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The Augie


Harry Buschman

Mrs. Irwin was a divorcee. She lived on the fifth floor, one flight above us with her young daughter Marion. It was rare to see a lady living alone in those days unless their husband was dead. Most apartments were crawling with in-laws, aunts and uncles, some even had a grandparent or two. Me and Ernie kept an  eye on the comings and goings of Mrs. Irwin and we wondered what she and her daughter did up there all by themselves. It was none of our business, but our  young appetites were whetted by the whispered innuendoes of our elders.

Every Wednesday afternoon seven women would come to visit Mrs. Irwin, and  every Friday three different women would show up. In the morning preceding those Wednesday and Friday afternoons, Mrs. Irwin would run off to the store and buy bottles of wine and something from the bakery -- we couldn't figure it out.

"You know what I think? I think she's havin' augies up there." Ernie (who knew everything) confided to me.

I was never embarrassed to admit I didn't know what Ernie was talking about, so I asked him what an augie was.

"Well ... you know," he explained, "like back in the old Roman days, guys in togas would lay on their backs and eat grapes while women would come in and fan them."

I pointed out that Mrs. Irwin was not a guy and why would it take seven women  to fan her anyway?

"Oh that's not all they did," he winked conspiratorially, "they ... did you know what ... too."

He knew Mrs. Irwin lived over my apartment so he continued pumping me about what I must have heard going on up there, particularly the 'you know what' part of it.

"A lot of laughing sometimes -- sometimes all together, like somebody told a joke or something." That was all I could come up with. He was beginning to make me nervous. What if there really were augies going on up there?

We made plans to investigate.

At this point I must pause and explain two important elements of our investigation. They involved the dumbwaiter in the cellar of our apartment and  'Skinny' Bettelheim.

First, the dumbwaiter. Every five story tenement had a dumbwaiter, a sort of refrigerator sized hand operated elevator pulled up and down with a rope. It accessed the kitchen of every apartment in the building. The tenants would receive their blocks of ice, their kerosene, their milk and their meat and vegetables after the lady of the house completed her negotiations with the street vendors below from the parlor window. The tenant's garbage made the return trip to the superintendent in the cellar every morning -- a bell would jingle in the kitchen and the tenant would know the dumbwaiter was waiting.

If the janitor was late for the garbage and the vendors were early, there was  often confusion in the cellar down below and heated words would be exchanged. An unsuspecting housewife might find someone's garbage along with her fresh  vegetables.

'Skinny' Bettelheim was the other element in the plan. He weighed no more than sixty pounds, and me and Ernie planned to haul him up to the fifth floor in the dumbwaiter to listen in on the augie. 'Skinny' was fragile and wouldn't dare say no to me and Ernie -- or anyone else for that matter.

We went to the school library to look up augies so we could tell 'Skinny' Bettelheim what to look out for. It took a lot of searching until we finally discovered we had the name spelled wrong. We found it by backtracking our way through the encyclopedia by way of Rome, and let me tell you our appetites were quickly whetted by what we read about Roman orgies.

"Wow!" said Ernie, "just think, all that was going on right over your head -- you must have heard something."

"Honest, Ernie -- just the laughing part. Maybe the 'you know what' part doesn't make much noise."

So we waited impatiently for a likely Wednesday afternoon when there would be eight ladies going at it and we told 'Skinny' exactly what he'd have to do. Not much really. Just put his ear to the dumbwaiter door and listen to what he could hear, then maybe push the door open a little to see what was going on inside. We tried to explain to him what orgies were with the grapes and the fanning and all. They'd be drinking wine too, we told him -- we suspected that from our observations of Mrs. Irwin. We had dreams, all three of us, of turning this adventure into a school project to prove that Roman Empire debauchery was  still alive and thriving in Brooklyn.

'Skinny' of course got cold feet, he was afraid we would drop him, or leave him suspended up at the fifth floor just when he needed us most. We assured him that the three of us were in this adventure together and furthermore we would  kick his ass in if he didn't go through his part of the bargain.

The seven ladies showed up two and three at a time. All of them well dressed, and with the scent of lilies of the valley trailing after them they climbed the stairs of the front stoop. They smiled at us indulgently and disappeared inside.

"Give 'em fifteen minutes," Ernie whispered, "they ought to be goin' at it good by then."

We ran down to the cellar and counted off fifteen minutes, then we crammed 'Skinny' Bettelheim into the dumbwaiter and reminded him what he was supposed to do. We reassured him that we would stay down there no matter what -- but both me and Ernie were ready to run at the first sign of trouble. We hauled 'Skinny' up to the fifth floor with no trouble, the rope was marked so you'd know exactly where the dumbwaiter was. Then I kept lookout at the entrance to the cellar and Ernie hung on to the rope. So it must have been Ernie .... certainly not me, that leaned on the button that rang the bell for the fifth floor kitchen.

A gale of distant feminine laughter filtered down the shaft and the rope went  slack. That could only mean 'Skinny' was no longer in the dumbwaiter -- and since he hadn't fallen down the dumbwaiter shaft where else could he be but in  Mrs. Irwin's apartment! It was a sure sign of trouble, so we cut and ran up out of the cellar and across the street to watch from a safe distance. Things certainly looked bad for 'Skinny' and we weren't sure if he'd be able to keep his mouth shut in the presence of eight ladies.

Then Ernie had another thought -- "Suppose they make 'Skinny' orgy with them? -- Jeez, I don't think he can take it." We felt even worse than we did the day we poured molasses in Pastor Tremayne's gas tank.

We sat on the curb across the street for the better part of an hour wondering if we'd ever see 'Skinny' alive again. Then the ladies began to file out two by two, a little giddy from the wine. They had 'Skinny' with them and he seemed none the worse for it when they reached the street, in fact he looked as though he had a good time. They said goodbye -- two of them even kissed him. One of the ladies pointed across the street at us and asked 'Skinny' .... "Are those the two ruffians, Elgin?" To our everlasting gratitude 'Skinny' said, "No ma'am .... they were much bigger, big enough to hoist me up in the dumbwaiter." It wasn't camaraderie or esprit de corps on his part for protecting us -- he knew what would happen to him if he put the finger on us. It's the same code of silence that keeps the Mafia going.

After much coaxing, and even a free soda down at Margolis' candy store, 'Skinny' told us the story.

As he squatted by the dumbwaiter door he could hear laughing and the clinking of glasses inside -- he heard someone say "Three hearts, that's nine tricks, right?" Someone else said they would double that and 'Skinny' was sure he was  just in time for the orgy. At that moment the elevator bell in the kitchen rang! He was paralyzed with fear .... trapped in the little cubicle .... he was helpless!

Mrs. Irwin opened the dumbwaiter door and threw her garbage (which consisted mainly of wine bottles) in his lap .... she screamed when she saw 'Skinny' crouched in the corner.

"My God -- there's a kid in the dumbwaiter! .... what are you doing in there? Girls, come here .... help me! There's a kid in the dumbwaiter!"

They grabbed him just about the time Ernie let go of the rope, and dragged him into the kitchen. 'Skinny
,' in tears, made up the story about two brutes who  chased him into the cellar and crammed him in the dumbwaiter. Mrs. Irwin was all for reporting it to the police, but wiser heads prevailed, and since the hour was growing late most of the ladies had to get home and make supper. They gave him a glass of milk and a piece of cake. Their afternoon of bridge was over. 'Skinny' promised Mrs. Irwin he would tell his father all about it and how kind the ladies had been to him. He didn't dare do either.

Our knowledge of the sins of the flesh went unfulfilled but our respect for 'Skinny' grew enormously. From that day on we always called him "Elgin" .... we thought it was the least we could do.

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