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Crossing the Bridge


The day we moved out of our Lukens Avenue home, I dug a shallow grave by the gazebo, and buried my paper-dolls, forever. Taking the small toys and bird nest that I found in the playroom when we moved in, I carefully placed the items in a brown-paper bag. Leaving the poke by the backyard swing, I threw a kiss in the air for Dopey and said my final Au Revoir. I finished the last chapter of my book. I’ll write another story.

Daddy was not on the lease to our new underground apartment. A general contractor converted an enormous single family dwelling to a quadplex, renovating the dingy basement into a compact, one-bedroom efficiency. Daylight barely filtered into our three-tiny windows. Hearing outside voices, instead of viewing faces through the glass, we saw ankles and knees. While waiting for Mom to come home from work, Janie and I would jump from the top step bouncing on the worn out couch cushions stacked on the landing.

Finally, Mom was able to enroll me in first grade. Miss Pennington, the school’s Principal, talked with me, and then verbally tested my academic level. Handing me a first grade textbook, I was skillfully able to read the antics of Dick and Jane. My handwriting needed practice, although, I could easily read my scribed words. Math wasn’t problematic; I memorized Janie’s schoolbooks. Going shopping at the local store, I was the proud owner of a satchel, archaic term for schoolbag.

There were a few perquisites to our new flat. We lived across the street from the drive-in theater. Spring days would surprise us with summer temperatures, alternating with an occasional arctic blast. Janie and I watched Peter Pan in color but we could not hear what was being said. My sister grew weary reading lips but I sat on the stoop eating rice and beans with my two best friends, Juan and Peter. The brothers rented one of the upstairs units. They shared their meal and our smiles extinguished the language barrier. I licked my plate clean. Laughter is a spoonful of medicine. The brothers were my daily dose of happiness.

Summer was approaching and our Garden of Eden turned into Sin City. You name the transgression and it personally made its debut in my life. A retired used car salesman rented the apartment next to Juan and Peter. From what I could understand from Juan, the senior citizen was stealing the milk from their milk-box. Roy Benson, the milkman stopped at our apartment on Thursday mornings. The brazen old coot in Apartment 4B knew my friends were at work, the dress factory located next door and he helped himself to their leche y huevos. Juan was teaching me Spanish; I reciprocated with English. Peter played guitar and we sang Spanish songs on the front steps. Cielito Lindo was my favorite.

On the other side, lived Nadene. Nadene was ancient compared to my mother. The upstairs neighbor was Mom’s friend and ride to work at the insane asylum, Pilgrim State Hospital. On occasion, Nadene would stop by our apartment for coffee and chat with Mom. There was something about this woman that made me skittish. She squeezed me real tight and her hand always touched my bottom. I didn’t like it. One day, she invited me to go upstairs to see her dolls. If I liked one, she would give it to me.

Looking at my second-hand Rose, the doll should be laid-to-rest but I cherished the chewed-up relic. The cashier at the rummage sale gave the toy to me because I was good, allowing Mom to shop.   

Ignoring my childish gut feeling, I went. On her television console was a beautiful dolly dressed in a crochet dress. It wasn’t a doll to play with but it was lovely to admire. Nadene gave me permission to hold the treasure and said if I visited her, she would make me one just like it. Enjoying milk and cookies at her table, Nadene and I conversed about the colors of the doll’s dress until a bare-breasted lady came out of Nadene’s bedroom. Scooping me up in her arms, Nadene made a demanding request that I touch the woman’s nakedness. Squirming to get down, Nadene released me, and I ran downstairs. I could hear the women arguing as I scaled the stairway.

I consumed the learning part of school but I didn’t talk. I was afraid of being locked in the supply closet. The kids harassed me because I didn’t participate in their silly games of jump rope and tag. I sat on the grass and wrote stories. My teacher, Mrs. Billings was sweet, but she waved a huge red flag to the counseling department. Talking to Mr. Shaffer, a bald, round-faced nincompoop, I was enrolled in speech therapy classes. I was told I slurred my words. Hmm - how did that happen? Considering my mentor was from Brooklyn, guzzled twenty-four-seven, ergo my speech would be impaired. For one-hour twice a week, Mr. Johnson, three-students from ethnic backgrounds, and I played a card game, Go Fish. We shuffled and discarded while Mr. Jeff read his book. At the end of the lesson, our therapist would have us read the same repetitive sentence.

Darkness filled the screen, a short intermission, and the genre unequivocally malformed from dark humor to horror. Hearing my name whispered, my heart pounded and fear opened my eyes. My father was sitting on my bed. His arms were planted on the bedcovers. One on the right and one on the left supporting his body in a leaning forward position. This evocation can’t be happening.

Compelled to gawk into his face, panic escalated for a brief moment until he articulated. “Bobby do you love your Daddy?”

The man was clean-shaven, dressed in a white-button down shirt, hair combed but I knew he had been drinking. I could smell the beer on his breath.

Analyzing the circumstances, I questioned why Daddy was in our apartment. Did Mommy let him in? Has he changed? Are we a family, again? What’s going on? This particular extract has never been replayed in my thoughts or nightmares. Why did I extricate this sewage from my cognizance? Why are we going here? I thought I erased this from my data bank.

 Appeasing the character who was staring into my face pursuing an answer, “Yes, Daddy.”

My eyes went to Mom’s bed. Her sheets were strewn on the floor but she was not there. Janie is supposed to sleep with me, but she has bad dreams. Every night, Janie creeps into Mom’s cot. Neither one of them were in the room. Where did they go? Terror deployed my “holding it all together” alarm.

Raising my voice in discombobulated apprehension, “Daddy, why are you here?”

He avoided my inquiry. His grin turned into a malevolent grimace straddling the muscles on his face. Breaking the silent conversation, glancing down, the man gripped a black-leather belt in his right hand. Five minutes ago, it was around my mother’s neck. Tottering silence prevailed. Hearing a loud unexpected click, my head involuntarily left the pillow. Turning, Daddy’s focus was on the intruders.

Two barrels were cocked ready to fire on target. Using abrupt authoritative tonality the large man barked. “Mister, if you value your life, I suggest you drop the belt, lift your arms over your head, and stand. Leave the child alone. One move and these bullets will hit you in your head. The choice is yours. Come peacefully, and no one gets hurt.” They charged into the room.

Using today’s standards, this approach would be inappropriate and unacceptable, politically incorrect. The two police officers addressed the crisis and circumvented the criminal behavior. They didn’t wait for a psychiatrist, a mediator, or a team of experts. My father stood on command. Doing a routine pat down, in Daddy’s pocket was a switchblade.

Mom and Janie escaped, physically unharmed, and using the pay phone outside the dress factory, Mom had the operator dial the police. These bits and pieces of my childhood are not delightful memories of picture-perfect scenic vacations, fascinating museums, or family fun barbeques but hard-core life.

Barely a year-old, a Guardian Angel woke Janie who grabbed me from my playpen when my father started a fire in the living room. At the age of two, the dog who attacked me suddenly retreated scared off by a Guardian Angel. A Guardian Angel had a neighbor assist my mother when I was knocked unconscious falling out of a tree. The nurse was driving by when I fell. How many times did a Guardian Angel shelter me when I crossed Lukens Avenue? I was the epitome of the artwork of Bernhard Plockhorst who painted The Guardian Angel exhibited in 1886. Lindberg Heilige Schutzengel is a version of the original, depicting two children crossing a bridge.

Aroused from my sleepiness, my chest ached. Something isn’t right. Looking at the clock, I have twenty minutes to midnight. The pain was increasing. My redheaded bell ringer stood before me. Her arms beckoned. Feeling the two-ton elephant sitting on my breastbone, I didn’t accept her invitation.

“Barbara, it’s time. Come with me. It’s time to crossover.”

Sitting up in bed, “No, my time has not come. Please not now, my life is about to change. I’m not ready to die. I’m getting married. Surely, God will understand; I’m not ready.”

“Everything will be wonderful. In one blink, it will all be over. Come now, let’s cross the bridge. Heaven is waiting; God’s prodigal has come home. The angels will celebrate.”

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