Sitting on his red concrete-smear stoop, Mancuso whittled with a pearl-handle, nine-inch stiletto. White hair, complexion pale, with deep facial creases his face resembled a Hellenistic bust. Moss-covered stone planters flanked him, an aluminum door with an “M” in the grill, behind. His faded-shingle row house stood across from a brown-brick public housing apartment where I was headed.
My practice focused on Manhattan, but as penance for my East Side condo and dinners in trendy French restaurants, I spent one day a week caring for poor patients. Over cocktails, I told friends that taking the train to Brooklyn rather than my Mercedes brought me closer to the people, but in truth I was afraid that my car would be vandalized.
Windows were open. Shouts echoed down the block from the ground-floor apartment that was my destination. The superintendent of the building, a burly African-American, had called me on my cell. When I entered the apartment, he held the wrists of a woman in her twenties, on a bed, screaming. “Don’t take my babies.” The woman’s eyes were brown glass.
Two older African-American women gathered up a girl and a boy in their arms. The super said to the woman that she wasn’t caring for the kids, and the ladies were doing what was necessary. The apartment smelled of excrement and vomit and had a ripped green-vinyl armchair and a portable TV with a wire hanger aerial. On the rickety stand next to the bed, were a pink Bic lighter and a charred, hollowed-out light bulb that served as an improvised crack pipe. At a baby’s cry, my head snapped toward a corner. Under a soiled pillow, a naked boy lay on the filthy carpeted floor. The baby’s skin had the texture of brown crepe paper. I scooped him into my arms. His pupils were dilated. I put my hand onto his forehead. He breathed, and I sighed relief.
The room went silent. I looked up. The woman on the bed stared toward the doorway where Mancuso stood, surveying the scene. He came to me and said, “I’ll take him.”
He held out his arms. Mancuso’s brown eyes were soft. I handed him the baby. He turned and strode from the apartment. I followed him across the street and into his house. Just inside, a living room with simple furniture. A black and white oval photo of a woman with an infant in her arms was on a mantle. I followed Mancuso into a bedroom. He clicked on the light, the soft-blue painted room had an old wooden crib with a white mattress. Mancuso laid the baby inside the crib.
His eyes were on the child. “Will he live?”
I grimaced. “I hope so.”
He backed to a metal-banded steamer trunk and lifted the lid. He retrieved a glass baby bottle with a faded yellow nipple. I followed him into the kitchen. He sterilized the bottle inside a pot of boiling water. When the bottle cooled a bit, he poured in milk and squeezed some drops onto his wrist to test the temperature. Satisfied, he returned to the blue room. He scooped the baby into the crook of his arm, took him into the living room, and sat on a flower-embroidered armchair. He put the nipple into the baby’s mouth, and the child responded.
“Not too much,” I said.
His eyes rose to me, just for a moment.
I waited, then wrote my phone number on a scrap of paper and left.
Weeks later, the super told me that the woman, Jelani, had left rehab and returned to her apartment. I went to see her. Jelani had gained weight, and I didn’t see any crack paraphernalia in the room. The wooden crib that I’d seen at Mancuso’s house was inside the apartment. She had the baby, Kemi, in her arms, and she fed him with Mancuso’s glass bottle. When she finished, I put the baby into his crib. Before I examined her, there was a knock, and I opened the door to Mancuso. He carried a paper bag with milk and some baby formula. Jelani nodded to him. Kemi started to cry. Mancuso and I went to the crib, but when we both bent to him, the baby extended his arms to me. I beamed. Mancuso stiffened. Kemi reached for me because I’d just placed him inside the crib. When Mancuso cared for Kemi, the baby was too distressed to remember anyone. I should’ve said these things to Mancuso, but I just picked up Kemi and cradled him. Mancuso’s face became paler. He turned and walked out of the apartment without a word. Jelani’s eyes followed him out the door.
Some months later, the super called me. Mancuso had been admitted into Unity Hospital’s Emergency Room. The rumor spread that Mancuso hoarded cash inside his house. Gang members confronted him. He pulled his stiletto, and they shot him. When I arrived at the hospital, Mancuso was already dead.
When I got to Mancuso’s house, I lingered. The screen door had been kicked in, and the aluminum “M” was twisted on the stoop, spattered with blood. I stood on the street and contemplated what the vandals had done to the inside of the house. I sensed someone at my shoulder and saw it was Jelani with Kemi in her arms.
She asked, “Is he dead?”
After a few minutes, I left her, and headed for the apartment building. At the doorway, I looked back. Jelani had the mangled “M” in her hand. I think she was crying.
Published by JMWW, April 2014