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.

The right way to be an all-knowing narrator

One of the numerous reasons why I HATED The Book Thief was the gimmicky, smirking, know-it-all narrator and his endless parade of spoilers. That’s seriously not the way to do omniscient POV. The modern-day writer using third-person omniscient (or an all-knowing first-person narrator) properly must learn to strike a delicate balance between all-knowingness and compelling storytelling.

I love third-person omniscient because it provides a relationship with all the characters, a chance to get to know all of them instead of only one or just a handful. This is why this POV has long been the standard in historical and fantasy, because of the large ensemble casts and sweeping, epic scope. It offers more flexibility, creativity, and intimacy than any other POV, since we’re not stuck in one person’s head for the entire book, or alternating back and forth among a few characters. It also provides more objective distance, telling the reader a story about these characters instead of telling the story through a particular character’s eyes.

However, sometimes you can bend the rules a little and slip into a quasi-God-mode. I still use this method of narration sometimes, but I’m very, very careful and selective about it now. This style works when there’s a reason to break the fourth wall and write as the all-knowing narrator. These are a couple of examples which I feel merit quasi-God-mode:


“This is how Lyuba, Iván, and Tatyana finally leave Russia, running for their lives across the border in the ice and snow, a riot in Pskov, Cheká agents out searching for Iván, no looking back allowed, no crying.  Lyuba will remember this day for the rest of her life, the day she left her Motherland and wasn’t allowed to look back, scream, or cry” (You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan, Chapter 21, “Goodbye to the Motherland,” probably 1999).

That kind of emotional reflection wouldn’t be possible if I were just relating the story about these characters and describing how they fled across the border by the skin of their teeth.


“Mrs. Troy has carefully planned the celebration this evening.  School has just let out, and she’s going to use the occasion to have a festive supper in honor of Lucine and Jacob’s supposed upcoming marriage, and to celebrate Giovanni’s first birthday.  She’s also ordered Ernestine to come over.  Little does she know Lucine went into her room and stole her suitcase, now packed and sitting under Lucine and Emeline’s bed.  She also has no idea Gemma’s planning to use the occasion to give a piece of her mind to her family and to deliver some shocking news to Francesco” (Little Ragdoll, Chapter 14, “Gemma Gets Out,” December 2010).

This serves to emphasise the coming humiliation and shock about to be delivered big-time to Mrs. Troy. Right now she’s completely unsuspecting of anything, so this villain is in for an even bigger catastrophe than if she suspected her oldest two daughters are about to revolt.


“….Five-year-old Adah had announced one recent day she was going to marry Alyoshka. She was no longer being dumped in his parents’ mansion, but they were in kindergarten now and constant companions. It was anyone’s guess as to what Aleksey Greenblatt would’ve thought of his young namesake being born and raised Jewish, after his fifteen last years on Earth, safe in America, he’d worked so hard to blend in and appear to be a Methodist from England, not some boy who’d lived in the Ukrainian shtetl till a pogrom in December 1902 left the family standing in the gutter with nothing. His shame was now the pride of the family, presided over by a man nearing eighty-five, the five-day-old son he’d masked their identities for the sake of. Aleksey Benjamin, after Aleksey Veniaminovich. Not the Anglicised and by now somewhat antiquated name Alexis he’d adopted. Nowadays Alexis had become a feminine name. Alyoshka, like the little boy in the shtetl.

“Not just a future marriage into the prestigious Green family, but a marriage to Cinnimin’s grandson. [Sparky’s] miracle seventh child would produce children through which would flow blood shared by Cinnimin Rebecca Filliard Kevorkian, Kit Theresa Green, and Katherine Abigail Brandt, the same way their three streams of blood had been running together through Cinnimin’s veins ever since that nightmarish July Fourth in 1964” (conclusion of Part XXXVIII, Saga V of Cinnimin, “Isaac’s Miracle Cure,” August 2002 plus my just-now edits).

This one I really like, because it lets me use my knowledge about the past, present, and future, and weave them all together without pontificating, making value judgments, or giving away any real spoilers. Just about all my childhood sweethearts marry, so there’s no ruined surprise here, and nothing else about their future relationship is revealed. No value judgments are made about the elderly Mr. Green’s late father either. And the name Alexis had become more feminine than masculine by 1987, so that’s hardly me providing my own opinion. You can’t do that kind of distant, wise, all-knowing narrative voice in any other POV.

Sweet Saturday Samples

This week in Sweet Saturday Samples, Adicia has planned to take the subway to the end of the line and stay in a nice hotel with money from Ricky while she looks up the phone number of Father and Mrs. Murphy, the adoptive parents of her nephew Giovanni and the couple who helped two of her sisters get a high school education. But her plans have a kink thrown in them as she’s on her way to the station, and she runs back to Ricky.


“So we’re all settled then?” Ricky asks at 3:30. “You know where to go and what to do from here?”

She nods. “Thanks for being such a great friend.  Most people you’ve only known for six months aren’t so nice.”

“Will I ever see you again?” he asks as she’s putting her schoolbag on backwards so it doesn’t get cut off by a thief.

“You never know.  I won’t forget you anytime soon.”

Ricky opens the door for her and hands her her suitcase. “After what happened to you last night and when you were fifteen, I know you probably don’t feel comfortable letting me hug you goodbye.”

“I wish you could.  Will a handshake do?”

Ricky takes her small hand and shakes it. “Goodbye, Adicia.  I won’t forget you anytime soon either.  Maybe in another life we could’ve been more than friends.”

He watches her going down the steps and up Avenue A, until he can’t see her anymore.  Hopeful she’ll get to the next subway station without being molested, he goes into the living room to watch TV.

After Adicia has just passed Tompkins Square Park, hoping she looks the picture of confidence and normalcy, she spies her mother out of the corner of her eye, coming down East 9th Street and towards the intersection with Avenue A.  Full of terror, but knowing her mother hasn’t seen her, she turns around and begins running as fast as she can back to Ricky’s house.  If Mrs. Troy sees her, her plans are shot, and she knows she can’t just dash into the park and hide out among the elms like she did when she was seven.  Adicia isn’t even caring at this point just what her mother is doing out of work at this hour, since it’s such a common event for Mrs. Troy to quit or be fired.

Tearing back down the street at record speed, and sweating from the hot July weather and the extra baggage she has, she reaches Ricky’s house in under fifteen minutes, dashes back up the front steps, and frantically rings the bell, all while hoping her mother is still far behind her and hasn’t seen her yet.

“What’s wrong?” Ricky asks as she pushes past him into the house and slams the door. “Did you forget something?”

“Lock all the doors and windows, and draw all the blinds.  My mother is coming down the street right now.  If she sees me with my baggage, she’ll know I’m running away.”

Ricky goes to look out the window while Adicia sits down on the floor, below window level so her mother won’t have any reason to get any glimpse of her.  About five minutes later he sees a woman who matches the description Adicia and Justine have given their mother.

“Is your mother about fifty, with ratty light brown hair with no gray streaks, a surly look in her eyes, hardened skin, about five foot five, and with a green and brown pipe in her hand?”

“She’s forty-nine, and yes, that is definitely her.  That’s her cocaine pipe, though she also likes to smoke meth and pot.  I don’t think she shoots up heroin very often, and I don’t know if she’s ever touched acid.”

Ricky watches Mrs. Troy continue on down the street and crossing the intersection between Houston and Avenue A/Essex Street.  Adicia crawls over and peeks through the blinds to watch her mother disappearing into the house.  Her one consolation is that she knows neither of her parents have ever used corporal punishment.  They’re emotionally, mentally, and psychologically abusive and neglectful, but they’ve never actually hit any of their nine children.  Justine will hopefully be able to withstand the storm that will probably be unleashed once they realize Adicia is missing.

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.

“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.