Leaving Yonkers for better conditions and entry-level real estate, my parents moved us to a quiet neighborhood a few miles east of downtown Peekskill, a small city on the Hudson River forty miles north of New York City. My brother, Greg, was not yet born. My feisty sister, Sally, was two and a half years old and already in tap class. Our tiny neighborhood consisted of tiny homes, a tiny pond, surrounded by big rose bushes and huge weeping willows. Our little box house was canary yellow and was built in the exact shape of the plastic green Monopoly house. Upstate New York is quite hilly. Our property sloped down from our road, Frederick Street, and the little house rested at the bottom, fifteen feet from the road. A large maple tree grew on the little lawn dwarfing the house but giving everyone inside a great sense of protection and a perfect showing of the seasons.
By the time I was four, Timmy Turner had become the best friend to my brother and me. He lived right next door. The Turners’ house was closer to the road by ten feet, at the crest level. It was a piggy home. Mrs. Turner was not unlike Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheeba in her demeanor and in her housekeeping skills. Next door to the Turners, on the other side, was a driveway that led all the way down the bottom of the little hill to a small white cottage where my grandmother, also known as Nanny, and my grandfather, alias Poppa, lived. Because they were so far down the hill, the front of their house was in the same line as our backyard. By looking across the Turners’ backyard I could see Nanny’s house. Sometimes even Uncle Gus, sleeping in the hammock.
Great Uncle Gus, my mother’s uncle, Nanny’s brother, lived with Nanny. I found out years later that Uncle Gus had lost a testicle in the war and suffered from severe depression and had big marriage problems. This is why he left New Orleans, his adopted hometown after the war, to come back North to move in with my grandmother two doors away. Not long after, he sent for his daughter, Cousin Mickey, which everyone agreed was a good idea since Uncle Gus’ wife, Mickey’s mother, known in our family as “the prostitute,” was extremely busy down in Louisiana making the beast with two backs with any milkman, lineman or postman who made a straightforward request. Nanny, ever the ham-handed matriarch, took strong care, and when Uncle Gus died from falling off a ladder and hitting his head on a pipe, “news” we received from my Great Aunt Helen while we were vacationing in a motor court in Mystic, Connecticut, Cousin Mickey continued to live with my grandmother until the day she was married.
This was great for my mother because Cousin Mickey proved to be a trustworthy and reliable babysitter. We had fun with Cousin Mickey, watching Gilligan’s Island and eating boxes of Ring Dings. Mickey was very sweet, with reddish-brown hair, freckles, tiny square teeth in an overbite, cat glasses, and often in long plaid skirts. She went to the local Catholic high school and had a sturdy kindness in her heart.
When I was almost five years old, Cousin Mickey stopped babysitting for us for some reason. At the same time, my mother seemed very unhappy. One harsh day, everything came to a head and the drama of it led us to leaving this perfect little street, which, as it turns out, was not an idyllic place of wonderful neighbors, but a trashy zone of people with big problems.
Across the street from the Turners’ green house, diagonally across from our yellow house, was the Hadden’s house, occupied by George and Peetey Hadden. Peetey, the tireless laundress, was the gossipy wife. George was a big macho tree surgeon who drove a pickup truck. On that rough day there was a new commotion I found unnerving. It wasn’t that I hadn’t heard yelling before, as this was a typical blue-collar neighborhood where all sorts of mothers yelled from their porches for kids to come home for supper. There was something sinister about this fresh din, and when the big event was all over, which included a lot of action on the part of my family, no one sat me down to explain exactly what had happened. The following, based on small clues of the era, is what I put together over the years.
My mother, not the retiring sort, caused a stir in this upstate neighborhood with her Yonkers ways: tight pants, swerving ass, lots of makeup and a decent haircut for the time and place where she lived. Peetey hated my mother. And my mother, never one to stay away from hateful advances, being that she was accustomed to beatings by Nanny as a child, provoked Peetey by tarting herself up even more. What this led to, of course, was very simple. Peetey, being a small-town prig, did not directly attack my mother for her outfits or attitudes but more readily gossiped about my sister who was, naturally, dressed by my mother. Now, from every picture I have ever seen of my sister when she was a kid, there is nothing to connote anything but sweetness and goodness with her patent leather shoes, her barrettes and her cute little dresses. And even if she had sported hot little body suits while traipsing up Frederick Street to her tap dancing lessons, there is no reason why she should merit name-calling from adults aimed at innocent little girls.
So on that big day, Peetey was on her porch hanging laundry and she was gossiping about something with her next-door neighbor, Lucille, a hairdresser, and the next thing you know, Peetey was saying something very negative about my sister, Sally. Something to the tune of, “Whore in training.” My mother overheard this, put down her mop, pulled up her bra straps and went out onto the street and started mother-fucking Peetey up and down as any sturdy Yonkers street girl can easily do to a low-rent Peekskill fishwife. My mother told me and my little brother Greg to “Get in the backyard,” as she walked across the street with a clenched smile and a lit Marlboro in her teeth and approached Peetey. Peetey’s husband, George Hadden, came out to the porch. The adrenaline in the neighborhood started its collective increase. Lucille watched, glued onto her perch. Always one to follow directions, I grabbed my brother and ran to the backyard. I have no idea where my sister Sally was at this point. Greg and I were on our own, in the backyard, taking cover. This was scary and I was terrified, though, of course, interested in the calamity. Next thing you know, there was loud screaming. My mother started yelling, “Dad! Dad!” In my childhood self-centeredness I assumed she meant my father, but she was actually calling for her father, Poppa, who was right across the street.
From the distress in my mother’s voice, it sounded to me like she was being beaten. I suffered my first life bout of alienation as I disconnected from my feelings and stared at the blooming red rose bushes along the property line of the Turners’ house. My brother and I stood there frozen and because we could see the front yard of my grandparents’ house we could see Poppa, ever the handyman, though collecting disability for his asthma, slowly but surely walk across the Turners’ backyard with a long pipe in his hand, something you could use for a chicken-wire fence post. He paced his five-feet, five-inch body up the narrow side of the Turners’ house to make a sneak attack on George Hadden. I heard more yelling by many adults and then the clanging of a pipe dropping and settling onto the street. I don’t know if my grandfather hit George with the pipe and then dropped it, if George saw the pipe and backed off and then the pipe was dropped, or if George had long backed off by the time my grandfather arrived. But what I do know is that my brother and I decided that Poppa had beaten the shit out of George Hadden with the pipe and saved my mother. And there was much rejoicing and everything faded to black.
After my mother came back in the house and Poppa had puffed home, nothing was discussed. My mother was extremely upset and told us nothing and we continued with our day, burgers and beans. She was smart to keep the facts from my brother and me. Recently, I asked my mother by email what happened that day. This was her email response:
After Uncle Gus died from a mob hit because he owed them a lot of money, he liked the horses, Mickey lived with my mother, God help her. Peetey met George Hadden when she was an inmate at a “School for Wayward Girls” in Peekskill. He was a tree surgeon. They got married and had two kids. We became friends as Peetey was an Italian immigrant. I was young, lonely and stupid because I never saw the sinister side of them. George Hadden was having an affair. Nanny knew it. I knew it. I think the whole neighborhood knew it, except for Peetey.
Well, Mickey babysat for their kids. George came home alone, drunk, he raped Mickey and told her if she told her Aunt (Your Nanny) Nanny would put her in a home. No one knew for about four days. Mickey didn’t say anything. Peetey found out. I don’t know how. She called me and said she had enough and was leaving George and would testify for us in court. We pressed charges. George started stalking Mickey. A month or so later when Peetey thought about it and knew she was losing her meal ticket, she got cold feet and recanted. It went to court and the judge, unbeknownst to us, was friends with George and George did free tree work on his property and got away with it. George had nineteen arrests and no convictions. We found out all terrible things. We pressed more on those grounds and asked for a new judge. The Haddens started harassing Dad and me. Phone calls in the middle of the day and night. Mickey was babysitting you kids and they tried to break into our home to get her. It was getting scary. At that point my dad went and talked to them. George proceeded to beat my dad with a pipe. Also, unbeknownst to us, Peetey was having an affair with the cop who lived next door. George did not know and the affair broke up but the cop was having legal troubles and was being blackmailed by Peetey for cash. So the cop had enough, too.
The cop said to us if Peetey and George break in again call him right away and he would shoot them in the act and swear they were hurting us. In the meantime, stupid Mickey got knocked up. The father was a kid from her high school. I took her to the home for unwed mothers in New York City before I told your Nanny, who would have killed her. Then, you remember, we moved to Spring Valley. A few years later our case against George Hadden with a different judge came up. I dropped the charges. I didn’t want to deal with it all since we didn’t live in Peekskill any longer and my folks had moved, too. Two years later, I received a call from a friend who still lived there. She told me George got caught robbing and injuring a competing tree surgeon. There was a police chase. George Hadden wrapped his car around a tree and died. I then mailed Peetey Hadden a congratulations card and told her it could not have happened to a nicer family.
I Love You,
Last year, I drove through Peekskill, New York and visited my old house. It is now cream-colored and in very quaint shape, though the maple tree is no longer there. It has been sold over twenty times and the various owners have taken very good care of it. Nanny’s house, still white but in very bad shape, looks like it is owned by lazy, dirty alcoholics. None of the original neighbors still live on the street except for Mr. and Mrs. Turner. They are very old. While I was standing in front of my old house, taking pictures, Mrs. Turner pulled into the driveway with Mr. Turner. They had just come back from the doctor. Mr. Turner has Parkinson’s and Mrs. Turner, after I told her who I was, told me, in her emphatic, nervous New York accent all about Mr. Turner’s disease and everyone in the neighborhood moving away. She was quite high strung and seemed nervous that I was poking around and also concerned about her husband’s medical condition. She had the shaky quality that many blue-collar people possess who stay put in one place for their entire lives. I let her know that I was leaving in a second and I told her that my parents retired to Florida. Mrs. Turner escorted Mr. Turner inside and asked me to say hello to my parents. Their house is still a light green.
by Don Cummings
Don Cummings writes plays, movies, books and music. He has been published in Epiphany Literary Magazine, The Coachella Review, Post Road Magazine and has had his plays produced in New York and Los Angeles. He has performed at HBO Workspace, Comedy Central’s Sit ‘n Spin, E.S.T.L.A.’s True Story, Personal Space and Brooklyn Reading Works. He has been known to act in plays, movies and sitcoms. His memoir, Bent But Not Broken, will be released in early 2019 by Heliotrope Books. www.doncummings.net