The story published here is from a novel in progress tentatively entitled The Man in the Middle.
At 14th Street a few of the nickel-nursers fled, but a fresh bunch rushed in, including a hefty woman high in her descending years who tried to squeeze in next to Joe. He shrank as much as possible to make himself scarce for her sake, but she kept squirming in an effort to slide in the whole of her buttocks, plainly furious with him. He was surprised to be singled out. But then—as he sized her up in a second—he guessed that she was just another one of those unfortunates who have been so long harried by the hound of unhappiness, who have become so fantastically spent and bloodless in the chase that they must always seize and suck on someone in revenge—so he decided to grin and bear it. However she began to mumble. It was amusing. She said—and she was shrill—that it would certainly do him no harm if he tried to move over a bit. He examined his sardine existence, and shrugging his shoulders, smiled right at her as he asked her—where? Then he ought to stand up like a gentleman, she said, and let a lady have a decent seat who had been pounding the pavement all day long. But from where he was sitting he could see that she was sitting, so here was her chance, let her rest quietly—all right?
Well, anyway, at this point it was nice because it made Rosalie speak to him for the first time since in the street because she was curious to know—to who was he speaking to—to who—it sounded awful. It was nothing—he shushed her—nothing at all. But the bitter antagonist on his other side was far from through. She leaned over to regard them both shrewdly, and then said something which Rosalie could not completely catch—it was a question about their being—but which so astonished Joe (he knew—he knew at once what the poor misguided woman meant by it) that he withdrew from her as far as he could—refusing to answer.
Lucky it was their stop.
“What did she say?” Rosalie asked.
But he only shook his head and led her out.
“I didn’t get it,” said Rosalie. “She said we were—what?”
He had to laugh as they paused beside a pillar. “Goddamn,” he said. “Wasn’t that something?”
“People are funny all right. So help me—I don’t understand them. You know what she said Rosalie? This’ll kill you. She said, ‘You two are Jewish people, aren’t you?‘”
“Yes. Can you beat that? As if that explained everything.”
“And you let her get away with it?”
“Aw,” he said. “Get away with it. What could I do? There was nothing I could do except ignore her.”
“Ignore her?” cried Rosalie. “I would’ve scratched her eyes out.”
“Oh, no,” he said. “And be as bad as she is?”
She stared at him as if he had just been introduced.
“You know,” she said. “Sometimes I think there’s something wrong with you. What’re you smiling about? I mean it. First you quit your job. I never heard of such a crazy thing. Where did you get the nerve to do it? Then all of a sudden you’re like a rabbit. You sit there and take it.”
“Bravo,” he said. “That’s a wonderful speech. Shake hands.”
“Oh, go away.”
“I didn’t know you had it in you.”
“You aggravate me.”
“I’ll vote for you any time.”
“Everything’s a joke with you.”
“You want tears?”
“All right, then,” he said. “I’ll give it to you. Be a good girl. Do yourself a favor. Go upstairs now and take that bus and go home.”
“Don’t be so anxious to get rid of me.”
“How about it? And eat. You’ll feel better.”
“No. I think I’ll just stand right here.”
“What?” he said. “What for?”
“What d’you mean why not? You can’t stand here. You have to go home.”
“Home,” she said. “I hate it. What am I going to do home?”
“Oh, hell,” he said. “How do I know? Why do you ask me such questions?”
“Stay with me.”
“Don’t leave me.”
“But I must. I promised the boys, Rosalie, You know that. It’s all fixed up. I can’t back out now.”
“But what about me? I’ll go crazy if I have to stay home.”
“Then go to the movies or something.”
“No. Not alone. You stay. You go with me.”
“But I just told you.”
“If you go with me, I’ll pay for myself.”
“I’ll even pay for you. How’s that?”
“Look,” he said. “Who’s aggravating who now? Why must we stand here like dopes and talk this way? I swear I’ll go nuts myself if you keep this up. What’s the matter with you? You know I have to go. Why can’t you be nice about it?”
“Okay,” she said. “You don’t have to yell. Go on. Go. Who’s stopping you?”
“You are. I can’t leave you like this.”
“Oh, yes, you can,” she said, and her voice trembled. “You can leave me. Don’t make believe. I know you now. You don’t care what happens to me. What d’you care? You only care about yourself. You’re so selfish I hate you. Go ahead. Here’s your train. Take it. I don’t care. But you’ll see. You’ll be sorry. You’ll see.”
The doors opened. The doors closed. The train waited for no one—it went. The next train must be his. If pity was the glue, then he was determined to become unstuck. Still there were his hands crammed in his pockets—he noticed how they ached—they wished to slip themselves inside her coat and cleverly caress the jut and bulge of her—and so defeat him. Yet how could he leave her like this? The mystic lashes of her eyes thinned in retreat, her fever-red lips, the ailing hollows in her cheeks—like millions of her self-neglected kind, she often attained this cruel look of sickliness—for by herself what was she behind her rosy skin but scattered and plain—and lonely—and loneliness was to her that cold rumpled horror (an old hag in a crouch, munching the nits she nicks out of her tangled hair) which only lovemaking—even if it be merely an experiment in the art of holding hands—could assuage and chase away. Somewhere there must be someone who can remain alone for one single night without once shivering. A man without a neck stepped on the scales, and with the use of an ordinary penny, profited to the extent of a double-take: he was shocked to learn how much of a burden he really was to those who really loved him.
“Rosalie—look at me. I said look at me. Why don’t you stop making up things and let me go? Why do you want to be so terrible?”
“Because you are. Because you don’t love me any more.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“You don’t. Don’t you think I can tell?”
“Wait a minute,” he said. “Are you going to cry?”
“Don’t worry. I can tell. I know.”
“Because if you are—I won’t stand for it.”
“You’re running away from me.”
“Running away from you? That settles it. You don’t know what you’re talking about any more. Rosalie, I’m asking you. For the last time—are you going home or not?”
“Don’t bother me. I told you.”
“I hear a train coming.”
“I’m not going.”
“I’m taking it, Rosalie.”
“Take it. I’m staying right here.”
“I see,” he said. “So that’s final eh?”
“Okay, baby. You win. Stay here and look foolish. Have a good time. And look me up when you’re a little older. I might like you then.”
And he wheeled away from her. And he stalked to the edge of the platform. And the train blew dust in his eyes. So he called it a dirty name. But the ragged clod of his fury was like an artificial flower, rootless, theatrical in color, brittle as any false stem in its lurid resemblance to the true and traditional green of a thing growing—so it cracked just as the door hissed behind him. The weakling—he would not clutch at strap or pole—but had to turn and give his love the satisfaction of a last look as the train carried him away. Her ankles were insolently crossed where she leaned. If she had stuck out her tongue at him, he would have smiled. But even the set of her head which moved in following his flight seemed fixed in a deathlike immobility—and her clearest eye was like an icicle—and she returned his stare of pity and anxiety with no sign that she would ever relent, go home, see him again on Monday. He did not care what she thought it meant—he shook his fist at her.
Foolish and hard-boiled to the last—with her empty belly dead set against the bread-box—did she cry a little after all? And cough? Her late cold had left her with a cough. And spit a bit? Then powder the pock-mark on the side of her nose? This is how the earth turns so magnificently for him who is merely so-sorry-dear, who sniffs while he circles around—though he be miles away—the Rosalie to whom in his bungling he has given a bum steer—and the heartless and cuckoo so-long of his fist in her face.
So he rides, and then he walks, and even talks—to himself—very much alive. But of his journey he remembers nothing, for the next thing he knows he is running up the stairs to the second floor of the four-story building where he lives in apartment 7B in that laughable borough of Brooklyn—God knows why.
He began to take the stone steps two at a time, then tried for three, fickle to all else but speed. His final leap on his landing almost bowled the freckle-face over. “Jesus,” he cried. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
He held her a moment while she shook her head with the extravagant wobble of four years going on five.
“See,” she said, showing him what she held in her hand.
“A ball,” he said. “Say—that looks like a good one.”
“Afraid not,” she said. “It doesn’t bounce.”
Sadly she handed it over for him to see. She was the odd little number from next door who was not to be treated like a toy, or tossed in the air and tickled. Thelma was her name—it made everyone lisp. The startling maturity of her mouth might suggest that she already knew the score, but no, how could that be? She was far too tiny for that with her toothpick legs, and her half-grown teeth haphazardly spaced, and her one treasure, her elliptical eyes of green—which never blinked. But she was no monster. She had her own troubles.
“Hell,” he said. “It has a hole in it. That’s why.”
“I know,” she said. “My father washed it. He found it. I’m lucky to have my own ball. Can you paste it? I’m sick a whole week.”
“What?” he said. “Not because of this?”
“No, here,” she said. “In my throat.”
“Oh. That’s too bad. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yes. And now my father. You know why?”
“He must’ve caught it from you.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “He tells lies. My mother says so. She yells to him get out of the house. He’s a good man, but he sleeps.”
“What’s wrong with that? Don’t tell me—I know.”
He reached down to smooth her hair of many colors. Her skull felt as crushable as her own bleached ball with the bad hole in it.
“But he does,” she said. “You know my gramma? She gives him money.”
“Look, Thelma. That’s very nice. I’m glad to hear it. But you musn’t tell these things.”
“If your father knew, he’d be very angry.”
“Why? Is it wrong?”
“Don’t act so innocent,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s so wrong—but it’s not exactly right either. I’ll explain it to you sometime. Just don’t tell.”
“Believe me, it’s better that way.”
“But I like to tell you. It’s a secret.”
“Oh. Well, all right, then. If you have to tell somebody. But nobody else. Understand?”
“So you can paste it?”
“This thing? Naa. Take it away. I tell you what. Let’s see how much I got. Will you do me a favor?”
“Here’s fifteen cents. Go down and buy a high bouncer.”
“Don’t tell me no.”
“My mother says never to take.”
“Wait a minute,” he said. “I’m not giving you anything. I want you to buy it for me. For me—understand?”
“Oh, is right. So take. Now don’t cross the street. Go on the corner.”
“And listen. If you want to, you can stay down and play with it.”
“Sure. I wouldn’t trust anybody else. But you can hold it for me. All right?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Can I stay long? Can I stay long?”
“As long as you like. Only I’ll break your head if you go in the gutter. And remember—that ball’s mine. When I ask you for it, will you give it to me?”
“I will, I will.”
“Good,” he said. “So that’s settled.”
She began to hop up and down, clinging to him.
“Oh, boy,” she piped. “You know what?”
“I love you, I love you.”
“Naturally,” he said. “Go on now—scram.”
When the boy scout entered the house, he found two of his nearest and dearest (he wanted to feel affectionate—go do him something) not in the kitchen which was seriously so small it could be put in a pocket, but in the living room which had more space for spoofing—his sister, Helen, seated on her legs like a chink on the couch, his mother, Mamma, on her feet as usual, with the teapot with the broken spout for watering the plants in her hand, both frowning at this emissary of the devil because he had barged in with such a bang.
Questioners, if left alone, they inevitably slid back again to relive certain sad moments of the past, refusing to forget how once they had been humiliated, be it by dearth or death, forever baffled by the most ordinary fact that life, that straight and lovely, could by a sudden twist become cracked and crooked, but they never cried, stubborn, ashamed to be pursuing this silliness but determined to make it say uncle, which it never did because someone was always breathing too loud, and they were disturbed, and still there was no answer. A family failing. On which he had lately begun to slam the door. Against their brooding, he pitted his rudeness, the virtue of his noise. For by this time it ought to be clear to everyone concerned that dreamy peace and dreamy quiet can never flourish in the four rented boxes of a home where the collective spirit is tempted to droop like a bedraggled mop left to lean head down in a dusty corner. So lights, camera—shoot it. He stiffened into the angular salute of a wooden soldier. Then hurled his hat at Helen’s head—and was delighted to see it stick there.
“Hey,” he cried. “Did you see that?”
Helen had to smile.
“Thanks,” she said. “That’s just what I need for my headache.”
“Did you see that, Ma?” he crowed. “Did you see how I did it?” he snapped his fingers. “Just like that.”
“Tricks,” said Mrs. Bellinson.
“You said it. Hey, don’t take it off yet. Doesn’t she look cute? Come on, Ma—you try it I bet you can do it too.”
Mrs. Bellinson shook her head hopelessly.
“Still a child,” she said. “He compares himself to me.”
“Try it, try it.”
“No,” she said. “Not with my old hands.”
“Ah, yes—your old hands.”
He threw his coat like a bundle on the farthest chair.
“You’re young,” he cried. “Like a spring chicken. Don’t you think I know? You’re strong, I tell you. Like iron.”
“Sure, sure,” Mrs. Bellinson sighed.
“Look,” said Helen. “You may not know it—but there’s a closet in this house.”
“Is there?” he said. “How nice. So?”
“So go hang your coat up.”
“Later,” he said. “There are more important things to do.”
For one thing, to do what was never done in this house except on some high and solemn holiday, to kiss his mother as his mother (and not as his foremost and most eloquent advocate before God) with good instinct, with honesty, and with pleasure—but it was difficult, for she saw it coming, and he had to be clever to catch her clean and bloodless cheek—hold still, Mamma—but she kept struggling, making a face as if he had poisoned her, and ploop—a gulp of water came out of the teapot to splash him.
“Fool,” she cried. “Look what you made me do.”
“Holy mackerel,” he said, releasing her.
“Ach,” said Mrs. Bellinson. “To be so crazy.”
“I’m all wet.”
“Good for you,” Helen laughed.
“This is lovely,” he said. “Look at me. My number two pants.”
“Your number two?” said Mrs. Bellinson.
“Quick. Take it off. I’ll press it.”
“No, Ma,” said Helen. “Don’t you do it. Next time he won’t get so fresh.”
“Fresh?” he said.
“Stupid,” said Mrs. Bellinson. “You hear me? Come. You’ll catch cold.”
“You,” he said. “You know what I’m going to do, Mrs. Bellinson? I’m going to sue you.”
“Sue me, don’t sue me.”
“You’re a holy terror.”
“Why did you push me?”
“He stands there,” said Mrs. Bellinson.
“You see? He’ll get sick.”
“Don’t worry,” he smiled. “I don’t get sick so fast.”
“And then who will suffer? Me—of course.”
“Uh-uh,” he said. “Did you hear that, Helen? There goes that word again. We ought to fine her a nickel every time she uses it.”
“A dime,” said Helen.
“What is this suffer?” he said. “Why do you love that word so much?”
Mrs. Bellinson raised the teapot threateningly.
“Don’t touch me,” she said. “I’ll spill you from head to foot.”
“Now, now,” he said. “Be a good kid.”
“American children—they make fun of me.”
“Fun of you? Oh, no, Mamma. Just the opposite. There’s no one like you in the whole world. Don’t you know that? Shake hands.”
“Oh, no,” she said, “not today.”
“She doesn’t trust me.” He laughed. “She’s right. That’s the trouble—she’s always right. Where’s Abe? Did he come in yet?”
“No,” said Helen. “What did he say, Ma? Is he coming home?”
“Is he coming home,” said Mrs. Bellinson.
“Another one. He comes and he goes. Does he ever say?”
“He’ll be home,” said Helen. “What time is it, Joe?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Jesus—I’m suddenly pooped. Move over and let me sit down.”
Strange how he had almost forgotten he had a definite thing he just had to tell them. He stretched himself out with a sigh beside his wide-awake sister, murmuring a sibilation on sleep—how sweet it would be—to slip into sleep. She smiled to see how loosely he surrendered to his sudden weariness, then placed his hat over his face, making it nice and dim for him. What would be the very safest way? Still he rested in that hazy in between of the before and after, thinking was there a slice of store cheesecake left in the house, or a lone bakery doughnut, powdered, or a book perhaps which could tell him how to eat (and not sleep) his way through an italicized event in the history of this, which was no different from any other, family. Or an onion roll. His feet—they were killing him. He closed his eyes entirely. They asked him frankly if he was dead, and receiving no answer, ignored him as if he were, turning to some other subject unsuspectingly. No, there was no good way of telling them—none—not one which could have mercy on their present without panic, on their tolerable now of canary-yellow curtains for the sole kitchen window—or on their higher chit-chat about Skulnick, that apostate of a cousin.
He was going to marry that girl. It was a scandal. Samuel Skulnick at thirty-four, a gloomy foreign-born boy, had called his mother an old bitch for the purple curse with which she had lambasted his love a little too obviously a natural blond, and had told her in her own mixed language that she could go and stand on her head if she thought it would help, but as for him, he was going to listen to the knock-knock of his heart however it may disgracefully mislead him. To his father also he had raised his hand. And had chased the both of them out of his dusty and failing dry-goods store. Shocked by this side of the story, as women who had always been meek before the choleric god of their forefathers, Mamma and Helen could not understand how Skulnick could be so terrible. But was he really? Joe did not think so—and so he would tell them in a minute. Love is love in any religion. God says so. God is nice.
Helen tipped his hat off his face with an excited elbow.
“That’s it,” she said. “That’s just it. I’ve been thinking about it. Suppose they do have children, Mamma? What then?”
“More cousins,” Joe mumbled, struggling to sit up straight.
“Then?” said Mrs. Bellinson. “Then the real trouble will begin.”
“You said it,” Joe smiled. “Especially if they’re all girls.”
“Wiseguy,” said Helen. “Where did you come from?”
“I’ve been here,” he said. “I’ve been listening.”
“Aie,” Mrs. Bellinson said mournfully. “An only son. And always such a devoted one.”
“Sit down, Mamma,” he said. “Why is it you never sit down? Have you made a bet with someone?”
“And now so mean. How will they live without him? Both so sick and old. Who will support them now?”
“That’s easy,” he said. “Hate will do it, Mamma.”
“Hate?” said Helen.
“Sure,” he said. “They will hate him—and they will hate her. And they’ll grow fat on it. If you ask me, I think they’re both silly.”
“Well,” said Helen. “Just like that, eh? What’re you trying to say? That you’re on his side?”
“No,” he said. “I didn’t say that. I’m on nobody’s side. But I like Skulnick. There’s something about him that I like.”
“What, for example?”
“Oh, hell,” he said. “I am on his side. Here’s a guy who wants to live his own life—and right away everybody tries to stop him.”
“Please,” said Helen. “Whatever you do—don’t yell. Live his own life. Sure. Who says no? But that’s not the point at all—is it, Mamma? What that fool wants to do is wrong. You don’t think it’s right, do you?”
“Me?” he said. “I told you. It doesn’t matter what I think. All I know is that if Skulnick wants to marry a shiksa, that’s his business. What does she look like? Does anybody know? The guy has a perfect right to do whatever he wants.”
“Ah,” said Helen. “Now there is where I don’t agree with you at all. What d’you mean do whatever he wants?”
“No, sir. I’m sorry. That’s kid stuff.”
“I beg your pardon,” he said.
“Nobody’s that free.”
“Are you calling me a kid?”
“I’m not calling you anything. We’re not talking about you, are we? Though it wouldn’t hurt you if you were a little older.”
“Then you’d know. Then you’d find out that you just can’t go around doing whatever you want without considering other people.”
“Is that so?” he said.
She suddenly laughed—then tapped him once on the back of his head.
“Look at him,” she said. “He’s angry.”
“Don’t be silly,” he said, ducking as if he expected to be tapped again. “Why should I be angry? Only I would like to know one thing. Why is it you still think I’m a baby or something? Mamma too. All right. Maybe Skulnick is a fool. But at least he’s doing what he wants to do. And for that I must say I admire him. That’s just the way it should be. If you want to do something, and you think it’s right, you go ahead and do it—without asking anybody.”
Helen was amused.
“You know,” she said. “I’ve heard you talk this way before. And you know what I think? I think you’re talking through your hat. Sure—of course. It’s easy to have nerve for someone else. But let me tell you—I bet you would never do what Skulnick is doing—or anything like it.”
“You don’t think so, eh?”
“No, sir. I know you wouldn’t.”
“In that case,” he said, and stopped.
He was smiling queerly.
“In that case, what?” she challenged. “Go ahead—say it.”
“In that case, you’re in for a shock.”
“I’m afraid so. I quit my job today.”
“You what?” She stared at him, her face and neck at once terrifically red. “Now look here, Joe. If you’re kidding me, I’ll kill you.”
“Oh, no,” he said. “I mean it. Today. Just like that. You see?”
“You’re crazy,” she said. “Mamma, did you hear? He’s crazy.”
“Okay,” he said. “Maybe I am. But next time—”
“Shut up,” she cried. “Shut up. Don’t you talk to me.”
She snatched up the Daily News and ran directly into the bathroom and made the house shake as she locked herself in with a crash, but certainly not for the purpose of poring over the pictures of a triple collision of cars or of a double suicide, but to think it over, to say Jesus, to slap herself—and try to be reasonable, and push down the bitter pill he had suddenly given her to swallow.
“My God,” he said. “That’s the first thing she always does. She gets excited.”
Mrs. Bellinson appeared to be looking for something behind her, then as if she had found it, slowly sat down on the tip of a hard chair, and cradling the teapot in her lap, tried very quietly to digest this latest disaster.
“I don’t know what’s the matter with her,” he said. “Right away she tells you to shut up. You can never talk to her.”
He was the baby of the family. And they remembered him from the days of the diaper when his squalling meant that he had a will, but not as yet a mind of his own—though later they were quick on the trigger when it came to defending him as not the freshest, but the cleverest kid on the block, but a kid, a darling, but a kid—how wonderful if he would always remain that way. And now—look how he had piped up now.
But one look at Mamma—and oo—it would be the worst moment today for this jaunty anarchist, this composer of juvenile ultimatums. Good for him. Whatever serves to smack a little sense into anyone who is too cocksure—is good for him. He had to apply the preventive exercise of taking a deep breath and swallowing, else he would have, well, acted just like a sissy. Because it was not fair. Because she refused to become furious. Because she did not tear her hair—or make a motion to tear him. How unlucky to have a mother who was so different, who was so old-fashioned (full of the stern and monumental dignity of the imported brand) as to be submissive and discreet, and if sorrowful, then sorrowful as one who suffers with and for—never alone. What is to be done with her? She is such a poor American—though she has been told that America is hers also such a mild citizen, acknowledging the police, but considered queer because she will not, like the others, allow herself to become mussed in grabbing for gold—another socialist—or any other article lying around loose.
Fair were the fields of the farm in Poland where she was born and where she ran around like a peppy little peasant in a smock among the chickies. And then a man came and married her. Talmudic, but with town ideas, and exactly of the same height. The old couple danced—but as promptly fell into a frenzy of lamentation when the new man said he must take her away. Live with us, cried the old couple. But he took her to Brooklyn—God knows why. The letters crossed the ocean in bunches. What are rooms to the back? And a soda of ice-cream? And a combination sink and washtub? And trains high in the street? Come back, the old couple cried. Mamma wept at night. But Papa rushed into business with a crony who cheated him. Who remembers him now?
Not a move out of her. Nothing. Not a single move.
Did she remember that winter? Was she thinking of it now? Winter of the creepy episode in the sky. They were living then on Sutter Avenue, in the ancient and bubbling neighborhood of Brownsville, in a two-family house of rat-infested wood stuccoed the year before, when again there was a banging on the door to pay more rent, but the man was mad, always trying as he did to get blood out of a stone. His name was Edelstein, and he was the landlord, and he lived beneath them on his palatial first floor, while beneath him substantially, was his shoe store. Mamma was bewildered, she pitied him, but Papa (his chest had temporarily caved in) was a terrible patient—he was hopeless—he wanted to kill. That a man should so torment them in these poor and broken years. It was really the limit. Even tubby Mrs. Edelstein thought so as she pleaded with her hulk of a husband. Jacob, she cried, what are you doing? I am ashamed. The whole block knows. What is money? Poison when you got too much. Put a radiator in one bedroom at least. They’ll pay you later. Think of God, Jacob, think. She used to sneak upstairs, the asthmatic appeaser, with something hot in a small aluminum pot hidden under her apron, some tasty peace offering cooked on gas, for she had a gas stove downstairs, but it choked her. Leery of her conglomeration of her comparative luxury, tears scalded her eyes as she tried to tell them. Flour for chalah? I have flour for raisin cookies too. I mean it. I have a new kitchen set. Bamboo—come and see sometimes. I have steam. I have electric lights. What else? But do I enjoy it? To the devil it belongs. How can I enjoy it when mine Jacob makes you live like this? Mrs. Bellinson, you are so good. Have pity on me. Move. You will die here this winter. Please. Jacob will give you the money for it. I promise you. I’ll tear it from him. Move. Mamma tried to soothe her. But Papa turned to the wall.
Later the city relief sent them a ton of coal. One middle of the night, Abie was the first to smell the smoke, and shook them without screaming, and they helped Papa to the fire escape, and they all scrambled to the roof to save themselves in their shameful underwear. The burning old stock in the cellar certainly made a stink. When a fireman with an axe in his hand climbed in to look for the Edelsteins, he found no one, for no one had slept at home. That did not smell so good either. Really, it was the limit. Murderers, cried Papa.
The three little Bellinsons were uselessly little, of lower-grade dependency, joyously erupting in the street, sullenly subsiding in the house, except for Helen with her chin-trembling, her floor-scrubbing compassion, and her mother-mimicking gentility. But she was also highly critical of the family crisis, so she too would snarl and hit back. It was extraordinary how often the kids tried to cripple each other that winter, and how difficult they were to pluck apart. Abide and Joey were a pair. Abe said Joey should do it. And Joey said Abide should do it. And so of course neither of them did it much in the beginning. But one time they came upon Mamma gasping horribly as she lugged up that daily pail of coal, and that decided them—they used the secret handshake—they would alternate. Coal is black enough but what can equal the pure sunless ness of hate below the age of double figures? At first Edelstein suffered the little children to struggle for it with both hands through the cellar in the street (everybody sees us, Mamma, everybody), but then one day he padlocked the iron door, changing the route of their humiliation, and they had to stagger through the trapdoor in the store, spilling lumps on the polished floor, and it was so much longer to carry, and there were strangers now to pity them, properly seated customers, some of whom looked away and coughed, while others simply stared, startled sight-seers all, with one shoe on and one shoe off. The arrogance of boys who are underfed—they are positive that no one can match the puff of their pride, or the pathos of their susceptibility, or the glamour of their wounds. They are so tensile and thin, given to delicious fits of supernatural shivering.
Lord, the excitement, the excitement. They waited for it at the living room windows, peering through poorly-smoked bits of milk-bottle glass. My heart is in my mouth, said Joey, huddling up to her. Mamma smiled and tried to fold him in a wing of her shawl and said to swallow it, little fool, but she too was strangely moved. The longsuffering snow on the rooftops looked frightful. One man alone stood in the middle of the gutter, pointing at the sky, like the moon, utterly losing his manners. Oh, they suddenly cried, crowding together to look, seeing it chewed, expecting an explosion. They gazed in awe at the serene and infamous avidity of the moon. Dark and darker—Mamma, dear, look—and how cold—and how funny, feel it, this eerie loneliness of the heavens which quietly descends on the earth. Joey, little fool, he shuddered as he vainly listened for trumpets. What a bafflement. The sun had not raised a finger. The sun had submitted without a sound.
Was it this then? See the interventionist—he slips back into the present as glibly as he had slipped out—he feels nice. Was it this wisdom then that Mamma had absorbed—the wisdom of the sun when it is totally eclipsed?
“Goddamn,” he appealed to her, holding out his hand. “Another one, Mamma. Look at it.”
“What?” she started, responding as he had hoped. “Where?”
“A paper cut. See it? Right between the fingers.”
“It hurts like hell.”
“Put on iodine.”
“I will. You’re not mad at me, are you, Mamma?”
“I hope not.”
“That’s good,” he said. “I’m glad. Somebody has to be my friend.”
Mrs. Bellinson smiled at her youngest and most innocent.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m your friend. Go, friend—put on some iodine.”
“I can’t. Helen’s in there. I’m hungry, Mamma.”
“Ah, yes,” she said, “of course. And here I sit.”
“Sit, sit. Did I ask you to get up? I can take it myself. Just tell me what.”
“No,” she said. “You’ll never know. Come. You’ll wash in the sink.”
“Wash?” he said. “What for? All I want to do is eat.”
“Eat, sure. But first you wash.”
He laughed. “Is that what you think of me?”
“Ah,” she said. “You better not ask.”
She was right. He could see that at once. He better not. Through the strained greenpea soup (he was the goy who struck the match to light the gas to warm it), through the quarter of cold chicken which had the white meat and the wing, through slices of tomato and leaves of lettuce salted on the side, through the applesauce and its touch of cinnamon, he said nothing, but sensibly used his mouth for what it was originally intended. He ate heartily. For on this day at least and as yet (it seemed ages since a wrong swallow) satisfaction of hunger had few if any furtive or bitter connotations, but was rather a nice necessity, and a calm experience at the end of which, if there was bliss (and surprise—there was), it was as finely-woven and functional as this twenty year-old tablecloth with tassels. It was sweet to be crumbling his own bread. Came the tea to wash it all down. He was full. No coffee cake or blueberry jam—he waved it away. He would just sip he said—and smoke like a lord in between.
Helen came in and sat down opposite him. “Well,” she said. “Don’t you look satisfied. How about you, Mamma? Did you eat yet? I bet not.”
“I’ll eat,” said Mamma. “Don’t worry about me. You want soup?”
“No,” said Helen. “I’m not too hungry. Some chicken maybe.”
“Chicken’s on the table.”
“Wait. Will you look at that? What’s the matter with you, Mamma? Why must you always be washing dishes in the middle of a meal?”
“It saves time.”
“Time. It makes noise—that’s all it does.”
“Foolish. Can it be done without?”
“Please,” said Helen. “Don’t argue with me. I feel bad enough as it is.”
“Ach,” said Mamma, “did you ever see? She never lets me do a thing.”
“She’s right,” said Joe. “Come on, kiddo—sit down.”
“Sit down,” said Mamma. “All right. If it makes you so happy—I’ll sit down.”
“That’s the way to talk,” he said. ‘Throw away that dish towel.”
Helen stared at him.
“I must be dreaming,” she said. “Did you say I was right?”
He smiled. “It slipped out. But then, when you’re right, you’re right. Didn’t you know? Sometimes you can be very smart. And sometimes—”
“I can be smarter?”
“Oh, no,” he laughed. “Just plain dumb. Especially when you lose your temper and tell me to shut up.”
“Oh, that,” she said. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it. This chicken’s really good, Mamma.”
“Good?” said Mamma. “Certainly. Why shouldn’t it be? I pay the best prices, don’t I?”
“Prices,” said Helen. “It’s how you cook it. And you know how.”
Joe tried to stare at her as she had stared at him.
“I must be dreaming,” he said. “Did you say you were sorry?”
She lowered her eyes.
“Wiseguy,” she said, but had to smile.
How she pleased him at that moment—pleased him so much he had to hide it under cover of fiddling with his cigarette. A sister is a sister. So they say. A sister is a girl—usually—to be treated as such, that is, to be squelched, else she will elevate herself to equality with her brothers, for such is the nature of the female, to be grasping, to be vocal, to be insidious, to dream of power beyond the puissant breath of her perfume. What does the listener say? It may be interesting sometimes to inquire into the sex of the soul. But a sister may be a Helen too—and that too is the crux of it, that too is what makes a man say hooray. True, she still titters like a schoolgirl at the slightest trickle of blood, but she never faints—and some men do. Her boy-friend, Louie, that pipe-smoker with his very fresh city college BA, when first he laid eyes on her at a party, said to himself here now is a compact and sensible entity, then said it to her in these very same big words. When she asked for a translation, please, and promptly received it, she laughed and said that he may touch her—she was real. That was it exactly. He came thereafter to touch her frequently (he was a judicious wanderer, that orphan, who enjoyed the clemency of a lone aunt), to ask her to listen to him theorize, risking her temper as well as her tact, disturbing her more than he realized. The ruthlessness of what men call knowledge, replete with ructions of individuality, with scorn for sacrifice, with declarations too damn dry that consideration for others would ruin her. Then the kissing. It ends in that—it begins with talk—but it ends in that chaste and charming game in which the hands of the contestants (if neither is coy) are never slapped or told to stop it. So it goes healthily on and on—until all at once the most gentle play of lips seem to result in a profound displacement of loyalty. Yet this was hardly more than a wistful complication when compared with that pain common to all people—the pain of partial surrender. Ah, that independent one. She would not be rushed. She would stand up abruptly in the midst of a session to smooth her dress and to fix her hair, and to beg her baffled Louie to go home, darling, go home. For how could she cling to her precious dreams of order, of a world clean and cheerful everywhere, when clinging to him meant clinging to him unto dishevelment? But then she was adorable. She would sit down again.
She raised her knife.
“Our baby,” she said. “The hope of the family. Should I kill him now, Mamma?”
“With that?” he scoffed. “Don’t be funny.” “Or should I wait?”
“You better get something sharper.”
“It’ll do. God. Isn’t it going to be beautiful from now on? How are you on polishing apples, Mamma?”
“Excellent,” he said. “I can recommend her.”
“You can?” she said. “Well, that’s good.
Tell me now. Is it true? Or is it just a rumor?”
“I’ve heard you’re going to dust off your fiddle and play in the backyards.”
“Me?” he laughed. “Oh, no—how can I? All the strings are busted.”
She sighed—then shook her head.
“There it is,” she said. “That’s just what I can’t understand.”
“What?” he said. “What is it now? Honest, Ma, I can’t keep up with her.”
“The way you can laugh.”
“Oh, that,” he suddenly frowned. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“You must have something up your sleeve. What is it? Is it another job?”
“No,” he glanced away distastefully. “There’s no other job.”
“Then what are you doing? Do you know what you’re doing?”
“Of course I do,” he said angrily. “Are you going to talk to me like all the rest? I thought you were different.”
“What?” she said. “You too?”
“What d’you mean—you too?”
“That’s all I’ve been hearing lately—I’m different. You must’ve been talking to Lou. You know what I do every time he leaves me? I look myself over very carefully to see if I have four eyes or six legs or something. I mean it—when he gets on that subject, he scares me. Different. I’m beginning to hate that word. You know what I think? I think that all the trouble in the world is caused by people who are different. I mean by those who think they are.”
“Now wait a minute,” he said. “Don’t look at me like that.”
“You,” she said. “I’m afraid you’re another.”
“Oh, no, Helen—you’re wrong.”
“You’re twisted too.”
“You’re way off the track.”
“All twisted up. Like me. Right now. But at least I admit it.”
“Ye gods,” he said. “Are you listening, Ma? Maybe you can straighten us out. What’re we talking about?”
“Yes,” said Helen. “What? It’s a good question. That’s the way it’s become in this family. We talk and we talk. But do we ever say anything? You’re right. We used to understand each other. But now? My name’s Helen. What’s yours?”
“Mine is stinky. Who cares? This is really very nice. What’s been happening? I’ve never heard you sound so sad.”
“There comes a time, sonny. You’ll find out. You begin to have reasons.”
“Reasons,” he said. “What reasons?”
“I’ll write you a letter.”
“You mean my quitting?”
“Don’t do it, Joe.”
“Don’t do it?”
“Listen to me.”
“But I’ve already done it.”
“Then back out of it somehow.”
“I can t.”
“You can—I know you can.”
The door slammed—but no one heard it.
“Holy mackerel,” he cried. “Why are you bothering me? You know it’s done—and that’s all there is to it.”
“What’s done?” said Abe. “What the hell’s going on here?”
His intrusion was elaborately casual. His softened hat was shoved back on his head. The short dead end of a butt was stuck to his lip. His slouch was the lean and relaxed (but contemptuous) slouch of a hoodlum gracefully leaning in a darkened doorway. His big and candid eyes of a baby could easily blaze. Tough, the guy was tough, clever with a cue stick, had a highly educated left, threw a hard ball, had speed to burn, could roll them bones. Who did he think he was trying to fool? No one but himself, of course.
“Ah,” said Helen, “wait until you hear. You’ll like this. Go on—ask him. You talk to him. I can’t any more.”
“She can’t,” said Joe. “Don’t worry—she’s been doing all right so far.” “See it?” said Helen. “He’s just like that wall.”
“Hello, Ma,” said Abe. “Are you in this too?”
“Just like that wall,” said Joe. “That’s a hot one.”
“Well?” said Helen. “He’s waiting. Why don’t you tell him?”
“I’ll tell him,” said Joe. “Don’t rush me. I’ll tell him.”
Abe flipped his butt into the open garbage pail.
“This sounds very important,” he said. “Or is it?”
“Oh, it’s important, all right,” said Helen.
“He’s quit his job. How d’you like that?”
“Uh-uh,” said Abe.
“Isn’t that beautiful?”
“Well, what d’you know,” said Abe mockingly. “What happened?”
“Nothing,” said Joe, blushing like a fool.
“Nothing at all. I just quit.”
“You just quit, eh?”
“Today. I gave notice. That’s all.”
“Aha,” said Abe. “I see. And how do you feel otherwise?”
“All right,” Joe quavered, looking directly at him. “I mean it. I’m all right, Abe. I really am. I mean it.”
But oh, the rascal, he said so much more with his eyes, and said it so much more eloquently, that Abe could not resist it—had to believe him at once.
“Okay, then,” he said quietly. “That’s all I wanted to know. Is that all there is? Can I go now?”
“What?” said Helen. “What’s going on here? You mean to say you’re going to let him get away with it?”
“Get away with what?” said Abe, glaring at her. “Do you know? If you don’t, then leave him alone.”
“Leave him alone?”
“He knows what he’s doing.”
“Knows what he’s doing?”
“I do,” cried Joe, jumping up, “I do.”
So out and around them, having almost turned the table over, he threads his way, with his enlarged and plaintive eyes and his sad elongated neck (feeling changed again—though again nothing had been settled), acting gay, crying out gangway, his next stop the bathroom which is so everyday, certainly, yet there is where fresh spunk is magically generated. He claimed he had to get clean. The boys would soon be coming.
Having traveled this far, must he travel further? Naked in a cloud of steam, he dipped his toes in the tub of water, a torment, terrifically hot the way he liked it. Not for a while—please. At last he stood in it, then sank to his knees, and holding on, began to settle backwards slowly, and shut his eyes, and floated, and allowed himself to faint a little—who could see? O go—go away from me. Softly in a whirl, as a god in his ascension, puckering, white as camay soap the weariness, and crinkly blue the towel of the sky, plucking at a single string, piercing music, the water troubled, the trouble below, the trouble. O what is this grief? A bubble, it rises out of the ancestral mist, and when it breaks, the heart breaks with it. Will it be so in paradise too? Nonsense—take fifteen cents. For the sea has no shore. And in it death is soundlessly cascading. O day of deliverance—day of uneasy elation. Is anyone standing? Please sit down. His head rolled to one side. His mind fell, and in falling, heard a bell languorously clang-a-langing. See the joy in his sleeper’s smile. O lady of hour-glass enticement with her pink successive faces and her admirable flounce. Her wrist tinkled as she waved. With a slight bounce of her curious breasts, body heat of her mouth in tidal engulfment, with a whisper of her name, and of all her names, consenting, she crept upon him slyly, and slowly raised her skirt.