Street Norris witnessed his first murder the second month he was imprisoned. It was his sixteenth summer, on a humid hazy Saturday, which Baltimore always produced in early August. Day had arrived less than thirty minutes before. There was still some darkness lingering in the unpaved alley which separated Halcyon Lane from Southern Avenue. When a door slamming was accompanied by an unfiltered agonizing scream which came through the open window of the sun pallor where he sat reading about World War I. The scream was totally abnormal … inhuman… but it was its origin which made him discard the heavy history book… turn and kneel on the canned settee’s spent cushions to verify its exact location.
It took his eyes a few seconds to single out any movements; then he focused on the Wrightson’s back yard; almost directly across the alley and a bit east of him. Their entire rear portion of their property was surrounded by an eight foot high hedge, but his vantage point erased that privacy barrier. So he could watch a figure emerge from the shadows of the stone home, followed immediately by two more. Phillip Wrightson was followed by his wife, Marie and only son, Harold. Their pace reminded Street of a graduation procession, and he almost began whistling Pomp and Circumstances as they strode into the soft daylight’s dampness.
The father held a burlap sack in both hands, carefully centered and chest high. His wife, a very tall but heavily developed woman, hefted an iron rake over her left shoulder. Harold carried a long handled shovel in the same military manner. They did not proceed in step but they were evenly spaced. Wrightson did not stop until he reached the fishpond’s edges. The pond took up the entire lower section of their generous garden. Methodically they formed up along the pool side with Harold holding down the left flank, which was exposed to Grindon Lane.
Fascinated Street reached out for the field glasses his Farther had used in the Great War as a Prussian officer, and focused. Almost instantly the Wrightsons jumped into a more detailed and intimate, detailed tableau. Traversing each face he noted each mouth grimly set. And all three sets of eyes were mere slits in faces which showed no exposure to the summer sun. A high pitched half smothered yowling shot through the hedge when Wrightson shook the burlap bag over the pond. Street’s binoculars caught a fleeting image of an overly large black and white cat as it fell into the still water. It caused a small tidal wave which lapped up over the closest rim. When he could get a longer focus, Street recognized Bitsy, the next door neighbor’s pride and joy.
Instantly Bitsy fought to reach the concrete edge and escape but the woman swung the heavy iron tooth rake down until it caught it and pushed the flaying canine under. She held it there while the surface softly churned, forming tiny eddies and waves.
A few seconds later it surfaced about five feet from the trio and struck out for the far side. Street was amazed by its water skills. The women moved quickly along the edge, shifting her feet as a good basketball player would, never crossing over and maintaining her balance while holding the rake horizontal.
As soon as she was near enough she stabbed at Bitsy and shoved him under again. This time she held the rake under the surface for at least a full minute. When the animal burst free and floundered toward the middle of the pond, she slapped at it, and the strong steel teeth embedded in the cat’s flank.
Through the finely tuned binoculars Norris watched and waited perhaps a full minute until the sodden cat was dragged from the pond and lay at her feet. Convulsions swept the length of its long large body and before it regained its strength the husband reached out and seized Bitsy about his throat. Street noticed Wrightson was wearing thick gardener’s gloves… the type Street used when he had to thin the rose garden. He could see they made holding the cat difficult, but Wirghtson was a powerful man with meaty hands.
Holding the creature at shoulder height he shook Bitsy like a wet rag. It took well over a minute until the cat’s legs stopped moving. Then it was thrown back into the pond. Street was sure Bitsy was dead, so he almost let out a cheer when his head surfaced, mouth agape. This time more to the center, but Mrs. Wrightson was relentless. She managed the rake with unexpected skill. Now she was battering it with the thick edge as it tried reaching freedom via the far shore. As Norris took in the murder he tried to access whom he despised the most: The entire Wrightson clan, or Bitsy, the aloof and arrogant animal who was always willing to sink both claws and fangs into anyone’s flesh that had the gall to touch him.
Street knew exactly why Bitsy was being murdered. Since his incarceration he was quickly aware that Wrightson’s fish pond was one of the cat’s favorite restaurants. Many times he saw Bitsy sitting motionless in the shade of the Weeping Willow, then suddenly flick out a paw, usually withdrawing an impaled gold fish which was eaten with great daintiness and relish. That entire image faded.
Bitsy was now an inert lump of black wetness which Phillip could seize by its tail. He held Bitsy’s head down and when he was certain little or no life remained, he walked to the garage. Using the long thick tail as his handle, he begin pounding the carcass against its cement blocks.
Through his binoculars Street saw all of the gory details as if he were standing at Phil’s side. Bitsy, the beloved prize of Emma Halder, the Norris’ next door neighbor, was dead…All nine lives dead…. Used up against the unyielding wall that now bore dark dripping wet stains.
Norris dropped the glasses and turned away so he did not see Phillip dig a deep hole, throw in the battered remains. As father and mother stood like members of a military funeral Phillip filled the cavity and carefully disguised its location by sprinkling some white gravel over the fresh earth. Nor did Street witness the trio’s solemn march back into their home and the closing of the basement door.
Bitsy was murdered one the 57th day of his imprisonment, and although this was not his first incarceration it was his longest. The six or so hours spent assigned to a Chain Gang for breaking the state of Georgia’s law against hitch hiking hardly counted. That was his first unauthorized flight…just after Seth, his middle brother, was killed at the Battle of Midway, a little over a year ago.
Street stretched out on his double bed, contemplating the Batman magazine cover glued to his bedroom door’s upper panel. So far he had resisted testing to see if the door was locked from the other side. He was positive it wasn’t nor had ever been. All he had to do to end his cruel and hateful sentence was open it, go to his mother and apologize for taking the Lord’s name in vain when he rebelled at her demand he cease reading and rush to the local grocery store for a bunch of herbs. The sighs escaped long and loud, deeply favored with frustration and anger as he refused again.
Deciding he did not wish to dwell on his misery Street let his thoughts drift back to the Wrightson family and Bitsy. He had always despised them. By the standards of the day they were rich and constantly practiced Conspicuous Consumption. Phillip won every class spelling bee and had memorized every country on the planet. However, in a neighborhood which produced a stream of All-Americans in lacrosse, and football, and even two major league baseball players.
Phillip was also the class snitch and usually carried a heavy cloak of oppressive and penetrating body odors. Thus his class nick name…Stinky.
Both parents were high on Street’s personal enemies list but for different reasons. The Wrightsons had donated the electric organ for the church his mother and he attended. However his father, the former Prussian major and veteran of four years of bitter fighting on both the French and Russian fronts in the Great War did not accompany them.
At first Street thought it was because he had lost his faith in the carnage until one day when they were taking a walk, his Father claimed that the Methodist faith was for slaves, servants and serfs. That Lutheranism was a denomination of intellectual and success stories.
Before his two older brothers were called to active duty, all three attended his Mother’s church and were tortured b y Mrs. Wrightson’s musical offerings. She played so poorly her efforts were painful to Street’s rapidly developing musical ear. However he had never joined his brother’s who softly he-hawed or growled like dogs throughout her solos.
Her husband was a vice president at the bank where his Father kept the family’s meager savings. Street still remembered a cold rainy March day standing with his Father in a long line of desperate angry looking men and weeping women at the doors of another bank that locked its doors and refused to allow withdrawals. That had been 1931. Eleven years later it finally paid nine cents on each dollar. There had been days for seven years when meals were meek and often the offerings repeated the entire week. The Wrightsons had never shown any signs of suffering.
For a full minute he thought about waiting until Mrs. Halder showed her face and started calling her cat, then telling her the facts. However, Street hated her almost as much as he despised the Wrightsons. He could have tolerated Bitsy and his nastiness, but his owner was The Old Witch who had the habit of charging out and capturing any ball landing in her yard, then throwing it in her furnace. For an instant Street wished her vicious German Sheppard had been part of the drowning party. Rex foiled any and all attempts to leap her fence and salvage a ball before she got her claws on it. And more than once Bitsy sat in one of the large windows grinning gleefully as another ball went to the Hell fires of her coal burning furnace.
As he weighed his hates and decided he would not enlighten Granny Holder, the echoes of the cat’s frightened, hurt, angry wails overlaid his thoughts. God damn it, he thought staring at Batman, unable to find any real sympathy for Bitsy, yet unable to slough off his feelings of injustice. His normal reaction to anything this complicated was to dismiss it all with a toss of the head. That didn’t work this time.
The incarceration was the root of his current problems and dilemmas. He had lost almost all of his summer vacation. How long did he have to pay for a simple, Can’t you wait just five god damned minutes until I finish this part? It was as though he had released some primeval ghost. First the intimidating silence…then her appearing at the door to the living room… her fat arms which always reminded him of freshly baked loaves of bread, crossed over her matronly breasts. Her stares beat into his head as he ducked behind the book.
Judgments did not come until after dinner and sentencing followed immediately. You will go to your area and there you will remain until you apologize to your Mother for your disrespect. And foul language. Not a single hint for clemency was laced in his Father’s tone. The Prussian Army officer, who bore the scars of three separate wounds at the hands of the Russian, British and American weapons, simply passed sentence and assumed Street’s immediate and total submission.
The sentence gradually became almost unendurable as his father relentlessly applied more and more pressure to crack his youngest son’s resolve. Visitations by friends were immediately forbidden, and telephonic communications were severed four days into his term. Two days later the radio was disconnected and newspapers denied.
His mother wanted the library put off limits. Once he cannot read he will give in at once, she insisted. There was a long involved argument about that, but his Father refused to restrict his education. Mother erased the newspapers on the grounds that they were mostly trash, and insisted her husband be hard and firm or their son would become unmanageable.
It had all started five weeks and six days ago and this was the third Sunday in July. He planned this would be the final week for Street was positive his father would relent since he always took his two week vacation the last week of July and first of August. But the previous afternoon Street overheard him tell his Mother, We will wait until fall if we must, and then go to New York. Tight lipped Street determined to hold out. It was only six more weeks till school and a potential starting role on a football team which had gone 61 games undefeated.
As he drifted off to sleep that morning thought about the French‘s determination to endure German attacks at Verdun in 1916. “They shall not pass! And I won’t give in!” he muttered.
His prison consisted of his bedroom, the adjoining sun room with its eight floor to ceiling windows which wrapped the south east corner of the second floor. This section was attached to a sixth bedroom his two brothers had converted into a library so they could store their college text books. When the outside contacts were eliminated, it became the citadel. He had always loved to read, but until this forced inactivity his tastes had been totally mundane. The contents of the library were not.
He began inventorying the 811 volumes. Sixty-two were in either French or German so they were discounted. His father had forbidden them to speak German, the family’s native tongue once Hitler came to power in 1933. In ten years that followed, Street’s ability to speak any German was almost non-existent. This meant Schiller, Heine, and Nietzsche would wait until a university where they would take roots in much more fertile soil.
The other 809 titles were fair game. A week into his sentence Street decided to read them all, a decision which set the rhythm for his routine. He began with the thinnest volume. The very word poetry had once brought bile to his mouth, now with the aid of T. S. Eliot. Poe and Wadsworth, it became another window to spy on life. Choosing to read through the night led to one late night and two dawn experiences that shifted the focus of his fantasy from pretending he was forward observer for a battery of heavy cannon to an avid Peeping Tom.
First there was Sarah, the young crippled woman, Bessie Halder’s current roomer. Until Robert Browning Street would have totally ignored Sarah because of her bent and twisted left foot which caused her semi monstrous, half drag half limp gait. Now he urged the hours forward until she entered her upstairs room directly opposite his bedroom lock the door and disrobe. A naked Sarah taught Street the lifelong lesson that absolute physical beauty can often be enhanced by a few blemishes.
Sarah’s impossibly perfect upper torso, her classically chiseled features dazzled hi so they possessed the magic necessary to dispel his adolescent fears and embarrassments concerning her deformity. Each night he viewed her flawless beauty from behind limp lace curtains, screened by leafy cherry trees, until she either disappeared into the bath or slipped on a modest nightgown.
The second course took place the eighth day. He was reading Robert Frost, trying to understand why fences made good neighbors when his Father always claimed fences presented barriers to enlightenment. His Father’s scars and medals validated his opinion. The poet had only words and yeasty thoughts which defied logical assumptions, until he turned to the windows where human frailties revealed them like some Greek play.
He watched Mr. Evans, the night supervisor at Bond Bakery come out his side basement door slightly before five in the morning and constantly paused to urinate on his next door neighbor’s prized roses. A little over half an hour later, Mr. Daemon came out his basement door on his daily journey to Glenn L. Martin’s Aircraft plant in Middle River. But first he crept under his back steps. When he reappeared he held a can which he sprinkled the contents on his neighbor’s almost perfect lawn. His motions reminded Street of a priest blessing an army with holy water before it entered the battle field.
The second morning, the field glasses identified the contents as salt and he recalled that the Romans had sowed salt in Carthage’s market place so nothing could ever grow there again. Over a couple more days he confirmed that the salt did kill patches of grass which their owner immediately re-sewed.
It was Plato who almost ended Mrs. Halder’s futile search for her beloved. The second night her constant pleadings and callings went for naught, Plato almost forced Street to lean out his window and tell her to forget it. Your lousy cat is dead Mrs. Halder! And it’s exactly what you deserve for burning all our softballs, baseballs and especially my two buck basketball that I cut lawns two stinking hot weeks to get! If you want what’s left of your nasty old cat, go over and ask the Wrightsons what the hell they did with him after the murder. But his hatred destroyed his need to enjoy the good life.
“Just what was that?” He asked his mirror as he went back to Plato. “Why try to live a good life when you got no idea if it was a good one until you’re too old to enjoy doing it anymore?” That question irked and nagged at him as night after night for the next two weeks Bessie Halder kept setting freshly baked fish out on her back steps and softly calling, Here kitty, kitty, kitty. I got some nice fish for you.
And why should he want to question who he was? He knew exactly who he was. It was all the other people, friends, enemies, teachers, and preachers who didn’t have a single clue who he really was. That he would be the first pro football player, leading Marine Corps fighter ace, a world famous author, and musical virtuoso who married Betty Garble and Lana Turner simultaneously.
“Who am I? I am the answer to all the great problems. I am God’s rival. But we are both good sports. That’s who I am.” The dark round blobs slowly maturing in the three apple trees in his backyard always paid close attention to his pronouncements.
One of Plato’s points which he did understand and totally agreed with was exactly when a boy became a man. Staring once more at Batman he grinned wickedly and whispered the answer. “When I can make a decision without asking you, mother dear, and not feel guilty for not consulting your wisdom and knowledge. Can you hear that through all that tallow and wax packed in your ears by a century of nonsense which you believe to be the hallowed untarnished truth, mother? How can you believe that God gives truths we all should accept without questions or doubt?
Two days before football practice Street cracked and apologized. He marveled she did not force him to do this on his knees in front of witnesses. He surrendered conditionally the instant his Father said he would be on limited parole once school began. That he could come home immediately after school and stay in his room. Street was positive his Father had laid down the ground rules for the capitulation because she seemed very upset during it and made no comments after his apology. Except… You could have saved yourself all this if you had …blaugh…blaugh…blaugh….laugh….But never let it pass your lips.
It was the last Sunday of September, the day after City College’s second shutout win, a game he had started at fullback, when Mr. Wrightson stepped onto their front porch and rang the bell. Seeing him through the living room front window, Street dashed up the back stairs before his mother could let him in. Street had hardly settled in to the wicker settee when there was a knock on his bedroom door which he ignored until it refused to leave.
When Street opened it, Mr. Wrightson smiled as he offered his hand. Street refused, retreating to the sun pallor with this huge block of a man following.
“I’m the chairman of the Fishers of Men,” he announced once Street could no longer retreat. ‘’ We are interested in reclaiming lost souls.”
There was a long pause while Street measured his foe. The man was so large the floor boards seemed to sag where he stood. He did not duck when he entered, but Street swore his hair brushed the door sill. He wore a dark three piece woolen suit, slightly wrinkled at the knees and generally impressed. It was a muggy day and Street wondered how this hulk could endure wearing such heavy wool.
“I haven’t seen you at services for almost four months and I was wondering if there was anything wrong …troubling you? Your Mother is a very active member so it doesn’t look good for her son not to attend at least the Sunday services.”
The hulk droned on but the sounds were muted by the images flashing before Street’s eyes as Bitsy died once more. Even the man vanished or at least was transported back to the murder scene; joined by his wife and son…all of them slowly shrinking until they were less than a foot tall. Gradually Street drove the images away and let the sound return.
“So the only way a sinner can expect is eternal damnation and the pains of Hell, Street. You do want to go to Heaven don’t you?”
Some Incubus returned Street’s powers of speech. Some devil or angel waved their hand and he was reincarnated…or resurrected. “Tell me something.” Street admired his tone. Fell instantly in love with its lack of respect and even added a slight snarl when Wrightson’s eyes snapped to attention. “Do cats and dogs and any pet go to Heaven too? Do pets have souls…ones like you say I’m in danger of sending to Hell forever and ever?”
“Watch your tone young man. I’m here to save your immortal soul…I’m…”
‘Yeah sure. But you haven’t answered me. Do pets got to Heaven?”
“Because if they got a soul or because their owners want them around?”
“I’m sure I cannot answer that. And what has that got to do with the fact you are being…”
“Let’s say it’s either way.”
“Young man! Unless you change your attitude and tone of voice immediately, I’ll be forced to call your father up here. Is that what you want?”
“My Father thinks Methodists are inferior. That it’s a religion for uneducated fools.” His reply had the exact same effect if they had been two quick jabs to the jaw. Wrightson took half a step back and then tried to clinch.
“Let’s hope your mother doesn’t share his…”
“Mom would wash my mouth out with lye if she heard me,” Street offered and gave the man a wolfish grin which showed his broken front tooth, which he hoped resembled a fang right then.
“I’m sure. You better stop interrupting me and get some self control, young man. Do you want me to call your mother up so she can hear this?”
“You ain’t gonna call anyone bud. Not after I ask you if you think Bitsy, that’s Granny’s cat, is in Heaven waiting for her.” Street allowed himself to bathe in the silence so awesome he hated breaking it. But the need to close in on Wrightson… to tear his flesh and sever his throat so he would bleed to death on the highly polished oak floor won… it was too sweet.
“’Cause if Bitsy is there, if there is a Heaven, then you and your wife and Stinky are murders. And what are you going to say to Mrs. Halder when I tell her I saw all of you over there by the fish pond murdering her precious darling?”
Wrightson actually staggered back, then turned into the bedroom. Relentlessly Street followed. “What are all the people at church, all the people who look up to you and your wife gonna say when they hear you all murdered that cat? What are they gonna say then?”
Wrightson continued retreating, his right hand reaching behind, blindly seeking the bedroom door knob and when he failed to locate it, he panicked. As his hand raced along the door’s surface, Street hoped Batman wouldn’t mind a little roughing up and he also suddenly got the notion that Wrightson had his eyes closed.
“Is God gonna forgive you for murdering that cat? If cats can get to Heaven, then God watches over them and saw what your family did.” Street heard the knob twist and watched the hulk rush out, cross the short hall and almost fall as he fled down the sixteen steps.
“You ought to get back to church tonight! You better take Stinky with you too! And I’d get rid of that rake if I was you Mr. Wrightson!”
Street stood at the top of the stairs as the hulk sought the door and escape. His last two indictments slammed against the Grandfather’s clock standing in stoic stateliness at the foot of the stairway. He heard the front door bang and four heavy thuds as the man rushed off the porch, and almost instantly his Mother appeared at the foot of the stairs, her eyes boring up at him, forcing Street to duck to one side so he was not burned to a crisp.
“What did you do? What have you done now?!” she screamed. To Street her stance had one foot anchored while the other sought to pull her to the door and offer comfort to the fleeing Fisher of Men. “You come down here this instant!”
Instead Street’s thoughts centered on his position because it was here atop the stairs his childhood beliefs had vanished one by one. The Easter Bunny led the Exodus. Then The Tooth Fairy, with Santa tailing but giving Street a farewell wave. Now he gave a wave to Peter and Paul…Luther, Knox, Calvin and even the Smith Brothers’ Church of The Latter Day Saints.
“Street! Didn’t I tell you to come down here this instant? What have you done now?””
Socrates’ words echoed through his entire persona a he disobeyed and walked back into his area and closed and locked the door.
He unlocked it when his Father knocked a few minutes after he refused entrance to his Mother. It took only five sentences on his part for his Father’s smile and clemency.