, next to the soda can was her thin wedding band, the two crumpled dollar bills, and the coins she had given him, but next to all of that there were two crisp, new 20-dollar bills. Bertha’s eyes filled with tears. She raised her clasped her hands and looked up at the ceiling.

“Dear God,” she prayed softly. “Don’t let him get killed like  our Joey. Please take care of him. He’s really a good boy. He just needs a little help from you.”

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