Sweet Saturday Samples—1965 Blackout

This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples continues where last week’s left off. It’s the Great Northeastern Blackout of 1965, and Adicia and Justine, ages 11 and 6, have gone next door to their sympathetic neighbor Mrs. Doyle. She’s been somewhat of a surrogate mother to them since they moved into Hell’s Kitchen on Christmas Eve 1962.

Tommy, who appears near the end, is Adicia’s spoilt little brother and the eighth of the nine Troy children.

***

“We saw Allen and Lenore this weekend,” Justine says as Mrs. Doyle pulls a big stockpot of chicken and dumpling soup out of the refrigerator. “He gave her a beautiful engagement ring.  It’s a green rock with two little diamonds on the side.”

“I think it’s a lot prettier than the one our oldest sister Gemma got from her beastly ex-husband,” Adicia says. “That ring was boring.  Gemma threw it into the street when she made a big scene at supper and told everyone she’d divorced him.”

“Would you girls like to see mine?” Mrs. Doyle twists her engagement ring off and hands it them after she puts on one of the gas burners to heat up the soup.

Adicia and Justine come close to some of the candles and examine it.  It’s a silver band with a pale blue oval-cut diamond, with two small pearls on either side.  They can make out an inscription on the inside, “From BID to SMB, 5-15-59.”

“You can get rings inscribed?” Adicia asks. “Allen didn’t have Lenore’s ring inscribed.  Is it very expensive to do that?”

“I didn’t ask Mr. Doyle how much it cost.  It’s just our initials and the date we got engaged.  He was counting on me saying yes, since he put the exact date he proposed on it.”

“Can I ask what your initials stand for?” Adicia asks. “When I was younger, I used to think all married ladies had the name Mrs.  I know it’s not polite to call grownups by their first names, but I’d like to know just because.”

“Mr. Doyle’s name is Benjamin Isaac, and my name is Suzanne Mary.  The B stands for Bowstead, my maiden name.  I took back my old name after I was divorced.”

“That name sounds familiar.  I think I heard it somewhere before, but I can’t remember where.”

“Suzanne is a pretty name!” Justine says. “It has more personality than Susan.  There are a bunch of Susans in my first grade class, but no Suzannes.”

“It’s not an uncommon name for women of my age, though I’ve heard it more on girls of your generation.  You two have names you’ll probably never have to worry about sharing with classmates or neighbors.”

“Most of the girls I’ve gone to school with have been named Debbie, Linda, Barbara, Susan, Sharon, Karen, Kathy, Carol, Diane, or Nancy,” Adicia says. “Those are the names I’ve heard over and over again.  I don’t think anyone else would ever name their daughter Adicia, since I’m named for the Greek goddess of injustice.”

“Can we eat our supper on the floor?” Justine asks. “I think it’s easier to eat on the floor than at a table when there are no lights.”

“Sure, that’ll probably be fun,” Mrs. Doyle smiles. “We’ll have a little picnic on the rug.”

When the soup finishes heating up, Mrs. Doyle ladles it into four bowls and sticks spoons into them.  She pulls some trays out of the closet and puts each bowl of soup on a tray.  Caroline eats some leftover mashed potatoes Mrs. Doyle puts on top of a metal tray, using her hands and getting them on her face.

“You’re a nice mother,” Justine says. “I wish our mother was as nice as you.  She’d never let us eat on the floor or eat with trays.”

“Our mother couldn’t even feed us our own bottles,” Adicia says. “She only gave them to Tommy after she got Sarah to be our nanny.”

“Is there dessert too?  We only have dessert on very special occasions.”

“I made a chocolate cake with chocolate icing the other day,” Mrs. Doyle says. “You girls are welcome to have some of it.”

Matthew stands up when they hear someone knocking on the door. “Can I get it?  I hope it’s Daddy coming home from work, so he can join us in our picnic.”

“Go ahead, darling.”

When Matthew opens the door, they see Tommy standing there in the darkness.  Adicia and Justine hope he’s not about to crash their nice time.

“I was just coming up to say I’m going out to a Spanish restaurant with the Gómezes.  They’ll have lanterns and candles and stuff there, and we can’t even see to cook the food at their place.  I guess Mommy and Daddy won’t be home for awhile ‘cause everything’s broken and so dark, so it’s okay for me to have supper with them.”

“Have fun,” Adicia says. “I know we don’t like each other, but I won’t tell our parents you went out to eat with your Puerto Rican friends if they ask what you did about supper tonight.”

Tommy runs back down the hall and jumps down several steps at a time, not even bothering to thank her for promising not to squeal on him.  Adicia and Justine are sorry he doesn’t trip and fall down the stairs from the way he’s foolishly jumping down them when there’s no power in the building.

Tommy

Name: Thomas Albert (Al-BEHR) Troy

Date of birth: February 1956

Place of birth: Manhattan

Year I created him: 1993. The book was taken out of hiatus and begun from scratch and memory in 2010.

Role: Main character, Quasi-Antagonist

Tommy is the eighth of nine children in a poor family in the Lower East Side. Spoilt Prince Tommy is the only one of her children the black-hearted Mrs. Troy loves, and she never lets her other eight kids forget it. She showers Tommy with love, presents, praise, and attention his whole life, and this gives him a bit of a superiority complex. Mr. Troy meanwhile hates his youngest son, and resents how much attention his miserable wife pays to him.

In the discontinued original first draft, Tommy was just too over the top to be a realistic, believable character. Not only was he a spoilt brat beyond belief, he was also pretty damn mean. He’s still a smug little prick for much of the finished book, but he’s no longer a mean kid, and he’s got the capacity for change. Over the years, he very, very slowly starts to grow up and become more mature and self-aware, so much so he eventually realizes he has to get away from his mother and the old neighborhood if he’s really serious about going to college and making something of himself. I also rewrote him so that he was colorblind. The one thing Mrs. Troy doesn’t like about Tommy is that he has African-American and Hispanic friends. Tommy doesn’t care what color other kids’ skin is so long as they’re nice to him and he likes playing with them.

Some representative Tommy lines, showing his progress over the years:

“I’m Mommy’s angel,” Tommy taunts his sisters as they’re walking out the door with Allen and Carlos. “I’m special because I’m the first boy after four stupid girls in a row.”

“And if my teeth fall out from eating lots of yummy candy, the Tooth Fairy will visit me and put money under my pillow!” Tommy crows.

“I have a tricycle and you stupid girls don’t,” Tommy taunts his sisters.

“Who’s that on the cross?” Tommy asks loudly as they’re entering the church, staring up at the large crucifix hanging above the altar.

“Guess I’m more popular than you stupid girls then.” Tommy sticks his tongue out at his three sisters.

“What do you mean, what are they?  They’re kids.  I don’t know what spics or darkies are.”

“This summer vacation stinks!” Tommy shouts, throwing himself on the floor. “First our house burns down, then we hafta move to this crummy neighborhood and an apartment even more crowded than our old one, and now you won’t lemme play with my new friends!”

Tommy crinkles his nose in disgust. “Mommy’s mean when she doesn’t let me do stuff with my friends.  What did a Puerto Rican ever do to her?  She was mean about my Negro friends in Two Bridges too.”

“Not fair!” Tommy protests. “I was looking forward to graduating junior high with the rest of my friends in June and starting high school with ‘em in the fall!”

“I don’t care about street credibility!  I wanna stay with my friends!”

“Elephants go home to die!” Tommy shouts. “They don’t just move back to the old neighborhood outta the blue!”

“Aw, come on, Dad, everyone has a TV nowadays.  I’d get to watch Saturday morning cartoons, movies, and funny shows.  Plus when something important happens in the news, I’d be able to see it happening live ‘steada having to hear about it at school afterwards.  These dumb girls here watch TV all the time when they go over to see Allen and his wife.  They even got to see the Moon landing this summer, and I didn’t.  That wasn’t fair.”

“I thought onea the best things about our country was that it’s home to so many different types of people,” Tommy says as he’s playing with his alien colorforms. “We have freedom of religion and speech and don’t have to follow some state religion or set of customs.”

“Do I hafta get married at eighteen too?” Tommy asks nervously. “I’m not even interested in girls like that yet.  And the girls in my classes are all either whores or prudes.”

“That’s gross.  Why would I wanna date or marry a woman ‘cause she looks like a little kid?  Only perverts and deviants are attracted to little kids.”

“Leave my little sister alone,” Tommy says. “That’s a really disgusting, perverted thing you’re suggesting.  If Adicia ran off and married that guy up the street, that’s her business.  She’s eighteen now and can’t be forced back here.  What are you, a pedophile?”

“I didn’t learn about it in school.  I’ve heard talk among other guys in the hallways and the locker room.  And by the way, it’s really creepy how you entered our house without knocking or even calling ahead.  That’s called trespassing, and it’s against the law.”

“My mother buys me everything I want.  I don’t need a job.”

Tommy lands a very hard kick to Seth’s head, even more painful than a normal kick to the head because of the roller skate.

“My mother will hear all about this when she comes home from work!” Tommy shouts indignantly as Seth releases him. “Nobody gets away with messing with her pet child!”

“That would be awesome!  All my friends would be jealous of me ‘cause I know how to fire a gun!”

“I guess I can do the big brother thing once in my life.  I know Allen must be a lot better at the big brother thing than me, since he’s so much older and has had a ton more experience doing it, but even I know you’re supposed to hold your little sister’s hand when you go somewhere with her.”

“I guess I’ve got it made if I write a college essay about growing up poor and with drug addicts and drunks for parents.  They might give me a free scholarship.  I love how Mommy buys me all the nice things I want, but I guess my friends might start making fun of me if I continue living off her once I’m a legal adult.  After all, even I know grownup guys aren’t supposed to live at home and let their mothers unquestioningly do everything for them.”

“I’m looking forward to finally being an only child.  Being on the bottom of a huge heap of kids stinks.  I wouldn’t wish being the eighth of nine on anyone.  If I ever take a woman, I only want a couple of kids.”

“I think Mother was starting to turn into another Mrs. Monsterelli,” Tommy says.  “She started coming into the bathroom when I was bathing or using the toilet, or standing outside the door and tryna carry on a conversation with me.  And she insisted on tucking me in every night, putting food on my plate, and even tryna dress me.  I’d never wanna be another Francesco.  That guy was in serious Oedipal territory.  I bet he’s still at home at fifty-two now, and turning into another Norman Bates.”

“I don’t wanna go back to that depressing old neighborhood.  I graduated high school with a B plus average, and I hope to keep that average, at least, here in college.  I think I’d lose brain cells if I had to hang around Mother and Dad with their embarrassingly bad grammar, and Mother’s attitudes towards people of other races and religions seem so out of place on someone from the Lower East Side of all places.  How do you live in a neighborhood of immigrants and poor folks and think that only white Protestants are decent people?”

“You need to wash bedding once a week?  I only washed mine once since I’ve been outta Manhattan.”

“Can I ask what it felt like to get shot seven times?”

Justine, Aoife, and Fiona are reading Seventeen and Ms. when Tommy comes sliding down the banister, landing with a thud and almost losing his pants when he gets up.  He looks down and quickly zips them up, hoping no one noticed he forgot to close his fly.

Tommy picks a large crumb off of his lap and eats it.  “By the way, thanks for letting me stay in this house and celebrate a real Thanksgiving.  It does mean a lot to me that you welcomed me in and didn’t hold everything from the past against me.”

“Halloween 1959”

Halloween is my favoritest non-religious holiday (my favorite religious holiday is Yom Kippur), and I was hoping for a Halloween wedding. Unfortunately, someone wasn’t on the same urgent timetable I am about making things official and actually planning a wedding far enough in advance. Anyway, I freaking love Halloween, all the spooky decorations, the ghost stories, the candy, the haunted houses, the classic horror movies (back when movies were still intelligently-written instead of full of unnecessary sex, violence, and curse words that serve no purpose to the plot or characters’ development), the traditional Irish customs of Samhain, the costumes, the everything.

I’ve written Halloween scenes/chapters in quite a few of my books, but the one I’m sharing here is Chapter 3 of Adicia’s story, “Halloween 1959.” This was written when I was still reconstructing what I could from memory, and I knew I’d had a Halloween section in the then-lost first draft. The 10 chapters of Part I were deliberately written as short (Chapter 10, “The Sacrifice of Gemma,” is by far the longest, at 30 double-spaced pages; all the rest are about 10-15 pages), simplistic, centered around a holiday or period in the calendar year, like Easter, Xmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, St. Patrick’s Day, New Year, etc.

I was going for the style a lot of the classic young people’s series I loved growing up did—the writing style starts out rather simplistic since the characters are so young, and as they get older and more mature, the writing style and the storylines gradually get more complex, mature, deep. In Part I, Adicia is just a little girl, five years old until the closing section of Chapter 10, when she’s six and serving as the flower girl at Gemma’s forced wedding. I tried as best I could to write most of it through the eyes of a five-year-old girl with a big imagination in spite of her uncertainty about getting away from her poor class origins. She knows the world isn’t all puppies and flowers because of where she’s from, but at heart, she’s still only a little girl. I know now it’s not so popular to write an adult or mature teen book whose protagonist is a child for about half of the book, but I’m sure it’s not the first time such a book has been done.

***

“Look what I’ve got for you, Tommy!” Mrs. Troy dangles a sack in front of her pet child. “My friend and co-worker Mrs. Rossi on the third floor let me come over to use her sewing machine so I could make you this darling little Halloween costume!”

“Did you make the rest of us Halloween costumes too?” Adicia asks eagerly, wondering if perhaps her mother is growing a heart.

“Of course not.  I can’t waste my hard-earned money on fabric and thread to make costumes for eight other children.  And I’m not one of those television mothers, June Cleaver or Donna Reed.  You know very well I hate homemaking and don’t coddle children besides Tommy.”

Adicia’s heart sinks.  Her mother is still as self-centered and mean as she’s always been.

“You watch television, Mother?” Ernestine asks. “Do you watch it when you’re at work?”

“Some of the people I’ve worked with and for discuss the programs they like to watch.  I know as much about the popular shows as I would if I actually watched them every week.  Anyone who wants to can pitch in to get me and your father a television set for Christmas so we don’t have to learn about them from the weekly updates at work.”

“A television set must cost a fortune!” Emeline says. “The prices I see on them when we go to Macy’s and the other stores are more than a few weekly paychecks for both of you!”

Tommy rips open the sack. “I love you, Mommy!  I’m going to be a red crayon and collect lots of candy!”

“Can we go trick-or-treating too if we get our own costumes?” Adicia begs.

“You mistakes can do whatever you want, but I’d just make you turn over all your candy to Tommy.  You don’t deserve candy and chocolate.”

“What if Tommy gets so many cavities all his teeth fall out?” Emeline asks. “Can you afford the dental bills?”

“You think I really care if all his teeth fall out?  My golden boy prince has earned the right to eat a million pieces of candy in a row if he so wants.  Most people get a lot of false teeth and fillings through their lives.  Only uppity rich folk think they need to waste money on a foolish luxury like going to a dentist every year.  Ain’t it enough you all have toothbrushes?”

“And if my teeth fall out from eating lots of yummy candy, the Tooth Fairy will visit me and put money under my pillow!” Tommy crows.

“The Tooth Fairy never visited me any of the times I lost my teeth,” Adicia complains. “She’s never visited Ernestine or Emeline either.”

“The Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist,” Emeline says. “It’s a feel-good myth parents tell their children, like Santa or the Easter Bunny, so they won’t think their parents are the ones leaving money or presents.  If any of those figures really existed, they would’ve visited all of us equally, not just Prince Tommy.”

“Tommy, we’re going to carve a spooky jack-o-lantern together,” Mrs. Troy goes on, tuning out her daughters. “And you’re going to get a cute little plastic jack-o-lantern of your own to collect your candy in.  We’ll trick-or-treat at all the houses and apartments on the Lower East Side and try to get to at least one other neighboring area before the night is over.  I’ll be carrying a big pillowcase so you can dump your candy into it when your pumpkin overflows.  How could anyone not want to give such a sweet little angel an extra share of candy?”

“I’ll know if any of you dumb girls steals my candy!” Tommy warns his sisters.

Everyone in Adicia’s school except a few odd people from extremely religious families celebrates Halloween, and even most of the people in their otherwise downtrodden neighborhood decorate for Halloween and celebrate too.  The kids in the high school Gemma, Carlos, and Allen go to are having a Halloween dance and party, and even Lucine’s junior high school is having a Halloween dance and party festivities.  The elementary school Emeline, Ernestine, and Adicia go to has announced costume contests in each classroom, along with class parties and a big Halloween parade all around the school.  Adicia and her sisters will look and feel like outcasts when they show up to school on Friday, the day before Halloween, wearing their usual ragged hand-me-down clothes instead of Halloween costumes.  Sarah would probably make them costumes if they asked, but there isn’t enough money to get the fabric and thread, nor enough time to sew them by hand.  The Troys don’t own a sewing machine, so Mrs. Troy uses their neighbors’ machines on the odd occasion she wants to work on a larger sewing project like Tommy’s Halloween costume or a baby animal-themed quilt Tommy received for a third birthday present.

Most of the other kids in their classes will also be bringing in food for the parties, food made by their loving, attentive mothers.  A lot of the food will be Halloween-themed, like cupcakes with little ghosts outlined on top, cakes with bats and spiders frosted on them, and hollowed-out pumpkins filled with soup made with autumnal vegetables.  Those mothers take pride in their cooking and homemaking.  Mrs. Troy can’t understand the idea of asking children to bring in food from home for parties, and says it’s just a way for mothers to compete with one another in who makes the best baked goods.  She wouldn’t even know what to do with a box of pre-made cake or brownie batter if it dropped into her lap along with the mixing bowl, baking pan, whisk, and wooden spoon.

“Do you think we’ll get punished by our teachers when we show up tomorrow without costumes?” Adicia asks Ernestine on Thursday after dinner, when they’re in their tiny bedroom.

“We live in a historically poor neighborhood,” Emeline speaks up. “Our teachers will be idiots if they send us to the principal’s office because we didn’t wear costumes.  My teacher never said it was a required assignment like doing your math homework or bringing something for show and tell.”

“Maybe we can take some of Gemma’s makeup and use that as part of a costume,” Ernestine suggests. “And you know she sometimes leaves her handbag lying around.  We could take a little money from it and go out to buy something.”

“Gemma would notice we stole her makeup and her money,” Emeline points out. “I saw her costume hanging in her wardrobe.  She’s going as a ballerina to her Halloween party on Saturday night.”

“How can our mother call herself a real mother?” Adicia protests. “Real mothers love all their kids and do nice things for them.  Our mother only loves Tommy and maybe Gemma.  I don’t even think she loves Carlos and Allen.  She just likes them ‘cause they’re boys and they help with money.”

“Like Sarah says, giving birth to a child doesn’t always make you a mother,” Emeline says. “And there are more ways to be a mother than having biological children.  Some teachers and nuns have more kids than a lot of people who just happened to reproduce.”

Out in the living room, Gemma is spinning around in her ballerina costume and whining about how it doesn’t fit as well as it did when she bought it.  Sarah has been pressed into commission letting out the waistline.

“I think someone had a few too many cream puffs on her last date,” Carlos sneers. “Or you’re just overeating on your lunch break at your big fancy job.”

Gemma steps back into her room quickly to take it off and put her normal clothes back on.  When she comes out, she dumps the costume in Sarah’s lap.

“I had a sundae on my last date with Johnny Jefferson, and he was nice enough to let me eat most of his too.  We also had steak for dinner and then went out again for apple pie before he walked me home.”

“Men don’t like a woman who overeats,” Mrs. Troy proclaims as she lights a cigarette. “Nobody loves a fat girl.”

“It’s called a healthy appetite, Mother, and why shouldn’t I eat my fill when I have the chance?  You’d prefer I keep to our pathetic roadkill and spoilt turnips diet even when I’m at work, on dates, and out with friends?”

“She’s getting above her raising,” Carlos says derisively. “Next thing you’ll know, she’ll be moving into a swank mansion on Long Island with a millionaire husband and putting her three kids in private schools.”

“I actually would like to move to Long Island or one of the nicer neighborhoods uptown, and I do intend to only have a few kids as opposed to a huge pile of brats.  I bet your stupid self will be in jail or a sanitarium when I’m a proper society woman with a respectable husband.  How many times have you gotten high or drunk already this week, Carlos?  I admit I smoke sometimes on dates or with friends, but smoking cigarettes isn’t bad for your health or something only degenerates and delinquents do.”

“We’ll find you a husband we approve of by the time you’re twenty, Gemma,” Mrs. Troy promises. “He won’t be as bad-off as we are, but he won’t be a rich man either.  I hope you get all this teenage foolishness out of your system by the time you need to settle down and be a full-time wife and mother.”

Gemma dismissively waves her hand at her mother. “I am going to graduate high school as the Class of 1960, a woman of a new decade.  Your worldview will be a relic before you know it.  I’m going to have fun, not saddle myself down to a guy you want me to marry when I’m not even old enough to vote yet.”

“Do you think you expanded your waist for another reason besides overeating recently?” Allen asks.

Gemma turns bright red. “What kind of immoral, loose woman do you take me for?  Maybe you and Carlos do those things with girls, but I value my reputation.  God, I’d kill myself if I got in trouble like that.”

“Sometimes I want to kill myself just for living in this tenement,” Allen says. “But unlike you, other people depend on me to help take care of them.”

Carlos wanders over to the kitchen, where he, Allen, and their parents have a drug lab of sorts.  He wishes his sisters would all shut up about how the money they’ve poured into drugs, drug paraphernalia, and the home lab over the years could’ve been used to buy better food and clothes, or to upgrade their living quarters somewhat.  Carlos expects all of his younger sisters to take up drugs and alcohol themselves when they get a bit older, and for the same reasons he, Allen, and their parents did.  They weren’t motivated by a love of breaking the law and putting potentially dangerous chemical mixes into their bodies so much as they wanted an easy, reliable escape from the hard life they were born into.  It remains a surprise to him that Gemma has never touched drugs, and that Lucine hasn’t expressed any interest in them either, despite being about the age he and Allen were when they started dabbling.

In the morning, Adicia, Emeline, and Ernestine head out to their elementary school, wearing their usual hand-me-down rags.  Ernestine tried to go to school in her pajamas and pass that off as a costume, but Mrs. Troy wouldn’t let her leave the house like that.  Emeline thought of going dressed like a boy, in pants and an old shirt belonging to her older brothers, but couldn’t find a hat to tuck her hair up under.  At least Lucine is in eighth grade now and isn’t expected to wear a costume to school, in spite of the class parties.

“What a surprise, the dirty Troy girls couldn’t afford costumes,” one of the Debbies in Emeline’s class taunts when they get to the schoolyard.

“I think they did dress up.  As their ragged selves, in costumes they didn’t need to make specially for today,” one of the Barbaras in Ernestine’s class says.

“How often does your mother brush or comb your hair?” Theresa Mladsky comes over to them and starts walking around them. “All three of you have hair full of rats’ nests.”

“We do get our hair brushed by our nanny,” Ernestine says. “It’s harder to untangle when you’re not able to get it brushed every day.”

Adicia looks around with a mixture of jealousy and wonder.  All the other boys and girls on the schoolyard are dressed in Halloween costumes—witches, wizards, cowboys, cowgirls, Indians, monsters, princesses, kings, queens, princes, ballerinas, Chinese girls, outlaws, circus animals, cereal boxes, scarecrows, Vampyres, and Frankenstein’s monster.  Their mothers probably spent a lot of time sewing their costumes, and making the special Halloween-themed baked goods they’ll be eating at their class parties.

“I don’t think girls who came to school without costumes should get any candy or food at our parties,” Jody Krause says.

“And I don’t think people who are so rude and mean to the faces of people who never did anything bad to them deserve to go through life with so many nice things,” Emeline says. “Why are any of yous so mean to us?  Are yous just offended we’re different from you, and that difference makes yous uncomfortable?  I was reading the English translation of a book our German nanny recommended, and it says when you hate someone, you hate something in that person that’s part of yourself, since what isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”

“Stupid bookworm,” Jeanie Mraz says as she walks into the building.

“I bet you need glasses before we graduate sixth grade,” one of the Lindas in Emeline’s class says. “I’m shocked you don’t need them yet from all that squinting at books you do.  And no boy wants to date a girl with glasses or who knows more than he does.”

“Can I read that book after you’re done with it?” Ernestine asks.

Emeline smiles down at her. “I don’t know if it’s at your reading level.  It’s a book from the adult section of the library.  Sarah says the author won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946.”

“I wish I read well enough to read grownup books.”

“You can borrow some of my other books I have out from the library.  I’m working my way through the Five Little Peppers series and am only on the second book right now.  They’re really old books, but they are children’s books.  The author had a number of limitations as a writer, and it’s really obvious it was written in the Victorian era, but they’re nice classic children’s books at heart.”

The children start filtering into the school when the principal appears on the steps.  The Troy girls join hands and slowly walk over to the steps leading up to the entrance for girls.  Emeline grumbles under her breath about how stupid it is that schools still have different doors for boys and girls when it’s practically 1960.

“We’ll meet back out on the playground for lunch,” Emeline tells them. “And I’m sure we’ll have a nice Halloween celebration of some type with Sarah, Justine, and Lucine tomorrow, when we’ll have the apartment to ourselves.”

Adicia sits through the day miserably, watching the other little girls and boys in kindergarten walking about in their wonderful costumes and helping themselves to the cupcakes, cookies, cakes, tortes, pies, and other wonders whipped up by mothers who actually enjoy being mothers and treating their children in a special way.  She and her sisters are in a very small group that has to stand off to the side when the costumed students put on their big parade around the entire school.  At least the teachers didn’t have to make them feel even more shunned and just had students with the best costumes go on the parade.  Adicia can hardly stand the thought of sweet little Justine, almost eight months old, having to go through this same ordeal when her time comes to start school.

Saturday is Halloween.  The apartment is indeed emptied out for Adicia and her sisters, as Gemma is at her party, Carlos and Allen are out with some girls, Mrs. Troy is taking Tommy trick-or-treating, and Mr. Troy is picking up a few extra shifts at the factory.  As depressing as their surroundings are, it’s still nice to have a little privacy for awhile.

“I’m going to make lovely Halloween costumes for my kids when I’m a mother,” Ernestine declares as they gather under the table, the lights dimmed, to tell spooky stories. “I’ll have a nice modern sewing machine instead of that ancient black thing our mother uses when she makes stuff for Tommy.”

“I would’ve loved to be something historical,” Emeline says. “A Pilgrim, a Colonial girl, a pioneer, a Medieval princess, something that lets me express my love of history.”

“Did you celebrate Halloween in Germany, Sarah?” Adicia asks.

“Halloveen is an American holiday.  I never saw anybody celebrate it.  All I know about it, I learnt since I came to dis country.”

“Halloween started in Ireland thousands of years ago,” Emeline says. “It’s only relatively recently gotten more and more popular in the West, mostly America and Canada.  It’s still celebrated in a more traditional fashion in Spanish-speaking countries.  If the high school taught Spanish, I’d be looking forward to learning about how it’s celebrated in the various parts of Latin America when I start high school in three years.”

“In any other family, you vould’ve been enrolled in a special school for gifted yout or at least skipped a grade or two,” Sarah says.

“My teachers always knew I’m advanced for my age and that I’ve read my way through almost all the books in all my classrooms’ libraries and the main school library.  It’ll probably be awhile before I get through every book that interests me at the Tompkins Square Library.  I go to the Hamilton Fish Park Library sometimes too.  That’ll have to do for now.”

“It’s colder than usual in here,” Adicia says. “Can someone put the stove on?”

The lights go out as Sarah is getting up and going over to the stove.  Lucine picks up the flashlight and starts looking through the apartment for matches and candles.  The fuse box is located in the basement and is only supposed to be accessed by the landlord, who usually only has anything to do with his tenants when he’s evicting them, demanding back rent, or shutting off various utilities for failure to pay those bills.

“Do you think our cheapskate parents didn’t pay again, or is it just a blackout?” Lucine asks. “Usually they don’t shut off utilities at the end of the month.  It’s usually a week or two after the first of the month.”

“It’s probably just a blackout,” Emeline says. “We can live without electricity for a little while.  How do you think people functioned in the days before gas and electricity gave us light and heat?”

Ernestine goes over to the door by the fire escape and looks outside. “The people in the building across the street from us don’t have any lights on either.  It must just be a local thing.”

“Can you tell us a scary story, Sarah?” Adicia asks. “But don’t make it too scary.”

“Oh, you can’t scare us that easily,” Ernestine boasts. “We are not babies, and we live with scarier stuff than some ghosts and witches that don’t even exist.”

Justine begins fussing on Sarah’s lap.  Lucine shines around the flashlight to locate the diaper bag where Sarah keeps diapers, diaper pins, bottles, Enfamil, and other baby supplies for Justine.  Since Justine was born in March, her own mother has never even changed one diaper or administered one feeding.  Since having her first four children before Sarah came along, she has only been actively involved in mothering with Tommy.  Adicia was only nineteen months old when Tommy was born, but Ernestine was two months shy of four, and remembers Mrs. Troy holding Tommy nice and close while she fed him a bottle of Similac she heated up, then lovingly burping him, bathing him, rocking him, changing him.  All because he turned out to be a boy.

“I’ll tell you a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” Sarah says as she sits back under the table and guides the bottle into Justine’s mouth. “Emeline is very familiar vit dese stories, but I don’t know if she’s read all of dem.”

“It was the first book I ever read,” Emeline nods. “Our parents caught me reading it when I was three years old, and I got scared and pretended I was just looking at the pictures.  I didn’t get caught knowing how to read till I was four, but Sarah knew most of that time I could read.”

“I wish I could’ve learnt to read all by myself that young,” Lucine says. “I still think you’re some kind of savant for just waking up one day and starting to read from an adults’ book, no previous reading lessons or anything.”

“Let me tell you de story of de boy who vent to learn vat fear vas.  Once upon a time, a vater had two sons.  De younger son vas asked by his vater vat he’d like to learn to make a living, and said he vanted to learn how to shudder.  A man at church said he could teach de boy. After he learnt how to ring de church bell, he vas sent at midnight to ring de bell and de church man appeared dressed as a ghost.  De boy vanted to know vat vas going on, and ven he didn’t get an answer, he pushed de man down de stairs.  His vater vas very upset, and made him leave to learn how to shudder.  All de time de boy complained dat he didn’t how to shudder.  Den he vas advised to spend a night under de gallows, vere seven men vere hanging….”

Adicia and Ernestine sit wide-eyed as Sarah tells the story of the little boy who was so arrogantly fearless he wasn’t even scared by things that would scare the pants off any other child, like seeing a ghost, spending three nights in a haunted castle, sleeping under a gallows with seven dead bodies dangling from nooses, being attacked by dogs and cats in the darkened castle, seeing half a man falling down a chimney, witnessing a game of bowling played with skulls and severed legs, and being attacked by a man who comes back to life in a coffin.  They think the story is pretty scary, but can’t help but wondering if they would react in a similar apathetic and annoyed fashion if they were dealt with some of these terrifying things.  Sarah went through a lot of things they think are pretty scary and horrible too, and she’s said she became numb to it all after awhile.  It seems only fitting to the two of them that the first book Emeline ever read contained this and other grim and disturbing stories.  They all know better than to believe life is like a Disney fairy tale.  Where they’re from, life is more like a Grimm’s fairy tale.

A blast from the past

So this is what happens when you’re looking in your chest of drawers to see if maybe your MIA Russian slang dictionary (the one that has all the good words that aren’t in your PG-rated dictionary) is in there along with some of the other non-clothes items stored in there. You find a couple of stray discs that weren’t in your little box of discs. I converted one of my books into Word through TextEdit, the first book in the Atlantic City series that focuses on the blended family of cousins Max and Elaine, and am quite happy to see it only has a word count around the ballpark of 60,000. I also found research papers I wrote on Shoah denial and the history and development of GULAG. But, most shockingly and unexpectedly of all, I found…

THE LOST FIRST 100+ PAGES OF THE BOOK I’VE BEEN QUERYING!

For some odd reason, TextEdit was able to open that massive file, in spite of having been locked and unable to be opened after catching some kind of disc/file error years ago. And DAMN, I’m blown away the more I skim through this stuff! This is stuff that’s straight out of a modern-day Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which I suppose isn’t a shock when that was the very first book I ever read, at three years old. That kind of stuff stays in your subconscious and affects how you see the world. When your first exposure to reading on your own is Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the original, adult, uncensored version, and at only three years old, you know early on that life can be more like a Grimmy’s fairy tale than a Disney fairy tale. A lot of what I’ve written over the years has an edge, a darkness, to it, acknowledging that real life can be depressing, not pretty, mean, cruel, imperfect, instead of all sweetness, light, flowers, bunnies, puppies, and happily ever after. Seriously, some of this stuff almost reminds me of The Painted Bird!

First of all, could I have been any heavier-handed with the narrative moralizing and preaching, essentially telling the reader to feel sorry for Adicia and what to think about her sordid environment? It’s like those pompous, preachy intertitles in many of D.W. Griffith’s films, beating the viewer over the head with how he wanted them to think and feel. That’s one of the reasons (besides that whole BOAN thing) I had such a hard time getting to a point where I could enjoy any of his films. (I wanted to vomit a number of times when I was watching BOAN, and even gasped or groaned out loud at many of the racist things.) I like his early Biograph shorts very much, and some of his later, post-heyday features, but I just can’t get into most of the features he made in his heyday, even if they do star the beautiful, talented Lillian Gish (who continued to shine even after she started making films for MGM and moved away from her mentor). The only heyday film of his I absolutely loved was Way Down East. I think he did a really good job on that one, and kept the preaching to a minimum. (But no, even that wonderful film will not redeem him in my eyes for BOAN. I’d sooner rewatch Life Is Beautiful, which also made me sick to my stomach with how it trivialized the Shoah, or Half-Wits’ Holiday, the Three Stooges short where Curly had his massive stroke halfway through and which therefore gives me a very sad, sick feeling knowing what happened to him after he walked off-screen in his last scene.)

Anyway, there are REALLY graphic descriptions of the poverty these people live in, like broken beds, rusty radiators, rarely-washed plates, broken lightbulbs, a car with no windows (how the hell are they affording a car when they’re so dirt-poor and live in Manhattan besides?), mice living in their bureaus, rusty water, moldy shower curtains, and an overflowing garbage can filled with really nasty stuff. There are also WAY more descriptions of drugs and drug use than I ever put in the rewrite, and the older brothers, Carlos and Allen, are regularly hanging out with hookers and even bringing them over to the house. At one point Allen, the one nice brother, is engaged to marry some hooker named Kiki, even though his mother is trying to marry him off to some younger Polish girl. I didn’t even remember anything about Mrs. Troy scheming to marry off one of her sons!

I got the names of oldest sister Gemma’s abusive, controlling first husband and son mixed up. Originally it was the husband, not the baby, who was named Giovanni, and the baby was named Francis. In the rewrite, the husband is named Francesco. Gemma herself was also originally called Gema (what happened to the second M?). At least I got most of the siblings’ ages right, or was only about a year off in the ones I got wrong. Seriously, this thing is littered with purple prose, tons of descriptions of people and things. The characters also use downright awful grammar, and they can’t even read. Fourth-born sister Ernestine also decides to drop out of school when she meets Girl and moves to the squat, since she feels she’s getting more of an education there. That never happened in the rewrite! Girl and her siblings remain self-taught and then go to formal school later, but Ernestine always remains in school and even goes to Vassar, along with Girl, who passed her GED, got good SAT scores, and took some supplementary classes at night school and community college before starting college.

Girl is even further out in left field in the original. I remembered her as being quite a character, kind of like a young radical, but not as being this weird! In the original, she’s talking about underworld beings visiting the planet, sci-fi coming true, life on other planets, a universal religion, sixth senses, and deliberately having children out of wedlock (as in a sperm bank, not the old-fashioned way). In the rewrite, she’s your average women’s libber, Socialist, and radical of the Sixties and early Seventies, in large part influenced by how she grew up poor and squatting. She also believes in things like auras and invisible energy fields. At any rate, she’s definitely not blathering on about communicating with aliens or psychic powers!

Second-oldest daughter Lucine was originally slated to marry some 21-year-old Greek fellow named Nikolas Pappadoras; in the rewrite, her black-hearted mother is planning to marry her off to a 35-year-old drug dealer named Jacob DeLuise. The first guy was only six years her senior; the second guy is 19 years older. There’s also some business about Nikolas bringing over a woman named Ronnie, his mistress. Nikolas also goes over across the hall to give drugs to a 6-year-old girl who is also a child prostitute. (This story just keeps getting better and better!) That girl became Julie in the rewrite (eight, not six, when she first appears), one of Adicia’s best friends, who escapes from her degenerate father with help from Adicia and Allen. Her mother divorced her father when she found out what he was doing to Julie, but was prohibited by the courts from having custody since, typical of the era, they believed the man over the woman. Just look at these beautiful descriptions of the girl who originally was named Karin and hadn’t talked in years:

Adicia sees the little neglected girl who lives in this apartment. She is only 6, but she is even smaller than 7 year old Adicia is. The little girl has cheekbones so hollow that they could act as coasters, hair that is very knotted up and infested with lice, eyes that are coated with a slime-like substance, crooked legs from having rickets, a hacking cough, she has a very hard time breathing, there is a rash all over her neck, she has very bad dandruff, the skin around her fingernails is red and raw, her nails themselves are beginning to fall off, and her mouth is totally dry and chapped.

Then, later (love the hideous grammar!):

“Who is this person?” Girl asks.

“She don’t got a name,” Adicia says. “She lives in the apartment next to my family, and her folks is rarely home. She sniffs glue and pops pills, and she gets attacked when she goes to buy her dope. Her folks come home drunk often and beat her up and push her down the stairs and set her on fire. She don’t talk. Her father and this man Nikolas do something that’s horrible to her, but I don’t know what it is, ‘cause nobody tells me whatever it is that’s such a big secret.”

“Nikolas Pappadoras?” Girl asks. “He’s involved with Rhonda Hill, right? Ronnie comes over here often! He’s a sick little man, and I’s been tellin’ her forever to leave that little insect! I will gladly take in her. I know this girl. Ronnie says that her name is Karin, an’ Carlos is a good friend of her father, and they’s both wanted by the cops for dealin’ dope to minors and for seeing hookers under the age of 12. Her mother is also wanted by the cops for sellin’ clients to pimps under the age of 15 for up to $900! I’ll just take this glue and give it to Carlos.”

Perhaps most horrifying of all to me (which I do remember from the rough draft) is that the exploited, German-born, Shoah survivor, live-in nanny and servant Sarah is telling the girls a Halloween story about what happened to her in the camps. WHAT?! These are little girls, her surrogate daughters, and they consider her their true mother since she’s been the one raising them since they were born! They obviously know some things, but she’s told them in age-appropriate ways, and certainly never goes into any sort of graphic detail.

“I know a horror story,” Sarah says. “It really happened, and you’ll be so scared you won’t be able to sleep.”

Emeline turns out the only known light source in the building, the nearly broken lamp. Then she lights a candle and gets under the old table. Ernestine gets one of Gema’s quilts and puts it over herself and Justine. Adicia covers herself with an ancient blanket.

Sarah starts telling them about the war she lived through. The girls are far from scared.

“Why didn’t anybody do anything about it?” Emeline asks.

“Why did people wanna do something like that?” Ernestine asks.

Sarah tries to scare them, but she cannot.

“Now we want a ghost story,” Ernestine says.

It is midnight by then, so Sarah makes them go to bed.

Yeah, that’s a totally normal thing to talk about when your young surrogate daughters ask for a horror story on Halloween! In the rewrite, they gather under the kitchen table during a blackout on Halloween, and she tells them a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, “The Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was.” Sarah also has a German accent in the rewrite (i.e., I wrote a V instead a W and a D or T instead of TH when she’s talking); she doesn’t speak perfect unaccented English like in the original. I also see that her original surname was Klaus; I made it into Katz in the rewrite. (I also discovered that one of my orphanage girls in my Russian novel is also named Sarah Katz. I think that might be the first time I inadvertently used the same forename and surname for different characters, with the exception of people named for a relative.) It also makes no sense for Sarah to have been working for the Troys since she was 16 in 1941, since otherwise she couldn’t have survived the worst horrors of the Shoah and her little horror story would be moot. In the rewrite, she came over in 1947, when she was twenty. I just love how historically inaccurate so much of my earliest historical fiction was!

In other notes, I do remember youngest brother Tommy was an even bigger spoilt brat originally, and I decided to tone his brattiness down a bit in the rewrite. He’s still a spoilt little brat, but he’s not so over the top anymore, and he does have periodic glimmers of humanity. For example, he plays with African-American and Puerto Rican kids in spite of his otherwise enabling mother’s racist attitudes and attempts to ban him from playing with kids of other races. He also comes to the rescue of baby sister Justine when the jerk their parents were trying to forcibly marry Adicia to breaks and enters in an attempt to force answers out of Tommy and Justine re: Adicia’s whereabouts. Tommy finally grows up a bit by the end, but his development is very slow, and his maturation still isn’t complete by the end (it continues in the hiatused sequel), but at least he’s no longer some ridiculous caricature, some cardboard cutout of a spoilt, coddled, enabled, bratty child. Tommy is also kind of mean in the original, and in the rewrite, he’s just a spoilt brat, not a truly mean kid.

To sum it up, basically the original is just like a huge parade of horrors, darkness, depression, and disturbingness. No wonder I had unexplainable soul memories of a feeling of depression, despair, and hopelessness when I thought about how I depicted the tenement and the Troys’ lives originally. It just goes on and on in an endless loop of sadness, meanness, poverty, drugs, exploitation, abuse, and depression, and there really isn’t any sort of real plot emerging. I do like how the kids are rendered as so streetwise and how their surroundings are described to get a real feel for just how poor they are, though.

While I’m ecstatic to finally have the original for comparison, I’m also kinda glad I wasn’t able to access it months ago and that I had no choice but to finally start over from scratch. The way I told the story this time around, it focused more on the love between the sisters, their one good brother Allen, and their friends, NOT an unceasing litany of the horrors of poverty and emotionally abusive, drug-addicted, drunken parents. It kind of reminds me of how Isabella Leitner’s Shoah memoirs (the most haunting, unforgettable books I’ve ever read, btw) focus on the love shared by Isabella and her three (later, sadly, two) remaining sisters, instead of going into any graphic detail about the camps. So in the end, love carried them through that awful ordeal, the same way my fictional characters are buoyed by the love they share with their friends and decent siblings.

But who knows, if I do end up getting famous, it might be interesting to sell this original rough draft in some kind of anthology of previously unpublished works!