"Manhattan Fairy Tale"


Mary Anne Gruen

Fire Escape at Night“I don’t wanna sleep!” little five-year-old Rachel complained for the umpteenth time. “I wanna see the movie again!”

“You already watched it twice,” her grandmother pointed out as she patiently pulled the child’s bright pink pajama top over her head.

“I wanna see it again! I like the part where the princess is trapped in the castle and the hero comes and rescues her.”

“Yes, that is a very good part,” her grandmother agreed, gently urging the struggling child down into her bed. “Of course you know there are heroes like that nowadays. Or at least there were when I was young.”

Little Rachel’s eyes got wide and she stopped struggling. “Really?”

“Oh, yes. I can tell you a story about one if you promise to go to sleep afterward.”

Rachel’s deep brown eyes looked off to the side for a moment as she wondered if it was worth it. “Is it a good story?”

“Oh, yes. It’s very good. But you have to sit down in bed so I can tell it properly.”

Again the little girl considered, but it didn’t take as long this time. “OK.”

Rachel’s grandmother tucked the bed covers around the little girl in the loving way that grandmothers do. Then she sat her own small figure down on the bed and began her tale.

“It was a long time ago. Long before your mommy and daddy were born. But not so long ago as that movie you like so much. I was a young woman when it happened, a few years younger than your mother. It took place in Manhattan, where all the tall buildings are. You remember. We went there on your birthday last year and you saw all the preserved animals at the museum.”

Rachel nodded her head. She remembered. There were lots of tall buildings around the museum.  They all looked sort of like the castle in her movie. Rachel hadn’t seen many high-rises before that, except on television. She lived in a two story apartment building on the outskirts of a New Jersey suburb.

“Well, there was this man named Nick,” Rachel’s grandmother continued. “And he was like the hero in your movie in that he didn’t quite fit anyone’s idea of a hero and he didn’t fit in anywhere. In fact, most people would have considered him to be a disreputable character.”

“A disrep what?”

“Disreputable. It means that he wasn’t someone people liked or trusted. And he made his living in a way that other people would object to.”

“What did he do?”

“He was a burglar.”

Rachel’s eyes got round.

“He was what people called a cat burglar back then. That means he was as quiet as a cat when he broke into people’s apartments. He was a solitary man with no friends. And as for his family, he’d left them behind long before. He was fifteen when he left home and took up burglary. It seemed a good way to get back at the world for the rough treatment he felt he’d gotten from life. For many years his profession was his sole reason for living. He thought ripping off people was fun and full of danger. Then, as the excitement faded, he tried to think of it as an art. And that seemed to work until he came into his mid-thirties, which must seem very old to you.”

Rachel nodded her five-year-old head. Thirty sounded ancient to her.

“By that time Nick felt very lonely and he was beginning to wonder if maybe he should do something to change his life. He’d grown to hate being by himself so much. But he thought it was necessary because he didn’t want anyone to find out what he did for a living. Even though he’d never been caught by the police for being a burglar, his work had become something like a jail sentence.

“During his long days alone he began thinking of his family again. He wondered if his father was still as hard as ever or if he had mellowed. He wondered if his mother was all right. She'd been such a tiny thing with her long dark hair always pulled into a pony tail. He wondered if she had survived her husband's angry fits, for Nick’s father had had a very bad temper.”

“Like an evil wizard?”

“Well…” Rachel’s grandmother considered. “Maybe. And Nick’s sister Maria… she had been little more than a child when he'd left. He wondered how she had turned out. When she was very little, Maria had always looked up to Nick as her protector. And then he’d left her alone to deal with their father…the evil wizard. That weighed heavily on his conscious.

“He thought about his family so much, that Nick finally took a trip back to his old neighborhood to see if he could find them. But they'd long since moved away. And no one seemed to know anything about them. It was as if the city had swallowed them whole. There was nothing to do but go on with life as it was, living his days in seclusion and setting forth at night to half-heartedly ply his trade. One night, he just happened to see an open window on a fire escape.”

Rachel’s grandmother saw the quizzical look on the child’s face and explained. “A fire escape is a metal ladder that they used to attach to old buildings. If there was a fire, the people who lived in the building could use that to climb down to safety. Nick used these fire escapes to climb up buildings. And when he saw an open window in a darkened apartment he would climb in.

“Anyway, on this particular night, he saw an open window and slid it open and looked inside. Everything appeared dark and quiet. So, carefully he slipped inside. He froze momentarily, letting his eyes become accustomed to the darkness and he listened for movement. Then, he removed his flashlight from his pocket and cautiously surveyed his surroundings.

“He was in a kitchen. The first thing he did was to check for silver and crystal. But all he found were a few meager eating utensils and a couple of plates and cups bought at the old Five and Dime.”

“Five and Dime?”

“That’s what they used to call Woolworth’s. It was sort of like Walmart, only smaller. Anyway, Nick recognized the cheap quality of the utensils and the rundown state of the room. He continued looking around in the kitchen, but there wasn’t much to see. Even food was in short supply. From the looks of things, there wasn’t anything worth taking. Nick should have climbed back out onto the fire escape and continued on his way. But he didn't.”

“He didn’t?”

“No. Instead he switched off his flashlight and cautiously made his way out of the kitchen to inspect the rest of the apartment. There wasn't much there. The dim light from the window revealed him to be in a small one room studio. The only furnishings were a bureau, a night table, and a bed. Nick could just make out the form of a frail young girl sleeping there. He gazed at her momentarily and then noiselessly crossed the room to her chest of drawers.

“Carefully, he scanned the top of the bureau, discretely scanning it with his small flashlight. But he found only a book, one lone subway token, and some mail addressed to ‘Occupant.’ Then he slowly opened each drawer in succession and flashed his light inside. There were only a few pieces of inexpensive clothing, some costume jewelry, and other small personal items. There was absolutely nothing worth stealing.

“So, Nick put his flashlight back into his pocket and looked at the sleeping figure in the bed. He thought to himself, ‘Poor kid.’ She was all on her own, seemingly with nothing and no one. He couldn't help but feel sorry for her. And he thought about his little sister Maria. Wherever she was he hoped she had made something better of her life.

“As he turned to go, his foot struck an object on the floor and out of curiosity he bent over to pick it up. A flash of his light revealed it to be an empty bottle of sleeping pills.

“Sleeping pills?”

“Yes. They can be very dangerous if you take too many. Nick knew this, so he turned to look more closely at the girl in the bed. She was clutching a box of tissues and had scattered several of them about her. Her face was wreathed in sad shadows. Obviously she had cried herself to sleep, maybe taking a couple of pills to relax her. There was no reason for him to jump to any conclusions. There was no reason to get involved.

“Resolutely, he walked back to the kitchen but couldn't bring himself to leave for some reason. What if the girl had taken more than a couple of pills? Who else would find her if she had taken too many?

“Nick moved back into the main room for another look at the girl. She still hadn't stirred and that was unusual. As quiet as Nick was, the occupants of the apartments he robbed usually at least sensed his presence. He was accustomed to timing his movements to the tossing, turnings, and snorings of his sleeping patrons. But this girl hadn't moved at all. He wondered if she was just a heavy sleeper and that he hadn't made enough noise yet.

“So, Nick reached for the lone book on the bureau and threw it against the wall. It made a loud noise, but there was still no reaction from the girl. In two strides of his long legs he crossed the floor to the girl's bed and began calling and shaking her. When there was still no reaction, he snapped on the lights and shook her more violently.

"’Come on, Honey, wake up!’ he said, forcing her to sit. This time the girl moaned.

"’O.K. Let's get up!’ he said. ‘We'll walk it off! Come on, you can do it!’"

“Then Nick dragged the girl out of bed and pulled her back and forth across the room.

"’Come on,’ he kept saying. ‘Keep walking! You can do it! Back we go again! Keep going! That's it! You're doing fine.’"

“Back and forth they went, over and over again. The night was endless, one hour moving into another as they walked. But bit by bit life began returning to the young girl's legs.

“From his search of the kitchen Nick remembered seeing some instant coffee. So he made some and forced her to drink it. It seemed to help.

"’What's your name?’ Nick asked.

"’Virginia.’ she answered weakly.

"’Well, Virginia,’ he said, ‘just a little bit longer and everything'll be fine.’

“Did he save her?” Rachel asked with great concern.

“Oh yes. Nick was very relieved when the sky finally lightened outside the girl’s window. It had been a long night but the danger seemed past. He could let her sleep. Gently, he helped her back to bed and covered her with a blanket.

“She was still not herself yet, you understand. Not completely. The tall, grim faced man standing over her seemed to have come out of a dream. He was a total stranger, yet somehow he had come just in time to keep her from doing what the night before had seemed the only answer to her loneliness.

“She was lonely too!”

"That’s right. She was.”

“Just like the princess in the movie.”

“Yes. ‘Who are you?’ she asked him wearily.

"He said, ‘My name's Nick. But we can talk later. Right now you get some rest.’

“Virginia was far too tired at that point to try and figure it all out. So she simply closed her eyes and started off to sleep.

“Of course Nick knew that besides rest she needed a good meal. So, he decided to bring her a couple bags of groceries when he came to see her later.

“He exited through the front door of Virginia's apartment as quietly as he had entered through the kitchen window. And he made a mental note of the apartment number as he headed toward his own place. When he returned later that day, Virginia was still not entirely herself. But she recognized him for the knight in shining armor that he was. And shortly after that she fell in love with him. And neither one of them was ever lonely again.”

Rachel smiled a big smile at that.

“Nick gave up his old career for her and took other kinds of work. He was still a bit of a loner. But he loved his wife and daughter more than anything else in the world. And they loved him too. They named their daughter Maria, after the sister he never found again.”

“And they all lived happily ever after!” Rachel finished triumphantly.

“Yes, they did.”

“That’s a nice story.”

“Now go to sleep. You promised.”

“OK. I love you, Grandma.”

“I love you too.”

Rachel was as good as her promise. She went to sleep and left her grandmother to watch some late night comic on television till her daughter and son-in-law came home and her babysitting job was over.

“How was she?” Rachel’s mother whispered.

“She was perfect.”

“She didn’t give you any trouble about going to bed?”

“Did she nag you into letting her watch her favorite movie over and over?” Rachel’s father asked.

“She tried,” Rachel’s grandmother said with a smile. But I told her a story instead.”

“And she was willing to forgo another showing of her movie for your story,” Rachel’s father asked in surprise.

“She did. But it was a very special story.”

Rachel’s mother saw the sparkle in her. “You didn’t.”

“She’s going to want to hear about her grandfather sooner or later.”

“She did the same thing with me,” Rachel’s mother explained in response to the questioning look on her husband’s face. “She told me the same story about how she and my father met in the form of a fairy tale. And one day when I got old enough, I finally figured out who the people in the story really were.”

“I’m sorry your father died before I got a chance to meet him,” Rachel’s father said, slipping his arms around his dark-haired wife. Maria was tall like her father Nick and slight like her mother Virginia.

“I’m sorry you never got to meet him too,” Rachel’s grandmother said. “But I have a feeling your family is better off not knowing he was an ex-burglar.”

They all laughed at that. Rachel’s father came from a very proper family. They had only told them that Maria’s father had been in construction. It was true, of course. Although he had stopped working as a burglar after meeting his Virginia, Nick decided to continue earning his living by scaling tall buildings, usually while they were still under construction. In total, he spent more years as a construction worker then he did as a burglar. But it wasn’t the whole truth of who he was. For he was part construction worker, part burglar…and part knight.


Copyright 2009 by Mary Anne Gruen