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Manyyears ago, a girl named Cathy Dunn came with her family from Dublin, Ireland, to the Lower East Side of New York. Everything in the new country fascinated her: fireworks and el trains and stickball games, and the songs of peddlers calling out their wares in a dozen languages. She loved to watch the policeman go by on his horse and the hook and ladder come round the corner like a long red dragon. But more than anything else, she loved to watch Mr. Coletti, the monkey man.
Mr. Coletti came to Second Avenue once or twice a week with his monkey, Espresso, and his hand organ, a big box on a wooden leg, which tweedled and tootled out a super-confabulation of sounds whenever he turned the handle. He was an old, old man with white hair and a big white mustachio and eyes that crinkled up at the sides so that he always seemed to be laughing. And perhaps he always was, for the children of Second Avenue knew that Espresso was the funniest monkey in Manhattan.
Espresso would clap his hands and dance round and round in the circle formed by the children. When Mr. Coletti gave a little tug on the long yellow cord tied to the monkey's belt, Espresso would do a perfect somersault, sometimes two. If you held a penny out between your fingers, he would suddenly pluck it away and tip his little red cap. Then Mr. Coletti would say, "Hey, Espresso, give the penny to the boss., huh? Put her in the bank." And Espresso would drop the penny into Mr. Coletti's pocket while the children cheered. And Espresso could ride a tiny tricycle and make the funniest faces and . . . what's the use. You had to see him to believe it.
Often, at home, Mr. Colettiwould scold Espressoin Italian, because Espresso didn't understand very much English. "Hey, bambino, why do you make so many faces, huh? I didn't teach you to make dopey faces, bambino." And his wife would smile as she drank her coffee, for Mr. Coletti called her bambina, even though she was seventy-three. Mr. Coletti called every old person bambina or bambino, little girl or little boy, and he called every child under ten signore or signora, sir or madam. It seemed to make everyone happy.
Of all the children who loved Espresso, Cathy Dunn loved him the most. Cathy was given a penny a day for candy, but she always saved those pennies for Espresso. She would rather see Espresso tip his hat to her than have the three vanilla cookies or the two braids of licorice a penny could buy in those days.
But Cathy was just a little frightened of Espresso, not because he was a monkey, but because on certain days Cathy was convinced that he wasn't a monkey. When he blinked his eyes so mischievously and did such human tricks, Cathy would be reminded of stories she'd heard back in Ireland about the little people — the elves and leprechauns. It seemed perfectly obvious to her: Espresso was a leprechaun. It was a delicious secret. Only she and Espresso knew it. Espresso would blink at her and she would blink back in their private leprechaun language.
One day, Cathy was standing in the circle of children watching Espresso. She held her penny tightly in her fingers as if it were about to fly like a bird from its nest. She was waiting, waiting for the right moment to hand it to Espresso.
But the monkey just didn't seem to notice Cathy's penny. "Hey, looka there, the little signora," said Mr. Coletti. But no, Espresso was too busy having an ugly-face contest with Joey Basuto.
Then Aaron Kandel, who lived next door, said to Cathy, "You got to hold it by the rim. Otherwise he won't take it."
"He knows me," said Cathy. "He always takes it. Let's see you do it!"
"Naa, not me," said Aaron. "I always save my pennies for the witch."
The witch? That was even better than a leprechaun. Cathy was about to ask which witch, but realized how silly that would sound and asked, "What witch?"
("The witch!" said Aaron. "The witch! You know! The witch! "
"I don't know about any witch," said Cathy. "Which witch do you mean?"
"Come on, I'll show you," Aaron said.
Cathy had never seen a witch, not even back in Ireland where children often saw witches hiding in the early morning mists. and in the evening shadows. And though she was afraid of witches, Cathy had always wanted to see one. From a distance, naturally.
They walked along Fourth Street toward the school. Cathy walked that way every day, yet she'd never noticed a witch. Was Aaron trying to play a joke on her? He probably was. He liked to play jokes on all the girls, and particularly the ones who giggled a lot.
"There!" Aaron was pointing up the block, toward an old lady seated on a wooden crate. "That's her," he whispered. It was the pencil lady.
"Is she a witch?" asked Cathy.
"Of course she is," whispered Aaron. "And you'd better make sure you give her a penny every day. Or else! "
Yes. It was so obvious if you really looked. The old woman was dressed all in black, her face was wrinkled, her hands were twisted like roots torn from the earth. In her lap was an open box of pencils and a tin tray holding a few pennies. Her head was down; she looked at nothing.
"She can see everything," whispered Aaron. "She"s a witch!"Cathy shuddered. Her heart felt like a big bass drum being pounded in a parade. She was very frightened, but strangely happy. She couldn't believe her luck! She'd been walking right past a live witch on the way home...