Mitch knew he couldn't stall any longer. He had arrived in New York after his discharge from the reformatory at Elmira on Wednesday. Now it was Saturday and he just had to go home.
For three nights he had slept in a Turkish bath. To get the reformatory smell out of him, he had stayed in the steam room until the sweat poured off in heavy streams. Then he would cool off, plunge into the pool and feel the cold bracing shock run through his body as he swam under water until he touched a tile side. Even the toilets were clean and the cot on which he had slept smelled fresh and crisp. But now he had to go home to his father, mother and sister. His elder brother, Lenny, was still in the Army hospital in Denver.
As he came out of the shower Mitch looked through a wide window of the dormitory. Dusk settling over the city had cut deep shadows in the streets. By the time he dressed it would be dark and then he would have to start for Brooklyn. Mitch shook his head. He wished he didn't have to go home.
All the things which had happened before he was sentenced were beaten into his mind so that he would never forget them. And when the judge threw the book at the Dukes, and he drew one to two years as his sentence, he didn't really care. Two years--twenty-four months--the judge gave him, and for the twenty-one months during which he served his sentence, he concentrated on doing as he was told, keeping out of trouble, and trying not to think about the Dukes. Mitch took the time off for good behavior, but he did not accept parole because he didn't want any strings on him when he got out.
But often at night he awakened with his pajamas wet with cold sweat, horror pumping through his body, and he bit his lips to keep from screaming. For in his dreams he saw the boys. Saw Frank Abbott smashed dead against the sidewalk. Saw Black Kenny vomiting as the judge gave him from five to twenty years for killing his teacher. Saw Crazy Shak. Crazy, who was so stupid, so dangerous, who had hated Frank so much that he beat his face into jelly, before he pushed Frank from the tenement roof and killed him. Saw Crazy away for life in a prison for the criminally insane. Saw in his mind Crazy's trial where he had raved and become so bad that toward the end the judge had cleared the courtroom of spectators.
Then there were the other boys. Larry Tunafish. Bull Benson. Michael Perlton. All in the can. The Amboy Dukes were washed up. But that didn't bother Mitch. When he woke up in a cold sweat, chilled with terror, it would be because he had been dreaming about Crazy. Crazy, slobbering with lust as he murdered Frank, choking him until his tongue hung out, and finally shoving him off the roof. Sometimes he dreamed about Kitty Kane and the way she looked after Crazy had beaten and raped her. The stretch in the reformatory didn't bother him so much as the dreams did.
Mitch shrugged his shoulders as he drew tight the laces of his left shoe. Dreaming was better than being dead.
Mitch stood before the mirror and buttoned his shirt. He was almost twenty years of age, slightly above medium height, and thinner than he should be; but it would not be difficult for him to become strong and muscular. His complexion was fair and lightly sunburned, for while in the reformatory Mitch had spent as much time as he could in the sun. His dark brown eyes were wide and shaded by long lashes. His nose turned down slightly at the tip, and his small-ears, with large lobes, were set close to his head. Mitch's hair was cut short and he was determined to let it grow in. Carefully, with slender fingers, he knotted his tie so that both ends were even, and in his every gesture there was a sign of meticulous neatness and great personal cleanliness.
As he put on the overcoat which had been given to him before he left the reformatory, his nose twitched with disgust. He wanted to get rid of the coat, the hat, the suit, shirt, tie--everything, for they smelled of reformatory disinfectant and made his flesh crawl. In the subway car he stood in the vestibule to avoid sitting next to people. He felt that he smelled like an Italian who burned candles before a little altar at home until the bitter-sweet stink of the smoke and tallow impregnated everything--clothing, curtains, and furniture--so that the odor could never be eradicated.
The outside was just a little strange. As the train rocked through the tunnels toward Brownsville he wondered what he had missed while he had been away. The war had ended while he was in the can. He guessed that was the most important thing. But as Mitch stood in the train vestibule and looked at the station ads and the people, he wondered how long it would take him to get into the swing of things. He didn't know what he wanted to do and he dreaded having to think about it or having to discuss it with his family. Maybe for a couple of weeks--or a month--they wouldn't bother him. Then they would be sure to ask him what he wanted to do. His pop had written him that he could get him a job as an apprentice cutter of ladies' dresses, and that cutting paid well. But he didn't know. So much of his time was taken up with wondering what the boys were doing or what they were going to do when they got out. He hadn't written to any of the guys while he was away and he wondered once in a while how they were getting along. But the way he felt about it was that the fewer letters he wrote the less mail he'd have censored; keeping out of trouble was the most important thing he could do. So gray day had followed gray day; he had written only to his family, and that had been enough for Mitch.
It was dark as he came slowly down the elevated steps at the Rockaway Avenue station and paused at the street to look around. Beecher's Gym was gone. That was the only change. The rest of the street and the buildings looked the same: beaten up, tired and dirty. They were so old now that there could be no further falling apart, and as the Rockaway Avenue trolley came banging down the street with its few passengers sitting at the windows and staring out at the familiar littered sidewalks and garbage cans, Mitch felt there wasn't much he could've missed. The same kind of guys on the corner. The same taxicabs. The same coffee-pots with their dirt-streaked windows. And the same ragged kids who were busy beating the hell out of each other. Mitch lit a cigarette before beginning to walk home and he smiled at the gypsy girl who swayed past him on shoes with heels that were at least three inches high. Her bright-colored skirts billowed as she walked and the short mangy fur coatee she wore so proudly caused Mitch's smile to linger. And as he stared at her he wondered whether gypsy babes could be made. The boys and he used to argue about it, but no one knew for sure. Now, come to think of it, he knew that one of the first things he'd have to do would be to get fixed. A real party with a babe who wasn't a slut. Something like the doll Frank used to date. Mitch shut his eyes and made his mind a blank. He didn't want to think about Frank because it made him think of Crazy.
What the hell, he thought as he flicked the cigarette stub across the sidewalk, he'd better quit stalling and start for home.
Mitch walked rapidly. The coat was making him sick. The sooner he got home the sooner he could get out of the clothes he was wearing. He felt that all the showers he had taken at the Turkish bath had become useless as soon as he dressed.
As he approached Dumont Avenue he paused. For here was something new. Clean apartment houses, with casement windows through which strong lights shone into the night. Mitch remembered that his sister Fay had written to him about this; the city had razed many blocks of the diseased and acid tenements, crazy wooden shacks and foul structures which had sheltered the poor and derelict Negro and gypsy families, and had erected these new apartment houses. At the trial somebody--one of the defense attorneys, he thought--had mentioned Frank's longing for a home of which he could be proud, and had, in some way, tried to relate the human tragedy of Frank to the physical tragedy of his block and neighborhood.
Mitch crossed Blake Avenue and walked the four blocks to Amboy Street with his hat low over his face and the collar of his coat turned up. He didn't care to meet anyone who knew him and might want to stop and talk to him. Then he stood before the old frame house in which his family lived. With quick hands he took off the coat and stuffed it into the garbage can in the alley. With a nervous curse he threw his hat on top of the coat and yanked the tie from his collar. Now he felt better. Now the sharp odor was less distinct.
As he leaned against the fence before the house, he could see the lights shining in the dining room and kitchen. His heart pounded, and although the evening was cool Mitch could feel his face flush and a nervous sweating heat course through his back and chest. Maybe he should've come home immediately instead of delaying it for four days. All that stuff about wanting to feel clean and rested before he went home had just been crap to keep him from facing his family. Walking in on the old man and his mom wasn't any easier than he had felt it would be. As Mitch stared at the lights, a woman who was passing the house looked at him curiously. She walked several steps, stopped and turned to look at him again. Mitch turned away from her and ran up the four wooden steps, pushed open the outer door and entered the hall.
Everything was the same. The smell of old wood, strong soap, paint, and the mustiness of the runner. The chipped wall he had said he would replaster but had never got around to repairing. The pale green and blue bulbs in the chandelier which did nothing more than accentuate the gloom. Everything was familiar, safe, like betting that there were seven days in a week.
Quietly Mitch approached the inner door to his home, grasped the doorknob, turned and pulled up, and stepped into the living room. He could feel his stomach become hard and brittle as he walked rapidly across the living room into the dining room to his family.
There was a dead silence as they saw him, and suddenly they released their breaths in explosions of emotional sounds.
"Mitchell!" His sister Fay pushed her chair from the table. "You were supposed to be home Wednesday!" She stepped toward him, paused, and sat down again, twisting her hands and cracking her knuckles in the old nervous habit he knew so well.
"Mom," Mitch's voice broke as his mother approached him with outstretched arms. Her face was contorted as she attempted to hold back her tears; her flat-footed shuffle across the dining room floor was a stab in his brain as Mitch realized that the months had aged her unmercifully. Then she held him in her arms and Mitch stroked her hair. She was such a little woman that her head barely came up to his chest, and as she held him close he could feel her sobbing.
"So long, Mitchell," she sobbed. "So long. So long. Not to let us come to see you in that place and then not to come right home like you should. Mitchell. Mitchell," she went on.
"Take it easy, ma," Mitch's voice was gruff and the film of tears in his eyes made the room shimmer. "Take it easy," he repeated. His father sat at the head of the table in the worn chair with the arms, and he wore his familiar, shiny black skullcap. It was good to see the old man again. To see and know that he looked all right; he appeared to have aged less than his wife.
"Hello, pa," he tried to jest. "I'm glad you're not bawling."
His father removed his glasses and pushed back his chair from the table. "Mitchell," he groped for words, "where were you?"
Mitch let his mother seat him in a chair. "I got into New York Wednesday all right, but I wanted to pull myself together before I came home. And I guess I couldn't make up my mind to come home."
"You're not leaving?" He could feel his sister's fingers tighten on his shoulders.
Mitch shook his head. "I've got no place to go."
"You could've telephoned us," his father reproached him.
Mitch put an arm around his mother's waist. "I wanted to pull myself together."
"Don't bother him," his mother spoke sharply to her husband and daughter. "He's tired. Hungry. You didn't have no supper?" She turned to Mitch. "Sure not," she did not give him a chance to reply. "Fay," she turned to her daughter, "get dishes and make a place for your brother. You want some cake?" She turned to Mitch again. "Fancy cake?"
"I'm not hungry," Mitch said.
"You'll be hungry," his father coaxed. "Momma's cooking is better now than before. Sit here by me," he urged. "So worried when you didn't come home. But we knew you'd come home." He adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose.
"Sure," Mitch smiled. "Just a minute," he stood up. "I want to get out of these clothes. I'll put on a bathrobe and be right back."
"Without a hat and coat you came?" his father called after him.
Mitch paused at the bedroom door. "I threw them in the garbage can outside. And I want you to throw these clothes out."
"But the suit is good," his mother protested. "Clothes are still hard to buy."
"You'll throw them out," Mitch said. "The suit stinks and I don't want a reformatory suit in the house. Everything goes out. Even my belt and socks and underwear. Understand?"
"Yes," Fay spoke soothingly. "We'll throw everything out." She silenced her parents with a look. "Your shoes too?"
"Put them on the kitchen window to air out for a coupla days," Mitch turned from her. "I'll talk to you later. I feel as if I've got lice on me. Where's my robe?"
Everything's in your closet," his sister called after him. "We had everything cleaned and pressed for you like you wrote. I'll be right back," she buttoned her tweed coat. "You like eclairs?"
"Good enough," Mitch replied. "Just a second. I'll give you these clothes."
They could hear him opening his closet and once again Fay placed her forefinger to her lips. Her mother nodded. They were to be careful, they instructed each other silently. If they weren't careful Mitchell might leave. After what he had done and been through, they had to be careful. For the Schusters' boy had come home, stayed a little more than a week after he had finished his parole, and disappeared. Where he had gone no one knew and what he was doing no one wanted to guess.
Mitch held the bundle before him. "Here," he said, "get rid of it."
"Maybe," his mother hesitated, "I could put those things away where they wouldn't bother you and I could give them to the Center where they're collecting clothes for the poor people in Europe?"
"You can't keep them in the house," Mitch said with finality. His mother was beginning to annoy him.
"Mom's right," Fay said quickly. "I'm going to the bakery and it's not more than a block from the Center. I could take them there just as easy as put them in the garbage. That's all right, isn't it?" she tried to keep the elder sister tone out of her voice.
"Do whatever Mitchell says," her father said. As Mitch seated himself at the table, his mother hastened to adjust his chair and she kissed him again on the cheek.
He smiled at his mother. "You want the things for the poor people?"
"All right," Mitch said to Fay. "The hat and coat're in our garbage can. Right on top."
Fay folded his clothing neatly. "I'll get them. I know they clean everything before they send it."
"They'd better," Mitch's laugh made them uncomfortable. "The guy who wears those things'll smell like they forgot to bury him."
Fay felt queasy. "I'll hurry back," she said.
Mitch nodded. "I'll be here. What're we eating tonight?" he asked his mother.
"What we always eat!" his father answered him. "Friday night, chicken. Saturday, dairy. Sunday, delicatessen. You know it never changes."
"So, Mr. Fancy," Mitch's mother said, "if suddenly you become so fancy you can go eat in a cafeteria where the soup comes from cans. Today I was able to get bananas," she turned to Mitch. "You can't get them always. I'll make some for you with sour cream?"
"Make everything and don't ask," his father ordered. "Put everything in front of him and let him pick what he wants. He looked up at Mitch and pointed to the bowl of bananas and sour cream before his son. "Eat," he said. "You must be hungry."
The corn bread stood in a tall stack on the plate. Mitch chose an end of the bread, buttered it thickly and took a bite.
He smacked his lips. "This is good. We sure didn't get bread and butter like this in the can."
"You mustn't talk about that," his mother cut a thick slice of farmer cheese and placed it on his bread. "Eat this. You used to like it."
Mitch's mouth was full and he nodded in agreement. With a whirring of gears the door of the cuckoo clock over the buffet opened and the little mechanical bird darted out and called eight times.
"Still keeps time?" he asked his parents. His father looked serene. "Of course. In the old days they made clocks. It doesn't lose a minute."
Mitch poured cream soda into his glass. "So how's business?"
"It's all right. But," he shrugged his shoulders, "business isn't like it was. Thank God, better the war is over than to have good business."
Mitch saw they were trying to conduct themselves as if nothing had happened, as if he had never been away from home, as if he had only been gone overnight and there was nothing unusual about his eating supper at eight o'clock at night. He saw how they strained to sit and talk to him quietly, as if they had rehearsed this evening many times in order that they could behave as people did in the movies, as Judge and Mrs. Hardy would have conducted themselves when their son returned home after a long absence. Crying and laughing and kissing and hugging would have been so much easier than sitting quietly and speaking slowly and calmly. They were trying hard and Mitch fell into character. He acted as if he had just come home from working overtime on the job and was having a late supper.
But although they were withstanding the pressure, and he was attempting to play along with them, to appear casual and at ease, there were the unmistakable overtones of stress and the hammering notes of trouble which had belabored them since the night Mitch was arrested for carrying, a knife. He and the other Dukes--Larry Tunafish, Crazy, Bull, Kenny--it was all so sudden. And then, for the first time, Mitch's parents were aware of what he had been doing. Then, for the first time, they realized that they had never had any knowledge of what he had been doing outside of their home. Like a blow between the eyes came the stunning knowledge of Mitch and the gang, Mitch and a knife--Mitchell, their good and quiet and neat and considerate son, in a police line-up.
Then there were worse things. The voices which whispered that behind the neat and quiet exterior of their son Mitchell lay a capacity for cold, calculated cruelty. A cruelty accentuated by a mind that was calm, searching, and logical; a mind that could deliberate each action, control every reflex, and hold the more violent and erratic members of the Dukes in line. He had taken care of Crazy, watched over him, wiped his nose, knotted his tie, subdued his rages, and treated him as a guy who was all there and who had plenty on the ball. For he had understood that Crazy's rages were flamed by his inability to reason and by the jibes and jeers that greeted most of his attempts at thinking. And his care of Crazy had served him, for Mitch had used Crazy as his strong-arm man, and all Mitch had had to do was to point out the guy who was to get the beating or the cutting--and Crazy had gone immediately into action.
These were the reasons the whisperings held him responsible. for Crazy's rape of Kitty Kane, and why her hysterical pleadings had not disturbed Mitch. He had known that Crazy bore Kitty a grudge and it had been important to keep Crazy from building up to the point where he would've gone off his nut and begun cutting and knifing indiscriminately. Crazy hated Frank Abbott, and on the night of the dance he had had to be diverted from a too close concentration on this hatred. His attention had to be shifted. Kitty had given Crazy a fast deal. That was why she had to pay off, and it served her right for having made Crazy a butt and a fool. Mitch had figured it that way--and the guys on the corners, in the poolrooms, on Amboy Street, and in Brownsville held him responsible for Kitty's rape--and, indirectly, Frank Abbott's death.
If Crazy hadn't raped Kitty and been kept at home by his parents, then he wouldn't have been listening to the radio that afternoon when the news flash was broadcast about Kenny's arrest and Frank's squealing. And Crazy wouldn't have been at home when the police trapped Frank and he wouldn't have used his brass knuckles to beat Frank's face soggy before he pushed him off the tenement roof.
Two years seemed so long ago and the edge of pain and memory had been dulled by time; but the wound had been too deep and great to have healed completely. On Amboy Street, that June would always be remembered as a month of tragedy.
There were too many people and families involved and rape and murder and prison had struck too many of the families on Amboy Street to make the sorrow an individual or localized grief. And the families on Amboy Street could not see or understand the blight that had struck them. Horror and tragedy had sucked them into a quicksand. The wrong was not theirs, they had not sinned, yet God had struck at them and twisted their hearts to leave them sick and gasping in pain and bewilderment; for they did not know that what had happened to them could have happened to the boys and families who lived in any of the hundreds of slum ethnic neighborhoods, in any of the depressed neighborhoods in the hundreds of towns and cities in the United States.