by Hank Nuwer. Published in Fireside Companion magazine
The Wicked Witch of the East Side
Thirty years ago, when I was a boy living in Buffalo, New York, that melting pot city, I took perverse pleasure in inflicting nicknames upon people. Why I did, to this day I don’t know, any more than I’ve understood the actions of people ever since who have hurt me.
Katrina Malecki, a six-foot-one, though twelve, surely suffered her unfair share of sorrow after I dubbed her Moose. In her mind she probably pictured herself a hulking beast when her feature were soft and comely, her body tall in proportion. There was also my buddy Frank Astor, a skinny guy I called Wirehead, because an auto accident raised a permanent knot on his forehead.
My list of those I tagged with nicknames goes on tomy shame. A black Southern lad named Council Harris, whose father had come north to work for Republic Steel, became Shoofly in honor of his favorite dessert pie. Benny Swiatek, a redhead who had turned mute overnight after witnessing his mother’s suicide, became Chirp. And I rechristened Tommy Nowak – a heavyset, sweaty youngster – with the awful name of Lard. I expected that someone would baptize me with a catchy handle, but on one ever did. Friends called me by my given name, Mark. Perhaps they feared I ‘d stick them with a dread sobriquet, as I’d done to an old woman down my block.
Mrs. Prus, like my grandparents, was a Polish immigrant in her 60s. Unlike them, she worshiped on Saturdays – a fact that made her a heathen to me, a Catholic altar boy. She wore black clothing, from buttoned shoes to babushka, that shrouded her in gloom, reminding me of the oil-stained gulls that loitered in Humboldt Park. Because of her appearance I labeled this poor crone the Wicked Witch of the East Side, the idea inspired by my reading of The Wizard of Oz.
More than any other nickname I devised, the Wicked Witch of the East Side entertained everyone who heard it. My classmates at St. Stan’s parish – as well as a number of parents who complained to the authorities that her decrepit Victorian home trashed up out neighborhood – stopped calling Mrs. Prus by her proper name. Even before I hung that nickname upon her. Practically everyone but my parents – who made a point of shoveling her sidewalk every winter – regarded the Polish woman as a curiosity and a nuisance. Lard’s dad complained that she lived off welfare checks. “The woman’s sucking on the public teat,” he told us boys, causing us to howl in laughter.
In our defense it was hard to overlook her grim wardrobe, her rolled nylons, the abandoned oven in her front yard, her prowling black cat. Worse, some disaster had severed the muscles in her face, leaving her with a permanent grimace. Because of this affliction she seldom went out during the day, and her unavailability added to her mystery. Mrs. Prus’s only excursions, other than her long Saturday walks to a storefront synagogue, were her early-morning trips to a poultry market on Broadway Avenue. There she customarily bought live chickens or ducks. The wind, after she butchered them at home, scattered feathers about our neighborhood that floated through the air t=like incinerator ashes.
My baby sister, Rita, and I used to peek at the black-garbed woman through the venetian blinds covering our front window. We giggled at her odd shuffle, hickory cane, and black imitation-leather shopping bag that she carried in her raptorial hands. Each time I saw her, I whispered the same litany to my sweet, terrified sister. “There goes the Wicked Witch. Beware, beware!”
My nickname eventually exploded into something more than a term of derision. Rumors spread about her that convinced even me, her namer, that she truly was a witch. Wirehead heard Moose say that the witch bought a fresh pint of baby’s blood on her trips to the market. “She carries it in that big black bag of hers,” he said. The story enchanted the inchoate writer in me. “She drinks the blood from a golden chalice to giver her strength,” I told my trembling Rita.
Naturally my pals and I referred to the woman’s wrecked Victorian home as “Mrs. Prus’s haunted house.” It became a test of bravery among us just to walk along the sidewalk in front of her broken toothed fence. We forced new kids in the neighborhood to touch the house as part of their initiation to gain acceptance into the Falcons, our neighborhood gang.
The day Shoofly completed our ritual was the first time we youngsters learned that someone in addition to Mrs. Prus and her cat lived in the ruined house. He held his breath before scrambling over the collapsed gate to touch a plank with one finger. During his gallant dash, Chirp and I saw two curtains move simultaneously, one downstairs and one upstairs. What we saw in the upstairs window made me shriek, and Chirp, Wirehead, Lard, and I fell over each other trying to make our escape. We didn’t speak until all of us reached the sanctuary of my living room to squat huddled under Ma’s ironing board, fresh cookies in hand.
“Why did you scream?” Shoofly wanted to know.
“Tell him, Lard,” I said.
“It was awful!” intoned my bulky friend. Chirp’s wide-eyed nod cosigned this opinion.
Ma ironed Pa’s bank guard uniform high above us. “What was awful?” she demanded to know.
I described what I’d seen in the upstairs window. “There’s an old, hideous woman up there. She has stringy white hair and leathery skin.”
“She’s a hag.” Shoofly added his two cents, though he had fled with his back to the house and hadn’t witnessed the apparition.
“Yeah, a hag,” echoed Lard. Wirehead and Chirp nodded vigorously.
“And a mad woman, too,” said I, quick to see the world as a Gothic playground.
Ma peered over the top of the ironing board. Her round face under her curlers wore a frown that showed she wasn’t at all amused by this slandering of a neighbor. “That’s Mrs. Prus’s mother,” she said. “That lady is almost a hundred years old. She used to walk around the neighborhood when Pa and I lived here in ’46, Mark. She suffered a stroke a couple years after you were born that made an invalid out of her. You’ll look white and leathery, too, when you boys reach her age.”
We kept silent then out of respect for my mother, but the next day at the parish school we became instant heroes with our tale of what we had seen. All of us embellished the story to suit our listeners. I blush now to recall that I told Moose Malecki the Wicked Witch had toasted us wither her golden chalice filled with blood, and that the black cat had snarled evilly form yet another window. The instant acclaim I received as a teller of tales gratified me.
After school, however, my first literary critic confronted me. Mrs. Prus waited for me on my stoop, and I saw her too late to flee. I wasn’t certain what would happen. I guess I half expected that she’d make me burst into flames, or that at least she’d transform me into a toad.
I saw to my surprise that the woman was shorter tan I. Her ceramic face looked kind, except for the wreckage around her lips, and she rather reminded me of my mother, only much older. Her cheekbones were rouged, and her hair was tied in a carapace under her babushka. Up close she looked very human, rather vulnerable and not at all threatening. She smelled of cooked cabbage, scalded feathers and Old World memories. I recalled the whopper about her that I had told Rita, and my face ignited.
Mrs. Prus’s cane tapped the sidewalk.
“Why you so cruel, child?” she asked me, her Polish accent as thick as frosting, and her face terribly white in contrast to her clothes of mourning. “You think life is big joke?”
She waited for me to respond, but I could put only two syllables together. “Sorry,” I whispered.
Mrs. Prus was charitable. She seemed satisfied by my defeated demeanor. “You a lucky boy,” she said, her deformed lips quivering in what I took for a smile. “You come from good family. I had good family. Husband. Five children, all boys. They dead now.”
I nodded, but my mouth refused to from another word. Mrs. Prus shuffled away, her long black cane assisting her past the treacherous breaks on our concrete steps. At the bottom of the stoop, she paused. “I know all about cruelty,” she said. “You see my face?”
“You father, he fight in war?”
“Ask you father to tell you what a Nazi is. Nazis made my mouth look like this. They got doctors what try one experiment after another on me.” She pulled back one sweater sleeve to reveal a blue number engraved upon her arm. “Experiment!” she repeated in such sorrow and wonder that I later would feel uncomfortable using the word in my high school biology classes. “Ask you father,” she repeated. “Ask him. And don’t be cruel no more.”
For two weeks I kept secret my conversation with Mrs. Prus, waiting for the opportunity to spill my shame. But before I collected my courage to talk to my father, a horrible even occurred that altered my family’s existence forever. One Friday evening Pa failed to take his place at supper at six o’clock, when we always dined. Instead, our parish priest, Father Kozlowski, stopped by our house with a police officer to tell us that tragedy had befallen Pa at the copper-domed bank building downtown where he worked. Two slugs from a robber’s handgun clipped the badge on Dad’s chest and tumbled inside him. The priest drove Ma to the hospital where she stayed all night. In the morning, she came home to light four candles at church and to deposit Rita and me with my grandparents. We huddled in Grandpa’s arms as we listened to the news stories on the radio about my father’s shooting. The announcer said the gunman had fired point-blank at him. Police told the news media they expected an arrest to come any minute, but they never did locate the suspect.
For seven awful weeks we prayed, while our lives went on hold. Much of that time my father stayed in intensive care. We weren’t allowed to visit him, but my mother’s descriptions of the tubes in his throat and arms made me glad I couldn’t witness his destruction. My grandparents lived out in the country. They drove Rita and me to and from school each day in their dark beetle of a car. My teachers and classmates asked me every day about Pa’s condition, but I had lost my tasted for providing gory details. Ma stayed both early and late at the hospital. Her face no longer was round, and black moons filled the spaces under her eyes. Whenever Ma visited Rita and me, Grandma tried to force food down her throat, but all she’d eat was soup.
Not until two days before Thanksgiving did Ma give us good news. “Your pa’s coming home the very first thing tomorrow.” Ma cried while she talked to us, which terrified Rita and me. She hadn’t shed a tear all these past weeks while Pa fought death. Nor did I ever see here cry again, not even at his funeral two years after the shooting.
A light snow dropped prettily that morning when my mother brought Pa home in a taxi. Grandma and Grandpa had driven us back to our house in the city. Rita and I wore our Sunday clothes, even though it was Wednesday. We stood on the curb and waited for him the better part of an hour. My sister held my hand so tightly it hurt.
I didn’t know the man who twisted his way out of the cab. Pa’s upper torso looked smaller by half as he held onto the car door, waiting for the cabby to unfold the wheelchair. But he recognized us, all right. He blew us a kiss the second he settled into the chair, impatiently urging the driver to take him to us.
My sister and I hugged my father so intently that we failed to notice Mrs. Prus come up behind us. She placed a large clay bowl on Pa’s lap. The bowl’s opening was covered with waxed paper, which was held in place by a red rubber band.
“Soup,” she said tersely, “ You eat and get well.”
“I’ll eat, Mrs. Prus,” my father told her. “But there’s no chance I’ll walk again.”
Her white face collapsed into a mask of wrinkles. “I make more soup if you want.”
Her tiny eyes settled on me. My heated face told her that I’d failed to keep our compact. “Take care you father,” she said, her mind fighting to find the right English words. “Don’t talk his ear off with a foolish old woman’s tales.”
I watched Ma and Rita wheel my father up the new cement ramp that my uncle had built. “I won’t,” I assured her, and chased them up the ramp.
A brutal winter came early and stayed late on the Niagara Frontier. Pa’s depression increased as our bank account shrank, and Ma took a night job at the laundry down the block. To keep us from pestering Pa, Ma herded Rita and me to work with her. We would fall asleep on piles of tablecloths from a local restaurant. Ma woke us when here shift ended each morning at five, and we came home long enough to brush our teeth and get ready for Mass.
I didn’t think much about Mrs. Prus that winter. My final year at St. Stan’s was a year of decision for me. The nuns ordered me to search my soul and see if I had been blesses with a calling. If I thought the priesthood was in my future, the parish would pay my way to the junior seminary. The decision would have helped my family’s sagging finances, of course, and my mother would have an elevated status in our neighborhood for the rest of her life. But despite all her prayers, I chose to spurn the celibate life to celebrate the mysteries of life. I wanted to invent wonderful likes and put them down on paper. Needless to say, to the nuns and my mother I had become a lost soul; even at thirteen, I already believed only in disbelief.
After I made my decision, I tried working my way back into my mother’s graces by doing extra errands for her. One frigid morning, while performing Pa’s old job of scraping the snow from Mrs. Prus’s sidewalk, I stared without shame when a hearse from Oknoieski’s Funeral Home pulled up in front of her gate. The mortician waved a black glove at me when he went inside the house, and I learned my weight on the handle of the shovel to make my bill more comfortable.
I couldn’t see Mrs. Prus’s face under her veil when she followed the undertaker to the vehicle, but I noted that she needed both hands upon her cane to keep her balance. I knew it was painful for Mrs. Prus to lose her last remaining family member, even though her mother was 100 and comatose.
Six weeks later, when black snow covered the muddy earthy, another car parked in front of Mrs. Prus’s house during my school lunch hour. I came abreast of the vehicle and paused to read the official county emblem on the door. A bald man in a blue serge suite stood in front of the rickety porch and scolded the old woman, making no effort to keep his voice low. He pointed to the abandoned oven and to the rest of the clutter in her front yard.
“We’ve received one complaint too many about this mess,” said the man. His milk-white hands brushed against the same plank that Shoofly had touched during the initiation ceremony. “This house hasn’t had a fresh coat of paint on it in twenty years.”
“You can’t fix.” He turned his back on her and piled into the county car. He jammed his key into the ignition and rolled down the window. “This home is beyond repair. Gather your things. I’ll be back.”
Over our lunch of pierogi and sausages, I told my father what had transpired. At first he didn’t react at all, but made me repeat my story as if he were memorizing what I said to him. Finally, he pushed back his plate an asked my mother to exchange his robe for street clothes. Rita and I demanded to know what Pa planned to do, but this clearly was one of those times that we were too young to know.
“Hurry, or you’ll be late for class,” Ma said.
At four o’clock I hustled straight home from St. Stan’s to find a curious sight in front of Mrs. Prus’s house. The old woman and my father were working side by side, applying a coat of whitewash to the house. Pa had a sheet of plastic over his lat pt protect the cushion of his wheelchair. Mrs. Prus had abandoned her black clothes to don an old blue uniform of my father’s. She had tied her paintbrush to the end of a broom handle to enable her to reach higher.
By suppertime all of us children in the neighborhood gathered on the sidewalk to gawk at Pa and Mrs. Prus. The next morning they went back to work even before I left for school. At noon I came home in time to see the county car pull up again, followed by two policemen in a patrol car. The bald man stared at the two cripples laboring in front of the house. I saw him bend over his briefcase to hide a smirk – a look that to this day I cannot forgive. The county man strode up to my father, talking to him as if Mrs. Prus weren’t there. The policemen were young and kept respectful silence. Again a crowd collected.
“She’ll have to come with us.”
“But we’re fixing her home for her,” said my father. “Can’t you see?”
The bald man from the county looked at the sad, white brush strokes that covered the faded house like a few limp hairs on his scalp. “This house is condemned,” he said. “I’ve got the paperwork.” He thrust the document at my father, who refused to touch it.
“Can you do something?” asked Mrs. Prus.
“I can’t,” my father mumbled. “He’s got the paperwork.”
The old woman’s lips straightened, and the knob on her chin grew tight. She knew the power of paper, and that bureaucracy ruled all nations.
“What about my cat?”
“These police officers will take it,” said the county man.
“No,” my father said gruffly. “We’ll keep him for you, Mrs. Prus. That much we can do.” The county man looked away. I think he thought, as I did, that Pa might spring from his wheelchair and attack him.
I don’t know which sight made me sadder, that white county car departing with the old lady in the back seat, or Pa in defeat, using his muscular arms to guide his wheelchair back to our house. The black cat lay placidly on my father’s lap until Ma let both of them inside.
I stood in front of that old house for a good five minutes, oblivious to the looks of my friends watching me from across the street. On impulse, I picked up the broom handle and dipped the brush end into the whitewash. I straightened and swabbed the house as high up as I could go. I didn’t stop until a girl’s voice interrupted me.
“Need a hand?”
I turned and saw Moose Malecki, all six feet of her, standing behind me. She bent to pick up the package of brushes that my father had abandoned.
“Sure,” I said. “Thanks, Katrina.”
The neighbor girl looked stunned, unused to hearing me say her Christian name. She recovered, however, and grinned. I saw that the boys from my gang – one obese, one mute, one scarred and one black – stood watching me. “Tommy, Benny, Frank, Council!” I said. “Come on and help. We got a house that needs finishing.”
To their credit, not one of my friends complained as they basted their good jackets with whitewash. We didn’t go back to school that afternoon, but none of us – at least in my memory – cried the next day when the nuns rapped our knuckles with rulers for ditching classes.