Little Joe And Bleamie



Jerome Turken

For a while we thought she was just getting fatter, but when her belly started to grow too big too fast we knew there was something more going on inside her.  We’d watch her plod up the street with a cigarette dangling in her lips, her load jutting out and the rest of her kind of curving back for balance the way they do, her soiled black dress showing slits of white or pink or plain skin where the seams tore apart.  Fat Frieda wouldn’t have turned away an alligator if it showed up with two bucks, so we were all waiting to see what would come out.  But she didn’t give us that satisfaction.  She disappeared maybe a month before the birth, leaving Mandelbaum, the landlord, yapping his head off about losing three months back rent and gaining a basement full of shit to clean out.

She didn’t show up again until Bleamie was four, five years old, and brought along this skinny little guy, Hawkeye.  Old man Spiro, who rented horses and wagons to the peddlers who needed more than pushcarts and couldn’t afford trucks, let them have the loft on the second floor of the dilapidated old building next to his stable for a couple of bucks a month, and maybe the freedom to walk in and take a look at a naked woman whenever he got tired of looking at naked horses.  Spiro stored hay and oats on the ground floor.  Big Leo joked that, judging from the smell when the wind was right, he wouldn’t be surprised if he stored horse shit in there too.

This Hawkeye, we began to notice him wandering around the neighborhood at about the same time Fat Frieda showed up, but we didn’t connect them at first.  We thought he was just one of those alcohol‑brained derelicts who show up from time to time and hang around a while.  We’d see him with a shopping cart rummaging around vacant lots and through piles of rubbish, picking up boards and planks and old furniture and whatnot that we thought he was selling for junk to make enough for another bottle of wine.    He was often seen pushing the cart into the stable alley, and we just assumed that whenever he managed to he accumulate two extra dollars in his junk business he’d pay Fat Frieda a visit.  Except it was observed that he never emerged so fast, not in her normal time anyway.  When he began to appear regularly at one of the front windows we knew he belonged to her.  He was one of these window sentinels. We’d see him sitting there in his chair guzzling his beer or wine and gazing out.  After dark we’d see the glow of his cigarette arcing to and from his lips.  He probably even slept in that chair.

He wasn’t Bleamie’s old man, we were pretty sure of that.  We couldn’t understand what Fat Frieda wanted with him in the first place.  He was about fifty, a small, skinny guy from out of town, Idaho or somewhere, a friendly guy, one of these wino talkers.  It didn’t take long for him to start coming into Ike’s almost every night, already talking before he walked in.  He could see good out of only one eye; the bad one looked like a glob of phlegm stuck in the socket.  One night Big Leo called him Hawkeye, and then everyone started calling him Hawkeye, and the name stuck.  He was the one who told us most of what went on with Little Joe and Bleamie.

We knew that Little Joe had started patronizing Fat Frieda as soon as she got back, we didn’t need Hawkeye to tell us that.  He had already gone through a kind of preliminary with her before she left, having spent two, three years hanging around outside her house to get a few peeks through her front window.  He was fifteen then.  It was a neighborhood pastime with the teen-age boys, although it seemed to be Little Joe’s main occupation.  More often than not whatever was covering the windows‑‑shades, curtains, old sheets and whatnot‑‑were so mismatched and tattered that anyone wanting to take a peek inside had no trouble finding an opening.  And no trouble seeing; a bare, bright bulb on the ceiling was invariably lit from dusk until midnight and later.  Often a bunch of kids would park themselves right in front of the house, and watch and wait.  Fat Frieda was forever yelling out the window:

“Why don’t you little sonofabitches take a walk.  Go on, you little bastards, get the hell out of here before I call the cops!”

Sometimes a punky kid would yell back: “Gawhead, call the cops, you big fat hoo‑er!  Call them!  Let’s see who gets arrested!”  They said Little Joe disappeared from view whenever that took place.  Big Leo cracked that in view of his future plans with Fat Frieda he probably didn’t want her to identify him.

When he was about sixteen, after ten years of ridicule by half the kids in the neighborhood and more than a few candy store wits, usually with some mention of his having gotten left back in school every other term, Little Joe quit altogether and started pushing a hand truck in the garment center for some dress house for fourteen dollars a week.  On pay day he’d change the ten or fives for singles and fan out fourteen of them under the other kids’ noses, boasting that as soon as he ate supper he was going out to get laid.  This was about a year after Fat Fried disappeared.  He’d often be seen loitering around the whores on Moore Street, and then shying away when one tried to approach him.  It wasn’t until he was almost twenty, just a few months before Fat Frieda came back, that he lost his virginity.  Red Perlman’s kid brother, Knobhead, took him along to this mangy whorehouse on Delancey Street on the condition that he stand him a blow job.  Knobhead told us that when it was Little Joe’s turn he got so nervous that he got up and edged himself to the door to leave, and already had his hand on the door knob when this big‑titted, coffee‑colored little whore grabbed him by the shirt and took charge of him.  “Doncha wanta see ma ‘pendix op’ration, honeh?”  She lifted her skirt and lowered the top of her panties.  “Looka here, see dat?”  She took his hand and ran it over and beyond the scar that probably didn’t even exist, right down to her snatch, purring and cooing, “Oh!  Oh!  It’s so nah‑iss.  Oh honeh!  Oh behbeh!  Come back in hee‑ah!”  Knobhead told us that when she nudged him into the bedroom, his eyeballs almost turned in their sockets and a funny gurgling sound came out of him.  That was his first time.   Then he made a steady thing of it, Knobhead said.  Until Fat Frieda appeared.  Big Leo says he probably took up hanging around outside her house where he left off, until she finally pulled him in with a pole hook.  Because he couldn’t see Little Joe having the nerve to walk in on his own, even with his two, three month whore experience.

He’d go there every Wednesday and Saturday like clockwork, kind of pretending he was going to pick up his best girl and go out to paint the town red.  He’d come into Ike’s first and just stand around for half an hour or so holding a coke or a two‑cent seltzer with his pinky extended for class, displaying all five feet, ninety pounds of himself.  He’d be all spruced up, dapper and impeccable: tie drawn up, knotted perfect, a three‑pointed handkerchief smartly placed in his breast pocket and a patent leather shine on his shoes, wearing that wide‑brimmed hat of his that looked like an umbrella mounted on his head.  He grew a thick handlebar mustache that he curled and waxed–who knows where he got the idea for that.  There he’d stand playing the two‑cent pinball machine, trying to look like one of the boys, smiling at nothing at all.  When it was time to leave he’d say, “Well, I’m sorry, time to go.  See you around,” as if he were an important member of the crowd.

“You know who he reminds me of?” Big Leo said.  “Adolph Menjou.  Am I right?  Adolph Menjou, thirty years younger, a hundred pounds lighter, a foot shorter and a lot dumber looking.  He could be a comedian and make a fortune.  All he’d have to do is get up on some stage and just stand there and look natural.  He wouldn’t have to say a word.”

Hawkeye told us he’d always have a present for Bleamie, a toy or something that he bought at the five and dime.  She would already have been sitting on a box next to Hawkeye, looking out the window for him, Hawkeye said.  When she saw him walk down the street she’d yell:

“There’s Joey‑oh!”  That’s what she called him then.  She’d get so excited that she’d climb right on Hawkeye’s lap to stand on the arm of his chair to see him better.  She’d flatten her nose against the pane and tap it with her fingertips, trying to get his attention.  “Joh‑ee‑oh!  Hey, Joooh‑ee‑oh!”  Hawkeye would hold her by the back of her dress, afraid that in her excitement she’d go right through the window.  Then, when Little Joe turned into the stable alley she’d run out into the hall and stand at the head of the banisterless stairway to meet him.  When he was two or three steps from the landing he’d brace himself and she’d fall right down into his arms.  He’d have her present in his hand and she’d keep eyeing the package, but he wouldn’t give it to her right away.  He wanted to keep her around a while, so he’d wait until she’d ask what it is.

“What’s your business,” he’d say, “since it ain’t for you.  I can’t get over this little girl.  Look how nosy she is.  Jesus, I never seen anything like this in all my life.  I got a little girl here who has this crazy idea she has to know everything for some reason.”

And she’d say, “Come on, stop fooling around, Joey‑oh!”

“What are you talking about, fooling around?” he’d say.  “I don’t see anyone fooling around.  Who’s fooling who here?

She’d say, “Come on tell me what’s in the package.  Let me see it.”

“What makes you think there’s something in this package that concerns you?” he’d say.  “Because there ain’t nothing in this here package that concerns you whatsoever in the least, so you better learn to mind your own business or you’ll get into trouble one of these days.”  He’d sit there whistling tunelessly, pretending not to be aware she was even in the room, and she’d go over to him with her little brows knitted and lean her elbows on his knee, popping her lips and breathing hard, putting on the impatience, waiting for him to get his fooling around over with and give her the package.  After a while she’d start climbing all over him again.

“It’s for me, ain’t it?  Come on, Joey‑oh, ain’t it for me?”

And he’d say, “Will you take a look at this?  I don’t believe this, I just don’t believe this.  We got a girl here who thinks everything is for her for some reason.  Will someone please come over her and take her off of me?”

“I’m mad at you,” she’d say finally.  “I don’t like you anymore.  I ain’t calling you Jo‑ee‑oh anymore.”

When Little Joe figured he held out maybe a little longer than enough he’d take out whatever was in the package and hold it out to her and her eyes would light up like stars and she’d shriek like the devil.  She’d go around the loft showing it to whoever happened to be there at the time. “Look what I got,” she’d say.  “Joh‑ee‑oh gave it to me.  You like it?”

“Hey! don’t I get a kiss or something?” he’d say.  She’d give him his kiss on the cheek then disappear someplace to be alone to play with whatever he gave her.

Little Joe wasn’t the only one to get a kick out of her.  She was the prettiest little girl you ever saw.  More than pretty.  Her eyes were big blue diamonds, lively and alert, with a button of a nose between them.  She was open as a daisy, the kind of kid you could just stand there and watch.  She’d come into Ike’s for a penny candy and walk over to the showcase and spend ten, twenty minutes concentrating hard to pick something out, moving her finger along the showcase glass and swinging her head in that dopey little way of hers, her fine, buster brown hair flopping from side to side and her lips working to make some kind of goofy noise.  She’d tap her teeth with the penny as if that helped her make a decision, and when she was sure of what she wanted she’d go over to Ike and grab his pants to pull him over to the showcase, even if he was with another customer.

“I want that,” she’d say, pointing her finger on the glass.

And Ike, never sure what she was pointing at, would pick out whatever he thought it was and say, “This?  Is this what you want?”

And she’d say, “No-oh, that.”

And he’d pick out something else, and say, “This?”  It took him three, four tries to hit the right thing, and more often than not she’d change her mind as soon as he picked it.  He’d pretend to be all burned up.  “See this penny?” he’d say, a smile lurking in his eyes.  “I’m going to save this penny because this is the one that’s gonna make me rich.”

Sometimes Little Joe would be there when she walked in, playing or watching the pinball machine.  He’d keep sidling his eyes, trying to look at her without turning his head.

“Hey, Joh‑ee‑oh!” she’d scream as soon as she spotted him, and her eyes would light up and she’d come running over to him and take hold of the edge of his jacket or the leg of his pants, “Hey, look at me!  Come on, look at me!”

He’d get all fucked up about it, looking like he wanted to disappear into the wall and at the same time bend down to hug her.  Whatever was going on inside of him would come out in this closed‑mouthed nasal giggle that, even if you were standing right next to him, was hardly audible.  Bleamie was persistent.  He’d finally bend down and give her a hug and look up at us with this big toothy mustached grin and say, “I think I’m going to walk this little girlfriend of mine home.”

And then the sneers and wisecracks would begin.  They’d look around with these knowing glances and snide smiles, and someone would say, “She’s talking to tomorrow’s supper.” Or, “One of her uncles is taking her home.”  Or some such remark.

“Aah, how touching,” Big Leo would say.  “Doesn’t such tenderness go right to your heart, Norman?  Really.  I wonder, does the kid know what he does with her momma when they go into that room and shut the door?  Maybe she actually gives her a few preliminary lessons on her future vocation, you know, leave the door open altogether for the kid see how things are done.”

That room didn’t even have a one.  It wasn’t even a room.  It was just a makeshift cubicle, Hawkeye said, that he threw together himself in a corner of the loft with old pieces of board, plywood and sheetrock that Spiro had laying around, and whatever else he could find around vacant lots or in put‑out garbage.  A hovel inside a hovel, that’s how Hawkeye described it.  The partitions were just high enough for an ordinary man not to see over, and the entrance just a space with an old piece of drapery stuck across on a curtain rod.  With the drape probably not drawn all the way half the time and those makeshift, mismatched partitions with all kinds gaps, how could she have avoided seeing what went on in there?  Can you imagine the sounds she must have heard?  They were her uncles, that’s what Fat Frieda told her.  Uncles.  Did she ever wonder where all her aunts were?

Then there was that word, hoo‑er.  That’s how she probably heard it in the streets, yelled by the boys and whispered by the girls.  And saw it, written on sidewalks and walls of buildings and fences.  Who didn’t know who Fat Frieda was? Who didn’t know Bleamie was her daughter?  Hoo‑er!  Hoo‑er!  Your mother’s a hoo‑er!  And some of the older boys, can you imagine them cornering her, questioning her?  What does your mother do home, Bleamie?  Eh?  Come on, tell us what she does.  Look at her, she’s going to be a hoo‑er too, the same as her mother. Maybe she’s a hoo‑er now, a baby hoo‑er.  You want to show us under your dress?  Whoops and guffaws and cackles.  And when she started school.  Bleamie’s mother’s a you-know-what, did she ever hear that?  Teachers with their eyes full of sympathy.  Making friends at school until their mothers ordered them to stay away from her.  Someone once saw one yank her daughter away from her right in the street.

“Under no circumstances are you to go near her ever again, hear me?  What kind of name is that anyway?  Bleamie!”

Fat Frieda’s daughter.  She grew right into it.  She was nine then.  She just accepted her mother’s line of work, even when she practiced it with Little Joe, who must have come as close to a real uncle as she would ever have.  He was more uneasy about being her mother’s customer than she was, Hawkeye said.  He went through all sorts of exercises to try to camouflage it.

“Well, I got to settle up a few things with your mother,” he’d say when it was his turn.  Or, “We got to go over the books,” serious, trying to make it sound like some kind of business was going to be transacted.  Fat Frieda would roll her eyes.

“Oh, God!  Let’s get going already!”  Hawkeye told us that one day in a nasty temper she yelled at him: “You think she don’t know what’s going on?  What do you think, she’s dumb?  She stopped thinking they’re her uncles two years ago!  Now come on in here and let’s get started!”

Little Joe was finicky about the drape, carefully overlapping it to make sure there were no openings.  “I don’t believe this,” he’d say.  “A curtain for a door.  Jesus, a curtain!”  Until one day he walked in lugging an actual secondhand door in a frame, and a tool box and gave Hawkeye two bucks to install it complete with a hook.  The next time he brought an old radio to put in the cubicle.  So from then on, after going through his preliminary masquerade for Bleamie he’d close the door behind him and put it on the hook, and loud music would go on on the radio.  When Little Joe came out again Bleamie would be waiting for him with one of the games he’d given her.  She’d drag him to a corner of the loft and they’d start playing.  He’d talk to her all the while.  He wanted to know everything about her.  What kind of games did she play in school?  Who walked home with her?  How was she doing in school anyway?

“What do you mean, you don’t have homework?” he’d say. “One of these days I’m going to call up your teacher and find out for myself, and then we’ll see about it.”

When she got a little older he’d ask her about boys.  Did she like any one in particular?  Did any one in particular like her?  How about kissing, did a boy ever kiss her?  He’d want to know where she went, where she hung out. “Hopkins Street!” he’d say.  “Jesus, don’t tell me you go around Hopkins Street!  Don’t you know they have Gypsies around there?  You want to get kidnapped, or something?  And you better not get too friendly with boys around there, that’s all I got to say.  The first thing you know they’ll be looking for something.”

Sometimes he got after her about her dresses being too short.  He gave it to her on that, Hawkeye said.  “Will you take a look at these dresses this dopey little girl wears?  You can see everything, for crissake.  Hey, what’s the matter, you don’t know what’s going on out there?  You got these little tough guys that like to look up girl’s dresses all over the joint, don’t you know that?”  As if it were her doing to attract boys, and not that she simply might have grown out of them and had nothing else to wear, and anyway had no say in the matter.  She couldn’t have been more than ten, eleven then.

A little later, when boys started to come around looking for her, it drove him crazy.  They were her age at first, then a little older, maybe from the next two grades.  From his chair by the window Hawkeye would often see a cluster of three or four mulling around in front of the alley, waiting for her to come down.

“What are you, stupid or something?” Little Joe would say.  “You must be stupid.  What are you fooling around with boys for?  Don’t you know what they’re after?  You better be a little more careful, that’s all I have to say.”

She started coming home later.  Most of the time she wasn’t there when he arrived and sometimes still not there when he was ready to leave.  He’d hang around waiting for her, nagging after Fat Frieda.

“Where is she, for crissake?  Ain’t you concerned about her?  She’s only eleven and a half, for crissake.  She don’t even know what’s going on.”

“If you’re so worried about her why don’t you go out and find her,” Fat Frieda would say.  “Go ahead, you know all the good spots.”  She’d roll her eyes up at the ceiling.  “Don’t know what’s going on!”

So out he’d go and a half hour later come back with her all peevish.  She’d sulk over to the window and get on her knees and look out just to ignore him.  He’d take a seat on a musty, dilapidated old couch stuck in one of the corners and just stare at her.  After a while she’d go over to him and put her head on his shoulder and stare into space.  One day he asked her to promise not to have anything to do with boys for the time being, Hawkeye said.  Why don’t she just make believe he was her boyfriend.

“Okay,” she said.

She took it seriously.  She came straight home after school and played some game or watched television or read a comic book until bed time.  When boys came around she wouldn’t go down.  On Wednesdays and Saturdays she waited for him to show up, and even greeted him at the top of the stairs like when she was little.  Then, as if it was an unspoken part of the arrangement, she waited for him to get through with her mother.  As soon as he came out of the cubicle he’d take her hand and they’d sit side by side on the dilapidated couch holding hands.  They didn’t talk much, Hawkeye said.  He’d keep asking her if she’s happy, and she’d say, “Yeah.”  Did she go to school?  “Yeah.”  They hardly moved except to go to the bathroom, or to unwrap some candy bars or a couple of pieces of bubble gum he brought with him, and they’d chew and blow bubbles while reading aloud the fortunes inside the wrappers.  A good luck streak is approaching.  You have a keen sense of humor and love a good time.  Sometimes they played Parcheesi or casino.  She taught him how to play close the squares.  Mostly they just sat there staring into space with almost identical moony expressions.

He was her boyfriend like that for three weeks.  Hawkeye told us that one Wednesday after he went into the cubicle with Fat Frieda, Bleamie sat down with a jigsaw puzzle he’d given her.  All of a sudden she got up and walked over to the cubicle and started hammering at the door with her fists.  Hawkeye, who was gazing out the window, smoking and boozing, sprang out of his chair and ran to stop her, but before he reached her the door hook gave way and she flew inside, with him lunging after her to pull her back out again.  The first thing Hawkeye saw was Little Joe, fully clothed, three feet in the air above Fat Frieda, whose naked expanse was on a mattress on the floor, her legs still in the attitude of having just propelled him off of her.  Hawkeye watched her struggle to her feet, her flesh jiggling, her tits swaying and bouncing like two sacks of water, and go after Bleamie.

“Get the hell out of here, you goddam little pain in the ass!  Get‑‑!” and then wham! right in the face, and wham again, across the shoulders,  “The nerve!  The nerve!” and Little Joe on his feet now, trying to hold her arm back, getting tossed and whipped around like he was trying to hold back the crankshaft of a locomotive. And Bleamie just standing there bent over, her hands covering her head for protection, her mouth agape like she was crying without sound, Hawkeye said, like a baby sometimes, when it runs out of breath and gets blue in the face.

Hawkeye grabbed her and yanked her free of Fat Frieda and out of the cubicle, with Little Joe just barely squeezing through the door behind them before Fat Frieda, still yelling and cursing and flaying like a madwoman, slammed it shut.  Hawkeye, not even knowing if he was doing good or harm, took Bleamie by the shoulders and shook her until she gasped a huge inbreath and let out a wail of hurt finally.  And when her wailing got used up she pulled herself free of Hawkeye and ran to a corner of the loft and lay down on the floor sobbing.  And Little Joe?  He was standing near the door, knocking the wall with his forehead, mumbling, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”  Then he just vanished.  Hawkeye didn’t even notice him leave.  He went out and spent an hour looking for him, then gave up and went to Eppy’s Tavern for a few drinks.

He got back after midnight.  Bleamie was still on the floor, asleep now.  He said he felt like picking her up and taking her back to Idaho with him.  He looked in on Fat Frieda; she was asleep too.  He carried Bleamie to her cot in the corner and covered her with an old army blanket then fell into his chair and went to sleep himself.

Big Leo and Norman were just itching to make some merry over it with Little Joe, but he stopped coming around after that.  He stopped coming to Fat Frieda too, Hawkeye said.  About three weeks later someone saw him around Delancey Street, so we figured he went back to his coffee‑colored whore.  For a while we didn’t see much of Bleamie either.  She hardly went out, Hawkeye said.  She even stayed home from school for a few days, until Fat Frieda finally got after her.

“You better get that little ass of yours to school, you hear me!” she screamed. “I don’t need them nosing around here, sticking their two cents into everything under the sun!”

In the street Bleamie would walk with her eyes to the ground, always in a hurry.  If anyone stopped her she’d keep her eyes diverted and give one word answers.  When she started junior high school she seemed to get a little more outgoing, less on the periphery of things.  You’d see her walking home amongst a bunch of gossiping, giggling girls who went the same way.  Every once in a while a few boys would tag along strutting their stuff, and you’d see her old smile came back into her face.  No, that was a little girl smile.  Now her smile had something else in it: boy awareness, the skittish playfulness of young girl flirtation.

Little Joe didn’t show up again for‑‑well, Bleamie was already in Junior High School, so it had to be a year or more.  He just walked into Ike’s one day and had everyone staring at him like he was a monkey who just escaped from some zoo.  He looked like a ghost of himself.  His cheeks were drawn, his face pale and his eyes sunk deep in dark sockets.  He was unshaven and his mustache drooping and shaggy.  He must have lost twenty‑five of his hundred pounds.  It got so quiet, all you could hear was seltzer fizzing into a glass and Ike’s spoon rattling around as he mixed an egg cream.  Big Leo, who was playing the pinball machine, broke the silence.

“Well, well, don’t tell me who I’m looking at,” he said.  “Where did you disappear, Joe?  We all missed you.  How long has it been, a year?  What did you do, go to Florida to get some sun, or something?  You look good.  Don’t he look good, Norman?”  He shot a new ball and bumped and pushed the machine around as it came down.  “Hey, you’re not a fugitive from justice, are you?”

“Get outa here,” Little Joe said.  “Whataya, crazy?  Jesus, a fugitive from justice.”

“We were just talking over old times,” Big Leo said.  “You know, this little demonstration you put on with Fat Frieda.  Remember?”  He was paying attention to the machine, manipulating it.  “You know, the one you let your little girlfriend watch.  What were you trying to do, teach her a few tricks, or something?  Hey, I bet she could teach you‑‑“ He hit another ball. “‑‑a trick or two.  You ought to‑‑“

Big Leo never finished that sentence.  Little Joe reached into the inside pocket of his coat and pulled out this huge revolver and stuck the barrel right into his face.  He looked like a diminutive movie gangster, a desperado on the lamb, putting on a crazy face, straining to hold the gun steady.

“I’m gonna blow your brains out!” he said.  He had Big Leo bending backwards over the pinball machine with the barrel of the gun almost up his nose and a pleading look on his face.

“Wait!  Wait!”  Big Leo looked like he was going to start crying.  “Please.”

Until that moment it was like the gun was a stranger in Little Joe’s hand that he was uncomfortable dealing with, almost in pain.  He looked out of balance holding it.  But as he flit his eyes between it and Big Leo his face shaded from out and out anger into a kind of crazy relish.  Like he’s getting a big kick out of all the respect he’s commanding all of a sudden with that gun in his hand, like watching Big Leo grovel in front of it made it his best friend.  He even used the word.  “You want to see this little friend of mine blow your brains out?  Eh?  Eh?” he said, flicking the barrel in Big Leo’s face.

Big Leo was white as chalk.  “Aah, come on, Joe, who said I want to see anything?  Come on, put it away.  Please.” You could almost hear his heart beating.

“It looks like he’s afraid to get his brains blown out, fellas,” Little Joe said, and he went into this crazy laughing jag about Big Leo being afraid to get his brains blown out, emitting this weird closed‑mouthed laugh that sounded as though it was scraping through his throat.  “Kcha‑kcha‑kcha!  Jesus, look at him, look how afraid he is to get his brains blown out.  Kcha‑kcha‑kcha, I can’t believe how scared he is.  Kcha‑kcha‑kcha.  All right, let’s see if you can apologize for what you said before.”

“I apologize,” Big Leo said.

“Did anyone say anything?” Little Joe said.  “I didn’t hear anyone say anything.  Maybe I’m hard of hearing or something.”

“I APOLOGIZE.  Now put the gun away?”

“Did he say please?” Little Joe said.  “Did you hear anyone say please?”

“PLEASE,” Big Leo said.

“Well, well, well, he learned how to say please.” Little Joe looked around the store in glee, ecstasy almost. “You hear that?  He learned how to say please.”  Then he walked out still laughing that laugh, making a big show of putting the gun back inside his coat.  “Kcha‑kcha‑kcha!  He learned how to say please!”

He was a different man now, the difference being that hunk of iron bulging inside his coat.  He became a big shot over night.  He got respect, the courtesy treatment, the big hello.  You’d hear them say: “Little Joe?  Be careful with him.  He’d just as soon blow your brains out as look you in the eye.”  Or some such remark.

About a month later he showed up at Fat Frieda’s.  Bleamie was out.  Hawkeye told us how he walked in like a miniature desperado and scared the shit out of him, Fat Frieda and one of her customers.  Hawkeye actually took a look outside his window to see if there was a drain pipe to climb down.  Little Joe took his coat and jacket off and unstrapped the gun from his chest‑‑he had already bought a leather holster for it‑‑and hung it up on a nail in the wall.  Now he was a diminutive caricature of John Wayne making a social call.  He sat down on the couch like the boss and pointed for Fat Frieda to sit down next to him.

“I want to talk to you,” he said.  Then he couldn’t get out of his mouth what he wanted to say.  The boss was struck dumb.  They sat in silence for five full minutes.  She had to pull it out of him finally or they would have sat there all night.

“Well, Joe, what can I do for you?” she said. “When do you want to come up?”  He couldn’t get his tongue going. “What is it?  Does it have something to do with Bleamie?” she said finally, as if it could have to do with anything else.

Little Joe went pale but he finally got his voice going.  “Yeah, that’s right,” he said.  “It has something to do with Bleamie.  But wait a minute, don’t to get the wrong idea.”  All he wanted to do was take her to the movies.  He figured he’d come over every Wednesday and Saturday the same as before, except now he’d take Bleamie to the movies.  “What’s wrong with that?  Don’t worry about it.  I’ll pay the regular price.”

That gun had Fat Frieda half paralyzed, Hawkeye said.  She quickly agreed and that was that.  Bleamie had no say in the matter, but as it turned out it made no difference.  In fact she was eager to begin the arrangement.  Hawkeye told us that when Little Joe came the following Saturday she was waiting for him.  The gun had something to do with it.  She couldn’t take her eyes off it.  The idea of Little Joe wearing a gun thrilled her.

“Put it on,” she said.  “Come on, please, let’s see how it looks on you.”  She was giddy.  Hawkeye couldn’t get over how she wanted to handle it, how she went over and took it right out of the holster and played with it, “Bang! Bang!” giggling all the while.

“Hey, wait a minute,” Little Joe said, taking from her.  “Wait just one minute, little girl.  This ain’t no toy, you know.”

As before he brought along a gift for her.  But this time it wasn’t anything you could buy in Woolworth’s.  It was the real stuff, a pair of solid fourteen carat gold earrings.  He bought them from Nat Schwartz who works on the diamond exchange and does some side business around the neighborhood.  Nat had been trying to move them for a year.  He began by asking $120, and little by little had come down to his bottom price, $26, probably a few bucks more than he paid for them.  “Here, take a look at these beauties,” he’d say, opening the blue velvet box.  “Golden bowls with fruit jewels.  Genuine fourteen carat.  Go ahead, take a look, ain’t they honeys?  Genuine precious stones.  Notice the hand work?  It’s a one of a kind.  They’re worth $120 but for you its forty. Your girlfriend will go absolutely ga‑ga over them, guaranteed.  All right, I’ll tell you what I’ll do.  If her ears ain’t pierced I got a woman who’s an expert ear piercer.  I’ll throw her in for free.”  He got fifty dollars out of Little Joe.  Was he worried about the gun?  Sure he was worried about the gun.  Anyone nuts enough to carry one around is nuts enough to shoot it.  But fifty dollars is fifty dollars.

Bleamie took one look at the little blue velvet box and she knew she was getting something special.  When she opened it and saw what was inside she almost stopped breathing, Hawkeye said.  Her eyes goggled, her mouth gaped and she let out a scream.

“How do you like them, eh?” Little Joe said, beaming. “Genuine gold.  Genuine jewel fruits.  Ain’t they honeys?  Notice the hand work?  It’s a one of a kind.  You won’t get anything like that in Woolworths.”

The idea that Bleamie owned a pair of genuine gold earrings with expensive jewels overwhelmed her.  Her eyes welled up with tears, Hawkeye said.  The next day Little Joe took her to Nat Schwartz’s woman to have her ears pierced.  Having to wait a week for them to heal with thread in them almost drove her crazy.  She couldn’t stand not wearing them so she clasped them right on to the thread.  When she finally was able to put them through her ears she hardly took them off.  She even wore them to school, Hawkeye said.  Even when she slept.

So Little Joe was Bleamie’s first customer.  He fell into the same routine as before.  Every Wednesday and Saturday he’d come into Ike’s first, making sure that some of the holster was showing, and stand around getting respect and feeling important.  About ten to eight he’d leave to go call for Bleamie.  He’d give Fat Frieda the money then take Bleamie to the movies.

She was already more than half busted out by that time.  You’d look at her and say to yourself, one more year, all she needs is one more year.  It didn’t take that long.  Every time you saw her there seemed to be more of her.  You could almost see the movement.  She began to pull and pin her young girl cotton dresses and skirts and blouses, trying to show off whatever she grew so far.  She stopped wearing socks and you began to notice the shape of her legs: female.  We started seeing her with an older boy, one of these loud little wise guys with a wisp of a mustache, who think they know everything.  At first he’d just walk home with her from school.  Soon he was holding her hand, and before long his hand was around her waist.  He’d strut along wearing an Ike jacket with a black patch with a white skull and crossbones sewn on the sleeve, a comb sticking out of his back pocket and a cigarette in his mouth.  Then others came sniffing after her.  We’d see her clinched in their arms in closed store entrances or tangled together in the balcony of the Loews or RKO, hugging and kissing and more, going at it through double features, taking time out only to smoke cigarettes.  Sometimes when she’d get home from school two or three would follow her right into the alley, brazen as tom cats.  One of them even came right up the stairs and started banging at the door for her to come out.  Hawkeye had to chase him with a baseball bat.

And Little Joe, where was he?  How he could he have not noticed all this activity of hers?  Big Leo remarked that his eyes must be regulated to see her only during the time he paid for, like putting a nickel in the slot and getting a nickel’s worth of seeing.  But Bleamie always gave little Joe his time.  She’d be there faithfully, every Wednesday and Saturday when he got there, wearing those fifty dollar earrings he bought her.  She probably even looked forward to it, like going to the movies with a friend.  They probably sat there eating candy and popcorn, with their eyes glued to the screen, laughing or crying at the picture.  After the show he’d take her to the Stapleton Cafeteria for some coffee and Danish and we’d see them sitting together at a table against the wall.  She’d sit there with flitting eyes, primping her hair, probably like she saw them do it in the movie she just watched.  Or touching around her earrings, gauging the attention she was getting.  By this time she was already as tall as he was, maybe taller.  Together they looked like a child woman and a man child.  On Wednesdays he’d make sure to get her home by ten, Hawkeye said, because of school the next day.

One day she went over to Fat Frieda and told her that she thought she ought to get a cut out of what Little Joe was giving her.  Fat Frieda went through the roof, Hawkeye said.  “Bitch!  Bitch!” she screamed.  “Where does she come off … the nerve … the nerve of this ungrateful little bitch!”

But after cooling down she came across with an additional dollar a week to keep Bleamie happy, Hawkeye said.  She probably figured that by this time Bleamie had enough raw woman power in her to upset the whole arrangement.

It all went for cosmetics.  She began painting her face like she was already eighteen: rouge, lipstick, eye shadow, and all that stuff.  It didn’t take long for her to start getting sniffed out by more than just school boys.  It got around that Artie Kaye, the son of Kaye & Son’s Haberdashery, was fooling around with her.  He was one of these thirty year old Lotharios who thought he was God’s gift to women, a suave dresser with thick, styled hair, a trimmed mustache and a toothpaste smile.  When school let out at three, crowds of kids from JHS 148 would pass by his shop on their way home, and he’d be at the window, smiling and winking at the more developed girls, putting on the personality.  And they’d slow down and giggle and swoon and poke one another.  He was particularly taken with Bleamie.  He’d come out of the store and watch her recede down the block, pretending to be examining his show window. They say she’d stare right back at him with that saucy smile of hers, as if to say, “You like what you see?  Come and get me.”  One day someone saw her walk right up to the door just after closing time and knock on the glass.  Then it became a regular thing a few times a week.  She wouldn’t even try to hide it. She didn’t seem to give one hoot who saw her; while he looked like a thief in the night, they said, looking up and down the street to see if anyone was watching before opening the door just enough to whisk her in.  Soon afterward she started wearing different clothes: skimpy little sweaters and tight, colorful blouses that highlighted the two little hills on her chest; and skirts made of regular material for women, tight and clinging enough to show off what she already grew.  More often than not we’d see her with nylons now, and more often than not they were full of runs.  How old could she have been, fifteen?  And already she was a main attraction, bouncing and shaking down the street like a tambourine.  Fat Frieda never said boo about it, Hawkeye told us.  We kept wondering what she had in mind.

Bleamie carried on like that with Artie behind Little Joe’s back for about two months, then she stopped.  It got around that someone sent Artie’s wife an anonymous letter, and that one evening near closing she took a trip to the store and from a doorway across the street watched her husband let Bleamie in.  Then we heard it was the old man Kaye who caught them one night when he went back to get his glasses.  Both were rumors and both were wrong; it was Bleamie who dumped Artie, although we didn’t find that out until later.

A few weeks later Fat Frieda paid Artie a visit.  Freddy the mechanic was in the store buying some pajamas.  She walked in wearing one of those stained dresses of hers, Freddy said, and  stunk the whole place up with that cheap perfume she uses.  Her lips and eyes were so painted they looked like plastic ornaments pinned on her face.  She stepped right between Artie and Freddy and said two words: “Statutory rape.”  Artie turned so white Freddy thought he’d drop to the floor.

“Who are you?” he said.

“Her mother.”

“Wait outside.”

“I’ll wait right here.” Fat Frieda said, and took a seat on one of the chairs.  When Freddy left she was still sitting there, filing her nails.

How much could she have gotten out of the poor bastard?  Someone remarked that he couldn’t imagine her taking more than five, ten dollars in one shot.  Jesus, statutory rape.  Fat Frieda should have paid Artie, Big Leo said.  Because the stupid sonofabitch actually did her a favor, took a very big load off her hands, although he didn’t realize it.  Because she had to have already been mulling over the when’s, how’s and with whom’s of breaking Bleamie in, and he comes along and gets three quarters of the job done for her.  Maybe that’s why she held off until the whole thing ran its course.  She didn’t want to interrupt Bleamie’s training.  Now it was simple.  All she had to do was teach Bleamie a few tricks of the trade and she could open her up for business.

Two days later Fat Frieda came by another bonanza, from Little Joe this time. He paid her an unscheduled visit one night while Bleamie was out‑‑he probably stood outside watching to make sure she left before he came up‑‑and said there was something important he wanted to discuss.  And then he just stood there staring at her with these wild eyes, Hawkeye said.  It was almost as if he thought Fat Frieda would divine what he had in mind for Bleamie.

“What is it?” Fat Frieda said.

“I’m interested in Bleamie,” he said.

“I noticed,” Fat Frieda said.


“And what?”

“I want to–”

“You want to what?”

“Buy her.”

“What are you talking about, buy her?  Are you serious?”

He just stood there looking at her with that wildness in his face.

“You mean, to keep her?  Where are you going to put her?  What are you going to do with her?”

“Let her just stay where she is for the time being.  I’ll just keep coming Wednesday and Saturday and take her to the movies the same as I do now, except now I’ll own her.”

“Well she’s not cheap, you know.” Fat Frieda said.

“How much?” Little Joe said.

“Four hundred dollars,” Fat Frieda said.

He looked at her a few seconds.  “All I got is two‑fifty,” he said.  “I’ll owe you the rest.”

“All right,” Fat Frieda said.  “You have to add ten dollars a week maintenance.”

“What’s maintenance?”

“Well, if she’s going to stay here I have to feed her, don’t I?  Then there’s clothes and school supplies‑‑you know, she has to have things.”

“All right,” Little Joe said.  He reached into his pants pocket and took out a roll of bills and handed it to her.

“You mean you have it on you?” Fat Frieda said.  Up to that point Hawkeye didn’t think she took him seriously.  She probably thought he was drunk, or just going through some kind of wacko thing that was going to take a few days to get out of his system.  She took the money and counted it out.  “All right,” she said.  “She belongs to you now.  Don’t forget the ten dollars maintenance.”

We all laughed about it.  What happens when Fat Frieda decides it’s time to put her on the market?  What does she do, buy her back?  Borrow her?  Rent her, Norman said.

But it didn’t look like Fat Frieda was going to have to face that problem so fast.  Because Bleamie took one step ahead of them both.  She started running around hot and heavy with this fellow from the North Side, Hawkeye told us, the one she dumped Artie Kaye for.  His name was Gino.  Fat Frieda yelled bloody murder.  Bleamie yelled right back at her.  Hawkeye said she’d been doing that for some time now.

“I do what I want.  There’s plenty of time for business.”

Except for Little Joe’s Wednesdays and Saturdays.  That she went along with, although she still didn’t know she was his property.  She was seeing Gino on the nights she didn’t go to the movies with Little Joe, Hawkeye told us.  Gino never came around on those days, maybe discouraged by visions of a gun in his ear.

He was one of these dark Italians, a handsome fellow with a thick head of black hair and purplish lips.  He’d come into Ike’s every once in a while for a pack of Camels or a Coke and judging from the eyes some of the girls made over him they must have thought he was hot stuff.  He was always in motion, pecking his head, jerking his knees and snapping his fingers to some tune going on inside his head: “Da da da d‑da da da …!”  Hawkeye told us he’d come around with this souped up old Buick with a couple of holes punched in the muffler to make it sound like an airplane, and park across the street and lean on his horn every ten seconds until Bleamie came down.  Usually they’d wait until they got back, but sometimes their heads would get together as soon as she got into the car, and Hawkeye would watch the switching shapes and shifting shadows and glints of white undergarment, and before long they’d be one bobbing and lurching lump.  Sometimes Fat Frieda, not hearing the roar of the car pulling away, would go over to the window and shake her head in disgust.

“She’d better not get herself knocked up,” she’d say. “That’s all I got to say.”

It went on like that for three, four months, Bleamie giving Little Joe his two nights a week and running around with this Gino the other five.  Then one Saturday Gino must have gotten it into his head that he couldn’t do without her and got there an hour earlier than Little Joe and started blowing his horn.  Hawkeye said Bleamie flung the comic book she was reading to the other end of the loft and kept saying, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”  Until she finally she went down to talk to him, and then got something she didn’t bargain for.  Hawkeye said as soon as she got into the car it took off burning rubber.

Fat Frieda took a fit, tearing her hair out, looking at the clock every fifteen seconds, wailing: “That little bitch!  That little bitch!” clawing her hands like the air in front of her was Bleamie.  “I’m gonna strangle her, that little bitch!”

She still hadn’t returned when from his window Hawkeye saw Little Joe enter the alley.  He took a six pack from his corner, guzzled down a beer and opened a second one.  Fat Frieda got busy polishing her nails, humming You Are My Lucky Star.

When Little Joe walked in Hawkeye offered him a beer.

“I don’t drink when I go to the movies,” Little Joe said.  “Where’s Bleamie?”

Fat Frieda was holding her hand out in front of her, examining her nails. “She’ll be right back,” she said.  “She just went to get some toilet paper.”

So he sat down to wait.  “What is she, having problems?” he said after a while.  “If she don’t hurry up we’re gonna miss the beginning of the picture.”

“Be patient,” Fat Frieda said.  “She’ll be back soon.” She went over to the mirror and started taking the rollers out of her hair.  Another fifteen minutes went by.

“What kind of time is this to go out getting toilet paper?” Little Joe said.  “We’re missing the whole picture and she’s getting toilet paper.  How long does it take to get toilet paper anyway, for crissake?  I don’t understand what’s going on here.  I gave you $250 for her, didn’t I?  Can’t you take care of things?”  He sat down and opened his jacket‑‑ just to expose the gun, Hawkeye said.

“You’re perfectly right,” Fat Frieda said.  “I don’t know what got into that girl.  You wait here, I’ll go get her.”  She put on some lipstick and got her bag.  She said to Hawkeye: “You stay here and keep Joe company.  I’ll be right back.”  Then she left.  She’s going to the goddam movies herself, Hawkeye said to himself.

Hawkeye put the four remaining cans of a beer back in his corner and switched to whiskey, a pint of which he was saving for emergencies.  He looked at Little Joe to offer him some but Little Joe was sitting there with his hands clasped between his knees bobbing his head like he was in some sort of trance, the gun visible in its holster like a cannon.  Hawkeye was wondering how long this buggy little guy was going to sit there waiting with that goddam gun.  Most of us thought Little Joe never even loaded it, and that’s exactly what was on Hawkeye’s mind as he commenced drinking himself unconscious.  Is that thing loaded?

When he woke up again Little Joe was gone.  The loft was dark.  He thought he’d been hearing Little Joe’s laugh in his sleep, he said, that crazy little kcha kcha kcha of his.  Or maybe he dreamt it.  He went to check Bleamie’s bed and lit a match.  Empty.  He went over to Fat Frieda’s bed and lit another one.  She was sleeping like a log.  The clock on the stool beside her bed showed four‑thirty.  And that fifteen year old female wasn’t home yet.  What was on Hawkeye’s mind was, what happened to Little Joe?  Maybe he finally got tired of waiting and went out looking for Bleamie himself before Fat Frieda got home; or maybe he was still waiting and she somehow managed to get rid of him with some kind of bullshit story.  So now Hawkeye can’t fall asleep again, worrying about Little Joe running around with that damn gun of his.

He took his seat by the window and sat there smoking, waiting for Gino’s car to pull up.  Just as it was beginning to get light he heard the laugh coming from somewhere inside an empty weed‑filled lot across the street.  His whole insides froze.  Kcha kcha kcha, every few minutes until the car roared down the block about a half hour later and parked.  Two or three minutes went by and no one got out.  Then there was the crunching of shards and the rustling of brush and Little Joe materialized out of the shadows, still laughing that laugh, Hawkeye said, like he’s having some kind of a good time.  He walked  to the Buick and opened the door and got right in, just like that.  Then two shots rang out, and there was some kind of scuffle going on until the door on the other side flew open and the Gino came tumbling out bare‑assed and took off up the street.  Now something frantic was going on in the front seat, with all these sounds, like animal sounds, Hawkeye said, this crazy jumble of squeaking and croaking and whatnot.

Hawkeye went downstairs to look for a cop, not even knowing if he’s going to have nerve enough to walk out into the open street and expose himself to another bullet from that gun.  He didn’t have to.  When he poked his head out of the alley there was a patrol car already cruising down the street.  As it approached the Buick Hawkeye could see Gino’s face in the rear between the shoulders of the two cops.  The cops got out of the patrol car and approached the Buick with their guns drawn, and yank both doors open, and then one of them is halfway in tugging for all he’s worth until he comes out with Little Joe, who is hugging Bleamie to his chest like she was glued to him, with the cops frantically trying to separate them, her legs and arms flying in all directions just like she was a big rag doll, Hawkeye said.  The cops finally got them apart, with Little Joe bellowing, “Aaah! Aaah!  Aaah!” like a lunatic.  The cops began working him over, slapping him around to make him come to his senses, when somehow he broke loose and started hammering at the windshield of the Buick with his bare fist.  And then he’s on his knees, cracking his head on the curbstone.  Bam!  Bam!  His head was still going when the cops yanked him up, but Hawkeye said he was already dead.  He swore there was blood gushing from an opening in his head that an egg could have fit through.

When Hawkeye edged over to take a look at Bleamie she was lying there in the gutter all limp and twisted, her dress up over her belly, her thighs and everything else exposed.  Her head was turned to one side facing Little Joe and her eyes were open and, even with blood trickling from her nose and mouth, she seemed to be looking at him in an attitude of amusement.

Fat Frieda slept through the whole thing.  The second she opened her eyes and saw Hawkeye looking down at her she went into hysterics.  She knew what happened; he didn’t have to say a word.  When they got downstairs the ambulance was already there.

Fat Frieda took one look at Bleamie lying there in the gutter and started howling.  The medic put his stethoscope first to Little Joe.  Gone.  And then to Bleamie.  Gone.  Then he filled out some papers and the ambulance left.  The cops laid them side by side on the sidewalk and got some old rags or something from the trunk of the patrol car to cover them with until the truck from the morgue could pick them up.  Then they started filling out forms, asking Gino, Hawkeye and Fat Frieda all kinds of questions.

The sun was already up but it was too early for a crowd to gather.  A few people on their way to work stopped a while to stare at what looked like two heaps of old rags lying there on the sidewalk, with Fat Frieda standing beside them, clutching her hair and wailing to beat the band.  Hawkeye told us what a sight that was.