"Old Mrs. Benoir" by Jacob Riis

Today marks the publication of the first of our top five stories, Peter Ruhren’s “Babushka” Our judge said that this was a story that used “a lot of great details to help to” bring us around full-circle. Enjoy!

I was always impressed with the way Audric could fly off the pile. He seemed to reach up towards the heavens, away from this place while I could barely hop. Looking back I can’t see how we thought this was fun with all the filth, but the reek of the garbage was never as bad as being stuck inside the tenement house. 

Audric was always good at distracting me and boy did I need it ‘cause back then the tenements were stocked full of people. In the room next-door there was the Schroder’s, Audric’s family, who were constantly arguing about money or something in German. Even in the room I slept in, if my old man was even around, he would be nursing a bottle of beer. I pitied him ever since Ma died of TB, but it was no place for a twelve-year-old kid to live. 

“Hey! Get down from there!” We both turned and stared up at a bloated man in a gritty tank top and tattered shorts. Looks like our fun was over. 

“Run Sean!” Audric exclaimed as he turned and started to run. Audric spent most of his life in America so he spoke good English. The streets were dangerous back then, a lot of people were angry and when they got a little alcohol in their system they were quick to take it out on anyone nearby, even kids. Ellen would learn the hard way about a year from this. As I began to follow, I felt a brief clawing at the back of my shirt, before I raced off. We swerved into an alleyway, knocking over a crate I looked back. The large man turned the corner, glistening with sweat. Audric was halfway up a fence when I reached it. We both climbed over the fence and I quickly hopped to the other side. I began to run again but a cry out in German from behind me halted me in my tracks. Turning back I saw, to my dismay, Audric prostrate on the ground. He clambered to his feet, blood dripping from an ugly gash on his forearm.

“Serves you right.” the boozer scoffed as he turned away.

“We better get you cleaned up. C’mon Babu will help you” 

We made our way around the building to the back entrance, Audric clutching his maimed arm. Luckily, Audric wasn’t bleeding much, but he sure was in pain. We made our way up three flights of stairs before turning off down the hallway. We passed Audric’s room first. the door was open for airflow and a thick, angry voice was shouting German inside. I glanced over at Audric who only shook his head in a broken, sad kind of way. We continued on, passing a couple other doors, most shut and locked, the adults off at work and kids out on the street. I heard of one kid who claimed he was “the master of all pickpockets” and another who never came home.

My room was much different. The door was shut and quiet. My younger sister, Ellen was probably in there, either sleeping or trying to clean. For the age of six, she was quite persistent at tackling the nearly impossible task of keeping our part of the building clean. There were no girls young enough to not be working living in the building; so, Ellen was alone. I wish I had spent more time with her when she was still around.

The hallway ended with a single brown door that was partially open. A dusty welcome mat lay crooked on the floor. This was Babu’s room.

Babu, or more formally Mrs. O’Brien was a Russian immigrant whose kids, both in their thirties, were both working on the other side of the city. She wasn’t in any condition to work so her kids paid her rent and brought her food twice a week. She was sort of the grandmother of all of the kids in the building. She told us to call her “Babushka” or “Babu” for short. I loved spending time with her. She was a great storyteller and she loved to crochet while recounting the “better days” and chewing on her pipe. She had stopped smoking to save money, but the smell lingered. 

 Her room had the same musty smell as the rest of the building but there was also the comforting smell of her pipe. It was comprised of a few blankets thrown on to a rickety bed, a chest, a small stove, a mirror and a window so covered in grime that it barely shed enough light in to see.  The mirror was also covered but it was saved for “sentimental value”. A small shelf under the window held a picture of each of her sons, a chipped cup with some Cyrillic writing and a picture of a bear (for “sentimental value”) and a small lamp. In one corner lay a pile of crocheted clothes and blankets that would be given out to her “grandchildren” (that’s what she called us).

“Hello boys,” Babu said in a thick Russian accent. She had been in the country for a while now so her English was pretty good. Babu’s grey eyes turned towards Audric’s wound, “Oh my! Here let me get you cleaned up.”

Audric winced as Babu gently dabbed up the blood with a damp rag. “I hope you didn’t get this causing trouble,” Babu said sternly. “When my boys were kids, they had me around to keep them out of trouble. But now fathers and mothers need to work long hours and barely get paid enough to feed their families.” Babu let out a sigh, “I came to this country for opportunity but there is no hope here.”

Babu finished wrapping up Audric’s arm and lightly tapped it, “All better, just don’t get it wet or dirty or it might get infected.”

“It can’t get infected!” Audric cried out in dismay, “I won’t be able to work if it does!”

“You shouldn’t be working at your age, what are you, 14?” questioned Babu.

“Yes, but my family will be sent out if I don’t! We’ll be living on the streets, or worse, be sent back to Germany!” Audric bawled. 

A call came from down the hall in a thick German accent. “Audric! Es ist Essenszeit!” the voice called.

Audric sighed, “Thank you, Babu I have to go.”

“I should probably go too, Ellen must be hungry.” As I walked out the door, Babu caught my hand and placed a small, clothed wrapped lump in my hand. 

“Some food for you and Ellen,” Babu said.

“Thank you” I walked down the dimly lit hall to my door, opened it and stepped inside. 

   * * *

Audric got sick soon after that day. A doctor said the wound got infected and one day their family was gone without a goodbye. Soon after another family took their place, but I never really got to know any of them. About a year later, Babu died and a Man moved into her room. I began to work in a clothing factory but was shipped off to Europe after war broke out. I came home a hero but was quickly forgotten with the economic crash. Times were hard for a while, almost like back when I was a kid. I moved back into the tenement home. I worked for a little while but had to retire. Now I spend my time watching over the children in the building. They remind me so much of Ellen and Audric, kids lost in a lonely world. I only hope I can make it better for them.

About Peter Ruhren 423 Articles

Peter Ruhren is a junior at Clayton A. Bouton High School.