In the tenements that dominated the Bronx, mothers were in charge. Our fathers, silent, burly men, left for work before we woke and read newspapers in the living room while we got ready for bed.
Our mothers kept us near. Traveling from kitchen table to kitchen table, they congregated, talking, laughing, and frequently whispering, amid the aroma of coffee and cigarettes.
That day in Mrs. Klune's kitchen, with the coffee percolating in a tin pot on the back of the stove, they talked about piling us all on the Third Avenue El to visit the newly opened United Nations building in Manhattan.
We children spread our toys on the faded linoleum in the front hall, sometimes listening, often not.
I set up a Ringer circle for my marbles, bold, multi-colored Aggies. The boys on our block often spent afternoons shooting marbles next to the stoop. We played for friendlies, and took our own marbles home at the end. But in the schoolyard, bigger kids played for keepsies. I was eager to play with the older boys; impatient to win their marbles. I concentrated on my Knuckle Down shot, making a pocket with my fingers and flicking the marble with my thumb over and over again.
After a time, I stuck my head in the kitchen doorway. When Mom crooked the two fingers that pincered her Viceroy, I shuffled to the table and muttered "bathroom."
She raised an eyebrow and when Mrs. Klune nodded, Mom said, "Go ahead. Wash your hands."
The hand washing was the cause of it. I stood my marble pouch on the edge of the sink, and it fell, marbles clattering to the tile floor, some scuttling under the claw-foot tub. I wasn't brave enough to reach my hand into that darkness, so off I went to the edge of the kitchen again.
My mother shooed me back to the bathroom, then asked what was wrong.
When I told of the wandering marbles, she seemed relieved I hadn't done worse, and called Mrs. Klune.
"Some of his marbles rolled under your tub. I didn't want to poke around."
Mrs. Klune knelt and stretched her arm into the shadows. I heard marbles roll, followed by a puzzled "What the...?"
With a small bundle of blue oilcloth in her hand, she swept two green Aggies toward my feet. She leaned back on her haunches and flipped the cloth open, exposing a spoon, matches, shoelaces and a doctor's needle.
She swayed until her back hit the toilet, which steadied her.
"Not my Red. He wouldn't."
My mother reached a comforting hand but Mrs. Klune, pushed it aside and hurried to the rear bedroom waving the oil cloth and calling her son. I scooted back to my brother and began shooting marbles again.
The mothers stopped whispering when Mrs. Klune walked into the kitchen.
"He's holding it for a friend. I told him to get rid of it."
Red Klune ran through the kitchen, his pimply face turned away from the mothers.
"Taking care of it now, Ma."
He sidestepped me, leaped over my brother and bolted out the apartment door.
I was running my fire truck up and down our hallway when I heard the mournful talk about Red. My mother was crying. My father tried to comfort her.
"A sixteen-year-old boy is hard to handle on your own. Life's not easy for a war widow."
My mother said we should move from the neighborhood. Dad caught sight of me in the hall and told her to hush.
After the funeral, the mothers gathered in our kitchen. My brother was building a Lincoln log fence and I was shooting Aggies when we heard a knock and I opened the front door. Mrs. Cassidy from the third floor brushed by me and hurried into the kitchen. Wanting a drink, I followed. Her bright yellow dress splashed sunshine on the blacks and grays the other mothers wore.
"I just heard. We were away. What happened?"
I stepped from behind her.
"Red died from shooting dope for keepsies. Ma, can we have some Kool-Aid?"
For the first and only time in my life my mother smacked me across the face.
"Watch your mouth!"
It was the first of many inevitable wedges between mother and son. Like all firsts, it comes alive easily. I need only to smell cigarette smoke mingled with coffee.
Copyright © 2011 by Terrie Farley Moran