EASY ESSAYS
EASY ESSAYS
Syndic Literary Journal

AA ~ The Adventures of Henrietta Fine ~ Chapter One

 

  THE ADVENTURES OF HENRIETTA FINE 

by  

P.M. Levitt

Narrated by Elizabeth Mansfield

Chapter One  

A sudden blow.  With the great hospital fans beating like a flock of swans and my father caught short by the bill, St. Barnabas hospital told my mother and me they could no longer care for his cancer.  It was the spring of 1922.  Pop lay dying on a grey metal bed, amidst the smell of starched sheets, disinfectant, and bed pans, while outside the air, awash with spring, felt like the sweetness of baby’s breath.  Such strange death weather, I thought, and prayed that my father would be renewed by the season. 

****** 

Everything began to go wrong when I found a dead bird in the attic.  That same day, as Pop was lying on the floor repairing a sewing machine (he was a first-rate mechanic), the wrench kept falling out of his hand.  He couldn’t grip it, and when he did, an electric pain shot from his hand to his shoulder.  So he went to see a doctor.  Two doctors.  Specialists.  Tons of them.  For two years, while trying to learn what was wrong, the sawbones tortured him, extracting his teeth, putting his arm in traction, and removing his tonsils. But the numbness persisted.  So they injected him with expensive serums, extracted from horses, or was it apricots?  Finally, when a growth began to appear on his neck, they tried to burn it with salves and then, in a desperate attempt to stop what they’d finally diagnosed as a cancer, they operated without any success.  The tumor in his neck was now the size of a grapefruit.  He was choking to death.   

The nurses at St. Barnabas, all of them nuns, could see that Pop was a goner; so Mom, with her imperfect English, begged the hospital director to let him die there in peace.  But the director wouldn’t agree until Mom assured him that family and friends would pay all the bills.  He insisted, however, that since the patient was dying, only adults would “henceforth” (his starchy word) be allowed in his room.  At sixteen, I didn’t qualify, and was therefore to wait in the main lobby downstairs.  When I explained that Mom needed me to translate what the nurses were saying, a nun patted me on the head and replied, “Henrietta, there’s no need for further translation.”  

But I had my own plan.  Pop loved hearing me play the violin.  Well, he was going to have that chance, with or without the hospital director’s permission.  It was Pop, after all, who showed me the right positions for chords and arpeggios, when my high school music teacher had taught me some screwball fingering.  And it was Pop who always said that life without music wasn’t worth living.  An accomplished violinist I was not, but I once played well enough in a city competition to win a free ticket to Carnegie Hall.  Bolting from St. B., I hailed a cab, which was the way Pop liked to travel.  Even though we once owned a Wills-Sainte Claire that had cost nearly $3,000, Pop liked to have someone else do the driving. 

As the cabby wheeled down High Street heading for South Orange Avenue, we passed a street hawker bellowing “Bandannas:  twenty-five cents apiece or three for a dollar” (you’d be surprised at how many rubes fell for that line), and a street musician playing the violin, while a little girl at his side sang “Look for the Silver Lining.”  On South Orange Avenue, I counted the familiar streets whizzing by—Richmond, Norfolk, Newton, Bruce, Morris, Bergen, Camden, Fairmount—and silently wondered whether Mom could keep our beautiful house safe from the bank.  The cab turned right on Littleton Avenue, passed under the canopy of overhanging trees, and pulled up to our red-brick house at 117. 

The cabby whistled.  “Nice place!” 

Surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence and shaded by gnarled sycamores and ancient oaks, the house had gardens on every side and large windows with striped canvas awnings purchased at the Bob Sommer shop on Springfield Avenue.  Telling the cabby to wait, I darted to the side of the house and entered through the kitchen, which looked like a surgical operating room.  It had white floor tiles, porcelain counters and ice box, and also stainless steel cabinets.  A staircase ran from the kitchen to the attic, where I stored my most precious possessions, like a crystal radio set, on which I listened to KDKA (Pittsburgh) and WGY (Schenectady), and my violin.  Even though I had my own bedroom—and two goose-down pillows—I much preferred to sleep in the attic.  Finished in knotty pine, it housed my workbench and locksmithing tools, as well as all my sporting equipment:  a dartboard, a mat for tumbling, dumbbells weighing five, ten, and twenty pounds, a crossbar for chinning, a punching bag (Pop and I often went to the fights at the Armory and the Bank Street Arena), and a pool table we bought secondhand.  I was pretty good with a cue stick, a lot better than some of the plug uglies down at the local pool hall. 

Grabbing my violin and the case, I remembered leaving my music on the living room piano, where just a few days before, a friend and I had been playing duets.  Charging down the stairs, I spotted the iceman with his horse and wagon.  He was standing in the rutted alley behind the house, lifting huge cakes of ice onto his burlap-covered shoulder.  I opened the door to let him in and dashed off to the living room. 

Twenty feet high and forty feet long, with wood beam ceilings decoratively painted in gold, and walls covered with red and green tapestries of forest scenes, the living room looked like a harem in a silent movie.  Finding my music on top of the upright Kroger piano, I bounded out the front door and into the taxi.  Only now did I notice that hanging from the rear-view mirror on a leather string was not only a crucifix, but also a small metal casting of a large man supporting a midget on his shoulders.  The cabby said the curio came from Sicily, the Cathedral of Monreale, and signified that we stand on the shoulders of those generations and giants who labored before us. 

Upon reaching St. B., I tried going through the lobby.  But as I no longer had a pass from the desk, the cop on the beat blocked my path.  Retreating to the rear of the hospital, I saw a laundry truck unloading towels and sheets.  Two colored guys were checking the delivery against the invoice, and the loading-dock cop, a sweating red-faced blimp, was cleaning his nails with a penknife.  Bold as brass I climbed the steps to the dock and told the cop that I was a midget with the HeeBee JeeBee vaudeville group and that I was expected upstairs to entertain one of the patients, a Mr. Sol Fine in Room 314.  The cop put away the knife, looked me over, and said, “Prove it!” 

Luckily for me, Mom’s cousin Ed Lowry, a vaudeville dancer and comedian, had taught me tons of routines, and Pop had often taken me to Keith’s Palace and Loews State to see all the famous performers.  What pleased me as much as the shows were the cylindrical candy machines on the backs of the seats, called EATMORS.  You’d put a nickel in the side, turn a handle, and a purple roll of chocolate would appear.  The only hitch came when the nickel got stuck and you’d have to bang on the machine, upsetting the person in front.  Anyway, I asked the cop to hold my violin, while I did my brief skit.   

“A guy and a gal are out walking.  Got it?” 

“Right,” said the cop, nodding his head. 

She says, “Eddie, Eddie, do you love me?” 

He says, “I’ll say.” 

“Do you think I’m beautiful?” 

“Uh huh.” 

“Are my eyes the loveliest you’ve ever seen?” 

“Yep.” 

“My mouth like a rosebud?” 

“Sure.” 

“And my figure divine?” 

“You bet.” 

“Oh, Eddie, you say the nicest things.  Tell me some more.” 

Long pause.  The cop stared at me blankly, took out a large red handkerchief, and wiped his sweating face.   

“Well?” he asked. 

“Well what?” 

“What’s the point?” 

“Here,” I said, “hand me the violin.” 

Taking the violin, I played “Danny Boy,” which brought tears to his eyes.   

“Now that I can understand,” he said.  “You’re gonna be late if you stand here chewin’ the fat.  So get on upstairs.” 

With a wave and a thanks, I made a beeline for the third floor.  When I reached the nurse’s desk, a nun stopped me, fortunately not one that I knew.  Holding up my violin case, I said that I was delivering a singing telegram, and marched straight past her into Room 314.  Pop couldn’t raise his head.  The tumor looked grotesque, as if a coconut was attached to his neck.  On one side of his bed was Mom and on the other Charles Courtney, a family friend and locksmith par excellence.  Until that point in my life, I had met only two famous people, Babe Ruth and Charles Courtney.  The Babe stayed overnight once at our house on Littleton Avenue.  The Yankees had played an exhibition game against the Newark Bears.  The Babe, having drunk too much beer during the game, was afraid to board the bus to New York and face the manager, Miller Huggins.  So the Babe asked a friend to suggest a hotel.  The friend led him to Pop, who insisted that the Babe stay with us.  That evening was something special, as the Babe entertained us with stories and jokes.  Before he left, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Remember, always take a full swing.”  To this day, I’m not sure whether he meant swing or swig.  But he sure was a swell guy!   

Charles Courtney was another prince.  Pop met him in New York, really because of me.  At my attic workbench, I was always taking apart locks and filing keys to make them fit different tumblers.  Having read about Mr. Courtney, Pop asked if I’d like to meet him.  So one day in New York, we paid our nickel and hopped the El, which let us out just a few feet from his door on 125th Street west of Harlem.  Hanging in the shop was a model airplane, about three feet long, made entirely of keys and parts of locks welded together.  It was really terrif.  From that day forth, Pop and Mr. Courtney became friends.  When Mr. C., as the family called him, would come to Newark to see the Bears play, he always slept at our house.  I loved those visits, because he never failed to show me some tricks of the locksmithing trade. 

Now here he was, with his thick mustache and lined face, sitting next to Pop’s bed.  Mom, knowing I had been banned from the room, kept muttering in Yiddish that the police would arrest me.  Assuring her that I had nothing to worry about, I took out the violin, pushed a chair to the foot of Pop’s bed, climbed up, and played him a passage from one of his favorites, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.  Tears streamed down his face.  Mom and Mr. C. looked blubbery too.  Pop, who had a terrible time talking, rasped that he’d like to see me alone.  So Mom and Mr. C. went into the hall.  I sat down on the side of Pop’s bed and took one of his hands.  He smiled and, with a tremendous effort, spoke briefly.   

“You called . . . Siegel?” 

“Don’t talk, Pop.” 

“It’s important . . .” 

“He’d be glad to hire Suzie at five bucks a week more.” 

“Murray Hardwin?” 

“He’ll take all the fabrics.  Harry Panzer all the machinery.”  Sadly, I was lying.  Everything had been looted.  But I wasn’t going to tell Pop that. 

“Money . . .” 

“We’re rollin’ in dough, Pop.” 

He started to cry.  I suppose his thinking that Mom and I would be in good shape made him happy.  A good reason, I guess, for occasionally telling a whopper. 

He wiped his eyes and took my hand again.  “Outside . . . the spring . . . it’s like Poland . . . when I was a child.” 

“What do you remember most about Poland?” I asked, trying to keep his thoughts from straying to business. 

“The cold . . . and the singing.  In America—for some reason—there is no singing.” 

“The wild laurel’s almost in bloom.  Your favorite.” 

“The hikes . . . remember . . . the two of us . . . swatting mosquitoes?”   

“Just as soon as you’re better, we’ll do it again.” 

“I wish . . . for twenty years more.”   

“You’re getting better, Pop.  We’ll get a new doctor.” 

“No!”  He let my hand fall from his.  “Finish high school.” 

“I’ll try, Pop.” 

“For my sake.” 

I sat there feeling I couldn’t say no—and wishing I were a boy able to strike out on my own. 

“My feelings tell me one thing and my head something else.” 

This statement seemed for a sec to energize Pop, who spoke with more animation than he had for some time. 

“Feelings . . . they lead to all sorts of crimes.  Study.  Learn.  Trust your head.”   

I wiped the sweat from his forehead.  “Not that again, Pop.” 

“Education opens doors.” 

“For some.” 

“America is . . .” 

“Yeah, I know, money and jobs.” 

“Opportunity, yes . . . but also an experiment.  It substitutes freedom for conformity and points to the future.  But without a path—” 

“I can learn on my own.” 

“College . . . it’s not like high school.” 

“Thank goodness for that.” 

His breath grew shorter.  “If you quit . . .” 

“Mr. C. offered to make me the first lady locksmith in New York. 

“Industry . . . pluck.” 

“Sure, Pop.” 

He paused, lost in memories.  “A favor, Henrietta.”  I was almost certain he’d ask me once again to remain in school.  “You have my permission . . . to think me overbearing . . . even unfair . . . if in the years to come . . . you’ll remember me also with love.” 

I fell across his bed and wept. 

Two days later he died.  I remembered then what my friend Marty Litman had said when his father died.  The word he used wasn’t “died” but “lost.”  At the time I thought it strange.  Now I understood.  When a person dies he is lost to us.  Absent.  Gone.  It sounded so easy, but the fact that my father would never again be there for me—never to answer a question or tell me how it was in the old country—overwhelmed me.   

In the cemetery, standing in the uncut grass, among the chaotic shrubbery, I could smell the wild laurel as we lowered him into the ground.  A rabbi spoke, but I heard nothing except the grating of the shovel and the dirt hitting Pop’s coffin.   

****** 

Although our family name is Fine, the original one was something Polish.  It changed on Ellis Island, as Pop came through the glass walkway and into that great receiving room of America.  His first name was Solomon; but everyone called him Sol or Solly.  He rented a factory where he designed, cut, and stitched petticoats.  It was located on the east side of Newark, known as the Ironbound section.  Italian immigrants lived there mostly.  Upstairs from Pop’s factory was the Lewis Cigar Co., where they made John Ruskin and Flor de Melba cigars.  Before petticoats, Pop made handkerchiefs, which sold for ten cents apiece.  But he quickly discovered that with the same sewing machines, he could produce petticoats cut from taffeta and silk and make lots more money—at least until his health and sales began falling off.  He learned the sewing trade in the old country and had practiced it in West Virginia, where he first settled after landing in New York. 

A cousin of his wrote him about the beauties of West Virginia and mailed him a ticket to Charleston.  A year later he sent for his fiancée, Celia, who’d been patiently waiting in Poland.  Charleston, according to Pop, was friendly and had a slow elegance about it:  lovely homes with great porches and swings and beautiful young women swinging in front of their houses, their long hair blowing in the breeze.  It was a rich community, but Pop couldn’t figure out the source of the money.  Except for the colored people, it seemed like nobody worked.  Everybody dressed for dinner.  Negro maids served from silver tea sets.  Pop was sure Celia would love it.  But when she arrived, she looked around and told Pop that it had taken thousands of years for the Jews to escape from the desert—and she had no intention of returning.  He tried to reason with her, but she said that a city with no more than a dozen Jewish families was no city at all.  So they made their way from Charleston to Newark, New Jersey, which most people regard not as a desert but as a joke.  I liked it, except for school. 

Pop was a big man:  six feet, two inches tall and, before he got sick, two hundred and twenty pounds.  Quite a dresser he was.  On Sundays, when he and Celia would stroll through Weequahic Park, he wore a Prince Albert coat, spats, striped pants, a silk shirt with cufflinks, a collar fastened with a button, a silk tie with a diamond stickpin, a dress handkerchief showing in his chest pocket, Oxford shoes bought at Cowards, and a derby.  He carried a gold-headed cane and was never without a cigarette in his mouth.  A heavy smoker, he said there were only three brands worth smoking:  Turkish Trophies, which came in a flat reddish box, Camels, and Lord Salisbury cigarettes.  At home, his clothes were meticulously hung and placed in a chifferobe, and his shoes polished with wax and stored in wooden trees that looked like carved pieces of art. 

Celia dressed less fashionably.  Although she lacked Sol’s confidence and always felt like a greenhorn, she didn’t want to compete with him.  To dress like Sol, you really had to think you were hot stuff.  Her lack of fluency in one language undoubtedly held her back.  She spoke Polish, German, Russian, Yiddish, and English, but none of them with facility.  Her schlepping around so much as a kid caused her to rely on Yiddish, the one constant speech among the Jews whom she met; but even her Yiddish rang with words from other tongues.  Born in Russia, she was only three or four when her parents, who were in the needle trade and frequently in search of work, began moving all over Europe—Romania, Pomerania, Armenia, Lithuania, and maybe some other “anias” as well, eventually settling in Poland.  She never heard one language long enough to master it.  The experts call her kind of speech a polyglot.  I called it a stew.  Pop was a different story; he had a way with English.  Sol and Celia had met in Poland.  At eighteen she arrived in West Virginia.  In Newark, where I was born five years later, the family spoke mostly Yiddish.  I translated for my mom:  at the grocery store, the butcher, the bank, the shoemaker, the department store, everywhere but at school.  Mom wouldn’t go near the place.  Embarrassed by her lack of language and formal education, she regarded teachers as gods, accessible only to high priests and children.  I tried to tell her that teachers were just like everyone else, but she merely frowned and said emphatically, “A teacher’s a teacher!” 

Sometimes in the morning I’d stand in front of the long mirror Pop had hung on my door and think maybe if I wasn’t a tomboy and wasn’t so small—the other kids called me a runt—I’d do better in school.  And maybe if my name wasn’t Henrietta, a name honoring an Uncle Harry in Russia who died during a pogrom, kids wouldn’t laugh and call me “Hen the chicken scratcher.”  And maybe too if my hair wasn’t black and curly but blond and straight, like so many of the Gentile girls, and if my nose was just a tad smaller and turned up at the end, and if I had fewer freckles, I might fit in a lot better.  But eventually I gave up on fitting in and decided that even if people were like pennies and looked just alike, some person would say his penny was better because it was older—or newer.  Troublemakers are always looking for differences. 

Pop used to say that America was the only European country on earth:  that France was a country of Frenchmen and Germany full of Germans—and you’d better believe it.  The mixing of people in America, he said, was like Russian dressing.  Mayonnaise and ketchup by themselves are all right, but when you mix them you get a really good taste.  His factory, before he fell ill and had to let everyone go, was like Russian dressing.  The cutters and sewing machine operators and shipping clerks and salesmen all proudly called themselves Mr. Fine’s help.  They were robustly Americans, even though they spoke almost a dozen different languages:  Italian, German, Yiddish, Greek, Russian, Polish, French, Spanish, Romanian, Serbo-Croatian, and even Ladino.  The Negro floor lady, Suzie Somerset, spoke the best English of all.  She had moved from Harlem to Newark and could outwork any three men in the factory.  She was like a second mother to me.  When Celia had scarlet fever and diphtheria and Pop stayed home to measure her medicines and give her bonkus (that’s when you apply hot cups to someone’s back to draw out the fever), I was sent to live with Suzie.  Pop was afraid I might catch the germs.  One night, returning from Throm’s Drugstore, where I went for a chocolate malt, I ran into a couple of jerks, who began teasing me outside of Suzie’s house.  I told them to scram but they wouldn’t leave me alone.  Suzie saw it all from the front window.  In a flash, she stood on the front steps of the house with a pail of hot water, which she threw at the sparks.  Boy, did they hot foot it out of there. 

Now with Pop hospitalized and Mom at his bedside, Suzie was living at our house taking care of me.  The two of us mostly played Chinese checkers.  The Sunday before Pop died, I was winning for once.  That’s when Mom called to say that Pop wanted me to close the deals with his competitors.  The next morning, when Suzie and I arrived at the factory, the front door was unlocked.  We glanced at each other, alarmed.  I cautiously opened the door.  A minute later I felt like Lot, turned into a pillar of salt for having looked at a forbidden scene.  In front of us, occupying the great expanse of the factory floor, was nothing.  Nothing!  The place had been cleaned out.  The only other person with keys to the factory was my Uncle Sam, a jealous younger brother Pop had taken in because he could never support himself.  It was Sam, that goldbricking bum (though he had a nice wife), who was in charge of the factory during Pop’s illness.  As I learned from the cigar man upstairs, Sam had driven a truck up to the factory and removed everything—the sewing machines, the patterns, the cutting tables and tools, the hundreds of bolts of taffeta and silk, the office equipment, even the three-way light sockets—and refused to say where he was headed. 

I kept the news of the theft from Mom until the funeral was over and we had reached the street.  When I told her that Uncle Sam had cleaned out the factory and that I wanted to go to the cops to report him, she grabbed my arm and emphatically said:   

“If he was arrested and put in jail, what then?  Is that what you want for your Aunt Anna:  to humiliate her?  It would be a shanda!  A black mark on the family name.  I won’t allow it.” 

For a moment I knew what Pop must have felt when Mom said she would not stay in West Virginia.  Although only five feet tall and the sweetest, most agreeable woman in the world, Mom had a mind of her own when it came to the family name and reputation.  I could see that if I went to the cops I’d feel guilty the rest of my life.  People make jokes about Jewish guilt.  This much I know:  When parents are unkind, we shouldn’t be surprised that their children behave badly.  But when parents are a mitzvah, a blessing, the kids feel guilty if they don’t do what they should. 

I still had two months of school left before summer vacation, so I tried to catch up, having fallen behind owing to Pop’s illness and death.  But there was still the problem of my handwriting.  I was left-handed; and in Latin the word for left-handed means sinister.  So teachers assumed that left-handed people were bad.  Surely not every lefty in Rome was a thief or a murderer.  Anyway, my teachers tied my left hand behind my back and made me write with my right hand so I wouldn’t grow up to be sinister.  You can imagine what my handwriting looked like, chicken scratching.  The teachers would hold up my papers for the class to see and make nasty remarks about my penmanship.  I never said anything, since it wouldn’t have done any good.  But you can be sure, it didn’t make me glad to be returning to school. 

A few weeks later, I was summoned to the principal’s office.  “I understand,” Mr. Baker began, “there’s been a setback in your family.” 

“A setback,” I repeated sarcastically, “naw, just a slight bump in the road.”  What I wanted to do was call him a jackass, but that would have been unfair to those faithful animals. 

Mr. Baker’s office looked like a prison cell.  Except for a desk, two chairs, and a photograph of President Warren Harding on the wall, it was bare.  Mr. Baker sat facing me from behind his desk.  His tie, I noticed, had a stain in the shape of a tear, and his shirt needed mending.  Fat and pompous, he was always using Latin and French words, though my guess was he really didn’t know either language. 

“Your teachers,” he said, “have charged you with indolence and disrespect.  But lest you think our school is unworthy of your diligence, I am proud to tell you that in a recent survey of Newark public schools, ours was picked as one of the best.” 

I sat there counting the high schools in Newark.  Four.  “Congratulations, Mr. Baker,” I replied insincerely.  “I’m proud of you.” 

“Really?” he sputtered.  “I never thought that you . . . well, it doesn’t matter.  We’re here today to talk about your progress and behavior this term.” 

“I know I’ve fallen behind.” 

“Except for music and gym, you’re failing everything else.” 

I hated most of my teachers.  My history teacher, Mr. Cardwell, never talked about ideas or the lives of the people, but about conquests and wars and princes and generals.  What a boob.  When discussing military campaigns, he panted with excitement.  Mr. Carpowitz, the English teacher, also coached baseball.  He used a bat, split down the middle, to paddle slow-witted students, and urged us to hit a home run on his tests.  Some tests!  He’d ask us to retell the plots or recount details about the lives of the authors.  I don’t think he had the slightest idea that books might convey more than a story.  Miss Plimsol, the geography teacher, took pride in her ankles, which she often exposed.  Every week she gave a map test, in which the class had to fill in the names of states or countries and identify their capitals.  Never once did we talk about how cities grew up along waterways for reasons of transportation, or how climate and land influence people. 

To escape these teachers and their tedious lessons—I felt as if I were drowning—I’d often duck out of school.  But when some apple polisher stood guard at the doors and I couldn’t escape, I’d amuse myself by making fun of the teachers.  I knew it was wrong and I felt bad, particularly since I’d promised Pop that I’d try to make it through school.  But what choice did I have?  I had to protect my sanity one way or another. 

“Then, too,” said Mr. Baker, “there’s your rudeness.” 

“I rude, sir?” I repeated, as if the very word caused me to blush.   

“You were put on probation a month ago for missing classes and for addressing your teachers impolitely.”   

“If that’s what you say.” 

“No,” he scolded, “that’s what you did.” 

“Yes.” 

“Yes, what?” barked Mr. Baker. 

“Yes, sir,” I answered. 

From his pudgy nose, Mr. Baker removed his glasses and roughly cleaned them with a dirty handkerchief.  “You were warned more than once,” he said.  “Is this how you repay our kindness?” 

“I include you in my prayers every night,” I replied. Unhappy with the job he had done, he tried cleaning his glasses again, this time rubbing them on his shirt.  “You promised to correct your behavior.  And you haven’t, have you?” 

At that instant, I was thinking that the teachers should be apologizing to me, but I knew it would be the wrong thing to say and therefore said something else, “I haven’t missed a class in a week . . . not since the last reprimand.” 

Mr. Baker looked as if he would have been glad to find some excuse to cancel the meeting.  But the door opened and his secretary informed him that the other teachers were waiting.  He wanted me to walk the carpet, like some out-of-line servant.  So we marched off to the inquisition.  The meeting room, an old lab, had sinks and zinc-topped sideboards, one of them covered with cups and a Bunsen burner on which the teachers brewed coffee in a pot that must have dated from the stone age.  Someone had arranged the chairs in a circle.  Mr. Baker and I sat down side by side. Stiff as corpses, my teachers acted as if I had stolen the coffin.  You could see that Mr. Cardwell wished to speak first.  The way he moved around in his chair, you would have thought he had boils on his butt.  

“Arthur,” Mr. Baker said, “you have a specific complaint, I gather.  Dic!” 

Mr. Cardwell suddenly stopped squirming, sat bolt upright in his chair, cleared his throat, and sputtered, “Well . . . of course . . . indeed . . . since you ask . . . yes.  I . . . that is . . . Henrietta . . . always . . . or almost always . . . looks out the window during the recitation.” 

Completo?  Is that all?” asked Mr. Baker in a tone that suggested the charge hardly merited his attention. 

“All?  All?  Isn’t that enough?  She would have me believe that what’s outside is more interesting than what’s inside!” huffed Mr. Cardwell. 

It is, I thought, but remained mum. 

Mr. Baker called on Mr. Carpowitz.   

“She makes a running commentary on my lectures,” complained Mr. Carpowitz, “and she does it with humorous intent.” 

At this point, Mrs. Lynch, couldn’t wait any longer to lodge her own festering complaint.  The Girls’ Vice-Principal blurted out, “She’s defiant . . . rude.  When I reprimand her, she smiles . . . in that . . . that hateful way of hers.” 

Miss Plimsol, equally impatient to register her complaints, snorted, “She hums in class and sings in the halls.  Opera songs, I think.” 

I corrected her.  “They’re called arias.”  

“See what I mean about rudeness?” declared Mrs. Lynch sternly. 

“At least I’m no teacher’s pet!”  The second I opened my mouth I regretted it, but some feelings want to be expressed so badly that we grab the nearest words available and fly through the gap.  I remembered having gone with Pop to hear some political speeches in a run-down hall on Bergen Street.  A heckler, ragging the speaker and extolling the good old days, got Pop’s goat.  He leapt to his feet and told the jasper that he remembered the past all too well, with its outdoor plumbing and TB epidemics and pogroms.  “The past,” Pop shouted, “you can keep it!”  On the way home, Pop pointed out that he, too, like the heckler, had spoken out of turn.  He said he shouldn’t have done it, but I was real glad that he did . . . did . . . 

“Did you hear what I said?”  Mr. Baker asked gruffly. 

“I’m afraid I was elsewhere.” 

“Elsewhere!” repeated Miss Plimsol venomously.  “And where might that be, pray tell?” 

I noticed she was wearing a pair of ugly high-buttoned shoes.  “In Macy’s,” I answered, “the shoe section, admiring their new low-cut . . . never mind.”  

 Miss Plimsol looked at her shoes and tucked her feet under the chair.  “We are here to talk about deportment, not footwear.” 

“Yes,” chimed in Mr. Cardwell.  “And the hand you’ve been dealt.  I mean by that . . . your background, which, frankly, is none too encouraging.”   

“Could you please explain?” 

“You have no tradition to fall back upon.  No resources, as it were, to draw from.”   

I must have looked blank, because Mr. Carpowitz ventured a further explanation.  “My learned colleague, without wishing to cast aspersions, a word I’m sure that you know, is merely trying to point out that the children of greenhorns, newcomers, lack the polish and skills of, say, our uptown New York German Hebrews.” 

“You’re coarse!” neighed Mrs. Lynch. 

“It will take some time,” added Mr. Baker.  “But for the nonce, you are callow.” 

“Callow?” 

“Unfledged.” 

“If you mean I’m still wet behind the ears,” I piped in, “isn’t that the purpose of school?  To teach a kid?  To give her experience?”  

“Some children,” Mrs. Lynch remarked acidly, “take to lessons more quickly than others.” 

“Some,” Miss Plimsol gleefully jumped in, “never learn even the simplest things.” 

“And I’m one of those?”  

Miss Plimsol, holding up her palms, as if to prove her hands were clean and she innocent of some indiscretion, softly remarked, “That’s what you said, not I.” 

“In that case, I suppose it’s best if I leave.” 

Mr. Baker, looking slightly alarmed, quickly observed, “I did not call this meeting to expel you, Henrietta, but merely to discuss disciplinary measures.  No one is forcing you to leave school.  If you go, it is entirely your own doing.  But if you stay, you must promise to turn over a new leaf.  We can no longer countenance your looking out the window and commenting sarcastically on your classroom lessons.  Your lack of respect for your teachers is a slap in the face to the taxpayers, to your parents, to the school authorities, and not least of all to your teachers.” 

“If you stay,” Mr. Cardwell said, tipping his hand, “you will observe our rules, not yours.  You will be seen and not heard, unless called upon.  And your attention will always be trained on your teacher.” 

“That’s not asking too much, I trust?” asked Mr. Baker. 

I took it all in:  the setting, the people, the choices.  “I’ll just pick up my things and leave now,” I replied.  A look of relief swept over my inquisitors.  “But I swear to you, someday, somehow, I’m going to college.”  I said that out of spite, thinking that if college produced people like them, it wasn’t the place for someone like me. 

As I left the room, I could hear muffled laughter and Mrs. Lynch mockingly repeat the word college. 

I knew what I had to tell Mom.  It was time for some chin music, time to gossip. We sat in the oriental living room among the pillows and the throw rugs, on the emerald green sofa.  I could see the kids playing stick ball, with a pink Spaldeen.  She asked why I had returned home early from school.  “Patriot’s Day,” I replied, and told her how pretty she looked.  Only thirty-nine, Mom still had a face like an angel:  small mouth, slightly Asian eyes, high cheekbones, and a nose that made my father say she could pass for a shiksa.  Mom often teased that someone in her family must have been indiscreet on the Mongolian steppes.   

“You like Mr. Shankman?” I asked. 

“What’s that got to do with school?” 

“He’s a nice man.” 

“Nice?  What does nice mean?”   

“I think he’s a millionaire.” 

“The tailor?” 

“He told me . . .  every year he buys two season tickets for Carnegie Hall.”   

“You shouldn’t make such a big thing . . .” 

“He always asks about you—in a kind way.” 

“I appreciate . . . he sent flowers to the funeral.” 

“And a card to you.” 

I could hear the kids arguing out in the street.  One yelled, “It’s a strike,” and another cried, “It was wide.” 

“In Poland, he would have been more reserved.  Flowers, yes; the card, no.” 

“This is America, Mom!” 

“In Poland, a man waited a year before writing a widow.” 

“You’re always telling me about the things you couldn’t do in Poland.  Was there anything you could do?” 

“It was very strict.  We believed in religion—which was a good thing, because if we didn’t have religion we couldn’t have endured the hunger and cold.  The rabbi was the most important person in the village.  Whatever he said, we did.  One day—it was in March, I still remember—he came to our house and told my mother it was time for me to leave school.  I was twelve.  ‘It’s a waste of time for a girl,’ he said.  ‘She’ll go and be maid to old Mrs. Zeffin, now that her husband is dead.’  Mrs. Zeffin was blind and I was paid a penny a day to care for her.”  Mom’s eyes teared.  “I never finished school.” 

Moving to the couch, I hugged her.  “I know, Mom.”   

“The same rabbi who sent me to work arranged for papa and me to be married.  I was sixteen.  Then papa went off to America, and I had to wait two years to join him.  Work.  That’s all there was in my childhood—only work.”  She brushed away the tears.  “Even with papa.  But that was different, because we were trying to build our own business.” 

“You were the best bookkeeper Pop ever had.”   

“In America, they say a person’s free.  They say a person can do what he wants.  But it’s not so easy to be selfish.  If you love, if you care, you’re tied.”   

On our hikes, Pop would often tell me about Poland.  So for mom’s sake, I prompted, “The villages in summer . . . didn’t the children play on reed pipes.” 

“I never had pleasure,” she said, failing to take the bait. 

“Pop said that in the summer there was singing and dancing.” 

Suddenly Mom clapped her hands and a great smile brightened her face.  “Yes!  Yes, I had forgotten!  The singing!  There was such a lot of singing in the villages then, and that gave me pleasure.  Boys sang in the fields, and at night we all met in the square and sang.  The streets were full of singing.  In the summer, it was singing, singing all the time.  So I lie.  I have had pleasure.  I have had singing.”  For a moment she was back in Poland, in her old village, among the singing crowds.  From the street came a feverish cry, “A homer!  It’s a homer!” as if the game reflected her thoughts.  “I mustn’t forget.  I had a good life with Solly—and I still have you.” 

Mom and I never discussed ideas.  We told stories to each other about people and things, and future plans, like our selling the house.  It’s probably true of most people; they just exchange stories.  When they meet in the street, on the stoop, over dinner, they just chew the rag.  In families, the father comes home and between mouthfuls of borscht tells his wife what happened at work.  The wife tells her husband what the kids did and how much eggs now cost in the market.  They don’t talk about books or Socialism or what their lives mean.  At least most people don’t.  That’s why they’re so boring, unless of course they have a genius for storytelling.   

Mom certainly had a flair for it.  If you asked her a simple question, like, “Did Aunt Ruthie really talk a cop out of giving her a speeding ticket by making a date with him?” she would begin in the ice age.  “When my Uncle Joe Barisch came from Poland, he landed in Canada, with his wife and two daughters.  He was a furrier, so he travelled west to Winnipeg, which was a fur trading center.  The family lived in a three-story house—it was furnished with the most beautiful walnut furniture you ever saw—while Uncle Joe collected furs near the Arctic Circle.”  Five minutes later, after Mom had traced the family history from Winnipeg to Minneapolis to New York, she would arrive at the question.  “Yes, Ruthie made a date with the policeman.  But she never kept it.” 

It’s just lucky that Pop also liked to tell stories.  He and Mom made a perfect pair.  Between the two of them, a kid could drown in family yarns.  So I knew that to make Mom understand why I left school, I would have to tell her a story. 

“There’s a girl in our class, Etta Klein, who really catches it ’cause she’s left-handed.  Mr. Carpowitz ties her left hand behind her back and makes her compose with her right.  Then he collects her paper at the end of the period and holds it up for the class to see the poor penmanship.” 

Alarmed, Mom quickly asked, “He doesn’t do that to you, does he?” 

“Whenever he can, he brushes his hands across her chest.  One day in class, about a month ago, before the radiators were turned off, she was adjusting her long underwear, which her Mom made her wear because she’d been sick, and Mr. Carpowitz in front of the whole class yelled at her, ‘Miss Klein, quit playing with yourself!’  She told me she was so embarrassed, she wanted to die.” 

After a long silence, Mom softly said, “If you want to start working for Mr. Courtney right now, you have my permission.” 

End of Chapter One

Author Bio ~ Paul M. Levitt, retired English professor, lives in Boulder, Colorado and currently occupies himself with historical fiction. He has authored scholarly books, plays, and novels.  His fondest memories issue from writing radio plays for London BBC Radio and working with a number of outstanding English actors.http://paul-levitt.com/

Narrator Bio ~ Elizabeth Mansfield  is a British actress and singer and has been working in theatre, radio, TV and film since the 1970’s. She has performed many leading roles in UK regional theatres and London’s West End, in plays, music theatre and musicals, winning an Olivier Award nomination for ‘Best Actress in a Musical’ and ‘Best Actress’ in the London Theatre Awards, for her performance in Marie, at the Fortune Theatre. Web Address: www.ensemble-online.com

 

Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
History of Syndic
Write Letter / Contact Publisher
© all photos/text
Return to leroychatfield.us

Current issue:
Syndic No. 44
October 2021
Previous issues: No. 43 | No. 42 | No. 41 | No. 40 | No. 39 | No. 38 | No. 37 | No. 36 | No. 35
Full Archive of Issues