For nearly ten years, apartment 3N was my incubator. The front-facing windows offered a constricted view of the world as I knew it. From these city-streaked panes, I could scan the neighborhood. Devoe Park was visible to the left. Parish brick and mortar dominated the opposite side of the street. Relentless rows of cars, parked bumper to fender, extended up both sides of the narrow block.
Above and below, other Bronx Irish Catholic families shared the outside view. What they saw inside, I can’t say. But I can recall our inside. A narrow hall ran the length of the apartment. Square-shaped rooms held both too many and not enough beds for the family that lived there. A single bathroom, with a tub usually filled with dirty clothes and soaked bedsheets, had the heroic duty of serving our platoon-sized family.
By the end of our occupancy, apartment 3N sheltered two parents, five daughters, three sons, and two deranged dogs. My always-pregnant mother spent a good amount of time looking out those front windows, like a prisoner looking through a never-changing frame of depressive bars. Cigarettes and beer cans kept her company as she stared at the life outside. Her pain, despair, and rage permeated every surface.
Central to the room were two beautiful mahogany chest of drawers, one for each parent. They were darkly finished and highly glossed, projecting solidity and an element of quality. My father used the taller of the set. My mother’s dresser was less tall, with four drawers holding her possessions, from blouses and skirts to gimcrack jewelry, orphaned buttons, needles, and random bits of thread.
The shorter top drawer has a sliding piece of wood, with two shallow bowls that bear the markings of one of the many children who somehow accessed a permanent marker and used them as a canvas to express something unreadable, yet urgent.
I have heard stories of how my two older sisters and I played in the drawers, pulled out and placed on the floor like pirate ships or racing cars. But that was another time, in another apartment. The next wave of babies, and a late summer riot, made a relocation to 3N an imperative.
I have that dresser now. It sits in my home thousands of miles from 3N. I’ve taken it down to bare wood, exposing its construction from many different boards. The more I scraped and sanded, the more its imperfect beauty was revealed.
On certain days, when the weather is warm, or the humidity is high, opening one of these drawers triggers every memory I do not want. The smoke of a million cigarettes, the seeped-in staleness of spilled alcohol, old lipstick, and powdery makeup drift across the decades and bring me again to Apartment 3N.
Even today, five decades removed, the scent from the dresser summons that room and all its grief. I could not scrape and sand enough to erase the ghosts that live inside.