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SOUR MILK

by

Harold W. Bowman



A t first I dreaded the weekly bath that came along with rich living.

Mine was the only one of the seven mothers who shared the bath who ever took the time to sanctify the big claw foot tub with Clorox. She marched us down the hall, my brother and me, to the washroom every Saturday night for a bath, whether we needed it or not, and in her zeal to keep us clean she nearly scrubbed our skin off. It was embarrassing for me at eight, but it was mortifying for my older brother.

We had moved in and out of day rooms when we could, but I had a feeling that my mother would make sure it was going to be permanent that time. The room we rented was pretty uptown. There was a gas stove in the corner. A sink took up another corner. There was a big bed along the wall on the other side of the room and a table with four chairs between it and the stove. At the end of the room there was a fold down Murphy bed built into the wall. We could have had an icebox, but that would have cost another twenty-five cents a week.

In the winter we put all our food in a box outside the window. The rats couldn’t get at it, but the damned squirrels drove my mother crazy until my father started trapping them. I was surprised at how much they looked like rats once they were skinned out, but they tasted pretty good. After a while I got tired of the fresh squirrel meat and cornmeal gravy Mom cooked up every night. At the end of the next summer of sour milk and spoiled meat my dad grudgingly gave up the extra twenty-five cents for the icebox. High living had a price.

Every morning the iceman sang out in a clear voice that roused us from our beds. I loved going down with my brother, lard bucket in hand, to get the nickel blocks of ice. While he got the short block, I scampered around with the other kids to scrape up chips of ice. After we delivered the block to the bottom of the icebox and emptied the water from the night before, we shared the shards of ice that were mostly cold water in the lard bucket by the time we got around to them.

My folks left for work before we woke so we reported to our next-door neighbor for powdered doughnuts and chocolate milk. Edith was easily the prettiest girl I had ever known. She was my mother‚s best friend and she took care of us during the day. I thought her kind and gentle nature made her seem strangely out of place. For someone who had a tragic past she was surprisingly happy. Her radiance made the meanest people soften when she smiled at them, which made me feel safe while I was with her. That radiance served as a kind of armor against everyone except her husband. It made no sense to me the way he beat her every night.

Edith was old, but not as old as my mom was. She had married Klump the year before last when she was fourteen. My mother had waited until she was an old maid of twenty-one to marry. It embarrassed me, but I had a crush on Edith even if she was an older married woman.

At first she didn‚t work except to take care of me, but after a while my mother got her a job at the casket-company. I missed her, but I got to see her everyday after school when my brother and I walked down to the factory with a hundred other kids to wait for our mothers to get off work.

The daily parade of women walked and gossiped and their children played and fought along the few blocks back up to the inner city. I liked to hold Edith’s hand more than I liked to play with the other kids.

On Fridays we waited for the ice cream man to ride up on his bicycle. If we were lucky Dad was drunk and he bought ice cream for all the kids in the building. Once he made the mistake of buying Edith an ice cream. When the cold made her nipples hard I felt myself flushing as I stared at them. As I turned away I realized every man on the street had been staring. Word got back to her husband I guess, because she couldn’t go to work for a week. I don’t think I was the only one who hated that bastard.

Every time someone whistled at Edith she got a beating and no matter how hard she tried to hide her good looks she couldn’t. Once, Klump beat her so badly that she was laid up for a month and the cops took him off to the workhouse. The judge gave her a thirty-day vacation from the son-of-a-bitch.

When Edith got evicted my mother took her in and nursed her back to health. Though my brother grumbled about it, I didn’t mind that my mother gave Edith the Murphy bed as long as I got a pallet on the floor next to her. I often woke up in the night and watched her silhouetted body quiver through her nightclothes as she stood in the moonlit window and cried.

In return for my mother’s hospitality Edith watched over me again. She didn’t eat until I was full and she used the little money she had squirreled away to buy me treats at the corner candy store. The last thing I did at night was reach out to hold her hand. I forced myself to wake up early so I could watch her sleep. I got so I preferred to cuddle with her on weekends rather than be with my family.

Edith‚s husband got out of jail, begged forgiveness, and swore on a stack of bibles that he would never lay hands on her again. I couldn’t believe it when she took him back. He was true to his word for almost a week. From then on the beatings were less severe but more frequent. Before long it was back to business as usual though he was careful to stop short of a workhouse beating.

The first time I ever saw a naked woman was when Klump whipped her and threw her out into the hall without a stitch of clothes. I watched her with a sick fascination that stirred something inside me that I had never felt before. It made my stomach hurt, and shame overwhelmed me though I had no idea why.

My mother sent my old man over to threaten to kick the shit out of Klump if he ever did that again. I guess there was a code of how far a man could go when beating his wife. It worked because he never put her out in the hall again though we all knew he stepped up the abuse behind closed doors.

My dad always said, “He must be good in bed if she puts up with that shit.” I had no clue what that meant when I nodded and returned his wink though I figured that must have been the only place where he was nice to Edith.

Klump, who was a sometime security guard, used an old pair of handcuffs to shackle Edith to the cook-stove in their room on Friday nights while he went out drinking. With the help of the fatback grease she kept on the stove she usually slipped out of them and joined us on the fire escape where we talked the nights away. In the winter my mom made vanilla snow cream which Edith loved. Mom even gave her the family recipe.

“Five, or six scoops of snow. Be sure to get it off the fire escape and make sure it’s free of grit and iron rust. It’s best if you get it from just under the surface, but not so deep down that you pick up the dirt. Put the snow in a big bowl, whip in two cups of sugar, a cup of milk, a few drops of vanilla and a pinch of salt then eat it fast before it turns to water.”

Talk about good! Edith was always careful to say please and thank you and she made sure I got the last bite from her bowl. If the snow cream made me shiver she was quick to wrap me in a quilt and warm me with her body, often kissing me to sleep. I grew to love Edith and I think she loved me.

My mother whispered, “I wish her baby hadn’t died. It would have been a comfort to her.”

“What did it die of?”

“Her milk soured and poisoned it.”

“Why didn‚t she get milk from the store?”

“Her man told her they didn’t have no money to waste on store bought milk.”

“Too bad she didn’t give Klump some of that poisoned milk.”

Mom gave me a half-hearted, “Now,” to show her Christian nature.

Edith always sat with us while Mom went out to search for my old man when he went on a tear. That usually took half the night. We often went over to her room when my brother was gone out with his friends. She ironed clothes and I played. The iron was old and heavy as lead. It wore her out as she used it to put the razor-like creases in her husband‚s pants. When she got tired we cuddled up next to one another in her big chair and waited to hear “Love Me Tender,” on the hit parade before we drifted off to sleep. I don‚t know how she managed it, but I always woke up back in my own bed.

By the time I was about ten I despised Klump so much that I plotted ways to kill him. One day it struck me that I could drop something out the window onto his head. I watched every day to see when he usually got home and after several days I discovered it was always at the same time, give or take five minutes either way.

I got a jar of my mom‚s pickled beets and positioned it on the windowsill. The first day I put it close to the edge hoping it would fall of its own accord. That night he beat her senseless and left her cuffed tight to the stove while he went out to drink. The second day I got an iron skillet and made it teeter-- still afraid to take responsibility for the murder I longed to commit. That night I watched through the window as he held her face down in a pan of dishwater until she passed out. The following day I took careful aim and flung mom‚s biggest iron stew pot down on his head.

I don’t know if it was beginner‚s luck or good aim, but I cracked him square on top of the head. Though there was a lot of blood and commotion as they carried him upstairs he didn’t die. At least he was laid up for a week, which gave Edith time to heal.

I heard them fighting the next week and went out on the fire escape to peek into their room. She was naked again and he was beating the hell out of her when I jumped in through the window. I grabbed her heavy iron that was plugged into the light socket and tried to crease his head before he cold cocked me.

While I was out I had a series of erotic dreams before I woke up in my bed with a busted nose. As my mother cradled me she said, “You‚re too little to get between a growed man and his wife. That’ll get you kilt.”

My dad whispered, “Next time use that Louisville Slugger you got for your birthday.” While Edith’s husband beat her later that night he shouted, “I’ll kill that little bastard if I ever catch you with him again.” He shouted every vile name he could think up and, from what I could hear, he beat her senseless.

She never came over again. It wasn’t long after that that I noticed she began to sneak out when he was gone on a drunk. She got all painted up and put on tight sweaters, ironed her hot pink pedal pushers and began to frequent bars in the red-light district. Over the next couple of years I often saw her letting men feel her up and slobber all over her when I was out shining shoes. It wasn’t long before those men began to follow her home as she staggered out of the late night dives along the strip. At first they stopped in the alley next to our building and took turns banging her against the wall.

Klump was too chicken-shit to confront the men so he contented himself by beating her after they stumbled off home. I guess she figured she might as well do what he accused her of if she had to take the beatings for it.

She took the abuse and kept on going out. I got so jealous I wanted to hit her myself. Her husband finally gave her one last good beating that would have landed him in the jail again if he hadn’t run off. He pronounced her a worthless whore to everyone who would listen before he made his final exit.

From then on her door was always open to everyone but me. There was a man every night, sometimes two and three. I grew to hate the sounds she made with the new men more than I did the sounds of the beatings her old man had given her. I often sneaked over to watch the men she brought home rut and grunt on top of her. I was shocked by the violence of the act, then I was fascinated. Was that what men and women really did together?

My mother finally caught me and pronounced me a “filthy little Peeping Tom!”

That was the only time she ever used the razor strap on me. I never peeped again when she could have caught me. The bigger Edith’s client list got the more my imagination went wild with writhing bodies doing things I couldn’t quite understand. The sounds that came through the walls drove me so mad with jealousy that I thought I would die. I had to make her stop!

I waited one night until all of the erotic noises died in groans. When I was sure my family was asleep I got out of bed, put on my clothes, coat and gloves, and went out onto the fire escape. I watched at the window until the man she was with threw some money on the bed and left. I waited to be sure he was gone before I crept into the room. I watched her for the longest time, hoping she was asleep, thinking of what she had become.

I quietly stripped and after hesitating for a while, I climbed in next to her. She opened her eyes slowly expecting one of her johns. A flicker of shock came over her, but then she did a curious thing. She smiled and kissed me in a new way. I had trouble catching my breath. I kissed her back again and again and in the frenzy of flailing body parts I finally knew what those men wanted from her every night. I could not believe what I felt as we lay there in each others‚ arms after everything was over.

After a little while she pulled my face up and looked into my eyes. But that smile disappeared in revulsion as she pushed me violently away. Shame flooded my mind and paralyzed my body. I pushed back into the bed and she shoved me back out glaring at me. What had I done?

She shoved me again and screamed, “Get dressed and get out!” I obeyed and when I was fully dressed right down to my gloves I turned to look at her one last time. As she lay there with her eyes closed I remembered something my mother always said.

“Heaven is the only place where there is no pain and suffering.”

That phrase began echoing in my brain as I picked up the iron she used so often and brought it down on her head. Her eyes opened suddenly then closed slowly as she seemed to smile at me again. Was she inviting me to end her misery? I hit her again and again so many times that I lost track. After I don’t know how long I stopped, put the iron down and took off my gloves so I could touch her one last time. The warmth I had always known with her turned ice cold as I held her.

I don’t know how long I held her, but it was still dark when I eased myself off the bed and let her hands lie where they fell. I climbed back out onto the fire escape and went down to the basement boiler room. After taking off all my bloody clothes and burning them in the furnace I sneaked, naked, up the stairs into the bathroom to wash myself. I made it back to our room without anyone ever knowing what I had done.

Several days later the landlord had to use his passkey to open her door when the neighbors complained of the smell coming from her apartment. The women at the factory took up a collection. With that and her discount Edith was buried in a fine casket lined with pink satin.

The cops took as many statements as they could get from normally tight-lipped people. Neighbor after neighbor testified that Klump had beaten Edith ever since their baby had died and that lately she had begun to sleep around. After a short investigation the police pronounced her death a homicide and arrested her husband. They called it a crime of passion and gave him twenty-five to life. I remember thinking they ought to have killed the bastard. Though I missed Edith terribly I was glad I had saved her.

 





ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Harold W. Bowman, when asked to provide a biography, had this to say: "As far as I know I was never a suspect."


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