Barry Hoffman's HUNGRY EYES


"Why don't you climb back into Mama's womb where you belong," Bobby called across the room to Renee.

Renee, eight, didn't know what her fourteen-year old brother was talking about, but from his tone she knew it was a putdown, and probably something nasty.

"Mom!" Renee yelled across the room, "Bobby's calling me names again."

Her mother laughed. "Don't be fussing so, Renee. Bobby's just funnin'. They're teaching him about how you make babies in school, and he's just showing off."

"But, Mom . . . " Renee whined.

"That's enough, child," she said with an edge to her voice. "It's family time. You know the rules. No fussing during family time." She turned to Bobby, who tried to hide the smirk on his face. "Leave your sister be, now."

"Yes, m'am," Bobby said, but as soon as his mother turned back to her book, he gave Renee the finger.

Renee wondered why she always got scolded when Bobby teased her. Her mother seldom raised her voice to Bobby, especially when Renee was his target. It gnawed at her young mind, but she knew better than to voice her concern during family time.

Renee hated family time. Every night, just after dinner she had to wait at least an interminable fifteen minutes before she'd be allowed to go to her room.

Family time was a ritual her mother insisted upon; a time for the Barrows' family to bond. In reality, each inhabited their own space in the cramped living room of the South Philadelphia rowhouse, each doing their own thing, ignoring the others.

Renee watched her mother settle into a frayed oversized easy chair, and open one of her romance novels. She was settled in for the evening unless she had to pee; really had to pee. For Loretta Barrows was fat; not chubby or portly or pleasantly plump. Plain old fat. Renee had once heard a neighbor whispering something about 300 pounds. All Renee knew was her mother only sat when she didn't plan on getting up for a long time. The effort it took to rise was just too great. Nevertheless, her mother sat an awful lot.

Renee noticed that everything her mother did was in slow motion. If she was standing and the phone rang, she sauntered over without any sense of urgency. If it was someone who knew her, they'd let it ring a dozen times, knowing Loretta might be seated and need the extra time. If it rang just three or four times, it was probably one of those nuisance solicitation calls and Loretta had no use for those anyway.

Her mother even read slowly, Renee thought to herself. She'd watched the clock once, and it took her mother a good ten minutes before she turned the page. She had been reading the same book she now opened for over a month and hadn't reached its midpoint.

Renee's stepfather was cleaning his gun. This too he'd gotten into the habit of doing every night since he purchased it a few months before. He drove a cab and had been robbed on three occasions. He vowed it wouldn't happen again. He kept his gun wrapped in the Daily News on the seat besides him in the cab. And each night he cleaned it. He was short and plump, though nowhere the size of her mother. Standing, he came up to Loretta's "love pillows" as he called them. He was as fidgety as Loretta was sedate, never quite finding a comfortable spot in the twin of Loretta's chair that all but swallowed him up.

Her half-brother, Bobby, sat silently now, at a desk in the far corner of the room working on his homework. He wasn't terribly bright, Renee knew, and it took him hours to do homework she'd already completed. Granted he was six years older than she, and the homework was more demanding, but he worked at a pace akin to their mother, and came home with report cards with C as the highest grade.

Renee, for her part, sat on the floor trying to occupy herself until she'd be allowed to go to her room. Sometimes she would read a book she got at the school library or work on a Word Search puzzle purchased at the corner store. Tonight she bounced a hollowed-out pink rubber ball against the wall. Like a turkey awaiting slaughter, she knew, pretty soon the ball would be sliced in half to be used in the daily halfball games she was so fond of.

Renee was all tomboy and proud that kids two and three years older than her not only allowed her to play, but eagerly sought her for their team. She was wiry, all skin and bones. Her friends teased her that after her mother got done eating, all she got were table scraps. Actually, though she didn't admit it to them, it wasn't too far from the truth.

She wore faded jeans with holes in the knees, and an Eagles t-shirt, a hand-me-down that no longer fit her half-brother. One might have mistaken her for a boy from afar if it were not for her flowing brown hair that wended its way down to her backside. She would tie it in a pony tail when she played with the boys, to keep it out of her face. At night, after her bath, her mother brushed out all the snarls, almost as if she were a doll. Her mother would sometimes talk to herself, while brushing, as if Renee weren't there. Still, for Renee it was about the only time, other than when she'd misbehaved or was told to do her chores, that her mother acknowledged her existence.

Now Renee tossed her ball against the wall. Bounce, hit the wall, bounce back and catch. Bounce, hit the wall, bounce . . .

Without warning the front door imploded.

"Police! Everyone down on the floor! Now!" a voice commanded, as three uniformed men with rifles burst through the doorway.

The scene unfolded before Renee in slow motion. The first man in stared at her stepfather seated with a gun in his hand. Without hesitation the policeman lifted his weapon and fired.

Once. Twice. Three times.

Renee watched as her stepfather looked down at the red spot that had sprouted on his white t-shirt, his mouth wide open in surprise. A second bullet hit him in the forehead. He didn't seemed surprised anymore, as the force knocked him and the chair over backwards.

Three more men entered, and the one who had fired his gun demanded Renee, her mother and half-brother get on the floor. Loretta tried to rise, but plopped back in her chair. It took two of the men, each grabbing one of her arms, to lift her out. Face down on the floor, one of the men attempted to handcuff her arms behind her back.

"Lieutenant, they won't fit," one of the men said in exasperation.

The man called lieutenant glanced around the room quickly, saw the blinds and yanked the cord until it came free. He threw it to the man with the handcuffs.

"Here, use your imagination," he said, shaking his head in annoyance.

Renee lay on the floor as the lieutenant's eyes fell on her. Her hand touched the ball she'd thrown against the wall. It was bleeding. It's been shot, Renee thought to herself, and she held it protectively.

# # # #

Three hours later Anne Spinetti, their neighbor, held Renee by the hand as an ambulance took Loretta Barrows to the hospital. Renee was all but ignored, as an angry mob of over twenty neighbors confronted the man called Lieutenant, who tried in vain to calm them. Renee couldn't see much with all the adults around, but could clearly follow their conversation.

"What the fuck are you doing, storming into decent peoples' homes?" yelled Mr. Giordano, who owned the corner store at the end of the block.

"We had reliable information we'd find a substantial amount of drugs . . . , " he tried to explain.

"Find any drugs?" Renee recognized the voice as Anne's husband, Al.

"I can't comment on that, right now."

"Bullshit," another voice, which Renee couldn't identify boomed. "The Barrows' ain't got no drugs. You fucked up. Admit it."

"We're continuing our investigation . . . , " he tried again, but was shouted down.

"Was killing Steven Barrows part of your investigation?" Renee recognized the voice as that of Joseph Pagano.

"He had a gun." Now the lieutenant was angry. "Innocent people don't point guns at the police."

"He was cleaning his gun," Renee said not much above a whisper, hardly aware she was speaking. "He does it every night."

This only seemed to fuel the crowds' anger.

The policeman was clearly nonplussed. His ace in the hole, it seemed, was Steven Barrows pointing a gun at his officers. With the gun no more dangerous than a water pistol, there would be no reasoning with he crowd. The officer stepped back toward the house, seeking comfort in the men on either side, both with rifles pointed in the air.

"You're going to have to disperse . . . "

"Or what?" a voice interrupted, "You'll shoot us, too?"

"You'll have to disperse," he said, his voice shaky and unsure, "or we're going to have to start making arrests."

At that moment several police cars screeched to a halt at the end of the block, their sirens wailing, and the crowd grew silent.

More in control with reinforcements on hand, the Lieutenant spoke with a bit more compassion. "Please folks, let us sort this out. We'll have a statement tomorrow. I promise."

"What about Loretta Barrows? Did you shoot her, too," someone yelled.

The policeman shook his head no. "Mrs. Barrows was in shock and was taken to the hospital as a precaution."

Their anger finally spent, and with more police cars filling the street, the crowd sullenly began to disperse.

Anne Spinetti bent down to Renee. "We've called your Gramma. She's on her way over. Come on inside and I'll fix you and your brother some hot chocolate."

Renee went with the Spinettis', the rubber ball still clutched in her hand, sticky with the drying blood of her stepfather.

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