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Mrs. Janokowski Hits One Out of the Park


William Shunn

The window was open. The drapes were flung wide. The writing desk had been pushed roughly aside, and we were ready to toss Mrs. Janokowski out onto the sidewalk seven stories below.

“You animals!” she shouted feebly, arthritic hands like upraised hooks. “You beasts!” A serial number was tattooed in blue ink on the underside of her wrist. The skin beneath was papery and translucent, like frosted cellophane.

It was late spring, which in Manhattan meant summer was warming up on deck. Our building—the Hampstead, on 72nd between West End and Riverside—was the latest to secede. Rumor said the mayor’s body dangled from a flagpole somewhere in Alphabet City, but with the news blackout no one knew for sure.

Mr. O’Leary (10B) and the Broadwells’ big son Tyler (3A) gripped Mrs. Janokowski by the upper arms, while the rest of us pressed into her small furnished apartment as closely as traders on the floor of the Exchange. A reverent nostalgia seemed to permeate the room. Pleasant breezes puffed in through the window, and the traffic sounds wafting up from the street were like familiar songs playing on a distant radio. If I had closed my eyes, I could almost have imagined myself a boy again, dropping in at my grandmother’s apartment for treats after a Little League game. There’d have been fresh gingersnaps in the cookie jar, with extra chocolate milk if I’d pitched a win.

Of course, Mrs. Janokowski’s crying and her name-calling and her attempts to wriggle free spoiled the atmosphere somewhat. “Please keep your voice down, Mrs. Janokowski,” I said in what I hoped was a soothing tone. “You’re guilty of very serious charges—capital charges, I might add—and—”

“What charges?” she cried, straining against her captors. “When was I tried?” The last of us were squeezing into the small apartment, the room so crowded that I faced Mrs. Janokowski’s mottled wrath across only two feet of empty air. “I have a right to know what I’m charged with! I have the right to a trial! As an American citizen—”

Old cabbages soured her breath. “You, Matylda Janokowski, are a citizen of the Hampstead,” I said, nose wrinkling, “and you have betrayed the community to which you owe your allegiance.” I tried to use my most fittingly apocalyptic tone, but I felt my task might more appropriately have been delegated to some lantern-jawed British magistrate with a voice like the tolling of a funerary bell.

Mrs. Janokowski struggled mightily, hurling vitriol in her native Polish. The Broadwell boy shook her, and at that I heard murmurs of disapproval from a few of our number. “Gently, Tyler,” said Mr. Kanatabe (5B), a semi-retired gardener. “Wanton cruelty has no place in these proceedings.”

“That’s right,” I said. By virtue of my position teaching rhetoric at Hunter, I had become the de facto mouthpiece of this motley company, but our band had no true leader, and Mr. Kanatabe had survived Nagasaki as a child. He could speak for us as well as I.

Mrs. Janokowski quieted at this unlikely show of mercy, but her watery, clouding blue eyes continued to accuse me as vulgarly as eggs cast against a window. “Now,” I said, the words falling like lead from my mouth, “you have been found guilty of high treason, in that you did consort with the enemy, conspire against the tenantry, exchange state secrets for—”

“State secrets?” said Mrs. Janokowski, straining toward me again. The cataracts turned her eyes into portals onto the late-summer skies of my youth. “State secrets?”

“—the penalty for which,” I said, feeling the vertigo of vanished days flutter around me, the smell of horsehide and pine tar in my nostrils, “as determined by this body, is swift and immediate—”

“For God’s sake, what are you talking about?” Mrs. Janokowski cried. “I don’t know any state secrets!”

“What about Buckles?” demanded Hugh Degrassey, peering through lenses half an inch thick, his receding chin thrust resolutely forward. Hugh had lived aft of the boiler room for decades.

“Which?” said Mrs. Janokowski, with a slight lessening of her righteous pique.

“He means his cat, Mrs. Janokowski,” I said, trying to shake off the associations that swam in her eyes. “Buckles, his only companion in the world—a companion you saw fit to report to the Management.”

The old woman’s mouth moved, but no sound came out.

“Do you deny it?” I said.

“No pets of any kind are allowed in the building,” said Mrs. Janokowski, suddenly prim, “without exception.”

A murmur curled like gentle wind through the dim apartment. “And you’re the self-appointed enforcer of this regulation?” Her eyes darted, their power over me diminishing. “And of the regulation which prohibits Mr. Kurtz, a licensed plumber, from fixing his own leaky pipes? And of the regulation which proscribes Mr. Bambara’s sheltering more than three of his homeless relatives at a time?” Small noises of assent from the gathered mass lent my accusations weight.

Mrs. Janokowski wrenched her right arm free of Mr. O’Leary’s grip in a surprising show of strength. “For this you want to throw an old woman out her own window?” she demanded. She waved the blue tattoo in my face. It was the same faded color as her eyes. “You’re no better than the men who did this to me when I was young!”

Tyler Broadwell tightened his grip on her other arm, and Mr. O’Leary made as if to seize her again, but I waved them both back. Young Tyler released her, though he narrowed his eyes at her in distrust. The two men backed up against Mrs. Janokowski’s displaced furniture, clustered to either side of the yawning window.

“We are at war, Mrs. Janokowski,” I said, “a guerilla war for our own survival. If we hadn’t taken matters into our own hand, eviction notices would have a third of us out on the streets! The streets, Mrs. Janokowski. You’ve sold out our families—and for what?” I waved at the fresh green and gold walls with their repeating fleur-de-lis design, conspicuously free of peeling and water stains. “For a little new wallpaper?”

“You should be ashamed, David,” the old woman hissed, so violently that I expected her stringy jowls to pull back like the hood of a cobra. “Your grandparents came through Auschwitz, just like me. You should be above this.”

It was quiet Mr. Miłosz (7A) from across the hall, the Hampstead’s eldest citizen, who rescued the cause from the dread silence that followed. His voice was as whispery as a rapier, parting the air neatly with its soft authority. “My family and I were betrayed in the ghettos of Warsaw. They took us to Dachau. Only I returned.” He surveyed the room as if from a great remove. “I have no sympathy for informants. You, Matylda, should have known better than any of us.”

The old woman’s blue eyes flashed, as though lightning brewed in their cloudy depths. “If this is what the world has come to,” she said, the contempt in her voice like the stream from a ruptured waste canister, “then I don’t think I care to live in it any longer.” She smoothed her shawl and worn skirt. “At Auschwitz, I was never given this chance, but I was prepared had the moment presented itself.”

How she managed it with those arthritic hands, I’ll never know, but she crouched suddenly, her face twisting in a vicious snarl, and saluted us with two fiercely upthrust middle fingers. Then she turned and hurled herself at the window with a high, pathetic cry. The sill caught her at waist-level, and her upper body folded over and out the window as if she were a construct of origami. Her momentum kept her going, and before any of us could react, her legs had flipped up after her and vanished. Uptown express, next stop 72nd Street.

I moved to the window like a man in a dream, not looking down. Several moments passed. My neighbors, thawing by degrees from their shock, began to filter away in murmuring knots of two and three, but I had no ears for their disaffection, their frustration. I was looking up at the sky, the cloudy, breezy, infinite sky of my youth, and hearing the roar of a distant crowd somewhere out of sight, a sound like the ocean trapped in a nautilus shell.

We had thrown Mrs. Janokowski our best sinking curve, and she had hit it dexterously out of the park. I should have felt resentment, injustice, defeat—but as the banshee-cries of sirens began to drift up from the street all I could do was take off my cap, wipe my brow, and admire the way that ball sailed.

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