Along the block some people were out on their porches looking at him and the motorcycle. The shutters across the street that slowly flipped up and down to get the proper focus indicated that he also had a considerable unseen audience, for a police motorcycle in the block was an event, especially if its driver wore shorts and a red beard. The block was poor, certainly, but honest. Suddenly self-conscious, Patrolman Mancuso rang the bell again and assumed what he considered his erect, official posture. He gave his audience his Mediterranean profile, but the audience saw only a small and sallow figure whose shorts hung clumsily in the crotch, whose spindly legs looked too naked in comparison to the formal garters and nylon socks that hung near the ankles. The audience remained curious, but unimpressed; a few were not even especially curious, the few who had expected some such vision to visit that miniature house eventually.
Big girls don’t cry
Big girls don’t cry.
Patrolman Mancuso knocked savagely at the shutters.
Big girls don’t cry.
Big girls don’t cry.
“They home,” a woman screamed through the shutters of the house next door, an architect’s vision of Jay Could domestic. “Miss Reilly’s prolly in the kitchen. Go around the back. What are you, mister? A cop?”
“Patrolman Mancuso. Undercover,” he answered sternly.
“Yeah?” There was a moment of silence. “Which one you want, the boy or the mother?”
“Well, that’s good. You’d never get a hold of him. He’s watching the TV. You hear that? It’s driving me nuts. My nerves is shot.”
Patrolman Mancuso thanked the woman’s voice and walked into the dank alley. In the back yard he found Mrs. Reilly hanging a spotted and yellowed sheet on a line that ran through the bare fig trees.
“Oh, it’s you,” Mrs. Reilly said after a moment. She had almost started to scream when she saw the man with the red beard appear in her yard. “How you doing, Mr.Mancuso? What them people said?” She stepped cautiously over the broken brick paving in her brown felt moccasins. “Come on in the house and we’ll have us a nice cup of coffee.”
The kitchen was a large, high-ceilinged room, the largest in the house, and it smelled of coffee and old newspapers. Like every room in the house, it was dark; the greasy wallpaper and brown wooden moldings would have transformed any light into gloom, and from the alley very little light filtered in anyway. Although the interiors of homes did not interest Patrolman Mancuso, still he did notice, as anyone would have, the antique stove with the high oven and the refrigerator with the cylindrical motor on top. Thinking of the electric fryers, gas driers, mechanical mixers and beaters, waffle plates, and motorized rotisseries that seemed to be always whirring, grinding, beating, cooling, hissing, and broiling in the lunar kitchen of his wife, Rita, he wondered what Mrs. Reilly did in this sparse room. Whenever a new appliance was advertised on television, Mrs. Mancuso bought it no matter how obscure its uses were.
“Now tell me what the man said.” Mrs. Reilly began boiling a pot of milk on her Edwardian gas stove. “How much I gotta pay? You told him I was a poor widow with a child to support, huh?”
“Yeah, I told him that,” Patrolman Mancuso said, sitting erectly in his chair and looking hopefully at the kitchen table covered with oilcloth. “Do you mind if I put my beard on the table? It’s kinda hot in here and it’s sticking my face.”
“Sure, go ahead, babe. Here. Have a nice jelly doughnut. I just bought them fresh this morning over by Magazine Street. Ignatius says to me this morning, ‘Momma, I sure feel like a jelly doughnut.’ You know? So I went over by the German and bought him two dozen. Look, they got a few left.”
She offered Patrolman Mancuso a torn and oily cake box that looked as if it had been subjected to unusual abuse during someone’s attempt to take all of the doughnuts at once. At the bottom of the box Patrolman Mancuso found two withered pieces of doughnut out of which, judging by their moist edges, the jelly had been sucked.
“Thank you anyway, Miss Reilly. I had me a big lunch.”
“Aw, ain’t that a shame.” She filled two cups half full with thick cold coffee and poured the boiling milk in up to the rim. “Ignatius loves his doughnuts. He says to me, ‘Momma, I love my doughnuts.’” Mrs. Reilly slurped a bit at the rim of her cup. “He’s
out in the parlor right now looking at TV. Every afternoon, as right as rain, he looks at that show where them kids dance.” In the kitchen the music was somewhat fainter than it had been on the porch. Patrolman Mancuso pictured the green hunting cap bathed in the blue-white glow of the television screen. “He don’t like the show at all, but he won’t miss it. You oughta hear what he says about them poor kids.”
“I spoke with the man this morning,” Patrolman Mancuso said, hoping that Mrs. Reilly had exhausted the subject of her son.
“Yeah?” She put three spoons of sugar in her coffee and, holding the spoon in the cup with her thumb so that the handle threatened to puncture her eyeball, she slurped a bit more. “What he said, honey?”
“I told him I investigated the accident and that you just skidded on a wet street.”
“That sounds good. So what he said then, babe?”
“He said he don’t want to go to court. He wants a settlement now.”
“Oh, my God!” Ignatius bellowed from the front of the house. “What an egregious insult to good taste.”
“Don’t pay him no mind,” Mrs. Reilly advised the startled policeman. “He does that all the time he looks at the TV. A ‘settlement.’ That means he wants some money, huh?”
“He even got a contractor to appraise the damage. Here, this is the estimate.”
Mrs. Reilly took the sheet of paper and read the typed column of itemized figures beneath the contractor’s letterhead.
“Lord! A thousand and twenty dollars. This is terrible. How I’m gonna pay that?” She dropped the estimate on the oilcloth. “You sure that is right?”
“Yes, ma’m. He’s got a lawyer working on it, too. It’s all on the up and up.”
“Where I’m gonna get a thousand dollars, though? All me and Ignatius got is my poor husband’s Social Security and a little two-bit pension, and that don’t come to much.”
“Do I believe the total perversion that I am witnessing?” Ignatius screamed from the parlor. The music had a frantic, tribal rhythm; a chorus of falsettos sang insinuatingly about loving all night long.
“I’m sorry,” Patrolman Mancuso said, almost heartbroken over Mrs. Reilly’s financial quandary.
“Aw, it’s not your fault, darling,” she said glumly. “Maybe I can get a mortgage on the house. We can’t do nothing about it, huh?”
“No, ma’m,” Patrolman Mancuso answered, listening to some sort of approaching stampede.
“The children on that program should all be gassed,” Ignatius said as he strode into the kitchen in his nightshirt. Then he noticed the guest and said coldly, “Oh.”
“Ignatius, you know Mr. Mancuso. Say ‘Hello.’”
“I do believe that I’ve seen him about,” Ignatius said and looked out the back door.
Patrolman Mancuso was too startled by the monstrous flannel nightshirt to reply to Ignatius’ pleasantry.
“Ignatius, honey, the man wants over a thousand dollars for what I did to his building.”
“A thousand dollars? He will not get a cent. We shall have him prosecuted immediately. Contact our attorneys, Mother.”
“Our attorneys? He’s got a estimate from a contractor. Mr. Mancuso here says they’s nothing I can do.”
“Oh. Well, you shall have to pay him then.”
“I could take it to court if you think it’s best.”
“Drunken driving,” Ignatius said calmly. “You haven’t a chance.”
Mrs. Reilly looked depressed.
“But Ignatius, a thousand twenty dollars.”
“I am certain that you can procure some funds,” he told her. “Is there any more coffee, or have you given the last to this carnival masker?”
“We can mortgage the house.”
“Mortgage the house? Of course we won’t.”
“What else we gonna do, Ignatius?”
“There are means,” Ignatius said absently. “I wish that you wouldn’t bother me with this. That program always increases my anxiety anyway.” He smelled the milk before putting it into the pot. “I would suggest that you telephone that dairy immediately. This milk is quite aged.”
“I can get a thousand dollars over by the Homestead,” Mrs. Reilly told the silent patrolman quietly. “The house is good security. I had me a real estate agent offered me seven thousand last year.”
“The ironic thing about that program,” Ignatius was saying over the stove, keeping one eye peeled so that he could seize the pot as soon as the milk began to boil, “is that it is supposed to be an exemplum to the youth of our nation. I would like very much to
know what the Founding Fathers would say if they could see these children being debauched to further the cause of Clearasil. However, I always suspected that democracy would come to this.” He painstakingly poured the milk into his Shirley Temple mug. “A firm rule must be imposed upon our nation before it destroys itself. The United States needs some theology and geometry, some taste and decency. I suspect that we are teetering on the edge of the abyss.”
“Ignatius, I’m gonna have to go by the Homestead tomorrow.”
“We shall not deal with those usurers, Mother.” Ignatius was feeling around in the cookie jar. “Something will turn up.”
“Ignatius, honey, they can put me in jail.”
“Ho hum. If you are going to stage one of your hysterical scenes, I shall have to return to the living room. As a matter of fact, I think I will.” He billowed out again in the direction of the music, the shower shoes flapping loudly against the soles of his huge feet.
“What I’m gonna do with a boy like that?” Mrs. Reilly sadly asked Patrolman Mancuso. “He don’t care about his poor dear mother. Sometimes I think Ignatius wouldn’t mind if they did throw me in jail. He’s got a heart of ice, that boy.”
“You spoiled him,” Patrolman Mancuso said. “A woman’s gotta watch she don’t spoil her kids.”