The Troublemaker



Jerome Turken

“Hah! … Hoo! … Yah! … Hee!”

It always sounded loudest in the hall, especially under the steps near the letter boxes.  It sounded louder even than in the park under the bridge.

“Hah! … Hoo! … Yah! … Hee!”  Lily’s lips curled and her eyes bulged and she listened for the echo.

“Hah‑hoo‑yah‑hee!  Hah‑hoo‑yah‑hee!”  It sounded funny.

She hopped zigzag up the steps.  To the banister, to the wall.  Banister‑wall‑banister‑wall.  She pressed her ear against Mrs. Friedlander’s door.  She put her finger on the bell.  Should she ring it and make the crazy old lady come out with an old shoe and yell?  Lousy kids!  Dirty lousy kids!  You should only drop dead!  But she was scared Ford might catch her.  She always ran out of the hall when she saw Ford or heard his voice or heard him sweeping.  One time he caught Benjy ringing Mrs. Friedlander’s bell and banged him in the behind with his broom and pulled him by the neck up to his father.  Benjy said his father hit him over the head with a wooden clothes hanger, and he let her feel the big bump on his head.  She got a bump one time when her daddy slapped her in the face and she fell and hit her head on the radiator.  It was a big bump too, although not as big as Benjy’s.  Benjy had the biggest bump in the world.

Uh‑oh, Mrs. Klonsky was coming.  She stepped away from Mrs. Friedlander’s door and started to hop up the steps again.  Mrs. Klonsky always came down one step at a time.  CLUMP‑clump … CLUMP‑clump.  Mrs. Klonsky was always yelling at her and Benjy and telling Ford they made noise in the hall.  The old lady reached the second floor just as Lily was in the middle of the staircase.  Lily got all the way over to the side against the wall to give Mrs. Klonsky a lot of room.  Mrs. Klonsky’s face looked like she just drank coffee without sugar like momma when she forgets to put it in.  It used to scare Lily whenever she had to pass Mrs. Klonsky in the hall, but now she was hardly scared at all.  Mrs. Klonsky had an old lady smell.

Lily waited on the second floor and peeped through the narrow space between the banisters to watch the fat white hand creeping down.  As soon as it reached the bottom she yelled down. “Hahhooyahhee!  Hahhooyahhee!” and backed away and listened.  But Mrs. Klonsky didn’t holler back this time.

“Hah! … Hoo! … Yah! … Hee!”

She slid her hand along the wood of the banister.  It was always sticky on hot days.  Then she slapped it along the iron part underneath.  Toompity toompity toomp toomp!

On the ceiling of the third floor was the crooked white football where the paint fell off.  That’s what her brother Normy called it.  But Benjy said it was a fat white fish.  Underneath that was the dumbwaiter door.  She was afraid to go near the dumbwaiter door and always ran past it. Benjy said the dumbwaiter was once used to throw garbage in, but then a family of ghosts moved in and they couldn’t get them out, so Ford nailed the door to close them in.  Benjy said he still hears all kinds of scary noises in there but one time she edged close to it and listened but she didn’t hear anything.  What did a ghost sound like?  Ooooo, ooooo.  Benjy said one time the door opened and a ghost tried to pull him in but he gave the ghost a bop on the head and ran.  But one time she was brave and put her ear right against the dumbwaiter door and she almost stopped breathing.  She thought she heard something, but then she didn’t.  Whenever Normy gets mad at her he picks her up and says he’s going to throw her in.  She starts crying, then Normy lets her down.  One time she told her momma and momma yelled at him.  Normy can scare her more than anyone.  He can scare Benjy even.

There was a big box near Mr. Roth’s door full of stuff he was throwing out.  She looked to see what was inside. There were a lot of things.  Bottles, a lot of old newspapers and magazines.  Oh, there’s an old whisk broom.  She picked it out and brushed her dress.  But it was all worn out and runty and didn’t do anything so she put it back in.  She liked to look into boxes of stuff to see if she could find anything she needed.  She pushed aside the stuff on top.  More newspapers, some dirty rags, an old shoe.  Oh, a match book.  With some matches still in it!  She picked it out and counted them.  Four.  They lit when you scratched them on the dark brown part.  She got the funny tingling feeling inside her stomach that always came when she was thinking about doing something bad.  She was about to tear a match out but she heard someone coming up the stairs.  When the sounds got nearer she could tell it was her brother Normy by the clicking sounds he made with his tongue all the time.  If Normy saw her with matches he would tell daddy and daddy would hit her.  Sometimes Normy hit her himself.

She dropped the matches back into the box and backed against the wall, hoping Normy would just pass her by.  But Normy leaped up the last step and took a leap at her and stopped in front her with a rub of his sneaker on the tile floor.

“What are you standing here for?” he said.  “Ain’t supper ready yet?  You better come upstairs.”

“No,” Lily said.  She wanted him to go up so she could pick the matches out of the box again.

Normy flew up to the landing two steps at a time.  He jumped up on the sill of the open hall window, then down again.  Then he stood at the top of the stairs looking down at her.

“You better come up and eat, stupid,” he said.

Lily didn’t say anything.  She put her hands behind her back and just kept watching him.  Normy put the palms of his hands together and pointed them at Lily and streaked down at her two steps at a time making his loud airplane noise. He always did that to her.  She just closed her eyes and covered them with her arm.

“Reach for the sky!” Normy said.

Lily peeked over her arm and saw Normy making guns with both hands.  She raised both her arms over her head.

“There’s something fishy going on here,” Normy said. “You want a bullet in your head?  You want your gizzard cut out?”  He made believe he was pulling a knife out of his belt.  He had that tough, scary look on his face, his eyes goggled open and his nose spread apart.  She covered her face with her arm again.

“March up those steps!”  He gave her a shove but she ducked and crouched and stood her ground.  She was glad when he ran up the stairs finally because she wanted to play with those matches again.

Normy stopped at the landing to look down at her. “Come on up, stupid.”  He waited a moment then ran up the next flight.  “I’m gonna tell daddy when he comes home.”

Lily waited until she heard her door close, then waited a moment more to listen to make sure there was no one else in the hall.  She went over to the box again and picked the matches out.  She couldn’t read the words because she was only in kindergarten.  She opened the matchbook and tore a match out, and there was that funny tingling feeling inside her stomach again, but she tried not to think what might happen if she got caught.  She scraped the match on the brown part and it snapped lit with a hiss and then there was the lively flare she liked to watch.  Then it quieted down and started to crawl toward her fingers.  It looked alive, the way it began to flutter.  It was nice to look at, but if it reached her fingers it would burn them.  When it almost reached she made an ‘O’ with her lips and blew it out.  A thin stream of smoke came out, wiggled wider as it rose to the ceiling and curled in all directions.  “Whhhhh.”  She blew into the smoke, making it disappear into the air.

She stared at all the paper in the box.  Paper catches fire easy, she knew, and a lot of paper makes a big fire.  She remembered the time Benjy made a big fire with paper in Straus’s junk yard.  It was really a big fire that time and Benjy said he could have made it even bigger if he had more paper.

Should she light the paper?  She could start a big fire.  She struck another match and brought the flame close to the paper.  If she touched it it would catch fire.  How close could she get it?  And then she felt the sharp sting of burning and pulled her hand away.  But she wasn’t burned.  But where was the match?  Did it fall into the box?  She looked inside for it and saw a red glow, then a little flag of fire, getting bigger and bigger and it was blowing and she wanted to put it out but it kept getting bigger and it was blowing harder and the fire leaped higher than the box, higher than her head. She felt the heat in her face.  She ran upstairs as fast as she could.  She musn’t get caught or her daddy would hit her.  She stopped at her door to listen.  She could hear it, the crazy blowing sound of a big fire.  She pushed her door open and ran half way down the narrow hall into the kitchen, hardly able to catch her breath.  Momma at the gas range cooking looked at her with her angry face.

“Look at you.  Just look at you.  You’re all out of breath.”  She picked a hot pot off the stove with a dish towel. “How did you get yourself so dirty? Were you playing in the junk yard again?  Didn’t I tell you never to play in the junk yard?”

She tried to get close to momma.  Momma poured the steaming contents of the pot into the strainer.  “Go wash up,” she said.

She couldn’t hold it in.  “Momma!” she burst out.  “There’s fire in the hall, momma!  A big fire!”

“What are you talking about, fire?” momma said, easing the pot back onto the stove. “What fire?”

“In the hall, near Mr. Roth’s door!”

Momma was looking at her hand.  She was still holding the match book!  She dropped it to the floor.

Normy came running into the kitchen.  “There’s a fire?”

Loud voices from the hall.  Lily wanted to grab hold of momma, but the way momma was looking at her, wide‑eyed and gaping mouth, stopped her.

“Fire!” came from the hall in a loud man’s voice.  “Fire!”

Momma was gone, then back again, grasping her arm.

“Where’s Normy!” momma shrieked.  “Normy!”  The look on momma’s face made Lily cry.  Momma pulled her to the door. Then momma was running into he hall, into the smoke, yelling: “Normy!  Normy!”

Now she was alone.  She couldn’t move.  Smoke was coming through the door and she was all alone.  And momma went out into the smoke.  The whole house was going to catch fire and burn down!  Where was momma!  “Momma!  Momma!”

She was in the hall.  The choking smell of the smoke made her stop.  She looked down and saw momma with a tight grip on Normy’s arm, standing on the landing between floors. She wanted to run down to them but the way both of them were standing there just looking down made her stop.  She didn’t want to see the fire.  She stood still for a moment watching them, listening to all the noise below.  Then with her arms and chest leaning on the banister she slowly went half way down, looking.  There was a lot of smoke and Mr. Roth was hitting the fire with something.  It was a blanket.  He was in his undershirt hitting the fire with it.  It scared her the way he was jumping around and the hard way he was hitting the fire.  Every whack of the blanket sent a bunch of sparks flying, and there was a crowd of people on the stairs below, cringing back and tripping over each other.

“The whole damn house could have caught fire,” Mr. Roth hollered.  “It’s a lucky thing I smelled the smoke, I can tell you.  And I have my ideas just who started this fire.  I have my ideas.”  He poked at the smoldering carton.  Mrs. Blaustein came out with a pail of water and dumped it in.

“Enough is enough,” Mr. Roth said.  “I’m going to call the fire department and demand a full investigation.  A full investigation.”

Mrs. Klonsky pushed herself through the crowd below.  “It was Lily.  She was standing here when I came down before.  Right here next to the box.”

Until Lily heard her name mentioned she had almost forgotten that she herself did start the fire.  She looked at momma, who was already yelling down to Mrs. Klonsky:

“You keep my kid out of this, you old sonofabitch!  If you mention my kid’s name again I’ll come down and tear every hair out of your head!”

It got all quiet and the loudness of momma’s voice was still in her ears. It was loud like when she has an argument with daddy.  Mrs. Klonsky and Mr. Roth were looking up at momma with their mouths open.  Finally Mr. Roth spoke.

“I’m gonna have that damn kid of yours put away.  It’s enough she makes noise in the hall all day and marks up the walls with crayon and everything else.  She’s a troublemaker.  Now she’s starting fires.  There’s going to be a full investigation I’m telling you.  That’s one thing I don’t stand for, starting fires.  There’s going to be a full investigation.  This house ain’t safe with a fire bug around.

“Go ahead, have your full investigation, fatso!” momma yelled.  “How do you know she started it?  Heh!  Tell me that!  Everything you blame on her!  Why do you blame everything on her!  Ain’t there any other kids around!”

“Aah, go on,” Mr. Roth said. “Talking to you is like talking to the wall.  I’ll wait till your husband comes home to talk.”

Her daddy!  Her daddy would hit her if he ever found out she started the fire.  She stopped seeing and she saw her daddy coming at her with his teeth gritting worse than a monster, his angry head getting nearer and angrier.  Oh, please, she was going to get a beating by her daddy.  She wished he wouldn’t find out.  But he would find out.  He always found out.  Oh, he was going to find out.  She wished he wouldn’t come home.  She wished he would never come home.

She ran up the stairs, through the open door of her apartment, and into the bathroom.  She locked the door on the hook then sat on the edge of the bathtub, hardly able to move.

Soon she heard momma and Normy come in.  They went past the bathroom into the kitchen.  She heard momma’s voice.

“Where is she?  Where is that kid?”  Then she heard momma come to the bathroom and try to push open the door. “Lily, are you in there?  Open the door.  Come on, open the door.”

Lily wanted to say something but nothing would come out of her mouth.  Again momma pushed the door and juggled the knob. “Can’t you hear me?  I said open the door.”

“You’re gonna hit me,” Lily said.

“Open the door!”

Lily didn’t answer this time.  She was standing with her back against the wall now.  She heard momma go back to the kitchen.  “That’s all I get is aggravation.  Aggravation … aggravation … aggravation.”

Hearing momma go on like that always gave Lily such a tight feeling in her throat that she could hardly swallow. She didn’t want momma to get aggravated.  She knew she always ought to do what momma told her to do but momma was angry now.  Maybe she was even angry enough to hit her all her might.  She was afraid to get hit hard like that.  It would hurt and she would start to cry.  But then after a while momma isn’t angry anymore and she hugs her and everything is better.  It always happened like that with momma.  Anyhow she was going to wait until momma wasn’t angry anymore and then it would be better.  But it never got better with daddy.  Daddy kept angry for a million years.  She was so afraid.

More than anything she wished something would happen to make it so she never started the fire.  Maybe God would say so.  Please, God, say so.  Say I didn’t start the fire. She put her hands over her ears and grit her teeth and screwed up her face and pressed as hard as she could.  But she still started the fire.  Please, God, make it so I didn’t start the fire.  Please, God.  Please, please, please.

It was getting dark.  She could hardly see things.  She climbed onto the rim of the bathtub and pulled the light string.  Light!  And again.  Dark!  Light, alive.  Dark, dead.  Alive‑dead‑alive‑dead.  Alive.  She jumped off the bathtub and pulled the toilet chain.  She spit into the rush of water and watched it disappear down.  She pressed her ear against the door to listen.  She heard momma’s sounds in the kitchen.  Her footsteps, the pots clanking, the water being turned on and off.  Was momma still angry?  It didn’t sound like it.  She unhooked the door and waited, then she slowly opened it and tiptoed into the hall.  She slid her back against the wall and inched toward the kitchen but stopped before she could see momma.  Again she waited then slowly and carefully leaned over sideways until she could see momma’s dress, then more and more of momma.  Momma was busy at the gas range. She stood there watching, waiting for momma to turn around and see her.

Momma said: “Let’s start eating.  Normy, come here and sit down.”

Normy came from the bedroom and saw her.  He looked into the kitchen, then at her again.  “Aren’t we gonna wait for daddy?” he said.

“He must be working overtime,” momma said.  She reached for dishes in the cabinet.  “So you finally decided to come out,” she said.  She wasn’t even looking at her.

Normy sat down at his place.  Lily didn’t move.  She had her hands behind her back and was rocking against the wall, hitting it with her tushy.  She felt tears come into her eyes.  She watched momma fill the plate and knew that now if momma even gave her an angry look she’d start to cry.  Then momma said:

“Did you wash up?”

She knew momma wouldn’t hit her now.  She went to the bathroom again and washed her hands and face then went to the kitchen and sat at her place next to Normy.  There were lamb chops and mashed potatoes and carrots and peas.  She didn’t like carrots and peas and she always had trouble swallowing them but she started to eat them because momma always wanted her to.  Normy didn’t like carrots and peas either but when they had lamb chops he always ate them first because he liked to eat just the lamb chops without them.  He ate them so fast and momma always tells him to eat slow or he’s going to get sick and throw up.  But he always wants to finish eating fast so he could go down and play.  Momma never let her go down and play after supper even though it was still light because she was too little.  But when momma went down to sit on the stoop a while she took her along too.  Soon she would have to go to sleep.  When the ice cream man came momma bought her a Dixie Cup and she bought herself a coconut pop.  She hated to go to sleep.  But she liked to go to sleep when she was sleepy.  Sometimes momma put her in bed and undressed her when she fell asleep and she didn’t take a bath.

The door opened and slammed closed.  Her daddy!  Oh, the fire!  She forgot about the fire.  Her heart was knocking on her chest.  Did daddy know?  Mr. Roth told him.  She tried to see his face when he passed the kitchen to tell but he didn’t even look in.  She listened to him walk through the parlor into the big bedroom.  Maybe he’ll whistle like sometimes.  She listened to his heavy footsteps coming back.  Oh, please, please.  When he walked into the kitchen she almost stopped breathing looking at him.  He didn’t look at her but he knew, he was so angry.  She almost started to cry. He sat down but he still didn’t look at her.  He sat down and looked at Normy.  Maybe he’s going to hit Normy, not her.

Daddy said, “What happened in the hall, Normy?”

“There was a fire,” Normy said.

Her momma screamed, “I see that fat bastard downstairs grabbed you already!  Do you have to listen to everything he says!”

Daddy kept looking at Normy.  “Who started it?”

“I don’t know,” Normy said.  He held both hands behind the back of his chair.  He looked at her then at momma.

Daddy turned to her.  His face was moving angry and he was going to hit her.

“Did you start the fire?”

Nothing would come out of her mouth because she was going to cry.  She looked down at the floor.

“Look at me when I talk to you!”

She watched his hands waiting for them to smack her.

“Come over here.”

“Don’t you lift your hands,” momma said.

“Ya gonna hit me.”

“I said come over here, you little … you little troublemaker come …

Her daddy came and grabbed her and shook her and she was crying and he pinched her and momma …

“Your hands should only fall off they should only …”

And then momma and daddy were shoving and she was crying and then she felt her head banged and she ran to the bedroom crying on the floor and momma and daddy arguing arguing arguing and daddy was banging the table but she was crying.  And then her head was in momma’s lap and momma was sitting on the floor, and she couldn’t stop crying then she stopped then almost started again but she smelled momma and momma’s smell smelled so good and momma was hugging her and kissing her and stroking her head and it felt so good.

“You’ll take a nice bath and you’ll feel better,” momma said. “Then I’ll read you a story in bed and you’ll go to sleep.”  Her momma went to get her bath ready.

Her face was all wet with tears but she wasn’t crying anymore.  She wiped it with her arm then rubbed her itchy eyes with the ball of her hand.  When she was on the floor crying she saw the blue reelie that Normy lost under the radiator.  She reached for it.  She would have to tell him that she found it.  She got up and went the window.  A soft summer breeze was blowing.  It felt nice on her face.  She looked down at the cars riding in the street and at the women sitting on the stoop.  She leaned out and let some spit out of her mouth and watched it shimmy in the breeze as it sped to the sidewalk.