Wednesday, August 1, 2018

small poems

These small poems were written between January and July, 2018.

left out overnight in the rain
9 poetry books
my foolish neighbor

low-hanging branch
my umbrella tickles
the bellies of wet leaves

gentle rainwalk
under a wide-brimmed umbrella
my smile stays dry

morning walk without my watch
easy to stay in the
present moment

spring walk
new route
old smells

chalked on the sidewalk
2 robins look pleased

cafe dewitt
a birthday candle
on my scone

morning walk
just for fun
counting crocuses (48)

supermarket check-out line
no lottery ticket for me
i already feel lucky

mother and i
blowing kisses into the phone
we don’t want to say good-bye

silly typo
mother corrects me
with an emoji

reading along
up pops “antimacassar”
remembering grandma’s old apartment

thinking of my grandmother
peeling an orange 
why am i crying?

how precious you are
dear old chair
always here to welcome me home

life changes
empty hangers
in my closet

reading about
i feel warmer already

not long ago
a black cat sat where i sit now
(we never knew each other)

snowy path
first i hear him
then i see him

morning walk
stone buddhas
bird buddhas
human buddhas

at the base of a sun-bronzed tree
a single robin’s egg
precarious future
   (using some words from the Paint Chip Poetry Game)

don’t be an ice cap my friend
come in from the fog
to the hearth —
we’re all in this together
   (using some words from the Paint Chip Poetry Game)


Here are some more small poems, from last year, that never made it onto my blog:

dusk arrives
crows depart
the one remaining candle flickers —
on the other side of the window
a man scrapes snow and ice from his car —
other than that
the street is quiet

a vase of purple tulips
a room with a view
sister crow flies by

a full cupboard
mugs & bowls & small china plates
i choose the chipped cup

now it is easier
to just accept

i envy other people's

moving from chair to couch
and back again
turning one lamp off
another lamp on
a bulb goes out
and before I can replace it
another bulb
in another room
goes out —

early morning walk
a new path
another Little Free Library

moving day
my neighbor transfers armloads of stuff
from here to there

crossing the bridge
a spider's web
my tangled thoughts

these purple and blue plastic hair clips
reason enough
to be happy

caught in a downpour
no umbrella
i don't mind

ankle-deep in a cold puddle

all the barefoot children
summer solstice

notebooks from '93
i'm not even curious
recycling time

my neighbor's front porch
battered boots, muddy sneakers
3 chewed-up frisbees —
i never thought i'd say this but
i miss their growly old dog

snowy-day photos
in a small pile
on my desk —
carefully studying each one
refreshing on this hot summer day

quiet companion
following me down the street
white butterfly

a small blue vase
a single daisy
this morning after the rain

once i knew the lyrics
to dozens of songs . . .
now i chant
om shanti om shanti om shanti

Friday, June 30, 2017

moonglow: small poems, by zee zahava

lonely moon
i know a heron who would
welcome you into her nest

sleepy moon
i crocheted an afghan
for you to snuggle under

ballet moon
utterly adorable
in your tangerine tutu

shakespearean moon
surely it is better to be
than not to be

bear moon
i'm all out of honey
but please come for tea anyway

laughing moon
i love the way
your belly rises and falls

haiku moon
each syllable
brings me closer to you

walking moon
in your brand new sneakers
i can hardly keep up with you

patient moon
inching toward you . . .
your friend the spider

upside-down moon
now the rivers don't know if
they're coming or going

nearsighted moon
how often have you mistaken
dustballs for dragons?

matchmaker moon
what a brilliant introduction —
bee, meet flower

insomnia moon
when you can't sleep
do you count stars?

old woman moon
still looking through
young woman eyes

rebel moon
breaking all the rules
you make for yourself

traveling moon
how is it possible
you missed your train . . . again

forgetful moon
may I suggest

possessive moon
you'd have more friends
if you shared your pretty marbles

brave moon
you stood up for me
i'll do the same for you

fashionista moon
on you
the hot pink feather boa is divine

yoga moon
perhaps you've been standing on your head
long enough

mango moon
to get enough of you

disheveled moon
you look like you were tossed around
by your dreams last night

thrifty moon
shopping with you isn't as much fun
as i thought it would be

bronx moon
i'm sorry to have to say this . . .
you can't go home again

grieving moon
countless waves
carry your tears away

tango moon
claiming the horizon
as your own private ballroom

worn-out moon
now is the time
to sink into a lavender bubble bath

curious moon
go right ahead
ask me anything

hula hoop moon
spinning spring
into summer

new moon
take a flashlight
the next time you go to the outhouse

no-poem moon
all i can do is love you
there are no words

roller skating moon
who would have thought you could be
so graceful on wheels

turtle moon
leave your shell on the sandy shore
let's go skinny dipping

purple moon
i almost mistook you
for a field of irises

zen moon
i dropped by to help you
rake your rock garden

cautious moon
you must be weary
sleeping with one eye open

mother moon
i think of you each year
at lilac time

ice cream moon
not everyone can handle 3 scoops
but you can

garden moon
thank you for reminding me . . .
nobody owns the flowers

summer solstice moon
longest night of the year . . .
let's play hide and seek in the dark

full moon
when you feel shy
come hide behind my curtain

flirtatious moon
there you are
playing footsie with the stars

rejuvenating moon
when i feel old and tired
i look for you

bewitching moon
the window shades refused
to shut you out last night

pen-pal moon
after all these years
i still can't read your handwriting

midnight moon
we're both still awake
come down and snuggle

stay-at-home moon
put your feet up
have another cup of cocoa

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

small poems written (mostly) in the month of May

for many days
no haiku . . .
my thoughts filled with
tulips and birdsong

visiting the tulips
red on red on red

some days
only my socks
make me laugh

ocean morning
stuffing my bathing suit
with sea shells

all flowers are

talking with you
dear old friend
the comfort of silence

the long memory
of a red mountain —
each rock, each cloud

where do fireflies
go to nap —
this perfect morning

not yet ripe 

we don't care —

a day with my wild friend

under honest clouds

your winter hands

unbroken lines

heavy with secrets

you fly west . . .
i walk
into the rising sun

the used bookstore
so many
old friends

a disturbing dream
about punctuation . . .
i wake up laughing

my neighbor's peonies
rain-battered and weary —
kindred spirits

in the middle of the night
i wonder —
what if i were named iris

in the pause
between thunder claps
the faint tinkle of wind chimes

teasing dad
about his ratty old slippers —
we laughed but he didn't

this morning
waking up thinking of you
2 hours behind —
time zones do a number on my head

bored with the neighborhood squirrels
— oh! a chipmunk! —
the day brightens

my neighbor's lopsided house
even the irises

-- -- --

These were written on May 19, 20, 21 at Light on the Hill Retreat Center:

entering the labyrinth
who am i . . .
exiting the labyrinth
who am i . . .

haven't i seen you
here before . . .
white butterfly

walking the labyrinth
each rock
its own haiku

each in our own world
two early morning poets
side by side

i am here
you are there
dandelion fluff

an open window
my fear

--- --- ---

These were written from late March to mid-May, as I explored my connection to my child-self (inner child):

morning walk —
my child-self greets everyone
(and everything) . . .
kids waiting for the school bus
2 trash collectors
the shy teenager with purple hair
forsythia! forsythia!
a cardinal
and the two upright daffodils
waiting for us
when we return

walking with my child-self
at the corner
we look both ways

hurry hurry —
my child-self pulls me along —
baby irises

my child-self and i
see an odd-looking mushroom
on the road —
we take a closer look
and realize it is
just a piece of candy —
we encourage each other
in our delusions

after a hard rain
with my child-self

dressed in black
except my socks —
green, purple — mismatched —
my child-self's idea

nestling between
my child-self and my grandma —
afternoon nap

my child-self reminds me —
this one prayer —
exhale . . .

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.