THE DON (A story) (2 of 2)

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[….continued from previous post.]

Clara switched on the downstairs lights. “Stay and have another cup of coffee,” she urged. Florence didn’t mind if she did. They sat at the kitchen table to consider what had just transpired.

Florence was not the ideal partner for this kind of analysis. Her lack of interest in style and grooming blinded her to the wife’s shortcomings in dress and makeup. Worse, she didn’t find Couteau as attractive as Clara did; his unfavorable report on her work in the Shakespeare seminar had jeopardized her scholarship and she’d had to write two more long papers over the summer to get it reinstated, understandably weakening her susceptibility to his charms. “It can’t be easy being his wife,” she observed. “I bet he’s a difficult man to live with.” Also she didn’t think his drinking out of Clara’s glass was going to lead to anything. She agreed it wasn’t what the typical don would do with the typical donnee’s wine glass, and further agreed he likely found Clara attractive, especially in that sophisticated corduroy outfit, or he wouldn’t have done it. That said, she was inclined to view the sip of wine as an error of judgment.

Here, Clara had to concede, Florence was the expert. Sloven or no, she had lost her virginity to a much older man almost as soon as she’d arrived at college three years before. Clara’s knowledge of her deflowering hardly constituted a confidence; she’d told at least six other people, all of whom had thoroughly discussed it with one another. He’d done it on the floor of his 57th Street art gallery, beneath a Picasso, the Saturday she went to New York to apply for a weekend job. It turned out there was no job. Just instant mutual attraction and a long affair. Even now they still connected from time to time, if their respective schedules permitted. (She checked her diaphragm in a Grand Central locker whenever she went home on school breaks.) Clearly her views on Clara’s future with their mutual don were entitled to deference.

“Look,” she said, “it was only your glass. If he really wanted to go to bed with you, why didn’t he kiss the back of your neck, or put his arm around your waist, or his hand on your tit? He could have done any or all of that while the two of you were looking out that damn window for so long.”

“No, he couldn’t,” Clara insisted. “You were there.”

“He didn’t care about me being there or he wouldn’t have done the thing with the glass. Besides,” she added, “you didn’t exactly encourage him. If you wanted to make something of it, why didn’t you turn around? You just stood there, for God’s sake. He must have thought you’d report him if he went further!”

So now it was Clara’s fault. “You really think nothing more is going to happen?”

“Not before he gets back to school,” opined this woman of the world who owned a diaphragm. “What do you expect him to do? Write you incriminating love letters? Call you on the house phone and explain to someone else why he needs to speak to you?”

“Then what can I do?”

Florence was buttoning her coat to get back to her own off-campus house. Behind as usual, she needed the Thanksgiving break to catch up on assigned reading. “Invite him over to lunch next term, after he’s back. Make hamburgers or something. This is a neat house for stuff like that. You could even serve it in your room. And see what happens then.”

Clara paced restlessly after she had left. Did she really want to steal him away from the wife in socks and become the wife herself – stepmother to his unseen little girl and slavey in his kitchen? Not really. But the delicious unhappiness of an affair with a married faculty member who couldn’t resist her: how could she not yield? Was it too dangerous? Would it jeopardize her degree? What should she do? What could she do? If only it had been a regular don-donnee dinner, without any of these troubling problems! She wished she’d eaten more of the wife’s cooking.

Taking Florence’s advice, Clara invited Couteau to lunch a few days before spring break. He seemed surprised, but accepted. In town, she bought a pound of freshly ground round, lettuce, tomatoes, ketchup, and also a few hard rolls in case he needed bread. Everyone else in the house agreed to stay away for this momentous occasion. Clara cleared off her desk, borrowed a second desk chair from another room and laid out two place settings, napkins, salt and pepper, the ketchup bottle, a basket of the rolls and two glasses. Couteau arrived just as the two half-pound patties of ground round were nearing completion in the frying pan. (A half-pound was what Clara’s mother had always made for her father.) Clara slid the meat onto plates already decorated with lettuce and tomato slices, and led Couteau up the stairs, each of them carrying a plate and an eight-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola. When he saw they were to eat in her room he hesitated momentarily, but then courageously crossed the threshold. Clara left the door open, to reassure him. “Where is everybody?” he asked.

“Why, at lunch!” she laughed gaily.

It was an awkward meal. Clara asked if the meat was sufficiently well done. He said yes, it was very good but a lot of food. Flushing with embarrassment, Clara said she thought that was the amount men ate. (This did not explain why she too had half a pound on her plate.) He said he had a class to teach that afternoon and would fall asleep if he ate it all. Hurriedly, she changed the subject and asked about his wife, his child. He said they were fine. He asked what she thought she might want to do next year. If she were applying to graduate school, he’d be glad to write recommendations, her last paper was really remarkable. She said she was putting grad school on the back burner for a while to see what real life was like. He nodded, and pushed his plate away. Half the hamburger was still there. Clara had finished all hers. He didn’t drink from her glass. He didn’t drink from his own glass either. Maybe he didn’t like Coca-Cola? He thanked her for the home-cooked lunch and got up to go. “We’ll have to do this again,” Clara said. “When you have more time.”

“When do I have more time?” he asked pleasantly.

As soon as he was out the front door, she hurried back upstairs. Damn him. Had he forgotten Thanksgiving, the heavy breathing, the sip of wine? And if he was regretting all that, if he had realized in the interim that a love between them could only come to naught, why did he agree to come to lunch and put her to all this trouble? He hadn’t even offered to help take everything downstairs! Well, of course not, why would he? That slavey of a wife did everything for him. She poured ketchup on the remains of his ground round and ate it angrily before stacking the plates. She had to make two trips because she had no tray, and had just managed to finish cleaning everything up, including the greasy frying pan, when some of her housemates returned from their own lunch in the dining room. “How was it?” they asked, curiously. They didn’t know about the heavy breathing and sip of wine.

“I’m certainly not doing that again,” Clara said, loss and indigestion throbbing in her midsection.

“Bad, huh?”

“Pretty awful.” She laughed hollowly. “And I thought I was being so nice. It just goes to show….”

 

And then it was really over. Parents began arriving for the commencement dinner. They sat on folding chairs on the small lawn in front of Clara’s off-campus house and exchanged polite remarks while waiting for it to be dinnertime. Photos were snapped. Couteau came looking for Clara in the dining room. How gracious he was to her parents, whose conventional views of life he had worked so hard, with only partial success, to eradicate in Clara. Although he sat at their table through the appetizer and entrée, chatting lightly of this and that while she hoped for a private look in her direction, he excused himself before dessert to join Florence and her parents at another table.

Following dessert and coffee Clara’s parents left too – because, said her father, it was a long drive home and they would have to get up early for commencement at eleven. Dutifully she walked them to their new Pontiac and then hurried back to the dining room. By then the dinner was breaking up. Some of the other parents were now calling taxis to go into town for drinks with each other. Clara made her way around clusters of people she didn’t know, past deserted tables littered with dirty cups and crumpled napkins, looking for Florence and Couteau. “Oh, they’ve left,” someone told her. “Her parents weren’t able to come after all, so he took her into town to the Spoon.” The Greasy Spoon was a drinking hangout. Clara had never in all her four college years been there. He took her? On the very last evening they could ever have together? Sloppy disheveled her? She swiped the last four brownies from a tray near the kitchen, wrapped them in two napkins and took them back to her room, where she ate them methodically at the desk which was no longer her desk, brown crumbs falling on her new yellow cotton dress.

The next morning the sun shone. Alphabetically by last name, the graduates lined up in black caps and gowns rented for the occasion, to sit in the first two long rows of folding chairs arranged on the broad front lawn of the administration building. Florence was two seats away. Clara leaned over the girl between them and poked her. She turned. “What happened at the Spoon last night?” Clara whispered.

“Nothing,” Florence whispered back. “He drank a lot. He looked pretty drunk by the time the place closed.”

“And then?”

“What then? I went back to my room.”

“And him?”

“He went home. At least he said he was going to.”

The girl sitting patiently between them suddenly made shushing noises. The faculty, also in caps and gowns, were filing solemnly out of the building to sit on a dais set up on the front portico. Ah, there was the college president, followed by the dean. Clara tried to make out Couteau under one of the black caps. Sour brownie rose up in her mouth, the taste of failure and gastric reflux. She swallowed hard and choked everything down, stomach acid burning her throat. A name was called, a diploma presented, hands shaken. She heard clapping from parents, families and friends of others coming from the seats on the grass in the rows and rows behind her. Another name. And another. The clapping grew slightly less enthusiastic. Too many names. It seemed to go very fast all the same. Soon she tensed. There. Her name. Up she went. Diploma. Handshake. A scattering of claps.

Afterwards there was some milling around, but everyone was anxious to get on the road. Couteau approached. Stay in touch, he said. She nodded. He walked away, out of her life. A few of the others from her senior house waved to her. Goodbye, goodbye. Stay in touch. She nodded again. You too. It was hard to say more without crying.

 

Clara kept the Neilson and Hill, but although Couteau had covered only eight of the plays in class, she never again opened it to read another. At first she feared she wouldn’t be able to duplicate her interpretive success with All’s Well That Ends Well. Later, dipping into Shakespeare slipped further and further down her to-do list. But when she was sixty, her two children grown and gone from the nest, her career as a patent lawyer settling into four unpressured days a week at a small boutique firm, she began to look back at her life and it crossed her mind she’d like to see Couteau again before he died.

Having obtained his present address and telephone number from the college and made arrangements for a visit, she discovered he now lived in a modest two-story house at the top of a very steep hill in Kerhonkson, a small town in the Catskills. Margaret Couteau opened the door with a warm smile. “He’ll be so glad you came,” she said. Although quite wrinkled, she otherwise hadn’t changed much, except for white hair and the extremely thick cataract lenses in her glasses that enormously enlarged her eyes.

Couteau, heavier and looking much older than his wife, sat hunched sourly in an easy chair before a television news channel with the volume turned up high.  Two canes leaned against the chair. He made no effort to get up, but did switch off the television with a remote. Then he stared at Clara for a moment, as if unsure of who she was, before extending a cold gnarled hand.

“His arthritis is very bad,” explained Margaret.

“Hello, Charles,” said Clara, as cheerfully as she could. “You do remember me, don’t you? Clara? From the class of ’52?

He continued to stare. “I remember you used to be angular and sharp,” he snapped suddenly. “What happened?”

Clara said nothing. It had been forty years. I was only angular and sharp for about two weeks as an entering freshman, she thought. Is it my mind he’s remembering?

“Margaret says you’re some kind of big shot lawyer now. So you sold out too.  Like most of the others.”

They had lunch in the adjoining kitchen. He needed the two canes to maneuver himself to the table. It was fillet of sole, peas and carrots. Clara noticed Margaret had actually shelled fresh peas and scraped fresh carrots. Couteau complained the carrots weren’t sweet enough. Clara had brought a good Bordeaux and the most expensive single malt Scotch she could find in her local liquor store. He nodded when Margaret showed him the bottles, but otherwise took no notice. When he had finished eating, he rose with help and stumbled painfully away for a nap on a sleeper sofa in the living room. “He can’t get up the stairs anymore,” explained Margaret when he was out of earshot. “He has to live down here now. We put in a downstairs bathroom.”

Clara helped her clear, wash up and dry. There was no dishwasher. Then they sat down at the kitchen table again. “This must be very hard for you,” said Clara. “Alone here at the top of a mountain. How do you manage?”

It seems Margaret did all the driving up and down – to get groceries, reach the drugstore, fill the tank of their fifteen-year-old Buick. Genevieve, the daughter, lived with another lesbian woman in Western Massachusetts. She did speak with her mother every week, so there was that. “But Charles is very disappointed Genevieve turned out the way she did,” said Margaret. “He feels it was some kind of failure. Unnatural, he calls it. He doesn’t want to talk to her when she calls.”

“How can that be?” exclaimed Clara. “His views about how to live were so liberating!”

“I don’t know about that,” said Margaret. “Charles was always quite a conventional man. He even made me stop working after we married. He didn’t think a wife should go out to earn money. You can see where that landed us.”  Then she noticed the expression on Clara’s face. “He did talk a good game, though,” she added kindly. “You weren’t the only student who found him inspiring.”

“You’ve got to get off this hill,” said Clara. “How much longer can you go on like this?” She wasn’t just thinking of the cataracts.

“Tell that to Charles.”

Couteau woke up in time to see Clara leave. He appeared somewhat anxious for her to be out of the house so he could turn on the television again. There was a program he wanted to watch. Only Margaret seemed sad to see her go. Before she came, Clara had imagined she might make a little joke about that sip of wine on Thanksgiving Day so long ago. All things considered, it was just as well she hadn’t.

 

 

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ANOTHER STORY, VERY SHORT

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The high functioning daughter is on the phone.  What a nice surprise.  “We’ve just rented a beach house for next August,” says the daughter.  “You’ll have to come out for a weekend. The kids will be back from day camp then.  And Bob and I will both have off.”

It’s only October. Such closely scheduled lives. But the mother knows she can’t say that. “Oh, lovely,” she replies. “Something to look forward to.”

Christmas and New Year’s come and go. Easter rolls around. The mother begins really thinking about summer, even though it’s still a few months off. She hardly ever sees these three grandchildren now they’re all in school and then rushing to after-school sports, music lessons and playdates. Not to mention the daughter, rapidly advancing in her architectural firm.  At least those are the excuses, when she brings it up.

“Which weekend should I plan on coming out?” she asks the daughter carefully at a dinner given by her son-in-law’s mother.

The daughter’s face assumes a familiar unpleasant expression, as if the mother’s question were entirely out of line. “No weekend, actually. There are none left. We owe such a lot of people. We’ve invited too many as it is.”

Did her daughter actually forget the October invitation? Or had it become inconvenient?  “I thought it was a big house,” says the mother, even now not having learned from experience. “I could also come during the week.” She hates herself for adding that.  For having to beg.

The daughter shakes her head decisively. “Not such a big house. No, it would just be too awkward. And we need the weekdays to recover from the guests.”  She offers a tight smile, suggesting that what she’d just said should be thought amusing.

The mother perseveres. “So does that mean I won’t be seeing you at all this summer?”  It sounds better for “you” to be taken as plural but right now she really means “you” singular — the “you” who used to be her difficult, brilliant much-loved baby girl.

“Looks like it,” says the daughter.  “There’s a lot going on. Maybe we can find a time in the fall. I’ll have to check with Bob.”

Why should she be surprised? For a long time, she’s been on tenterhooks with this daughter anyway. Should she have nailed down an August weekend for herself last October? Sent a confirming email ten months ahead? Who does such things with family? It’s been explained to her by others (counselor, family doctor, close woman friend) that the daughter may not be able to help it;  with this kind of disorder, she probably doesn’t even understand how it makes the mother feel. It’s not intentional. She shouldn’t take it personally.

The mother always nods. Easy for them to say.

It’s not their daughter, she thinks.  Not their heart that hurts.

CAN A REALLY GREAT WRITER MAKE IT ON WORDPRESS?

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[Last fall I registered for an adult education course that failed to attract a sufficient number of registrants and was therefore withdrawn.  It was about “The Long Short Story.”  I had already bought the books containing the six stories to be discussed, and don’t easily give in while there’s still hope. So I put up a post in which I offered to host a reading program with the professor’s curriculum if I had three takers — a foolhardy idea, as hardly anyone in Princeton knows I blog.  But there was one brave soul, in a town just to the north, who raised her virtual hand.  We’ll call her G.  

And so G. and I, in an extremely leisurely way, began.  We decided to meet every other Thursday at 2 p.m. (except for December, because G. has a large extended family for whom holiday preparations are time-consuming).  We eliminated Faulkner and Conrad from the professor’s list and added a few authors of our own. We alternate houses and make tea. (G. is English.)  Occasionally, instead of reading a new story, we watch a DVD movie version of a story we’ve just read, and then talk about what changes were necessary to show the story visually without too many voice-overs and what was lost in translation from print to screen.

But because it’s only two very good long stories a month (one, if it’s a movie month), there’s time to read carefully and read again.  G. is more thorough than I am in the line-by-line stuff. (She comes from a career in science.) I focus on structure, what is suggested by what is said, and what is not said because it’s not necessary to say it. We tell each other we’re learning how to write better memoir, and perhaps we are.  We certainly have a pretty good time, even though we hardly knew each other before this literary adventure.  Because we’re women, sometimes the conversation wanders off point. But we were professional women, so it doesn’t wander too far.  No reminiscences of childbirth yet, or anything like that, although given time we might get there.

So far, we’ve read Chekhov’s “Lady With A Dog,” Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground,” Mann’s “Tonio Kruger,” Carlos Fuentes’ “The Prisoner of Las Lomas” and Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers” (which deserves a post from me all to itself).  Next up are stories by Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro, and after that we’ll see.  But last Thursday, in addition to a celebrated long short story we added a very short one by the same author. In the end, we spent as much time talking about the very short one as the famous long one and decided it was a perfect  little story. 

“How do you think it would do if I posted it?” I asked.  “There are blog posts just as long.  Blog posts which are short stories by aspiring authors. And it would certainly be a change from what I’ve been blogging about recently.”  (At this G. rolled her eyes roguishly.)  “What if I left off the famous author’s name till the end and sent it out on its own?”

The very short story is about a young protagonist living with his uncle and aunt in a deeply Catholic provincial city around 1900 who meets with defeat and despair so palpable you may feel it too.That’s probably all I should say up front, although feel free to ask questions or comment afterwards.  I cannot advise what clicking “like” might mean in this context.  It could be that you “liked” the story, or that you “liked” the idea of the posting experiment even if you hated the story. If there are no “likes” at all, G. is going to get it next time for not having stopped me. So maybe a “like” could also mean I shouldn’t take it out on her.]

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ARABY

North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two stories stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbors in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.

The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing-room. Air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms, and the waste room behind the kitchen was littered with old useless papers. Among these I found a few paper-covered books, the pages of which were curled and damp: The Abbot, by Walter Scott, The Devout Communicant and The Memoirs of Vidocq. I liked the last best because its leaves were yellow. The wild garden behind the house contained a central apple-tree and a few straggling bushes under one of which I found the late tenant’s rusty bicycle-pump. He had been a very charitable priest; in his will he had left all his money to institutions and the furniture of his house to his sister.

When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the color of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odors arose from the ash pits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness. When we returned to the street, light from the kitchen windows had filled the areas. If my uncle was seen turning the corner we hid in the shadow until we had seen him safely housed. Or if Mangan’s sister came out on the doorstep to call her brother in to his tea we watched her from our shadow peer up and down the street. We waited to see whether she would remain or go in and, if she remained, we left our shadow and walked up to Mangan’s steps resignedly. She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door. Her brother always teased her before he obeyed and I stood by the railings looking at her. Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.

Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlor watching her door. The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen. When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her. I kept her brown figure always in my eye and, when we came near the point at which our ways diverged, I quickened my pace and passed her. This happened morning after morning. I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.

Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance. On Saturday evenings when my aunt went marketing I had to go to carry some of the parcels. We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of laborers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O’Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land. These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me. I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.

One evening I went into the back drawing-room in which the priest had died. It was a dark rainy evening and there was no sound in the house. Through one of the broken panes I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds. Some distant lamp or lighted window gleamed below me. I was thankful that I could see so little. All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring “O love! O love! many times.

At last she spoke to me. When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer. She asked me was I going to Araby. I forgot whether I answered yes or no. It would be a splendid bazaar, she said; she would love to go.

“And why can’t you?” I asked.

While she spoke she turned a silverl bracelet round and round her wrist. She could not go, she said, because there would be a retreat that week in her convent. Her brother and two other boys were fighting for their caps and I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.

“It’s well for you,” she said.

“If I go,” I said, “I will bring you something.”

What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts after that evening!  I wished to annihilate the tedious intervening days. I chafed against the work of school. At night in my bedroom and by day in the classroom her image came between me and the page I strove to read. The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me. I asked for leave to go to the bazaar on Saturday night. My aunt was surprised and hoped it was not some Freemason affair. I answered few questions in class. I watched my master’s face pass from amiability to sternness; he hoped I was not beginning to idle. I could not call my wandering thoughts together. I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play.

On Saturday morning I reminded my uncle that I wished to go to the bazaar in the evening He was fussing at the hall stand, looking for the hat-brush, and answered me curtly:

“Yes, boy, I know.”

As he was in the hall I could not go into the front parlor and lie at the window. I left the house in bad humour and walked slowly towards the school. The air was pitilessly raw and already my heart misgave me.

When I came home to dinner my uncle had not yet been home. Still it was early. I sat staring at the clock for some time and, when its ticking began to irritate me, I left the room. I mounted the staircase and gained the upper part of the house. The high cold empty gloomy rooms liberated me and I went from room to room singing. From the front window I saw my companions playing below in the street. Their cries reached me weakened and indistinct and, leaning my forehead against the cool glass, I looked over at the dark house where she lived. I may have stood there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination, touched discreetly by the lamplight at the curved neck, at the hand upon the railings and at the border below the dress.

When I came downstairs again I found Mrs. Mercer sitting at the fire. She was an old garrulous woman, a pawnbroker’s widow, who collected used stamps for some pious purpose. I had to endure the gossip of the tea-table. The meal was prolonged beyond an hour and still my uncle did not come. Mrs. Mercer stood up to go: she was sorry she couldn’t wait any longer, but it was after eight o’clock and she did not like to be out late as the night air was bad for her. When she had gone I began to walk up and down the room, clenching my fists. My aunt said:

“I’m afraid you may put off your bazaar for this night of Our Lord.”

At nine o’clock I heard my uncle’s latchkey in the hall door. I heard him talking to himself and heard the hall stand rocking when it had received the weight of his overcoat. I could interpret these signs. When he was midway through his dinner I asked him to give me the money to go to the bazaar. He had forgotten.

“The people are in bed and after their first sleep now,” he said.

I did not smile. My aunt said to him energetically:

“Can’t you give him the money and let him go? You’ve kept him late enough as it is.”

My uncle said he was very sorry he had forgotten. He said he believed in the old saying: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” He asked me where I was going and, when I had told him a second time he asked me did I know The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed. When I left the kitchen he was about to recite the opening lines of the piece to my aunt.

I held a florin tightly in my hand as I strode down Buckingham Street towards the station. The sight of the streets thronged with buyers and glaring with gas recalled to me the purpose of my journey. I took my seat in a third-class carriage of a deserted train. After an intolerable delay the train moved out of the station slowly. It crept onward among ruinous houses and over the twinkling river. At Westland Row Station a crowd of people pressed to the carriage doors; but the porters moved them back, saying that it was a special train for the bazaar. I remained alone in the bare carriage. In a few minutes the train drew up beside an improvised wooden platform. I passed out on to the road and saw by the lighted dial of a clock that it was ten minutes to ten. In front of me was a large building which displayed the magical name.

I could not find any sixpenny entrance and, fearing that the bazaar would be closed, I passed in quickly through a turnstile, handing a shilling to a weary-looking man. I found myself in a big hall girdled at half its height by a gallery. Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness. I recognized a silence like that which pervades a church after a service. I walked into the centre of the bazaar timidly. A few people were gathered about the stalls which were still open. Before a curtain, over which the words Cafe Chantant were written in colored lamps, two men were counting money on a salver. I listened to the fall of the coins.

Remembering with difficulty why I had come I went over to one of stalls and examined porcelain vases and flowered tea-sets. At the door of the stall a young lady was talking and laughing with two young gentlemen. I remarked their English accents and listened vaguely to their conversation.

“O, I never said such a thing!”

“O, but you did!”

“O but I didn’t!”

“Didn’t she say that?”

“Yes. I heard her.”

“O, there’s a … fib!”

Observing me the young lady came over and asked me did I wish to buy anything. The tone of her voice was not encouraging; she seemed to have spoken to me out of a sense of duty. I looked humbly at the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stall and murmured:

“No, thank you.”

The young lady changed the position of one of the vases and went back to the two young men. They began to talk of the same subject. Once or twice the young lady glanced at me over her shoulder.

I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

by James Joyce.

[“Araby” is the third story in Dubliners. The long short story G. and I also read last Thursday, which ends the book, was “The Dead.”]

THOSE WERE THE DAYS

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[A story.]

 I’m quite certain Paul came with me to Andre de Renski’s housewarming party in October 1960 because back then I never went anywhere, except to work, without Paul. Although I have no specific recollection of whether or not he gave me a hard time about putting on his grey flannel suit (which I had bought for him back in our honeymoon days) in order to attend this event, he would have eventually agreed to come – preliminary objections or no — so as not to jeopardize my paycheck, which was, in a manner of speaking, our paycheck.

I do remember that it was Frauke, Andre’s nineteen-year-old German secretary and showroom receptionist, who came to the penthouse door to greet us when we stepped out of the elevator. She was looking delectable in an emerald green taffeta cocktail dress and high heels; the dress swished as she clicked her way across the polished wood parquet floor. She apparently had gone home to change after work; in the showroom, she always wore a slim skirt and cashmere sweater, with a string of pearls.

As we entered the living room, I introduced her to Paul; she then introduced us to her escort, who was sitting in a yellow brocade wing chair. A polite, neatly combed man in a dark suit. His name was Matthew Holmes (as he reminded me when we met again sometime afterwards). I found out later Frauke had already been living with him for at least a couple of months, although they were not officially a couple and gave no indication that his accompanying her to Andre’s party was anything other than a social accommodation. I probably offered him a civil smile. Then Andre hurried over and swept us away.

Andre was a new client of Pagel & Cohen, the ad agency where I had recently been hired to write copy. He had come from Paris in August to introduce a French silver company to the American market. Why he had invited me and Stan Epstein, the art director who was designing his advertising program, to his housewarming was not clear. Stan thought it might be only an outburst of youthful good spirits. However, Norm Pagel and Herb Cohen, who ran their eponymous agency together, decided it made good business sense for us go.

So there I was in my one really good dress, a black cashmere knit bought at a small intimidating shop on Madison Avenue during the previous post-Christmas sale. When I was well girdled, as now, it was very becoming; I felt chic and ready for anything. Unfortunately, Paul and I spent the whole evening talking to Stan. The other guests were all French businessmen and two Frenchwomen who did something for Vogue, a seemingly self-contained francophone group I didn’t feel sufficiently secure in spoken French to approach.

We left early. Paul and I hadn’t been getting along for some time, and I ‘d been looking forward to this Friday evening housewarming as a way to delay the onset of the weekend’s bickering. But there was just so much Stan and I could say to each other that we hadn’t already said in the office, and Paul wasn’t helping. As we stepped into the elevator, Andre rushed over again, this time clutching a bottle of Pommard, which he thrust into my hand. He said he was tellement desole, so very sorry, that we were leaving before we’d had a chance to chat, and that he wanted us to have something to enjoy over the weekend. He may not have meant both of us; the word you is singular as well as plural in English. He gave me what could have been a deeply sorrowful look. Although French, he had Slavic eyes. I didn’t thrust the bottle back, a serious mistake. The invitation to the housewarming had already sent up Paul’s antenna. We argued about what the Pommard meant, or didn’t mean, all the way home on the crosstown bus.

The Pommard may have meant what Paul suspected. During a meeting with Herb, Norm and Stan the following week, Andre pulled me to one side of the conference room on the pretext of showing me some ideas he had roughed out for future ads. “We must have lunch,” he whispered urgently.

“Didn’t you forget something?” I whispered back. “I’m married.”

His eyes looked tragic. “You can’t even have lunch?”

I consulted the Hungarian about this whispered invitation during my next visit to his office on East 86th Street. I had been seeing him two evenings a week for over a year.   He did have a proper name, clotted with linked consonants and therefore difficult to pronounce, but I found myself unable to use it except when writing out checks in payment for treatment. Naming him might have turned him into a regular human being who used branded toothpaste and wore pajamas and maybe even yelled at his wife now and then. If compelled to bring him into a conversation, as when explaining to Paul why I might be late getting home after work, I always sidestepped the linked consonants by referencing his nationality. And when I was by myself, he needed no name. Where in the Old Testament do you find the name of God?

The Hungarian did not disapprove of lunch with Andre, if it stayed lunch. However, he did believe the patient should make no major familial changes during treatment. He may also have had some reservations about the veracity of my accounts of unhappy married life; after all, it was Paul who had initially obtained his name from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and insisted I go see him, to find out why I was evading my marital responsibilities by taking too many naps on weekend afternoons.

Ma, honeybunch,” he said to me now. The ma was not actually a Hungarian word. It had become part of his permanent vocabulary in Italy, after he climbed over an Alp to escape the Soviets when they invaded Hungary. (He had a romantic past.) “A little flirtation is not so terrible. It might cheer you up. Make your husband more attentive.”

My husband was attentive enough, actually. Although he refused to fritter away his creative years by earning a living (at thirty-eight he was still waiting to be discovered as a great playwright), I had no complaints about Paul’s horizontal skills. When we darkened the room so that I could pretend he was someone else, he brought me off regularly. Of course, I wished I didn’t have to pretend.

“More than lunch is not an issue,” I said, sidestepping further discussion of Paul’s amatory style with what I hoped was charm. “You think I’d risk losing my job by messing around with a client? Then I wouldn’t be able to pay you!”

My preparations for the approved lunch consisted of cashing a birthday check from my father and buying a fitted black wool boucle suit at Henri Bendel. Paul knew nothing about the check because it had been mailed to the office. He’d been without paid employment since we’d come to New York three years before, and my father was no dummy. I had never worn anything so expensive. Just buttoning the jacket cheered me up. Paul didn’t even notice the new suit.

Andre was double-parked in a bright red Alfa Romeo convertible in front of the building on Madison Avenue where Pagel & Cohen had its offices. There was a Longchamps in the lobby, but chain restaurants did not figure in Andre’s universe. Top down, we drove six blocks to The Brasserie, where he double-parked again.

“Won’t you get a ticket?” I asked.

With a delightful Gallic smile he opened the door on my side. “C’est la vie!” Then we dodged oncoming cars and circled the Alfa Romeo to the pavement. He took my arm to descend The Brasserie’s stairs. “Beautiful suit,” he said.

We had Beaujolais and steak tartare (a first for me), which the waiter prepared tableside with many flourishes.   Desultory chitchat about the silver campaign soon segued into more personal matters. He was twenty-seven (he said), divorced, a father; his little girl was in France with her mother. His English, underlaid with the merest soupcon of delicious French accent, was from England, where he had gone to school. He was delighted to learn my parents were Russian; he himself, though born in Paris, was the grandson of Polish aristocrats, ousted from their castles during some late nineteenth-century Polish brouhaha. We were therefore both of Slavic blood. I said my parents considered themselves Jewish. Aha! he exclaimed. We were more alike than I knew. He had a Jewish grandmother. He leaned towards me. “I find you fascinating,” he said softly. “Tell me who are you. I want to know everything.”

Tell me who are you. It had been such a long time since anyone wanted to know. I wasn’t used to wine at lunch. Whatever slid out of me, about myself and my ill-advised marriage, it must have been too much.

“You poor darling,” he murmured gently when our tiny espresso cups were empty. “You deserve so much better. I want to make it up to you.”

How does one respond to that?

He paid the bill. Outside in the bright fall sunshine, the Alfa Romeo sported a ticket on its jaunty windshield. I said I would walk back to the office. (I needed to cool my cheeks.) He nodded, deftly removed the offending ticket from view, and slid into the driver’s seat. “Be warned,” he said. “I am going to court you as no one has ever courted you.”

“Andre! Don’t be silly!”   I started to giggle.

He signaled and began to pull out into traffic. “Yes, and I will never know how many other men are courting you.” He looked back at me, we stared at each other for a moment and he added, “Of course, you will never know how many other women I am courting. It will be so-o-o exciting!”

I think he blew me a kiss, but it’s hard to be sure. My head was throbbing with wine and compliments and the noise of traffic. Then the little red Alfa Romeo was gone.

What nonsense, I thought as I wobbled the six blocks back to work. Who wants to be one of a gaggle of women being courted at once? Divorced or not divorced, I thought, he must not know anything about real life. All the same, it had certainly been fun. My life needed some fun. How I wished I were free to play!

Alas, I was not. Back at my desk and sober again, I did risk/benefit analysis. Andre was young — two and a half years younger than me — and probably undependable. He pleased; he diverted; he inspired no real desire. Then there was Paul’s temper. What if he found out? Would he hit me? Divorce me? Adultery was grounds in New York. Would I also lose the Hungarian if Norm and Herb found out and fired me? I didn’t have even emergency cash of my own. I was walking around with five dollars in my wallet for weekly subway money; all the rest of my pay went to Paul. Where would I be without a job and, worse, without the Hungarian?

The upshot of these ruminations was to table thoughts of Andre for now and do what I could safely do. The following Friday I used twenty-five dollars of the contents of my pay envelope to open a savings account in a bank near the office. I explained the shortfall in net salary to Paul as an increase in social security withholding. He didn’t like it, but since he didn’t get paid himself anymore he had no basis for questioning it. In the wrong things he trusted me. Although I no longer thought that marriage, especially a bad one, was necessarily forever, I wasn’t actually planning to leave him, especially given the Hungarian’s ground rules. On the other hand, how could it hurt to build myself a private little nest egg, just in case? After all I was the one who was doing the earning. I kept the bankbook deep in the zippered inner compartment of my handbag, below a thick wad of Kleenex.

It took what seemed a long time for my secret account to grow. In the meanwhile, I went on — more or less uncomplainingly — with my domestic weekend routine: cleaning our two-room apartment near Needle Park, dragging a shopping cart five blocks down Broadway to the A & P and then back again, cooking a week’s worth of the indigestible meals that Paul remembered from his mother’s kitchen and loved so well. (Kartoffelglossen was a particular favorite.) Paul did most of the talking when we were in the apartment together. If I ventured to disagree about something, his response was always, “I am King in this house!” That would have made me Queen, I guess. But if I had dared mention it, he would certainly have stalked, aggrieved, into the other room. On such occasions, I did fall back on pleasant reveries of Andre. He might not have been appropriate second husband material. But why not a sort of stepping stone to the next part of my permanent life? These were, of course, just reveries and could comfortably co-exist with making no major familial change. Understandably, I didn’t waste expensive therapeutic time discussing them with the Hungarian.

In any event Andre’s promised courtship was not really getting off the ground. His social recreation seemed for now to consist mainly of successful pursuit of the Four Hundred. You could read in Cholly Knickerbocker’s column about his many evenings out with young ladies bearing last names associated with banks, railroads and manufacturing empires owned by their fathers and uncles. Once he even showed up in Walter Winchell’s column as “that dashing young Frenchman who’s taking Café Society by storm.”

Nonetheless, it soon became apparent to Herb and Norm that he preferred dealing with them through me. When he didn’t pay his bill on time, which was more and more often, they began sending me over to the showroom to collect. “Hello, hello,” sunny blonde Frauke would sing out from under her impeccable beehive of hair as I stepped from the elevator. “How nice to see you!” She sat alone at a glass-topped reception desk, looking both friendly and gorgeous. Andre’s office was in the back. I never saw a customer at any time I was there, and sometimes wondered what the two of them might be up to by themselves all day long. I even chaffed Andre about it once, while he was writing out a long overdue check for three thousand dollars to Cohen & Nagel.

“With Frauke? That’s nonsense. She’s just a child.” He tore the signed check out of the ledger and handed it to me. “Besides,” he added, “she has a perfectly nice American boyfriend. Matthew I think his name is. He does law, doesn’t he? Why would I want to interfere with that?” Then he walked me to the door, his arm around my waist. “But how are you?” he asked. “Still with that awful husband, yes? You must come to a party anyway. Next week, without him.”

I knew from Frauke that Andre had begun to give many parties now that he had his penthouse tastefully decorated. So I didn’t take this invitation as a particularly personal gesture; he was simply being hospitable. But I decided to go anyway, if only to show I was still his friend despite his laissez faire attitude towards invoices. I told Paul that Herb and Norm wanted me there because it was good for client relations. Although Herb and Norm knew nothing about Andre’s invitation I was sure that if they had known, they would have wanted me to accept. Paul was not happy to dine alone on leftover sauerbraten, but if you’re going to set yourself up as King of the House, you deserve a certain amount of payback. Besides, it would be lovely to put on my good dress again and get out of the apartment for an evening.

There seemed fewer francophones in attendance at this party. Then I saw across the room, in the middle of the gold brocade sofa, a lady having her hand kissed by several gentlemen. I cornered Frauke, in some respects a fountain of information, and inquired. Frauke explained. The lady was a princesse de France. But France was a republic, wasn’t it?   “Oh, she lives in New York just like the rest of us,” added Frauke, who was in possession of the addresses and phone numbers of every guest. “It’s only her blood that’s royal. Two-hundred year old blood.” She was leaning against the mantelpiece, on which there were now two neat stacks of parking tickets. “Don’t laugh,” she cautioned. “Andre’s careful not to offend.”

Andre himself introduced me to the other guests: I was his lovely and brilliant copywriter, he said, and a very good friend.   I met a stout balding Zenith executive who told me, in slightly German-accented English, that I was extremely charming and he would like to do something for me if I would let him. I met the quite attractive personnel director of Equitable Life who put both his hands on my upper arms while confessing that his third marriage, to a French countess, was on the rocks but as he couldn’t afford to do anything about it they were chained together for eternity. I met an editor of Modern Bride, fortyish and redheaded, who said she was over the moon for Andre and wanted to know all about him; she seemed to think I was an authority. I went to an empty space near the drinks cart for a breather.

“Hello again,” said Matthew Holmes, who was standing there.

I must have looked blank.   “The housewarming? Frauke’s friend? I see I made a great impression.”

Ah, the polite male escort. “Yes of course! Please do forgive me.”

“Forgiven.” We exchanged names a second time. His gaze turned towards Frauke’s blonde beehive as it made its way from one group of Andre’s guests to another. Then he asked where Paul was. My own eyes were following slender graceful Andre as he glided here and there, bestowing and receiving cheek kisses; I wished he would glide in our direction. “Paul hates these things,” I said, finally. Matthew Holmes glanced back at me. “So do I.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Looking out for my interests.”

“Your interest looks as if she can take care of herself.”

“I’m sure she can. That’s what worries me.”

“Oh?”

He changed the subject. “Why are you?”

“Why am I what?”

“Here.”

“Work.” (The easiest answer.)

“This is work?”

“Norman Pagel thinks so.”

“Then I guess you could call it that.” He had a pleasantly normal sort of voice. I thought he was probably a native New Yorker. Like me.

“Tell me,” I asked suddenly. “Do some of these people strike you as weird? As if they’re living in some other world?”

“Ah, you’ve noticed.” Now he turned back in my direction.

“I don’t understand what Andre sees in them.”

“If Andre’s your client, I can’t tell you.”

“Andre’s Norm’s client.”

He shrugged. “Same difference.” After a moment’s thought he relented somewhat. “You see that?” He pointed to a small gold-framed photo of a young woman taken outdoors against a cloudless blue sky; it was on the end of the mantelpiece closest to us, away from the parking tickets.

“You mean his sister?” I said.

“Is that what Andre told you? He told Frauke she was his cousin, who died several years ago. Half an hour ago I heard him tell that redhead” — he lifted his chin in the direction of the editor of Modern Bride — “that she’s a married woman in France with whom he’s hopelessly in love.”

I didn’t like this information. Or that Andre was not coming over to the drinks cart. Didn’t he realize I couldn’t wait till the end of the party for him to have some time for me? My watch said 10:00. “I have to go,” I said. “There’s work tomorrow. Nice talking to you.”

“My pleasure.” He made no move to walk me to the door, and I didn’t expect him to. By the time the elevator reached the building lobby, I had stopped thinking about him. The woman in the gold-framed photo was another matter.

The next time I was sent to the showroom with an unpaid invoice, I tackled the question head on.

“Andre, do you really have a sister?”

He was having trouble finding the company checkbook ledger among all the papers on his desk. “A sister? Yes, of course. Why?”

“And a pretty cousin, who died?”

This question seemed to surprise him. “People talk too much.” Was he annoyed? He began pulling out drawers and rummaging in them briskly. Then he slammed them all shut without replying yes or no. “Listen, darling,” he said. “This is a bad time. How about you come back tomorrow and we take care of the tiresome money then?” He rose to walk me out without waiting for an answer — depriving me of an opening to inquire, coquettishly of course, if he were by any chance hopelessly in love. No great loss. I already suspected what I would hear: “Only with you, darling, only with you.”

The agency was going easy on Andre’s increasingly delinquent payment history. They had just nabbed a big new account which was occupying all their attention: a German beer about to invade the United States and Canada with a huge advertising budget. I wondered why two New Jersey guys named Cohen and Nagel who had been at least in their thirties during the height of the Third Reich and by now were certainly aware of what had gone on there, were so eager to do business with citizens of the German Republic who were once probably Nazi officers. But I knew enough to keep my mouth shut. Providentially, Herb decided he would do all the beer copy himself; he said he wanted to keep me free for “soft” products, of interest to women.

Then the Hungarian bought a house for his family (they had been renting in the Bronx) and moved his practice to an office with a separate entrance at the back of the house. The house and office, he said, were bullet-proof; they had been built by the Mafia. I never did understand his pride in this feature of the purchase, unless it had to do with his early days in Hungary during the war. All the same, I followed him without hesitation to his new fortress in Forest Hills. It meant riding the E or F train there and back, and not getting home again until well after 9 p.m. That was okay with me — it meant less time with Paul, more time to daydream on the long return ride two evenings a week.

It was not okay with Paul. He declared I had had enough therapy and raised a rolled newspaper at me. As if I were a bad dog, I thought. The following week, his frustration with my reluctance to give up the Hungarian took the form of shaking me very hard as I stood with my back to a kitchen wall. A can opener was mounted directly behind my head. He narrowly missed slamming me against it. What would come next? Slaps? Blows? That’s all I needed, I thought. This was real and it was happening to me. Whatever the Hungarian’s views on familial life changes during treatment, if I was ever going to get out and start over, I had better do it while I was still unbattered and had all my teeth.

I confided in Stan, the art director. He called his lawyer. I was soon in possession of the name of another lawyer, who specialized in divorce and was cheap. I.M. Reddy, Esq. Was the odd name of this person an omen? Heart in mouth, I telephoned for a lunch hour appointment. The address turned out to be a questionable-looking office up a tall flight of narrow musty stairs on West 42nd Street.

Attorney Reddy, by contrast, turned out to be astonishingly short. “Call me Irma,” she said reassuringly, extending her hand slightly upward to reach mine as I gasped for breath at her door. Despite her unimpressive appearance, Irma Reddy was masterful. After I had given her a hundred dollar retainer, prudently withdrawn in advance from my secret account, and then explained the facts of my domestic situation, she knew exactly how to proceed.

**************

You want to know what happened next, don’t you? Of course you do. Let me be brief: Seven months later, I was a genuine divorcee, thanks to a decree from Tijuana, Mexico, typed in two languages and embossed with two red wax seals, from which dangled two glossy red ribbons. Irma was subsequently reluctant to let me go; she proposed dinner and who knew what else afterwards, but I demurred, so what could she do?

Paul, my now former husband, borrowed some money from his mother in Rochester, New York, to pay Columbia University for accrediting him as a New York City high school teacher, after which he vanished into gainful employment in the bowels of Queens.

Andre was let go by his silver company before his promised courtship of me came to fruition but somehow talked himself into a much more exciting job for Philip Graham as a Washington Post correspondent covering events in French Indo-China (not yet Vietnam), perhaps because he was bilingual. He came back to New York briefly a year later. He had become deaf in one ear. (From gunfire?) He pronounced me a “pure” woman and proposed marriage in the subjunctive, conditional on my understanding he could never be faithful. This did not seem like a good idea. He agreed it was probably not in my best interests, and thereupon disappeared from my life forever, although he is apparently still alive as I write this, and can be found on Wikipedia, with photograph. He appears to have kept most of his hair but has lost two and a half years since we knew each other. He is now five years younger than I am.

It may come as no surprise that as soon as Frauke found herself a deeper pocket and moved out of Matthew’s apartment, he called me up. I’d like to tell you we had a happy ending together, but there were only about three dates before it went south.

Actually, we were all pretty much nuts, when you think about it. Except maybe the Hungarian. But he took early retirement about fifteen years later and moved to Clearwater Beach, Florida. His widow still lives there.

S. SHARES SOME FAMILY HISTORY

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[A story]

S.’s mother refused to marry his father unless her own mother could live with them. S.’s father must have wanted to marry S.’s mother very much, because he said yes.

S.’s mother was so attached to her own mother because she was all her mother had. When her mother arrived in the United States from Poland, she was already a widow with two very young children. S.’s mother was three. Her baby sister was less than a year old. S.’s mother’s mother, without husband or income, gave the baby up for adoption to a Jewish family from New Brunswick, Canada. After the sisters were grown, S.’s mother tried to get in touch, for her own sake as well as her mother’s. But the younger sister refused to have anything to do with her, and could not forgive their mother for having given her away.

S.’s father was not a religious man. His new mother-in-law was a very religious woman. Although she had lived in the United States since S.’s mother was three, the mother-in-law had never learned English. She communicated with the world, and with her new son-in-law, mainly through her daughter, his new wife. And only in Yiddish. S.’s mother, who S. suspects never cared much for religion herself, kept a kosher home for her mother’s sake. When S. was eight or nine, his father began taking him out to the fights on Friday nights (the holiest night of the week), where they would eat trafe hot dogs (unclean! unclean!) slathered in mustard and relish. “Don’t tell your mother,” his father would say.

S.’s father and S.’s mother’s mother hated each other. When he was really annoyed at her presence under his roof, he called her “KUR-veh.” It meant “whore.”  Nothing could have been farther from the truth, but it must have been the worst word for a woman in his vocabulary. He spoke English perfectly well; he used the Yiddish word so S.’s mother’s mother could understand it. For variety, he sometimes also wished cholera on her, also in Yiddish. Since he was the breadwinner, she had no recourse but to make herself scarce whenever he came home from work. S. cannot remember their having been in the same room together more than once or twice, and then never for long.

The family lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where S.’s father ran an Army-Navy store in a rundown neighborhood. The apartment had two bedrooms. S.’s father and mother took the bigger bedroom, and the mother’s mother the smaller bedroom. When S.’s sister was born, they set up a cot for her in her parents’ room. When S. was born three years later, he slept with his grandmother. In the same big bed. He slept there until he was eleven, when he woke one morning with an erection and refused ever to share a bed with her again. Another arrangement was then made for him: the living room couch.

S.’s grandmother adored him. He was the Boy. He was going to be a rabbi. Like her uncle. At least, those were her plans for him. She had a rabbinical school in Poland all picked out. (Had she succeeded in getting him a place there, he would have arrived in Poland just before Hitler’s armies marched in.)

When S.’s father was out of the house working, she would creep into the kitchen to do her own special cooking. (S.’s mother also worked during the day, helping his father out in the store.) He remembers his grandmother rendering chicken fat, to be used instead of butter for cooking fleisch (meat) meals, and giving him special treats of it, salted and smeared on rye bread. She also gave him the chicken necks rendered of their fat to chew on and then spit out. They were called gribenes. His sister didn’t get these treats. His grandmother said it was their secret together. The only other memorable aspect of her cuisine S. now recalls was the spaghetti — boiled and mixed with a can of Heinz vegetarian baked beans.

S. accepted the fact of his grandmother. But the woman he says he truly loved was his mother. “Tatele mein,” she called him when she got back from work in the evenings. “My little man.” But what did he love? He has few memories of her, other than her veneration for learning, her love of opera on the radio, her ardent support for FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, her rejection of makeup, her unending yearning to be reconciled with her little sister, and her great fondness for the state of Georgia, where she had apparently spent several happy years as a child after her mother found a second husband and lived for a time in Georgia with him.

Matters in the apartment came to a head shortly after S. began sleeping on the living room couch. S.’s father put his foot down; pre-marital promise or no, he wanted his mother-in-law out! By then he was able to pay rent for her on the lower East Side of Manhattan. Except how could she live alone? She couldn’t speak English. She was getting old. The solution S.’s parents devised was to send both of their children to live with her during the week. S.’s sister, by then fourteen, would do the shopping and help with the housework after school.

But why did S. have to go, too? To this day, he’s not sure. At eleven, he could have managed in Bridgeport until his parents came home in the evenings.  Was it so easy for his mother to part with her tatele mein, her little man? He thinks she simply deferred to her mother once again. There were better Hebrew schools on the lower East Side. And in one or two years, yeshiva — the equivalent of high school for the devout. A wonderful preparation for Poland!

From then on, S. and his sister saw their parents only on Sundays. S. did not do particularly well at the yeshiva. At sixteen, he even took a forbidden Saturday job as an usher at the movies, where he luxuriated in sinful appreciation of what was on the screen. But thanks to the hard work of their parents at the Army-Navy store, both he and his sister were able to go away to college, their tuitions and other expenses fully paid for.  (The Polish option was not considered.)

After earning an advanced degree in Spanish literature, his sister subsided into deferential marriage to a tall, well-spoken but extremely religious man who took her away to Canada, where she spent much of her life in motherhood of four children. S. says she was never a happy woman.

S. himself became an M.D. His parents were very proud. Afterwards, however, he married a lapsed Catholic. She was French and charming and had a cute behind. But although she made a nominal conversion to Judaism, when she came to meet the family bearing a dozen roses, S.’s grandmother flung the roses on the floor. S. does not comment further on this incident, or indicate whether his mother apologized for her mother to the bride.

When S. talks about these things, he says his mother, now long dead of Alzheimers, was an angel. But if asked what kind of angel would repeatedly choose her mother over her little son, he squirms. Then he adds that although he can remember very little about his mother as she was when he was growing up, his sister — who shared their parents’ bedroom until she was fourteen — always said she was an angel. Finally he asks, somewhat rhetorically: What choice did his mother have?

A hard question to answer. However, S.’s medical specialty is interesting. Even though he enjoyed radiology best during his medical training, he elected to do psychiatry. Child and adolescent psychiatry. We might also note that although he still understands some Hebrew and Yiddish, his ability to converse in either of these languages has faded. He hasn’t gone to synagogue or temple for years and does not associate with any Yiddish speakers. He calls himself a secular humanist.

One of S.’s sister’s four children was gay. (Her very religious husband never found out.) This son killed himself when he discovered he was sick. Two of her three other children have five children between them. However, her youngest daughter (the one without children) refuses to speak to the other two, and the oldest daughter is not on good terms with her own older daughter.

S. himself is the father of three children, by two wives. His  daughter, now in her forties, has many problems and gives him much heartache. She is unlikely ever to marry or have children of her own. The two sons each have a child apiece, but they are very far away and not particularly communicative, and he has very little opportunity to see them.

Although S. can only surmise the degree of torment his mother and father experienced in their marriage, he points out that from their torment came, after much perseverance and additional torment, seven great-grandchildren (and recently two baby great-great-grandchildren). Thus the generations succeed each other. However, what else we can make of what he has shared with us I cannot really say.

Is the pain and suffering of life tolerable because there are also movies, hot dogs with mustard and relish, gribenes and cute behinds along the way? That is a question each of us must answer for ourselves.

HOW I GOT TO BE BORN IN AMERICA

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[This piece first appeared under another title in the Spring 2010 issue of Persimmontree, an online magazine of the arts by women over sixty.  The editors called it “A Story.”  It is a story, about another story.  But whatever the title, it’s what’s at the end that counts.]

***

I was fifteen when I learned how my parents had managed to get out of Russia. I found out only because Mr. Mirsky had come to dinner. My mother and father did not usually discuss the past. While I was still a little girl, I did sometimes ask my father why he had left, but I never thought to ask how. I was sure that if you were a grownup and decided to go somewhere, there was no problem about it. You just went.

My father always answered that he had left because of Stalin’s mustache. The mustache scratched when Stalin kissed him.

“Why was Stalin kissing you?” I would demand.

“Because he was my uncle.”

“But Daddy, he wasn’t your uncle!”

“Of course he was my uncle,” my father would laugh. “In Russia, he’s everybody’s uncle. That’s why they call him ‘Uncle Joe.’”

Well, even I knew that was nonsense. Stalin never kissed my father.

Then came the war—the Second World War—and the Soviet Union became our ally. It was suddenly okay to have a Russian last name (although people were still always asking you to spell it). I even stopped wishing my parents had named me Joan or Barbara, and focused on getting the teachers at P.S. 99 to pronounce my first name correctly.

My father met Mr. Mirsky at the Marshall Chess Club about a year after the war. There must already have been early rumblings in the papers of the Cold War to come, but it wasn’t called that yet. In any event I didn’t read newspapers much. By then, I had plenty of homework from Hunter High and spent all my leftover time being hopelessly in love with Leonard Bernstein.

Mr. Mirsky had emigrated from Russia earlier than my father and mother, while the Czar was still on the throne and it was easy to leave, but had gone to England, not America. (He had even flown in the Royal Air Force during World War I.) Afterwards he had married a rich Argentinian and now lived with her in Buenos Aires most of the time. He was temporarily in New York, at a small residential hotel (confided my mother), so as to make sure that his daughter, who was at Vassar, met the “right” sort of young man. He was trim, rather good-looking for an older gentleman, and had a charming English accent with a faint underlay of Russian and beautiful manners. He always kissed my mother’s hand when he arrived for one of the occasional Sunday dinners to which my father invited him, and he always brought a fifth of Haig & Haig Pinch, which he emptied mainly by himself during the course of the afternoon, after my father had had his habitual single shot and my mother her habitual single sip.

Although I was several years younger than Mr. Mirsky’s daughter, I was consumed with envy of her. Rich mother, distinguished father, Vassar, and her choice of an appropriate husband delivered on a silver platter! I therefore lingered at the table after these dinners, so as to gather every crumb of information that might fall from Mr. Mirsky’s lips about this fortunate young woman. My father was less interested in Mr. Mirsky’s problems with his daughter’s romantic life. His usual discretion and courtesy dissolved by good food and Scotch, he had a dismaying postprandial tendency to reminisce. Always hoping he would be quick about it so we could get back to Mr. Mirsky’s daughter—who after several of her father’s dinners at our house had somehow managed to become entangled with a Life photographer of whom both her parents disapproved—I would stay fixed in my chair (the alternative being greasy pans in the kitchen sink). And so, on one occasion, I heard the following story:

In 1921 my father was nineteen years old and in the third year of the engineering program at the Institute of Technology in Baku. Baku was then still part of “White” Russia. (Mr. Mirsky confirmed this with a nod.) In many of his classes, there was a slightly older, very serious student with round spectacles who never chatted with anyone and was not part of any social group my father knew of. But because they were enrolled in so many of the same lectures, they began to greet each other when they met in the halls, and once in a while they lent each other their notes when one or the other had to be absent from class. Then the Red Army completed its long southward march from Moscow and reached Baku. The solitary bespectacled student disappeared from school.

One day, two policemen rapped at the door of the apartment where my father’s family lived. He was to come at once to the Central Police Station. What had he done wrong? He told his frightened parents not to expect him back. However, after he was dragged to the station and roughly pushed into an office set off from the main room, who did he see behind the large desk in front of the windows? His missing classmate!

“Have a seat,” said the bespectacled fellow, in a not unpleasant voice. “Would you like a cigarette? A coffee?”

Such courtesy! And what’s more, an apology of sorts: The police should not have manhandled him. They were new recruits. Not yet trained. A weary sigh from Mr. Spectacles. What could he do with such peasants? “Please, have a seat,” he urged again. (My father was still standing.) “It is not, of course, a criminal matter.”

Two small cups of bitter black coffee appeared. Bottoms up together! And with the coffee, a modest confession. All the time the two of them had been attending lectures at the Institute together, Mr. Spectacles had secretly been head of the local Bolshevik party cell. With the arrival of the Red Army, there was no longer need for secrets. As my father could see, he was the new Chief of Police.

(How old could he be, my father wondered. Twenty-two? Twenty-three?)

But then, enough with pleasantries! Time for business. Bringing his empty cup down on the desk with a loud clap, the young Chief of Police briskly explained that he had ordered my father brought to him because he was the only student from the Institute he knew by name. Since he was now very busy with his new responsibilities, he had no more time to go to class and would therefore appreciate it if my father could fill him in on a regular basis with what was going on there so he could sit for the exams at the end of the academic year.

“’Appreciate it!’” said my father to Mr. Mirsky. “As if I had a choice!”

And so for the rest of the academic year, my nineteen-year-old father came daily to the Central Police Station after school, trying not to see what was taking place in the main room as he passed through it. He sat nervously on the extra chair in the inner office, where he read aloud his notes of that day’s lectures while his former classmate nodded thoughtfully behind the big desk and, as my father put it, signed orders for execution by firing squad. The small cup of bitter coffee he was offered each time didn’t help.

After a while, he couldn’t stand it any more. It wasn’t just the mandatory sessions in the police station. Life under this new regime was becoming hopeless. He didn’t want to live in fear that the next time the police rapped on the door it would be a “criminal matter.” He didn’t want his family to have to share their apartment, their kitchen, their bathroom with three other families they didn’t know. He didn’t want meals to consist primarily of sandy bread and moldy potatoes, brought back from the countryside by his two sisters on their bicycles. Once he managed to scrape together enough money to buy his mother a pound of butter on the black market for her birthday. He saw the butter, paid for the butter. But what got wrapped up for him to take home was a pound block of ice that melted on the kitchen table as his mother unwrapped it. He had to leave.

Mr. Mirsky shook his head. “1921? Too late. You needed papers for that. No more getting on the train and taking off for Paris or London.”

“Well,” said my father, “I was young. And I was stifling. There was no harm in trying. But not Europe,” he added. “I was thinking America.”

And should he bring his older brother with him? Then there was my mother, just seventeen, whom he had met a few months before. He asked if she wanted to come to America, too. She had to go ask her mother. “If you can get out, get out!” her mother told her. “There’s nothing for you here now.”

With what must have been considerable courage, my father came with three sets of the necessary papers, filled out except for the all-important signature, to his former fellow student, the new Chief of Police—who by now seemed also to be functioning as the de facto head of the provisional government in Baku—and told a brazen lie.

He, his brother, and his half-sister would all very much like to study in Germany during the next semester, he said. There were some important courses there, not being offered at the Institute or the University in Baku, which they felt were necessary to their education. Would it be possible for their departure to be authorized for this limited purpose?

The Chief of Police peered over his spectacles at my father, then looked away. He did not ask anything about these very important courses, or where they were being offered, or if my father or his brother or his so-called half-sister with the different last name spoke German, or when they all planned to return. Instead, after a moment he picked up his pen and quickly signed all three sets of papers.

“Did he know you were lying and not coming back?” I asked.

“Of course he knew,” said Mr. Mirsky.

“Then why did he do it?”

“One good turn deserves another?” suggested my father. “He later rose very high, you know. Very high.” He looked meaningfully at Mr. Mirsky.

“So?” said Mr. Mirsky, leaning forward. “Who was he?”

“You can’t guess?”

Mr. Mirsky shook his head no.

“Lavrenti Beria,” said my father softly.

Mr. Mirsky examined his glass for some time. “That’s quite a story,” he said, finally.

After he left, my father came to find me in my room. “Don’t tell that story to anyone else,” he said. “I shouldn’t have let you hear it.”

“Why not?” I demanded. “Isn’t it true?”

“Of course it’s true,” said my father. “That’s why you mustn’t spread it around.”

“But it’s such a good story,” I protested. “It could even be in Reader’s Digest.”

My father sighed. “Do you know who Beria is?” he asked.

Did I know? What did he think? That I was stupid? Lavrenti Beria was Stalin’s executioner. Head of NKVD, the Soviet secret police agency that later became the KGB. He was responsible for millions and millions of deaths of innocent people. He was a bad bad man. Just looking at his face in the newsreels, you could tell he was evil. That’s what made it a story, for heaven’s sake.

“You never know what they’ll think,” my father said.

“What who will think? Who is ’they’?” He was so exasperating.  “You’re not in Russia anymore, Daddy. This isn’t the Soviet Union. You’re an American citizen.”

Our voices brought my mother out of the kitchen. I could see her pale, worried face next to his. Two anxious people standing in the doorway of my room who did not want to hear from me about freedom of speech, or this being a free country, or any of the other things I had learned in Civics. Although they had managed to escape from a place where fear had darkened their lives and were now in a nice three-and-a-half room apartment with good light in Queens, they were both forever alert to gossamer threats of danger everywhere.

“Be on the safe side,” said my father. “Don’t tell.”

They were my parents.

I promised not to tell.

The brother who was supposed to come with my father to America decided at the last minute to remain behind. My mother and father never saw their families again. But they eventually moved from New York to Los Angeles, and later to Palm Springs, where they lived long and relatively tranquil lives under the California sun. By contrast, my mother’s brother and my father’s brother and two sisters in Baku all died before them—one banished to Siberia and an unknown fate during the Kirov purges (for which Lavrenti Beria was responsible), the others succumbing to various diseases after shortened lives of constricted deprivation.

I became a lawyer after college, eventually married, and had two sons—each of whom now has a little daughter and son of his own. That makes seven of us, all American born, who could be said to owe our existence to Lavrenti Beria. He doesn’t get full credit, of course. However, one could make an argument that but for him, we would not exist. Which excuses nothing about his life, except that it’s interesting to think about. On the other hand, it’s highly improbable that our seven lives were foreseeable in the Central Police Station of Baku in 1921, when Beria set pen to paper on the basis of my father’s dubious explanation of his need to take leave of the better Soviet world then in birth. So if I put my professional glasses on, proximate cause just doesn’t figure into it and none of us owes Beria a thing.

What happened to Mr. Mirsky? The problem of the Life photographer soon resolved itself without his intercession; the young man was sent overseas to cover some unsavory part of the world where trouble was brewing. Several years later, when I myself was in college (although not Vassar), I learned from my mother that the daughter eventually met the scion of a publishing company (a choice apparently “right” enough for her parents) and had a very grand wedding. Her father then returned to Argentina and the rich wife and was never heard from again.

Stalin died early in 1953. Lavrenti Beria was soon afterwards either shot in his own house in June 1953 (according to his son) or executed by firing squad in December 1953 after a trial without defense counsel (according to official accounts), whereupon he began gradually to fade from popular memory. That would seem to release me now, finally and definitively, from the promise I reluctantly made my father not to tell the story I had just heard him tell Mr. Mirsky.

But after all these years it’s not, as Mr. Mirsky observed, “quite a story” any more. Not when the name in the punchline no longer inspires fear and trembling in anyone. In fact, it seems to have become quite another story—about a time when I was young and my father was alive, sitting at the dining room table, his eyes shining with pleasure as he told us what had happened when he was young, and life exciting, and the unknown future still ahead.

EIGHT TALES FROM A GIRLHOOD LONG AGO: #7

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Danilov’s Advice, 1945

Her mother’s despondency didn’t lift. Anna dealt with it by spending as little time with her as possible. Every school night she worked in her room for three or four hours on her Latin, English, Algebra and Biology assignments, including the ones for extra credit. On Saturdays she always tried to arrange a visit to one of her new high-school friends from another borough. On Sundays she took long walks all around Kew Gardens and Forest Hills no matter the weather, peering into the windows of other people’s houses and daydreaming of life in another family. Behind the closed door of her room she also made frequent and lengthy entries in her diary, including every detail of her mother’s complaints about her, so there should be some record of them.

Since this will not be read by anyone till I am gone, I can confide from the inner recesses of my soul and hold back nothing. Someday I will be famous, and after I am dead people will want to know all about me. That is my motive for writing in this secret book. It is an account for posterity of what is going on in my life, so that future generations will not have to speculate about missing facts.

It did occur to Anna that those future generations might think her conceited for being so sure they would be interested in her, but she was certain that someone out there in the centuries to come would want to know what she had really been like, and then admire her fortitude and other good qualities. Besides, it made her feel much better when she unburdened herself in pen and ink, and right now that was the most important thing.

One November weekend when her father was home she went with him to buy the Sunday paper. Being unable to keep up with him when she was little, and even the business later with the belt, seemed so long ago and insignificant compared to her present circumstances. Besides, it was no problem at all to keep up with him without getting out of breath now she was fourteen; they could even have a conversation while they were walking. She told him she was having a lot of trouble with her mother. Nothing she did was ever right. She didn’t know any more what would please her.

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wished them back again. Suppose her father didn’t believe her? After all, her mother always cheered up when he was there. Surprisingly, he nodded thoughtfully.

“Did you ever hear of the Danilovs?” he asked.

“Only the name,” said Anna. “Mother used to mention the wife sometimes. Wasn’t she a famous opera singer in Russia?”

“Yes, she was. And he was a famous orchestra conductor. They were here in New York for a series of concerts in 1914 when war broke out so they couldn’t get home again. And after the revolution, naturally they didn’t want to.   He — Danilov — was about my father’s age. A fine musician and a real man of the world. Very helpful to me when I was young and just off the boat.”

“I never met them,” said Anna, wondering what these Danilovs had to do with her mother troubles.

“Of course not,” said her father. “They moved to L.A. just after you were born. But before that, I always felt I could go to him when I needed advice.”

“And?”

“And,” said Anna’s father, “after I had been married to your mother for about six months, I realized I was tired of her. I was only twenty-four and she was already very boring. I wanted a divorce. So I went to Danilov to ask what to do. You know what he said?”

Anna shook her head, even though she had already learned in English class that the type of question her father had just asked was rhetorical and therefore required no answer.

“He said, ‘So what if you’re bored? You get divorced, you’ll find another woman, and in six months you’ll be bored with that one too. This one is young and pretty. Why go through the trouble to change? They’re all the same. Manage with what you’ve got.'”

They had reached the front door of their apartment house. For a moment Anna was flooded with pleasure to learn that her father found her mother boring. Then she wondered what lesson she was supposed to draw from this confidence. Manage with the mother she had? That’s what she was already doing!

“Don’t tell your mother,” said her father as he felt for the keys in his coat pocket. “It’ll be our secret.”

It wasn’t until years later, when she was seeing her first shrink, that Anna began to wonder why her father had been so ready to share advice from a so-called man of the world with his fourteen-year old daughter about wanting to leave her mother. Did he think he was comforting her? He had even seemed in a particularly good mood for the rest of that day.

Then, having leveled the playing field as best he could, he went back to Philadelphia and Anna went back to managing.