The Setting: Six-floor elevator brick apartment building built in the 1940’s, 730 Rodgers Avenue, just North of Linden Boulevard, Brooklyn. 1963.
There was an open stairway with enough space between the banister and the floor above so that you could look down in between that space from the top floor to the bottom floor. It was a space from which Ned used to enjoy dangling his yo-yos on long, strung together rolls of kite string, so he could startle people getting their mail from the bank of mailboxes while he was upstairs, three flights up. “Hey, what are you doing?”, was a comment Ned was used to hearing in the building. “Nothing bad. Just foolin’ around,” was his pat reply.
At the top of each stairway landing on each floor was a window that looked out on the front approach to the building’s entrance. They were tilt-in Windows with a lever on either end so the windows could be tilted in and a young child could in theory, shoot paper clips using a rubber band out the window space at unsuspecting people coming or going in the courtyard.
Ned was a bit disgruntled when his parents would not buy him the pellet gun he craved which shot tiny eraser sized ammunition. But then he figured he probably would have gotten into trouble aiming at people from the hallway windows.
Somehow he managed to buy one from a friend and kept it hidden in one of his drawers and when he went outside to play he would drop it out of his bedroom window under which there were a bunch of shrubs and bushes and then he would go outside and retrieve it, play with it outside and somehow sneak it back into the apartment when no one was looking. Sometimes he would leave a long cord hanging from the third-floor apartment window down to the ground which he used to lower the gun from the apartment window, and when he was done playing he would tie the pellet gun with the cord. When he got back upstairs he would reel it up and in.
It all happened inside of ten minutes. Ned was in the apartment by himself. His mother, Bess, who was five feet four, brunette but colored blond, and attractive for forty said, “Going downstairs to the basement to do some laundry. If you aren’t coming with me, stay in the apartment and behave. I’ll be right back. Answer the phone if it rings. If it’s Aunt Judy tell her I’ll call her back when I get back up here. And don’t open the door for anyone.”
“Okay mom.” A few minutes after she left, Ned heard something in the hallway and peeked through the peep hole in the heavy steel apartment door, which he had to stand tippy toe to reach. If it was going to be a long watch, he would pull over a kitchen chair.
One of the neighbors across the hall, Marie, just stepped off the elevator, “I can’t breathe,” she gasped and started breathing funny and clutched at her chest. She was a short rather stocky woman in her 60s. She was having a terribly difficult time breathing, wheezing, coughing and gasping loudly for air. After about a minute which seemed forever to Ned, and had him wondering if he was supposed to do something other than watch, her next door neighbor Shirley came out. “Let’s get you onto your couch and call the doctor,” and she helped her into Marie’s apartment.
Ned watched this with a sudden shakiness arising in his legs, wondering what just happened, and thinking he saw something he was not supposed to see. Turns out that Marie died in the weeks following the incident. Tuck that little memory into a ten-year-old’s psyche. One with a runaway imagination. One whose mother used guilt like cream cheese on a bagel. One who had nightmares from the Pepsident toothpaste commercial. It was the cavity monster that got into the dream. Bad ass, scary, ugly thing, got into the apartment under the space at the bottom of the steel door.
Two years later Ned’s dad, who got short of breath with exertion like running around the bases during a softball game, and who had not been to a doctor in years, went to sleep one night and did not awake in the morning. Just happened to be on a Friday the thirteenth. Ned’s dad was 43. Ned was 12. They had moved nine months ago from Brooklyn to Long Island. Ned was now left with his guilt-cheese spread, and no fatherly protection. His brother had already started college.
Needless to say Ned had a few issues around death and dying. Not to mention living.