The Darlene Episode
Darlene Bupkis lived next door to us on the fifth floor in the Bronx. The fifth floor basically smelled of chicken soup, kitty litter, and beets. Her apartment was responsible for the kitty litter and beets part of the aroma. Right away, Darlene sort of took me under her wing. Somewhat plump, with short brown curly hair and a round pudgy face, she decided it was her mission in life to help my mom raise me. Maybe she was my first girlfriend. Or maybe she was my second mother. My first mother often referred to her as “the second Mrs. Palmer.” I’m not sure she meant that as a compliment.
Darlene sometimes shampooed my hair and cut it in our kitchen. When she didn’t like my outfit, she picked out a different one and spread it out on my bed. Often she told me ghost stories before she left when my mother came home from work. We even came down with the chicken pox on the same day and stayed out of school for the same two weeks.
As annoying as Darlene often was, she was way more fun than the succession of babysitters my mom had hired in Queens to watch me when she went to work. The cutest one, Maxine, spent most of her time making long distance calls. On one of them I overheard her telling her friend that she just got out of the clink. When my mother fired her, she had six pieces of our expensive cutlery in her purse. The oldest one, a Jamaican woman named Estelle, sat glued to a chair, watching wrestling on TV, smoking Kent cigarettes, and coughing up a lung. By the time we moved to the Bronx, when I was nine, my mother felt I should be old enough to take care of myself.
She was wrong.
One day, Darlene decided we should play hooky from school. I’d pretty much been a law-abiding citizen until then, except for when I stole change out of my mother’s pocketbook. But Darlene convinced me I needed more danger in my life. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll take care of everything. You’ll just be my accomplice.”
When my mother left for work in the morning we hid out in the basement of our building. We took the elevator from the basement up to the fifth floor and made it into my apartment without being seen. Darlene wanted to spend the morning giving me a fashion show in my mother’s clothes. I was more interested in flipping baseball cards down our hallway. As a compromise, we listened to songs on the radio at a very low volume and Darlene tried on several of my mother’s hats. Because everyone came home for lunch at our school, Darlene made me a delicious peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich. She washed my dish and put it away before going next door to have her own lunch.
After lunch, we were still deciding what to do next, when we heard someone trying to open the front door of my apartment. “Burglars!” Darlene cried.
Because all my mother’s hats were in the closet in the hallway and Darlene had forgotten to close the door, the front door was blocked from being opened, so the burglars couldn’t get in.
As Darlene and I went to hide in the bathroom, I knocked over a lamp, which crashed to the linoleum floor. It got very quiet behind the locked bathroom door, as we huddled together in fear. She smelled like kitty litter and beets. While I trembled, Darlene was humming “The Theme from The High and the Mighty” to herself. Then there was the sound of the window in the living room being smashed as the burglars broke into the apartment through the fire escape. In a minute, someone pounded on the bathroom door.
“Open up, it’s the police.”
“We’re only a couple of kids,” I said, opening the door.
Outside the bathroom door, my mother was standing with the cops, a look of anger and relief on her face.
“You’ll pay for this, you chicken,” Darlene scolded me, before my mother sent her home.
The worst part of the episode was that my mother sent me back to school in the afternoon. I had a feeling everyone in class knew what had happened that morning, what with the police sirens probably blaring all over the neighborhood. Except for my teacher, who seemed to only notice me at around two-thirty.
“Well, well, well, look who decided to show up,” she said. “It’s the Invisible Man.”
It wasn’t the nickname I would have chosen for myself, but it stuck until we moved to Brooklyn the following year.
“I had a stomach ache this morning,” I told the teacher. “But then it went away.”