“We are not rich by what we possess but by what we can do without.” Immanuel Kant
A lot happened to us. Paulie, chased by some Puerto Rican boys, fell from a high ledge near the Baldwin Street School and landed on pile of broken beer bottles, cutting the left side of his throat several inches across. He managed to walk out onto Baldwin Street and stood in the road with blood gushing out of his neck and flagged down a lady in a car who took him to Saint Mary’s Hospital. Broken legs and slashed necks and the dead sleeping babies happened because we were poor and because our parents were ignorant and overwhelmed from being poor, and we were always poor, all of the time, and we were always in trouble because of it.
The winter before the cops came to bang down our door, my mother almost burned herself to death and that, too, was caused by poverty and ignorance. They had turned off the heat in the house, so my mother sent Paulie and Bridget to walk across town to take the baby up to my Aunt Maureen’s house to stay warm, but it was a long walk across town and there was no money for a bus and they didn’t want to go.
“Youse gotta go,” my mother yelled. “If there’s another dead baby in this house, it will be the end of us all. We won’t be together anymore, the cops will come and put me in jail and the welfare people will get youse and toss you into big schools.”
My mother told Paulie and Bridget that Aunt Maureen would take the baby for sure but she might not take them in too, so they should see if she’d give them the money for the bus back. If she wouldn’t, they should ask Uncle Bobby, a tile man who drank too much wine; he’d help us. And she pushed Paulie and Bridget out the door into the cold and the wind, that awful biting wind that rushes down from Canada or up from the ocean, and it slaps your face no matter what winter it is.
We were lucky we had Maureen, my mother’s youngest sister. You don’t usually have relatives when you’re poor. Either they can’t afford you or you can’t afford them. Of the fifteen aunts and uncles we had, only Maureen talked to us. All the others stayed clear of us because we borrowed money, or asked them to take one of us in. My father’s family, a cold and humorless bunch, were the worst. They didn’t want us coming around to their houses because we were loud, crass, and vulgar and because eventually we beat up their children and stole their toys, hiding them under our shirts, because we didn’t have any, and even their dogs left when we came around.
With Paulie and Bridget gone with the baby, Denny and I crawled into bed and squeezed up against each other to stay warm and watched the flame from the four burners on the gas stove in the kitchen that were supposed to keep us warm, but didn’t.
We watched our mother talk to herself, again, which meant she was drunk, again, and we saw her lean unsteadily forward into the flame to light another unfiltered Pall Mall cigarette. Her hair fell into the fire. A strand from her tattered overcoat followed and both went up in flames, slowly at first, and then ignited her entire body in a matter of seconds. She screamed in terror and pain, her hair burning, and she screamed and called for dear God and tried to pull off the coat that was on fire too.
Denny and I leaped from bed, knocked her to the ground, rolled on top of her, beat down the flames and threw beer on her, and hit the flames over and over again until they went out. It was over in a minute, but most of her red hair was burned off and her coat was scorched to her back. I ran out to the hallway and screamed and screamed until the neighbors came. A few minutes later, we saw the red and blue lights from the ambulance and cop cars. She was going to the hospital, no heat in the apartment, the cops would take us away to the orphanage run by the welfare people, and we’d be beaten to death or something. I took Denny into the bedroom and helped him on with his shoes and jacket and we slipped out the window and made our way down across town to Aunt Maureen’s house. We got away that time.
The fire, like Jimmy’s death, Paulie’s fall, and Denny’s accident, all made the newspapers. Waterbury, despite its size, is really just another small New England factory town, a family town where those sorts of things don’t go unnoticed. Nor did they. The cops had us in the back seat of a squad car, and from that moment, we would no longer be a family.