When I was very young I lived in Philadelphia in an undistinguished four-story corner building a few blocks from Independence Square. I was on the fourth floor one flight up from Myrna Finch and Mr. Pennyman and his son who lived opposite her. We said hello to each other all the time and Myrna Finch and I had begun to make tentative conversations, but she was a decade or more older than me and, of course, I had even less in common with Mr. Pennyman. So I was surprised when I came home from work one day to find him waiting for me on the stairs.
“Please, help,” he rasped, his pasty white face gone whiter. “She’s in my bed, and my son will be home from school soon. She’s naked!”
“Who?” I asked.
“Miss Finch,” he moaned, taking me to his door and opening it wide so I could see for myself..
Poor Myrna was curled up in the very center of the bed-plump, pale and stark naked-with Mr. Pennyman’s sheets corkscrewing around her. “Myrna,” I murmured. “Are you okay? Mr. Pennyman would like you to get out of his bed before his son comes home.” She shrugged the way she always did, but it was pretty obvious that something was wrong.
I walked closer to the bed and stared down at her. I didn’t want to embarrass her so I looked away again quickly. Her face and her stomach were swollen and purple like overripe fruit going bad so I could guess what had happened. I knew her boyfriend beat her because she’d told me so the night before when she gave me a set of her dishes. She said she never used them and, since she knew I needed some, why not these? They were yellow and cheerful, so I said yes.
Now she was talking sing-song and not making much sense. Maybe love lyrics? I didn’t know Myrna well enough to touch her, much less grapple with all that soft damaged flesh. Even if I had, there wasn’t much I could do about moving her. She weighed at least twenty pounds more than me.
Mr. Pennyman was wringing his hands, trying not to look, keeping watch on the stairway where his boy would come running any minute. “Mr. Pennyman,” I said to him. “Why don’t you call the police and I’ll try to find something for her to wear.”
Since Myrna’s apartment door was unlocked, it was simple matter to find her closet and flip through the silky flowery dresses there, but how would I get her into one of them? And what about shoes? Underwear? The whole kit and kaboodle. Myrna never dressed sloppily, and it was important to make her look respectable. I almost dropped to my knees and thanked God when I found the pink ruffled robe hanging on a hook in the bathroom. It looked as if it would cover her handily, ensuring decorum and even modesty. I took it back to Mr. Pennyman’s apartment and began prodding and pushing Myrna into a sitting position so that I could drape it over her shoulders.
I hadn’t made much progress by the time the boy arrived. Mr. Pennyman stood in the hallway, gesturing wildly, blocking the doorway as he tried to explain the presence of a naked woman in his bed, and finally, in despair, slamming the door shut so that everything went dark before I could find a button-hole to match a button. The nearly pitch black was thick with the smell of Mr. Pennyman’s after-shave, Myrna’s signature perfume, and urine. Claustrophobia big time.
I heard Mr. Pennyman tell his son he had taken my suggestion and telephoned the police. It had probably been a bad idea. I didn’t trust the cops, but I was at a loss about what to do next. I’d get no help from Mr. Pennyman who was clearly frightened of naked women.
Philadelphia was grim in the early 1960s. Independence Hall was right up the street, but the crack in the liberty bell seemed more significant than the bell itself. The newspaper headlines were always about murder. Black-white, rich-poor. I heard sounds out the window at night that I couldn’t understand; people snarled at each other in accents that squeezed the life out of words. It seemed to me that the city was in a miserable state, not at all like the home place of Benjamin Franklin that I’d envisioned when I bought a homemade loaf of bread, and hurried through fallen leaves to my new apartment on Society Hill. Okay, it wasn’t Society Hill yet, just a low rental on a side street, but after a few more developers and a couple of years…..
And the cops? In those days, I hung out at a bar called Frank’s where rumor was we were going to be shut down. Frank wouldn’t pay off the cops. He was one of my heroes.
I should have paid attention to the cops. All that was left later was an impression of rock-hard bodies and freshly laundered uniforms. I didn’t collect badge numbers or license plates. I didn’t check out their height and weight and the color of their eyes. They got her to her feet, one on either side, and covered her up a little more. Buttoned another button. Then they trundled her out into the hallway, slowly so that she wouldn’t tumble, and edged her down the stairs. She began to come to, I think. She tried to walk between them. She laughed. She flirted.
“She’s blasted,” one of them said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “But she’s hurt too.”
“Yeah,” he growled. “We’ll take her somewhere to sleep it off.”
And they drove away with her.
I listened all that night and the next morning for the rattle of her pots and pans, the easy listening music on her radio, the off-key of her sing-along, but Myrna didn’t come back. She was still gone in the afternoon when I got home from work. I hoped she was between clean sheets somewhere, sleeping and healing. It was almost six o’clock; I’d just finished dinner when Mr. Pennyman knocked at the door.
“She’s back,” he said. “She’s camped on the stoop.”
I followed him downstairs, wishing that it wasn’t so, that she wouldn’t be there because Pennyman was given to hallucinations—who knew?—that, at the very least, she was in her own apartment, still wasted, but safe. But there she was, in the same nightgown, looking exactly the way she had the day before, but on the stoop where they’d deposited her.
“Myrna,” I said. “Where have you been? Did they take you to jail?” Maybe she’d been in some kind of holding pen to ‘sleep it off.’ Maybe she’d be okay now.
“Driving,” she muttered. “Driving. Aren’t you the cutest thing?”
“Can I call someone for you?” I asked. She shrugged, and continued speaking in tongues.
Mr. Pennyman went back upstairs: Myrna was my problem, not his. I sat with her for the first half hour, trying to get some kind of conversation started, but she just hugged herself and swayed back and forth. Finally, even though I worried about invading her privacy, I thought to go into her apartment and look for names and phone numbers. Everyone has someone, I thought. Not cops this time. Cops that drove her around for twenty-four hours-like their very own rag doll to play with, a babe, a chick, a whore, and all of it for free. To hell with Philadelpia cops! I found her brother’s name and phone number. A relation. Myrna wasn’t alone in the world after all. I called and he answered just like that and said he’d come and get her. It as all so easy.
A half hour later, I left Myrna on the stoop to answer a phone call from my mother. I was hoping for a few dollars loan. Mom was still talking when I looked out my window and saw a guy shoving Myrna into the back seat of his black Buick. I heard him scuffling around her apartment for a few minutes, collecting clothes and stuff, I guessed. And then they were gone. She was gone.
For three weeks, Myrna’s apartment was silent. I tried phoning her brother once, but whoever answered hung up. I heard from Mr. Pennyman when we passed on the stairs, that someone had come and cleaned out her apartment.
It was maybe a month later when her brother came to see me.
“I’m Finch,” he said. “Jim Finch.” He was a big man in an expensive overcoat.
“I’m so glad to meet you,” I replied. “I’m Barbara. How’s Myrna?”
“I want to know about the guy that beat her up,” he said. “You and she were friends. You must know something, Barbie.”
“I don’t know anything. I know she met him at the Hi Ho. I never saw him. She said he beat her, but I don’t know anything else about him.”
“I want him strung up,” he said. “He’s gonna pay.”
“I hope you’ll do something about the cops too,” I said. “They drove her around for twenty-four hours having their way with her.”
“Yeah. No.” He shrugged the same way Myrna always did. “The boyfriend. You don’t know what he looked like?”
“No. But the cops….”
“I don’t give a damn about them, Barbie. It’s the boyfriend I want.”
“I don’t even remember his name. But the cops….”
“I’ve grilled everyone in the place, but so far, nothing. You don’t do that to me and get away with it. He’s going down.”
“Mr. Finch….” So he wouldn’t tell me how Myrna was, but maybe he’d tell me where. “Where’s Myrna?”
“State mental ward,” he said. “If you hear anything, call me.” He handed me his card.
‘Sheriff Jim Finch,’ it read.
Like I said, in the sixties, Philadelphia was grim. And you couldn’t trust the cops—not even when they were relations.