Boston Adventure, page 9
I thought, as I sat on a backless couch, waiting to hear the last column of children march up the stairs and into the classrooms, that if only circumstances had not conspired against us, Betty and I, fast friends, might have taken up smoking.
To my mother, my father’s desertion was like an eternally renewing spring from which she hourly drew accusations and complaints, and she shared her poisoned, enervating drink with anyone who would partake. Her companions in misery were poor neighbor women who, alternately pitying and envying, welcomed our misfortune as a distraction from their own worries. Mrs. Kadish, a thin, pinched, crotchety woman, the wife of a ferryboat engineer and the mother of six famished children, often came to call. She sat prissily erect, her hands folded tightly in her lap, nodding her long, hard head which was topped by a coil of graying hair. When she was not speaking, she pursed her lips in permanent displeasure, and when she did speak, it was in a high, nasal key, not loud, but like a distant scream.
As I came in one afternoon, she was saying, “I was on my feet at five A.M. this morning and I’m telling you, I’ve been on the go ever since. It’s pick up! Wash up! Sew up! Rinse out! till a person could drop down senseless. You was saying, Mrs. Marburg, that it’s hard if the man goes off and leaves the woman, but to my mind it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. If you don’t have a grown man around, you don’t have to cook so much and do up all them work shirts. Kadish could leave tomorrow and I wouldn’t hardly notice only for the little dab of money he brings in.”
“He hasn’t left you yet, sweetheart,” said my mother. “It’s not the money. It’s the shame. My God! You’d think this here wasn’t his child not born yet and he went off to punish me. I know you don’t think so, Mrs. Kadish, darling, nor Mrs. Henderson nor two or three other Chichester ladies, but what about the other people?”
Mrs. Kadish did not regard it a likely suspicion though it interested her. “You mean maybe they think you you-know? Oh, no, I don’t think so. Why, Mrs. Marburg, nobody would say you was that type lady.”
My mother began on a new tack: “Well, then, maybe they say he was the bad one and went off with one of those women from Marblehead, and maybe that’s true, Mrs. Kadish, who knows? I’m no fool and I used to see them last summer wobbling down the beach by the gentlemen’s house in dresses no longer than your camisole.” The “gentlemen” were the Coast Guards, so known because one of them, five years before, had gone to Harvard.
“You’re not telling me news,” returned her friend. “But I wouldn’t think that a family man like Mr. Marburg would take up with that type.”
“Whatever people say—if they blame it on drink or on the other thing or something else besides—it’s all a shame. But what can you do with Hermann Marburg? He is a German, dear.”
Her voice fell upon the word “German” in such a way that the emphasis was ambiguous: either a German was infamous beyond pardon or pitiable beyond hope. Mrs. Kadish, after this statement, perused my face for a time. “German,” she intoned. “And you, Mrs. Marburg, what was you saying was your nationality?”
“I am a Russian,” said my mother without pride and without deprecation but with a kind of finality which set “Russian” distinctly apart from “German” as though it was perhaps not ultimately the best thing to be but was at least comprehensible. I could have corrected her: Russians, to the children at school, were utterly improbable though all that was known about them was that they had ludicrous names. A favorite sport was to tease me by saying: “Hisky, Sonivitch, have you got your geographysky home-workskivitch?” In a way, I was flattered by this, for it had replaced Pig-Latin and was known as Sonie-Latin. On the other hand, Germans were perfectly credible and, because of their reputation for cutting off the hands of sleeping children and of being sired by Kaiser Bill, they enjoyed a certain prestige. Sometimes, the three or four of us in the lower grades who knew a little German were bribed to sing, in a secret place, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” and the eyes of our audience grew more enraptured with each evil word.
“Rooshun,” brooded Mrs. Kadish in her piercing voice. “So your kid is half Rooshun and half German—half Hun, as they say. Well, mine are bad enough: half Jew and half American. But not so bad as that.” I felt a rush of shame which my distaste for her smelly children did not intercept. “But I don’t doubt,” she added in the same shrill note of lamentation, “but what she’s a bright little slip.”
“Bright!” cried my mother. “She’s full of brains as big as an apple, that little thing is. And helpful, my God! Well, she’s everything in the world you could want, Mrs. Kadish. Come here, Sonia girl, let me show Mrs. K. how long your eyelashes are,” and she gathered me to her, pulling my hair as she held up my head for our neighbor’s admiration.
“Tchk, tchk,” said Mrs. Kadish. “She’ll be pretty. She won’t have no trouble getting herself a man, you know what I mean?”
“There’s where you’re wrong,” replied my mother. “Not but she couldn’t have any man in the world for the asking even now and only twelve going on thirteen, but what kind of a mother would I be to let an angel like her be treated the way my poor self has been?”
“You wait and see,” warned Mrs. Kadish. “The time will come and whoosh! she’s gone. But I wouldn’t be thinking so far ahead, Mrs. Marburg. I must say I don’t agree with you that she could get a man right now at her time of life. To my way of thinking she looks poorly. My Nathan might take her, along about sixteen or seventeen.”
My mother gave a foolish laugh. “Your Nathan! Well, pardon me, Mrs. Kadish, but no thank you. I don’t mean anything by that only I couldn’t do without her.” She pressed my head into her breast until I could scarcely breathe, but I had the strength to pull away from her and turn aside, my cheeks blazing. I did not know, indeed, what she would do without me, but I knew well enough what I would do without her. Right now, I thought bitterly, I would be playing with Betty Brunson instead of being on my way to her house to work. I murmured that I must go, that I would be late, for the sun was already going down.
“Poor baby,” said my mother, stroking my hand. “She is her mother’s staff of life.”
“Would you mind telling me, Sonie,” said Mrs. Kadish with a wily leer, “just what them Brunsons pay you?”
I told her they gave me three dollars a week. “Well, I’ll be!” she exclaimed. “They’re real free, ain’t they? If you ask me, that’s pure charity or pure show-off, I don’t know which. Three dollars! And pretty soft, I expect?”
“Soft!” burst out my mother. “Soft! She slaves herself to the bone!”
Mrs. Kadish’s curiosity was not satisfied. “You live high on three dollars a week now, and I’m not saying that isn’t dandy, I’d just like to know how you do it. Now, me, I have close to ten a week and I can’t hardly make both ends meet.”
“We have a golden egg,” said my mother proudly. “But we don’t touch it only now and then.”
“A golden egg?” queried the neighbor. “How’s that?”
I was infuriated with my mother. She was talking about our “nest” egg as Miss Pickens had called it, the fifty dollars her friend had paid us for my father’s skis, poles, boots, and leather shorts. I had wanted to keep our wealth a secret for I was sure it would be stolen as we had no good hiding place for it. Miss Pickens had advised me to take it to the bank in Marblehead, but I was afraid to go so far alone with that much money on my person, and we had put it between the leaves of my father’s Bible, so close to Mrs. Kadish at this very moment that she could stretch out her hand without moving from her chair and take it all.
“You know the teacher, Miss Pickens?” whispered my mother. Her friend nodded, leaning forward. “She brought a man here and he bought all Hermann’s trash for fifty dollars.”
“No!” Mrs. Kadish’s lips curled into a smile of disbelief. “May I inquire what this here trash was?”
“I don’t know the English word,” I said.
The woman looked at me with respect. “Nathan knows some foreign words, too. Fifty dollars. I’m glad for you, I surely am. No telling what will happen. Sonie might get appendicitis and have to have them out. That fifty dollars would come in handy.” She rose to leave and my mother extended her hand, fingers pointing downward as though she expected it to be kissed, “You come again, sweetheart, I’m always here in the afternoon.”
“Some pregnant women crave dill pickles,” said Mrs. Kadish. “I’ll bring along four or five when I come next time. I was always crazy for them myself.”
When she had gone I put out my mother’s supper for her: a plate of cole slaw, a loaf of rye bread, a dish of Liederkranz, and a casserole of beans that had been heating. She looked with displeasure on the meal. “If only I could have one small cucumber in a dish of sour cream, I wouldn’t ask for anything else in the world.” We had been through the cucumber argument many times before.
“Oh, Mamma!” I cried. “You know they don’t have them at this time of year.”
But, as always before, she either did not hear or did not believe me. “A cucumber is a little thing to ask. If I could have just one, just a small withered one in just a little bit of sour cream, ah, ah, I could bear all the rest!”
She did not move from her chair beside the stove, and knowing that she would only eat when the notion struck her, I went out. But I did not go at once in the direction of the Brunsons’ house where I had long since been due. Instead, I ran across to the Kadishes’ house where a light was burning. Through the uncurtained window, I could see the children gathered about a round table in the kitchen, each of the six intent upon some project, piling up matches or painting with water colors or cleaning a comb, but not too absorbed to chatter now and then and to dart their black eyes about the table with a controlled ferocity as though they all hated one another but knew that they must stick together. All of them came from the same mold: the same crisp black hair glittered under the lamplight; their faces wore sharp, shrewd expressions, the upper half seeming to be drawn down by the weight of the nose, loosening then below the nostrils into soft lips and little chins.
Nathan, the oldest, a boy of fourteen, sat near the window reading, and as the lamp was directly shining upon him, brightly illuminating his face, I was able to study the birthmark on his cheek. It was probably because of this shocking purple disfigurement that he was so ill-tempered and also so precocious. He was as sensitive as if his mark were a raw sore, continually being rubbed against or hit. It extended from the cheekbone, over the eyelid and the low forehead, to the hairline, appearing the more brilliant because of the dead pallor it interrupted. His lips were pouted in profound misanthropy and he seemed, for all his concentration, to detest his book, for his forehead was drawn into a scowl and his erect body wore an air of unwillingness. I knew by hearsay as well as by the ever meditative look upon his face and by the constant presence of a book under his arm that he was learned. He did not read The Boy Scouts in Arizona or the Motor Boat Boys, but instead, lives of Napoleon and histories of Rome and the Waverley novels. He had greatly admired my father, and often on Sunday afternoons had come to the door, inviting him to take a walk. My father never refused him, and it was on these expeditions round Chichester that Nathan had learned the foreign words of which his mother was so proud. Tonight it was Quo Vadis that he had propped up against a sugar bowl.
I respected his scholarship, but in my lassitude felt no urge to emulate him. I sometimes wished that we were friends so that I might absorb his culture through our association. But I did nothing to make myself commendable to him, nor could I have, for he was a formidable critic of everyone and especially of girls. A foolish girl of his age had once cried out in derision, “Cranberry Kadish is my ideal of a perfect man, like fun!” “Her ideal,” said Nathan with a contempt that far surpassed hers, “I suppose she means Platonic ideal because I wouldn’t touch her with a ten-foot pole.” The girl blushed and said, “You know what I meant. I meant ‘idea.’ ” But her correction was too late and as she fretted over the failure of her arrow to kill, he regarded her with a triumphant sneer that twitched at his birthmark.
Tonight, made thoughtful by my mother’s conversation with his mother, and, restless in my trap, I wished more than ever that Nathan were my “best friend” and that we took walks together in the evening, confiding in one another our sorrows and our ambitions. The desire for his companionship was tantamount to a betrayal of my mother who for so many years and so diligently had schooled me in the treacheries of men, although I believed she assumed that I would marry in spite of her warnings, would profit by none of her precepts, but by my experience would confirm what she had told me. And I, although it was my intention to remain unmarried (more in imitation of Miss Pride than to escape the pitfalls my mother had described to me), had a quite reasonable curiosity to know what were the manifestations of a man’s descent from Satan. The marred Jewish boy, at his sullen labors, roused in me a strange new ravening and I all but tapped on the window glass as a sign that he was to come out to speak to me. As quickly, the impulse waned and I turned to go. But as I did so, I resolved hereafter to come each night about this time and take up my brief, secret vigil. I was light-headed as I went on my way and I felt a little sick. Each time his image returned to my mind, my throat thickened and my footsteps faltered. But though it was novel and mysterious, my disquietude made me happy and I began to sing one of my mother’s songs:
Far from where the men were reaping,
Soon my weary self was sleeping;
Slept and then waked—oh,
Slept and then waked.
Thus as I the time was whiling,
Came a fellow, started smiling,
Courting me, too—oh,
Courting me, too.
Long my mother waited, wondered,
Long my sister waited, pondered
Where I might be—oh,
Where I might be.
Night came down upon the stubble.
Women have all kinds of trouble!
Woman’s sad lot! Oh,
Woman’s sad lot!
My installation in the Brunsons’ house had been a disappointment, for I was in many ways farther removed from Betty than before. And so it was that I plucked the sting from my evenings there by silently communing with Nathan Kadish through the lamplit window.
At the Brunsons’, as in my own house, the central figure was a pregnant woman, the very blazing personification of indecency, and Betty, quite unlike myself who found my mother daily more distasteful, adored hers increasingly, though I forgave her for she believed that her mother was going to a hospital to buy a baby from the supply kept there in a large ice-chest. The myth had been so fully developed in her mind that she was convinced the child had been specifically planned as a birthday present for her. It could not be a surprise since sometimes babies spoiled and you could never tell when there was to be a shortage. The Beelers, thoroughly sophisticated, left off their vain instructions when she told them sternly not to dare say anything nasty about her mother ever again. “But lookit how fat she’s getting!” said Esther. “Look here,” snapped Betty, “my Uncle Harry told my mother she had to get fatter, and if you don’t like it, you can go jump in the lake.”
The presence of the Beelers in the house was a sharp thorn in my side, for while I was confined to the kitchen, except when my chores took me into other rooms, they roamed at will throughout the house, obstreperous, dirty, and either through preoccupation with
My duties were very slight and Mrs. Kadish’s accusation that I was overpaid was quite true. The reason was not, however, that Mrs. Brunson was a spendthrift, but that the cook, Maudie, shocked by my pallor and emaciation, did all my work while she kept me in the pantry eating beef sandwiches and doughnuts, and drinking eggnog. Maudie was not a native of New England, but had come here from Idaho because she had always wanted to see “the spreading chestnut tree and Plymouth rock and that old bridge where they disappointed the British.” And so, when her husband was thrown by a “spooked” horse and died of a skull fracture, and her two sons had got married, she set out with her insurance money to see what she called “the old country.” She was a horsy, red-cheeked, raw-boned woman, nearly six feet tall. On her day off, she lounged in a one-room house not far from the Brunsons’, drinking whiskey and reading magazines called Lariat, West, and Rio Grande Romances. The combination of the liquor and literature produced in her a virulent homesickness which was contagious to her cronies—all men—so that her shack rocked with sighs toward evening when the men had gathered after work, as Maudie, in a plaintive, guttural voice, “My whiskey tenor,” she called it, told anecdotes of horses, cattle, and bears, for all of whom she was lonesome. “Why don’t you go back, Maudie?” the men would ask. “Oh, hell,” she would reply, “it wouldn’t be the same. My husband’s dead and that dear old bench that throwed him is dead, and without them two Idaho’d be an ornery outfit. She was a little strawberry roan by the name of Skylark and she loved him like another horse and he loved her like another human. I often say it’s good they went together.” She would relapse into a dreamy silence. The men were deeply touched.