Sidney sat down on one of the chaise lounges around the public swimming pool. He carefully chose his seat to leave an empty chair between himself and a woman dressed in an old fashioned summer dress of a kind rarely seen anymore, except on the very old, and a light sweater that he would have said was completely unnecessary, as it was a very warm day and she was sitting fully in the sun. Lemi heaved his yellow bulk onto the end of the chair and laid his head on Sidney’s lap, sighing as Sidney began to scratch his head. The woman was crocheting very rapidly with a tiny needle and cotton thread in a shade of pale pink that Sidney associated with Easter. On her other side, several of the chaises were occupied by a group of women, who were somewhat younger, and chattered loudly in a mixture of English, Yiddish and German. The crocheting woman rarely looked up from her work, although Sidney saw her smile blankly when the group next to her laughed particularly loud. Every so often, the one nearest to her would turn and offer her a hard candy or a handful of grapes, but each time, the older woman shook her head silently and held up her work as an indication that she could not risk handling anything that might stain the delicate thread.
Sidney watched for several minutes, turning back and forth to keep an eye on Rebecca who was swimming in the pool with some other children. He felt confident that she was safe. The child swam like the proverbial fish and had no fear of water. He felt this was his doing because, when she was younger and they still lived in Manhattan, he would take her to the public pool near their apartment building to escape the oppressive summer heat. The pool was always crowded with noisy, aggressive teenagers who made serious swimming impossible, so he would stand in chest deep water facing the side and hold the child, who was barely more than an infant at the time, so she could splash in the water protected from the boisterous youths playing Marco Polo. He had been hesitant when Frieda, the child’s mother, insisted they should move to the suburbs but he had to admit it was better for the child, and this was a much nicer place for her to swim. Most of the children at the pool were around the same age, and it was all safe and clean.
Sidney turned back to study the women busy with her work. Her fingers moved very quickly and he could see she was making a fancy, openwork glove. The perfect lacey stiches seemed to form by themselves, an impression that could only be conveyed by those who were truly skilled and who had years of practice. He realized the woman had caught his eye because there was something in her manner that reminded him of his own mother. She was old enough to have perhaps been his mother’s younger sister and, while they were not physically similar, there was something about her movements, the way she held her head, that was familiar to him but that was different from the other women sitting nearby who were more similar in demeanor to his own wife. After a moment, he realized that the crocheting woman could not follow the conversation going on around her. The other women’s efforts to include her seemed to make her uncomfortable, even as she longed to be a part of the group. She was clearly older than them, which no doubt contributed to her awkwardness, and also seemed less sophisticated.
He decided to take a chance.
“It’s a lovely day,” he said, in the deeply Slavic dialect of Yiddish his mother used. The words seemed awkward to him. It had been many years since he had spoken in this way. Janie, his mother-in-law Rebecca, and her many relatives spoke a dialect that was closer to German and laughed at his southern pronunciations. In fact, he hated their elitism, born of the fact that they came from a town near Warsaw, and he came from the so-called Little Poland. It was the main reason, Janie’s parents opposed their marriage, although their disapproval vanished quickly enough when he began to make some money.
The woman was deep in her work and seemingly oblivious to what was going on around her. When he spoken, she whipped around to look at him, her eyes wide with joy and recognition.
“Are you . . . a Galitizianer?” she asked.
“Yes,” Sidney replied, the words coming more easily now. “Are you from Tarnopol?” he guessed.
“My late husband,” she said, putting down her crocheting. “I was born in Bukovina.”
Sidney tried to compose a mental picture of the border region of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. The maps had changed so many times in his lifetime and, although he had taught this material many times to his students in world history, he had trouble imagining the current situation.
“Romania?” His own birthplace was now in the Ukraine. He sometimes wondered whether this made any difference at all to the people who might still be there who could have had some connection to him and even to his little granddaughter, playing carefree in the bright blue swimming pool.
The woman shrugged and smiled.
“Time passes us by,” she said sadly. “Only death stops.”
This had the feel of a proverb he thought he had heard before, perhaps in a dream populated by all the people he had once known who were like this woman.
“I’m Enya Bronshteyn,” she added, speaking more conversationally now.
“Zidney Vajntrub,” he said, giving his own name the Galician pronunciation. Sidney was, of course, an American addition, but no one even remembered anymore that his real name was Zachariah.
“And this fellow?” she asked, indicated the large yellow dog who was now dozing in the sun, his head still in Sidney’s lap. Sidney smiled, recognizing the caution of a rural person and the ancient superstitions of a lost world. “He’s not a Ruggenvulf, is he?”
It took Sidney a moment to recall what this term meant and a further moment to determine an appropriately reassuring answer. The woman feared Lemi, with his curious fur and the pale eyes of a wolf, might be some sort of supernatural creature, a werewolf perhaps.
“Lemi? No, he is a real dog. I saw his mother and father.”
“A loyal companion then.” She smiled shyly now, ashamed of her fear. Her movements made Sidney think of a young girl, not this elderly woman who was so out of place with her handwork and old fashioned clothing. People do not lose their essential self, he thought, and the old really do die young.
“Is that your grandson?” he asked, indicating a boy a little older than his granddaughter wearing green swimming trunks.
“My great grandson. His name is Theodore.”
“A fine boy. His parents . . .?”
“His mother is my granddaughter, Nina. The father, he’s a professional man, an accountant.”
“That’s my granddaughter, Rebecca,” Sidney told her, pointing to the little girl who was now sitting on the edge of the pool talking intently to Theodore who was in the water.
“What about your own children.”
“My daughter, her husband, they’re both gone now. So it’s just us now, me, Nina and her husband, the boy.”
Sidney nodded. It was a sad story, but many of the old people he knew were lost in time and space, displaced, like Enya Bronshteyn, figures from a place that no longer existed. He felt that she must have been among the small number of old people who rode out the war, the turmoil, and reorganization and were finally located by anxious relatives to be reunited in American suburbs with descendants like little Theodore who were strangers to them. He was surprised to find that this was not the case.
“How long have you been here?” Sidney asked.
“Decades. I don’t remember exactly. Since before the war. We were living in Zalishchyky, and one day my daughter and her husband said, we should go to America. I said, what for? But they insisted it was the right thing to do. My husband was already dead by then, so what could I do. I only had the one daughter.”
Sidney nodded in agreement. He also had only the one daughter, Frieda. It was only natural for the balance of nature to turn one day and the parents to follow the child’s lead.
“We lived in Queens for years,” she went on. “After my daughter died, I was alone in the apartment. Nina insisted I come to them.”
“But surely it’s better to be with your granddaughter, with Theodore.”
She shrugged again, this time in resignation.
“You’re a young man. Me, I’ve lived too long.” Sidney almost laughed. The young view all old people the same. In reality, the difference twenty years makes at 20 or 30 is the same at 60 or 70.
“But aren’t they kind to you?”
“Too kind. Every morning, before she goes to work, Nina says, ‘I’m sorry, Grandma, I have to go.’ I’m her Bubbe, but she calls me ‘Grandma.’” Enya looked at Sidney, seeking confirmation that he understood. “They don’t let me do a thing,” she went on. “I try to dust, do some housework, they take the rag out of my hand. They have a girl who comes in to do that. I try to cook, but they don’t want to eat that kind of food. Nina, the husband, the boy, they’re all American. Theodore eats noodles with tomato sauce out of a can and fish sticks!” She spoke the final words in heavily accented English as if it were a curse.
“So what do you do, to fill the day?”
“I crochet. I make gloves. The Catholic ladies, they wear them to church. The Greek Catholics, too.”
Sidney had not heard that term for many years. The new was not always comparable to the old, and change frequently did not satisfy the way what was customary did. He had rarely thought about such things over the years, but, since he had retired, the past seemed more immediate and Die Pintele Yid, the Little Jew inside, spoke to him more often.
“Nina takes the orders for me, on the telephone,” Enya was saying. “I make what they want, and Nina calls them to tell them. She deals with the money for me. I have a bank account,” she added, the way Sidney might have said he had a space ship.
“Do you spend a lot of time with Theodore?” he asked.
“Not so much. He’s in school. When he’s home, I do what his mother says.” She switched to English. “He vant zanvich, I make. He vant glas milch. Ve go to park, to pool.” She changed to Yiddish again. “He’s a good boy.”
Sidney thought about all this and considered that the ability to change yourself was a blessing. He, Janie, her parents, even his own parents who had been very much like Enya Bronshteyn, had recreated themselves in the image of the Americans around them. He stroked Lemi’s head. The dog was now fully asleep and didn’t stir at his touch. Perhaps it didn’t matter, and it was better to let your former self go.
At that moment, Theodore ran up to Sidney and Enya, spraying her chair and workbag with pool water. Rebecca followed and stood dripping at the foot of Sidney’s chaise.
“Can we get ice cream?” the boy asked hopefully.
“Alvays die ice crim,” Enya said laughing. She began to feel in the bottom of her bag and finally pulled out an extremely ancient change purse.
“Aren’t you two cold?” Sidney asked, directing the question to Rebecca.
“We’re hot!” she said defiantly.
Sidney laughed as well and made a show of reaching into his pockets. He carefully took out his pipe, his glasses which he always carried in case he wanted to read something, and finally two quarters. Before Enya could find some coins, he handed one to each child.
“That’s a lot of money,” she said to him in Yiddish so the children would not understand.
“They’ll only be young once,” he told her. “Can you go to the snack bar yourselves?” he asked, looking at Theodore who was the older of the two.
“Yes. We’ll be careful,” the boy told him, anticipating what he knew the next question would be.
“OK then. Go together.”
Sidney watched them go. They ran, the usual form of movement for the young, but carefully avoided the edge of the pool and the belongings of the other old people watching their grandchildren in the pool. Enya had returned to her work and was crocheting at a rapid pace.
“It really is a lovely day,” she said with the embarrassment that comes from having talked for too long and said too much. “Perhaps next time you’ll introduce me to your wife.”
“Of course,” said Sidney. “She’ll like that,” he went on, knowing that Janie would not like it at all. “She will probably order some gloves.” That much was true.
“Of course,” Enya said. “Any color she likes.”
When the children returned, both old people stood to leave.
“Come, Theodore. Mama vill be vorry.” Enya held out her hand to the little boy.
“Mom, knows where we are, Grandma,” he said, taking her hand as if he alone were responsible for the old woman.
“Can I hold Lemi’s leash, Poppy?” Rebecca asked.
“Yes, but hold him tight. You know the little children are afraid of him.”
“Bye, Becky,” Theodore called over his shoulder.
“Bye, Teddy. See you!”
As they walked slowly home, the child’s eyes alert for any misbehavior on the part of the dog, Sidney wondered if Rebecca and Theodore might meet one day 60 years from now, when the world had changed again, and feel the loss he and Enya did today. He hoped the ease and confidence and certainty they had today would last their life time, even if they hadn’t for him.
Speak of the Devil
“Hello?” Onyx City answered the ringing phone reluctantly. She had been playing her violin and laid the instrument down carefully on the seat of a chair.
“Ye-es. Who is this?
“It’s B. Meigest, of course. Are you busy?”
“Well, actually . . .Wait a minute! How did you get my number?”
“You’re in the phonebook.”
“Oh, right.” Onyx City made a mental note to get her phone number removed from the phonebook as soon as possible. “What can I do for you, B.?”
“I didn’t know who else to call. The Devil is following me around.”
“I am sure the Devil is not following you around. The Devil doesn’t do things like that!”
“He is. First, he came to my office. I ran into him in the hallway. I was thinking about all the things I could do if I didn’t have to work, and suddenly he was there. He said he wanted to talk to me about a grade.”
“Are you saying the Devil is a student in your class?” That doesn’t sound right.”
“Of course I’m not. I mean he was disguised as someone who might be a student.”
“So, how did you know it was the Devil?
“I saw it in his eyes, and he was wearing a T-shirt with the Ace of Spades on it.”
“OK. What happened?”
“He said he wanted to talk to me in my office about his grade, but I said I had to get to a meeting and he would have to come back some other time.”
“He walked past me, and when I looked back, he was gone. He disappeared! And I thought I smelled something burning.”
“Fire and brimstone?”
“Maybe. Then I saw him again!”
“Did he come to class?
“Of course not. He came to my house. This time he was handing out flyers for a dance school.”
“A dance school? That seems unusual. How did you know it was Devil? Was it the same man?”
“No, this time it was a girl. She had the same eyes though and the strange thing was, she wanted to talk to me about a barn dance they were having for Halloween! And you know, no one ever has barn dances anymore.”
"What did you do?"
"I slammed the door of course!"
Onyx City considered this for a moment. She looked longingly at the violin waiting patiently for her to pick it back up and continue playing. She couldn’t believe she had listened to all this and tried to calculate how minutes the conversation had taken.
“Are you still there?” B. Meigest demanded.
“Uh-huh. I was thinking about all this. You know, this does sound kind of serious.”
“I told you it was!”
“Look, why don’t you invite me over and we can agree about what to do.”
“You want to come over here?” B. Meigest asked confused.
“Yes, I think that would be best. You invite me over and we’ll make a plan we agree on.”
“Why can’t you tell me what to do on the phone? You don’t even know where I live.”
“It’s probably going to be complicated. Just invite me over, and I’m sure we can reach an agreement.”
“You know what, never mind!” B. Meigest hung up the phone a little too abruptly.
Onyx City smiled to herself. She bent down to rummage through the pile of sheet music at her feet. Finding Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata, one of her favorite pieces, she picked up her violin and began to play.
Friday the 13th
Bob jerked awake but restrained his desire to leap out of bed on this very dangerous day. It was Friday the 13th so he carefully placed his right foot on the floor, waited a moment, and then deliberately set the left one down. There was no possibility of starting out on the wrong foot today. He got dressed with unusual care, checking to see that nothing was on inside out or backwards and that he had no loose buttons that might suddenly separate themselves from the garment to which they had been attached. He would have liked to stay home all day but he had an important physics test that he couldn’t miss. Finally, he put on his lucky socks, which were argyle, and his good sneakers after checking to make sure he had a penny in the right one.
In the kitchen, his sister, Karen, was eating breakfast, which consisted mostly of jam and a small amount of toast to hold it up.
“Hi,” Bob said. “You want some bread with that jelly?”
“Hi,” Karen replied, ignoring Bob’s comment. She looked up.
“It’s Friday the 13th!” they cried at the same time.
“Jinx!” Another simultaneous exclamation.
Bob stuck out his pinky to meet Karen’s. They linked fingers and then pulled them apart to vanquish the bad luck that could so easily follow.
“You want some breakfast?” Karen crammed half a slice of bread into her mouth and began to clean up.
“I’ll get something on the way to class,” Bob replied.
“Mom said be careful,” Karen called as her brother walked out the door.
“I always am,” Bob called back.
The university was located at the top of a huge hill where it could look down over the town and bathe the inhabitants in its glorious light of wisdom and learning. At least, that was what Bob had been told since he was in elementary school. For this reason, he had been happy and excited when he was accepted to enter those hallowed halls of learning, but now he thought mostly about the long trudge uphill, carrying books and a laptop, and the steep skid back down at the end of the day. The ancient and very beautiful trees that lined the streets had long ago lifted the concrete sidewalks, adding a pattern of cracks to the inevitable lines between sections. This created a special problem for Bob as he tiptoed and hopped over the worst parts. He was not about to accidentally step on either a line or crack, even if it wouldn’t literally break his mother’s back or his father’s spine. He certainly couldn’t risk it today of all days.
Bob’s knees were aching from the long climb. Upon reflection, he realized that he probably should have eaten at home, so he turned at the first cross street that would lead to the campus and where there were some stores and restaurants. Very close to the corner, Bob saw a new place that he had never noticed before or that, in fact, had not been there in the past. Even if he had not been starving by this time, the large coffee shop called The Four Leaf Clover would have attracted him. Today it was inevitable that he would stop there. It looked like the kind of place where you could get a doughnut or a piece of cake, despite the somewhat affected proclamation under the name that said the place was a ‘Tea Shoppe.’
Opening the door and stepping inside, Bob saw that the restaurant was large and bright. A number of people were eating, and things were busy. Bob also realized it was one of those feline cafes where patrons could sit and commune with a variety of cats while eating. He stood rooted to the ground in horror as a large, black specimen walked toward him on an intersecting path. The cat regarded him impassively with round yellow eyes.
Without thinking, Bob leapt back and to the side so that he and the cat would not cross paths. This propelled him into a waitress carrying a tray of salt and pepper shakers. She saw Bob and lurched out of his way, dropping her tray and watching helplessly as the contents rolled onto the floor creating a mess of enormous proportions. Several diners leapt up to try to help or get out of the way. The cats scattered to the farthest corners of the room. Bob was overcome by embarrassment and ran out of the restaurant as fast as he could, stopping just long enough to grab a pinch of spilled salt which he quickly threw over his left shoulder.
The rest of the walk to the Physics Building was harrowing. It had begun to rain slightly. A man in the foyer of a dentist’s office open his umbrella inside the doorway before stepping out onto the street just as Bob walked by. Without conscious awareness of what he was doing, Bob broke into a run to distance himself from this blatant disregard for luck. The need to avoid cracks in the sidewalk while doing so exhausted him, and he was breathless and panting when he arrived at his destination.
Bob was always cautious so he looked up at the building before joining the stream of students moving slowly through the main doors. They were doing some kind of renovation work, and the front of the building was obscured by a network of scaffolds and platforms. A particularly long ladder leaned against the building at a precarious angle that meant the shortest way in required that a person walk under it. Bob was certainly not going to risk that and jogged around to the back of the building where there was another door and no construction going on.
It was an old university, and the Physics Building was one of the oldest on campus. As he toiled up the four flights of stairs to his class along with dozens of other students, it occurred to Bob that this was just the sort of place where Isaac Newton could have dropped apples over the bannister to see how high they bounced. Bob’s command of physics was tenuous; he was only taking the class to fulfil a distribution requirement, which was why he was unusually worried about today’s test. He was hoping to major in psychology which did interest him, especially the uncertainty hypothesis they had been discussing in a recent class that suggested to him it was possible to maintain a balance of the controllable and uncontrollable forces that shaped reality.
Bob finally reached the fourth floor and stopped to rest for a moment at the top of the stairs. The building was furnished much like an old fashioned hotel. The rows of desks in the classrooms were ancient and heavily inscribed with formulas and graffiti left there by past generations of students, contrasting with the supermodern computer and projection equipment that had been installed in every room. Bob took a step towards his class, which was at the end of the hall and, looking down, saw a safety pin lying on the floor. See a pin, pick it up, and all the day you’ll have good luck, he recited to himself stooping to reach this prize and put it in his pocket. The unexpected movement startled two girls who had been walking close behind him. They stopped short, which started a chain reaction of stumbling accompanied by a series of thuds as students here and there dropped books and backpacks.
From the far end of the hall near the stairs, Bob heard a sickening crash that he knew must have been the large mirror hanging on the landing falling to the floor. Someone must have bumped into it, knocking it from the wall. At that moment, the crush of students propelled Bob up to the door of his classroom where he just had time to read a notice that had been stuck there with tape. It said: ‘Friday, April 13, test postponed due to unforeseen circumstances.’ What other kind were there? Bob wondered as he abruptly turned and joined the column of students moving towards the stairs.
Avoiding the broken glass on the stairs and the throng of confused students wondering what to do and who would clean up the mess, Bob made his way to the ground floor and headed toward the back door by which he had entered the building. Retracing his steps, he found himself on the street. It was raining harder now, and a large clap of thunder right overhead startled him. For once, Bob was glad he had left his Walkman at home that morning. He also recalled that thunder on Friday means a storm by Monday, so he hurried home, carefully navigating the lines and cracks and taking care not to pass the unfortunate Four Leaf Clover or the nearby dentist’s office on the way.
Not far from his house, a billboard with white lettering on a black background caught Bob’s eye. ‘What do you believe?’ it asked rhetorically. Bob already knew that and practically skipped the rest of the way home.
The Night Shift
“I think you’re just being ridiculous,” said Mrs. Jones, shifting uncomfortably in her hospital nightgown and turning slightly to look directly at her neighbor in the next bed. “If that sweet Nurse Angela is going to give me drugs to help me sleep, I am certainly going to take them. The doctor says it’s important to get enough rest, and my hip aches all night.”
Miss Henry shook her expensively styled blond hair and looked disparagingly at Mrs. Jones. It was an insult to have to be in the orthopedic ward recovering from knee surgery, and she was still angry at the temerity of the surgeon who blamed her exercise routine for the injury he had just repaired.
“I, for one, am going to protect my body,” she huffed. “I am not going to pollute it with unnecessary drugs. That’s why I eat only organic food and take all these.” She gestured at the row of antioxidants and probiotics on the bedside table.
At that moment, Nurse Angela came into the room with the women’s medication. Preempting anything the nurse might have had to say, Miss Henry announced:
“I have decided I won’t be taking any more of your drugs.”
“You know it is important to get a good night’s rest. It will take you a lot longer to get better if you don’t rest,” said the nurse, picking up Miss Henry’s chart.
“It’s my decision,” Miss Henry said belligerently. “You can’t make me!”
“No one is going to make you. It’s only a suggestion.” Nurse Angela inconspicuously checked the box marked ‘noncompliant’ on Miss Henry’s chart and turned to speak to Mrs. Jones who was unusually cheerful despite the hip replacement she had had the day before.
“I take care of my body,” Miss Henry cried, insisting that the nurse recognize this. “I don’t eat anything that isn’t healthy. I only drink alkaline water and cold pressed juice!”
“And I am sure you are delicious for it, Dear,” said Nurse Angela vaguely, making another notation on the chart.
Several hours later, Miss Henry lay awake in the half dark room. Her knee ached and was beginning to throb, but she was unable to move much due to her bandages and splint. In the next bed, Mrs. Jones was fast asleep, having taken her medication when she was supposed to.
Miss Henry heard a faint rustling. Nurse Angela must have returned to check on them. She opened her eyes, ready to complain, but it was not the nurse she saw. What seemed to be a strange greyish mass had slipped out from under Mrs. Jones’ bed and now slid up onto the blanket in defiance of gravity and belying its lack of limbs or appendages. She watched in growing horror as the monster thrust its terrifying countenance into the sleeping face of Mrs. Jones and smiled. The maneuver required it to open a surprisingly large and slug-like mouth to show row upon row of sharp, black teeth. Satisfied that Mrs. Jones was unconscious, the monster receded, gently smoothing the covers with its body before sliding back down to the floor.
Miss Henry knew it was only a matter of moments before the creature would be upon her and she was correct. She felt the monster’s soft bulk conform to the contours of her body as it made its way toward her head. When it looked into her eyes, which she now had no power to close or turn away, Miss Henry saw her own expression of terror and disgust reflected in the creature’s multifaceted insect-like orbs. Its breath was warm and smelled like human blood when it hissed at her in a strangely comprehensibly manner, “You should be asleep.”
In the morning, Mrs. Jones woke up to sunshine coming in through the window of the hospital room. A nice young orderly was mopping the floor between her bed and the bed where Miss Henry had been when she fell asleep the night before. He quickly bent down and wiped a spot in front of the bedside table with a rag when he realized Mrs. Jones was awake. Nurse Angela was just tucking in the sheets on the freshly made bed.
“Where is Miss Henry?” Mrs. Jones asked in confusion. “I hope she’s all right.”
“Don’t worry, Dear,” Nurse Angela told her brightly. “She just took a little turn for the worse.”
Death Follows All
Steve ’s footsteps crunched as his boots broke through the frozen crust of snow that covered the ground. It was only 5:00 but it was already quite dark, and the lights of the houses that backed on the park glowed golden and inviting that winter evening. The view from the path along the skating pond looked like a Christmas card; all that was missing was a light snow to complete the scene.
“Steve?!” The call was soft but the voice seemed familiar. Steve stopped walking but did not turn.
“Steve?!” It was slightly louder this time and closer. “STE-VEN!”
Slightly annoyed, Steve looked from left to right and as far over his shoulder as far as he could see. No one was visible. As he did so, a conversation he had had with his grandfather some time before suddenly came into his mind. They had been sitting in the living room watching an old episode of The Munsters when something in the show that Steve could not longer recall triggered one of his grandfather’s old country warnings.
“You must never answer if you hear someone call your name but you can’t see them,” his grandfather had said.
“Come on, Grandpa. This isn’t Transylvania, or wherever you come from, in the 1800s,” Steve had joked. His grandfather did not come from Transylvania (although the Munsters did), but to Steve, a village near the Black Sea was the same thing.
“Don’t mock me, Young Man,” said his grandfather sternly. “You just remember what I told you.”
“All that stuff is just made up to scare people,” Steve protested.
“The world is very strange, Steve,” his grandfather told him seriously. “There are plenty of things we can’t see or even feel, but they’re there just the same.”
“Your Grandpa is in good company,” Steve’s father put in. He was marking student essays. “Shakespeare said ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’”
His grandfather was always telling him things like this, so Steve put the warning out of his mind and turned back to the show. It occurred to him that his grandfather was a lot like Al Lewis on the old TV program, except he didn’t have a mad scientist’s lab in the basement.
“STEVEN!” The voice was insistent.
Steve could not see anyone around, but the sky was overcast, and the lights on the streets were too far away to provide much illumination.
“What?” Steve yelled in annoyance. “Where the Hell are you?”
He turned fully around and, for the first time, saw what appeared to be an old man approaching him. He immediately regretted having said ‘Hell.’ It was clearly one of his grandfather’s friends out walking his dog. All the old men his grandfather knew had dogs they walked in the park.
The figure dressed in a dark overcoat came slowly toward him. After a moment, Steve saw the man was younger than he first thought. Perhaps it was one of his friends’ fathers or even someone’s older brother. The figure walked up to him, and Steve realized it was another teenager, one who was wearing the same winter jacket as he was. Looking closer, Steve saw the stranger had the same wool hat he did and a striped scarf just like the one his grandmother had knit for him in the colors of his high school team. His stomach lurched horribly in a combination of terror and shock. The smiling face of the stranger was his own.
An article in the newspaper two days later described how a local boy had tragically drowned in the skating pond just after dark. He had been walking home through the park and, because of the snow, didn’t realize he had strayed from the path. Only Steve’s grandfather, in sorrow and confusion, realized that Steve had literally met his Death when the ice broke.
In my many years as a university professor, I have worked with generation after generation of students who are at the very beginning of their adult life. Some of these students have even followed me into a life in academia where one’s career depends on the ability to write well, and a person is often judged by his or her ability to produce a vast ocean of text which is subsequently published. However, as I have grown older over the years, my students have remained a consistent 18 to 22 years old and hence provide a snapshot of the college aged at any given time. What these snapshots show is an incredible change in the linguistic perceptions of young people and their resulting capability in writing the language.
I am not claiming to know anything about what schools teach nowadays nor I am interested in the kind of alarmist discussion that appears periodically in the mass media to warn of the dire consequences attendant on decreasing standards and increasing lack of quality in teaching. Instead, as a writer, I simply reflect on what I have observed among my students and what they seem to understand about the craft of using language that they claim to wish to learn.
I went to school a long time ago, and the kinds of things we were expected to understand and master were undoubtedly different from what they do today. In the area of literature, for example, it was necessary to know what exactly literary forms like a sonnet, a limerick, or a rhymed couplet were and how to recognize them; to be able to tell the difference between free verse and blank verse and understand their usage; to recognize and scan poetic rhythm and meter and name the patterns; to understand the difference between prose and poetry; and use a whole range of literary terms that often seemed very remote from or daily experience. The application of standard spelling, standard grammar, and correct meaning of words was assumed, and variation in these elements was taken badly indeed by those in charge. The aim of this was to ensure that all the students, most of whom would not proceed much beyond the 10th grade, were capable of reading and appreciating the enormous body of English literature and would use this ability to educate themselves throughout life by reading for enjoyment. Whether they did or not, I do not know, but I do know that even the least promising of us could construct a complete sentence and was capable of transcribing grammatically and with correct spelling any idea he or she needed to convey. It was not that we were any smarter on average than school students today, but we were required to have a high level of linguistic awareness and working knowledge of a certain body of information. If we did not, we failed.
This information was specific. English has a very long history, much of which is recorded in writing. As a result, we know, rather than hypothesize, what our language was like hundreds of years ago and how it has changed. We also have a very long history of standardization. With some 60,000 words, none of us can know all of the vocabulary English has to offer; these words are varied in origin and highly specific in meaning and usage. This is why we, as English speakers, are prone to confusion and also why we have to practice spelling. The speakers of many other languages do not have to worry about such things; their system is regular and they can learn it once and be done. We have a vast body of literature that encompasses numerous forms, each with its own rules, and we have a highly developed terminology and practice for the analysis of that literature. In short, we have more to read and more to learn than other people, but this is what has made English the language the world wants to speak. As students those many years ago, we were expected to know our own linguistic heritage, even if that heritage was adopted, as it was for many of us, and own families had only recently become English speakers.
My students today, however, have almost no linguistic awareness and very little understanding of how their language works nor of the vast literature it has to offer. This is a very serious problem; it impedes their study of foreign languages, prevents them from writing well, and, most important, makes it impossible for them to truly grasp what they do manage to read because they miss so many nuances and connotations that are implicit in word choice, sentence structure, and use of idiom. Perhaps like some of you, Dear Readers, they are bored by rules and history and feel their time is too precious to be spent learning things they believe can be looked up. They never do look anything up, however, and yet long to break with the tradition they refuse to study.
Almost every day, one of these young people asks me why I insist that they write in complete sentences with punctuation, with the words spelled correctly and in meanings that can be found in the dictionary, or why they are not free in my class to reject the conventions of writing that have served numerous past authors so ably. I tell them the reason is so that readers will understand what they are trying to say and react accordingly. When, they cry, will they be allowed to break free from convention and do what they want? They are apparently boiling over with creativity and want to make their mark on the language without doing the work of learning it first. The answer to this is the same reason George and Ira Gershwin were able to create a hit song famous for incorrect grammar. Once you understand the rules you wish to break and have shown that you are conversant with the great bulk of English literature, then you may do as you like. In other words, while “It Ain’t Necessarily So” applied to the Gershwins, it is so for you and me, at least until we can show we have the knowledge to do otherwise.
Hell is a Woolworth’s Counter
We all know you can make a deal with the Devil; people have been talking about this since time began. Maybe in the beginning, they wanted a bigger stone to use against their enemies. Now, people want wealth, fame, good looks, or just fun. I wanted all of these and knew I would not be able to have them, not without help anyway. I never met the Devil, though. I did try to run into him in the kinds of places people said he be found. I tried cross roads, cemeteries at midnight, barn dances, the docks, the places frequented by the homeless, but all I saw was what I thought must be proof of his work, in the form of misery, despair, crime, and violence. The Devil wasn’t there, and eventually I gave up.
One day not long after, I was sitting on one of those chaise lounges they have around swimming pools at one of those old fashioned, white hotels in Miami Beach. No one paid any attention to me, so I passed the time watching the other vacationers. A few of them were the kind of stunning specimens you see in magazine ads, the people clothes are made for and whose lives are full of the unending excitement we all crave. They don’t worry, not about money, what they eat, getting cancer, paying their income taxes, or getting along with the boss. They are the bosses and let others worry for them. Even the ones who were not stunning and were physically not very different from me were all having a much better time than I was. I could see that they were free of cares and happy in each other’s company. I was miserable and had a can of Coke as a companion.
“If I could only be like them,” I said to myself. “Even just a few years would be enough to know what it’s like to have a life like that.”
This is what I would have asked the Devil for if I had ever managed to meet him. A life of fun and excitement like what the TV ads promise us.
I now understand that I had just made an implied contract, as the lawyers call it, although I did not know this at the time. Nonetheless, at that very moment, the world seemed to shift around me, and I realized that I was no longer sitting by the slightly greyish swimming pool at the Fontainebleu Hotel on Collins Avenue but was relaxing beside a luxurious infinity pool at the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah in Dubai, said to be the most elegant hotel in the world. For several years, I lived like that. I always had enough money to do whatever occurred to me and enough fun and excitement for several people over several lifetimes. My previous life faded to a dim memory that I eventually came to feel must have been something I saw in a movie or perhaps read in a novel in the course of my extensive travels.
That passing of that period of time one day found me at a lunch counter at a Woolworth’s store ordering a tuna fish sandwich. Sometimes, even the beautiful people need a quick meal and enjoy seeing how those less blessed with excitement and leisure spend their days. It was lunch time, and the place was crowded. I became aware of a man seating himself on the stool next to mine. He was the most ordinary of people and wore a raincoat of a type you rarely see anymore but that identified him as one of the millions of office workers in this city. I paid the man no more attention and didn’t look up again until I realized he was looking at me smiling slightly.
“How are you?” he asked in a voice that could have belonged to anyone.
“Fine,” I answered curtly. I was no longer used to engaging in small talk with strangers.
“I see,” he said cryptically. He looked me over as if appraising, not just my outfit, but my manner and style. I tried to take a bite of the sandwich which had been placed in front of me, but it seemed dry and unswallowable. The man watched my attempt to eat and smiled encouragingly.
“Are you having something?” I asked. It was awkward to have someone watch me trying to eat as clumsily as if it was the first time I had to feed myself.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said politely. “It’s time, you know.”
“Time for what?” I asked. I was genuinely confused.
“I think you know. It’s been 10 years, almost exactly. I feel I have been most generous.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked. Deep inside, I began to feel a pang of alarm, as if a memory I had long repressed was being awakened.
“Our contract, of course,” the man replied conversationally. “I provided everything you wanted. It’s time to pay up.”
“I never signed any contract,” I protested, as fear gripped me tight.
“Signatures!” The man dismissed my suggestion. “You entered into this of your own free will.” He made a sweeping gesture that took in the racks of outdated merchandise just beyond the store luncheonette. The goods seemed faded even though they were new. There was no way to tell just by looking what year or even decade it might have been; even the shoppers were oddly timeless as they went about their business with their eyes on the floor, glancing up only occasionally to locate the item they needed.
He was right. I had come into the store on an impulse. I had not been into a Woolworth's for more than a decade and, in fact, had a vague idea the store had gone out of business, until I saw this one on a side street somewhat removed from the main shopping strip.
“You owe me your soul as well as your spirit. That was the deal,” the man went on calmly, as if he transacted this type of business every day. Thinking about it, I realized that of course he did.
“Are you the Devil?” I cried.
“Of course I am,” said the man. He seemed affronted. “You made an agreement with me 10 years ago.” He tapped his wristwatch to emphasize the point.
“Am I going to Hell?” I asked. In a way, the thought was a relief from the unease I had felt, but refused to acknowledge, at my sudden change of circumstances all those years ago.
“But, my dear, you are already here.”
At this, I looked around me and found I was no longer sitting but was standing on the other side of the counter wearing one of those old fashioned aprons with the large pockets. I reached inside and found I had a handful of coins and a pad and pencil.
’Hell is a Woolworth's store?” I thought back to the many jobs I had held before my miraculous good fortune and how they had pushed me towards the agreement that I now had to accept I made.
“Well,” the man seemed to be thinking about it, “not for everyone. But you now know another kind of life, so perhaps it is.”
“How long do I have to stay here?” I demanded. “When can I leave.”
“When your shift is over of course.”
“When is that?”
The man shrugged.
“Now, take this away,” he said pointing to the sandwich I had been trying to eat before. I still don’t know what possessed me to come to this place, but the man was right I had done so of my own free will. “And bring me some lunch,” he went on. “I haven’t the rest of time."
For perhaps the thirtieth time, Harry rubbed the nickel into the back of his forearm to make it “disappear,” then “reappear” in the fingers of the same hand, as if it had been forced magically into his body to emerge in a more appropriate place. He had been practicing the trick on and off all afternoon, afraid that having mastered it, he would suddenly forget what to do. He wished he had a mirror to judge how the trick would appear to a mark, but there was nothing of the kind in the store, and no one had been in since right after lunch. Irwin and Dorothy were still at school and wouldn’t be home till at least four o’clock. They would probably not stop at the store anyway. Irwin was worried about his application to City College, and Dorothy would want to get right to her homework. Harry’s sister, Anna, would be along soon, though. She stopped at the store every afternoon on her way home from the bakery.
Harry looked around, taking in the rack of comic books that Irwin put in order every Saturday. Customers, in a manner more appropriate for a library than a store, would look over the latest issues of Batman, Captain America, The Phantom, and Green Lantern and disorder the shelves with their rummaging. The counter Harry was leaning on gleamed – he had polished it that morning and wiped it again after the lunchtime rush. The store was located across the street from the Washington Heights post office and was the closest place to get something to eat, a cup of coffee, or an ice cream soda for the neighborhood mailmen. He had checked the cardboard boxes of candy and aligned them on the shelves. The Smarties, bubble gum cigars, candy cigarettes, Red Hots, and licorice laces had to be low down where the kids could reach them. Zagnut, Good & Plenty, Long Boys, Sugar Babies, and Chuckels took up the shelf above that. The Smith Bros cough drops, Walnettos, Necco Wafers, Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls, and Goetze’s Caramel Creams went on the very top. The candy didn’t appeal to Harry, but it was very popular among his customers, so he kept what they liked in stock. In the morning, he had swept the floor and dusted the two small tables with their matching chairs where people could sit and eat their ice cream. Finally, before lunch, he had looked through the newspaper he kept for the men from the post office to read while eating.
The news didn’t interest Harry, and he didn’t read much. His mother had dutifully enrolled him in the local public school when he was six. When he was 10, he announced he would no longer be going to class. He liked the teachers, who were reasonably nice to him, and being with his friends, older and younger boys, many of whom had heavy Polish or Russian names like him. School itself held little attraction for him though. He had mastered the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic easily, but the drawing lessons, the only thing he really liked, were very few. They were unsatisfactory as well, in the teacher always insisted he draw simple line animals and buildings, not the scenes that unfolded in his imagination. So, even at 10, tall for his age and blond like a Viking, Harry got a job collecting the trays at a cafeteria and helping the cook with the cleaning and garbage. Perhaps his parents would have liked him to stay in school, at least through the 8th grade when he would have been entitled to a grammar school certificate, but, in America, they had to defer to the wishes of their children whose superior knowledge allowed them to understand how things worked. Anna, who had been 24 at the time and had already taken over much of the management of the household, and Sam, who was 26 and had been working in a garment factory since the day they arrived in America, just laughed and said let Harry do what he wants.
After several years, he had left the cafeteria and worked in the kitchen of one of city’s largest hotels. Once in a while, he would go out to the Paramount Studio in Astoria, hoping for small part in one of the silent movies. He was lucky more often than not; he was handsome and didn’t mind being made up and dressed to suit a part. He had played a number of distinguished roles, like man on a train, man in a bar, and restaurant patron. The extra money was important. It was the nickels, dimes, and quarters – like the coin he had been practicing magic with – that had bought the store and allowed Harry to improve on his father’s lot as a peddler.
He had inherited his father’s ability to talk himself into any place and out of every situation. From his father, he had also learned the importance of good humor, of never taking no for an answer, and never giving up. Where his father had insisted that each housewife buy a book of needles or some ribbon or a pair of scissors, Harry used his talents to urge customers to have another cup of coffee or try an egg cream, guaranteed fresh in chocolate or vanilla. Anna often teased him for having the soul of a salesman, but Harry just replied it was better than having the soul of a rabbi or no soul at all.
Anna was much older than Harry. She had been almost 16 when they came to America. Harry had been an infant, carried in his mother’s arms. Everything he knew about Russia came from Anna or Sam. His parents rarely talked about the old country, proud that he was an American boy like his younger brother, Phil, who had been born in New York. It was Anna, slipping into Yiddish mixed with Polish and Russian, who had explained to Harry about the snow that covered the roofs and dropped off the bare tree branches, about the ice churned to slush in the road by horses’ hoofs, and how a winter coat was the most important thing you could have. To Anna, it had always been winter in Russia, even though Harry knew spring must have come sometime. Besides, there was plenty of snow and slush in New York, although he had not seen a horse in streets of the city for decades now.
Their life in Russia had impressed itself deeply on both Anna and Sam. Neither had married, although Harry as well as their younger brother and sister had and now had children of their own. Sam and Anna lived together in the apartment the whole family had occupied for many years and where their parents had lived, taken care of by their oldest son and daughter, until their deaths. Anna ran the house like their mother had, and there was always a place for any of the children or their children to come to. It was where Harry had gone when he arrived from work at the hotel one day years ago and found his own apartment quarantined because Dorothy had come home sick from school, and the doctor his wife had called said it was scarlet fever. His children spent as much time at Aunt Anna’s and Uncle Sam’s as they did at home, as did their cousins to get away from their own parents. Harry had rarely thought about this situation but he did recall hearing his parents whispering in the kitchen that Anna and Sam had become the victims of America and had sacrificed themselves for the rest of the family. Harry now knew that sacrifice had not been intentional. It was more that the sudden shift from what they had known in Russia and the need to relearn a life in America had shocked them, like the soldiers returning from the World War. They seemed fine but could no longer open themselves to others beyond their small circle of family.
Harry looked at his watch impatiently. Why did no one come into the store? He had a story to tell. Most days were ordinary, and it was hard for Harry to match Anna’s news or even the high school tales of his children. Today, however, he did have something to relate, but no one was around to hear it. Finally, he heard footsteps outside the store and caught a glimpse of Anna in her pink felt hat through the window, despite the glare of afternoon sun. A moment later, she burst in, flung down her purse and a paper bag from the bakery, and dropped onto one of the stools at the counter where Harry was leaning.
“What’s the matter, Little Boy?” she asked before Harry could open his mouth.
“Nothing, nothing at all. Wait till you hear what happened . . .” Harry replied, delighted to have someone to tell his news to at last.
“Me first,” said Anna excitedly. “You’ll never guess what I heard from one of the customers!”
“What?” Harry asked. He was impatient for his turn, but Anna was older and they all deferred to her.
“They’re saying Israel declared independence. There’s now a Jewish state in the Holy Land!”
Harry thought this over. He had seen something in the paper about the British mandate ending, but the news hadn’t interested him. Israel and its problems with the Arabs was as remote to him as Russia and the Cossacks. This was the type of news Irwin followed. He had kept clippings throughout the long years of war and had explained to all of them after dinner one Sunday how the city of Kremenitz, where the whole family down to Harry had been born, and which had changed hands repeatedly in the early part of the century, had ended up in the Russian territory of Ukraine. How does this affect us, Harry had asked his son. Irwin cheerfully admitted that it did not, in fact, affect any of them; it was just to know.
“So, how does this affect us?” Harry now asked Anna.
“I don’t know,” Anna admitted. “But everyone was all excited about it. They said it makes the whole difference to the Jews.”
“I don’t see it.” Harry said. “We’ve got our own problems right here!”
He waited a moment as Anna considered this. When she didn’t speak further, it was his chance.
“You’ll never guess who came in here before.”
“Who?” Anna asked. She was always interested in any gossip or intrigue that involved people they knew or even strangers.
“A couple of Australians!” Harry cried.
“Australians? What’re Australians doing here?”
“That’s what I wanted to know. They said they’re on a tour.”
“A tour of Washington Heights? No one wants to come here,” Anna said with authority.
“I think they meant the City, the whole country. They’re on a tour of America.”
“So what’d they want in here?” Anna asked, oblivious to how her brother might understand the question.
“It was right after lunch. The boys from the PO had just left. They wanted ice cream, and get this . . .” Harry was laughing already, unable to contain his mirth. “They asked for the ice cream in a little paper pail!”
“A little paper pail?!” Anna began to laugh. “You’re making that up!”
“I swear to God I am not! They wanted ice cream in a little paper pail.”
Anna and Harry began to laugh like they had not laughed in a long, long time. There were so many worries every day, both large and small, that they had to think about.
“So, what did you do?” Anna gasped.
“I gave them a Dixie Cup!” Harry said, wiping his eyes.
“Then what happened?” Anna asked. Her face was flushed with laughter. She opened the top button of her light spring coat and fanned her face.
“They said they wanted chocolate!” Harry collapsed on the counter. A little paper pail. It was unbearable and unbelievable and the funniest thing he could recall hearing in his whole life. Everything he knew about Australia – the sun, the desert, the strange animals – flooded into his mind in a rush, but that only seemed to make the elderly aged couple and their search for ice cream in the middle of New York even funnier.
He and Anna laughed for a long time. Their gaiety carried into the street as far as the other stores and the post office, a sign that spring had come, and the long years of war and the troubles of the city had not crushed them yet.
Morris Goldfarb stood on the steps of the Queens County courthouse. He still had 20 minutes or so before his appointed time in court. The summons he had received was in his suit pocket, creased and gritty from having been folded and unfolded many times as he and Beckie pored over, looking for meaning beyond the time and place he was to appear. They had briefly considered whether he should ignore the summons, try to put it out of his mind and wait for consequences that might never arrive.
“This isn’t Poland,” Beckie had said. “No one will come for you.”
Morris thought about this. Neither he nor anyone he knew had ever had a serious encounter with the law in the small town near Warsaw where he had grown up. They had only known the local policeman, who ignored them and would likely have done nothing at all even if someone had been in dire need of help.
“No. We can’t take that chance. We don’t know how things work here and what could happen,” he said finally.
“But people say . . .”
“I know people, too,” Morris cut Beckie off. “They say it’s best to go.”
He had asked his friends about the matter. Some of them had been in New York longer than he had. They spoke English better and had more experience. You had to be brave, they said. In America, it was better to face the problem, admit it existed, and take the consequences. Any consequences would be much more severe if they had to summon him again or, God forbid, come and get him.
So, Morris stood on the steps of the courthouse. The spring air was cool and pleasant and contained no hint of the sweltering summer that would be upon them in a few months. He had walked from the apartment in a matter of minutes without taking in much of his surroundings. On a normal day, Morris would have walked the streets with elation, absorbing every detail of the scene and the people. He paid special attention to their clothes. As a men’s tailor, he had an eye for line and style. When it came to fashion, he prided himself on being able to make anything he saw. So, he would study the clothing people were wearing on the street and that was displayed in the windows of the big stores. Without thinking, he would imagine how such garments were constructed and save that information for later use. It was detail that attracted customers and kept them coming back.
His skill, developed gradually over the long years of sewing and ripping seams when the garment wasn’t right, told him he looked fine for his day in court. He wore a dark suit, an imitation of the outfits you could see in Gimbel’s and Macy’s. It fit him perfectly and had been hand-finished like the bespoke suits at Brooks Brothers. It took time but it was no more expensive to make a good suit, when you knew how, than to produce a rag, Morris thought. It was shameful for a man like him, a man who made a living selling suits, to look less than perfect.
Although he did not make women’s clothing for sale, he made sure Beckie and the girls were always as well dressed as he was. In fact, he enjoyed working on their dresses in the evenings and made sure Beckie’s clothes always looked like more flattering versions of the things the society women wore. Her friends would see her clothes and send their husbands to him – business was business, after all – but, more important, he could be sure he was providing for her better than he had in Poland, when Estelle and Janie were babies. People rarely bought a new suit, and there had been little to eat but the eggs from their own chickens.
It was different now. Everyone was in business. They had money, options, plans, all of which required new clothes, tailored, in a surprisingly large number of cases, by him or others like him who had learned their trade somewhere in Europe. In fact, Morris was starting to feel successful enough to advertise through the clothing his wife, and especially his daughters, wore. How hard was it really to make little girls’ dresses? But they said everything to the adults who saw them. So, every so often, Morris would make the trip into the city, to the garment district where other young men like himself traded in wholesale cloth. You could buy the ends of the bolts for practically nothing. A yard of fabric went a long way in a young girl’s dress, and a patch pocket, a fancy collar, or bright buttons were enough to make them happy. Morris was satisfied his girls were as finely clothed as any child their age, and no one could say about him, ‘The shoemaker’s children go barefoot.’
The day was warming up, and Morris would have liked to sit on a bench in the park for a while watching people pass by. It was almost time for his hearing, though, and he knew he would have to go into courthouse and face what was to come. The massive pillared façade frightened him, and he wondered what he was going to say. Suddenly, he realized that it was not the offense he had committed that was worrying him. It was something entirely different and much more fundamental.
People in the neighborhood here in Queens knew him as Morris Goldfarb, tailor. He was obviously an immigrant, but half the city seemed to have come from someplace else. Morris Goldfarb was now an American citizen; the naturalization papers he carried in his inside pocket said so. However, he was not Morris Goldfarb. He was Moszjek Chibka. In his feelings, he had left that name and everything associated with it behind in Poland when he and Beckie, whose real name was Rywka, decided to emigrate, along with millions of others, and take little Gittl, who was now Janie, and Estera, who had become Estelle, to America.
“We need a German last name,” Beckie, who was still Rywka at the time, had said. “It won’t be a lie because we speak the language. There are lots of Germans in America.”
“There are lots of Poles, too, Russians, everything,” he told her.
“You want to be a Pole, with a name no one can say?”
When he didn’t respond right away, she added:
“People will think we’re peasants right off the farm.”
Secretly, Morris had felt Beckie was right. He would not have thought of any of this if she hadn’t brought it up but, once she pointed it out, he realized he agreed with her.
“So, what name do you want?” he had asked.
“What about Gold-something?”
Morris immediately understood. Beckie’s maiden name had been Zloto, gold. His name was just a name; it couldn’t be translated.
“Gold what?” he asked smiling. He knew she had hit on a successful plan.
“Goldwasser, Goldberg, Goldmann . . . ?”
Eventually, they had chosen Goldfarb and began to work on first names. Beckie read all the newspapers and understood the way people thought.
There had been no problem getting the necessary documents in the names they had chosen. Recordkeeping had been excellent in Russian-controlled Poland, but as long as you provided all the information requested, the registrar didn’t care who you said you were. So they had come to America as Morris and Rebecca Goldfarb. No one had questioned them or asked about their two little girls, Janie and Estelle. At the time, and for their first few years in New York, it had been a joke everyone they knew could share in, although no one knew what they had done.
Most immigrants from their part of the world changed their name. You could do it legally at the time you took citizenship. Morris knew people who had chosen the name of the street or neighborhood they had first lived in when they arrived in New York. Others had translated their name from German, Polish, or Russian to be more like the Americans. Still others had chosen a name they had heard and liked. People had all kinds of systems for doing this, but, as far as Morris knew, they all had entered America as themselves, in their real persona, and grew into their new identity as their Polish-accented Yiddish rolled into New York English.
Now Morris wondered whether the authorities had somehow found out he was not who he said he was. Moszjek Chibka had committed no crimes, had nothing even to hide, but perhaps denying one’s essential self was an offense here and the infringement for which he was being summoned was a ruse to get him before a judge. If this was what had happened, he hoped they would tell him how they found out. A word from a nosy neighbor or disgruntled customer from the same part of the world might have been enough. He knew he had to go into the courthouse so he passed quickly through the deeply shaded portico and went through the thick glass doors.
The bailiff, a large man in a uniform like a policeman’s, gave him instructions and told Morris to sit and wait his turn. The courtroom was mostly empty, and Morris had barely seated himself when he heard his name being called. Cautiously, he approached the bench where the judge was sitting as he had been instructed. The judge looked ordinary, even tired, but Morris knew the most commonplace of appearances might go along with a terrible temper. A sign on the desk said the judge’s name was Roth.
Roth was German, Morris knew. The judge might be more understanding than he feared. There were many Germans in New York. Most had arrived long before Morris did and had lost their language. As a sign of respect, Morris had once or twice greeted someone introduced to him in the language that matched the name, only to receive a look of confusion that made him switch quickly to English. He thought the judge’s family must be very proud their son had become a learned man, a man of the law. Morris prepared himself for what might follow.
“We’re here in the matter of the City of New York versus Mr Morris Goldfarb of Ocean Avenue, Queens,” the judge began formally. “Mr Goldfarb you are charged with violating the Sunday trading laws in an incident observed by Officer Michael Shaunnessy on April 13 of this year.” The judge looked at Morris expectantly.
“Yes, Sir?” Morris was aware of people stirring in the room behind him as they waited for their turn before the bench.
“You call the judge ‘Your Honor’,” the bailiff, who was standing by the bench, said mildly.
“Yes, Your Honor?” Morris repeated obediently.
“The particulars of the incident are as follows,” Judge Roth went on. “On Sunday, April 13, at about 8 am, Officer Shaunessy observed you speaking to a man in the doorway of your tailor shop on Ocean Avenue. The man then left the premises carrying a paper wrapped parcel. The officer understood that you had sold the man something and approached your shop to issue a summons as commercial transactions are prohibited in this city on Sunday.”
Morris nodded.“Yes, Your Honor.”
“Do you know Officer Shaunessy?”
Morris glanced over his shoulder to where the policeman was sitting. He seemed bored as if he sat in this courtroom every day of the week, witness to innumerable offenses committed by people like Morris who struggled to understand the rules of the city. Morris had often seen him walking slowly up and down Ocean Avenue, checking the door of any store that happened to be closed and moving along any noisy children blocking the sidewalk.
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“Do you deny the charges against you?”
“No, Your Honor, but . . .”
“Can you tell me what happened?”
Morris hesitated. The judge looked at him kindly. Morris wondered whether he really was going to be allowed to explain.
“Go on,” Judge Roth told him.
“I was in the apartment – we live above the shop – on the morning of April 13 . . .”
“How do you know it was April 13?” Judge Roth asked.
“It was my daughter’s birthday. My wife had been up since dawn baking for a little party for the girls.” Saying the words, Morris was struck by how often events coincided in ways that no one could foresee. “She heard the noise and told me someone was knocking on the door of the shop.”
“So I went downstairs to see who it was. I thought it might have been an emergency.”
“Was it?” the judge probed.
“In a way. There was a man at the door. He said he needed to buy a suit . . .”
“Was he a customer of yours?”
“No, Your Honor, but I had seen him around the neighborhood.”
“Why did he need to buy a suit?”
“He told me his brother had died in the night. He needed a suit to bury him in.” Morris recalled the distress on the man’s face, his desperation. “He had tears in his eyes!”
“So you sold him the suit?”
“Yes, Your Honor. I make suits to order but I also sell off the rack. Not everyone has the time to wait for a tailor-made suit,” Morris explained. The judge remained impassive.
“Was yours the first shop he came to?”
“No Your Honor,” Morris replied. “He said he had been to two others before mine, but nobody was there. A lot of tailors, they don’t live above their shop like I do.”
“I see. So you sold him the suit.”
“Yes, Your Honor. I didn’t have the heart not to. He was so upset.” Morris tried to explain. He felt he couldn’t convey the urgency, the pressure, immigrants like himself and his unfortunate customer felt to manage events for which they had no precedent, in a strange country where the ways they knew often failed them, and they had no language to explain.
“Did you know you were breaking the law?” asked Judge Roth.
“Yes, Your Honor,” Morris told him honestly. He knew it would be worse to pretend ignorance. The judge might deem him unfit and take away his license to trade.
“Did you explain this to the man?”
“Yes, I did, Your Honor. I told him I could get in a lot of trouble for selling to him on a Sunday.”
“What did he say?” the judge asked. There was no anger or malice in his voice.
“He pleaded with me, Your Honor. Finally, I gave in, he was so upset.”
“So, it was a humanitarian gesture?” Judge Roth said.
Morris thought he could see a hint of a smile on the judge’s face. He was not familiar with the word ‘humanitarian.’ Janie would have known, but he never would have brought her into court to translate for him like many of the immigrants did. How could he expect his girls to grow up and be Americans if he couldn’t show them you had to take responsibility for your own self? He thought hard. The word the judge had used had ‘human’ in it. It occurred to Morris that the judge was asking if he had acted on a human impulse, if he had tried to be a mensch, a man. Perhaps, the judge recognized something in Morris and was giving him a chance.
“Yes, Your Honor, it was a humanitarian thing.” Morris tried to imitate the judge’s pronunciation of the unfamiliar word.
“Very well, then,” said Judge Roth. “I accept that you did not set out to break the law but I am going to issue a warning This is a serious matter, and the law must be obeyed. There will be no fine. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Your Honor. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
Morris waited for a moment. No one said anything. The bailiff was busy with his papers for the next case. Morris turned and walked quickly out of the courtroom.
Back on the street again, Morris breathed deeply and freely. The men and women he passed were starting to wear their spring clothes and, without thinking, he began to catalog the latest styles. He stopped at a delicatessen to buy some cold cuts for the girls. As he approached his shop and saw Beckie at the window, he suddenly realized that things were not how they had thought they were, and it was now a whole new world.