Mumbles by Irving A. Greenfield

This isn’t my story. It’s Mumbles’ story, or more accurately it’s about Mumbles and was told to me by James Tubac, another student of mine. Both boys were in my freshman English class at Fort Washington High School, in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. Mumbles’ real name was Michael Driscoll. Because he mumbled when he spoke, which was seldom, he garnered the nickname Mumbles long before he came to my class. When he spoke it was often incoherent, but no one in the otherwise rowdy class ever made fun of him.

My use of rowdy requires an explanation. The class, euphemistically called The Academy, was made up of boys and girls whose behavioral problems did not come within the legally proscribed parameters of Special Education. Though they were in the mainstream of school’s population, they were rejects. Each of them had a combination of emotional problems and learning difficulties that made it impossible for them to be part of a regular class.

I was much younger than my students were, when I too had been classified as a reject. I was in the fourth grade when the school’s principal, Mrs. Lenard, had solemnly foreseen my destiny: I would spend most of my life behind bars. Because of that brilliant prognostication, I have always had an affinity for rejects.

I discovered Tubac and Mumbles were different from the other students in the class. They were readers and that gave me something to work with. Mumbles spoke from the last row, last seat with a hood covering his head and his head down on the desk. James was the livelier of the two. He occupied the fourth seat in the second row. The two boys were friends. As far as I could tell, James was Mumbles’ only friend. Both were black, though James was light tan, while Mumbles was color of ebony.

It was a Thursday. Mumbles was absent, which was something that happened now and then, more when the weather was cold and gray with the promise of snow in the air the way it was that morning. The class seemed more nervous than usual. A change in the weather could do that to them, thunderstorms in the spring and early fall and snow in the winter. According to some of the “old timers,” a full moon could wreak havoc in a classroom. But my class was quiet, too quiet. Impatiently, I waited for the bell to ring. With a few minutes to go before the end of the class, James came up to me and said, “Gotta talk to you.” He looked over shoulder at the class. “Not here. Somewhere else.”

“Sure. After class,” I said.

He nodded.

“Where’s Mumbles?” I asked.

“That’s wot I gotta talk to you ‘bout,” He said and went back to his seat.

James didn’t join the other students in their noisy and hurried exit when the bell rang. He stayed behind and came up to my desk. His young face was marked with concern. He said, “Mumbles in big trouble. He’s gone.”

I must have raised my eyebrows.

“He said he kilt ‘dem, and now he be free,” James said.

“When did he tell you this?” I asked, forcing myself to be composed. I had no idea what James was talking about.

“This mornin’ when I stopped to pick him up,” he said. “See, I go by his house every mornin’. He wuz all full of blood.”


James nodded. “He kilt ‘im. Said deyed of kilt ‘im.”

My heart began to thump.

“He say dey beat da shit out of ‘im all da time,” James said. “I mean he a punchin’ bag fer ‘is ol’ man, an’ ‘is momma used a broom stick on ‘im. Dey lock ‘im in da closet ‘till he bust free. Den he kilt ‘im.”

“Are you telling me he killed his parents?”

James nodded. “He full of blood when I seed ‘im. But he gone by now.

“Gone where?”

“Join up wid da goolies in da subway tunnel,” James said, his eyes wide with fear. “He gonna live wid ‘im down der. Ain’t never comin’ up, ‘cept maybe at night. He say it better fer ‘im.”

With James in tow, I went to the principal, Dr. Ralph Fitzroy, a short dapper man with a small mustache and an appetite for pretty, young, women teachers. I knocked on the door to his office several times before I heard a brusque, “Come in.”

Ms. Sally Holmes, a newly appointed history teacher was sitting demurely in front of his large, highly polished oak desk.

“Can’t whatever it is wait?” he asked brusquely, indicating whatever he was doing or was about to do had a higher priority than whatever I was about to put before him.

I looked at Ms. Holmes and said, “Please excuse us.”

Fitzroy glowered at me, but he said to Ms. Holmes, “We’ll continue this another time.”

“Yes,” she said, and left the room closing the door after her.

I sat where she’d been sitting and motioned James into a nearby chair.

“This better be worth –”

“Mumbles - - Michael Driscoll killed his parents,” I said.

He paled.

I told him exactly what James had told me, and he immediately phoned the police, who confirmed that Mumbles killed them and that fled.

Of course the police didn’t believe James when he told them that Mumbles was in the subway tunnels. But I believed him and still do. Because now and then when I board the subway at the Ninety Second Street Station in Brooklyn and I walk to the far end of the platform, I know that Mumbles is somewhere out there. Sometimes he’s close enough for me to see his form, a darker shape in the darkness. And sometimes I’m sure I hear a low laugh. But when that happens, I feel the prickles race down my back and I move to the center of the platform, where there’s more light and more people.

I am 83 years old. I was born in Brooklyn. I and my wife, Anita, live in Manhattan. Several novels and short stories have been published. Both my sons write professionally. My idea of good day is a day when I can spend time at the computer and have something to show for it, a page will do the trick.