Edith dragged her husband John up the three flights of stairs. They were already half an hour late for dinner with their tenants, Ramona and Cora. The mother, Ramona opened the door after the first knock. Edith thanked her for the invitation to dinner. As the two women hugged, John pushed his way inside the small apartment. Edith trailed behind Ramona. She glared at John, but he paid her no mind.
“Woo, wee,” he said when he spotted a full bottle of Canadian Club on top of a card table near the kitchen. Ramona and her daughter Cora ate their meals on that table. Around the table were three folding chairs Ramona had bought at the Salvation Army. At the center of the table was an aloe vera plant.
“What the fuck is that?” John pointed at the succulent with fat bunches of tentacles. “Look Edith, she’s feeding us a green octopus.” He pushed the plant aside and grabbed the bottle of whisky off the table. He plopped down on one of the chairs and held the bottle like a father holds his newborn baby for the first time.
Embarrassed by her husband’s rudeness, Edith said, “So sorry.” She squeezed Ramona’s hand. To Edith, Ramona was as exotic as the actress, Lupe Vélez. She knew Ramona was from somewhere in South America because when she asked the petite woman where she was from, Ramona pointed down and said sur américa.
Ramona didn’t speak much English but she laughed often. Edith liked it when Ramona laughed. Before Ramona moved into the building, Edith would wander around 9th Avenue, waiting for her husband to pass out for the night. John was a violent drunk. She felt safer outside with the barflies and bums than inside with her husband of twenty years.
Ramona had moved in a couple of months ago with her nineteen-year-old daughter, Cora. Mother and daughter looked more like sisters. Cora spoke better English than her mother. She did most of the talking for Ramona whenever Edith came up for a visit.
“Go get me a glass,” John said.
Edith lifted a hand to her mouth and pantomimed drinking. Ramona understood right away. She walked over to her kitchen counter a few feet away from where Edith and John sat, and handed Edith a glass to give to her husband.
“Gracias,” Edith said in her awkward Spanish.
Ramona laughed and nodded her head. She pulled a folding chair closer to John and patted it to let Edith know she should sit.
John poured himself a glass of whisky, tipped it back, then quickly poured himself another.
Ramona’s skin was pink, her eyes on the Asian side. Edith wondered if she came from a wealthy family. She wasn’t dark like the Puerto-Rican ladies that lived in the neighborhood. Ramona’s light brown hair was silky and smooth not black and coarse. She usually kept it up in a french twist with loose curls framing her round face. Edith felt her own stiff hair. She liked to dye her blond hair red. She liked how green her eyes looked in contrast. She still teased and hair-sprayed it into the same bouffant she wore twenty years ago for her high school graduation.
“Where’s Cora?” she asked Ramona, but the pretty woman held a finger up to her crooked smile and walked over to the kitchen.
Yesterday, Ramona rescued Edith. Edith was standing by the mailboxes next to the front door, staring at the floor. Her red hair drenched in beer and her left eye, swollen shut. Ramona pulled Edith by the arm and led her upstairs to her tiny, one-bedroom apartment. She washed Edith’s hair in the kitchen sink. Wrapped ice in a towel and held it over Edith’s eye.
The skin around her left eye was now purple. Ramona was a nice woman. She tried not to stare. Edith was glad for that.
In the kitchen, Ramona stabbed a few Spanish olives and Vienna sausages with toothpicks. She set these on a plate and walked it over to the table.
“Eat,” she said, bending over John.
“Don’t mind if I do,” John said as he looked down her floral blouse.
Edith offered Ramona a Pall Mall, but Ramona shook her head, laughing for no particular reason except to make Edith and John feel welcomed. She turned on the radio and tuned in the oldies station.
“Remember when you used to sing to me,” Edith said to John. She closed her eyes and swayed to the rhythm of the Doo-Wop song playing.
John poured himself another glass of whisky. “Go dance with her.” He smacked Edith’s thigh.
Ramona sat across from them laughing and clapping her hands.
“Forget it, John.” Edith took a long drag from her cigarette. She no longer swayed to the song.
“Ask her where her pretty daughter is.” John dropped the glass hard on the card table. “Where the fuck is she? I only came up here to see that piece of ass. Betcha she’s out there lifting her skirts, giving that sweet pussy away to some lucky fuck.”
Ramona stood up and poured John another drink.
“Leave it alone, John,” Edith said.
“Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to? Edith, I swear I’ll smack your green teeth out.”
Ramona reached across the table and patted John’s hand. She said, “Tranquilo, tranquilo.” She winked at Edith. Her sing-song Spanish calmed both John and Edith down.
“This little firecracker knows how to treat a man, Edith. Betcha she wouldn’t mind if I pulled it out right now. ” John’s eyes shut like he was about to pass out, but he opened them again, fully alert.
Edith finished smoking her cigarette as Peggy Lee sang:Play the guitar, play it again, my Johnny.
Cora could hear the three people from inside the bedroom she shared with her mother. The full size bed was shoved against the wall, so she had to be careful not to move too much or else they could hear her outside. She heard John yell at Edith to shut her stupid mouth. She heard her mother, laugh and say, It’s alright, alright, in the same sing-song voice she used when she spoke in Spanish. A commercial for the Milford Plaza Hotel played on the radio: Come on along, I’ll take you to the lullaby of Broadway.
She heard a thwack and Edith said, “Is he dead?”
Ramona opened the bedroom door. She placed a finger up to her coral-painted lips to let Cora know to be quiet. Cora followed her mother outside. John had fallen off his chair face forward and was now lying flat on the floor. A bump was forming on one side of his forehead. Ramona and Cora didn’t say a word. They had rehearsed what needed to be done. Cora walked back inside the bedroom and came back out with a large makeup case. The case looked like a small piece of carry-one luggage. Cora placed the case by John’s head. Ramona waved her daughter away. She opened the case and pulled out a bottle of foundation and a makeup sponge. She patted the foundation on John’s face. Next she took a peacock blue eyeshadow pencil and colored his twitching eyelids. She painted his cheeks red and his lips purple. When she used a poof to powder his face and set his makeup in place, John’s head twitched. Cora and Edith stood on alert, but John didn’t wake up.
Edith lit another cigarette and watched Ramona transform John’s rugged face into a garish mess.
Cora walked over to the window and whistled at someone outside. Minutes later, two young men showed up at the front door.
Edith recognized the men. Ryan, a blond, Irishman, kissed Cora on the lips, then tipped his head at Edith and Ramona. Behind him was the Puerto-Rican fellow who worked for Devito’s Fruit Stand outside the Port Authority. The men laughed when they took a look at Ramona’s handiwork.
“That’s the ugliest bitch I’ve ever seen,” Ryan said as he and his friend picked John up from the floor. Ryan slapped John’s face a couple of times to wake him up.
“Who the fuck are you,” John slurred as he struggled to open his eyes.
“Come on buddy, let’s take a walk downstairs,” Ryan said as he and his friend walked John out the door.
“Wait,” Edith called after them, “what are you gonna do with him?”
“Don’t worry about this little guy, ma’am. He’ll get what he deserves.”
The men left the apartment and Ramona locked the door behind them. She picked up the dishes from the table and walked them to the kitchen sink.
Cora turned up the radio. A group called Blondie played a Phil Spector type of song: “Darlin’ darlin’ darlin’ / I can’t wait to see you.”
Cora’s first night out without Ramona as her chaperone. It was around two in the morning. She had her high heels in her hands as she kissed her boyfriend Ryan goodnight. They stood in front of her tenement building. Ryan lived in an SRO on Tenth Avenue near the hospital about twenty blocks uptown. Cora bit his bottom lip, licked it, and pushed him away with a wink. “Be careful,” she said. She spoke some English, but she spoke it slow so that she could hide her accent from Ryan.
He cupped her chin and pulled her back in his arms for a kiss on her forehead. He held the front door open for her. “I should walk you upstairs,” he said.
“No, it’s okay,” Cora said. She knew her mother would be waiting by the door to their apartment. It was late and as long as she was quiet she would be safe.
On her way upstairs, Cora tiptoed by the landlord’s door. John and Edith’s apartment was on the first floor by the stair landing. She took one step up and heard the landlord’s door creak open. John came out of his apartment. Red faced, unkempt hair and lips shiny with saliva. He stared up at her, his belt wrapped around his fist.
Cora wasted no time. She ran up the stairs, digging for her house keys in her coat pocket. As she ran up to the third floor, to her apartment door, she pulled her keys out, her grip shaky on the door handle. She pushed the key into the first lock. John hummed a tune from below. Before she could get to the second lock, the door opened. Ramona, with pink foam curlers in her hair and sleepy eyes, pulled Cora inside and slammed the door.
Cora and Ramona jumped at the sound of the landlord’s belt hitting the door.
“I’ll get you next time,” John growled.
They listened as he stomped back down the stairs.
“See what happens when you go out on your own,” Ramona said.
“He’s drunk again and thinks I’m his wife.”
“He knows exactly who you are. He’s been after you since we moved here. You sassed him last time. Even after I told you to ignore him.”
Cora walked to the kitchen sink and splashed cold water on her face. Her mother stood behind her.
“It’s not my fault, he’s a creep,” Cora said as she wiped her face with a paper towel.
“You think kissing a man in front of the building isn’t giving him ideas.”
“Were you spying on me?”
“Of course I was spying on you. Now John thinks he’s got a chance with you.”
“I can’t believe you.”
Ramona reached for the radio on the kitchen counter. Her favorite overnight Spanish show was on. A beautiful warm male voice introduced a bolero by “The Nightingale of the Americas,” Julio Jaramillo. Ramona began pulling off her pink foam curlers. “These things are giving me a headache,” she said as she fingercombed her loose curls and swayed to the refrain Te odio y te quiero.
Cora thought about what could have happened to her if her mother hadn’t opened the door in time. She gasped.
Ramona watched her, but didn’t comfort her. She didn’t know how. When Cora reached for her, Ramona patted her daughter’s back.
“I’ll help you fix this,” she said. “But, you have to promise to listen to me.”
Cora buried her face in her mother’s neck. “I promise,” she said.
–Art by Simona Capriana