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The Watchwoman


Harry Buschman

"She's going to fall out that window and break her neck one of these days," Mrs. Price predicted as she and Mrs. Girardi walked by number 44.

"It would teach her a lesson," Mrs. Girardi remarked.

A lot of people along St. John's Place felt that way a year ago. At seven thirty every weekday morning Mr. Cellini, the grocer, and Mr. Kraus, the butcher said the same thing to each other as they waited for her to appear in the window across the street. "I often think," said Mr. Kraus, "she could write a history of St. John's Place -- can you imagine the things she's seen?"

"The good and the bad," suggested Mr. Cellini.

"What good could she see?" said Mr. Kraus.

And today, a year after her death, on a dull Friday morning in late summer with the promise of rain in the air, Mr. Kraus arrived at the door of his butcher shop at seven a.m. He fished in his pocket for the key, humming a tune from Schumann's "Kinderscenen." His daughter played it for him on the piano the previous evening and he couldn't get the music out of his head. She would play the entire piece at the school concert next month. Imagine! Just like Bauer and Hoffmann! His own Lily. Lily Kraus -- not bad for a butcher's daughter. How much would it cost to send her to Julliard? Ach, yes! Many, many pork roasts ... many barrels of sauerkraut! He swung the door wide and inhaled deeply. There was only the smell of fresh meat, no hint of spoilage. It was a good sign.

He opened the door of the walk-in refrigerator and pulled the light chain. "Speaking of pork roasts! There are 15 of them. If I drop the price a nickel a pound I can probably get rid of them by Saturday." If he waited 'til Monday they'd be gamey and then he wouldn't be able to sell them at all. "Okay, dots dot." He said. He started to sharpen his knives on the wood block still humming the Schumann. He saw the awning rolling down in front of Cellini's next door and decided to go out and pass the time of day.

Cellini was stacking eggplant. He was almost finished with an impressive four-sided pyramid, nearly large enough to bury an Egyptian Pharaoh.

"Mrs. Musselman would want the one on the bottom, Cellini."

"She couldn't have it."

At the mention of her name they both looked across the street. From a habit of long standing they almost expected to see Mrs. Musselman at her window. She was not there. She hadn't been there for more than a year. The second floor window-sill of number 44 was now occupied by a white cat.

"Hard to get used to," Kraus, the butcher rubbed his chin philosophically.

"It's nearly eight o'clock. I can't get it out of my head she should be there."

"So, she's not." Cellini topped out the pyramid of eggplant. "I can't stand here all day, Kraus. I got tomatoes inside."

The pressure of making a living can be a practical consolation. In the end it is our eggplants, our tomatoes and our pork roasts that take precedence over the interest in a neighbor's passing. Besides, Mrs. Musselman's passing was as much bizarre as it was tragic. There are people along St. John's Place who, after a year, still shake their heads and smile when the accident is mentioned.

Let me explain that Mr. and Mrs. Musselman lived in the middle apartment of a block of five story tenements on St. John's Place. Their flat was on the second floor and from their parlor windows facing the street they had a commanding, yet personal view of all that happened outside. Mr. Musselman was not a curious man but Mrs. Musselman was at the window day and night.

She was a woman of considerable bulk, twice the size of her husband. She had jet black hair, tied back tightly and held in place with pins and a variety of combs. The tightness seemed to stretch her eyes wide and flare her nose. She resembled a hood ornament on a fast car. She wore a black dress laced with shiny black glass beads. It was coming apart at the seams; it may have been a dress to commemorate, some departed but not altogether forgotten family member. Over this she wore a tan cardigan sweater buttoned at the neck with the topmost button. She spent her long days with her meaty arms cradled on a pillow that sat on the sill of her parlor window. Perched there, she would watch the children play stickball in the street or keep close watch on Cellini's grocery store, the German butcher and St. John's Saloon on the corner. Her relentless vigilance might have contributed to the good behavior of everyone passing by.

When the weather brought rain from the east, Mrs. Musselman would shut her window and stand behind it, hands on hips. She would position herself between the curtain and the glass looking somewhat like a draped figure on a Greek vase. Regardless of the weather she was a steadying influence on the passing parade of neighbors making their way along St. John's Place.

She kept the window surgically clean and ladies in the neighborhood often said it was probably the only clean thing in her flat. "What can you expect," Mrs. Price said to Mrs. Girardi. "How can she have time to do any housework? She's in the window all day." Both ladies wondered if she took the time to cook for Mr. Musselman. "From the looks of him I doubt if he's had a decent meal in years," Mrs. Girardi sniffed.

To be sure, Mr. Musselman was a pitiful figure of a man, a model of the hen-pecked husband. He appeared promptly at the stoop of 44 St. John's Place at 5:30 every weekday evening. He would pause a moment and glance up at the parlor windows of the second story and into the eyes of Mrs. Musselman. For some deep and private reason he would then sigh deeply and mount the stairs slowly, one by one. He was a hollow chested man, gray-haired and subject to head colds.

The private life of the Musselmans was a riddle to everyone; there were no sounds of violence or reproach - no cries of anguish or regret. Many people had the impression they were invisible to each other, like prisoners in a cell. They contributed very little to the tenement's trash barrel, and most of the ladies were sure Mr. Musselman lived on a diet of leftovers, while Mrs. Musselman ate the main meal at lunch time. After dinner Mrs. Musselman would appear at the window again and keep watch on the night life of St. John's Place, such as it was. Their radio could be heard filtering through the paper thin walls that separated them from the Swenson family next door. No voices could be heard, just the radio. Mrs. Swenson was unable to hear any conversation, even though she held a glass tumbler to her ear in contact with the wall.

In time Mr. Musselman died -- of natural causes. It was sudden, however, and no one could really tell if it was due to poor nourishment, the lack of love, or an absence of the zest for life. No one knew he died but Mrs. Musselman. It was only by sheer chance that Mrs. Girardi, while on her way to Cellini's grocery store, noticed the City Coroner for the Borough of Brooklyn arrive with his wagon from the morgue. That was the end of it. Funerals in those days were optional and Mrs. Musselman chose not to have one.

Mrs. Price and Mrs. Girardi dropped in to pay their respects the following week and they were not even offered a cup of tea. When they got out in the street they looked back and saw Mrs. Musselman watching them from the parlor window on the second floor.

"What will she do without Mr. Musselman?" Mrs. Girardi asked.

"Same thing she did with him." Mrs. Price sniffed.

That was exactly what she did. If anything, she redoubled her vigil, sometimes with a plate balanced on the window sill beside her, she would eat as life passed by outside.

She knew the price of every vegetable at Cellini's grocery, and the price of pork at Kraus's butcher shop. She could tell you who was and who was not in the St. John's Saloon at any hour of the day. She would focus sharply on the swinging doors of the saloon and identify the men who left unsteadily. She could tell you the names of every man, young and old, who stood waiting for the saloon to open at the close of the eleven o'clock Mass on Sunday.

The little Italian man we called 'The Troubadour' would often come by with his accordion and see Mrs. Musselman looking at him from her window. He would surprise her while her attention was fixed elsewhere and suddenly burst into song. Without a word of warning his sharp and bitter tenor would ring out ... "che gelida manina." Before he could get to ... "se la lasci riscaldar," Mrs. Musselman would fling him a dime. He would stoop to pick it up and when he straightened up to finish the aria, she would be gone.

It was next to impossible to divert her attention from the life that passed under her window. Possibly her curiosity for the life of the street was caused by the lack of life on the second floor of number 44, St. John's Place. None of her neighbors could say, all they knew of her was a face in the window, as unblinking as any of the faces of the presidents on the mountainside in South Dakota.

It was Mr. Kraus, the butcher who said goodnight to Mrs. Musselman at seven pm when he locked his door on that final night. It had been a good day for pork, not so hot for beef and about what could be expected for chickens. His mood was buoyant. He would have a beer when he got home, sit and watch his wife in the kitchen and listen to his daughter, Lily, play Robert Schumann on the piano. He tried to whistle what she played last night, but he couldn't. It was not the kind of music a man could whistle. In this mellow mood he glanced up at Mrs. Musselman's window across the street.

She seemed to have fallen asleep at her post, and he said goodnight loudly enough to wake her. He continued walking home confidant that she would rouse herself and call it a day. He forgot about her completely when he got home. Supper was on the stove, his wife was busy in the kitchen and Lily was making beautiful music.

The night passed. He slept well and rose in the morning thinking of marking down the beef briskets in the hope they might sell better today than they did yesterday. His mind was intent on this problem as he passed Mrs. Musselman still asleep in the second floor window of number 44. He stopped abruptly. There was a pigeon perched on her head and pecking at her ear. A chill chased down the center of his back and lodged in his spine. There was a long string of spittle hanging from her lower lip which reached all the way down to the top of the first floor window.

Almost under his breath he called, "Mrs. Musselman ... are you all right, Mrs. Musselman?"

He knew she was dead before he called to her, but he could think of nothing better to do, one final thing before opening the door of his butcher shop and picking up the phone to call the police.

Mrs. Musselman was most certainly dead. The sash weight cord had broken inside the window frame. The heavy window slammed down on the back of her head knocking her senseless and pinning her to the sill. Its continued pressure on her head and neck strangled her while she lay unconscious. This was the Police
Department's reenactment of the tragic accident, and whether it was accurate or not no one knew.

There were no relatives, none came forward and none could be found. She was buried in the city cemetery as close to her husband as space permitted - not next to him, but close. There was no funeral, she was not a church goer. In spite of that, Mrs. Girardi lit a candle for her soul.

The suddenness of it was shocking to the people of St. John's Place, and the getting used to it took a week or more. At the end of the second week the city came and stripped the apartment of furniture. Two days later an Irish family moved in - a husband, a wife, two small sons and a white cat. Except for the cat, none of them bothered to look out the window.

After a week the people passing by number 44 got used to it. This was the city after all, and there were so many other things to see; the Catholic Church on the corner diagonally across from the saloon, the Jewish hospital with the ambulance sirens day and night. There were street confrontations, arguments, accidents and daily stickball games until dark. The memory of Mrs. Musselman in the window grew dimmer and dimmer until it faded completely.

Only Mr. Cellini in his grocery and Mr. Kraus in his butcher shop remembered. Her window had been directly across the street from them, and in their rare moments of idleness they could always come to their front door and look out to see her looking at them. Even today Mr. Kraus, looking at the white cat in the window, said ...

"Hard to get used to," he rubbed his chin philosophically and sighed, "I can't get it out of my head -- she should be there."

"So, she's not there." Cellini stood there polishing his apples, "I can't stand here all day, Kraus. I got tomatoes inside."

©Harry Buschman 2004

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