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Little Judy
By Rosemary Rogers

It was said that the father, Mr. Feeney, would look in the mirror every morning and announce, "Thank God I'm Irish!" The Irish were the only ethnic group he would tolerate and only Catholic Irish who hailed from Co. Kerry, his birthplace. Mr. Feeney regarded most of his working class neighbors as "left footers," a derisive term reserved for the Irish who indulged in such unorthodox behavior as marrying outside the tribe, attending public school or preferring American to Gaelic Football. Though we lived in the tiny apartment just below his tiny apartment and a fire escape adjoined our bedrooms, Mr. Feeney rarely deigned to visit our home. My parents were from the "wrong" part of Ireland and took little interest in any kind of football. When he did attend one of our graduation parties, he took great and vocal offense ("I will not line Her Majesty's pocketbook!") when my mother offered him a subversive scotch instead of Irish whiskey. He left in a huff.

Bluster aside, Mr. Feeney abhorred untidiness and would follow and critique his equally fastidious wife while she cleaned, and Mrs. Feeney cleaned constantly. When Mrs. Feeney wasn't cleaning, she was gossiping-her role as Bronx biddy was helped along by a keening voice and oversized eyeglasses. She set herself up as a strict sentry of her unclean neighbors and their many sins: with no small amount of wit, she would describe sloppy apartments and mothers who wore too much makeup. She enjoyed naming the names of those who arrived late to Mass and snuck out early from wakes. Some tough old birds would openly parry with her but most, like my mother, feared her.

The Feeney's youngest child, Martin, was what was euphemistically called a "change of life" baby. Starting when he was about five, Mrs. Feeney would send Martin down to play in our apartment not knowing that my sister and I took advantage of his younger age, his pricier toys and his gullibility. When we weren't taunting him with epithets ("Fartin' Martin" being our particular favorite), we were making up stories that he always believed. We convinced him that our one-bedroom apartment had a private elevator, World War III had broken out downtown, and he, not us, had tangled and ruined another one of his Slinkies.

But the most fun we had with Martin was dressing him up as a little girl, a game he enjoyed as well. My sister and I would put him in a skirt and blouse and arrange a flowery kerchief around his golden Shirley Temple curls. We even christened him with a jazzy, American-sounding name…Judy! We took "Little Judy" down to the candy store, the playground, and the supermarket, introducing 'her' around the neighborhood as a cousin from Flushing.

Decades passed, my sister and I had real children to dress up and we seldom thought of Martin. We knew he was still living with his parents and worked as a meter man for Con Edison. At 30, he was unmarried, "a bachelor man," as his mother liked to call him, making him seem almost rakish. When an impolitic neighbor would suggest it was about time for him to marry, Mrs. Feeney would counter "At least he's not living in an apartment on his own!" or "Well, tis better he's single than divorced, tisn't it?" This last remark always stung my mother since I was, in fact, divorced, a dark secret she kept from Mrs. Feeney. Even in 1982, Mrs. Feeney felt divorce was shameful and confined to high-heeled hussies who were denied the sacraments and destined to burn in Hell.

It was around this time that my parents, now quite elderly, came home from Thanksgiving dinner at my house. Reaching the front door, they were alarmed to notice it was slightly open. They slowly entered but stopped when they heard what my mother later described as "horrible animal noises" coming from their bedroom. My mother's first, odd, thought was that somehow "a bear had gotten caught in a trap" inside her Bronx bedroom. They made a quick call to the police and hustled out of the apartment.

They were still on the landing when Martin burst forth from their front door, his oafish body naked. He ran past them and up the cold stairs. My mother managed to note the doughy backside while my father spotted the shamrock on his arm-a tattoo with the somewhat redundant inscription, "I'm Irish." Then they heard him enter his apartment, slam and double-lock his door.

Later that night, when my mother was telling me the story, it was at this point that I gasped, "Oh God, he had a girl in your bedroom!" My mother answered, "No, no, it wasn't a girl. It's worse. He was alone."

Stunned, my parents returned to the apartment and made their way to the bedroom. The room was ransacked and the iron gate guarding the fire escape window had been bent as if it were part of some strongman routine. My mother found something curious on the floor, namely her underwear, mostly sale items from Mrs. Platz's Corset Shoppe: A salmon colored full slip (size 20 ½, a size specially designed for the short and stout), the long line brasserie with safety pins to reinforce both straps, the panty girdle with four garters dangling like four anchovies. Her right and left support stockings, severed from the garters, were flung to opposite sides of the room. Finally, under the bed were her roomy underpants, which, she noted, were quite damp.

Thanks to a recent episode of The Phil Donahue Show featuring transvestites, my mother had diagnosed Martin's malady around the same time the police arrived. She told them what happened; they called Martin demanding he come down immediately and "bring any clothes that don't belong to you." Ten minutes later, he entered my parents' apartment carrying my mother's Easter outfit in his arms like it was a sick child. Apparently, for this heady cross-dressing binge, he had chosen her Easter outfit as his main costume. He went upstairs to his mother's apartment, dressed up as my mother stopping by for tea after Easter Sunday mass.

He confessed all, without prompting, the tears running from his blue eyes and landing on his skimpy mustache. He knew my parents' schedule and where his mother kept their keys. He knew where my mother kept her nightgowns, her housedresses and especially…her underwear. On this fateful Thanksgiving night, he heard them come in the apartment and tried to escape out the fire escape, but only succeeded in bending the iron gate covering the window-a gate designed to keep burglars out but now served to keep a transvestite in. When the police asked how long this had been going on, he answered, "Since I was 12." 12!!!!! Since he was now 30, 18 years of my mother's missing foundation garments and unmated support hose was instantly explained. A policeman asked, "Are you a homosexual, Martin?" "Of course not!!" he snapped, affronted and, for a moment, no longer ashamed.

When my mother had a moment alone with one of the policemen, she asked why he just didn't wear his mother's clothes and spare himself the trip downstairs. The officer, surprisingly educated about such matters, explained that Martin would never wear his own mother's clothes but he still wanted to dress like her. In other words, he wanted to dress in Bronx grandmother outfits rather than flashy showgirl costumes and, luckily, my mother's 20½-size wardrobe accommodated Martin's heft. Besides, the officer pointed out, entering someone else's apartment was dangerous and danger usually goes along with compulsive behavior, a big part of the thrill.

That night my sister and I talked a long time about Martin. We felt guilty. "Could we be responsible?" we kept asking each other, replaying scenes of "Little Judy" preening around the neighborhood in her different disguises. Our remorse, however genuine, was tempered by a wee bit of schadenfreude: Martin was pathetic but his dilemma seemed such a comeuppance for Mr. and Mrs. Feeney, both so intolerant of anybody who was "different." When my mother had asked him the crucial question, "Do your parents know?" Martin was finally reduced to uncontrollable sobs, pleading "No, no, no, please don't tell them!"

My mother never did tell the Feeneys or, for that matter, any of the neighbors. But it wasn't long afterwards that she blithely announced to Mrs. Feeney (and anyone else) that I was divorced and doing just fine. She didn't care if Mrs. Feeney imagined me entertaining burly strangers or lamented my (divorcée) inability to receive Holy Communion. My mother no longer felt the need to keep it a secret. She was, at long last, liberated.

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