Crazy Joe – A short story
by Leah Cohen.
In the eight years, after my father’s death, Rose went through a few romances with characters straight from the pen of Damon Runyon. The first, a house painter, promised Rose the same things he promised all the women he seduced. Marriage! To those lonely widows in the Bronx, who’d never forgotten the security of the years spent in one house with one man and family, he was painting dreams into reality. The women wanted so much to believe, they trusted his every word. So, Sam gave my mother a taste of the future, which was her past, the only life she ever really understood.
Predictably, however, Sam soon tired of his latest conquest and went on to find new romance, leaving Rose still with the taste of affection. And, when one has tasted it, the scent lingers. Sam was soon followed by Joe, a 42 year old man with slight build, dark hair and sallow complexion. He not only became involved with my mother, he moved into her house. Rose entered into her latest liaison, with the enthusiasm of a teenager in love for the first time. I had my doubts. Why would a man date a woman a generation older? Certainly not for money! My mother was living off her social security cheque. Of course he was getting free room and board. I was wary of Joe. He seemed warm, friendly, generous. He acted loving and attentive. We’d visit and he was always polite, bringing chairs to the table, rushing to the kitchen to help take heavy pots off the stove, or to sweep the latest batch of crumbs. Still, there was something about him that bothered me. His eyes seemed crazed. My mother, on the other hand, trusted him as far as she would any man. She was obviously flattered at the attentions of someone much younger than herself. She never admitted to any intimacy but it was obvious she was in love.
Little by little, however, she let on that Joe was sometimes uncontrollable when angered. He even threatened physical violence. She started to call him ‘crazy Joe’
Well, my mother wasn’t a child. She took him in. If she wanted him out, she’d have to work that out by herself. But, it turned out she didn’t want him out! She just wanted someone to tell him to act nicer to her and if that didn’t work, maybe he’d have to go! She told me about it. She told my brother. She added, however, I was not to interfere. My brother would talk to him. He might respect a man more. So, my brother talked. Joe listened. He made jokes but he let my brother know he was listening and he certainly understood. He even agreed. Rose wanted to be treated with more respect. He agreed, but he didn’t change!
‘Let me call the police’, I suggested one time, when he got out of hand.
‘No!’ Rose was upset, but she handled it. ‘He gets his fits. We all get a little crazy sometimes,but then he’s alright…it goes away…let’s see if it happens again.’
One day at work, my mother called. She sounded funny. She spoke in a small, muffled voice. ‘Leah, I can’t talk too loud. I don’t want you-know-who to hear me. He’s in the shower now, Crazy Joe! I’m in bed underneath the blanket so I can talk to you. He said he was going to kill me when he gets out! So if I hang up suddenly, you’ll know why!’
‘I’m calling the police!’ I screamed. The whole office turned to see what was going on.
‘Don’t you dare!’ She was emphatic. ‘If he knows I called you, or anyone, he’ll go crazy! He’ll kill me! I’m just telling you…in case something should happen. You should know. Maybe he’ll be alright…’
Then, she stammered. ‘Uh oh…it’s him…I hear him. OH MY GOD!!!’
Click! The phone went dead. I started to shake. I tried calling her back. The line was busy. I tried again and again, finally getting the operator to call. The operator told me there was something wrong with the line. It might be off the hook. It ought to be checked. At this point, the entire office knew what was going on and was offering advice on what to do. We had a book in the office that cross indexed by address. If you knew the phone number, or the family name, you could look up all the listed occupants of a particular building. Working as a medical claims investigator in a bill collection agency gave me access to this book. I decided to call a ‘nearby’ someone in the building. That would be the quickest way to find out what was going on. I kept trying to wipe out the image of Crazy Joe’s hand strangling my mother while the phone dangled back and forth against the bed!
Quickly, I looked up my mother’s address in the book, finally locating the building. I fingered down the list of names. How the neighborhood had changed! Perez, Santiago, Analuz, Sanchez, Jones, Brown…no phone numbers listed…probably no phones! All the apartments had been broken into tiny flats. What was once a middle class Jewish neighbourhood in the Bronx had now become a transient building with strange new smells and strange new sounds.
Then, I saw it! My salvation! Irving Rubenstein! A Jewish name. More important, a listed telephone number! Only two Jewish names in the entire building remained. My mother and Mr Rubenstein! Perhaps I could get him to go down and see how she was. I took a deep breath, calmly rang his number. The phone rang a dozen times, finally answered by a loud suspicious voice with a heavy Jewish accent. I explained that my mother, Rose Solomon, lived on the ground floor.
‘I know your mother!’ he interrupted gruffly. ‘Well, she just called and told me she wasn’t feeling well, ‘I lied. ‘She hung up suddenly and when I try to call her back, her line is busy.
The operator said it was off the hook. She may be seriously ill. Can you just go down and knock on her door. See if she’s alright?’
‘Your mother’s a healthy woman!’ came back the unexpected reply. ‘Healthy and strong like a horse! I’m a sick man. I live on the top floor on the other side of the building. It’s too hard for me to walk all the way down six flights of stairs to find out there’s nothing wrong with her!’
I couldn’t believe he was refusing.
‘Look. She complained of pains in her side. It could be her heart.’
‘So call a doctor!’
‘This is an emergency! You know how long doctors take!
That’s why I’m calling you. Can’t you just go down and see… just to be sure?’
‘Keep calling! I should be healthy like your mother. I know her years already! She takes good care on herself!’
‘Please, Mr Rubenstein. You’re a neighbour! If you needed help, wouldn’t you want someone to try and help you? I’m asking a special favour. I’m her daughter. I’m concerned about her! All you have to do is go down, ring the bell. Just tell her to please call me so I know she’s alright!’
Visions of her body thrust across the bed in a pool of blood, and Crazy Joe scrubbing the blood stains from his hands, passed through my mind. But Mr Rubenstein was unmoved. How could he be so cold? So indifferent?
‘I’m begging you, Mr Rubenstein!’
‘I got trouble with my heart and my lungs’.
‘ Can you send someone, then? Do you know someone else in the building who could go down?’
‘I don’t know nobody in this building no more! It’s changed! The whole life is changed! I don’t know nobody to ask, so you’ll just have to keep calling…’
I begged and pleaded, ‘She might be dying, and maybe you can save her life!’
‘Alright! Alright! I’ll go down, you hear? I’m doing this because you’re making me crazy! Give me time to get there. I have to walk very slow. I can tell you right now she’s alright, but you won’t believe…I’ll go see. Then, you’ll call me back. But give me time. I can’t walk fast. It’ll take me forever. Call me back later!’
I didn’t know how to thank him enough. I figured I’d tell him when I called him back later. While I waited impatiently, I kept dialling my mother’s number. Everyone in the office listened. Even the smokers were too nervous to smoke. They was waiting along with me. We were waiting for poor Mr Rubenstein to walk all the way from the top floor to my mother’s apartment on the first floor on the other side of the building. No calls were allowed to come through the switchboard. All lines were being left clear. People were being told to please call back later.
‘God, I hope she’s alright’, I kept mumbling under my breath. I wanted to call the police but I was terrified. I knew how embarrassing it might be. My mother was not married. Living with this crazy man in her house. She would never forgive me. On the other hand, she might be in serious trouble. Dear Mr Rubenstein, I whispered to myself, thank you for going downstairs.
Finally, after endless waiting, I dialled my mother and there was no busy signal. I screamed, ‘It’s ringing!’ and everyone gathered around me.
‘Hello’, my mother’s cheery voice was at the other end. ‘Oh! Thank God you’re alright! I was so nervous about you! Are you alright? What’s happening?’
‘What are you talking about? Oh, you mean Joe? Of course I’m alright! What did you think! You think your mother couldn’t handle her crazy boyfriend?’ Rose laughed into the phone.
‘But your line was off the hook! And Joe… what happened?’
‘He came out of the bath, he got dressed and he went to get a newspaper.’
‘But why was your phone off the hook?’
‘What are you talking about! It wasn’t off the hook. Why should I take it off the hook? Sometimes I think you’re crazy, my darling daughter. Why should I do a thing like that?’
‘But it kept ringing busy when I called!’
‘Oh! My friend Sadie, the one with the fat daughter, she called and I was talking to her. You know she never gets off the phone, that bollabusta! She’s coming over soon and the three of us are going to a movie.’
‘What about Mr Rubenstein, Ma!’ I was still in a state of shock. ‘Did he ever come down?”
‘You mean that nut from upstairs on the other side?
‘Yes’, I said, ‘did he come down?’
‘Yeah, but who’s gonna open the door! I saw him through the peep hole. That’s all I need! He should come in and see me with Joe. He’s jealous enough as it is! When your father died, he should rest in peace, Irving wanted nothing else but that I should go out with him but what do I need him for? He never got over it, that miserable so and so. In fact, he was ringing and ringing like a lunatic! He wouldn’t stop! I don’t want nothing to do with him! I just let him ring until he finally left! I’m still young. What do I need a man with a bad heart for?’