a short story
We lived in the third floor apartment because my father had been left the building by his mother, and we could rent out the second floor for more money to pay the mortgage. The store on the ground floor, which had been my father’s mother’s bar until she died, and her third husband ran off with whatever money was in the bank, was rented to Mickey the barber.
From the window of the bedroom I shared with my Uncle Edward, I could see the coal mine just across Grove Street. The breaker had a tower made of iron beams, with two massive wheels on top. Steel cables went around these wheels, and when they turned a cage was lowered into the mineshaft. If I got up early enough, I could watch the miners go down. In the summer I saw them come up, their faces blackened from coal dust. In the winter the miners never came up before dark, so all I ever saw was the bobbing glow from the lanterns on their helmets as they wended their way home through the snow.
The two rear windows in our kitchen had a view of our small yard, in the center of which stood the tiny spruce tree my father had planted the day I was born. I would come back years later to find it higher than the house; and still later gone, cut down by the new owners to make way for a clothesline. A picket fence separated one side of the yard from the sidewalk and street. The back border was formed by a row of chicken coops and a garage. A wire fence ran down the other side, dividing us from the people next door. Their house was as tall as ours, so I could see nothing out that way but a wall. As work at the mine was slow, most of the bars on Grove Street had closed, the one underneath the neighbors being one of the few remaining. Its sign, which was lit up at night, cast a red glow on the walls my bedroom. In the morning huge trucks would come by and wake me up with a great racket, as they unloaded huge barrels of beer that were rolled down a ramp into the bar’s cold cellar.
Mostly, I stayed in my room all day and watched the activity on Grove Street out the window. I don’t remember going down to the street much until I was at least three years old, although I must have. I had long hair, which my mother set in curls. People who didn’t know me used to say: “Oh what a beautiful girl!” Then my sister was born, and I was changed back into a boy. I had my hair cut downstairs at Mickey’s. I remember crying because I was afraid it was going to hurt. My mother said: “If you don’t stop crying, I am going to give you to the riggi.”
I don’t know why he was called “the riggi,” or even if this is the correct spelling. I do remember he had a horse and wagon. His gray mare was the first large animal I had ever seen, except for the mules they took down into the mine that never came back up until they died. I saw them bringing a mule out once. It was lying on a cart. I asked my uncle if the mule was sick. “No, it’s dead,” he said. At the time I didn’t understand what he meant, and he didn’t explain. In my inchoate mind I could not yet distinguish the difference between what is from what is not.
My mother was always threatening to “give me to the riggi,” if I didn’t do something or other; go to sleep, eat my dinner, wash my hands. This made me feel especially worthless, as everything else she didn’t want she “sold” to the riggi; rusty pots and pans, broken sewing machines, anything that had outlived its usefulness. Was I not even worth as much as my mother’s junk? I wondered. Now my father, who had never been home much anyway, had gone off to fight in the war, leaving me here with mother, and my baby sister, who always cried to get everything she wanted given to her.
Before my mother began her threats I had waited in excitement for the riggi to appear, listening to the bellow of his horn as he made his way down Grove Street. Warm days found me hanging out my window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the treasures he had stowed in his cart. On those infrequent days when mother, or the lady from downstairs, would rush out with some small item to sell and the riggi would stop on our corner, my eyes would enjoy a special treat as they inventoried the contents of the rickety cart.
Now I no longer waited for the riggi with pleasure but with fear. Was today the day he would come for me? Had my mother made some secret pact with the gnarled old man to take me away as a punishment for something she perceived I had done wrong? At the first sound of his horn I interrupted my play and took flight, diving under the spruce trees, then crawling behind the peonies.
Small bugs circled my blinking eyelids as I peered through the picket fence. The riggi’s once cheerful horn had become a mournful dirge, a sound I remembered from my Aunt Beatrice’s funeral, the day I learned what “to be dead” meant. The horse and wagon was in front of our house now, but I wouldn't see the riggi until he passed the corner. I squatted lower in the flowers, making sure I had a clear path to the chicken coop. I planned my escape; run across the open yard, jump onto the water barrel, scramble on the coop, then over the garage roof, and get away by the back alley. My grandma lived at the end of the alley. She baked me cookies when I went to visit her, and would never allow me to be taken away by the riggi.
I could see him now. The old man had stopped on the corner and was just sitting silently on his wagon, waiting. My heart was pounding with horror. I had never seen the riggi’s eyes look so beady, so full of evil. He took out a red handkerchief: was this the signal? I prepared to flee. But my mother did not come down. The old man blew his nose in the handkerchief, and then put it back in his pocket.
“Giddy up!” he growled, giving his horse a crack with the reins.
Still crouched in my hiding place, I felt a sense of relief come over me. I listened to the bellow of his horn, and the clip-clop of hoofs, as the riggi slowly disappeared down Grove Street.
Stephen Poleskie is an artist and writer. His artworks are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Tate Gallery in London, among others. He has published numerous short stories, and his biographical novel on the Civil War Balloonist T. S. C. Lowe is forthcoming from Frederic C. Beil, Publisher in 2006. Twelve of Poleskie's short stories have been published as pamphlets by OnagerEditions.
The Riggi is from a collection of stories called Leaving Grove Street. The Riggi is copyrighted by Stephen Poleskie 2006.
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