“Aren’t you that Rosen girl?” Mary Ann’s mother said. Mary Ann Halloway was my new best friend in second grade and we were sitting in her kitchen drinking milk and eating coconut cookies. The cookies were delicious and something nice-smelling was cooking away on the stove. It was Saturday afternoon and her father was there, too. “The one whose father got murdered?”
“No,” I said, chewing. “My daddy died of pneumonia.”
“It was about five years ago,” she went on, “some kind of bootlegging business. Let me think.” She narrowed her eyes. “His name was Lester. Or
. No, wait a minute. Louis. That’s it, Louis. Louis Rosen. And there was another one murdered -- a brother, I think. It was in all the papers.” Leon
She turned to her husband. “I remember the name because it’s Jewish. Most of those people who go around killing each other are Italian, but this was a Jew.” She looked at me, got hold of her husband’s hand, and pulled herself back as if I had the measles or something.
The coconut cookies on my stomach were suddenly on the way up. I stood, knocking over my milk. “I have to go home now.”
“Yes, run along,” Mrs. Halloway said, handing me my coat.
I got out of there just in time to throw up on Mrs. Halloway’s azaleas.
I was not invited there again.
Which was OK by me. Mrs. Halloway made me mad; she made my heart bang. I wouldn’t want her to be my mother even if all she did was make coconut cookies. Even if I could eat a million coconut cookies. People who were bootleggers and Jews sounded bad coming out of her mouth. But I had no idea what bootleggers did. Or Jews, either, for that matter. My mother’s life had hardly turned her into a believer, and she didn’t send me to Sunday school, a foreign destination reserved for other kids. All I understood about being Jewish was that our family didn’t go to church. But we didn’t go to temple either.
I started to run home but my feet seemed stuck as if I were running in place in a dream. I had believed Mrs. Halloway when she said the murdered Louis Rosen in the newspapers was my daddy, and I felt a wave of disloyalty to my mother that made my throat hurt; and in the next instant a shiver of pride that my daddy had done something so exciting and daring it was in the newspapers that he got killed.
But I felt ashamed, too, and I needed to talk to someone. When I got home, Kenny was out somewhere and my mother wasn’t home from work yet, so I went back outside. It was almost six and the other kids had been called in to dinner. I played jacks by myself on the apartment stoop for a while and then hopscotch on the sidewalk. Then I discovered a nickel in my pocket and decided to walk over to Peterson’s Drug Store for some candy. I liked it in there. Mr. Peterson always gave me a licorice stick when I bought a candy bar and let me hang around eating my candy and reading comics. Looking back, I think he felt sorry for me, but I liked my wanderings; it helped ease my loneliness. It comforted and consoled me. It made me feel free. It took my mind off home.
I went outside with my licorice stick and sat down on the curb. Mr. Peterson was nice but he was always busy unpacking boxes or waiting on customers and I needed someone to talk to. I needed to talk to my daddy. I shut my eyes tight and took a deep breath. Then I put my hands together like people do when they pray and looked up at the sky. Daddy? Are you up there? Can you hear me? See, other kids have real dads to talk to about stuff, but you’re in a place I can’t see. So I have to ask. Here’s what I want to know. You heard what Mrs. Halloway said. So is it true? I think I know you aren’t a king with pneumonia, but are you a Jew bootlegger who got murdered? If you can hear me send something through the air. Make your hanky fall in front of me on
Euclid Avenue when I’m walking. Okay?
I got up and walked home on
Euclid Avenue watching for my daddy’s hanky but it didn’t come down, so I guessed he was too busy or something. And by the time I got home that night Mrs. Halloway and Jew bootleggers had slipped back into the secrets and out of my mind.
I would often drift around like that, the days without beginnings or ends, skipping school with the sun on my back like a warm hand, riding streetcars, reading in the library, staying too long in a friend’s house until the mother sent me home. My friends were fascinated and envious of my roaming ways and their parents wide-eyed with concern. But as if surviving murder means you’ve used up your lifetime’s share of danger, I felt safe. I wasn’t, of course, but I thought I was. Walking home from the library at night under an umbrella of stars, or wandering in the park, I thought my father was watching out for me from heaven with his gun. I really did. He would never let anything bad happen to me because he was powerful and dangerous and he loved me. And although I had obscene proposals shouted (and whispered) to me, innocently made friends at the age of nine with a fifteen-year-old prostitute, observed masturbators in the park, and once on the streetcar (they didn’t scare me because they seemed to be intent on the business at hand) I wasn’t raped or murdered.
But just in case my daddy was distracted or busy doing something else up there in heaven, I was careful. I became my own parent. I crossed streets with the light, made no eye contact with strangers, watched out for stray dogs. I took a sweater along in the summer heat and mittens and a scarf on mild winter days. And for emergencies I carried a stone. I understood the violence in the air.
One day my friend Helene tagged along when I skipped school. She talked all through the movie and on the way home I had to snatch her back to the curb when she was almost run over. Another time she ate so much candy from Woolworths, she threw up in the Ladies. Walking home that day it turned cold and she shivered so hard I had to give her my sweater.
I got tired of taking care of Helene and wouldn’t let her go with me again unless she let me ride her bike after school for a week. The only thing I really liked about her anyway was that she could walk backward without looking, which I found thrilling. One day after school she tagged along home with me because I had gone to her house so often to play with her doll house. But when we got to our apartment building I was too ashamed of our messy place to let her come upstairs. I told her that my brother had scarlet fever.
So we played jacks on our apartment stoop. Suddenly I burst into tears, surprising both of us. She called me a poor loser, but that wasn’t it. I had just started to feel sad. I didn’t know why. It was as if something bad had happened that I couldn’t remember.
“Your nose is running,” Helene said with great disgust.
I wiped the snot on my sleeve. Watching, she pretended to throw up.
Helene, like Nancy and Mary Ann and my other school friends, was chaperoned, supervised, fed milk and cookies. Taken to ballet lessons, piano lessons, Sunday School. Made to do homework, clean up their rooms, eat their vegetables. Their mothers said how was school; they asked if there was still a substitute teacher in geography and if they needed milk-money. They said don’t you dare go out without your galoshes. They said a penny for your thoughts. I heard them. My mother never said those things to me or asked questions. It was as if I existed merely as her shadow or forgotten appendage.
I was the one with the curiosity. I wanted to know everything about my mother; what she whispered about on the telephone, where she went with her hat and earrings, what she talked about with her girlfriends, what she did on her dates. I wondered, worried, if she felt sad, if she would get one of her asthma attacks, if she was lonely. If she was afraid. Looking back I think worrying about her was easier than feeling my own sorrow and abandonment. And anger. Feeling her feelings was easier than feeling mine.
Sometimes I pretended she would come into my room after one of her dates and sit on my bed. “Babbie, I’m scared,” she’d say.
“Well, coming home I thought I was getting an asthma attack, but now that I’m with you I’m feeling a lot better.”
“Okay, Mom,” I’d say. “Take a deep breath and count to ten. Then I want you to go into the bathroom and run the hot water and when the room fills with steam take ten more deep breaths. Okay? Meanwhile I’ll get the vaporizer ready.”
“Oh, Babbie, you always help me so much. Thank you, dear. I’m ready to go to bed now,” she’d say, giving me a big hug. “Good night, honey.”
We envied each other--my friends and I; they envied my freedom, I envied their aproned, hovering mothers, their sheltered, defended days. Walking home with
from school one day I bopped her one on the head. She ran home bawling and then I felt like crying. Another time in the playground I put my foot out and tripped Alice McCoy while she was running a relay race. She went sliding on the gravel and the principal had to take her to the emergency room to get her bloody knee stitched up. I was kept after school to clean blackboards and erasers for three weeks after that. Nancy
The teacher called my mother to come in for a conference about my bad behavior and poor attendance. So she got herself up in an outfit from her high-flying flapper days and made a grand entrance into the classroom, causing a definite buzz. “Is that your mother?” my classmates whispered, pointing as she stood like a movie star in her veiled hat and gloves and the fur scarf with the mean little animal face draped over her shoulder.
That night when I asked her about the conference, she said, What do those stupid teachers know, and went back to her book.
But maybe my mother thought I would be all right wandering around alone out there; life was considered so safe no one locked their doors, and on hot nights in those days before air conditioning my mother and I would actually sleep in the park. We’d find an empty spot among the other families in makeshift beds, spread out newspapers, arrange our pillows and stretch out. It was like being at the beach except that instead of the blazing sun there was a dark sky and moon overhead and a few blessed random breezes. There would be the aroma of something sweet, like a honeysuckle vine growing somewhere, or someone’s perfume, and you’d hear the murmur of voices and a radio playing softly. One night the couple next to us had their radio turned on to “Fibber McGee and Molly”-- a program my mother hated. After lying with her eyes closed and mouth clinched she suddenly reared up as if stung by a bee and told them to shut that damn thing off. Which they promptly did. My mother had that effect on people.
Actually, the only time I was accosted was at home. My mother had rented rooms in some woman’s apartment on
Hampshire Road that smelled of the old orange cat that took possession of the only comfortable chair in the living room. The landlady had tight red curls, a double chin, and wore dangling earrings and those flowing muumuus that fat people dress in. Her son, Frankie, gave me the creeps. He was fifteen and I’d catch him spying on me while he lurked around the apartment. The rooms were small and dark; they had a musty smell and I hated it there.
I am home alone with a cold. Frankie suddenly grabs me from nowhere, shoves me down on the floor, gets on top of me in his clothes, holds my arms down and starts pumping away. I press my legs together from my ankles to my thighs. I stop breathing. My middle region turns to water. Fear shuts me down so I feel nothing--not even his hard-on. My head, my entire body has stopped itself and I cannot move or get out from under this heavy, gasping mass of flesh. I want to scream but no one is home, and anyway, if I’m found here under him they’ll think it’s my fault, that I’d asked for it, like people say about girls who get into trouble. His breathing is wet and fast. Tears stream down my face, and my dress is wet with something else. I think he peed in his pants. I feel the wind slammed out of me and then a sudden awareness of the disarray and menace of the world.
When he lets go of my arms, I sock him, knocking off his eyeglasses. He rolls off me and starts feeling around like a blind person. I jump up and stomp on his spectacles so hard you can hear the crunch as they break into a million splinters.
“Hey! Whad’ja do! I can’t see!” he hollers.
“I’m telling!” I scream, as he feels his way down the hall. I am so mad I am crying. And when I finally see what had made my dress wet I kick on his door until my foot hurts so bad I think it’s broken. I go to my room, change my clothes, and worry that I’ll get pregnant when I start menstruating. I am ten years old.
I knew I hadn’t invited this--I really hated that boy on sight. But maybe I had. Sex scared me but it fascinated me, too, and maybe that boy read my mind when I thought about what men and women did together.
The only information I had about sex was what my friend, Gloria, had told me. She was sixteen. Gloria and I went to the movies together on Friday nights after she got off work at Grant’s Cafe. She had pulled-back mousy brown hair, pale skin, and a dancer’s nervy carriage that would have pleased even Miss Brumelmeyer, my gym teacher who socked me on the back when I slouched, shouting posture!!
One night as the usher showed Gloria and me to seats in the dark theater, her knees suddenly buckled under her and she fainted dead away. The usher picked her up off the floor and carried her back up the aisle. Alarmed, I followed him to an office in the back. It smelled of stale popcorn. He laid her down on the couch.
“Water,” Gloria whispered.
As soon as the usher ran out, she sat up and winked at me. By the time I had recovered enough from amazement to speak, he had dashed back in with a paper cup of water and Gloria had collapsed back on the couch. When he held the cup to her lips she stroked his hand with her fingertips.
“Babbie, go on home,” she said in her weak voice. “Danny here will take care of me.”
But I had already got the picture and I don’t mean the one on the movie screen. It didn’t occur to me until I found myself outside that I could have sat down and watched the movie. It was one of those Myrna Loy, William Powell mysteries. The one after “The Thin Man.”
After that night she told me all about her sex life. How she brought Johnny Spango home, who was a regular at the cafe. Speaking with pride as if she were powerful, she said they had sex on the couch while her mother was passed out in the bedroom, and that Danny, the usher, had simply unbuttoned his fly and got on top of her. On Saturdays after the restaurant closed, she said she had sex with her boss, Mr. Grant, sitting on the edge of the sink in the basement bathroom with her uniform pulled up and her legs on his shoulders. She dismissed Oscar, the cook, as being too grumpy. “So far,” she added, grinning. “Although he could be one of those queers.” She never wore panties, she told me, although as a matter of pride, she never took her clothes off, nor would she permit her boyfriends to do more than unbutton their pants.
All this sex talk scared and excited me. It made me want to cover my ears. My mother never brought a man home like Gloria did, or even mentioned sex. All I really knew about sex was that it was how you got pregnant.
“Aren’t you afraid you’ll get a baby?” I asked her.
“I guess I’m just a damn fool,” Gloria said, proudly.
When she told me that she was through with Danny the usher I agreed to go to the movies with her the following Friday night. “Some men are pests afterwards,” she said, “but Danny’ll be easy to get rid of.”
She had me come to the restaurant to wait for her. I sat at the counter drinking the cherry coke she gave me, and watched her dash around waiting on customers in her crisp pink uniform and white nurse’s shoes. She was all business. She didn’t even flirt. “You don’t mix business with pleasure,” she told me as we walked to the theater. “If I pick someone it’s my choice,” she said, “not theirs.” Going into the theater, she was true to her word, turning her back on Danny’s shiny-eyed greeting.
Walking home after the movie, Gloria told me about her father. “My daddy was a minister. He told me I was going straight to hell. I ran away.”
“Your ran away? Where to?”
“He wanted to fuck me,” she said, cracking her gum.
“Where was your mother?”
“He said I was wild but all I was doing was riding around with boys drinking beer. I hadn’t even screwed anyone yet and I sure as hell wasn’t about to start with my own daddy.”
After Frankie jumped me I didn’t want to see Gloria any more and I didn’t answer the doorbell when she came over. I wanted to get out of that apartment, away from Frankie, away from Gloria. I wanted to be ten years old.
If I was ten the right way I would have a white room, like cream. There are eight pillows on my bed. Sometimes I put them in a circle and sit in the middle with my doll. I read her
’s Web. My daddy always brings me a teddy bear when he comes home from a business trip and they’re all lined up on the shelves with my dolls. There’s a window seat with a cushion on it like Helene has in her room, only mine is bigger and has a view of a real apple tree. My mom buys me too many dresses so the closet’s a mess and I have a new record player like I saw in Jayson’s Hardware. Charlotte
When my mother came home from work I raised hell until she promised we would move. And the next morning at breakfast with Frankie and his mother and Kenny and my mother, I asked him sweetly what had happened to his glasses and watched his stupid fat face get red.
Years later I wondered why Gloria wanted to hang out with a ten- year-old. Or why my mother let me spend Friday nights with a sixteen-year-old waitress. Had she handed me over to Gloria for my sex education? Was that it? After all, the only information she ever gave me was in the two library books about the birds and bees she silently handed over before dashing from the room. They had nothing in them about menstruation because when I got my first period while in the hospital with scarlet fever, a nurse tossed a Kotex and strips of gauze on my bed and kept on walking. In my embarrassing, appalling ignorance, I didn’t know what to do with them. As the sheet grew sticky and wet under me, another nurse finally put me out of my misery and strapped and swaddled me in.
“The scarlet fever brought it on,” my mother said when I told her, as if menstruation was a side effect of disease. I got no beaming lecture on the body becoming ready for the joys of motherhood. For sex and love. Or a brisk reminder of the dangers of fooling around. There was no acknowledgement of a feminine milestone, or sentimental watershed. Not that I expected it. But I did.
But my mother was raised in a Victorian orphanage and would actually color and leave the room if anyone told a risque joke or uttered a four-letter word. Still, in her usual confusing tangle of contradictions, I saw how sexy, shined up and flirtatious she was around Milt and Jack, and later, even my dates.
“Well, hello!” she would sing, coming into the living room, batting her eyes like one of those silent movie stars. Sometimes she would stand in the doorway, smiling with her head raised as if someone was taking her picture. If we were playing records and she was in a good mood she’d actually start dancing, swishing her skirt from side to side like a Busby Berkeley girl. I couldn’t look at her, but my dates raved. They had never seen a mother like her.
After Frankie, I felt safer on the streets than in our apartment and kept to my wandering ways. But I hurried past the houses on the tree-shaded streets lest I start howling with envy over the families gathered behind the forbidden yellow glow of their windows.
I went to the library. The books on the shelves were my friends, their stories waiting to take me out of my life. I loved the long shiny tables. I loved pulling down one of the lined-up encyclopedias and the way its weighty pages would transform my confusing, baffling world into the wonder of an orderly alphabetized universe. The walls of soft-colored volumes were windows of stained glass, and the reverent hush of the people around me worshipers in the church I never got into. Miss Allen, the librarian, was my mother handing me a book she thought I’d like, or telling me to lower my voice, or that my books were overdue, or to go home because the library was closing. I liked Miss Allen. I loved Miss Allen. When she put on her coat and turned out the lights I wanted to go with her.
Walking home one night, a man pulled his car over to the curb and said I’ll put my tongue in your hole. Shaking, I ran in terror to a nearby apartment foyer, rang all the bells, shut my eyes and crouched in the corner. Two or three buzzers sounded in response, but half paralyzed with fear I didn’t get to the doorknob in time and it locked again. After a while I peered through the glass door. His car was gone. I came out with shaking knees and went home.
My mother was there but I kept quiet about the tongue man, the way I had about Frankie. The thing about my mother was you never knew what she would do when you told her something -- collapse into hysteria (as she did when a policeman caught Kenny joy-riding in her car), or hardly look up from her newspaper (like the time I confessed to skipping school). Or maybe say it was my fault and send me away to that vague, terrible place she came from. Orphanages were supposed to stay safely in stories and comic strips, they weren’t meant to lurk menacingly on the edges of your own life as history, as threat. But in our family “orphanage” had the sad wail of reality, and if you don’t know if your mother will collapse, ignore you, or send you away when you tell her something, you tend to keep your mouth shut around the house. I didn’t mind. My mother may have been mercurial, but my phantom father watched over me and was as constant and steady as the sky.
But he couldn’t seem to keep me from getting lost. He was busy. In my wanderings around town I lost my way so often it was as if my secret daddy had blindfolded me, twirled me round and round in a grotesque pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game, and then turned me loose in the world. To this day maps depress me and I am defeated by addresses; dogs and small children have a far better sense of direction and place-memory than I do, finding their way with ease while I wind up on the other side of town. Leaving a hotel room I walk the wrong way in the corridor, and the diabolically slanted streets in
that angle crazily off circles have brought me to tears behind the wheel and in dangerous neighborhoods. I stick carefully to the interstates with their signs, exit numbers and arrows, and the labeled streets of geometric grids, as if such landmarks could steer me away from my father’s killing streets. Washington DC