Sunday, January 29, 2012

Girl with a Pearl Necklace

It wasn’t an accident in spite of what I said, or what people assumed. They never imagine I can do anything deliberately.
Mama always refers to me as “dear Evangeline” but dear does not mean dear, it means “poor” as in “What will we do with her?” She has worried about me since I turned eleven; began seeking suitors before I was fourteen. She thinks I don’t know, but it’s impossible to keep a secret in this town. Mama, of all people, should remember that. Lucky for me that Mr. Beetle turned his eyes on Cousin Lydia. Though it is not lucky for Lydia, now the mother of three.
I’ve learned to play piano (badly), to embroider (painfully), to paint watercolors (muddily), and speak French (unintelligibly). All paid for by Poppa, who considers me an investment, like so many bolts of silk. He and Mama have arranged countless tea parties, dinner parties, opera parties — supposedly in my honor — inviting a never-ending series of young  men who are about to inherit large fortunes. Nothing has come of it all, to my parents’ profound despair. To my enormous relief. 
Mama curses the weather (“Your kind of hair will simply not survive in this heat”) while Poppa rails against the Fates (“Why couldn’t I have had a beautiful daughter?”).  I’ve heard him say that more than once. More than a dozen times.
They don’t credit me at all. So many lessons and tutors: deportment, penmanship, elocution. But they never thought to expose me to dramatics. Yet somehow, I seem to have taken to it all on my own. 
Last summer, with Mr. Peregrine talking about an engagement before year’s end, I asked to be allowed to borrow his new automobile. “I won’t go far,” I promised, “nor fast.” I kept my word, slowly driving that big black Model T of his directly into the elm tree on our front lawn. And that was the last we heard about any engagement.
After that, Poppa made arrangements for me to have a trip to the Continent. There was a certain gentleman aboard ship who took to accompanying me as I strolled the upper deck in the early morning. He was an odious man by the name of Blakely; a distant cousin of Mama’s good friend, Mrs. Altoid. I could imagine those two fine matrons plotting and planning behind my back. So I permitted myself a slight queasiness during one of our walks, followed by a more extreme reaction as the ship swayed in its endless path. Mr. Blakely did not even pretend solicitude. He raced for the safety of his cabin, no doubt fearing for the condition of his shoes and trousers, lest I should be sick all over them. It was all most satisfying. For me.
And now this beautiful strand of pearls. A “friendship” gift from Rupert Fortnoy, who has never, in all the years I’ve known him, been anything remotely like a friend to me. He caught a whiff of Poppa’s desperation and thought he would slip in and scoop me right up. But I will not be scooped up. Certainly not by the likes of Rupert Fortnoy. 

A pity about the pearls, though. They belonged to his Grandmama, I believe. They were very lovely indeed. But now they’ve scattered across the black and white tiles and some will be lost forever. I am certain of this, because I placed three large orbs into my skirt pocket. Rupert Fortnoy would never marry a girl who is careless with jewelry, it implies the possibility of too many other carelessnesses to come. I know him so well.  
I don’t for a single moment think this is the end of it. Mama and Poppa will continue to waltz me into the path of marriageable men, both suitable and less-than-suitable, until they are well into their dotage, with me not far behind. 

For my part, I will hold fast to my campaign for a life of freedom (relatively speaking). If I were a betting woman I would wager these three creamy pearls that I will come out the winner, in the end. 

But whether that will be a true victory or not, it is still too soon to say.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Dictionary

It belonged to my mother and its blue cover was already fading by the time I first made its acquaintance — the September I started at Junior High School 143 in the Bronx. 

My mother did not give me the dictionary. She was very clear about that. “This is my dictionary,” she said, enunciating each word, the way she did when she wanted to be sure I got-her-point. “I’m letting you borrow it. Treat it with care.”
Before that time I had no need of a dictionary. Spelling was a significant part of the elementary school curriculum but looking words up was not. We were taught to sound things out and to memorize.
“I before E except after C or when sounding like A as in neighbor or weigh.”
“The principal of this school is your pal: P-r-i-n-c-i-P-A-L.” 
Using a dictionary would have been, almost, like cheating.
Speaking of cheating, I feel I have to tell you this: 
There was a spelling bee in my fourth grade class. Our teacher, Mrs. Mooney, lined us all up, girls on one side of the room and boys on the other. If you messed up on your word you sat down and the next person, on the other team, tried their luck.  By some incredible fluke, in the end, I was left standing on the girls’ side and Neil Feinstein was left on the boys’.  
The word I got was Christmas. I knew that this was not right. I was Jewish. Mrs. Mooney should not have expected me to even know that such a word existed. In my family, if we had to spell it at all, which we didn’t, but we would have, hypothetically, spelled it X-m-a-s. I suspected that wasn’t what Mrs. Mooney was looking for. I really wanted to get this right, not only for myself but for all the girls in my class. I just couldn’t let them down. But Christmas
I cast my eyes heavenward — and lo and behold, up there on the wall, hanging just above the enormous blackboard, was a rectangle of beige oak tag. And printed in large black magic marker letters, where anyone could see it if they only knew to look up, was the word Christmas.
Along with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, New Year’s Day, Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Passover and Easter. A litany of holidays that Mrs. Mooney, not really the artsy-craftsy type, had chosen as decorations for our otherwise austere classroom walls.
It was directly in my line of vision, and not being a girl who would pass up a genuine miracle when it was handed to her on a silver platter, I sang out, loud and true: c-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s.
“Wrong!” exclaimed Mrs. Mooney. Wrong? How could it be wrong? I read the word — every single letter — off the poster she had scotch-taped onto the wall. I couldn’t be wrong. But also, I couldn’t protest. I was left standing there, the lone girl on the right-hand side of the room, with my mouth hanging wide open.
Mrs. Mooney turned to Neil Feinstein, who until that very moment I’d considered a friend, but now I saw him for what he was — my arch enemy — and he proclaimed capital C-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s.
“That’s correct!”  Mrs. Mooney crowed. “The boys win.” 
I returned to my seat, ashamed and defeated, knowing myself to be a big, fat, cheater.
Okay, I just had to get that off my chest. Now I will return to the story of the dictionary.
J. H. S. 143 turned out to be an exciting place. The principal (still our pal and spelled with an A, but this time a man, not a woman), wore a bow tie and talked to us, each morning, over an intercom system. We no longer spent the entire day in the same classroom, but ran through the halls every forty minutes, in a frantic dash from social studies to language arts, from French to math to band practice. We knew, through the secret grapevine, that our science teacher’s first name was Georgia, and that she was “good friends” (which meant something dirty but I wasn’t sure what) with the math teacher, Mr. Lyman. We knew that Madame Strauss, our French teacher, always looked like she’d been crying, but we didn’t know why, and we weren’t sure we wanted to know. We didn’t go to recess, we went to P. E. 
My favorite teacher was Miss Gatney, and my favorite subject was Language Arts. In Language Arts you got extra credit just for reading a book that wasn't on the required reading list. And if you illustrated your book report with colored pencils, you got even more extra credit. 
I wanted nothing more in life than to please Miss Gatney and to make her proud of me. But her standards were high. She wanted our class to learn how to write perfect essays. Spelling counted. And she wanted to see evidence of our expanding vocabularies. It was no longer good enough to have an idea about what a word meant. You had to go deeper; you had to really get it.
Up until this time, simply by sitting quietly and eavesdropping on adult conversations, I’d been able to cobble together quite an impressive bilingual vocabulary. “Meshugina,” when mentioned often enough in reference to a particular free-spirit of a relative, easily translated into “nut case.” Words like “divorcée,” “paranoid,” “schmuck,” “nudnick,” “chutzpah,” were equally accessible. You just needed to get the context.
But in Miss Gatney’s class, context was no longer the end; it was merely the beginning. And sounding-out skills, which had worked so well in the past, were not going to cut it.
Take the word “tongue,” for example. Sounding out isn’t going to help you.  The same goes for “antique.”  Sure, you could substitute the words “mouth” and “old,”  but that would be falling short of Miss Gatney’s expectations that you “stretch your mind the way you would your muscles.”
I wasn’t interested in stretching anything. I asked my mother, “Ma, how do you spell ‘pleasure’?” Unfortunately her favorite refrain had become “Look it up in the dictionary.” Okay, with “pleasure” you at least know to start in the P’s. But what about Wretched? Psychology?  Phenomenal? Europe?
“Maaaa,” I’d whine from my bedroom, “it’s not in the dictionary.” 
“Don’t make me come all the way over there and find it for you.”
My mother was getting impossible to handle. And Miss Gatney was getting more and more demanding. “What is the etymology of this word?” “List a synonym and an antonym.” “How do you spell synonym?” “How do you spell thesaurus?”
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I developed quite a strong feeling for dictionaries. And I don’t mean adoration (“to regard with deep, often rapturous love”). I mean antipathy (“aversion, dislike”).
As for that particular big blue one that sat, reproachfully, on my desk — I became somewhat abusive towards it. When there were pages I found myself returning to over and over again (the one with the word “occasionally” for example), I would fold down the top corner for easy reference.
Sometimes I would put a check mark next to a word, red ink showing up so well in the margin, so I could find it even faster the next time I had to look it up. And when I came to a definition that annoyed me, as I did more and more often, I would reach for that red pen again and just cross it out.
I knew that this was wrong. But I didn’t care. I had had it with all the new responsibilities of being a Junior High School student. Outlines with Roman numerals; bibliographies neatly printed on color-coded 3x5 index cards. 
I was very angry with my mother. I was even more angry with Miss Gatney. Of course, I didn’t show it. Instead, I learned how to write the perfect essay. My teachers, starting with Miss Gatney and continuing into my move to High School, singled me out as an expert topic sentence writer. Yet all the while, year after year, alone in my room, I was busy defiling and defacing that poor blue dictionary.
And then, before I knew it, it was August, 1968. The  Democratic National Convention was being televised from Chicago while I got ready to leave for college. My mother ironed name tags into my underwear, as if I were going off to summer camp, while I rummaged through my closets, pulling out peasant blouses, leotards, and dungarees.
On the bottom of the closet floor, jutting out from behind the Chinese checkers set, and the pair of ice-skates I had worn once and then abandoned, was the dictionary, exactly where I’d stashed it back in June, on the last day of High School. I had vowed to never open it again. But suddenly, in a burst of pre-collegiate zeal, I tossed it into my suitcase, along with my Joan Baez albums and my beloved copy of Siddhartha.
My mother, shaken by what she’d just witnessed on television, kids being tear-gassed and clobbered, came into my room, asking for the umpteenth time why exactly it was I thought I had to go to a school five hours’ drive from home. Her eyes caught the dull blue cover of the book, and before I could stop her, she reached into my suitcase and pulled out the dictionary, innocently leafing through it, wistfully reunited with an old friend. 
And then she froze. There was the evidence of my delinquency: the dog-eared pages; the red-ink check marks; the angry cross-outs and comments like: “Anyone who uses this word is a phony.” 
She clutched the book to her chest. “O-kay,” she said, slowly and deliberately, “you can go to that God-forsaken college, we never should have let you apply in the first place, just stay out of trouble and avoid the police. But there is no way in hell I’m letting you take my dictionary up there with you.” 
She knew she could only rescue one of us. I think she made the right decision. 
The dictionary remains, to this day, safe and sound on the bookcase in my mother’s living room, next to her copy of The Joy of Cooking, which she never consults anymore, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, one of her favorite novels. I see it, every time I go home to visit, but I never open it.  In general, I find it’s best to keep a healthy distance between myself and dictionaries. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Vow of Honesty

Sunday, January 15th
9 p.m.

Dear Annabelle,
Oh, how I wish I could thank you for the lovely tea. But I can’t. You know I took a vow of honesty for the New Year and I fully intend to keep it (unlike Millicent Klapper’s faux-vow of chastity, broken before the sun rose on the 2nd, if Itsy Rooney’s great-neice is to be believed and I see no reason why she shouldn’t be) so, in the spirit of honesty and also of friendship (and who, darling Annabelle, knows you better or longer than I, and for that matter, who could possibly have your interests closer to her heart?), I must take it upon myself to tell you that this evening’s little soiree was an unmitigated disaster. Not to put too fine a point on it, Annabelle, but it was a floperoo of the highest order; a fiasco supremo. There was nothing — nada, rien — to redeem it. I can just hear your reaction as you read this. “Be specific,” you’re saying, am I right? Of course I am and I am entirely prepared to enumerate.
Number 1: The tea. There wasn’t any. You served us hot water sans tea. As for that, even the hot water was luke. Darling, you poured your guests tap water and they sipped politely, pinkies delicately extended from the china-cup handles, and no one said a single word because everyone present (except for myself) is a blankety-blank toady. 

Annabelle, you made a big, big, big mistake telling the immediate world how much of the green stuff (not to mention stocks, bonds, horses and real estate) Charlton left you — a big mistake. Now you don’t know who’s your real friend (like I am darling, of that you can have no doubt) and who is an unmentionable suck-up. Naming no names, but I distinctly saw Lucretia Emory do that eyebrow thing of hers when she noticed the plain water trickling out of that gorgeous Ming Dynasty tea pot (that is what you said, isn’t it darling, Ming? I always get my dynasty’s confused, but in any case, it is truly gorgeous, I love the way blue and white go together). And Fern Wannamaker responded with her eyebrow thing, so you can safely cross them off your Nearest and Dearest list. 

I would have jumped to your defense then and there, or at the very least, elbowed you out to the kitchen to help you dump a handful or two of some leaves or whatever into the pot, but I could not move. Loomis Mingle-Dopper had a hand on my knee and she would not let up. Annabelle, what is it with Loomis? She was always a bore, but after her last marriage she’s turned into a maniac. Can she really think I have any interest in her cockatoo’s digestive system?
Okay, I can’t blame you for the bad behavior of your guests, but I do hold you responsible for the eats, which brings me to number 2. Annabelle, this is not the way to make watercress sandwiches: you do not buy some cheap doughy supermarket bread, smear it with Miracle Whip and slap down a sprig of unwashed parsley with a twig as long as one of Mabeline Dooley’s shoes. It is just not done that way. Allow me to add: you do not bake a kiwi-walnut cake unless you are prepared to peel the kiwi and remove every trace of walnut shell. I will be buying you a decent cookbook for your next  birthday but until then I urge you — no, darling, I beg you — not to throw any more tea parties for your friends or even your phony friends. 
I fear Charlton’s death has left you wealthy but nearly entirely unhinged. Perhaps you should plan some sort of a little get-away for yourself. May I suggest a cruise? I would be more than delighted to accompany you, darling, you only need to say the word. I do think a cruise would perk you up a little bit — change of pace, change of scenery — let someone else do the cooking for a while, and also you would get to wear your stunning jewelry and furs. 

But most of all, it would take your mind off this bizarre scheme of yours. Sweetheart, your little tabby cat is indeed beautiful and there is even the possibility, which you insist on putting forth as a documented fact, that she is wise beyond her species. But Fluffy is not another Rembrandt no matter how you cut the mustard. I examined the canvasses closely, I really did, with my eyes open, and I will admit that they have a certain je ne sais quoi, but a cat’s paw dipped in vermilion and dragged across a blank canvas does not a masterpiece make, and I seriously doubt — seriously, Annabelle — that you will find a single reputable art dealer in any city in the world who will tell you differently. You may well uncover a slimy synchophant, if that’s the word I mean, who will lie through his pointy little teeth, especially if you continue flashing your money around wherever you go, but the truth of the matter is — and please remember, darling, I am devoted to the truth, as devoted as a nun to her rosary — the truth is that Fluffy is a fairly agreeable, nice as can be expected, lap cat. She is neither a prodigy, a genius, or the eighth wonder of the known world.
I am terribly worried about you Annabelle, you used to be such a sensible person and now you’re all jittery and forgetful and —alright sweetheart, you’re not going to like this, but I refuse to hold back when it comes to my best and oldest friend, which you are — I believe you are stepping over the line into delusional. There, I’ve said it. I know you will not take offense because you accept the fact that I am wedded to truth and honesty and friendship. 

Alright now, the problem is out in the open. I have named the beast and we have both looked it squarely between the eyes. The only question is, what to do about it? I have already suggested one approach, a cruise, preferably around-the-world, which would give you enough time to return to your senses, with me as your traveling companion, to keep you from doing anything on board the ship that you might regret for the rest of your days. (Remember when Binkie Cavendish went on that Scandinavian cruise and came home with Boris? Oh, what a pickle that was!).
Another option to consider, my dear, is to rent a little cottage by the sea, somewhere on the coast of Europe, and just kick back your pretty little heels and relax. I wouldn't advise you to go off on your own, you know how lonely you’re apt to become even after a 2-hour solitary bath, so once again I gladly offer myself as your companion. We can walk the beach by day and play Scrabble in the evenings. Maybe drink a wee bit of that lovely green thing the Europeans like so much, what is it called, I always forget my foreign languages. 
Doesn’t this all sound too utterly delightful? Just like that trip we took after our junior year in college, although Knoxville cannot be compared to the Continent, but still, you needed a change after that disaster with Herman Nuttbinder and I was, as I am now, at your side, the way a true friend always is, ready to whisk you off to greener pastures, and you must admit, darling, we did have fun that summer, you learned to ride without bobbing up and down like a jack-in-the-box and I met Wheatly, bless his poor dead soul, so we have a travel tradition you might even say. 
This is just a suggestion, darling, I would never try to force you to do anything you didn’t whole-heartedly want to do. But listen to this, my cousin Loretta could take care of your Fluffy. I called her first thing this morning and she said she’d be happy to do it. She owes me big time after that insane quasi-affair with Mr. Bad Toupée, which I swore I’d get her out of and I did. 
Just consider my proposals, dear Annabelle, and ring me up when you’ve decided. Rest assured, I am ready, willing and able to depart these frigid temperatures and icy roads — oh, did you hear what happened to Doris’ brand-new Cadillac last Thursday? Destroyed, that’s what, right in front of the Lakeside Country Club. Wouldn’t you think everyone knew by now never to try that turn if you’re not in a 100%  sober condition? But that’s Doris Lassiter for you, always thinks she can handle more than she can. 

In any case, I stand ready to leave on a moment’s notice, believe me no one can pack as quickly as I can. Nothing is too much to ask when it comes to friendship and you, my darling Annabelle, are my very best, my oldest, and my most treasured friend in the world. All you have to do is call, as the old song used to say.

Yours, devoted as always,

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Just Your Garden Variety Elvis Freak

In so many ways she was just your garden variety Elvis freak. She had the records, she had the velvet paintings, she had the teacups, teapots, tea towels and tea cozies. She had the salt and pepper shakers; the pill boxes; the pocket mirrors; the sheets, pillow cases and towels. She had the doodads, the tiddlywinks, and the tchochkes. If it was made, and it had a picture of Elvis on it, she had it. 
But so what? She was not unique. There are thousands of people exactly like her, alive in America this very minute. They make their yearly pilgrimage to Graceland, they throw elaborate parties on Elvis’s birthday and hold mournful wakes to commemorate his (alleged) death. They talk to him, adore him, pray to him. Some of these people seem just like you and me. How would you ever know, just by looking?
My Aunt Tootie was like that: a semi-regular person who shopped in the supermarket, stood on line at the Post Office, paid her taxes and water bill and gas and electric, and just happened to have an ongoing Elvis fixation. Until it went  . . .  a little bit too far.
You see, Aunt Tootie had cats. She had Pretty Boy, Pretty Girl, Eleanor Roosevelt, Paw-Paw, Patches and Sister. And one day it came to her, in a dream, that every one of her cats was really the incarnation of Elvis himself. That’s exactly what her dream told her, that Elvis, the King, now lived within the bodies of her cats.  Simultaneously. Everywhere at once. He was the King, he could manage it.
So Pretty Boy, Pretty Girl, Gray Eyes, Paw-Paw, Patches and Sister were renamed Elvis, Elvis, Elvis, Elvis, Elvis and Elvis. Because, Aunt Tootie reasoned, if you were the spirit of Elvis you wouldn’t want to have someone calling you Patches. Let’s face it, it’s hard to argue with that.
Aunt Tootie glued little rhinestones to her cats’ collars. She sewed tiny satin capes for them. She fed them grits and collard greens and pepperoni pizza. (The Elvis web sites are very specific about what the man liked to eat.) And she played her Elvis records from the time she woke up in the morning until the time she went to bed at night because — why not? 
Aunt Tootie was perfectly happy with this arrangement. But the cats — well the cats went berserk. Those poor felines had their dignity; they knew the collars and the capes were just plain tacky. And they were sick and tired of eating Chicken à la King every single Friday night. 
One day it happened: the cats were able to make their escape. One second they were inside, behind closed doors. The next second, six streaks of fur (in rhinestones and satin) were flying down the street. Pretty Girl, Paw-Paw and Patches got lucky. They made their way to the alley behind Irma Litvik’s house, and from that day forward, they were spoiled rotten. But in a very normal, "Kibbles 'n Bits" kind of way. 
No one ever saw Pretty Boy, Eleanor Roosevelt or Sister again, but I like to hope for the best, and so should you.
As for Aunt Tootie, she took the desertion hard. 
But then she got over it. She is one resilient woman. And needless to say, cats or no cats, she never lost her devotion to Elvis. 
Within a few weeks she hung a sign in her living room window: Hound Dog Antiques. Now all her treasures are out there on display and she just loves showing them off to people who stop by. Of course, nothing is for sale, and you might think that makes her a bad business woman, but Aunt Tootie says she’s living the New Economy. Whatever that means. 
Oh, I almost forgot to tell you: she has dolls now. Elvis dolls. She buys the little outfits on e-bay. It’s a sort of Elvis/Barbie thing. The dolls don’t mind the rhinestones or fake fur, the way the cats did. Or if they do, they’re not saying anything. Aunt Tootie is somewhat in love with the dolls. And she believes, in her heart, that they love her too. 
But if you saw her on the street, and didn’t know any of this, trust me: you would think she was just a regular person.