by Susanne Paola Antonetta
The girl, Wendy Sue Wolin, was seven, two years younger than me. She waited at the curb in front of her apartment as her mother pulled the car around. (Onlookers described her as “skipping” to the corner.) Errands to run, the child young and it’s after school, so she has to be taken along. It’s common—a mother in the car with her child, out doing things the child doesn’t really understand, though the mother will mutter a list to her: the grocery store, the butcher, the Hallmark store, cards to tell people what a mother is thinking.
The apartment named Pierce Manor. And I am sorry for this: too neat, like the graveyard across the street from my apartment. My early life fell into me as if it came from a book, not a very good one. If I’d understood strained coincidence and foreshadowing I would have worked harder to forget the details.
Newspapers would call her an Elizabethan girl.
Every paper referred to her as skinny. I can see how, historically, I would have looked—thin, Elizabethan: like a piece of theater.
It could be a treat, then, for a woman to leave the house. So much came to the women in their apartments: from the milk man, the Fuller Brush man with his stiff brushes and his soaps, the Swan cleaner man with the shirts pinned to a piece of cardboard.
This was my mother’s life, but she didn’t drive. Nor did she sit with the other wives on the apartment stoops in the evenings, painting fingernails and hollering at children. A quiet woman, and very small. But she would brush a hand across the coffee table, lifting dust. She would comb her hair and purse her lips at herself in the mirror. Today is the day for the Fuller Brush man, she’d tell me. The Swan man. Though the same men came for years; she must have known their names.
So Wendy stood, stopped in her obedience, a few miles away from me on a warm March in 1966. I might have been sitting in the graveyard then. I sat in there for hours, as a child. I loved it—all the stones my size, my reading level, the carvings of bent winged women—though the closeness of the graves terrified me when I tried to sleep.
Wendy’s mother curving around. A man, white, middle-aged, in a green fedora and corduroy coat, his arm drawing out towards the girl and then—a man punched me she said.
Then he vanished like something the crowd collectively made, unmade.
The man had had a hunting knife that cost him a dollar fifty. Police found it later, cleaned. It was not a punch; the body can take time to understand.
Some people walked Wendy to a fire station across the street. Wouldn’t firemen know what to do? They pulled the girl’s coat open, loosed the hidden testimony of her blood. She died soon after. It was midday, crowded. Still, the killer melted off, and survived, with this memory, this one day with its act more focused, more true to intent, than any other he has likely known: the simple economical blow, the palmed knife. Jowly, well-dressed: the kind of man I’d have hit up for change, later in my life. Eyes that looked absent, tired, to me, like a doctor’s.
He attacked other girls. All in one day, failed to kill the others, though he blackened a little girl’s eye.
Soon my town wore his face on telephone poles and trees, black-and-white fliers, with his bland face and the legend “This Man Is A Child Killer” under it. My mother walked me to school every day, then grew tired, and left me to myself. With my soft abdomen, this need I could feel on the wind.
My father told me once that he would go out driving at night cruising the roads of Elizabeth, hoping to find the man. I wanted to find that animal he told me, and I remembered him pacing our apartment, the phrase that animal leaking from his mouth.
It was 1966. Thirty years later, police said they’d solved the case from a detail a woman who’d been there, at the scene, suddenly remembered. Newspapers everywhere ran the story, the murder of innocence, the monster caught at last. But just as suddenly the police released the man, with no comment, dropped all charges. One more random act to go with corduroy, fedora, that tired, intelligible face.
Susanne Paola Antonetta’s Make Me a Mother was ranked a Top Ten Book of the Year by Image Journal, and was published by W.W. Norton. A digital chapbook, Curious Atoms: A History with Physics, was published by Essay Press in May of 2016. She is also author of Body Toxic, A Mind Apart, the novella Stolen Moments, and four books of poetry. She is a frequent blogger at The Huffington Post. Awards for her poetry and prose include a New York Times Notable Book, an American Book Award, a Library Journal Best Science book of the year, a Lenore Marshall Award finalist, an Oprah Bookshelf pick, a Pushcart prize, and others. Her essays and poems have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Orion, The New Republic, and many anthologies. She lives in Bellingham, Washington.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 3 • January 2017
Image header by Doug Kerr.