I Didn’t Know It At the Time

I didn’t know it at the time, when we were six and seven and would walk to the banks of the Passaic River where overturned shopping carts stood in knee-deep water, acting like seines, capturing the plastic once-white bags that eventually developed a gleam from the muck and pollution, a shimmering like the underbelly of landed bluefish, and we’d watch them undulating in the slow current as if they were alive—I didn’t know that my best friend Paula, my constant companion, the girl next door, would, at the age of seventeen, be blown up by a car bomb planted by the North Jersey mob and meant for her boyfriend.

You could run the neighborhood back then, this before news stories of child abductions were commonplace, and this being a mostly a blue collar Italian-American neighborhood where people looked out for each other.

My family was one of the few Polish-American ones in the neighborhood, which didn’t register with me, I was too young at the time to know much of Italy or Poland, my world no more than a few blocks. My only source of embarrassment and self-awareness stemmed from the constant yelling and screaming in Polish between my grandparents that carried halfway down the street, like a Tennessee Williams parody with two Stanley Kowalskis, my grandmother able to give as much as she got from my grandfather.

There was a real life Blanche DuBois, my Aunt Mary Ann. My mother completed the household, but as loving as she was, I only remember the house being populated by my child self, my ever-combative grandparents, and the strange thinning apparition that was Aunt Mary Ann.

Mary Ann would pore over Cosmo and Elle with a Bic pen between her teeth when she wasn’t scribbling or popping handfuls of Brach’s hard candies—the kind old ladies handed out on Halloween, even if she was only in her twenties. When she would go to our bathroom to vomit, the retching sound echoing against the black and white tiling, I would sneak over to the couch where the magazines lay to see what she had written. Every word of advice in every beauty article was underlined, some words doubly so, scrawled blue Bic stars populating the margins, whole constellations of stars.

Maybe I don’t remember my mother back then because she seemed so normal compared to everyone else in that little two-bedroom house. Or she was off at work most days, teaching second grade. I later learned she had spent an entire year in bed after my father had left us, and maybe she had to keep moving, had to stay away from the place where she had sunken so low, the bed and that house with the screaming couple, the ghostly skeleton sister, all exerting too much gravitational pull.

I didn’t know these things at the time because I was happy. A dreaming boy who tried to build a real plane in his backyard with nothing more than two pine planks and a spark plug, who tried to dig a hole to China with a soup spoon, who played doctor with a girl named Paula.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my grandparents didn’t love each other. That might have seemed obvious, given their constant fighting, but I was a little kid and assumed all couples loved each other. Or maybe it was because individually they were so nice and adored me.

My grandmother probably had no choice in the matter of her marriage. Never having more than a grade school education, never learning to drive, my grandfather’s family offered some prestige in their Polish immigrant community: both of his brothers were priests.

There was the sheer joy of running the streets with a dozen friends, the impromptu kickball games, throwing rocks at the windows of abandoned houses, driving an older kid’s go-cart into the nunnery wall then scampering away before getting beaten by either the older kid or the Mother Superior.

There was the joyful lawlessness of my grandfather: constantly making jokes, buying me a chili dog at Johnny and Hange’s, bringing me to the Elks Club where I sat on a stool barely reaching the bar, my eyes widened by the Playboy centerfolds in the rest room.  My memory of such places is smeared, as if the darkness of the bar, the male faces that hovered in the glow of under-lit emerald and ruby liquor bottles, were still thick with cigar smoke, and the doorman with the lazy eye still manned the entrance. As if he were forever at work, keeping people out.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my mother had to pay the Catholic Church to get an annulment from her marriage. She got a discount, though, with her uncles both priests in nearby Lyndhurst, New Jersey.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my Aunt Mary Ann had been sexually assaulted as a teenager. Toward the end of her life she dated an older man with a yellowy-gray comb-over who played stand-up bass in a local jazz band, and he attended her funeral. He carried the air of an obsequious footman, his head always bowed, his manner soft. The wake was held at a relatively spacious chrome and glass diner on Route 46, and her boyfriend, wearing a polyester cream-colored suit, walked up to the table where I sat with my cousin as the meal was coming to a close. He leaned over the table and told us in a near whisper, earnestly “I want you to know, she died a virgin.” That was all he said to us. This strange man then walked away.

When I later told my mom this story, she said it wasn’t true, that Mary Ann had dated men, and maybe told this late-life boyfriend with his strange innocence a different story. It was then that my mother alluded to Mary Ann’s rape as a teenager.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my best friend Paula would become a “wild” girl, a teen who checked off all the rebellion boxes, who ended up with the wrong crowd, who would die so young. My most lucid vision of her is when I was walking along the street one day, then hearing my name called out, and there she stood at the end of her driveway lifting her skirt up with no underwear on.  I paused for roughly the length of time it takes to realize two dogs are humping, then continued on.

Since my grandmother didn’t drive she walked the two miles to the local Grand Union supermarket with an upright metal cart on wheels to get our groceries. I would sometimes accompany her. The sidewalk on our street was uneven, cresting in waves from the sycamore roots, and the cart would rattle. But we otherwise walked in silence, welcoming the fresh baked cookie smell at the end of Albert Ave, the Nabisco factory not far away.

I think my grandfather may have initially loved her. Years later I inherited the cedar hope chest he had given her where he had so neatly painted an inscription in black, on the underside of the lid, which read: To Caroline With Love, from Joe, April 6, 1929.

As an adult, I learned from a yellowing newspaper clipping my mom had saved that Paula had been blown up by a car bomb. My mother then showed me Super 8 footage of the day Paula watched me riding a bike for the first time. It was on our street, Albert Ave. The transfer to video process slowed down the speed of the images to a dreamy slightly out of focus movie, all in silence, the opposite of old silent comedies where the action is speeded.

In the footage I manage to keep upright on the bike, passing Paula, until I’m out of the frame, the camera closing in on Paula alone. She is a small child, with a broad face, jet-black hair straight to her neck, the ends uneven, her mother probably having cut it, and she looks straight at the camera, directly at me now, her eyes fierce—the strange happiness and off-kilter melancholy of the free-spirited. Almost as if she knew.

My grandmother and I would often play a game where she held my eyelids shut with her thick fingers, and I would try to open them, using only the strength of my five-year-old boy eye muscles, both of us giggling.

I didn’t know it at the time, but early in my grandmother’s marriage, with four small girls to feed, her firstborn was sent to live with my grandmother’s mother to be raised by her. I never learned if it had to do with poverty, of if her strong-willed immigrant mother, maybe regretting her daughter’s marriage despite the two priests in the family, wanted a different life for her eldest grandchild.

I didn’t know it at the time, how badly my mother wanted to get out of that house. To get me away from her screaming parents, the mental illness of her sister. I didn’t know, no one did—most of all Mary Ann—that this disease had a name.

My grandmother fell down the cellar steps one afternoon. She called out for help, and Paula and I ran inside to find my grandmother head down on the lower steps, splayed legs pointing up to the landing. She had no underwear on. Paula and I stood with mouths agape on the landing, gawking for some interminable amount of time before assisting her. The shock of anatomy was never spoken of.

My mother and I eventually moved around, first to the military base on Oahu, Hawaii where my uncle was stationed in the Air Force and where I attended kindergarten at Enchanted Lake Elementary. Then back to Fair Lawn, to that house on Albert Ave, before living with another aunt in Wayne, New Jersey. And then finally, when my mother re-married, to the home of a wealthy doctor where our lives changed so dramatically. I still don’t know how much all of this was for me.

My grandmother used to smoke, but she did it exclusively in the glassed-in foyer, which had a door separating it from the rest of the house. I would go in there and she’d tell my mom didn’t want me around the smoke, but let me stay anyway. She would then smile like a mischievous schoolgirl and offer me a puff. I would take a drag—still only a child of five—then hack and cough, and she would laugh, something between the squeaks of a slight and delighted girl and the rasp of a nightclub singer.

When I had to go back to that house as an adult, helping the remaining family members as they suffered various illnesses over the years (my grandmother, a stroke; my Aunt Mary Ann, ovarian cancer from the BRACA2 gene that plagued the women in the family—including my mother; and my grandfather, dementia), it seemed stereotypically small, like all childhood places do in retrospect. I had forgotten my grandfather had once raised pigeons in the garage, so the untouched clutter that still remained was covered in guano. I wonder if he had raised them as a reason to leave the house—I always recall him leaving, for the firehouse, for the Elks Club bar. Always leaving.


 David Hudacek is a writer  in the Boston area currently working on his first novel.