Write It Poetry
Critic's Picks: FICTION

The first thing you see when you enter the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side is a narrow wooden staircase with a rickety banister. It is lit, now, for visitors but when people were living there a hundred years ago, the landlords left the stairs and hallways dark to save money. Standing at the foot of the steps, I began to imagine what it would be like to come home each day and have to walk up those steep stairs in darkness. The rest of my story grew out of this image.

Editor’s Comments:
In this arresting story, Margaret Ross unveils her imagination in powerful bursts, shifting the narrative perspective of each scene, resulting in the cumulative payoff of her title. Notice how each numbered section builds upon the one that came before it.

a rat’s heart beats six hundred times a minute and a human’s heart beats seventy

by Margaret Ross
age: 18

The baby is six months old but it does not have a name yet. The woman calls it baby because she lost one last year. The man calls it the girl because it is the fifth one they’ve had. At night, the woman keeps the baby in the middle of their bed like a wall over which her husband’s hands will not be able to rise. She watches the bodies of the baby and the man rise and fall and prays prayers she remembers from the old country where everything was green and she had wanted to be a nun.

Each day, when the man leaves for work before dawn, the woman pulls out his tobacco from the coffee tin and rolls a cigarette. She inhales deeply and smokes it till it is so small that it burns her lip and she drops it in a shower of sparks to the floor.  

The man works shoveling coal into the furnace of an office building uptown. All day in the basement it is too hot and he is drenched in sweat so he likes walking to and from work while it is still dark and the air is cold. The winter is coming on.

There is a pain in his chest that has been increasing with the sharpening air. When the man coughs into his handkerchief, the phlegm is speckled with blood. He has not told the woman yet because he is a man and he is strong. At night, when he feels tightness in his throat he spits onto the sleeve of his sleepshirt where the fabric is dark and the blood doesn’t show. He tells himself that perhaps it will go away and what good is it to tell the woman when there is nothing she can do.

The oldest girl got married over the summer and so there are only two left to help with the baby. They take turns going to school but the older girl goes more often because her little sister likes to stay home. If it is Monday, the woman takes the younger girl to get scraps from the butcher for the week’s stew and the butcher smiles at her and pats her with his bloody hands. If it is not Monday, the woman mostly stays home. She spends the light hours perched on a stool by the window sewing pieces of cloth together. The cloth is brilliantly colored  —  lavender, orange  —  and the sleeves and skirts the woman finishes resemble the wings of exotic birds. They lie folded or spread on the kitchen table and the girl whispers to the baby that soon they will take flight.

When the baby cries the girl takes it into the backyard. In the corner is the privy and all around it are piles of things the people in the building have thrown away: an old suitcase lies on a bed of stained sheets; there are bottles everywhere. The woman tells the girl that she must hold the baby tight in the yard but sometimes the girl lets the baby crawl on the trash heaps. She lets it eat an old crust of bread and watches it explore a three-legged chair.

The older girl suspects she is smarter than the woman. She knows things that the woman doesn’t know. Just last week, she recited her five times tables up 'til seven and waited for her mother to fill in the eight but her mother said fifty-eight and not forty.

The older girl knows, too, that there is no God. She watches the woman stare at the Virgin Mary pasted above the stove and thinks how there is no Virgin and no Jesus. This is how she knows: once the boy next door stole hosts from the priest’s bag and she ate them with him, one by one behind the privy and they tasted like nothing and nothing terrible happened. If there were a God, she would have been struck dead.  

This is how the older girl met the boy next door. The girl was carrying the water upstairs and the boy was sitting on the steps looking into a box with a cockroach in it. When the boy reached to grab at the girl’s ankles, he dropped the box in the bucket and the girl dropped the bucket and suddenly they were all wet and knocking bang bang bang down the stairs. Then the boy’s mother came out and pointed at him with the stub of her arm. Git in the house before I skin your hide she said and he picked up the soggy box and placed it beside the girl’s hand. She waited until the boy had gone inside before opening it. When she did, the roach was drowned but she slipped it into the pocket of her dress anyway. For two weeks she sat through days at school with her palm pressing down on it and then her mother washed her dress and the roach was gone.

The people next door are worse off than they are. The wife lost a hand in a mill accident where they used to live down south and they had to come to the city because they were clean broke and they thought the north had more jobs. Over cigarettes in the backyard, the husband confided to the man that sometimes he dreams about the lost hand, the left one, onto which he had slipped a ring back when it was white and without calluses. The husband said he wishes a man and not a machine had taken it because you can hurt a man but machinery never feels pain.

The man listened quietly when the husband spoke to him. He imagined kissing his own wife’s hands when he got upstairs, but upstairs the woman was cutting the stew meat and when he got there, her hands were grimy with blood.

 The younger girl sits on the floor with the baby and watches lavender silk unfold in her mother’s hands. She watches the woman gather it and pin it and again she thinks of it taking flight. The fabric fills and falls with the air coming through the window. The girl watches it silently until the baby squeals and the mother sucks in her breath. Then the girl picks up the baby and carries it over to the bed that she shares with her sister. At night, she and her sister have to intertwine their legs and arms to fit on it. Now, she lies the baby on her stomach and stretches her arms and legs out as far as they can go.

The woman wanted to be a nun in the old country because she had always known things before they happened and she thought this sight was a gift from God. She had predicted her father’s broken leg, and snowstorms, and the arrival of a spotted dog. Even before her bleeding stopped, she had known of the child inside her that made her marry and sail to the New World. It is in this way that the woman knows the letter the postman brings will hold bad news. For twenty minutes she sits staring at it on the table and smokes a slow cigarette before opening it.

Both her brothers are dead in the old country. She does not have to finish the letter to know it was the influenza that killed them. 

The woman places the letter back on the table. She picks up the lavender silk skirt she has been sewing and drapes it over her head.

At school, the older girl is learning about China where the men wear long braids. This is what comes from China: tea. This is the color of China people: yellow. In China there are exotic colored birds and marvelous kingdoms where everyone bows to the king.

Coming home the girl drags her feet and thinks of living in a country with a king. She clanks her lunch pail against the steps of the buildings and smiles back when men passing smile at her. She does not want to go home because at home she will have to watch the baby that her sister has watched all day.

At the house the corridor is dark and the corridor is always dark and the girl trudges slowly up the stairs. Her sister hears her coming and opens the door before she can knock. In the dim light, she thinks she sees a lavender Chinese bird at the table.  

The two girls lie with the baby on the bed in the back and watch the contours of the furniture turn hazier and fade into black. Nobody rises to light the lamp.

The woman stays sitting at the table with her head covered by the lavender skirt. The only movement is made by the small circle of cloth that fills and falls with her breath and her hands clasped quivering on the table.

 When the man comes home from work it is already dark and the corridor is always dark and when he forgets matches, he has to feel his way upstairs. He places his hand on the wall and walks slowly beside it. As he goes, his palm scrapes off flakes of paper and plaster so that if it was lighter, it would look like snow. He climbs the stairs slowly, gripping the wood of the banister and feeling first with his foot before stepping to make sure there is nothing there. Twice he had stepped on the corpse of a rat and once on a child’s hand.

When he reaches the top of the staircase, the man doesn’t see a strip of light under the door and he imagines for a moment that his family is gone and then he imagines life without his family. He thinks of the green of the old country and the uncalloused hands of girls he had known there. He thinks of never having moved to America. He thinks of spending his whole life envisioning it as a place paved in gold.

All this is thought in the space of a single breath and then his stomach clenches with worry and guilt for his thoughts. The man coughs into his hand and wipes the blood against the wall and raises his fist to knock.

Her younger sisters have fallen asleep, but the elder girl is still awake and can just make out the trembling silhouette of her mother against the dark blue light from the window. The girl is reminded of the rats she sometimes catches in the hallways, the way they shake violently in her clutch.

Sometimes she holds a small throbbing chest to her ear and listens to the wild humming of the heart.

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