Commentary Magazine


The Prison:
A Story

Though he tried never to think of it, at twenty-nine Tommy Castelli’s life was a screaming bore. It was not just Rosa or the store they tended for profits counted in pennies, or the unendurably slow hours and endless drivel that went with dispensing candy, cigarettes, and soda water; it was this sick-in-the-stomach feeling of being trapped in old mistakes, even those he had made before Rosa changed Tony into Tommy. He had been, as Tony, a kid of many ideas and schemes, especially for getting out of this thickly tenemented, kidsquawking neighborhood, with its lousy poverty, but everything had fouled up against him before he could. When he was sixteen he quit the vocational school where they were making him into a shoemaker and began to hang out with the gray-hatted, thick-soled-shoe boys who had the spare time and the mazuma and displayed it in fat wonderful rolls down in the cellar clubs to all who would look, and everyone did popeyed. They were the ones who had bought the silver caffe espresso urn and later the television, and they arranged the pizza parties and had the girls down; but it was getting in with them and their cars, leading to the holdup of a liquor store, that had started all the present trouble. Lucky for him the coal-and-ice man who was their landlord knew the leader in the district and they arranged something so nobody bothered him after that. Then before he knew what was going on—he had been frightened sick by the whole business—there was his father cooking up a deal with Rosa’s old man that Tony would marry her and the father-in-law would, out of his savings, open a candy store for him to make an honest living. He wouldn’t spit on a candy store, and Rosa was too plain and lank a chick for his personal taste, so he beat it off to Texas and bummed around for three months in too much space, and when he came back everyone said it was for Rosa and the candy store, and it was all arranged again and he, without saying no, was in it.

That was how he had landed on Prince Street in the Village, working from eight in the morning to almost midnight every day, except for an hour each afternoon when he went upstairs to sleep, and on Tuesdays, when the store was closed and he slept some more and went at night, alone, to the movies. He was too tired, always, for schemes now, but once he tried to make a little cash on the side by secretly taking in punch-boards a syndicate had distributed in the neighborhood, on which he collected a nice cut and saved fifty-five bucks that Rosa didn’t know about; but then the syndicate was exposed by a newspaper, and the punch-boards melted away. Another time, when Rosa was at her mother’s house, he took a chance and let them put in a slot machine that could guarantee a nice piece of change if he kept it long enough. He knew of course he couldn’t hide it from her, so when she came home and screamed when she saw it, he was ready and patient, for once not yelling back when she yelled, and he explained it was not the same as gambling because anyone who played it got a roll of mints every time he put in a nickel. Also the machine would supply them a few extra dollars cash they could use to buy television so he could see the fights without going to a bar; but Rosa wouldn’t let up screaming, and later her father came in shouting he was a criminal and chopped the machine apart with a hammer. The next day the cops raided for slot machines and gave out summonses wherever they found them, and though Tommy’s place was the only candy store in the neighborhood that didn’t have one, he felt bad about the machine for a long time.

Mornings had been his best time of day because Rosa stayed upstairs cleaning, and since few people came into the store till noon, he could sit around alone, a toothpick between his teeth, looking over the News and Mirror on the fountain counter, or maybe chin with one of the old cellar-club guys who had happened to come by for a pack of cigarettes, about a horse that was running that day or how the numbers were paying lately; or just sit there drinking coffee and thinking how far away he could get on the fifty-five he had stached away in the cellar. Generally the mornings were this way, but after the slot machine usually the whole day was rotten and he along with it. Time moldered in his heart and all he could think of the whole morning was going to sleep in the afternoon, and he would wake up with the sour remembrance of the long night in the store ahead of him while everybody else was doing as he damn pleased. He cursed the place and Rosa, and cursed, from its beginning, his unhappy life.

_____________

It was on one of these bad mornings that a ten-year-old girl from around the block came in and asked for two rolls of colored tissue paper, one red and one yellow. He wanted to say go to hell and stop bothering but instead went with bad grace to the rear, where Rosa, whose bright idea it was to handle the stuff, kept it. He went from force of habit, for the girl had been coming in every Monday since the summer for the same thing, because her rock-faced mother, who looked as if she had arranged her own widowhood, took care of some small kids after school and gave them the paper to cut out dolls and such things. The girl, whose name he didn’t know, resembled her mother, except her features were not quite so sharp and she had very light skin with dark eyes; but she was a plain kid and would be more so at twenty. He had noticed, when he went to get the paper, that she always hung back as if afraid to go where it was dark, though he kept the comics there and most of the other kids had to be slapped away from them; and that when he brought her the tissue her skin seemed to grow whiter and her eyes shone. She always handed him two hot dimes and went out without glancing back.

It happened that Rosa, who trusted nobody, had just hung a mirror on the back wall, and as Tommy opened the drawer to get the girl her paper this Monday that he felt so bad, he looked up and saw in the glass something that made it seem as if he were dreaming. The girl had disappeared, but he saw a white hand reach into the candy case for a chocolate bar and for another, then she glided forth from behind the counter and stood there, innocently waiting for him. At first he felt like grabbing her by the neck and smacking her till she puked, but he had begun to think, as he often did, how his Uncle Dom, years ago before he went away, used to take with him when he went crabbing to Sheepshead Bay, Tony alone of all the kids. Once they went at night and threw the baited traps into the water and after a while pulled them up and they had this green lobster in one, and just then this fat-faced cop came along and said they had to throw it back unless it was nine inches. Dom said it was nine inches all right, but the cop said not to be a wise guy so Dom measured it and it was ten inches, and they laughed about the lobster all night. Then he remembered how he had felt after Dom was gone, and tears filled his eyes and he found himself thinking about the way his life had turned out and then about this girl, moved that she was a thief. He felt he should do something for her, warn her to cut it out before she got into a jam and fouled up her whole life. The urge to do so was strong, but when he went forward she glanced up frightened because he had taken so long. The way the fear showed in her eyes bothered him and he did not attempt to say anything. Then she thrust out the dimes, grabbed at the tissue rolls and ran out of the store.

_____________

He had to sit down. He kept trying to make the urge to speak to her go away but it came back stronger than ever. He asked himself what difference does it make if she swipes candy—so she swipes it; and the role of reformer was strange and distasteful to him, yet he could not convince himself that what he felt he must do was unimportant But he worried he would not know what to say to her. Always he had trouble speaking, stumbled over words, especially in new situations. He was afraid he would make a sap of himself, and she would not take him seriously. He had to tell her in a sure way so that even if it scared her some, she would understand he had done it to set her straight. He mentioned her to no one but often thought about her, always looking around whenever he went outside to raise the awning or wash the window, to see if any of the girls playing in the street was her but they never were. The following Monday in an hour after opening the store he had smoked a full pack of butts. He thought he had what he wanted to say but was afraid for some reason she wouldn’t come in, or if she did, this time she wouldn’t take the candy. He was not sure he wanted that until he had said what he had to say. But at about eleven, while he was reading the News, she appeared, asking as usual for tissue paper, her eyes shining so she had to look away. He knew then she meant to steal. Going to the rear he slowly opened the drawer, keeping his head lowered as he sneaked a look into the glass and saw her slide behind the counter. His heart beat hard and his feet felt nailed to the floor. He ransacked his mind to recall what he had intended to do but it was like an empty room so he let her, in the end, slip away and stood tongue-tied, with the dimes burning his palm.

Afterwards he explained it to himself that he hadn’t spoken to her because it was while she had the candy on her and she would have been more scared than he wanted. When he went upstairs, instead of sleeping, he sat at the kitchen window, looking out into the back yard. He blamed himself for being too soft, too much chicken, but then he thought no there was a better way to do it. He would do it indirectly, slip her a hint he knew, and he was pretty sure that would stop her, and then sometime after, he would explain to her why it was a good thing she had stopped. So next time he cleaned out the particular candy platter she helped herself from, thinking she would get wise he was on to her, but she seemed not to, only hesitated with her hand before she took two candy bars from the next plate and dropped them into the black patent leather purse she always had with her. The time after that he cleaned out the whole top shelf, and still she was not suspicious, and reached down to the next and took something different. One Monday he put some loose change, nickels and dimes, on the candy plate but she left them there, only taking the candy, which bothered him a little. Rosa asked him what was he mooning about and why he had all of a sudden taken to eating chocolate bars. He didn’t answer, and she began to look suspiciously at the women who came in, not excluding the little girls; and he would gladly have rapped her in the teeth but it didn’t matter as long as she didn’t know what was what. At the same time he figured he would have to do something decisive soon or it would get harder for the girl to stop stealing. He felt he had to be strong about it. Then he thought of a plan that satisfied him. He would leave just two chocolate bars in the plate and insert under the wrapper of one a note she could read when she was alone. He experimented on paper, printing many messages to her, and the one that seemed best he cleanly copied on a strip of cardboard and slipped it under the wrapper of one chocolate bar. It said, “Don’t do this any more or you will suffer your whole life.” He puzzled over whether to sign it A Friend or Your Friend and finally chose Your.

_____________

This was on Friday, and he could not contain his impatience for Monday. But on Monday she did not appear. He waited for a long time, until Rosa came down, then he had to go up and the girl still hadn’t come and he was intensely disappointed because she had never failed to come. He lay on the bed with his shoes on and stared at the ceiling. He felt hurt, disillusioned, the sucker she had played him for and was now finished with because she probably had another. The more he thought about it the worse he felt. He worked up a splitting headache that kept him from sleeping, then he suddenly slept and woke without it. But he had awaked depressed, saddened. He thought about Dom getting out of jail and going away God knows where. He wondered whether he would ever meet him somewhere if he took the fifty-five dollars and left. Then he remembered Dom was a pretty old guy now and he might not know him even if they did meet. He thought about life. You never really got what you wanted. No matter how you tried you made mistakes and could never get past them. You could never see the sky and the ocean because you were locked in a prison, except that nobody called it a prison, and if you did, nobody knew what you were talking about, or they said they didn’t. A pall settled over him. He lay motionless, without thought or sympathy for himself or anyone.

But when he finally went downstairs, ironically amused that Rosa had permitted him so long a period of grace, there were people in the store and he could hear her screeching at the top of her lungs. Shoving his way through the crowd he saw in one sickening look that she had trapped the girl with the candy bars and was shaking her in such fury that the kid’s head bounced back and forth like a balloon on a stick. With a curse he tore her away from the girl, whose sickly face showed her terrible fright.

“Whatsamatter,” he shouted at Rosa, “you want blood?”

“She’s a thief,” Rosa screamed.

“Shut your filthy mouth.”

“A dirty rotten thief.”

To stop her yowling he rapped her with his knuckles across the mouth but it was a harder blow than he had intended. Rosa fell back with a gasp. She did not cry but looked dazedly around at the people and tried to smile, and everyone could see her teeth were flecked with blood.

“Go home,” Tommy ordered the girl but then there was a commotion near the door and her mother came into the store.

“What happened?” she said.

“She stole the candy,” Rosa cried out.

“I let her take it,” Tommy said.

Rosa stared at him as if she had been hit again, then with mouth distorted began to sob.

“One was for you, mother,” said the girl.

Her mother socked her hard across the face. “You little thief, this time you’ll get your hands burned good.”

She pawed at the girl, grabbed her arm and yanked her out. The girl, like a grotesque ballerina, half ran, half fell forward, but at the door she managed to turn her white face and thrust out at him her red tongue.

_____________

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