Bucks County Writers Workshop
by Jules Winistorfer
A loving mother smiled down at the three year old boy who clasped her hand, half skipping, half dangling there as they hurried along the snow covered sidewalk. Most days the walk to nursery school was a happy time. Even with the snow, Melvinia had no reason to believe today would be any different. It had been little more than a dusting, maybe a half-inch at the most. A few persistent flakes continued to fall, joining the powdery crystals scuffed off rooftops by the unruly wind. The gentle prickle on their faces gave the illusion that the snow had no intention of stopping. He ignored her cheerful attention and continued to grip her hand with strength that belied his size.
"You don't have to hold so tight, Melvin; mama won't let you fall."
"I know. I jest like the way it feels."
"OK, sweetheart." She swelled with pride, marveling at how well he put his sentences together, how clearly he expressed himself for a little guy. The woman breathed in the joy of it all: the child, the crisp snow, her love of living.
He was growing up fast; not too fast she hoped. Boys and girls all seemed to grow up too soon in this neighborhood - maybe grow was the wrong word. What she really meant was that little kids became exposed to big kid stuff, ill-prepared to make smart choices. She prayed for the power to keep her boy unsullied by the realities of his environment for a while longer.
For many, Philadelphia was a dismal place this time of year, but for Melvinia Cash and her son, December 21, 1985, looked pretty darned good. Today was the Christmas pageant at Little Lambs Nursery School, which was run by the First Presbyterian Church. Melvin was going to be an angel; that suited his mama fine. The child had always been as close to an angel as she ever expected to see in her lifetime. She clutched the plastic bag containing the boy's costume in her hand, which she rested on her handbag that hung from a shoulder strap. This was a special day.
Melvinia could ill afford the half-day's pay it would cost her to attend the pageant, but how could she just drop him off, as she did each day, and continue on to work?
They turned the corner onto Germantown Avenue, now only a couple of blocks from Chelten Avenue where the warmth of the big stone building would be a few hundred feet to the right. The sun, which had only been pretending an appearance when they left home, now made a serious effort to dominate the day. Its luminance energized tiny, sparkling crystals, which clung to their sleepy eyelids.
Melvinia paid little attention to the boarded up storefront across the street. Two men in the alcove, which led to the steel covered door of the defunct establishment, were engaged in heated discussion. The happy walkers continued their trek, alive with anticipation of a pleasant morning. Drawing closer, Melvinia quickened her pace, almost dragging Melvin on his toes, when she heard the men exchanging angry epithets; the kind she didn't want her little boy to hear.
Melvinia flinched at the keeeee of a ricocheting bullet, which struck the brick wall beside her at a spot only inches behind her ear. In sickening proximity, the wining noise faded as the projectile sought another place of impact to spend its remaining energy.
Emerging from the alcove, one man was pointing a gun in their direction. The second man had already crossed to their side of the street and streaked past them, almost knocking them down. He turned, backpedaled, and, in brazen disregard for the woman and her son, pulled a gun from his coat pocket.
Melvinia realized they were not the targets, but the knowledge did not reduce the terror of being caught in the crossfire of a gunfight. A hated maxim from the hood kept playing in her mind: "A wild slug don't know shit, and it don't give a damn." She threw Melvin to the sidewalk, falling on him and praying that if she were struck, the bullet would not pass through her slender body to claim a second victim.
A trackless trolley glided past, temporarily separating the adversaries. It took a shot in the midsection. The incident seemed to go unnoticed by the driver who continued to jockey the steel monster toward Chelten Avenue. The man on the other side of the street had now taken up a position behind one of the black, steel poles, which were located every two hundred feet or so, to support the overhead power wires for the trolley line. Had it not been for the gravity of their situation, Melvinia would have laughed at the ridiculous sight of the man, almost three feet wide, hiding behind an eight-inch pole.
The second man, who had crossed to Melvinia's side of the street before producing his gun, now crouched behind a galvanized trashcan, with which he had collided as he backpedaled down the sidewalk. He clung to the serendipitous find as though he were having a love affair with the tin can.
Pistol cracks and the sounds of bullets sang back and forth across the street. One bullet came so close that Melvinia imagined she felt a breeze generated by its passing. She continued to press herself tightly against the boy who now started to cry. "Mama, you're crushin' me. I can't breathe. Let me up. Please, let me up - mouth in snow - nose hurts."
She rolled up on her side, trying to get a look at Melvin, careful to keep her body between her son and the street violence. Melvinia gasped at the sight of red on the snow but realized it was only a bloody nose, which must have started when his face met the fluff-veneered sidewalk a few moments earlier.
In one of the brick walls that lined the sidewalk beside her, she spied an alley-tunnel, the kind that always smells of urine on hot days. In spite of Melvin's wailing and protestations, his mother half-pushed and half-rolled him to the alleyway and shoved him into its relative safety. She cringed at the thought of the vile things that likely took place in the little tunnel, but the fleeting reflection disappeared in the urgency of the moment.
Melvinia remained glued flat to the pavement in front of the mini-tunnel, judging this was better than exposing the boy in an effort to join him in the refuge. She imagined this must be what a soldier feels like as he clings to the ground and prays enemy bullets don't find him, either by design or random selection.
The two combatants exchanged volleys until their handguns became empty, at which point each flung a final verbal barb at the other and prepared to go his separate way. Sensing that the confrontation had been declawed, Melvinia sprouted horns and jumped up from her prone position. She approached the man closest to her; the one just now stepping from behind the trash can. Stupid as she knew it might be, she fronted him toe to toe. His face, almost two feet above her own, began to take on a kind of sheepish aspect.
Surprised, she recognized the man as the son of a neighbor, who still lived at home with his mother, just three houses down from the Cashes. Jandell, yeah Jandell. They had just moved in a couple of months ago and the woman next door had told her his name. Melvinia remembered thinking Jandell sounded like a girl and a guy with a name like that had better know how to fight.
Melvinia launched a scolding that could have wilted a wrought iron fence: "You useless piece of crap. You two cowards weren't even trying to hit each other, were you? All show, just like two banty roosters circling and scratching at the ground, each trying to face the other down without a real fight. You could have killed my son and me."
"Bitch, why am I standin' here listenin' to you shootin' off your mouth? I don't need this shit," Jandell said. In spite of the guy's street corner bravado, the wisp of a woman held him at bay without even a weapon, just will power, grit, and pissedoffidness.
Meanwhile, the man across the street had moseyed to the curb in the manner of an accident gaper. His head snapped to attention, and his eyes widened as he watched Melvinia propel her pocketbook, which she had never relinquished during the ruckus, and which now hung about ankle level from the strap in her grasp, through a hundred and eighty-five degree arc that ended when a metal tipped corner connected above her victim's eyebrow.
Dumbfounded, Jandell clamped a hand to the point of impact and smeared a tiny rivulet of blood. He shuffled backward a few paces to outdistance her reach should she go for a second strike.
Melvinia seized the brief respite to retrieve the plastic bag containing Melvin's angel costume, which had gone flying when she threw herself and her son to the ground. In one motion, she regained position and kept full advantage of the momentum created by her surprise attack. The flummoxed bully staggered back an additional three steps for good measure.
Across the street, the onlooker pointed at Melvinia's victim and started to laugh. She spun on her heel and made a threatening feint in his direction. He turned sober-faced and retreated to the security of the alcove of the deteriorating vacant store. Melvinia had recognized him also. Dewayne. She thought maybe he lived in the boarded up crack house around the corner. He entered and exited often through the front door, which was the only opening to the building not nailed shut. Dewayne's mother was the housekeeper at the church rectory. Melvinia felt sorry for the hardworking woman. She had no magic methods to prevent Melvin from turning out like these bums, but she would try her damnedest.
Melvinia almost buckled as her terrified little boy emerged from the alleyway and threw his arms around her legs at the knees from behind. Twisting her head, she peered down at his frightened face and bloodied nose. The sight refueled her rage, and she launched another blistering censure, again calling them cowards and adding thugs, criminals, lazy bums, and bullies to the list. After exhausting her inventory of insults, Melvinia delivered a threat. "The first thing I'm going to do when I get home tonight is call both your mamas. They're good people. You've shamed them today. They'll know how to handle you."
Melvinia stomped off toward Chelten Avenue, little Melvin in tow. Both were soaking wet, both shivered. He from his cold, wet clothes and she from the thought of her foolish defiance of the two hoodlums.
Jandell and Dewayne walked toward each other, shrugging their shoulders, with palms facing the sky. Cowed by this slender, refined, and beautiful mother, they walked away, heads down, hands in pockets and kicked up dollops of snow from the meager accumulation on the sidewalk. Strangely, they believed every word she had said.
The sun had once again retreated from the day. The exiguous flakes and the crystals from nearby roofs, which had tingled their faces and cheered them only a few minutes earlier, now seemed ugly as Melvinia and her son turned the corner onto Chelten Avenue. Even the prospect of the warm, friendly church didn't help. The church whose ancient wooden floors, wetted thousands of times by countless dripping shoes and dried a similar number of times, produced the unique odor, which bled through the carpeting now covering them. It combined with the aroma of old hymnals to produce a smell that lingered between musty and pungent. The whole day had turned ugly.