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©1999 - 2012
Edward D. Reuss
All rights reserved. Including the right of reproduction in whole or part in any form

 

BURNING MEMORY
by Ed Dee

You ever notice that when you see a bunch of cops swapping war stories they're only telling the funny ones?  We never tell the horror stories...unless it's late at night, and the booze makes you weepy. We all have these stories we can't tell, yet can't forget. This is my worst.  I've never told it before.  Maybe this will make it go away.

This story takes place in the early sixties. A frigid afternoon in the south Bronx. I was on foot patrol.  In those days you didn't see the inside of a radio car until you had gray hair. This was before cops carried radios; when working in pairs was a violation of the Rules and Procedure.  In the police academy in Manhattan they'd told us that if we ever got into trouble in the Bronx just find a telephone or call box. I'd been on the street long enough to know this was a little academy joke. The truth was, you were on your own.

Boston Road is a wide street, the wind tears down it unimpeded.  I was looking for a warm spot to duck into, give my feet a chance to thaw, when I heard a woman scream from an upper floor of a five story walk-up. Screaming at me. Something clearly frantic and desperate in her voice.  I was wearing that thirty pound horse blanket of a blue woolen uniform overcoat. The only good thing about that coat was that the inside pockets were deep enough for a blackjack or a flute of Jack Daniels.  I moved quickly toward the building.

The building's front door was plywood, spray painted and so weatherbeaten it was obvious that the super had long ago decided against ever replacing the glass. Inside the hallway I could hear voices echoing from above.  Loud voices, frightened voices. It didn't matter that the conversation was in rapid-fire Spanish.  I knew it was bad.

The advice of old-time cops is to move slowly up the stairs, so you won't be too winded for the battle you might be walking into. But I couldn't walk slowly; the women on the upper landing were yelling down the stairwell, telling me to hurry. Begging me to hurry.

Three women were yelling.  Three women who stopped talking when I got there. All they did was look toward an open apartment door.

I'll never forget that apartment.  Living room on the right, kitchen on the left, bathroom straight ahead. Walls were newly painted, linoleum shining, furniture covered in plastic.  A white wicker bassinet stood in the center of the living room floor.  The place was incredibly neat and clean.  Immaculate.   But sprawled against the sofa was a young boy about eleven: white shirt, blue pants, blue Catholic school tie.  Soaked in blood.  Clearly gone to his heavenly reward.

I could feel the heat rush to my face. The apartment was much too warm. Steam heat hissing, radiator clanking.  And an odd smell, something burning.  I could feel the little hairs on the back on my neck standing up, rubbing against the woolen collar.  I asked what happened.

Two of the women were Puerto Rican.  They pointed toward the other woman, the one to whom both the apartment and the tragedy belonged.  She was Argentinean.  I figured she was in her late thirties, but women age so quickly here. She spoke no English.  I asked the Puerto Rican women if someone could interpret. One said she was unsure of the Argentinean's dialect, so I asked her to call the station house for me.  The other agreed to interpret, providing she could stand in the hallway.  She didn't want to step into that apartment.

I checked the kitchen thinking: something is burning on the stove. Nothing on the stove.  Then I looked more closely at the boy, stepping carefully to avoid the blood. He was cut dozens of times, deeply on the face and chest.  His arms and the palms of his hands showed numerous defensive wounds, long narrow wounds, more slices than cuts.

 The Argentinean woman began to talk in little short burst of emotion. The Puerto Rican tried to keep up, first listening to her, then turning to me in tears and broken english.

The gist of the Argentinean woman's story was this:
She said she heard a knock at her door.  She looked through the peephole to see a huge black man who said he was a police officer.  She opened the door and let him in. He closed and locked the door behind him. The Argentinean woman said the man was enormous and threatening.  He spoke in this deep growl of a voice, a voice that sounded as if it came from the devil.   She said he ordered her to kill her children.

Children?

I turned and walked toward the bassinet. Inside the bassinet on a bed of clean white sheets and pink blankets lay an infant.  Weeks old.  A baby...in a pool of blood.  It's throat sliced.

The Puerto Rican woman begged to leave, but I couldn't let her.  I didn't know exactly what to do, so I wrote everything down in my memo book. I asked all the questions: time, description, everything.  Keep the pen moving until the detectives arrive. Who? What? When? Where? Why?

That last I knew was unanswerable.

The odd burning smell kept getting stronger.

I asked the woman to repeat the story. This time she said the black man had threatened to kill her if she didn't obey him. I asked, Why?  Because he was the devil, she insisted.  There was nothing she could do.

The steam radiators were hissing.  I could feel the sweat running down my sides. The Puerto Rican woman, fully in tears, asked to leave. You can't, I said. It looked as if she'd wet her pants. And that burning smell, what was that?
I asked, Did he show identification? Had you ever seen him before?  Just asking questions, wondering where the hell the sergeant was.

Then I asked: What kind of weapon?

The Argentinean woman pointed to the bathroom. I followed her to the medicine cabinet.  She took out an ornately carved wooden box. She opened it. Inside the box was straight razor. She said: This was the weapon the black man had made her use. I believed her.  But it was clean, shiny, gleaming.  Not a drop of blood on it. She'd cleaned the razor before putting it away.  Like she cleaned everything.

I knew there had been no black man.  I knew she was the devil.

Detectives later found that the woman had come with her husband and son from Argentina a little over a year ago.  He worked long hours in Manhattan.  Neighbors had said her new baby cried often, sick with colic.  The baby had been crying all morning. The twelve year old son had come home from school and probably found the mother in a fit of rage. A fit of what we'd now call something like post-partum depression.  Maybe he tried to stop her from attacking the baby. Maybe she'd already sliced the infant's throat.  Weeks later, a detective told me the woman had been in a mental hospital in Argentina for killing her first child.   None of it seemed to matter.  It was all over.  No witnesses. Case closed.

But there was a witness. Remember the burning smell?

As more and more cops came into the tiny apartment the smell got worse.  We traced it to a corner near the window. Someone pulled a chair away, then moved the drapes.  Huddled against the steam radiator was a small brown dog.  Trembling.  He was shaking so violently he seemed a blur to me. The burning smell was his hair and flesh.  When we reached for him he squeezed tighter against the radiator, backing further between the heated metal sections, fearful of a human touch. Finally someone yanked him away and smoke rose from the tiny burning animal.

I left that apartment before the husband got home.   As a father I didn't want to see that.  I went home to my own wife and children, to hug them harder than I ever had before.  And to go about the futile business of putting this cold Bronx day out of my mind.

Copyright 2000 Ed Dee, LIeutenant, NYPD (retired)

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