“I said, let her go… now.”
With my right arm fully extended, I pointed my revolver at the middle of the red-headed guy’s face. I wanted him to see the dark at the end of the gun’s barrel without having to squint. As I walked towards the counter in the center of the room. I glanced to my left and, what I saw made me hesitate, just a split second.
The girl flying backwards over the far end of the blue sofa as I made my entrance, was Almira Ristani. I knew this, only because she stretched her arms out to either side as she flew backward through the air, and, for a split second, her face was in plain view. There was a look in her eyes I’ll never forget. Framed by a jagged halo of light-brown hair, was the face of pure, animal ferocity. As for the guy who hit her, all I saw was the back of a badly wounded animal, singed by a falling tree in a forest fire. From where I stood, I couldn’t see his face, but I knew beyond certainty, that she was staring directly into his eyes. Strangely enough, I felt pity for him.
The red-haired guy, with his hand buried in Annie’s thick brown hair stood, frozen like a hunting dog on point. His face showed the sly intelligence of a weasel. His eyes, unlike the rest of his body, were in constant motion. They showed no fear, just a very rapid re-appraisal of the situation. My appearance obviously changed the balance of power. The math was simple, if nothing else: 2 strong men + 2 battered women versus one loaded gun. Of course, that ‘one loaded gun’ was not more than five feet away and pointed at his face. Despite that, he clearly was not convinced that his options were drastically curtailed from what they were, a mere 10 seconds earlier,
“Sterling….don’t! Not here!”
The tone in Annie’s voice added a new element to the red-haired guy’s strategic calculations. That, plus the qualified admonition, not if, but where. Uncertainty that looked like it could grow into fear, passed over his face. A quick decision and he started his retreat, only to find that his fingers were still very entangled in Annie’s hair. He looked at his hand and the hair twisted between his fingers, with an expression bordering on comical surprise. The hair he used to bind the woman to his will, now held him and prevented his retreat. He managed to relax his grip enough to let the hair fall loose and stepped away from behind the counter,
“Look, buddy, we’re only doing a job. You let me and Herschel here leave, and there won’t be no more trouble. Ain’t that right, Herschel?”
The response from the other man was an oddly prissy-sounding,
“oh I’m hurt so bad, Robbie…. I’m hurt so bad…”
Annie stepped around the counter and moved towards the fireplace. Robbie, for his part, continued towards the door, at a speed that might be called a run, except that he didn’t once turn his back on me. Without taking his eyes off my revolver, he veered towards the couch, grabbed Herschel’s arm and pulled him towards the exit. As the large man turned, his overcoat swung free, melted buttons broke apart and damage from the burning was apparent. Fabric and flesh glued together, a smudged landscape of pain. Like a Fourth of July fireworks display, a sudden odor bloomed. The harsh smell of burnt wool, firewood and something else, unidentifiable, yet terrible. Staring down at the front of his ruined coat, Herschel began to brush at the wet-dusty fabric, but his hand froze in mid-motion. He let himself be pulled by the arm, out into the night, for all a child trapped in a burning nightmare. The open door offered the winter wind the opportunity it had waited for, and under its triumphant howl, I heard,
“I’m hurt Robbie… I’m oh god hurt real bad, do something.”
“Shut up, ya galoot… she was just a little girl for christ sakes! We need to get away from here, right now. your screaming surely will bring the coppers. Don’t know how I’m gonna explain this to that Prendergast fop… this was supposed to be a simple tear and scare”
I felt my anger re-ignite suddenly. Too much happened, too quickly, to let quiet prevail. I needed to do something, anything. Stay and help or run and catch. And when I caught, then I’d be able to forget the look on the girl’s face.
“Those guys! They’re getting away!! I’m gonna make sure they…”
“Never mind them! Almira needs us more than you need to give them a beating, Sterling! Now get over here and help me get her on the couch …Now!”
Putting my revolver back in my inner pocket, I stepped over to where Annie was crouched in front of the fireplace. Almira had landed in the space between the far end of the sofa and the wall. At first, all I could see were brown, laced shoes projecting up and over the arm of the sofa. I stood behind Annie and could see the rest of the girl, leaning halfway up against the wall, her chin against her chest, blood everywhere. I thought, ‘The last time I saw this much human blood was the first time I saw a man die‘, and almost said it out loud. Instead I said,
“OK Annie, I’ll let ’em go…for now. What do you need me to do?”
“Move the couch away…. no! wait! let me support her legs first.”
Luckily I’d resisted my first impulse to just flip the couch end over end, into the open part of the room. Annie looked up at me as, using my right knee and thigh, I slid the couch about 3 feet to the right, smiled,
“Very good! Now that you’ve taken back control of that body of yours, I’m going to need you to lift her from behind her shoulders…” I was leaning forward from the word, ‘lift’, when she finished her instruction, “wait! let me finish!”
I smiled at her enough to soften the hardening edges in her face, which was threatening to turn into something stern and demanding. A look like that would not have helped, a lot of my less-inspired decisions were started by someone’s look of stern disapproval. So, I waited and watched, as Annie let go of some of her own adrenaline-sparked stress. She relaxed her furrowing brow and, with obvious effort, offered me a smile, with only a hint of exasperation. I nodded that I was waiting for her to continue,
“Lift her under her arms, but find a way to have your forearms cradle her head. I don’t want her head moving too much when we move her, no telling what condition her neck is in, can you do that?”
She put her forearms under Almira’s ankles.
“On three. One…Two….lift.”
We had her up and, after a second of looking at the sofa, decided that Annie would move first, putting Almira’s feet on the charred end of the sofa. The girl couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds, I thought, as I stood holding her upper torso in my hands, fingers interlaced, forearms together formed something of a cradle. Taking her sweater off, Annie folded it into a wedge and tucked it where the seat cushions met the arm rest. I lowered Almira so that she’d be lying at a slant, head elevated but still straight. Annie’s blouse buttons had, apparently pulled free during her struggle earlier, now fell open as she bent to adjust the sweater under Almira’s head. I still had one arm under the girl and was inches from Annie. She noticed my distracted attention, stared at her blouse, looked back at me and laughed,
“Well, at least we know one of us made it through this evening un-scathed! But…” standing straighter, still laughing, her eyes on mine, “But then again, you could’ve accidentally shot yourself in the leg and you’d still be staring at my breasts. Men!”
I laughed, reached over with my free hand and buttoned the middle two buttons, smiling back at her,
“If my lady wishes her knight to rescue her, My Lady shouldn’t make it so hard for her knight to concentrate on her instructions.”
Our laughter, a relief from the accumulated stress, felt good. It stopped when we heard a moan from the couch.
Annie pulled some handkerchiefs from wherever it is women hide them, and, without a word, walked to the bathroom on the far side of the room. I heard water running and she came back to where I was crouching next to the couch, where Almira was bleeding quietly onto her sweater and the cushions of the sofa.
“Get me some ice,”
I vaulted over the sofa and ran out the door. The sidewalk was, as I expected, deserted. What I didn’t expect was how little snow there was on the ground. Of what there was, most was white-glazed between the cobblestones or encrusted in the gutters.
“Hurry the goddamn hell up! I need ice to slow this bleeding down!”
I decided the quickest solution was to run the two blocks down to the River, rather than screw around trying to scrape the frost off the side of the building. My hope for icicles hanging off the roof gutter crapped out, as the cold of the past week was relentless, there hadn’t been any melting in nearly a week. I ran down Bennett St. across Canal St to where the trestle crossed the river. I nearly broke my leg at least twice, scrambling down the embankment, the rough granite was mixed with loose bricks, discarded from the endless construction of the Mills. I managed to kick off a rounded triangle of ice from a frozen wave of river water, trapped on dry land by the extreme cold.
“What took you so…”
Annie looked up as I ran through the door with a 20 lb chunk of ice in my hands. I assumed it was in my hands as, now that I had accomplished my goal, I couldn’t tell what I held in my thoroughly numb hands. Had it not been for the strain on my shoulders, I wouldn’t know I was carrying anything. I walked towards the fireplace.
I saw Annie’s eyes widen before I even bothered to look down,
“Well, that might be enough,”
Annie laughed as she looked around for something to make my chunk of river ice a little more manageable,
“Here, let’s try this,”
I threw the ice against the hearth as hard as I could. Before the smaller pieces stopped skittering across the floor, I picked up a piece, about the size of a decent restaurant’s corn muffin, and, thinking for a second, started to pull off my scarf.
“You do like the straight lines, don’t you, Sterling?”
Annie took the ice from my hands and wrapped it in a clean-looking white cloth. She frowned as she felt it’s hard edges, even through several wraps of the fairly delicate material.
“Here, give me that,”
without waiting for me to respond, she twirled my wool scarf around my head, like un-winding a bobbin on one of the machines in the Mill, and took it from around my neck.
“…er, Annie?…. Brooks Brothers…. less than a year old,”
seeing her look, I decided that it’d be worth the investment of my scarf, if I could stay in her good graces. Since I arrived in Lawrence all of a few weeks ago, Annie LoPizzo remained very much at the top of my ‘to do’ list.
She wrapped the cloth-covered ice in my scarf and smashed it against the stone hearth. Rotating it with each strike, quickly produced an ice pack of manageable size. Annie un-wrapped the ice, draped my scarf over my shoulder and turned back to the girl on the sofa.
“Here, get next to her head, I need to clean up some of this blood and I don’t want her to move too suddenly.”
I looked closely, for the first time since this all started, and had a good look at the girl laying on the couch. It was, I knew, of course, Almira Ristani. But if all I had to go on was a photo of her face at this moment, I’d never have recognized her. Had I held the picture of a stranger being circulated by the police, hoping to identify an accident victim, I might have said,
“Who beat up the old crone? She looks like a house fell on her!”
But it wasn’t an old woman on this second-hand blue sofa decorated with blood and soot, it was a young girl. I realized that, somehow, despite the relatively short amount of time I’d spent with her since arriving in Lawrence, Massachusetts, she’d become important to me.
Lawrence, Massachusetts was just another place to kill some time, after I abruptly left school in New Hampshire. I wasn’t expected back home in Providence for at least a month, which was just as well, as I didn’t think the Dean of Students would be in a hurry to send my parents a letter explaining why he felt it was in the best interest of Dartmouth College that I be expelled. Of course, Dean Hopkins’s wife Christina, really wouldn’t appreciate her dalliance with the student body getting more publicity. So, leaving the dormitory, I decided to do some exploring. I suspected that, as long as Dartmouth kept receiving tuition checks from my folks and I didn’t come back, everyone would be happy. Except, maybe Mrs. Hopkins. At any rate, one cold December morning I stood on the bridge over the Merrimack River that looked, for all the world, like a moat protecting a red-brick castle. From my vantage point overlooking Lawrence, the factory smokestacks were every tower in any illustrated book of fairy tales, the Mills that lined the riverbank, like impregnable brick embattlements, beckoning the knight-errant. I recalled my Medieval History Professor saying, ‘It’s tempting to see the city, hidden behind the castle walls, as a child behind his mother’s skirts, as dependent upon the mighty castle fortress for it’s very existence. Closer, more thoughtful examination shows otherwise, that the outward signs of power were dependent on the existence of the lowly inhabitants. Men, women and children, bound by the clerical and commercial yokes of the powerful, extorted by taxation of what little wealth earned, provided the funds to create the dark edifice. Yet, even more essential, was the near endless labor necessary to create the castle, in the first place.’
The United Worker’s Labor Hall doors were open, in the un-seasonably mild temperatures, as I walked up from Canal Street. I was trying to stretch the 10 dollars I had when I left Hanover, but my hunger grew, I abdicated control and let the aroma of soup draw me through the doors. Annie stood, Persephone in homespun, behind the counter, (her command center, I would later tease her). She looked up at me, smiled and said, “Welcome.!”
“OK, here we go,”
Annie wiped Almira’s cheeks of the last lattice stains of blood, now beginning to dry. Dramatic shiny-flowing red turned into rusty-brown trails running from the corner of her eyes, down to her ears.
I sat, half on, half-off the couch, holding Almira’s hands together, at her midriff, when she woke. “She came alive’ ran through my mind, until, that is, I found myself having to restrain 100 pounds of frightened, determined girl. To Annie’s credit, she didn’t recoil, instead moved her arms around to the sides of Almira’s head, stroking her hair gently. For the second time, in what had to be the strangest night of my life, I saw the face of a human, stripped of whatever it is that separates us from the lower orders of animal. Her eyes searched, first for a path of escape and then, accepting her immobility, for a weak point to attack. For all of my 200 pounds, combined with the leverage of a 6′ 2” frame, I had to fight to remain in control of the girl.
Accepting that she could not get up and run, Almira lay back on the couch and looked up at me.
“Oh, good! You’re awake!” with the delighted surprise of a host seeing a houseguest coming early to breakfast, Annie’s voice was immediately drowned out by laughter. Even Almira, now recognizing us, tried, unsuccessfully, to join in.
Annie got up and quickly returned with a small pan of warm water and two clean cloths. Kneeling at the end of the sofa, she completed her cleanup of the blood on Almira’s face.
“Dank yu” Almira frowned at the sound of her blunted fricative.
“How bah…how bahhd! is it? I canth breath tru my node”
I looked at Annie for a sign of how to react, but she was looking at Almira’s face with an expression that hinted at fear, as if she was trying to convince herself that the damage was not as bad as it looked, and failing. Almira’s face looked pretty damn bad, her formally aquiline nose now had more in common with a roseate Spoonbill than the sharp-eyed eagle. Her nose, spectacularly broken, lay to the right side of her face, fortunately there was little in the way of cut or torn flesh. Her eyes were nearly swollen shut, and yet there was a sharpness and a focus to them that was not a little un-settling.
“Well, it looks…” Annie started to say, in what she clearly hoped was a confident and re-assuring tone, faltered when she looked at the wreckage of the girl’s face.
“You’ve suffered a severely deviated septum but apparently avoided any other significant maxillofacial trauma. I suspect that all…”
I stopped, Annie and Almira stared at me with a look of amazement and a touch of cautious hope.
“What? I’m the only one here who took a couple of pre-med courses? …well, ok, maybe I am, but surely one of the two of you have lost a bar fight and had… well, alright, alright. So you haven’t and I have and had my nose broken… maybe a couple of times,”
I stopped when I saw the look in Annie’s eyes begin to incite a grin from the girl lying on the couch between us. For an evening that had such a violent start, the three of us spent more time laughing than I would’ve believed if I wasn’t a party to it all.
“So, what do we do?” Annie looked at me, and Almira, with a very slight and careful inclining of her head, nodded in agreement.
“Gotta set your nose. Put it back in the position God meant it to be and let nature take it’s course. Had it done 4, 5 times. You’ll get your breathing back, the swelling and the black-eyes, those’ll heal on their own.”
The way I explained it sounded reasonable, and they both appeared to accept what I was telling them with complete trust and confidence. As a matter of fact, I did know what to do for a broken nose, but that wasn’t the same as doing it to a 16-year-old girl. I didn’t think it would help to tell them that it was no big deal, provided the patient was drunk as a lord and had two cops kneeling on his chest.
“So do it,” Annie looked to Almira, who squeezed her fingers and gave us the ‘don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it’ nod.
“Wait! Wait, lets not be too hasty. I know! why don’t we take Almira to the hospital instead.”
“nuh… nah kno!” Almira forced through her swelling lips. Although Annie seemed uncertain, she looked over at me and said, “tell us first, just what you’re going to do.”
Seeing that both women were determined to go through with my offer of first aid, I slid over on the couch, forcing Almira to bend her knees a bit, without any pain or distress that I could see, which put me at about her waist level. I had my left forearm resting on the back of the couch and my right hand on the girl’s forearm.
“Alright, you want to know what I’m going to do? You’re already lying down, that’s good, cause it’s easier that way. I’ll tell you to relax, and you’ll try, but won’t be able to. Then, as gently as possibly, I’m going to grab your nose with two fingers and jerk it to the side and slightly downward. It will hurt. But, almost right away, you’ll feel things open and you’ll forget the pain and you’ll start to think that everything’s going to be alright. And it will.”
Annie’s face took on an expression so intriguing that I almost stopped my description of how I planned to set Almira’s nose. It was a look of poignant excitement, it was also a look that said, ‘If you dare, ask me, but be prepared to be taken to some very surprising places.’
“Are you still willing?”
Again the silent assent, with no fear but something else seemed to grow in her eyes, a look of anticipation and even, excitement. I saw that Almira’s eyes were emerald-green, somehow, both dark and full of light. I shook my head, that I could have missed such incredibly attractive eyes as those of Almira’s, made me wonder how I managed to get through life this long without walking off a cliff or going blind from staring at the morning sun.
I leaned forward, looked over at Annie and reached with my left arm across and over Almira’s face, as if inviting Annie to hand me one of the cloths she had in her lap. Almira’s eyes followed the motion of my hand and watched as Annie put a folded white cloth in my left hand. With my right hand, I reached under my left arm and pulled Almira’s nose straight and slightly downward.
Almira’s eyes widened in shock and she started to gasp but, almost immediately, felt the normal flow of air in her nose. The relief of being able to breathe almost normally, stifled any cry of pain, prompted by my surprise rhinoplasty.
Annie looked at me with almost as much surprise as Almira. But with that odd expression of reminiscence, which seemed to flare up in her eyes. A brief flash of anger, like distant cloud blocked lightening, took hold of her but as quickly disappeared, a wistful sadness left in it’s place.
“Son of a Bitch!” Annie half-cursed and half-laughed in surprise.
“Saints preserve us! What kind of deviltry’s has been going on in here!”
From the door came a loud exclamation that, like a vicious dog on a leash, wanted to turn into accusation. The beat cop, Sargent Herlihy, stood just inside the hall and stared at the three of us, on the slightly charred, very blood stained second-hand sofa, …laughing.
“Enough with you laughing! I’m out on as Christ-cold a night as I can remember, because my captain insisted, which can only mean that someone told him to get down to the Union Hall. Someone better start explaining things. And a bonny-good tale it needs to be, judging from the looks of this place!”