Aunt Gertrude had had no education—had been, due to the poverty and ignorance of her family, virtually a waif—but possessed noticeable innate intelligence. She kept several sets of account books, some of dubious public record and some honest, illegal, and secret. The house of her dominion may have been a rooming house in a Newark slum, but it was papered green with numbers racket hundred dollar bills that had to be accounted for.
She had been a buxom girl who had swollen into an enormous woman and subsequently shrunk back to a two-hundred and fifty pound mere shadow of her former self, leaving her sallow, inelastic skin loose and hanging. Jimmy’s earliest memory of her—he was about four or five—was of that enormous middle-aged woman of sixty.
She sat across from him and his mother in a restaurant booth and he counted her seven ballooning chins. Tactlessly, he asked about them, though he was just as fascinated by the even larger balloons that rested side by side on the table top, that were deep-trenched and powdered and seemed to roll about of their own volition.
Of the chins, Aunt Gertrude told him that each represented a daughter and that, collectively, they indicated that she was the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter and was therefore possessed of magical powers, such as the gift of the evil eye.
Later, his mother told him that Aunt Gertrude had been stolen by Gypsies as a little girl—actually, farmed-out as a helper—and had lived in a Gypsy camp somewhere in the Watchung mountains of New Jersey for over a year, when finally her father had—reluctantly, for she had been a demonic child even before being “kidnapped,” and some said that she had been given away—gone to retrieve her. Into her early sixties, she had developed ghostly cataracts that added impact when she gave you the evil eye, which she often did, and either had or feigned to have a heart ailment. By now, this doubtful heart condition had been present for as long as anyone could remember with no more dire consequence than that if anyone crossed her she would go spinning off across the room like a top on her little horny feet, her great, low bulk knocking a swath in the furnishings, and dive into a possum faint. This was called “swooning,” and Jimmy’s mother said that Aunt Gertrude had “swooned” or was about to “swoon.” In truth, it was difficult to tell if her heart or her temper was the true culprit. She took—suitably—nitroglycerin for this condition, and smelling salts were always advisable. The smelling salts were carried in the pocket of another enormous, though much younger, woman, named Charity. Charity was Aunt Gertrude’s flunky. She had culled Charity and Charity’s husband, Donald, from the mildly challenged ward at the mental institution at Vineland, New Jersey. Charity and Donald lived, as it were, by Aunt Gertrude’s leave. Charity was a low, wide three-hundred pounds; Donald a high, narrow one-twenty-five. This couple existed upstairs and would plummet down a back stairwell at Aunt Gertrude’s ear-splitting behest. Charity did all of Aunt Gertrude’s domestic chores, more or less ran the roominghouse, including keeping in supplies—slow or not, she was a sharp bargainer—and Donald did the toting and fixing. They were well content, and even protective of Aunt Gertrude, who needed protection no more than did her favorite wrestler, Gorgeous George. Far from the least important member of this odd ménage was a canine. Wiggles was a very old bitch with tumorous, pendulous breasts. Aunt Gertrude, who had been at various times in an otherwise amoral career immoral on a professional basis, had been unable to have children, and had always felt the lack of a daughter. Wiggles served her as such. Jimmy took it that there had been other doggy-daughters before the obscene Wiggles, but for as long as he could remember Wiggles had been about, door-scratching and spitting horrid barks at any intruder, himself included, being dragged back and shushed, and traipsing off down the hall ahead of the menagerie, like an old woman who has just given a salesman an earful, nails clicking, upright stubby tail stiff, broad hindquarters naked, unappetizing. Jimmy was a fastidious little boy and Wiggles deeply disturbed him. She sat at table, wrapped in a bib, and ate from a dinner plate. Because she was an old dog and couldn’t chew, all were subjected to the spectacle of Aunt Gertrude, or sometimes Charity, masticating morsels before placing them in Wiggles’ worn-down chops. And often, not being content with her own portion, Wiggles would heave her clattering bulk to the floor and beg Jimmy’s, which he must forfeit or incur Aunt Gertrude’s wrath.
“Isn’t she a sugarball? Give her some of your meat. Don’t forget to chew it for her!”
Friday was the big day of the week. Fridays, Aunt Gertrude prepared to go to Long Branch, New Jersey, where she would be met by her paramour and dominant partner, Tony “Ice Pick” Scarpia, a nearly four-foot tall man with a twisted spine, her “little giant,” who ostensibly sold live bait, hence, “Ice Pick,” to the fishermen on the pier there, but who was actually a mob-sponsored bookie and runner with the need of getting large sums of money out of his possession and back to Newark, to the roominghouse he owned and which existed under the absolute dominion of Aunt Gertrude.
* * *
When Jimmy’s nervous mother rang the doorbell on Fridays, sending Wiggles into a conniption fit, Aunt Gertrude would usually be applying a sulphur-based solution, which she used instead of a razor, to her jowls and chins and pulpy, varicosed legs, of which, no pun intended, she was very vain, and every recess of the house would reek of sulphur, like a brimstone pit. Jimmy’s mother would adjust herself to the powerful, rotten-egg fumes while Wiggles was being calmed and sent on her haughty way. On recovering from the spinning heart-seizure his mother’s entry had caused, Aunt Gertrude would tell her to get herself some breakfast (coffee would suffice for Jimmy’s mother in such an atmosphere); then Aunt Gertrude would carry on with her toilet like Susannah herself, if sans Susannah’s everything including the intrigued elders. If Jimmy’s mother could manage to be pleasantly helpful during the course of the day on Friday, and Jimmy could join her after school, and do the same, Aunt Gertrude might give them the money to go to a movie and buy some popcorn.
What was required was that they take her to the station and wait with her until train time. Jimmy would carry her bags and his mother would make chitchat, larding her comments with compliments.
“What a lovely dress, Aunt Gertrude!”
“I don’t care for it that much!”
“Well, maybe it is a bit . . .”
“A bit what? Don’t you like it? You just said you did!”
Jimmy invariably arrived at a crucial moment, for with Aunt Gertrude there were no non-crucial moments. By now her beard and leg-hair would have been peeled heart-attackingly off with the sulphurous pancake crusts that had mummified various parts of her anatomy, her top-hair would have been freshly dyed—this was Jimmy’s mother’s specialty—either jet-black or fire-engine red, as Aunt Gertrude’s mood would have it, her too-small shoes force-fed by horn her horny feet, and, corseted, frocked, and fully decorated, she would look like a Woolworth’s Christmas tree. But Wiggles would have to be left in the care of Charity and Donald, whom Aunt Gertrude did not trust to do right by her doggy daughter while she was away (albeit so in awe of her magic were the poor serfs of her household, that she had little to fear), and therefore had to be bathed and prepared for the weekend before Aunt Gertrude could take her leave in confidence. The galvanized tub would be on the kitchen table and Charity would be turning Wiggles fatly and stiff-leggedly about in it, soaping and scrubbing her under Aunt Gertrude’s close scrutiny. Jimmy’s mother would answer the door, lead little Jimmy back into the kitchen, and stand aside, eager to please, afraid to offend, baffled and thwarted, it being understood that she was not competent to be involved in this splashy task.
“Is there anything to eat?” Jimmy asked.
“Not now,” his mother said, meaning of course not that there wasn’t anything to eat but that Jimmy should keep quiet. Aunt Gertrude shrieked, grabbed her fat-buried heart, and fell back, knocking pots and pans from the stove. Charity had lost her soapy grip on Wiggles and the ungainly animal had slopped about in the bubbles.
“I thought she’d drown,” cried Aunt Gertrude. “For God’s sake, Charity, be careful with her!”
“And just what do you think is so funny?”
One ghostly evil eye was on him, the other tightly shut.
His mother pinched him.
“Nothing, Aunt Gertrude.”
“I should hope not!”
Charity got Wiggles rinsed, spread a bathtowel out on the table, patted her dry, turned her over, powdered her tumorous breasts, and put a nice clean jockstrap on her. These jockstraps served as double-D doggie brassiers, holding Wiggles’ pendulous powdered breasts in place. There were several other elongated jockstraps hanging about the kitchen on towel racks, drying. Wiggles stood upright now, a small whale on four toothpicks, jockstrap at sway. Charity sweatered, harnessed and leashed her.
This was where Jimmy came in. He could not fathom what gave Aunt Gertrude the idea, but she was firm in her conviction that it was good for Wiggles to be walked after her bath, and it was his delightful duty to walk her, and not just in front of the house, where he would frowningly skulk, if he were not urged on, but all the way up to Broad Street and under the Lackawanna overpass, where the bus stop was, and many people were, and back. If not conscious, was it subconscious sadism that compelled Aunt Gertrude to force Jimmy to do this? On more than one occasion people had laughed out loud at the sight of the red-faced, embarrassed little boy in short pants and the enormously overweight, pendulosly jock-strapped dog that seemed in charge of their direction. It happened again on this particular Friday, and one woman even pointed at them from a passing bus. Jimmy’s face burned red as a tomato, and tears of shame and temper rolled down his cheeks. But Jimmy consoled himself with the prospect of the movie that lay ahead—maybe.
They couldn’t be sure. Aunt Gertrude was capable of not coming through on her part of the unspoken bargain, just to show them. There had been sad times when they left the station with empty pockets and had had to be satisfied with just looking at the bright marquees, to imagine how good it might have been to see the pictures and to talk about how much they would have enjoyed them. Then they would go home cursing Aunt Gertrude a little but mostly laughing about the mishaps of Wiggles and Aunt Gertrude’s swoons. Later, they would listen to the evening radio programs and look forward to next week, the eternal optimists—for, after all, being dirt poor, they had no choice.
Aunt Gertrude loved gin rummy and Jimmy was the only soldier in her small army who knew how to play it. But she had a method. She would set up the card table next to the television set, then a relatively new device with a huge, rabbit-eared antenna, and turn on wrestling, which she loved—Jimmy noted her adoration of Gorgeous George—and then, when in trouble with her cards, would shout for him to look at what was happening in the ring, and, while his attention was diverted, would cheat by changing cards or stealing extras. One time he caught her at it, though he had suspected her of cheating before this. Boldly, he accused her, and she accused him of being a thankless ingrate like his no-good drunken father. Jimmy sat fuming, about eight years old, then charged across the room like a little bull, goring her with his cowlick horns. She was terrifically strong, even then, and he could believe the family tales told of her by nieces and nephews whom she had lifted into the air in her lustier youth and thrown clean across rooms. This time she easily finessed him into a half-nelson, boxed his ears red, whirled, and, having subdued him, promptly fainted. Charity brought out the smelling salts while Wiggles and Jimmy’s mother had hysterical fits of their own. No one was concerned with the crushed, defeated little heap under her—Jimmy. That Friday they did not get their movie money.
So Jimmy’s eyes sucked back his tears and he held himself in and brought Wiggles back to the house.
“What did Wiggles do?”
“Sniffed at things.”
“Was she cute?”
“Yes, Aunt Gertrude.”
“Did she pee or poop?”
Thank God! That would have required removing the jockstrap in public and replacing it afterwards (he was always required to take extras along). It had happened before and was perhaps worst of all.
“Well, we are all ready to go then. Charity, get my pocket book! Donald, get my bags!”
When they took a taxi, the trip to the station wasn’t so bad. Then it was just a question of stuffing Aunt Gertrude, her bags, and themselves into the back seat and setting forth. But sometimes she couldn’t get a cab to come to the house at the right time; or else, for other reasons, preferred to take a bus. Jimmy thought she preferred to take the bus sometimes so that the passengers could get a load of her, all dolled up and, as she no doubt believed, dazzling. But this bus ride with Aunt Gertrude was nearly as much of an embarrassment to him as were the afterbath walks with Wiggles. Indeed, Wiggles and Aunt Gertrude had much in common. Aunt Gertrude’s legs, however, were of stouter stuff than those of her doggy daughter. Jimmy watched her now, as they climbed the great wide ramp that led to the trains; and, though he could scarcely drag the suitcases that were attached to his weakening hands and weightsloped shoulders, he giggled to see the bowed, varicosed, mouth-down megaphones of her legs triumph over the upgrade. Side to side she heaved, as if the whole station, and the whole world, were tilting.
As usual, she had bought them chicken salad sandwiches and coffee in the lunchroom down the ramp behind them, where everyone had seen them before, for many Fridays. As usual, she had complained about the expense. As usual, she had been rude to everyone, and as usual Jimmy felt a little sick. But it was a good sign. It showed that she was in a giving mood. Perhaps she was in a good mood because she was looking forward to making love to her little “Hot Pepper.” He loved her, they all knew that, if not why. Perhaps because she seemed oblivious to his deformity. Perhaps because she only heard his deep voice or saw his handsome head. But then, there was the gambling money she would be bringing back from Long Branch to Newark on Monday, and perhaps she feigned her obliviousness to his deformity, and her orgasms, which were occasionally overheard and commented upon by the horror-struck tenants of the roominghouse, as she feigned her heart attacks. Who knew?
They boarded the train with her, as was their practice, and sat with her, waiting for the train to show signs of life. Jimmy wondered if she would give them their movie money, which he felt they had earned, and if it would be enough, and if they would be able to get off the train in time, and not be swept off with her, away from the many glittering marquees of Newark, while she strung it out, cat and mouse. She bullied. His mother strained to be dutiful. He perspired. Aunt Gertrude’s perfume was dizzying. The train jerked with coupling. Steam hissed.
“We’d better get off, Aunt Gertrude,” his mother said.
“You have plenty of time. You’re awfully anxious to get away. Where are you going?”
“Nowhere,” said his mother, cowed.
“Well, then, sit still! Oh, by the way, here are a couple of dollars. Why don’t you go to a movie? ‘Gone With the Wind’ is playing at the Adams on Branford Place.” But she did not hand over the bills.
“All off!” cried the conductor.
Aunt Gertrude sighed, and handed the bills to Jimmy’s mother.
They kissed her and got off the train. Now they must stand and dutifully wave until the heavily laden train puffed out of sight. If they did not stand long enough, she would call them on it next Friday, and they would not get their movie money then. Finally, the train completely disappeared, and they could leave the station and walk back to the center of Newark and study the other worlds of the magical marquees. In those days you really had a choice.
Illustration Courtesy: Vishnu Prasad © All Rights Reserved