Monday, May 15, 2017

Beauty Culture

I read this story on Sunday, May 7, during the Spring Writes Literary Festival. It's one of my longest. It's also one of my favorites. I hope you enjoy reading it.

   
There was a bit of a screw-up at the Extension Center. I signed up for their woodworking class on Thursday mornings, that’s a good time for me. Though now that I’m not working any time is good for me. I figured, hey, I took shop back in school, I know my awl from my elbow. And Betty wants me out of the house, she says my retirement is killing her. Me too, but in a different way. It’s not like I want to help her fold the laundry or anything, but a man should be useful somehow.
   
So I mailed in my registration, I wrote out a check, I did everything like you’re supposed to. But when I showed up on the first day they told me they had to cancel woodworking, not enough people signed up. I was there already, they had my money, I said “What else you got?” And the person they had working there at the front desk, she might be a nice woman, I don’t know otherwise, but to me she seemed like a ding-a-ling, she says to me “Beauty Culture?” Like she’s asking me a question. To which I had no answer. But it turned out she wasn’t really asking, she was telling. Thursday mornings, 10 until noon, The Extension Center offers a class called Beauty Culture. Call me crazy; I signed up.
   
I wouldn’t want the guys down at the plant to know this, but it’s really not so bad. The first week we learned about our colors. If you asked me I would have said I was blue. My coveralls were navy, 35 years I wore that uniform. That’s almost 9,000 days in all. I added it up once. And on the weekends, when I wasn’t in those coveralls, I'd be in my denims. So when the teacher, her name is Nadine — she won’t let us call her Miss or Mrs. anything — when she did my colors and told me I was a green, it came as a big surprise. "And a little purple here and there won’t kill you, Benny. Don't be afraid of purple."  Like I’d be afraid of a color.

They’re very strict in Beauty Culture. The next week we all had to show how we incorporated what the teacher taught us. There was this one woman, she walked in and her hair was dyed pink. Even Nadine admitted she didn’t expect us all to go to such an extreme. Thank God. I had on a green sweater. I went out and bought it special, at the K-Mart. Betty almost fainted, she said she never knew me to buy a piece of clothing for myself before. Which I don’t think is entirely true.
   
I haven’t told her anything. She still thinks I’m taking woodworking. Beauty Culture isn’t the kind of topic you want to bring up with your wife at this stage in the game. But she liked the sweater. And Nadine said it did wonders for my complexion. A little encouragement goes a long way with me.
   
I’m learning a lot of new things in this class, things I never heard of before. Did you know you’d be doing your hair a favor if you used a good cream rinse once a week? Not just you, I mean everybody. There’s something in it, some chemicals, or maybe it’s an enzyme, that helps your hair to grow. So while you’re washing it, you’re also adding to its health. Now with my hair, it would be a miracle if a little conditioning did anything for me. But Nadine says it’s better to think positive. “As long as you’ve got a single hair on your head, Benny, you should use a good conditioner every week.”
   
Anyway, there was a little debate among the ladies about what makes a good conditioner and I think they decided it’s not about money, it’s about texture. I didn’t pay too much attention. I asked the woman sitting next to me, Frannie, what she uses and she wrote it down for me on a little piece of paper. The next time I’m in the K-Mart I’ll pick some up. Can’t hurt.
   
Did I mention that all the other students in this class are female? Besides Frannie there's a Suzi, a Toni, Dottie and a Tammy. They’re very big on the “eee” sound in Beauty Culture. Except for the name Nadine, which I think has something to do with her being the teacher. It’s a sign of respect. Makes sense, I guess.

I don't mind being the only man, I’m used to being around women. There's my wife Betty of course, and Marla, my daughter, and I have four sisters, but thank God I don't have to see them more than once or twice a year. Women have their own way of talking. If you don’t try to listen to every word they say you can usually get the general idea and do what they expect of you. That’s my philosophy, if you want to keep the peace. So I’m going to buy the cream rinse and while I’m in the store I might look into something purple, too. Socks, maybe. 

Yesterday Betty asked me when I’m going to bring something home that I made in woodworking. She says it’s been a few weeks already, don’t I have a spice rack for her? I tell her it’s about the process, not the product. That’s something else I learned in Beauty Culture.
   
This morning, Nadine demonstrated the proper way to give a manicure. So naturally she chose me as the guinea pig. She called me the model, but it’s the same thing. She’s a funny kid but I don’t mind her having her little jokes because let’s face it, it’s all screwy, a guy like me in Beauty Culture with a pack of women.
   
So what happened is they all crowded around Nadine and me to get a good look and I held my hands out in front of me on this little tray. Nadine says a good manicurist always offers her client a little something extra, maybe a soak in a dish of warm soapy water or a hand massage. I think that’s a nice touch, a way to ease into things, like in the old days when you’d go to a barber and he'd cover your face in a hot towel. I don’t know if they do that anymore. My barber, he doesn’t do it, he’s all business. But the old way, with a towel, that was nice.
   
So Nadine, she takes my right hand between her two hands and she starts rubbing it, very gently, and she says to me “Benny, you got good bone structure, your hand’s nice and solid but it also has some fluidity.”
   
I don’t know what she’s talking about. Of course I’m solid, I worked at the packing plant 35 years, you got to have good bones. Fluidity is another story. Half of what she says goes right over my head.
   
When she finishes with my right hand she starts in on my left and all of a sudden I feel it's getting a little hot in the room. Which is one of the reasons why I haven't told Betty none of this. She doesn’t know about Beauty Culture, and she’s not going to find out. Because I know what she would say. Me in a class with all women, plus the teacher who is — I've gotta be honest — something of a looker.

Betty would put 2 and 2 together and it will add up to 5. She’ll think hanky panky. But it’s not. We learn about our colors, and about the importance of taking care of your hair. And we learn extras, things that aren't exactly about beauty but they sure are about culture. Nadine taught us how to make crepe paper carnations one week, so you can always bring your own bouquet as a last minute present. Mine turned out pretty good, as a mater of fact, but I threw it away at McDonald's after class. How could I have explained that to Betty? You don't make a crepe paper flower arrangement in woodworking, right?
   
What I'm saying is, there’s no funny stuff that goes on in Beauty Culture. Nadine is a professional and we all respect her for it. But when she was rubbing my hands, I have to admit, I was not 100% thinking about how a good manicure is a sign of good breeding.

It was something of a relief to me when she finally got to my nails. All the while she’s working on me she’s explaining how to gently push back the cuticles. “Not too rough, girls,” she says to the ladies, and then she starts trimming the little bits of skin with those tiny doll scissors. She was very careful. You’ve got to be. Nadine explained how it’s important to keep your tools sterilized, to avoid the possibility of infection. Toni says her sister-in-law got a case of lockjaw from a bad manicure. “Must have been rusty scissors,” Nadine says. “Always go to a reputable practitioner.”
   
I’ll have to figure out a way to work that into a conversation with my daughter, Marla. I’m not sure what she knows and what she doesn’t know, about the whole beauty culture field. It’s not exactly father/daughter material. But now I'm concerned. Maybe she doesn’t use a cream rinse, maybe she doesn’t push back her cuticles. This class is opening up a whole new can of worries for me.
   
So then Nadine says I’m all prepped, she’s going to apply the polish. The ladies in the class are excited. “Give him Fire Engine Red,” Dottie says, “it'll go with his cheeks.”
   
Damn, I was blushing. But Nadine, what a good egg she is, she says she's going use a clear polish. It's a manly look, she tells me. All the big movie stars do it now — George Clooney, Di Niro.
   
“Di Niro wears nail polish?” I ask her. This I find hard to believe. “Sure,” she says, “it’s very in. Even some football players.” There’s a good chance she’s making this stuff up, but really what do I care?
   
Back when I was still working, if I'd seen a guy at the plant with polish on his fingernails, even clear polish, let’s just say I would have had a comment. But everything’s different now. When you’re retired it pays to cultivate an open mind. That’s what Betty tells me, and I see the point. “Beware of atrophy,” she says. You’d think she was taking a class at the Extension Center too, a vocabulary class. But no, she gets all this from the TV.
   
So that's what I'm doing, I'm trying to cultivate an open mind. I let Nadine put on the polish. It’s not as easy as you might think. It’s like coloring inside the lines and it wouldn't take much for something to go seriously wrong. But she does a very nice job. I don't know how she’s able to be so steady. The ladies are impressed, there’s a certain amount of oohing and ahhing. She says to them “Girls, when you practice on each other, never lose your concentration. Don’t let your mind wander for even a second and you’ll be be alright.” In some ways, Beauty Culture is harder than the packing plant. There, the best thing you could do was let your mind wander.
   
That must be what happened to me, my mind started to wander, because there’s Nadine, putting the clear polish on me, and suddenly I’m a little boy again, back in my mother’s kitchen, sitting on a chair watching her polish her nails. She used a light shade, a pearly pink, like the inside of a shell it was.

And then before I knew it I was saying “excuse me” to Nadine and the other ladies, and I walked out of the room.
   
I went right down the hall to the men’s bathroom and I just stood in there and my heart was pounding in my chest. I thought maybe I was sick or having some sort of an attack, but then I realized it wasn’t that. I was just crying. It was because of my mother. Maybe the smell of the polish brought her back, or the way Nadine calls me Benny.
   
Anyway, after a while I felt like myself again, and I went back to the classroom. They were all waiting for me. “Are you okay Benny?” they asked, and I could tell they really wanted to know.
   
“Yeah, no problem,”I said.
   
“You didn't smudge your polish did you?" Nadine asked.
   
“Oh Nadine,” I said to her, “if I've learned anything in Beauty Culture it's how not to smudge my polish.”

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mom and the Bozo

In honor of Mother's Day I'm re-posting this story, written a few years ago. Much of it is fiction but the essence of it is truly-true.

My mother has never tasted alcohol. Once, when she was in college, she went to a party, and it almost happened, but it didn’t. My father, who’d been her steady boyfriend since they were both 15, had to work late that night. He didn’t like the idea of Eve going alone. “What can happen to me Morty, I’m not a china doll,” she said. So what could he do? He went to work, but he worried. And he had good reason to worry. 
   
Some bozo, not to name names but it was Warren Nussbaum, sees my mother standing in a corner, no Morty hovering protectively at her side. Warren approaches. He asks Eve if he can get her a drink. She says, “No thank you, Warren.” It’s not exactly a brush-off, she doesn’t mean to hurt his feelings, but she doesn’t want a drink. Warren isn’t used to the word no. Especially not from a woman. He’s never heard it from his mother.  So when Eve says no, he doesn’t get it.
   
“Wait right there,” he says, “I’ll be back in a second with a rum and coke.” He returns with two glasses, one for him and one for her. He pushes a glass right into her hand, so she holds it. But she doesn’t drink from it. Warren notices. “Bottoms up,” he says, and Eve, who has never heard the expression before, but who assumes it’s something dirty, blushes. The room is dark, Warren doesn’t see the blush, he’s just set on one thing: Get this girl drunk.

But he doesn’t know my mother very well. She’s innocent as a lamb chop and she would never do anything rude or, God forbid, inappropriate. But also she will never do anything she does not want to do. So she says, “Good night, Warren,” and she walks off in search of her friend Big Bella.
   
Big Bella is not big. She is, in fact, tiny; not even five feet tall and barely 100 pounds. But she was born three days before her cousin who was, quite naturally, called Little Bella. That’s the way things were done in those days. Anyway, Eve finds a coaster to put her drink on, so it won’t leave a water ring, and spends the rest of the night hanging out with Big Bella. Just to be on the safe side. Because she knows that when you’re a good girl it pays to have a friend with a mouth on her. Big Bella has a mouth. And while you and I would never consider her bodyguard material, she did okay by my mom that night.
   
Warren Nussbaum eventually discovered Natalie Klein (who he did not end up marrying, he married Barbara Glassman, who wasn’t even at that party) but still, Warren and Natalie hit it off great for an hour or two. She was very fond of rum and coke.

Years later Warren and his second wife, Elaine, shared a table with my mom and dad, and a few other old friends, at somebody’s son’s bar mitzvah party, and the whole story about the drink-that-was-not-drunk came out.

It was the first time my father heard it. He didn't like it one bit. He almost stabbed Warren Nussbaum with a herring fork. Big Bella had to restrain him.

My mother was not pleased. “No bloodshed, Morty,” she said. “This is a white tablecloth. Show some respect.”



   

Friday, May 12, 2017

Rochelle's Mother

This is one of the stories I read last Sunday, as part of the Spring Writes Literary Festival. A fictional piece about a made-up friend and her made-up mother.
 

My best friend Rochelle, her mother was an underwear model, and sometimes even a nude model, though she never intended to be either, and she wasn't even aware that she was, until one Saturday morning in the dry cereal aisle of Daitch's Supermarket, when her shopping cart bumped into Sheldon Feingold's cart.

He bowed to her in his Old World gentlemanly way and said "Excuse me, Mrs., I just have to tell you, of all your beautiful bras I like the black lace one the very best, and also, if you don't mind me mentioning it, your" — and here he lifted his two cupped hands to his chest, to indicate her breasts — "they are so lovely, they give me good dreams at night."

Rochelle's mother, who other people called Estelle Kornblum, but not me, almost passed out, right there in the aisle next to the Rice Krispies.

Somehow, in a state of embarrassment and shock, she managed to walk the 5 blocks back to her apartment, where she immediately convened a gathering of her three closest friends for an emergency session of Coffee and Kvetch.

The women found the story appalling. How could it be that Sheldon Feingold — retired tailor; respected congregant at Temple Beth Shalom; a man revered in our building for the ease with which he could remove a splinter, no matter how badly it might be embedded in the heel of a child's foot — was nothing but a no-goodnick. A rotten filthy slobbery sneaky squinty disgusting Peeping Tom.

"Feh on him," said Missy Weiskoff's mother, and she spit three times, but in a very ladylike manner so not one spray of spittle landed anyplace.

Naturally, the conversation turned to the particular quirks and oddities of our large apartment building, with its architectural curves and corners that allowed Mr. Feingold's bedroom window to face directly into Rochelle's mother's bedroom, although the two apartments weren't even on the same floor.

There was a time-honored rule in the building: Never look out your window, unless you're looking down onto the street to make sure your children aren't doing something they shouldn't be doing. Generations had abided by this policy, so how was Rochelle's mother supposed to know that all during that long hot summer, with nighttime temperatures remaining in the upper 80s, her bedroom curtains left open to attract any passing breeze, she had been attracting the unwelcome gaze of old Mr. Feingold.

"Estelle, you're such an innocent," Missy Weiskoff's mother tut-tutted.

"An ignoramus, maybe?" Wendy Leiberman's mother asked, but kindly, so as not to give offense.

My own mother tried to look on the positive side. "Essie," she said, "let's face it, you have the best bosoms of us all, maybe it's time someone was admiring them." Even Rochelle's mother had to admit that she did have nice bosoms.

Mrs. Leiberman thought maybe they should head straight up to Mr. Feingold's apartment and give him a serious what-for. Mrs. Weiskoff thought maybe they should wait and get their husbands involved, to ensure an even more serious what-for.

But in the end, there was no what-for delivered at all. Because they were peace-loving women. And also because it was such a hot day, and something that required any effort was just not going to happen.

You might be asking yourself where Rochelle's daddy stood in all of this. Mr. Kornblum was standing with his feet firmly planted on a tiny square of parched lawn in Tenafly, New Jersey, which is where he moved when he left Rochelle's mother, and where he now lived with his new wife and his new daughters.  Mr. Kornblum was never told about the Feingold business.

Brouhahas come and go, and this one was quickly dropped. In a way. But in another way it was never dropped. The children in the building, especially the girls, were instructed to ignore Mr. Feingold if we happened to see him on the stairs, or out back where we went to leave bags of garbage.

And too bad for you if you got a splinter in your foot and your mother couldn't get it out, not even with a needle she sterilized on the stove, you'd just have to suffer until that splinter worked its way out on its own. Mr. Feingold didn't have a friend left in the building. You could almost feel sorry for him. But nobody did.

The months passed, and before you could say latke it was already Hanukah and Rochelle's mother called her friends together once more for an emergency session of Coffee and Kvetch. But this time, it wasn't to kvetch. She had a big announcement: she met someone. A man. A man with a good head of hair and a respectable job as a librarian.

"I met him on the train," Rochelle's mother said, "on the D train, if you can believe it."

They couldn't believe it. How does a woman get on a train and end up sitting next to a man, a librarian no less, on his way home after visiting his mother on Jerome Avenue, and get to talking, and discover, even above the din of the subway, that he's the one for her? And to top it off, a few short weeks later, they're getting married.

"It doesn't happen like this, not even in the movies," Wendy Leiberman's mother said. My mother said maybe they should start going to different movies. Missy Weiskoff's mother said she could never ride the D train again without wondering if something like a fairytale might happen to her.

Of course the women were happy for Rochelle's mother. She'd been  so lonely after Mr. Leiberman left, and this new man, Harvey Moskowitz was his name, he sounded like a mensch. After all, they met because he'd been visiting his mother.

There was only one problem and it was a big one. Mr. Harvey Moskowitz lived in Astoria, Queens. "We'll never see you no more," Mrs. Weiskoff cried. "Don't say that," said Rochelle's mother, "I'll come back to see you every time Harvey visits his mama, she's just one subway stop away."

But it never happened. She never came back, not once. And I never saw Rochelle again. Astoria, Queens. They might as well have moved to the moon.

By the following summer I was heading off to sleep-away camp with my new best friend, Rhonda Shoemaker, and we were going to be in the same bunk, and we were going to make enough lanyards that we could sell them to our friends when we got back home, and we were both going to be rich.

The night before I left for camp my mother was still packing my duffle bag. A small pile of shorts and T-shirts leaned precariously on my bed, next to my bathing suit, towels, flashlight, and three cans of insect repellent.

Also, six pairs of Carter's white cotton underpants, and my brand new white cotton training bra.

My mother held the bra up in the air like a flag. "Listen to me," she said, in a tone of voice I always listened to because it meant she was about to impart words of true wisdom. "I want you to promise, that for the rest of your life, you will only wear plain white 100% cotton bras. Never black. Never lace."

I stuck my fingers in my ears. This was not the true wisdom I was looking for.

"Listen to what I'm telling you," my mother insisted. "Never black, and never lace. You can't be too careful. Remember Estelle Kornblum. Remember Mr. Feingold."

"Mom," I begged her, "please stop. I'm only eleven."

But my mother wouldn't, or couldn't, stop. "There are Mr. Feingolds everywhere you go," she said, "they come in all shapes and sizes. Don't be fooled. And don't let anybody get fresh with you."

With these comforting words she sent me off to Camp WollyWolly,  in the Catskill wilderness.

By the time Rhonda and I returned we were no longer friends, we didn't have a single lanyard to sell, and I had outgrown my training bra. The next day my mother took me shopping.

As we headed for the Girls' Department in Alexander's Department Store I reached for my mother's hand and gave it a little squeeze.

"I know what to look for," I assured her. "Plain, white, 100% cotton. Never black. Never lace."

Mom squeezed my hand back. I could tell she was relieved.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The White Hand

This is one of the stories I read on Sunday, as part of the Spring Writes Literary Festival.
 
 

(Inspired by a photograph by Sid Kaplan: "Doorway, P. S. 190, New York City, 1955")
 

It was Stinky Markowitz’s idea. Later, some people said it was Benny Bumstock but it wasn’t. Benny was the sidekick. Stinky was the brains.
   
If Mrs. Markowitz hadn’t been baking that day, and if the living room phone hadn’t rung, and if it wasn’t that sister of hers, Gladys, the pretty one — you know, the one with three husbands — and if they hadn’t talked so long, then none of this would have happened. But why even think like that? Like my Bubbe says: If a cow had wheels it would be a wagon.
   
So Stinky comes home for a glass of milk, maybe a cookie, too, and he sees the kitchen is a mess, flour everywhere, mother nowhere. And zip-zap, out of the blue, an idea hits him.
   
He sticks his head out the window where Benny, Lefty Katz, and Morris Blattski are going through the garbage cans, looking for cigarette butts. “Fellas,” he calls, “come on up.” So they do. They climb up the fire escape, through the Markowitz’s kitchen window, and quick like a mosquito they’re in like Flynn.
   
“Boys,” Stinky says, sweeping his arm in an arc big enough to take in the flour canister, the rolling pin, the pie pans — in short, the whole kitchen table — ”Whaddya think?”
   
Now Benny, Lefty, and even Morris, they’re not the quickest wits on the street. I told you already, Stinky was the brains in this outfit. So they don’t say nothing, ‘cause they don’t think nothing.
   
But Stinky, his mind never shuts off, not even when he’s sleeping. He sees the flour and to him it spells opportunity.
   
“Just do like I do,” he tells them, and he puts his hands — splat, splat — down on the table. The other guys, they do the same. When Stinky lifts his hands, his palms are coated in flour. Benny, Lefty, Morris: ditto.
   
Stinky’s grinning so big you can see the wad of pink Bazooka in his right cheek. Slowly, Benny sees the light. “Yeah,” he says, a grin coming to him as well, “this is good.” But the light Benny sees, it’s not the same light Stinky’s got. Benny just sees mischief. Stinky sees victory.
   
“Follow me, men.” And Stinky’s out the window and down the fire escape, with Benny and Lefty right behind him, and Morris bringing up the rear.        

Morris, he doesn’t have a clue, and Lefty’s not feeling too good, his foot, from where the dog bit him that time, it’s throbbing again, what with all the up and down on the fire escape. But still, the four of them meet up on the corner, they turn the corner, they walk to the next corner, and there it is: Fish and Toots Morelli’s house.
   
The evil Morelli Brothers, one worse than the next. Fish is older and stronger but Toots is meaner. Stinky and his gang have been known to walk three blocks out of their way to avoid the Morellis, but this day — bold as bombardiers — they walk right up to the Morelli's front door.
   
Stinky slaps both his hands against the wood. He steps back and examines the effect. Good clean prints. Benny, he slaps his right hand, his left hand — not a single complaint. Next, Lefty — perfect. Morris Blattski, well his left print is okay but his right one’s smudgy. “Stinky,” he whines, “you never told me not to scratch myself.”
   
Except for that, it’s a good job: seven perfect white hand prints and one smudgy one. On the Morelli Brother’s front door. In broad daylight. And they didn’t get killed.
   
The boys take off, heading for the playground, where they squirt water out of the drinking fountain until the parkie chases them off. Then they go to the swings and make kiss-kiss noises at the girls. All in all, a truly excellent day.
   
In the morning, the whole neighborhood knows the Morelli family has taken off. Old Mrs. Carsey saw the brothers and their parents heading toward the subway a little after ten at night, each one carrying three, four shopping bags full of stuff. “That Toots,” she says, “he was crying. I swear.” That part was hard to believe, but the rest of her story was undeniable: the Morelli house stood empty of human life. All that was left were the flies and the roaches.
   
I’ll tell you what happened. Mr. Morelli, he comes home from the shoe store where he works and he sees those white hand prints on his front door. Now Mr. Morelli, he isn’t what you’d call a deep thinker. He knows about the Black Hand, the Cosa Nostra, but he’s never heard of the White Hand before. He figures what he doesn’t know could really hurt him. He must’ve done something pretty bad to get the White Hand mad at him like this: 7 1/2 prints. Oh boy. Whatever he did, he wishes he hadn’t done it.
   
So he gets his wife and his sons to pack up, fast-fast-fast, and just like that, the Morellis are gone, off to a new neighborhood where the brothers can torture some other poor schnooks. 
   
Now Mr. and Mrs. Morelli, they were good people, no one wished them any harm. But there’s something you’ve got to understand about Fish and Toots: they were just plain rotten. When they left  there was dancing in the streets. And not just kids, but grown-up people, too. Dancing with tears of joy in their eyes.
   
Mrs. Leiberman, the grocer’s wife, she heard Benny was behind it all, she wanted to give him a reward: five dollars! Everybody was going, “Yay, Benny. Atta boy Benny,” like he was really something. Forget about Benny-the-Bum. They were calling him Brave Benny now.
   
But Benny, you got to give him credit for this, he didn’t let the praise go to his head. He told everyone that Stinky Markowitz was the real hero, and Morris and Lefty, they helped too. So they each got one dollar, and the other dollar, Mrs. Leiberman kept it. That’s only fair.
   
After that, nobody threw water on those boys when they played stickball in the street. The women, they didn’t clutch their pocketbooks close to their bosoms. It was like a real peaceful feeling came to the neighborhood. It was very nice.

It lasted a little over a week.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Tall Tale . . . With Chickens

This is one of the stories I read on Sunday afternoon, at The History Center, as part of the Spring Writes Literary Festival. A little background: a few years ago I set out to write a story about something I knew absolutely nothing about, and to fill it with 100% nonsense. I don't know a thing about chickens, but I had a lot of fun imagining what might happen if a certain woman came into contact with a bunch of chickens.

 

Sophie hated chickens. Which was a problem, since her husband, my Cousin Jasper, was a chicken man, born and bred.

When he invited Sophie into his life she was prepared for all sorts of bachelor shenanigans: a mess of toenail clippings scattered willy-nilly on the bathroom floor, and more than a little belching and farting. But she was not prepared for chickens.

Had she been from around here, she would have known that Cousin Jasper and his chickens were as close as an owl and its hoot. But poor Sophie, coming from Pretty Marsh, she was as innocent as a minute. No good ever came from marrying the first man who asks you. Especially if you meet him at a Friday Night Barn Dance in the middle of August.

That very first morning when Sophie arrived in her new home, she saw it, she heard it, she smelled it: she was  living on a chicken farm.
   
Not being one to waste time, she headed straight for the yard to show those chickens who was boss. The way I heard it, she just hunkered down on the cracked earth and followed them around, staring right into their beady little eyes.
   
If you know anything at all about chickens you know they don’t go for no eyeball to eyeball contact — not from each other and not from a pointy-chinned woman like Sophie. The little chicks didn’t know what to make of her, but they didn’t like it one bit.
   
The chickens took off for their roosts lickety-split, squawking to beat Christmas, trying to get away from Sophie’s eyes.

Now, wouldn’t you think, in their churned up condition, they’d suffer from a stoppage of their functions? When I’m all jiggered my internal plumbing just shuts right down on me. But not those chickens. They started popping out eggs like there was no tomorrow. Ten, fifteen, twenty eggs a piece they were laying. Started in like that on the first day and it never did let up. Yes indeed, that’s gospel.
   
I know it sounds impossible, but that’s just because you never met Sophie. That woman was so single-minded in her detestation of all things fowl that she terrified those chickens into laying more eggs than was natural.
       
Cousin Jasper, first thing he figured was — witchy stuff. He was scared he’d gone and married him a genuine handmaiden of Satan. Well, that’s the kind of man he is, a tad simple, though he plays a real sweet harmonica.

But then the Agriculture Inspector came down to see what was what — tiny little government man all the way from Beaker Flats, had a mustache weighed more than he did. And he says he read somewhere, in one of those chicken magazines, that it could happen just like it did: chickens take it into their pea-sized brains to lay more eggs than the sky’s got stars and they just go ahead and do it.
   
He told Cousin Jasper that Sophie was no witch. She was a phenomenon. That’s what he said. And the chickens, they were a phenomenon too. That Agriculture Inspector, he said people were going to love this story: human interest, he called it. To my way of thinking it’s more like chicken interest.

The folks from the chicken magazine came to see what was up. And the people from Time Magazine, they came too. And of course there were TV cameras. A whole bunch of hoopla. And everybody who showed up, they had to pay cold hard cash money if they wanted a picture of those chickens. Sophie made the rule, and it was a good one.
   
She kept the dollars in old flour bags under the kitchen sink. Pretty soon she had more than twenty bags full of money. To say nothing of what she and Cousin Jasper got from selling those eggs. We’re talking a lot of money.

Close your eyes and picture as much money as you have ever seen in one place at one time. Now multiply that by about a thousand. And then go ahead and multiply it again by . . . I don’t know by what, you can just take my word for it, it was a lot of money.
   
Sophie and Jasper, they were rich. They were so rich they would have been fools to stay put on that tired little chicken farm, and let me tell you, that Sophie was no fool.
   
So she took Jasper by one of his bony wrists and she yanked him off to Savannah. Savannah, I tell you. And they had such a nice time there they never did come back home. Not even for a visit.
   
Cousin Jasper passed the farm on to me, seeing as how I am his only living relative. And I moved right in. Sophie was a fine housekeeper. I didn’t find a single toenail clipping anywhere. And believe me, I looked.
   
And in case you’re wondering if those chickens are still popping out eggs like so many marbles, the answer is no, they are not. The chickens I’ve got now, they’re as normal as can be. Which suits me just fine. Give me a brood of one-a-day chickens and I’m happy as a ghost on Halloween. I don’t need to be rich ‘cause I’m not planning on going anywhere. I’m staying right here with my chickens and my dog, Wyatt Earp, and I’m just as pleased I could hope to be.



Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Chicken Feathers

This is one of the stories I read on Sunday, May 7, as part of the Spring Writes Literary Festival. I was reading at The History Center, photo included at the bottom.
 

That summer we were going to share a cabin with the Rubins at Bobkin’s Bungalow Colony in the Catskills. For months Mom and her best friend, Gloria Rubin, had been planning all the details, staying up late in one kitchen or the other with their laughter and schemes.

By the end of June we crammed into Gloria’s green Dodge Dart, Mom sitting up front and my sister Laura and I scrunched into the back with Cookie Rubin, the snottiest girl you’d ever hope not to meet.

It was a rocky trip, because neither Mom nor Gloria knew how to drive, and by the time we arrived in the mountains they were no longer friends. Before we could even unpack, we were thrown out.

"The bathroom's too small for all your toothbrushes," Gloria Rubin said, and since she’d been the one to pay the deposit, we had to go.

Mom dragged Laura and me to a shed called the Main Office. Buddy Bobkin, who ran the place, shook his head and said “Sorry, young ladies, we are all booked up,” and Mom said “Kids, prepare yourselves to schvitz to death in the city this summer,” and Laura began to cry.

So then Buddy said “Well, maybe I have something, but you won’t like it,” and Mom said “We’ll take it,” and it turned out to be a chicken coop.

“Converted chicken coop,” Buddy Bobkin said. I wondered what religion had to do with it.

We moved right in. Laura and I put our clothes in wooden crates because there weren’t any dressers.
Mom unpacked the pots and pans and put them on the shelves where chickens used to sit and lay their eggs.

Over the next few days everyone from the bungalow colony (except Gloria, who we now called Mrs. Rubin, and her awful daughter, Cookie) came to see us and they said “You’ve done wonders with this place, Eve,” and Mom said “Stay for breakfast, I’m making omelets,” but no one ever did.

I think they were afraid they’d find chicken feathers in their eggs, and they would have, too.

There were chicken feathers everywhere. They fell on our eyelids when we slept, and they found their way into our bathing suits, where we hung them out to dry on nails.

We didn’t mind. We were the only family in the history of Bobkin’s Bungalow Colony to spend the entire summer in a chicken coop. And that made us special.

On the weekends, when Dad came up to visit, he’d go “cluck, cluck, cluck” until Mom said “Stop it Morty, it’s converted.”















Monday, May 8, 2017

Just Two Little Letters

Yesterday, as part of the Spring Writes Literary Festival, organized by the Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County, I gave a reading at the History Center. I had planned to read this story but at the last minute I decided there wasn't enough time. So I'm sharing it here on my blog, for the second time, and I hope you enjoy reading it.

The story was inspired by the photograph "Bread Store, 259 Bleeker Street, New York, 1937," by Berenice Abbott.
 

My great-aunt Helen was also an inspiration. None of the details are true but the fighting essence of Helen, who always wanted to see justice done, is woven into this story.

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I don’t have a thing against the Zito family personally. The wife is a woman I would even call sociable. Which is not to say friendly. Friendly I don’t even look for anymore. The husband, too, Mr. Zito himself, I’ve got no complaints with him. He’s not a big talker, but in a baker you don’t need talking.
   
It’s not personal, like some people are trying to make out. It’s not like I have an axe needs grinding. All it is, is a matter of truth in advertising. The sign on the window says sanitary. Look, you see where I’m pointing? Look, why don’t you, it’s bigger than life. If a sign says sanitary then the shop should be sanitary. This I think is not so complex a concept. If you’re not going to be sanitary don’t call in the men with the gold paint and the brushes to paint you a sign on the window that spells out sanitary.        
   
That is my argument in a nutshell. And for this, people are treating me like a pariah.
   
What did I do was so terrible? I brought home a loaf of bread, excuse me, I thought I was entitled to assume it would be full of bread. When you buy bread, you don’t expect to find a mouse baked into the center of it, do you? Yes, a mouse, you heard me right, that’s what I’m telling you, the whole thing was about a mouse.
   
What kind of bread? What kind of a question is that? A loaf of bread. Round. That isn’t the point. Better you should ask me what kind of a mouse. Dead, that’s what kind, a dead mouse in the bread. Mice in the bread is not sanitary. Not in my book.
   
So I brought it back to Zito's. The whole thing, the bread and the mouse. Only the mouse by now it didn’t have its head attached to its body. When I cut in, I accidentally decapitated it. It wasn’t my fault. Believe me, I was more surprised than the mouse. The mouse was already dead by then. Oh sure, to be cooked you have to be dead.
   
Okay, so I arrived with my paper bag. Mr. was in the back by the ovens, Mrs. was helping another customer, so I was patient, I waited my turn, and then I opened my bag and showed her. The bread and the mouse, together in death as in life.

Mrs. took the whole shebang out of my hands, she didn’t even blink. Eyes like a carving knife, I’m telling you, and this I never noticed before. Always in the past she gave me a smile. That day, it was the cutting eyes.        
   
She takes the bag, she throws it under the counter. Then she reaches into the money box, takes out a nickel, and hands it over to me. So far, so good. That’s the least I would expect. But it’s not the most I would expect.

I tell her I want they should take off the word sanitary from their window. What could be more reasonable than that? I say to her, “Mrs. Zito, you have to do what’s right. You have to change your sign.”
   
That’s when she tried to push me out the door.
   
Pushing I don’t like. I was never one for pushing. You could ask anyone. You could ask my sister, Bunny. If she were still alive she’d tell you, all my life if someone put their hands on me it brought out the worst. What can I say? That’s just the way I was made.
   
So then we had the little commotion. I’m sure you heard about it already. Mr. Zito comes in from the ovens, the other ladies in the shop get involved — although to be technical about it, it was none of their business. There were words passed. I won’t deny there were words. Okay already, so there were words. Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never harm you. You ever hear that?

You know the rest of the story. No one wants to take my side. No one. Over this, I even lost an old friend. Edith Bloom. You know Edith Bloom? We were friends 35 years. Yesterday, I passed her over by the bus stop, she didn’t see me. It was like I wasn’t even there. Only 2 feet away from her and she didn’t see me?
   
It seems my manner with the Zitos was not entirely acceptable. That’s what they tell me. My manner. Is this about manners? No! It’s about honesty.
   
That’s why I’m out here in the cold, in the rain, every day with my sign. “Unsanitary.” I printed it myself. You don’t have to go to any fancy print shop to make a point. A little crayon, a little cardboard — I learned this years ago from the garment district. Believe me, this isn’t my first picket line.
   
Can you tell me what’s the crime I’m committing? It’s a public service I’m giving to the neighborhood for free. That window, it still says sanitary. Which is a lie. I’m out here with the other side of the story. In every argument there are two sides. There’s the wrong side and there’s the right side. How could I live with myself if I wasn’t here to stand up for the right side?
   
You ask me what you should do? Who am I to tell you what you should do? You do what you have to do. I’m not concerned to keep people out of the store. The Zito family has to make a living just like everybody else. I don’t want to close down their bakery.
   
My interest is in two letters only. They can call in a new painter tonight. He can put a U and an N, in front of the “Sanitary,” and by tomorrow I’ll be gone. No one will ever know I was here. Two letters. That’s all I’m asking. The world, it could be an entirely different place, with two letters. Justice would be served, with just two little letters.