All was quiet inside -- save for the distant voices Momma called ghosts, whispers of TVs, radios and crying babies which slipped up through the heat grates from the apartments below. It made the room feel strained-- and with the splash of yellow light spilling out from the kitchen across its tiles-- starkly empty.
There was no furniture, just a radio on the floor and the plastic turtle tray on the window ledge. Even the bedrooms were sparse, an old bed and dresser in Momma's room, and a cot from Grandpa's basement in mine.
I eased in and closed the door. The newspaper on the floor read of Kennedy's victory. The teachers had hummed about it at school. It hadn't meant much to me or Momma.
All Momma wanted was a job.
The turtle tray was empty, too, for the fourth time that week-- and the scuffed tiles showed no trace of the creature. No wet trail pointing which way the it had gone. I had been through the routine before, crawling on my hands and knees as if to get a turtle-eye view of the world, always finding him some place new.
Once I had found Houdini under Momma's bed when Momma was counting her dwindling cash. To be funny, I grabbed a few of the bills and rolled back under the bed with the turtle.
"Give it back, Kenny," Momma pleaded, getting down on her knees to peer under the bed. "It's all the money we have left."
I looked there first, half hoping to find a crumpled bill among the threads of dust. But there was no money or turtle there today, just the dirt. I was still bent when he heard the sound of the lock snapping open. So I scrambled to the edge of the bedroom door and peered out into the hall.
Momma's melancholy face appeared around it like a cracked piece of Garret Mountain, still red from the long slow climb up the stairs, each wrinkle deep wrinkle a history of pain.
“Kenny?'' she called tentatively, as if half expecting someone else to answer. “Are you home?''
“Just got in, Momma,'' I said, stepping out into the long hall, the smell of cleansers filling the air from the open bathroom door behind me. Momma's eyes livened and she closed the door. Her smile wavered as her gaze worked its way around the apartment, sweeping across the empty front from to the kitchen, then back to the hall, pupils dilating as they tried to peer past me at the darkened bedroom doors.
She was searching for ghosts again, I thought and snatched up the newspaper from the floor, holding the headline before her face.
“Look, Momma, Kennedy won!''
She glanced perfunctorily at the print, then seemed to dismiss it-- yet ceased her search with a sag. She removed her cloth coat and from came the smell of lint, mothballs and cheap Woolworth’s perfume.
“Did you have your supper?'' she asked.
“I wasn't hungry.''
Her gaze refocused in my direction. “You have to eat, Kenny,'' she said, still not quite seeing me. “You'll waste away to nothing.''
It was difficult to tell her the truth, of how I missed the clamor of Grandpa's house, the loud talk, the jangling silverware, the large kitchen table full of people around me.
“I lost Houdini,'' I said.
“Again?'' Momma said, snapping back another degree with the name of my turtle. She glanced across the room at the empty plastic container. “Did you look in my room?''
“He wasn't there.''
Then came the first sounds of the night, the after supper TV in some neighbor’s apartment suddenly coming to life, a voice through the channels of hollow walls working its way up. Momma's head jerked around, her eyes dilating into two round circles of fear.
“No,'' she moaned. “Don't start with us now.''
“But Momma it's only...'' I started to say, looking for something else to wave before her to distract her attention. But Momma would not be distracted, striding straight into the empty room with her two hands balled into fists. She waved one in the air.
“I said leave us alone and I mean it!'' she shouted, looking remarkably like Grandpa when he grew angry about noise in the house. Momma and he with the same stern jaw, though Grandpa's lips never quivered the way Momma's did now. She grabbed at me and pulled me to her side, making me feel that much smaller-- the way I had on Carroll Street when I was three. Perhaps someone had heard down in the apartment below because the sound sputtered out before she had time to stamp her feet. Momma stood there for a moment, staring out at nothing, her fist slowly descending to her side. Finally, she shook her self and looked down at me.
The sadness returned to her eyes. Her face sagged with it and I wanted to smother her in my small arms and make the madness go away, shielding her the way she pretended to do for. I remembered Grandpa's warning years ago, before Momma’s release from the hospital.
Don't pay her madness any mind, Kenny -- just do whatever she asks.
Then I hugged her, downtown peeling off her breasts in the scent of Planter's Peanuts and fumes of polluted buses. I could smell Carroll Street again, and the vague hint of the park at the end of the block, and of how I had played on the tiles of the one room apartment -- a solider at three, using a baseball bat for a bugle and an unfolded wire hanger as a sword. I remembered blowing taps for his dying army and trying to swallow the sword.
“Blood!” Momma howled and thrust me away, her appalled stare studying my wounded nose and tattered clothing. “What happened to you, Kenny?''
“Nothing, Momma,'' I said and struggled to be free of her clutching hands.
“Nothing, my foot! Your face is a mess!''
She dragged me down the hall to the bathroom and flicked on the light. The mirror showed the horror of my face: the blood caked thickly around the nose and mouth like paint on a TV Indian’s.
“Well?'' she asked, displaying his face as evidence of a crime.
“It was only a fight, Momma.''
“A fight? With who?'' She sounded surprised. She didn't understand the danger here, the difference between white and black, her pained stare trying to make sense out of the image in the glass.
“Kids from the lots,'' I said, lowering my eyes to avoid meeting her gaze in the mirror. “They didn't like me looking in on their turf.''
“You were in the lots? How many times do I have to tell you it's dangerous in there, Kenny? What if you fell into one of those basements, I might never see you again?''
“I was only on South Street,'' I said. “There's no basements there.''
“No, only boys that want to beat you up. My God!'' she moaned.
“They didn't beat me up in the lots, Momma. They did it on West Broadway.''
“Because they found you wandering around in the lots, no doubt,'' Momma said. “Don't try and lie to me. I can see right through you.''
“I wasn't lying , Momma. I did cut through the lots on my way home from school. It's shorter that way. Otherwise I gotta walk six blocks farther.''
“Walk the six block, Kenny. It's better that than you coming home looking like this.''
She yanked my face forward by the chin, twisting on the hot water faucet with her free hand. The scalding water gushed into the basin, sending steam across the glass, clouding it. For a moment, me and Momma hovered at the still clear center, their faces imprisoned by its closing circle. Yet, there was peace there. The sound of the rushing water raced through the empty apartment, overriding the more distant whispers of her ghosts, keeping them from Momma's attention. I wanted to keep the water running forever, both of us shielded by its white noise.
“I don't know about you, Kenny,'' Momma said, scrubbing off the dried blood with the rough tip of the wash rag.
“Know what, Momma?''
“You're wilder than anyone in the family, even your father.''
“I'm not wild,'' I said.
“I didn't say you were bad, child. But there's a streak running through you that makes you act crazy. I just don't want to see you get hurt.''
“No one's gonna hurt me, Momma,'' I said, though cringed when she struck where the cut was on his upper nose.
“Thank goodness,'' she said, her face an inch from his. “ It doesn't look too bad.''
She cleaned it, then dried it, and pealed a Band-Aid, putting it over the wound. I stared at the blurry image in the mirror. It made me look smaller and helpless. I had hoped for something that would scar, something to take back with me into the lots.
Then, Momma turned off the water and sound came. Not the TV voices this time or the neighbors rising and falling voices, but a scratching that seemed to come from the direction of the kitchen.
“No!'' Momma roared, turning towards the long hall with the kitchen glowing softly at the far end, the last beams of slanted orange light painting its white cabinets and floors. “I just got him whole again!''
“Momma, don't listen,'' I pleaded, tugging at her sleeve. “It'll go away. It always does.''
But her face had changed again, the mask of wrinkles thick around her eyes and mouth as she took a staggering step towards the kitchen, shaking my fingers from her sleeve, her own hands pressed so tight that the knuckles turned white.
Maybe there was some truth to what Momma said. Maybe I was crazy, because I heard the noise, too, a scratching or clawing noise as if something spirit was seeking escape into this world from beyond. I grabbed his wooden baseball bat from the hall closet and crept closely behind Momma as she marched towards the kitchen. The noise grew louder as we advanced, with a clink of metal or plastic breaking into the desperate rhythm.
“It's coming from behind the refrigerator,'' I announced. “Wait Momma. Let me handle this.''
I put the bat between his knees and pressed his weight against the refrigerator, against one side, then the other, walking inch by inch outward from its cubby hole of cabinets till there was a space of about a foot behind. Then, I dragged open a couple of drawers and climbed them like stairs to the counter.
“I need light,'' I said, staring down into the black space.
Momma handed me a pen light from the utility drawer and I shone its flickering yellow beam into the gap, revealing a white plastic spoon, a Pathmark receipt and clumps of dust clinging to the floor like dirty wool.
The scratching came again, and with the tip of the bat, I cleared away the dust, and there among the Grey wool, plastic spoon, Pathmark receipt and motor oil, Houdini struggled trying to escape.