Monday, March 4, 2019

Perfectly Content

I posted this here last week. Then I was asked to take it down, by a poet who thought that the last two lines of the original piece were too similar to words she had written in a published poem. (Those lines included mention of a year and my age.) So I did remove my post. But now that I think about it, I’m putting it back up, without the last two lines. Because this is my memory, slightly fictionalized, and I like it. So here it is… again. 

I wrote this in one of the weekly writing circles that I offer; our theme that week was Kitchens. 


Many years ago I lived in London, in a bed-sitter not far from Hampstead Heath. It was a small room with a narrow bed, an over-stuffed chair, and a large clothes cabinet that tilted slightly to the left. There was a bathroom down the hall, and I had access to the back garden, but there was no kitchen — just an electric kettle for boiling water. I drank a lot of tea. I was a Bronx girl doing my best to appear English. Most evenings, on my way home from my job as a library assistant, I’d stop and buy a small bunch of anemones from a woman who called me “Love.” Then I’d pick up a spinach tart for supper, or some bread and cheese. As often as possible I’d eat out with friends, in one cheap restaurant or another. Sometimes a kind co-worker invited me to her flat for a home-cooked meal. I never asked anyone to visit me in my room. Except once. A friend was visiting from the States, spending a week in a posh West End hotel. We went together to museums and parks, saw a play, heard a concert. It seemed only right that I would have her over for a meal. I boiled water in the kettle and made us tea. I picked up Cornish pasties from the local pub. For dessert I made a little concoction with plain yogurt, a handful of cashews, and a few currants. My friend was polite. “Lovely, lovely,” she said, “everything is so lovely.” She was also trying to be English. Later, after she returned to America, she sent me a blue aerogram. “Get the hell out of that room,” she wrote. “Find someplace with a kitchen. Grow up already.” I crumpled the thin blue paper and tossed it in the waste basket. I was perfectly content in my bed-sitter. I didn’t want to cook, anyway. What did I need with a kitchen?

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Sound/No Sound: small poems

reaching for the alarm clock
shutting off
the dream

my favorite mug
the voices inside my head

red nail polish
her hands 
so loud

untangling a wave
from the ocean
your deepest sigh

our laughter in this old photograph
my sister and me

all in one bowl
shells from different oceans
sing the same song

i knew you'd arrive today
in my dream
the call of a bamboo flute

waking from a dream
i cry out for my sister
the crow also cries

a stranger's sneeze
floats downriver
enters our canoe

how loud
the phone
not ringing

midnight loneliness
drip drip drip drip drip

dusty and untuned
your piano
such a melancholy day

striking the brass bell
so many yesterdays
begin this way

saturday night
party time
slow dancing to Mozart adagios

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

Sunday, October 21, 2018

A Happy Day

This is another story I read at the library last Sunday. The background: One week in the writing circles a few years ago I asked everyone to describe what a Happy Day would be like for them. I found myself writing about an alternate universe in which I still lived in NYC and I had a young daughter. For the hour or so that I spent in that world, which exists only in my imagination, I was very happy. But afterwards, I was even more happy to return to my Real Life.

“Once there was a girl and her name was I Can’t Hear You, and whenever someone asked her her name she said I Can’t Hear You, so then they’d ask her again and she’d say I Can’t Hear You, and then ....”

“Honey,” I say, “I get it.”
“You do?”
“Uh huh.”
“Do you think it’s funny?”
“Yes, it’s hilarious.”
“I made it up.”
“You’re a very clever girl.”
We walk on, she and I, west to east across the city, which isn’t as far as it sounds because we aren’t all the way west and we aren’t going all the way east.

I push some stray hairs behind her ears. It’s very windy out today but she wouldn’t wear a hat because the sun is shining and she wants to feel it on her head.
“Once I owned the sun,” she says, “no, not owned, I mean once we were friends and we played together all the time. Even when nobody else could see the sun I could because she was my best, best friend. ”
“What happened?” I ask.
“Hunh?” she asks.
“What happened with the sun? Are you still friends?”
“Of course we are. Can’t you tell?” She throws her head way back so that her face is exposed to even more of the sun's rays.
There’s an ice cream truck up ahead so I reach into my purse for my wallet, but she grabs my hand. “We can do better,” she says. It’s the first time she’s used this expression. I hear my mother’s voice in her; it makes me feel mushy inside, right next to my heart.
“Once,” she says, “there was a man and he wasn’t very nice and he carved an ugly face on a pumpkin, but then a fairy came and she made the pumpkin beautiful and she put the ugly face on the man.”
“That’s only fair,” I say. We stop for the light.
“I like red,” she says. “Red Bed Dead Said Red Led Wed Fed Red.”
The light changes and we hurry across. We’re holding hands. I give her fingers a little squeeze. I could say something about that one word, dead, but I keep my mouth shut.
“I like green, too,” she says, and she starts to skip in that hop-jump way she has. “Green Bean Seen Mean Teen.” She gives a little laugh. “Teen Teen Teen Teen Teen Teen.” She looks up into my face and says it again. “Teen.” This is her favorite word.
“One day when I grow up I will be a teenager,” she says, for the umpteenth time, and I say, “You surely will, Honey.”
I don’t think she knows any teenagers. Her cousins are eight and three, her babysitter is 54. Still, she knows being a teenager is the best thing in the whole wide world. She tells me this all the time.
“Once,” she whispers, so I have to bend over to hear her, which is very awkward, but I do it, “there was an old lady who lived in a shoe and when she went to sleep at night she had to lace herself in so no one could hurt her, but what do you think happened?”
“I don’t know,” I say. 
“But what do you think?”
“Did someone come along and steal the shoe with her in it?”
“No, they did not.”
“Then I’m afraid I don’t know.”
“Don’t be afraid, I’ll tell you. A magic person found the shoe and sprinkled magic dust inside, in the holes, you know, for the laces, and in the morning when the old lady woke up she was an orange.”
“An orange?” I ask.
“Uh huh. The kind you eat.”
“Are you hungry?” I ask.
“Yep. But not for an orange.”
“We’re almost home,” I say.
A woman on the other side of the street is walking under a huge striped umbrella.
“It isn’t raining,” she says.
“I know.”
“She is wasting her umbrella.”
“Yes,” I say, “she is.”
“Once,” she says, “a very silly lady who was also foolish, and had once been an orange, decided she wanted to learn how to fly so she jumped up onto a little bird’s back, but the bird was in a tree and it wasn’t flying that day so the silly lady never learned how to fly.

Once,” she says, barely taking a breath, “there was a boy and he was very bad and his mommy made him eat nails, and they tasted like,” she pauses for a second to think, “they tasted like dirty nails.”
“Yuck,” I say, “that doesn’t sound so nice.”
“It isn’t nice, because you know why?”
“Because he wasn’t nice. He was — he was throw up.” I know where this is heading. “He was a big fat disgusting stinky blecky ball of throw up.”
“Okay,” I say, “that’s enough.”
“Is it?” she asks.
“Yes, I think it is.”
“I don’t think it is. I think it’s not enough.”
I give her hand a little squeeze and she squeezes mine back and she says, “Okay, it is enough, I guess.”
By now we’re at our corner and she waves to a stranger in the dry cleaning store. Whenever we walk past the dry cleaning store she waves, and if there’s no one to see through the big window she just waves at the window. She loves the dry cleaning store. She tells me every day that her favorite smell in all the world is the smell that's inside the dry cleaning store. I could worry about this, but I decide not to.
There are so many things I could worry about but today I decide not to worry about any of them.
We take the elevator upstairs and leave our sneakers in the hallway by the front door. We slip our feet into slippers. We both love doing this. She loved it first and I learned it from her.
She runs to the bathroom to pee. I can hear her singing from her perch on the toilet: “Tinkerbell Stinkerbell Honeybell Moneybell Vunderbarbell.” She has a clear, strong voice. She sings very loudly.
I’m preparing two bowls of vanilla ice cream. Baby marshmallows and blue M & M’s go in hers.
When she comes out of the bathroom we take our bowls to the living room and sit on the couch. Her feet don’t touch the ground. Not even close. For a second the sight of her legs dangling over the edge, in those blue dungarees with the cuffs folded back and the red plaid flannel showing, almost makes me sob. But then I laugh, instead. She wiggles her feet up and down until her fuzzy purple slippers fall off and she laughs, too.
“This was such a happy day,” I say.
“What happened today?” she asks.
“Nothing,” I say.    

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Beauty Culture

This is another story that I read last Sunday at the public library. It's the longest piece I've written, and the only story from the point of view of a male character.  

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 in some way.
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 it’s starting to feel 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 there, 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 girls 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 women 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.”

Friday, October 19, 2018

Listen With Both Ears

Here is another story from my little series about Fake Relatives & Neighbors. It's one that I read this past Sunday, October 14th, at the Tompkins County Public Library.

Listen to me Marvin, and listen good: black is not a June color. Black goes with January. In June, give me taupe. I would have looked good in taupe. In black, I was completely invisible. I looked like a widow. Which I am. Thanks to you. Very nice, Marvin, very nice. This I needed like a bad perm. Your sense of timing was never your forté.
Dr. Vineman, he tells me it wasn’t your fault. When the heart goes, it goes, he says. I don’t know about that. Seems to me you could have waited. If not until the fall — I would have worn maroon if you died in October — couldn’t you at least have waited until you got home? Keeling over at the gym, Marvin? What were you thinking. You don't even exercise. You can be very disappointing sometimes, you know that?

I brought you some flowers. You like? They’re yellow. You look good in yellow. Not everyone can wear yellow, but you can. That should make you happy. It’s  almost like an accomplishment. I buried you in the yellow shirt. It went good with your complexion. Your poker friends, they noticed. Benny, that bum, he gave you a compliment. Said you looked radiant. Don’t let it go to your head.
Okay, enough with the idle chit-chat. Now I want you to listen to me, I’ve got something important to go over. Are you listening, Marvin? Don’t just nod your head down there, and go on reading the paper. I want you should listen with both ears.
Your sister-in-law, Rita, she’s really done it this time. Right here in the cemetery, before I’ve got you in the ground, she comes to me bold as candlesticks. She’s confused, she tells me, about the lay-out.

“Maxine,” she says to me, “My Leo, he’s lying over there next to his father. Your Marvin, he's going in by his mother?” “Of course,” I tell her. 'Where else would he go?” “Maxine,” she says, “that’s what has me worried. If Marvin goes in by his mother, then where am I going?” “Rita,” I tell her, “you’re  going next to Leo. Your husband. What is there to discuss?”

“Maxine,” she says to me, “I want you should look over there next to Leo. Tell me, what do you see?” “I see a fence,” I tell her. What could I say different? Next to Leo there’s a fence. So sue me.

“Now look by where Marvin is going,” she tells me. I look. “What do you see?” “I see a tree,” I say to her.  Between you and me, Marvin, it’s more like a bush, but I didn’t want to get technical, my feet were killing me. I had on those pumps with the little silver buckles, very nice leather, but they were always tight on me. I wore them for you, Marvin. After all, you only die once. For you, I wore the best I had — in black.
Rita’s still talking. She says to me, “Maxine, I will not be happy over there by the fence. I need greenery all around me.” What is she, a salad?

“Rita, listen to me,” I tell her, “if you need a garnish, we can plant you a little something over there by the fence. Okay?”

“Noooo,” she says to me. Just like that. “Noooo.” She says a little something green isn't enough for her.
Marvin, are you following this? Your sister-in-law, Rita, your brother Leo’s third wife, she wants to go by you, by you Marvin, over by the tree. Me, I should go by the fence. With Leo. You hear what I'm telling you?
By this time I was hungry, my feet hurt, whatever the reason, my resistance was low. I didn't give her the clop on her head that she deserved. I took pity on her.

“Rita,” I said, “if it means that much to you, okay already, I'll give you the tree. Can we just get on with the service?”
 In my opinion, this was mighty big of me. I’d promise her anything if it would get me out of the sun faster. Did I tell you it was a hot day, Marvin? Not only June, but hot. The air is always sticky in a cemetery, did you ever notice that? Well, it is. So I promised Rita the tree. That should have been the end of that. Right? Not right.
“Maxine, that’s very good of you,” she says to me. “But I still have a  problem with the arrangement. If I should die first, what’s my guarantee that you’ll keep your word? You could always change your mind after I’m gone and leave me with no shade. And me, with my sensitive skin that burns so easy.”
You hear, Marvin? At your funeral this is, in front of your dead mother and your dead father and your dead brother, the woman accuses me of the very worst. I’m telling you, Marvin, the rabbi himself had to hold me back, that’s how crazy she made me.

So I said to her, “Rita, for that remark, you get the fence. No greenery. No nothing. Just the fence.”

And I wouldn’t say another word to her. Not at the cemetery, not when we came back to the house, not a word. A whole platter of chopped liver she ate, it was disgusting. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t even look at her. That’s it, Marvin. I am standing firm on this. She questioned my honor, she gets the fence.
There’s only one thing that concerns me now. What if, God forbid, I should go first? It isn’t likely, I know. I’m healthy. I’m tough. But stranger things have happened. Who knows what that Rita is capable of? You better start worrying, Marvin. If I go first, Rita will put me by the fence and take the tree for herself. Mark my words, that woman is stinky like a rotten herring.
Watch yourself, Marvin, or you might end up with Rita for eternity. And you know how much you hate her cooking. Nobody can dry out a pot roast like she can. You better pray for me, Marvin. Pray I live a long life.

On second thought, don’t overdo it, I don’t want to be bored. I just have to live longer than her. You think I want the fence sticking me in the ribs, and Leo with his farts and his dirty jokes?

Pray for me, Marvin. That’s all I ask of you. You owe me this much.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Eat the Apple, Sippy

This is another story that I read on October 14th, at the Tompkins County Public Library. 

Sippy, you see that woman? Look over there by the fountain. No, not the tree; move your eyes to the left. To the left. You see that woman? That’s a woman, Sippy, a woman in a fur coat. No, that’s not a bear. In this park, they don’t have bears. Maybe it looks like a bear to you, but it isn’t, it’s a woman. You see who I’m talking about? That woman. I used to know her.
Years ago. She was my neighbor. Her name is Mrs. Nash. Nash. No, not Nosh. Who would be named Nosh, that's not even a name. Are you listening to me, Sippy? That woman over there, she’s blind.
Blind, not blond. No, she’s not blond, she’s blind. That woman. The one over there on the bench, by the fountain. Yes, the one you thought was a bear. That’s Mrs. Nash. She’s blind.
I know what I’m talking, trust me. When you’re neighbors with someone you notice these things. She lived right in my building when we were on Vyse Avenue. She was on the second floor, like me. She had windows, they faced the front. The woman is blind, Sippy, she can’t see a thing but she had windows on the street. I’ve got two good eyes, they gave me windows to the back.
You hear me? All day long I looked out on other people’s laundry, I smelled their stinking garbage. But she had rooms with a view. It used to gall me something terrible. I told my Solly, I said to him, “Where is the justice?”

But it wasn't her fault, I didn’t hold it against her. It was the rental agent, that crook Rubikoff. Ira Rubikoff. Roo-bi-koff, the rental agent. Doesn’t ring a bell with you? No matter, he’s dead. Don’t be sorry, you didn't kill him. No, not Solly. Solly's not dead. Solly's my husband. I'm talking about that rat, Rubikoff. Pay attention, Sippy. Well make more of an effort.
So, that woman, Mrs. Nash, the blind woman, I’m telling you, she could do anything you or I could do. Honest to God. She shopped for herself, she cooked for herself, she baked even. Yes, in the oven. When I passed her door I could smell she was baking. Sewing, too, she made her own clothes. The whole works, not just hems, the entire outfit she would make. With darts for her bosoms. She had large bosoms. It's not a criticism and it's not a compliment, it's just a fact.
And I’ll tell you something else. She did her own laundry down in the basement, in that old machine there. Yes, she did, why would I lie to you? And she hung it up in the backyard, with clothespins. I saw her do it. From my windows I could see her, with the undergarments, the good linens. She had nice quality things, that Mrs. Nash.
I’m telling you, Sippy, there’s not a thing she couldn’t do. Except drive a car. I know, of course, who wants to drive? But with her, it’s not a matter of want. Let’s say, just for argument’s sake, let’s say she wanted to drive. Who knows why? It doesn’t matter why, let’s just say she wanted to. If she wanted to, still, she could not do it.    
If I wanted to drive, if you wanted to drive, whatever the reason, we could do it if we wanted to. But her, Mrs. Nash, if she wanted to, still she couldn’t do it.

Because she’s blind, that’s why. You forgot she was blind? That’s the whole point. The point is, the woman is blind. She can do everything the same as you and me. But she cannot drive a car.
No, that is the point. It’s my story, Sippy, I know, she was my neighbor. You don’t even know her so how could you know the point? The point is: no matter she had her windows on the front, no matter she could sew, she could bake, no matter she was born over here in this country, her husband, he had a good job, a nice head of hair, all of that makes no matter. What I’m telling you is, even if she wanted to, she could not drive. It’s just not possible.
Okay, Sippy, you see your point and I’ll see mine. Let’s just leave it at that. No, I’m not angry with you. I am not angry, trust me. Here, Sippy, eat an apple, be happy.

It's an apple. Put out your hand and take it. No, it won’t give you gas. I want you should eat it. I’m telling you one more time. Eat the apple, Sippy.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Aunt Pearl

This is another story that I read in the Tompkins County Public Library on Sunday, October 14th. I wrote it so I could spend some time imagining a truly awful person at work. My family frequented delis, very often!, but none of my relatives ever owned one or worked in one.

In my family, we used to say Aunt Pearl was a woman of strong character. That was just a polite way of calling her a lunatic.
Pearl and her husband Philly ran Moskowitz Deli on Tremont Avenue. Philly stayed back in the kitchen with the chopped liver and the blintzes. Pearl did everything else.
She was the kind of waitress who expected you to know what you wanted to eat  before you walked in the door. She didn’t smile and she didn’t make small talk. There were men who’d been regulars at the deli for years and she still called them Bud. In Aunt Pearl’s mouth, “Bud” was not a term of endearment.
Pearl cared more about the dirt under her fingernails than she did about a person’s feelings. Her heart might break over a chipped cup; it would not break for you.
I’ll give you a for-instance. Imagine you’re preparing to sit yourself down at one of the tables by the window and you accidentally scrape the chair — just a little  — across the linoleum floor. Pearl would tack an extra quarter onto your bill: 5 cents for each chair leg that you abused and 5 cents for wear and tear on the linoleum.
Or maybe you drop the salt shaker and a few grains spill out. That would mean an extra dime on your bill. If you had used the salt she wouldn’t charge you (though believe me, she would have liked to). But since you wasted the salt, you better pay up.
Pearl was famous for her edicts. She didn't allow baby strollers in Moskowitz Deli. Shari Kornblum fancied herself a match for Aunt Pearl. She came in with a stroller and a baby as well. Pearl didn’t say a word about the carriage wheels smearing dirt on the floor. She didn’t say a word about little Barry Kornblum and his rattle. But when Mrs. Kornblum finished her pastrami on rye she discovered an extra two dollars added to the bill. The fight went out of her and we never saw Barry in the deli again until he was a teenager.
Some people like to read while they eat. But even if you brought your own newspaper with you from home Pearl would charge you an extra nickel for reading at the table. “Is this a library?” she asked, and people knew better than to answer.
God forbid you should be unlucky enough to sneeze over your roast beef sandwich. You’d get no “Gezuntheit” from Pearl. Fifteen cents that sneeze would cost you. “You I let in for free,” she’d say, “your sneeze is an uninvited guest, let it pay its own way.”
Maybe you’re wondering how she had any customers left. I used to ask myself that question, too. At first I thought maybe it was Philly’s delicious blintzes, so sweet they could make you cry. But blintzes almost as good you could also find two blocks over at Kaplan’s. So why did the people keep coming back, year after year?
I’ll tell you a little story; maybe it will explain something.
I used to help out in the deli on Saturdays. One day when it was pouring rain and business was slow, Aunt Pearl busied herself  by tearing paper napkins in half (“Who needs a whole napkin?”) and I entertained myself reading Nausea, by that French philosopher, in a back booth.We were both surprised when the door opened and a man walked in. He was soaking wet. No raincoat, no umbrella, no hat even. He stood there in the doorway and shook himself off like a dog. Uh oh, I thought, the guy’s in for it now. You can just imagine what Aunt Pearl thought of people who dripped rain on her floor. This was not a neighborhood man. Maybe he was visiting someone, or maybe he was lost, I never knew. But anyway, there he was, a little paunchy, a little bald, a little mustached. And a whole lot wet.
He sat himself down at the counter and ordered a cup of black coffee. Aunt Pearl obliged him. He asked for a spoon. This, too, she delivered. And here is where he made his fatal mistake. The poor schmuck did not pour any sugar into his cup, but he did stir the coffee with a spoon. I hope you get the significance of that act. He was doomed.
A spoon that stirs in sugar is a spoon doing its job. A spoon that just stirs — that is a wasted spoon. When the guy was ready to go Aunt Pearl brought him his bill. It was for 10 dollars and 50 cents.
“I think you made a mistake,” the man said.
“I made no mistake,” Aunt Pearl told him. He should have listened to her tone. It was not a tone that invited discussion.
“You overcharged me, Madam,” the man persisted. My mouth fell open. Where did he find the nerve?
“Mister,” Aunt Pearl said, leaning over the counter until she was so close she could count the hairs in his mustache. And vice versa. “I charged you for the coffee — that’s 50 cents. And I also charged you for the rain you brought in with you and left there” (she pointed with a plump finger to the door) “that my niece” (now she pointed to me) “will have to mop up. Then I charged you for the spoon, which you know and I know you did not need. My husband, Philly, is going to have to wash that spoon. It will cost him a certain amount of effort. Just like it’s going to cost you a certain amount of money.”
Aunt Pearl stuck her hand out, palm up, in front of the customer’s face. He didn’t move. Maybe he was thinking. My guess is he was weighing his options — between life and death. He chose wisely. The man reached into his back pocket and pulled out a small leather wallet. He counted out 2 five dollar bills and gave them to Pearl. Then he reached into his side pocket and pulled out a handful of change. He selected 2 quarters and gave those over as well.
Pearl looked at the remaining change in his hand. “I see there you have another quarter,” she said, “also a nickel. That would make a nice tip for my niece, she works very hard, she’s saving up to go to college one day.” The man put 30 cents down on the counter and gave a little sigh. Then he pulled his shirt collar up around his ears and walked back out into the freezing rain. We never saw him again at Moskowitz Deli. Not surprising, right? 
But I never forgot him. Because that was the day I had my first inkling of how Pearl got away with everything she got away with. People like to be told what to do. That’s my theory. There are so many uncertainties in life, and it exhausts us. Sometimes we just need a person to come along and say “I see you’re looking at the wallpaper. This ain’t an art gallery. Fork over 20 cents.” And you do it. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m just saying it happens.
There’s something else I discovered that day. My Aunt Pearl was a thief. Remember the 30 cents the spoon man left me? I never saw a penny of it. The whole tip went into Pearl’s apron pocket, along with the 2 five dollar bills. Fifty cents, for the coffee, went into the cash register. That’s how she did it. A dime here, a quarter there. It all ended up in Aunt Pearl’s apron pocket.
Which is how come one morning Uncle Philly woke up and discovered Pearl wasn’t lying there next to him in the bed. We never did find out where she took herself off to. With all the loot she’d been collecting over the years she could be living on the Riviera right now. But probably not. More likely she got herself an efficiency apartment in a converted hotel near the beach in Miami. Wherever she is, and whatever she’s doing, I’m sure she’s making people miserable.
As for Uncle Philly, he took up with a very nice woman by the name of Cookie DaSilva. She used to be a customer. Now she’s a partner in Moskowitz Deli. She greets everyone by name, and is generous with the smiles. She has Tootsie Rolls at the counter for the kids and gives free refills for iced tea and soda. Everyone likes her.
But there are still some old-timers who whisper the name “Pearl,” with something very close to longing, as they bite into their potato knishes. They don’t seem to remember that she charged extra for whispering at the table.