Margaret Dawson had sold linens at Macy’s for fifteen years, hating every day of it, every customer she served, and every other sales clerk, when she met her husband, Donald, a kind-hearted Manhattan policeman who patrolled West Harlem.
Marriage did not change her discontent and the birth of a premature and severely disabled baby named Bertie brought her to a simmering rage.
“It was a miracle we saved this child,” said the doctor.
Whose miracle thought Margaret?
Bertie had weighed four pounds at birth and was destined for a short life. She was trapped. Nevertheless, she served the child as she had served the customers at Macy’s – with competence and a practised smile.
Donald loved his son and enjoyed spending his evenings reading simple stories to him. Bertie was a sweet, calm, perennially smiling boy who took after his father. Sadly, when Bertie was ten, Donald was killed in Harlem by a bullet flying between rival gangs.
At Donald’s funeral, Margaret looked down at Bertie’s tearful little face. The bullet hit the wrong person, she thought. She and Donald’s mother despised each other, but his mother begged for Donald’s badge as a memento. Margaret had no desire to keep the badge but gave it up for $1,000 cash.
The bullet hit the wrong person, Donald’s mother thought. She had only known her grandchild through photographs her son had given her.
Margaret dropped off every item belonging to Donald at the Salvation Army, except for his silver lighter. She considered it a small memento of a husband who had failed her by not magically removing Bertie and her pain.
Pensions, a private insurance policy, and her own thrift, allowed Margaret to live adequately, if in her own world of torment. She now faced the daunting task of raising her frail child by herself.
Margaret was one of five daughters and had nothing to do with any of them. Like every member of her quarrelsome family, she was born mean. She never caught the God bug and the devil jumped into the vacuum. She suspected it but had no idea what she could do with her life or her growing pain. Then one Sunday she had tuned into a TV show and listened carefully to the speaker.
“The devil says he will take your life and give you something to live for. He lies. He really means that he will live through you. He will tell you to love your pain. It will define you. He lies. Your pain gives the devil his identity. Your rage is the devil’s fuel. If you don’t seek a higher nature, he will take control of your life. Remember that you and the devil are one with your pain.”
Margaret turned off the show. But she knew then that the constant agitation in her belly was due to the fact that it was her devil’s residence and he had all the control. It was no wonder she hated her life and every person who crossed her path.
As a child, Margaret would hide keys and clothes from her sisters; at school she would steal a boy’s favorite pen, a girl’s book. Now she knew that her rage was the devil’s fuel. Miserable herself, she gave out misery because the devil was in control.
Margaret’s wardrobe darkened. She had discovered that people averted their eyes to a woman in black, and she often preferred to be invisible. It was then that her devil, ever darting about in the shadows, became more visible and started walking confidently close to her shoulder.
For years Margaret used a caregivers therapy group as a social outlet. Suppressing her true feelings in public, she kept a bleak smile on her face the entire hour while striving for a more solid identity by thinking the worse about everyone there.
Margaret and her devil bonded well. She had made a connection, her first. On regular visits to the library, she took his advice. She dressed colorfully and wore a bright red lipstick. The sympathetic librarians, who considered her a kind and loving mother, had a ready smile for both her and little Bertie. She loathed every one of them.
Despite her rage at the world, the people in it, and her life as a mother, Margaret continued to do her best to care for and teach her unwanted child. Disorder had always frustrated her, and she kept her small apartment immaculate. Bertie was always clean, nicely dressed, and well fed as he went through adolescence. She kept his favorite TV shows running and always provided him with the simple books he could read and crayons and coloring books he enjoyed.
On their frequent trips to Central Park, Bertie, well under five feet tall, would swing with the children and Margaret would read. She would take Bertie to the Salvation Army, where she preferred to shop and her well-behaved son wandered the aisles, enjoying everything with delight. He never failed to come home with a cheap toy.
After one of Bertie’s regular visits to his doctor, Margaret would take Bertie for an ice cream soda. It was a treat for herself as much as for Bertie because she had to grin and bear it when forced to sit in the waiting room facing other mothers with healthy normal sons.
Margaret’s husband had been dead for five years and Bertie had been in failing health when he caught pneumonia. The doctors fought but couldn’t save him. “We tried our best,” they said sorrowfully. A blessing, thought Margaret. Bertie was 15 and had never lost his angelic smile. She wasted no time taking his possessions to the Salvation Army. Even when her apartment showed no trace of her son, her pain remained undiminished.
When Margaret returned to the caregivers group meeting, she was shown the door. She was no longer a caregiver. She was mortified. The devil danced. The next day she put on her best clothing, headed to the library, and was happily accepted as a volunteer. Her own reading consisted of crime novels. She took no interest in the best-selling romance novels on display. The devil was her devoted companion.
Margaret had never abandoned her habit of petty theft. She would pick up the table tip left for a waitress and even change the price of a thrift store garment. None of this gave her satisfaction, but her inherently nasty nature and the devil’s demands gave her no option but to continue in this manner until her pain reached the screaming point. Then the way was shown.
Margaret’s uneasy belly started to flail like a washing machine, and the devil whispered in her ear. Central Park had dozens of benches with nearby garbage bins. She knew them all from walking around with Bertie. Now she picked one and sat reading a newspaper until the sky darkened and the happy moms and active children abandoned the scene.
When all was quiet, Margaret crumpled her newspaper and tossed it into the nearby waste bin. With racing pulse, she set it aflame with her husband’s lighter and scurried off home with the jubilant devil beside her.
Margaret had a new routine. On the devil’s timetable, she would sit on a different park bench, read her newspaper until darkness descended. Then her pulse raced and the action was performed. The devil was delighted. Ever isolated from the rest of humanity, burning bins left her the devil’s own.
One evening she returned to the caregivers meeting hall and left their restroom bin in a fiery blaze. Another time she lit up Macy’s restroom. Nobody ever suspected a policeman’s widow.
Margaret knew that her bizarre and growing compulsion gave satisfaction only to her devil. She never forgot that he needed daily fuel to keep himself energized and herself under his control, but she stayed loyal and submissive. They drew closer with each passing day.
When the media started to pay more attention to the random little fires, Margaret whispered to the librarians. “The police suspect the fire-bug is a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. We should keep our eyes open for some elderly gentleman who looks demented.”
The librarians nodded. They respected the opinion of a policeman’s widow. They kept watch for the fire-bug. A few days later, the library’s restroom bin was aflame. “Why did he use the Ladies Room?” asked a librarian.
“He wants us to think he’s a woman,” said Margaret. The others nodded. The devil smiled. His captive was perfect! They started holding hands. The librarians, seeing her strangely outstretched arm, thought she was holding on to her lost son.
Months later, when the relentless pain finally reached the proper threshold and demanded expression, the devil knew Margaret was ready to spread her wings.
Late that afternoon Margaret dressed in black and travelled by public transportation to the community of Inwood, the site of beautiful Inwood Park, home of the only undisturbed forest in Manhattan.
Margaret was carrying her usual two mementos. In her pocket was her husband’s lighter, tangible and shiny. In her belly, intangible but equally powerful, was the simmering rage she had carried since her son’s birth, a memento which could morph at will into the devil now seated comfortably by her side.
By the time they arrived at the park and departed the bus, the setting sun had become a fiery back-light behind the tall trees. Margaret’s heart started to flutter with excitement as she imagined the heat and the sound and the smell and the smoke of a raging forest fire. She had to stop at the entrance and catch her breath. Moments later darkness had fallen and she allowed her glowing companion to guide her path through the woods.
Banner photograph – Landscape at ‘Inwood Park’ by kind permission of Jen Gallardo.