Although the sky was overcast with the threat of rain, the dull morning light coming in the high, bare window woke ten-year old Tony out of paralyzing dreams of blood, screams, and being chased. He lay there for a few minutes listening to the brush strokes of branches against the side of the building and breathed in the sour smells and dusty atmosphere of his “home,” an old storage building which one of his mother’s boyfriends had offered for their use.
Tony felt around his body to be sure his surroundings were real, patting the coarse texture of his mattress and reaching out tentative fingers to touch the rough, splintered floor boards. Finally reassured that he was safe, he stared up the cobwebs streaming down from the ceiling,, happy with their familiarity.
Any indications that Tony might be bothered by his nightly terrors or the stresses of his daily life weren’t obvious. He didn’t cry easily or have the nervous tics some children under stress tended to display–unless you counted the frequent venting of his odd laugh a tic of sorts.
Tony had the feeling that he had been laughing as he woke up and wondered about it, but finally decided he hadn’t since his mother hadn’t yelled her usual “Shut up, you idiot.” If she had yelled anything, he hadn’t heard her. In fact he hadn’t heard her come in during the night or early hours of the morning like he usually did when she came stumbling in, bumping into the crates and few pieces of furniture that occupied a small area of the cavernous, unpainted, weather-beaten building that was their home.
Many nights Tony would hear his mother laughing uproariously to herself. Other nights he would be jarred awake by a slamming door and her stormy passage from one end of the building to the other–muttering angrily the whole way. He’d cower fearfully as he felt the vibrations of her angry feet through his thin mattress that was only an inch or two off the floor.
Occasionally, he’d hear the high, keening found of her sorrow as she drank and brooded over the failures and rejections of her life. Her weeping made him want to comfort her, but he had learned better. When he was much younger, he would have instinctively run to her and beg her not to cry. Too soon he learned that what often started out as grateful affection from his mother, as he told her how much he loved her, would turn into anger against him and blame that he had caused her hard life.
Not having heard his mother come in, he was still young enough to hope that she had kept her promise to give up drinking, a promise she’d made the night she’d gotten angry and thrown him against the wall–breaking his arm. That time even she was horrified at what her anger had done.
“I’m sorry, baby,” she sobbed. “I wouldn’t hurt you for the world.” She had cried and petted him all the way to the doctor as she explained why he had to tell the doctor he fell out of a tree; otherwise he’d be taken away from her and placed in a foster home. Her stories about monstrous foster parents and the starvation and tortures taking place in their homes terrified him and he was more than willing to lie to avoid being put in a foster home.
Although curious as to why he hadn’t heard his mother come in, past experience made Tony less than eager to learn the truth about her condition; so he decided to just get ready for school. Wrapping his old crib blanket around his shoulders, he shoved his bare feet into his worn sneakers, pushed aside the sheet that curtained off his sleeping area, then tip-toed outside, his shoelaces flapping softly.
Although he usually went into the wooded area for his toilet functions, early in the morning he often just let go into the dirt behind the old abandoned factory. The old roller bearing factory stood like a fortress in front of their building, hiding it from the view of people in passing cars who had no idea that someone actually lived back there so close to the town dump.
After relieving himself, Tony felt a few rain drops and hurriedly took his best-looking pair of jeans from the clothes line he’d strung along the side of the building. He examined the jeans and sighed. They still looked stained and dirty even though he had hosed them good and scrubbed as hard as he could with the splinter of soap he’d found among his mother’s things.
It was a tough choice–to wash the jeans or himself. It was the only soap he could find. When his mother came back from a shopping trip and he’d ask if she’d gotten soap, she’d say she ran out of money or blandly tell him she’d forgotten. Sometimes he tried to catch her when she still had money in hopes he could buy it himself, but that merely made her angry.
“If you want luxuries,” she’d say, “and think you’re so high-class, why’nt you get a job?” He was too young to get a work permit and she knew it. When Tony did get hold of any money, he used it on necessities like soap, toothpaste and toilet paper, although he would have liked it spend it on maybe a toy or some candy.
Occasionally one of his mother’s boyfriends would give him a few coins and once he made a few dollars when a car broke down in front of the ball bearing factory. He helped the driver push the stalled vehicle to the side of the road, got him some water for the car, and ran to the nearest store for help since he and his mother had no telephone.
It had been a long while since Tony had gotten any money. He hated looking so dirty all the time and knew he must smell pretty bad the way other people, especially kids, pulled away and held their noses when he came near.
Tony vaguely remembered that he and his mother hadn’t always lived this way and wondered why they were always moving. He also wondered if his mother ever washed herself since they always seemed to be out of soap. Sometimes she drenched herself in perfume from Woolworth’s, which gave her a pungent scent when the smell of the perfume blended with her profuse sweat. At times Tony figured she washed at one of her boyfriend’s houses since she’d often return looking cleaner and smelling a lot fresher.
* * *
Tony turned toward the open door and listened anxiously. His mother wasn’t up yet and it probably was just as well since she was always in a bad mood if she didn’t get as much sleep as she wanted. Maybe he’d just hurry to school without waking her.
Tony put on his jeans and looked for his one good shirt which seemed to have disappeared. He wondered if he had misplaced it or if maybe, just maybe, his mother had decided to iron it. When he heard the guttural snoring coming from the front of the building, the momentary brightening of his mood was quickly replaced by the surer knowledge that he was plain stupid to be thinking along such lines.
As he headed toward the area that was more or less their living room when it wasn’t his mother’s bedroom, a strong smell of whiskey overwhelmed him and he shrank back, wrinkling his nose, before cautiously approaching his mother. He wished it wasn’t necessary to wake her but he had to have a shirt and had looked everywhere without success.
“Ma,” he called to the still sleeping woman sprawled out on the couch the way she had landed in the dark hours of the morning.
“Do you know where my shirt is? I have to get ready for school.”
“Huh? Whadda ya want?”
“My shirt, Ma. What did you do with it?”
“Geez, can’t you do anything for yourself?” She grabbed onto the heavy crate which they used for a coffee table with one hand and pushed against the floor with the other, trying to get up. She gave up and sank back into the couch which bumped against the wall, and closed her eyes against the annoyance in front of her.
Fearing his mother’s wrath, Tony hesitated for a moment and then leaned over her and gently pulled at her sleeve. When she failed to respond, he pulled more forcefully and then finally put his hand on her shoulder and shook her.
‘”I’m sorry, Ma, but I need my shirt for school.”
“You’re a damn pain in the ass,” his mother whispered through the haze of sleep. “Help me up.”
Although only 10, Tony was strong for his age and by bending his knees and stiffening his muscles he was able to pull his 300-pound mother into a sitting position and then helped her rise onto her unwilling feet.
Pushing her lank, blond hair out of her eyes, Lizzie Swink stared at her dark-eyed son reproachfully. He knew what she was thinking; she’d told him often enough. The words went around and around in his head like a song he couldn’t shake loose. You look just like your old man. That old bastard knocked me up and took off. Now I’m stuck with you.
Tony couldn’t help feeling resentful. She acted as though it was his fault his father didn’t marry her and was always saying if she hadn’t been such a good-hearted, religious woman, he’d have been put in an orphanage or foster home.
Sometimes he felt like punching his mother. He almost had the time she found his collection of shiny stones and tossed them out like they were just a pile of junk. The stones had been his prized possession, his only pleasure actually–sometimes serving as his toys, occasionally as worry beads while he waited in the dark night for his mother to come home. He mostly just liked to sit and stare at them, admiring their beauty as the sun lighted up their surfaces and brought out the different colors. Tony had retrieved the stones, hid them carefully and only brought them out to rub between his hands when he knew his mother wouldn’t be home for a long time.
I’m gonna leave her too, he often thought after his mother had been more abusive than usual. Then remembering a loving mother from long ago, Tony would feel guilty for a short while. He wondered, however, if the loving mother he thought he remembered was the same angry one he lived with or a kind and gentle mother from a book he’d read. Maybe it was just a fantasy he’d created in an effort to comfort himself when he was a small boy.
Suddenly realizing he’d been standing there just staring at his mother with what she called his dummy look, he blinked rapidly and felt his throat tighten as her eyes hardened into blue stones.
“Where’s my shirt, Ma?” Tony said in his softest, most placating voice, fearing it was going to be another one of those days when anything he said would hit her the wrong way.
“You got no right taking that tone with me,” she said angrily. “You’re always wanting something. I want this, I want that. It’s endless.” She drew back her hand and slapped him hard across the face. “You watch how you talk to me, you hear?”
“Why’d you hit me, Ma? I was only asking about my shirt. I can’t go to school with just a torn tee shirt. The kids already make fun of the way I dress and smell.”
Lizzie looked hopefully into the bottle sitting on the crate but it was empty. Sighing heavily, she swiveled slowly around and let her eyes search the various clusters and piles for a sign of anything resembling a boy’s shirt. Finally, she gave up and lumbered back to the couch to finish her sleep. Lizzie lifted up the faded and snagged afghan lying there and saw that she had been sleeping on Tony’s shirt.
“Here’s your damn shirt,” she muttered, throwing it across the room toward him. She fell back and closed her eyes, pulling the afghan she’d found along a roadside up to her chin.
The shirt was a dingy, wrinkled-up ball. Tony tried to smooth it while carrying it back to the curtained off area where he slept and washed up. After bringing in a pail of cold water from the yard, he washed up as best he could without soap, dried his hands on a strip of sheeting hanging from a nail, and searched for something to blow his nose on. Although he often just wiped his nose on his hand or shirt, today he wanted to look especially nice–for Elizabeth. Lacking either a handkerchief or a piece of tissue, he tore off a piece of sheeting and used that, stuffing it into his pocket for later use. His nose always seemed to be running and he sure didn’t want it running today when he’d finally get the nerve to talk with the prettiest girl in the fifth grade.
It was also important that his teeth look clean and his breath smell good when he got up close enough to tell Elizabeth he liked her. Not having any toothpaste, he tore off another piece of sheeting, dampened it and rubbed it hard against his teeth, then rinsed his mouth with cold water. He hoped his breath was okay. Maybe if he found some of that peppery weed before he got to school and chewed on it for a few minutes, it would definitely make his breath smell better.
Tony tried to ignore the pressure in his gut, hating to always use the wooded area in the back when he had to go, like some animal, he thought. If he hurried, he could use the school bathroom before class. That was about the only reason he liked to go to school. The other kids disliked him just about as much as his mother did and like the kids at earlier schools. Tony guessed it would always be that way, people hating him, his stained and shapeless clothing, ugly face and crooked teeth. He brushed his chopped-off hair with his fingers, grabbed his books and put them under his windbreaker for protection against the rain, and started running the half mile to school. Although he sidestepped the puddles, the moisture quickly seeped through the worn places at the bottom of his sneakers.
Today’s the day, Tony thought as he ran. He was finally going to talk to Elizabeth. What would he say? What would she say? Would he look good enough? Up to now, he had been content only to look at her or to walk closely behind her–as close as he dared.
But today . . . Today! The possible scenarios played themselves out in his imagination to the muted rumblings of his odd laughter, now an habitual accompaniment to his racing thoughts. At first, Tony imagined only happy conclusions to the day’s events, but it wasn’t long before thoughts of all that had gone wrong in his life came to the fore. Happiness always seemed just out of his reach. He began running faster as he worried and his laughter grew louder and louder until it was deep in his throat and chest the way that guy Gildersleeve sounded on the cassette tape of old radio shows that Mike Welch’s mother had.
Tony had first heard that laugh outside an open window of the Welch’s house and sometimes he could listen to a whole tape before Mike’s parents noticed and chased him away. Tony didn’t know why he had liked and adopted Gildersleeve’s laugh as his own, or why he spontaneously laughed that way when he was worried or tense Sometimes he was unaware he was laughing until someone mentioned it–particularly the kids at school. Some of them called him Crazy Tony because of it.
Tony reached the school yard a few minutes before the bell sounded. He ignored the catcalls and whistles coming from the crowd of boys over by the school fence.
“Hey, stinky Swinky!”
“Look what the cat dragged in.”
Then from the group of girls where Elizabeth was standing, he heard “Tony, Tony, smells like a pony,” and the sound of high-pitched giggling.
He glanced furtively toward the girls to see if Elizabeth was joining in the laughter, but she was only looking with disgust at his wrinkled shirt and jeans with the grease stains he hadn’t been able to wash out.
Elizabeth! It’s Ma’s name too, Tony thought, although he couldn’t imagine his mother being called anything but Lizzie. Elizabeth was a name for someone soft and clean and beautiful. He smiled shyly with open admiration toward the brown-eyed girl with chestnut-colored hair tumbling around her shoulders. Elizabeth lifted her chin and turned away.
“I can’t understand why that horrible dirty boy doesn’t leave me alone,” she complained to the group of girls rushing with her into the building as the bell sounded. She cringed as she heard the sound of hurried steps behind her and knew with certainty it was Crazy Tony trying to get close behind her, like always.
Tony caught up to her and she turned around to face him, angry that he dared to direct his attention toward her.
“Just listen, Elizabeth,” he whispered, not realizing that the sibilant sounds had made him spit on her until she glared at him and wiped her cheek.
“You spit on me, you stupid boy,” she hissed, and your breath smells. Don’t you ever brush your teeth?”
Stung by her venomous tone, Tony began to laugh and shifted uncertainly from one foot to the other. Then to his embarrassment, because he had delayed so long in getting to a bathroom, he passed gas loud enough for Elizabeth to hear. He watched her lip curl in scorn and felt the blood rush to his head.
“God, you’re such a pig,” she said, turning away in disgust while he rushed to the bathroom. Late or not, he had to go.
When Tony entered the classroom and headed for his seat, another boy who also had his eye on Elizabeth saw a good opportunity to win her approval. He put out his leg as Tony passed, tripping him and knocking the books out of his hands. The other kids started snickering and, out of the corner of his eyes, Tony looked toward where Elizabeth was sitting and saw her smile.
Tony took his seat in the back of the room where the teacher had assigned him because of his smell. The teacher tapped with her ruler for silence and glared at him for being late and disrupting the class.
As the kids started settling down, Tony found the old Gildersleeve laugh starting to bubble up from his throat and quickly turned it into a cough.
Because he’d had no friends and spent so much time alone, Tony had read many books–some he’d found discarded in the dump and some he’d brought home from the school library. In many ways, his general knowledge was greater than most of the kids in his class but he was always told to shut up when he wanted to participate in the after-school conversations.
Listening to the other kids’ naïve questions and replies as they interacted with the teacher stirred up the laughter he’d been trying to suppress all day. Without warning, the laughter surged up from deep in his chest to his throat and burst forth into a loud explosion. The class looked at each other and then at the teacher to see what if anything she was going to do about the freak in the back of the room.
Tony put his head on his desk, laughing and laughing until the tears rolled down his cheeks. The teacher commanded him to stop the racket and then pointedly ignored him the rest of the day as did most of the other kids, except for an occasional snicker or whisper aimed in his direction.
As soon as class was over, Tony grabbed his stuff and ran out into the rain, welcoming the downpour on his head and face, grateful that its stream was hiding any evidence that part of the moisture was coming from his eyes.
That evening Tony felt a strong need to lay his collection of beautiful stones beside him on the mattress. He sat there quietly and listened as the rain clattered on the tin roof of the building, then stared at the stones as he ate the baloney sandwich his mother had left for his supper. He waited for the old familiar warmth as the joy of owning such beauty overcame him. But no matter how long he stared and stared, all he could see were plain old stones. Tony gathered them up into an old sock and stretched out on the mattress to sleep, knowing he would probably be warned by his mother’s racket when she came home. He would have time to hide them in case she decided to look in on him.
About 3:00 a.m., Tony heard his mother slam the door and shuffle her way to the couch. He reached for the stones to be sure he still had them. When he no longer heard her stirring and knew that she had fallen into a deep, drunken sleep, he tip-toed over to the couch to check. She was completely out. He sat for awhile, just looking down at her, wondering why everything had gone so wrong. He thoughtfully lifted the sock of stones and hit his mother on the head, over and over again. This time he didn’t laugh.
Mrs. Terry Gelormino Silver was born in Bellaire, Ohio to Italian immigrant parents and spent my entire childhood in three orphanages: two Catholic ones run by a stern order of nuns in Columbus, Ohio: St. Ann’s Infant Asylum and St. Vincent’s Orphanage; and in Xenia, Ohio at the Ohio Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans’ Home where I earned my high school diploma. I moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village in 1944 where I met my husband. I lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn for approximately 19 years before returning to Ohio. I worked for the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio for approximately 25 years, and am now retired and living in Georgia. I will be 87 in February.
Crazy Tony is part of a five-story collection entitled “God Don’t Take Crap from Nobody and other stories.”
Contact Terry at firstname.lastname@example.org