Carlos on the Witness Stand

There are still quite a lot of posts that need moved out of my drafts folder already. This was originally scheduled for 31 March 2012, intended for the long-discontinued Sweet Saturday Samples bloghop, and set aside indefinitely. It differs slightly from the published version.

***

This week, I’m featuring an excerpt from Chapter 36 of Adicia’s story, “Carlos Goes to Prison.” Carlos, Adicia’s oldest brother and the next-oldest Troy sibling, was paralyzed in an accident at work in early July of 1962, and while he was in the hospital, a number of charges were brought against him for his drug-related activities, stealing at work, and (accidentally) starting the fire that destroyed the Troys’ original tenement. Five years later, he’s finally mentally and physically fit enough to stand trial. Now he gets a chance to take the stand, and unwittingly incriminates himself for basically everything. The rating is PG-13.

***

“Will you raise your right hand and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help you God?”

“Yup,” Carlos says.

It is the second week in September, and the prosecution has decided to put Carlos on the stand.  The defense declined to use him as a witness, citing his alleged diminished mental capacity and the fact that he’s already been through enough trauma, but the prosecution lawyer thinks he’s either crazy like a fox or so genuinely stupid he’ll be putty in their hands.

“Will you please state your name?”

“Carlos Ghislain Troy.”

“Now, Mr. Troy, at the time of your accident, July 3, 1962, Wednesday, you were working at Mighty Mike’s Mechanics on the Lower East Side, correct?”

“It was the second job I had in my life,” he says proudly. “I was a car repairman and mechanic.”

“And what did this job entail?”

“I fixed people’s cars and performed basic maintenance services.”

“Did you ever take anything out of the cars you were entrusted with?”

“All the time.  That’s onea the reasons I wanted the job after I was fired from my first job.  I knew some rich folks would be taking their cars in, and I’d help myself to their belongings.  They either wouldn’t miss ‘em or would just buy new stuff.  Hell, my own mother right there told me she hoped I’d be stealing from the cars the same way I useta help myself to cereal when I worked in a cereal factory.”

Mrs. Troy hangs her head in her hands.

“So you are basically admitting to stealing from your customers and pleading guilty to the thirty counts of petty theft you are facing?”

“All poor folks steal.  We deserve nice stuff, and rich folks deserve to be put in their place.  Besides, I was told they found mosta the stuff in my work locker.  That problem is solved and the charges should be waived.”

“That’s not up to you, Mr. Troy.  That’s up to the judge and jury.  Now here’s another question for you.  Can you remember when you started using or selling drugs?”

“I was fourteen, maybe?” he guesses. “I think I waited till I started high school to start joining my parents in the wonderful world of drugs.  We useta have a whole drug lab in our old tenement, before it was destroyed by fire.”

Now Mr. Troy hangs his head in his hands.

“Did you start selling them at the same time you began using them?”

“I want to say yes.  I sold and used all kinds of drugs you can imagine, though my favorite to use was meth.  Speaking of, I’m dying for some meth right now.  Can anyone oblige me?”

Mrs. Troy wishes she could run out of the courtroom right about now.

“Mr. Troy, are you aware you are incriminating yourself by your testimony?  You do have Fifth Amendment rights to refuse to answer any of these questions.”

“You asked if I’d tell the whole truth, and I agreed.  I ain’t got nothing to hide.  I’m proud of my roots and what I’ve done.”

“Fine.  Now that we’ve quickly established you did steal from your customers at the car shop and that you’re a drug user and pusher, let’s move onto the most serious charges you’re facing.  Do you remember what you were doing on the late afternoon of June 27, 1962, Wednesday?”

“Using meth, probably.  Is that supposed to be the day our old tenement burned down?”

“Yes it is.  Does that jog your memory now that you know what exactly I’m asking about?”

“That was the day I got my job at Mighty Mike’s Mechanics.  On my way home, I siphoned off some gas from a fancy car for my buddy Nick and his wife Louise, onea the few families I knew with their own automobile.  Nick and his wife lived on the fourth floor of our old tenement.  Nick told me their electricity had gotten shut off ‘cause they hadn’t paid their utility bill, and asked if I’d please go into the basement to try to fix it by fiddling with the fuse box.  I gladly obliged.  I saw the cheapskate landlord had taken out the penny I’d put into the socket last time I’d been working with the fuse, so I stuck another one in.  It was really dark down there, so I lit a match to see.  After I was done fiddling with the fuse, I threw the match on the ground.  It musta come in contact with somea the gasoline I’d accidentally spilled when I was setting the gasoline canister down on the ground.  So as you can see, this fire was a total accident.  I did not maliciously set a fire or intend to kill nobody.”

“Sir, are you aware of what putting a penny into a socket or fuse breaker can do?”

“I guess it could cause a fire hazard, but that ain’t no reason to never do it.  Tons of people get in cars every day, and they ain’t avoiding ‘em for fear of dying in accidents.”

“And are you aware of how flammable gasoline is, and even more so when it comes into direct contact with a flame such as a match?”

Carlos waves his hand dismissively. “Those were complete accidents.  It was actually pretty funny when we looked out our door and saw a fire at the bottom of the steps.  It was onea them ‘Did little old me do that?’ moments.”

“You find it funny that you caused a massive gasoline and electrical fire that completely consumed a ten-floor tenement building where roughly two hundred people lived, claimed twenty lives, and left everyone homeless?”

“Of course that part wasn’t funny!  It’s like how you laugh when someone falls on a banana peel.  You know it ain’t funny for him, but it’s funny to watch since it ain’t you, and ‘cause people getting hurt are funny.”

Mr. and Mrs. Troy’s mouths are hanging open in shock by now.  They’ll have no reputation left if any of their friends, family, or neighbors read about this in the papers or hear about it through the grapevine.

“Sir, are you aware of how quickly a gasoline fire spreads, and that when combined with a concurrent electrical fire, the end results will be disastrous?”

“You act like I did this on purpose!  I hated losing everything I owned and being made homeless, though at least we was able to move right into my older sister and her ex-husband’s apartment in Two Bridges, since she’d just divorced him and he’d moved back in with his parents.”

“Did you make any efforts to report this to the police, or let the firemen know how it had started?”

“Now why in the hell would I incriminate myself like that?  Accidents happen.  That don’t mean all harmless accidents need to be treated like criminal matters.”

“Now I’m going to read you a list of names, and you can tell me if you recognize any of them or know how these names relate to one another.  Angela Barbieri, Maria Delmonico, Edward Gallagher, Hannah Gallagher, Stanley Houlihan, Jane Johnson, Lisa Jones, Nathan Jones, Timothy Jones, Adela Levine, Charles Levine, Peter MacIntosh, Georgia McIntyre, Philip McNulty, Alexander Nankin, Vera O’Loughlin, Richard Rogers, Randolph Spirnak, Jerry Teitelbaum, and Sharon Zoltanovsky.”

“My mother was friends with a Mrs. Nankin on onea the lower floors, but I don’t remember if I personally knew that family. The only name on that list that rings a bell is Spirnak, who moved in across the hall from us that May. He had a daughter Julie who’d just turned eight. Spirnak sold drugs as his full-time job. My parents and I became somea his best clients. There was no Mrs. Spirnak, since they’d divorced a couple of years prior. That bitch tried to tell the cops and lawyers he was doing degenerate things to their daughter, but we all know how girls and women make stuff up when they’re desperate for attention or trying to get people to take their side. The girl, Julie, disappeared not that long after they moved in, and I have no idea where she went to. Why, are these people the ones who are charging me for accidentally burning down the building?”

“No, they can’t do anything now, because they are all dead.  Most of them were found dead when the firemen arrived too late to save the building or anyone inside, and Mrs. O’Loughlin, Mr. MacIntosh, and Miss Lisa Jones, who was only nine years old, died shortly thereafter in the hospital of their injuries.  Do you feel any remorse, now that you’ve learnt the names attached to the people who died in the fire you started?”

“Why should I feel bad for something that I didn’t do on purpose?  I ain’t some pansy like my brother Allen, who was pathetic enough to quit all drugs, alcohol, and even cigarettes, and who don’t mind being surrounded by more girls than guys.”

The prosecuting attorney smirks and turns to the defense. “Mr. Hoffman, would you like to cross-examine this hapless witness?”

Carlos’s lawyer feels like throwing his hands up. “No, that’s fine.  I don’t think my client will be able to get out of the hole he’s just dug for himself no matter what I ask him.”

Mrs. Troy looks like she wants to murder Carlos as he wheels himself off of the witness stand.  Mr. Troy has to suppress the urge to reach out and smack his firstborn son upside the head.  Just about the only thing a poor family can claim to be proud of is its name, and now they probably don’t even have any name left after Carlos has cavalierly admitted in court to using and selling drugs, stealing at work, and starting a fire.

WeWriWa—Mean Girls at Woolworth’s

weekend_writing_warriorsveteransbadge_4

Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. I’m still sharing from my recent release Little Ragdoll, a Bildungsroman (growing-up story) spanning 1959-74.

Five of the six Troy sisters have gone uptown to Woolworth’s with their surrogate mother for back to school shopping, but they’ve run into a number of the snooty girls from school. These girls live in the gentrified northern area of the Lower East Side, which was less than ten years away from breaking away into the East Village. The Troys themselves live just inside the future East Village’s borders, but they’re definitely not gentrified or financially successful.

Not only do the girls have to deal with taunts about how poor they are, but they also have to endure the shame of having a father who didn’t serve in World War II.

This has been slightly edited to fit eight lines.

***

“Does that Kraut think she’s fooling anyone?” Linda Jones asks. “Just call her what she is, a slave who works for peanuts.  Maid and nanny, my eye.  I bet your dad the Kraut-lover hired her.  He shoulda been thrown in prison for sitting out the war, while all the rest of our dads served our country and did the right thing.”

“My father’s not some draft-dodger,” Lucine snaps. “He showed up when he was drafted, but he failed his medical tests. It’s not our fault he was 4-F.”

***

4-F was considered the most shameful, embarrassing draft deferment during World War II. Many 4-Fs tried to appeal it and be reconsidered, or applied to other branches in the hopes they’d be accepted there instead. Mr. Troy didn’t attempt to fight it and just went back to the box-making factory.

The Sacrifice of Gemma (Skia)

Font: Skia (Greek for “shadow”)

Year created: 1994

Chapter: “The Sacrifice of Gemma”

Book: Little Ragdoll

Written: 4-7 December 2010

Computer created on: 2008 15-inch MacBook Pro

File format: Word 2004

I really, really had been hoping to have finished Justine Grown Up by now so I could spotlight “Sing Blue Silver Snowstorm” on the S day, but I feel I made the right call to put that WIP on hiatus. But if you happened to be at the Duran Duran show in Hartford on 13 March 1984, “please, please tell me now!” I’d love to interview you so I can get firsthand details for the dramatic penultimate chapter.

So I went with Chapter 10 of Little Ragdoll. Oldest sister Gemma takes the lead here for the first time in the book. In the book’s earlier incarnation, Gemma was some one-dimensional snobby bitch who deserved to be forcibly married to some much-older abusive man. But in recasting these events so many years later, I really began to feel for her, and she emerged as a sympathetic character.

After she underhandedly divorced Francesco and aired all their dirty laundry at a family gathering in Part II, she was not permanently written out as I’d originally planned. I’d grown to kind of admire and like her, and wanted her to fulfill her deferred dream of going to college and to someday marry for love and have children she wanted. Given the circumstances she’s been raised in, the oldest of nine unplanned children in a poor Lower East Side family, how could I hate her for wanting to get above her raising and spending all her free time working or with her friends? And it was just juvenile how I’d hated her for being a cheerleader. Stereotyping much?

Some highlights, so to speak:

“Whose car is that parked outside our tenement?” Gemma asks as they’re walking up Essex Street. “It’s not bad. You think we have a new neighbor?”

When they get to their tenement on the eighth floor, a greasy-looking man with a cold, hard face is standing in the living room and talking to their parents and Mrs. Troy’s former co-worker Mrs. Rossi from the third floor.  He turns to Gemma and smiles at her in a way that makes her sick to her stomach and gives her a foreboding of something very bad about to happen.

“Get used to saying, writing, and spelling it, since you’re gonna be saying and writing it a lot in the near future,” Francesco smiles. “Don’t you modern women wear clothes anymore?  I don’t want my future wife walking around wearing a bikini.  Go put some decent clothes on.” He walks over to her and smacks her on the behind very loudly. “Hustle it up, woman.”

“You heard your future master, girl.  Go to your room, change outta that revealing thing, and put on decent clothes,” Mr. Troy says.

“No woman of mine is gonna go to college.” Francesco spits on the floor, narrowly missing one of the chickens, who’ve finally begun to lay a few eggs. “What kind of disreputable institution is this that they admit girls?  Next thing you know, they’ll be teachin’ cows to drive!”

“I don’t approve of higher education for women.” Francesco slaps her on the behind again. “Nor do I approve of bikinis.  After you change, I’ll go through all your clothes and pick out the stuff I won’t allow you to bring to our new home together.”

Francesco smiles a partly toothless grin at her when she emerges.  Gemma wants to vomit when he coarsely grabs her face and forces a French kiss on her.  While this is happening, her parents and Mrs. Rossi are standing by without saying a word or even moving to pull Francesco off her.  Suddenly her happy day at the Hamilton Fish Park Pool seems like a distant memory that happened to someone else entirely.

Gemma stifles another urge to vomit. “I know I’ve said I’d like to marry an older guy, but I meant five or six years older, not twenty years older!  He’s old enough to be my father!”

“I saw posters on your walls and records next to your bed,” Francesco says, spitting on the floor again. “Those won’t be coming with you when you move in with me.  Elvis can’t sing or act his way out of a paper bag, and the only man you need to be dreaming about will be me, not Elvis, William Holden, Cary Grant, or Rock Hudson.  You won’t even have time to go to the movies or listen to your trash records when you’re running a household and birthing babies.”

Gemma grabs the papers and rushes into her room.  Her stomach lurches when she opens the box.  Francesco bought her a bunch of ugly, utilitarian, grandma-style bras and underwear, presumably to replace the pretty ones she has now.  The list of demands is handwritten in very sloppy printing.  Gemma isn’t too surprised to find Francesco doesn’t know how to write cursive, though she thinks her youngest sisters can print better than that, despite being at least thirty years his junior.

Lucine can’t decide whether to laugh or cry as she starts reading. “He wants you to clip his fingernails and toenails, brush his hair, bathe him, dress him, and light his cigarettes?”

“It doesn’t matter what the mother superior thinks.  She’s only a woman,” Father Raimundo says coldly. “I override her.  Why I could order all the nuns to walk around naked down Houston Street, and they’d have to obey me.”

Gemma grins and bears it as she’s walked down the aisle by her father, knowing she really is literally being given away to become Francesco’s property.  There’s nothing she can do about it now but plot revenge while pretending to smile and keep sweet.

How the discontinued first draft is much different, Part III

The discontinued mess of a first draft of Adicia’s story really is like almost a completely different story from the completed manuscript. The names are the same, and most of the ages I got right, but other than that, only the most basic outline form is the same. It’s almost like an entirely different story I created when I finally went back to it. Giving it so much time to just sit in my brain and not having access to the terrible unfinished original made it a stronger story. I was able to develop characters and spin plotlines in much different ways than if I’d been chained to working within the horrible original. I didn’t even remember just how horrible the original was, which is a good thing. Then I might not’ve been so hung up on wanting to recover the file and work with what I already had.

More ways the original mess is much different from the finished product:

1. Sarah’s surname was Klaus, and her father was Catholic. And she came from Germany when the War had just begun, because of poverty. I don’t believe she was a concentration-camp survivor in the original draft, since she would’ve gotten out early enough to avoid that. And so far she’s not coming across as very intelligent or motherly to the girls.

Sarah’s character came back to me in a dream when I was starting to think about finally going back to this story. The more I thought about this long-lost draft, the more things came back to me. I’m so glad I remembered Sarah. Without her, the Troy sisters wouldn’t have had even one sympathetic adult in their lives during their Lower East Side days, no example of what a real mother is like, no loving mother figure to help them see they don’t have to be like their blood mother.

2. Allen was in love with some hooker named Kiki and planning to elope with her to avoid another forced arranged marriage, to some teenage girl named Olga Majewski. I had no memory of the black-hearted Mrs. Troy ever scheming to marry off one of her sons! Kiki was in some silly “hooker university” of sorts, and was later injured in some sort of accident. Thank God I forgot this beyond-stupid bit of business!

3. Adicia’s baby was going to be called Bob for short, since that’s the nickname of his namesake, Bob Gaudio. Maybe it’s just me applying onomastic views of my own era to an earlier era that wouldn’t have held by them, but I really think that nickname is a bit too grownup for a baby or little boy. And Bobby seems rather juvenile (and also dated to my ears, even knowing the character is born in 1973), and the nickname Rob is already taken by a rather despicable Atlantic City character who joins the cast in 1943 or 1944. So I changed his nickname to Robbie.

4. Allen, not Carlos, was actually the unwitting arsonist who destroyed the Troys’ original tenement. Oh, hell, here’s the terrible purple prose I used to set it up:

He goes into the kitchen to throw it [a joint] out.  He does not want his heart to speed up even more.  He uses one of the oily rags lying around on the dirty stove to wipe up the mess Carlos has made with his ashes and tobacco.  He throws away the still lighted cigarette away too, a very stupid thing, since their garbage can has inside of it rotting carcasses of animals that got spoiled before somebody noticed them, drugs, cigarettes, empty bottles, oiled rags, money (since Ernestine considers throwing the money she can find away better than keeping it and leaving her open to attack by her money thirsty father), and paper.  They usually burn the garbage at the end of every week in the woods, so he doesn’t think twice about the garbage setting afire.  Once it is all ashes, he thinks, he will come back and put the lid over it to put the fire out.

Allen actually blames Adicia for starting the fire so he won’t get punished. This is shortly after Mr. and Mrs. Troy have found out the landlord has paid a visit and shut off the electricity, heat, and water. The entire scene of packing up and leaving the burning building is so unrealistic. Completely unrealistic depiction of how a fire could start and spread. A fire in a garbage can on the 20th floor could be quickly put out instead of destroying the entire building! Now it starts in the basement, and is a combined gas and electrical fire. Who the hell takes his or her leisurely time packing stuff and filing out of a burning building?!  Ernestine and Allen climb onto the roof and wait for “the lazy rich firemen” to put up a ladder when the entire building is in flames. Ugh.

5. The Troys lived on the 20th floor of their original tenement. Now they live on the eighth of ten floors. It’s said several times that it was built in 1920, so it’s not one of those pre-1901 tenements that got all that bad attention in the late 19th century, before new tenement laws were enacted. The average pre-1901 tenement would’ve only had 4 or 5 stories, but I remembered them as having been pretty high up. I just didn’t want to make them too unrealistically high up.

6. Gemma was originally 16 when the book opened, Carlos was 15, Allen was 14, and Emeline was 12. Well, at least I was only a year off when I went back to the story. Gemma is now 17 at the start, Carlos is 16, Allen is 15, and Emeline is 11. (And why the hell was I spelling the oldest child’s name Gema? That looks so wrong, like a vital letter is missing!)

7. Mr. Troy is almost 35 years older than Mrs. Troy. At one point Allen says Mrs. Troy is now 35 and Mr. Troy is 70, and that Mrs. Troy got pregnant with Gemma at 17. Gross. Mr. and Mrs. Troy were both born in 1923 now, and conceived Gemma when they were 18, in May 1941. And Mr. Troy often says he rues the day he got into the backseat of that stolen car and knocked his girlfriend up, since he hates having been saddled with 9 kids, all of them unwanted and mistakes, and being tied to such a miserable woman for life. He’s an awful person too, but he is marginally more intelligent than his wife.

8. Mr. and Mrs. Troy are constantly cheating on one another, visiting pimps and prostitutes, and bringing lovers over to the apartment. How the hell are poor people who have to work as hard as possible for even a little money getting all this time and money for affairs and hookers?! In the rewrite, Mr. Troy isn’t even as much of a drunk and drug addict as Mrs. Troy. He recognizes that he has to be sober when he’s at work, and only gets high or drinks when he’s not at work. That minimum-wage job at the box-making factory means a lot to him, unlike how Mrs. Troy is constantly quitting or getting fired from her short-term jobs and saying “Jobs are like men and buses; a new one always comes along every 15 minutes.”

9. And speaking of, many times in the original, just about every character spouts some nonsense about how only fools have sex for love or even pleasure. It’s stupid, dumb, or sinful to have sex unless you’re trying for a baby. Thank you, 13-year-old woman of the world, for that brilliant insight into adult sexual desire! I mean, it’s great I thought sex was disgusting at that age, since at least it meant I wasn’t going to be sleeping around, getting pregnant or a disease, or letting potential boyfriends pressure me, but still! Why the hell should anyone listen to some junior high kid’s unrealistic views on relationships and sex when she’d never even gone on a freaking date?! Even though I was a virgin till well into my twenties, at least I’d long since dropped my beyond-immature and actually kinda premodern and scary views on who should and shouldn’t be having sex, and for what reasons!

10. The Troys and several other poor people actually have cars. Granted, cars were a lot cheaper (by today’s standards, anyway) in this era, but they were still too expensive for poor folks! Even a beat-up car that’s just waiting to be condemned wouldn’t have been realistic! And even well-off people in NYC usually take public transportation. I clearly had done no real reading on Manhattan. Nothing in this story even suggests it takes place in Manhattan, as opposed to how the city is almost another character in the finished manuscript. The only city people who are mentioned as having vehicles now are the odious Francesco, Ricky’s parents, Ethan, and Seth.