“Murderer! The nerve!”
My mother’s icy words startled me. I stopped walking, baffled, as she pinched her face into a tight, hard mask, her dark eyes glassy with fury. Yet she was staring straight ahead, taking in the busy hot July sidewalk. Nearby, in front of a four-story apartment building, a boy in grimy knickers and slough boy cap was batting a baseball with a hickory stick while another boy, crouched down on the opposite sidewalk, yelled to him. “C’mon, Izzy. Learn to hit the ball. C’mon.” Hearing my mother’s loud voice, the boy with the bat froze, stepped onto a stoop, tucked his bat between his legs, his eyes wide.
“Mother.” I reached out and touched her elbow, but she flicked me away. “What?”
She darted ahead. “That brazen woman,” she was mumbling. “How dare she!”
For a split second, almost involuntarily, she turned her head to the left, resting her glacial gaze on the woman tucked into an old Adirondack chair on a shadowy front porch. Throwing back her head in a display of disgust—a gesture I’d long endured—my mother let out a harrumph. I found myself smiling in spite of myself. My little mother, like a fussy yet feisty stepmother out of a child’s fairy tale, appeared a stick-figure vaudeville dowager, all indignation and bile.
“Khutspedik!” She slipped into Yiddish. “Brazen! Some folks have no shame, Edna.”
“What?” I adjusted the package I was carrying.
My mother unfroze her mask, striding ahead so quickly she left me standing there, the bewildered daughter, watching the old woman on that porch.
Suddenly, horribly, our eyes locked.
What I saw in that woman’s withered face was a troubling mix of fear and sadness, a woman folded into that big chair. She wrapped her chubby arms around her chest and suddenly dipped her head so that her abundant ivory white hair shielded a haunted face. I gasped, so stark was that fleeting meeting of eyes. My mother had already climbed the steps of the sprawling Victorian home next door, pausing on the landing to look back and yell out my name—“Edna, really!”
I said again, “What?” She responded with a loud clearing of her throat.
When I looked back at the porch, the old woman had disappeared. A screen door slammed. Then an unseen hand closed the heavy oak door behind it.
I couldn’t move.
“Edna, would you become the talk of the street?” my mother hissed. “What is the matter with you?” Her waving became frantic. I followed her up the steps, but glanced over at the empty front porch. The two houses were similar in style, three-story homes with wraparound porches, floor-to-ceiling windows, though the one we were visiting had ledges with boxes of ivy and phlox. Glorious houses with arabesque trim and gingerbread scalloping. They were anomalies on Monroe Street, now dotted by four-story wood-framed apartment houses, the first floors occupied by storefront dentists, tobacco shops, kosher bakeries, and tailors. The long block began at Maxwell Street, that roaring, cluttered open-air marketplace. My mother and I had stepped off the Jefferson trolley, skirted around pushcart peddlers and hawkers, and headed down Monroe. The soot-blackened apartment houses were ramshackle, unpainted, with faded green asphalt shingles and tarpaper roofs. At the corner little girls played hopscotch, giggling and speaking in broken English. Despite the heat, two bearded men argued in a doorway, both dressed in kapotes, those long black coats, and wide-brimmed Russian hats pulled low over shiny foreheads. They spoke rapid-pace Yiddish, pointing at each other, speaking over the other.
Every time we walked along Monroe, my mother grumbled. Today an itinerant scissor- grinder, his rickety contraption braced to his back, had jostled her, and was rewarded with a verbal comeuppance. The same with a shifty young man who pulled up his sleeve to reveal his arm covered with used watches as he whispered of a deal he’d give her. Only look, please.
When she entered the foyer of the home we were visiting for two weeks, she let out a sigh of relief: the grisly gauntlet survived, pesky street rabble avoided, precious refuge won. My mother wasn’t happy visiting on Monroe Street.
“I really have no choice,” she’d whispered to me when the invitation was offered. “Old friends. My dear Esther. We have no choice.”
Now my mother dropped her packages onto a little oak table near the front door, then grasped her throat, a gesture that mimicked someone strangling her—in case I missed the point. She faced me. “I will go to bed knowing a murderer sleeps steps away.”
Again, my feeble question. “What?” “We will be murdered in our beds.” “Mother…”
She lost patience with me. “Lord’s sake, Edna. For a writer you certainly have no memory for…important events.” She nodded toward the unseen home next door. “Leah Brenner. That dreadful woman stabbed her poor husband Ivan to death. A knife to the neck. A decent man, hard-working, stabbed.” She pointed. “Right there in that parlor. Feet from us. Next door.” She shivered and walked away. “There is so little justice left in Chicago.”
“I remember now,” I called after her.
She narrowed her eyes. “I should hope so, Edna. I talked of nothing else for days. Frankly, it was the murder none of us will ever forget.”
# # #
I did remember, of course, though I’d not thought about the scandal for years. In fact, I never knew Leah Brenner years back, and probably had glimpsed her only a few times. But I did have a vague memory, one time, of seeing an attractive woman standing on that very porch. True, I’d only visited my mother’s old friend, Esther, one other time, back in the summer of 1905, another sweltering, heat-wave summer, two blurred weeks when I was nineteen years old and working as a reporter for the Milwaukee Tribune. That was eighteen years back now, a lifetime ago. I’d never said a word to Leah Brenner, though I kept that image of a beautiful woman in her forties, out of place on that porch in a dress no one else on Monroe Street would dare to wear, a daffodil-yellow taffeta go-to-meeting dress.
Now one image came back to me: she stood there, immobile, her dark hair covered by a black lace scarf—despite the steamy heat—as she watched the street with a cold stare. It was the coldness that made me notice her. A colorful Goya portrait—a voluptuous woman in yellow and black.
I was a young woman then, impatient with that mandatory visit to my mother’s old friends, Esther Newmann and her family. Esther was a kind, overflowing woman, round as a plump hen, someone my mother, Julia, sometimes claimed was a distant cousin. Other times she said Esther was simply an old friend of the family, part of a close-knit neighborhood back in Germany. Kindred spirits, these families, bound with a loyalty to the Old World left behind. But the story shifted every so often.
During that short visit, Leah Brenner stood on her porch dressed in that elegant tea dress and muttered as some errant boys took a shortcut to the next street by running through her yard, slingshots in back pockets and huckleberry grins on their beet-red faces. That was the sole image I held of her—not one of heinous murder.
At that time I had a schoolgirl crush on her son, Jacob—slender Jacob with the shaggy hair and careful moustache and those mooncalf mink-brown eyes in a long, gaunt face—twenty-five or-six, a vagabond poet who once idly flirted with me. I, horrified and sputtering, turned my back on him—not because I was rejecting the handsome man but because I was afraid he’d see me blushing, trembling. He wasn’t happy with my cavalier dismissal. His cruel ditty spread up and down the street that week, words that others happily hurled at me as I walked there:
Edna, Edna, sugar and spice, An orchid locked in frozen ice. Edna, Edna,
The rhyme did nothing to squelch my foolish ardor. I’d watch him saunter down Monroe, headed to Maxwell Street, whistling, his coal-black hair glistening with oil, black polished high-button shoes, and a rakish cap on his head. He’d wink at the girls, do a half-bow, and his matinee-hero moustache would shift seductively. I dreamed about him, felt my heart flutter when he appeared, but so did my sister, Fannie. So did most of the girls on Monroe Street.
Three years later, another brutally hot Chicago summer, August 2, 1908, his mother plunged a knife into the neck of her ailing husband, Ivan, the local butcher. A marital spat, ferocious, in the family parlor, and then—an impossible act. Or so it was said. The police dragged her in, but she’d seemed in a coma, unresponsive or icy, stoic, so the gossipmongers variously reported. According to my mother, she had to be carried to the Harrison Street Station lockup. She nodded her head at their questions, closed her eyes, and waited. Everyone believed she was guilty because she never fought back. Even, I heard, her children—including my beloved Jacob. Everyone talked about it…that long hot summer in South Chicago, a word-of-mouth court of law, a rag-tag gossip mill of Homeric sweep. Did you hear how Leah Brenner, that beautiful woman, went mad and killed her husband? A pity, such a stunning woman.
My mother had whispered. “And a Jewish mother, can you believe? Such things don’t happen.” Then, a sigh. “A curse on that family, always.”
I hadn’t thought of that murder for years, though I still thought, rarely, of Jacob.
We’d all read the sheaf of news clippings Esther sent to us in Appleton, Wisconsin, the blow-by-blow account in the Chicago Tribune and the Herald & Examiner. My mother devoured them as though reading a yellow-backed potboiler from Bertha M. Clay. Leah Brenner a murderer? It never worked for me: that juxtaposition of the attractive matron in yellow who struck me as so composed, a beautiful woman eyeing the hardscrabble boys slinking past. Then the story disappeared from the press and from our conversations.
My own world was unraveling then—my disaffection with my grueling reporting job in Milwaukee, my sudden and unwelcome nervous breakdown, my sheepish return to Appleton, my…my beloved father dying…
Now, fifteen years after the sensational murder of a simple Jewish butcher by his devoted wife, I was back on Monroe Street for two weeks—and Leah Brenner sat on her front porch. She probably was in her late fifties or early sixties now, but she looked older—the abundant white hair, the tiny body. She startled me. Worse, I’d caught the woman’s eye and was immediately enveloped by a stunning loneliness that covered her like a shroud.
The knife-wielding murderer back on her porch, her hands folded decorously into her lap, her woeful stare taking in the helter-skelter street.
Leah Brenner had come home.