When Gram made me a costume of purple cheesecloth on her sewing machine like a regular normal grandmother I was more thrilled with my flowing robes than my starring role in the Christmas play, or with the beautiful doll as the baby Jesus they gave me to hold . (Being chosen as Mary surprised and amused everyone because I was the only Jewish kid in the school.)
Walking home one day after rehearsal I was concentrating on avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk, because everyone knew Step on a crack you’ll break your mother’s back. I wasn’t sure just how that worked, but just in case, I watched, I was careful. We had enough trouble.
Suddenly I felt a snowball sting the back of my neck. Turning around I got hit in the face with another one.
“You cut that out!” I screamed at Ralphie Ryan and Kevin Webster.
“Dirty Jew! Christ killer!” they hollered, pelting me with a barrage of snowballs.
“I’m telling! I’ll telling my big brother on you!” I yelled.
Crying, I ran as fast as I could, feeling the sting of snowballs pelt my back. By the time I got home I was covered with snow.
Kenny was on his way out. “Kenny! Wait!” I screamed. “Wait! Ralphie and Kevin! They hit me with snowballs! They called me dirty Jew! I said you’d get them!”
“What’d you tell ‘em that for? Are you crazy?” And he slammed out of the apartment.
I went in the bedroom to change my wet clothes. I was crying. Kenny had left me behind. He was in his teens. He didn’t want to be my big brother or my father or our mother’s husband any more.
Although Gram complained constantly that she had too much work cooking and cleaning for the three of us, and that (although she seemed ancient to me) we’d send her to an early grave, she didn’t actually die for decades, not until I was grown. When the doctor told my mother that it was syphilis that killed her, my mother actually fainted dead away. But it also helped us understand that the disease had already pe
netrated her brain when she lived with us. At her funeral we all pretended we were a normal family burying a beloved mother and grandmother. But I didn’t mourn. She had made my mother cry too much.
I retreated to the movies. Presenting my dime to the lady in the box office, I clutched my ticket, walked a half dozen steps and was enclosed in the dark; a few more steps and my eyes could make out the seats. Finding my way down the aisle to the front row, I was ready to be taken into other lives.
The strangers silhouetted around me were like silent comrades and the plots of films with titles like Stage Mother and For Heaven’s Sake made more sense to me than the furies swirling around at home. Event followed event in a semblance of order. Loose ends were tied up; problems resolved; virtue rewarded. You knew who the bad guys were (Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton). The women were beautiful (Constance Commings, Marion Davies); lovers were reunited; danger and all obstacles to happiness overcome. The heroes (Ronald Coleman, Franchot Tone) were saved, the endings happy. I loved the newsreels, too. The disembodied sonorous voice-over seemed to emanate from God himself in its omnipotent, awesome knowledge of all things from beauty contests to prize fights to the
drought and the German elections. Kansas
For entire Saturday afternoons at the Cedar-Lee Theater I watched the same movie over and over. When James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson died at the end I knew that as long as I sat there he would return, his reincarnated, shimmering presence on the screen in front of me as unreal and as real as my father’s. When Robert Young or Paul Muni disappeared after the last reel I knew he’d be back; I was sitting with my daddy and his gossamer, magical comrades; I was in their stories; they loved me and I was safe. I sat there until Kenny came and hauled me out, blinking in the light.
I could have told you the plot of every movie I had seen for the last six months, but once away from the theater’s friendly darkness, once back in the bright glare of real life, I existed in a willed amnesia. I forgot homework and my books, lost my coat, sweater, mittens, money. My mother got upset but I just shrugged. I didn’t mind. For all I knew my daddy’s sleight of hand had whisked my sweater or coat away; they vanished as mysteriously as he had. “Don’t ever have a baby,” my mother warned me. “You’ll forget and leave it on the streetcar.” But feeling pleasantly hazy and insulated within my skin like that lovely dreamy numbness you get after the first rush from one of the martinis I later took up, I was drunk on my father’s life after death, consumed into a pit of forbidden secrets, alone, neither rescued nor damned.