Come into the Hallway, for Five Cents!
Once upon a time, we Jews had a Princess, named Berenice, who was affianced to the Emperor Titus. Bedecked in her jewels, attended by her slaves, and with gongs and cymbals clashing, this Jewish Princess made her appearance in the court of Rome, only to find that the King of the Romans had gone mad. For the Emperor Titus insisted there were flies buzzing in his ears. How the Jews throughout the Roman Empire must have prayed for this marriage! But it was not to be.
Once upon a time, we, too, had a Berenice, who was affianced to a king among men. Bedecked in a housedress, her stockings bulging with money, this Berenice appeared in Usher’s house in Brownsville, only to find her king had flies in his nose! There the parallel ends.
* * *
My friend, Usher, had an aunt, named Berenice, on his mother’s side. I suppose you might call her “simple.” The story was told that when she came to America she was naturally examined by the immigration authorities.
“Do you suffer from epilepsy?” asked the official. She did not answer.
“Do you suffer from epilepsy?” asked the official again.
“Your honor,” she said, “I do not understand.”
“Do you have the ‘falling sickness’?” repeated the official.
“Sure,” she said, “I fall.”
“You do?” said the official.
“Sure, in the winter when I walk on the ice, I fall.”
“Pass her,” said the official.
As “simple” as she was, that is how beautiful she was. An olive skin, with almond-shaped eyes that slanted ever so slightly upward at the ends. You sat and searched and searched and saw a thousand things in those eyes, that is, until you realized that there was nothing there. Her nose was straight and ended in the most fascinating nostrils that seemed to quiver constantly. And you watched spellbound, thinking that the quivering expressed a profound sensitivity until it dawned on you that her nose moved for everything from soup with almonds to soup without almonds; such was the gamut of her philosophy. As for her lips, adorable as they were, housing the straightest, whitest teeth you ever did see, everything was as raisins and almonds until she opened them up. And then, all illusion, all hope was destroyed. Yes, she was a true Oriental beauty.
“I’m here!” she would announce as she would sit herself down in the kitchen and begin to cry.
“What are you crying about?” Usher’s father would ask.
“Idiot,” Usher’s mother would answer, “she wants to get married.”
“That’s easy,” Usher’s father would say.
“In Bayonne, it’s not so easy!” Berenice would say.
“What’s wrong with Bayonne?” Usher’s father would say.
“There are no men in Bayonne. All the men are in New York!”
I am afraid she was not very particular. She would sit outside Usher’s house and watch the crowds go by and say to Usher’s mother, “Look at that one with his fine long nose. Such character in that nose. A real professor!” Or else, she would say, “Look at that one—the small one, with that tiny bit of a nose. Oh! What a darling he is! Such excitement in that nose! Such life!” And then suddenly she would cry out, “Oh! I’m dying! What a nose that one was that went by! A sort of in-between one! Not too big! Not too little! Just right! A prince among men!”
Usher and I decided she was crazy.
“Usher,” she would say, “I’m here! Sit down!”
Usher would sit down.
“I want you to write me a letter,” she would say as she opened her enormous hand-bag, so enormous it was that it almost looked like a market bag, and then turning to Usher’s mother, would add, “Everything goes on in Bayonne. The stories I could tell you about that place!”
Then she would take out a post card and a pencil, hand them over to my hero, Usher, and say, “Write!”
“What should I write?” my hero would ask.
“Say that Mrs. Beinstock is carrying on with the man who takes care of her stove!”
My friend, Usher, would write.
“Add to the bottom,” she would say, “that the stove is not the only thing he’s taking care of!”
Usher wrote. “Where should I send it?”
“Send it to the FBI!”
“Next!” she would say as she took out another post card. “Say in this one that Schwartzkopf is making whisky in his bathtub!”
Usher wrote. “Where should I send it?”
“To the FBI, of course! Where else?” she would say handing Usher a nickel. “Thank God for the FBI!”
“Have some bread; I made it myself,” Usher’s mother would say.
And then taking the bread, our Oriental beauty would say, “Everything is better in Brownsville! Even the bread!”
One fine morning, there appeared in Usher’s house a new boarder. Bounding up the stairs two at a time, he burst into the kitchen carrying the “Furnished Room to Let” sign.
“You gotta room?”
“Front. Very clean,” answered Usher’s mother.
“I’ll take it!” said the man.
“Don’t you want to take a look, first?”
“Nah, I don’t have to look!” he said as he walked in and took possession.
I noticed he carried no luggage.
“What a nice young man,” said Usher’s mother. “He makes such a fine appearance!”
Immediately, from the front room, there came the sound of someone banging rhythmically, and soon there followed a “One! Two! Three! One! Two! Three!”
“What’s goin’ on dere?” cried Usher as he raced into the front room.
And there was the new boarder in his underwear, moving his arms up and down, bending at the knees, exercising to beat the band.
“Look!” said Usher.
Then the boarder did a few more bends, stood on his head, and looped his body in the air in a quick somersault.
“He’s great! The greatest we ever had! The greatest of them all!” cried Usher. And so, my friend Usher and myself found a new hero in Benyomin. We would sit enthralled in the boarder’s room as he went through his exercises. One! Two! Three! One! Two! Three! And while the boarder would remove his shirt, the better to show his muscles, we would sit with mouth open, watching the fine motions of his musculature. One! Two! Three! One! Two! Three!
First, he would work his arms, and we could see his enormous biceps rise and fall. One! Two! Three! Then, he would work his shoulders as his magnificent flesh would crawl with animation and life. One! Two! Three! And while the sweat from his armpits and neck would run down his hairy chest, he would heave, thrust, and practically burst his ribs for us, as we would look at this wonder of wonders, this prince among men. One! Two! Three! Then, he would tighten the muscles of his limbs into hard knots and lift Usher, or myself, onto his shoulders. One! Two! Three! And as our heads touched the ceiling, George Washington and Louie the Lip and every hero we ever had, went down the drain. Two! Three! One!
We could not do enough for our boarder. We would sweep his room and fix his bed. We would tie his shoelaces and polish his shoes. When he entered the house, we would hasten to remove his coat. We would run the water for him in the bathtub and would sit with him while he bathed, handing him his towel and covering him with his bath-robe so that he would not catch cold. And when he was finished, we would clean the tub out after him.
“Say, kids,” he would say, “get outta here! I gotta use the toilet.”
And we would stay outside the bathroom door while we could hear him moaning and groaning on the inside.
And when he came out, we would say, “Benjy, did you go good today?”
For everything about him was of the utmost concern to us. And my friend Usher, in the midst of playing ball, would suddenly remember Benyomin and say, “Benjy didn’t sleep good last night; he wasn’t snoring. He snores every night; last night I didn’t hear a peep out of him.”
He was, indeed, the greatest thing that had ever entered our lives.
“Avrum,” cried Usher’s mother to her husband, “he’s wonderful; so young, so full of life!”
“A bum!” said Usher’s father.
He was the greatest, the greatest of them all. One! Two! Three!
Strangely enough, it was not only Usher’s father who delivered such a cynical observation on Benyomin. I remember Miriam, our next-door neighbor, was visiting Usher’s mother in the kitchen when the boarder passed through to his bedroom. Passed through, did I say? He passed through, took one look at the beautiful Miriam, and stayed without saying a word. Electricity was flying through the air.
“What’s the matter, Benjy? You sick?” asked the worried Usher. “You want some medicine ?”
And there he stood, a changed man. His movements, slow and graceful. His eyes looking through narrow slits. And oh! how sad he seemed, yet, how strangely happy. And without saying a word, as if in a dream, he poured her a glass of tea in slow motion.
“Thank you,” she said, “but I do not want any tea.”
Slowly, insinuatingly, like a cat, he took out a cigarette and offered her one.
“Thank you,” she said, “I don’t smoke.”
Lightning was flashing! Thunder was rolling in the kitchen!
And then, as if impelled by inner voices, he put his strong hands on her wedding band and twisted the ring around. With great fury, her eyes flashing, she pulled her hand away.
“Ah,” he said banging his fists against the muscles of his thigh, “one can live, but they don’t let you!”
Soon, there emanated the rhythmic noises of his exercises from the bedroom.
“Isn’t he wonderful? Did you ever see such a man?” cried Usher’s mother. “Did you ever see such life, such energy, such joy!”
“He’s no good,” said Miriam in a flat voice as she turned to leave.
But, of course, everyone knew Miriam was stupid.
It happened that Usher’s aunt Berenice appeared one day when the boarder was exercising in his bedroom.
“What’s this?” cried the amazed Berenice as the floor of the kitchen began to shake. “Is this a crazy-house?”
“Sh!” said Usher. “It’s the new boarder, he’s exercising!”
“You should see him!” cried Usher’s mother. “A joy! A happiness! A treasure!”
“Usher, darling, dear,” said his aunt opening up her large bag, “here’s a nickel. Call him out!”
“Give Benjy another five minutes,” said Usher pocketing the coin. “He’s gotta finish the exercise!”
One! Two! Three! How the floor did shake! How the windows rattled! How even the plaster in the walls rumbled!
“What’s he so quiet for?” asked the aunt as the noise stopped.
“Breathing exercises,” said Usher.
“Exercises for breathing?” cried the astonished Berenice. “Who needs to exercise breathing?”
And there was Benyomin suddenly standing in the kitchen and breathing with all his might and main.
“My sister,” said Usher’s mother.
“Pleased to meet you,” said Benyomin.
I noticed the loud and garrulous Berenice standing as if struck dumb.
“Benjy boy,” said Usher, “show my aunt an exercise!”
The boarder moved his arm.
“What did I tell you?” cried Usher to his aunt. “And it’s real!”
“I can’t believe it!” said Berenice.
“Believe it! Believe it!” cried Usher and then turning to Benyomin, he said, “Benjy, can I feel dat muscle in your arm?”
“Go ahead, kid,” said the obliging Benyomin. “Feel!”
And now, we, Usher and myself and his aunt Berenice were at Benyomin’s arm checking on that muscle.
“Hit me in the stomach,” said Benyomin. “Go ahead, hit me!”
And then, we, including the aunt, began to hit him in the stomach.
“Harder! Harder!” he cried.
I hurt my fists banging him in the stomach.
“Feel that thigh!” he ordered.
And now, we, including the amazed aunt, were examining the muscles of his thigh.
“That’s all for today, folks,” said our athlete as he retreated into the bedroom.
“What did I tell you?” asked Usher’s mother. “Such a dream! Such a diamond! Such a joy!”
“I swoon from ecstasy,” said Berenice. “Such character in that nose! I’m smitten! A prince among men! I’m moving in!”
It came to pass that Usher’s father brought home a dog.
“A dog!” exclaimed Usher’s mother. “I don’t have enough to clean, I’ve got to clean from a dog, too!”
“He’s got a dog-brain, that’s the reason he brings home a dog!” said Berenice stretched out on the couch, preparing to go to bed. “If it were a dog, this is not a dog.”
I looked and saw that Berenice was right. The head was one dog, the tail was another, the legs were a third. He was all mixed-up.
And would you not think this dog would be only too glad to find a home? Would you not? But this stupid dog, the moment Usher took his hand off his neck and turned his back, took off across the kitchen floor in a flash, his nails scratching on the linoleum floor and ran whining to the door, crying. Not only a mutt, but a real cry-baby, too.
“I ain’t lettin’ him escape! The last dog we had ran out of the door and never came back. Here, Brownie! Have some milk. It’s good for your intestines,” said Usher as he proceeded to tie the dog to the drainpipe under the kitchen sink.
That night, a great snore rose in Usher’s house. There was Usher’s father snoring a kind of long steady snore without any interruptions. There was Usher’s mother snoring a tired, staccato one that came out like machine gun fire, ceased and then began all over again. Then Usher, a whizz that seemed to rattle from the throat. Then Benyomin the Magnificent, a beautiful sonorous sound that came out like a clear bell, or like the cantor’s singing in the synagogue. And then, Berenice on the couch, loud but nervous (and she was to have plenty to be nervous about). As for Brownie, he did not snore, he was awake.
“Help! Help!” cried Berenice.
And everybody came rushing out in his long underwear to the screaming Berenice.
“Berenice, my darling, my dear!” cried Usher’s mother. “What happened?”
“What happened?” cried the frantic Berenice, clutching her enormous handbag. “What didn’t happen! I was asleep on the couch, when I dreamt somebody was over me and putting his face toward my cheek. And when I awoke, sure enough, there was somebody, or something, over me, and would you believe it, he was licking my face!”
“I don’t believe it!” said Benyomin in astonishment.
“Fool! Since when is that something to scream about!” smiled Usher’s father and then looking at Benyomin knowingly, added, “Next time, if someone kisses you, don’t scream; kiss him back!”
“What do you mean since when is that something to scream about? Of course, it’s something to scream about!” cried Berenice.
“If you gotta scream, scream about something worthwhile!” said Usher’s father from the bedroom.
“It was Brownie,” said Usher.
“Who’s ‘Brownie’?” asked Berenice.
“Don’t you know who Brownie is? Brownie’s our dog.”
“I shouldn’t know from a harmful disease; that’s how much I know from ‘Brownie’!”
“Look!” said Usher. “Come into the kitchen! Dat dog tore the string in half and ran out of the kitchen! He was doin’ all the kissin’!”
“A dog kissing me!” cried Berenice in disgust wiping the palm of her hand against her face and looking in Benyomin’s direction. The prince began to laugh!
“Oh!” screamed Berenice as she raised her hands to cover her bosom and ran to the couch, still holding on to her bag. “I’m undressed!”
The prince laughed even more heartily.
Then usher grabbed the dog, slapped him once or twice across the face and said: “You dumb dog, I’m gonna teach you! When I get through with you, you’ll be the best watchdog in the world. Now, here’s another cord. And this one, you won’t be able to break loose from! What’s the matter with you? Ain’t you got no brains—kissin’ dat Berenice!”
“False alarm! It was a false alarm!” he shouted as he prepared to go back to bed.
“Put out the lights and go to sleep!” cried his father from the bedroom. “Respectable people don’t stay up all night. This is a respectable house!”
“Help! Help! Help!” screamed Berenice. “I’ve been robbed! Somebody has taken away my money!”
They were all there in their long underwear again.
“My money! My money! Somebody has stolen my money!”
“Money! Somebody stole your money!” cried Usher’s father frightened.
Money was a serious matter.
“I work hard!” she cried. “I slave in the shop! Where else would I expect to be safe? Not in Bayonne, but here! And here, even here in Brownsville, there are thieves crawling about! Look! Look! Look at my empty pocketbook!”
And sure enough, the pocketbook was completely empty.
“How much money did you have?” cried the wide-awake father, who was really a philosopher when he slept but did not know it.
“Four hundred thirty-two dollars and twenty-seven cents!”
“What?” cried the wide-awake mother, who was really dum-dum bullets when she slept but did not know it.
“So much money!” exclaimed Benyomin the Magnificent, who was the widest awake of all, and who was a cantor when he slept but did not know it.
“How can you trust the bank?” cried the FBI, now alerted.
And there in their underwear, their knees shivering in the cold, they all knew she was right, for the débâcle of one great bank was something everyone on our street had felt.
Then usher, who was really nothing at all when he slept, bent down and picked up a dollar bill and gave it to Berenice who immediately threw it into her empty pocket-book.
“The crooks left one behind,” he said.
And then, suddenly the distraught Berenice began screaming at Usher, “I know! Here is the one who took the money! Last week, I gave him a nickel, and he wouldn’t give it back! He’s the thief!”
The eyes of his mother’s face opened up; her hands became molded into fists.
“Search the monster!” cried Berenice.
Search the monster. What could you search? Poor Usher was standing in his underwear as it was.
“Torture the thief! Find out where he hid the loot! I swear I’ll squeeze the truth out of him!”
And then, reluctantly, Usher’s mother began to shake my friend, Usher.
“I didn’t steal no money!” he began as the tears quickly formed in his eyes and began racing down his cheeks like Niagara. “She’s crazy. Why should I steal her money? I ain’t no crook!”
“Stop!” interrupted Usher’s father. “Unhand that child! This is no way to treat a human creature! The child has his rights, too!”
And the mother retreated, only too glad to do so.
“Kill the beast! Kill him! He stole my money!” cried Berenice.
“Let me handle it,” said the father, brushing them all aside with a wide sweep of the hand and turning to Usher, added, “Sit down! Over here!”
The “beast” sat down on the couch.
“He’s liable to steal the only dollar I have left!” cried the crazed Berenice as she grabbed her bag away from him. “I won’t even have carfare to go back to Bayonne!”
“Let me look into his eyes,” said the father. “I can tell if he took it, just by looking.”
And so, Usher’s father looked while they all stood about with bated breath, waiting without a sound. Not only did he look, but he looked and looked.
Then falling back, the father gave forth a sigh.
“Well?” demanded Berenice as she released her breath.
“I can’t tell. But there’s no question there is something hidden in those eyes!”
Now, Benyomin the Magnificent stepped forward.
“Let me try,” he said.
Usher’s father stepped aside.
“Stand up, Usher!” said the Magnificent as he began to motion with his arms. “Would you like to do some exercises with me?”
Usher nodded his head in silence.
“That’s where the real brain lies!” said Usher’s mother referring to our boarder and looking angrily at her husband.
And so, Benyomin and Usher, Usher and Benyomin, began to exercise. One! Two! Three! Arms out! Arms in! Leg out! Leg in! And as they exercised, the tears fell from Usher’s face to his neck and down his chest under his underwear.
Then Benyomin gently said, “Usher boy, did you take the money?”
Cascading waterfalls! Summer rain! Rivulets and brooks!
“Usher boy,” he repeated, “the money! Did you take the money?”
“No,” persisted my friend, Usher, “I didn’t take no money! I ain’t no crook!”
“He didn’t take the money,” said Benyomin turning to Berenice.
“Then who did?” cried Berenice.
Benyomin turned to Usher, “Who took the money, Usher? The truth, now.”
My friend, Usher, tightened his muscles, closed his eyes, drew in his breath, and said as quickly as he could:
You took the money!
“You’re kidding!” cried Benyomin, aghast.
And now, everyone turned to face our Benyomin.
And here, I must interrupt. I’m not going to apologize for Usher. I know he took the easy way out. But put yourself in his place. Would you be any better? There was Benyomin, the strong, handsome Benyomin. Surely, he could go to the electric chair better than Usher. And if you love someone, such as Usher loved Benyomin, should not the one you love help you out in an emergency once in a while? After all, what is the sense of loving someone, unless he can do you a favor? And if you do not have a big brother, and a “brother” like Benyomin enters your life to fill in the empty spaces, should he not fight for you when you are in trouble? After all, whom else can you get into trouble but the one you love? The one you hate will not let you. And not so oddly enough, the treatment a Benyomin the thief would get, would not exactly be the same as an Usher the thief would get. And so, it happened, as you will see.
“Benyominal, darling! You’re not the thief, are you?” asked the incredulous mother, all sugar and spice.
“The kid’s crazy!” exclaimed Benyomin.
“Good people! Wonderful people! Friends! Neighbors!” cried Berenice suddenly springing to life and standing up. “It must be told! Let everyone hear! This money was my dowry! I worked and worked to save it up, so that I could go to my husband with respect and with dignity! After all, why shouldn’t a good Jewish girl bring her husband some money to help out! A few extra dollars never hurt anyone. Since it was my dowry, and since Benyomin took it, I’m willing to forgive and forget. And here, I want everyone to listen closely. Usher darling, are you listening?”
My friend, Usher, was slinking away into the kitchen.
“I’m listening, dear aunt Berenice,” he said returning into the parlor.
“Listen, everybody! Listen, extra special! My Benyomin can have the money! I give it to him as a dowry!” continued Berenice, now all smiles, as Usher began to turn all colors.
“What’s the matter, Usher?” cried his mother.
“I think I’m going to vomit!” said Usher.
“Don’t vomit! Listen to your aunt Berenice!” said his mother, and then turning a beaming face to Benyomin, said, “It looks as if we’re going to dance at somebody’s wedding! I’m going to break that floor dancing!”
“Nobody is dancing at my wedding, yet!” said Benyomin, a little frightened, his breath heaving, his shoulders caving in.
“Benyominal, darling! I love you like my own son!” said Usher’s mother. “I want to break dishes at your wedding! You got the dowry already! We trust you! Only give us the wedding!”
When at that very, very moment, what do you think happened? There was that stinking mutt Brownie entering the room from the kitchen with a batch of the green stuff in his mouth.
“Look!” cried Usher, “the dog!”
“My money!” cried Berenice as she made for the dog’s mouth and tore out her hard-earned dollar bills.
Now, it became clear. Money lay on the kitchen floor. There was money under the couch, under drainpipes and radiators, under tables and chairs. A dollar bill here. A five dollar bill there. Money! Money! Everywhere!
Now Berenice began to scream. And everybody, for the next half hour, showed his back to life, as he got on his knees to help find that green stuff: Usher’s father, Usher’s mother, Benyomin, and Usher, himself. And as each bill was found, they turned it over to the frenzied Berenice who counted and threw it into her bag. It seemed as if it would never end.
“Well?” asked Usher’s father. “Do you have enough? My knees are falling off!”
“The twenty-seven cents is missing!” said Berenice.
They continued to search. I think they spent more time looking for the twenty-seven cents than for the other four hundred and thirty-two dollars until Usher went over to the dog and cried,
“Brownie, come over here! Where is the twenty-seven cents? Where did you hide the money?”
And Brownie sniffed the air, and wagged his tail, and pawed the linoleum in the living room.
“Where, Brownie? Where did you put the twenty-seven cents? Did you put it under the sink?”
And Usher ran to the sink and looked, but there was no money.
“Did you put it in the stove?”
And Usher ran to look in the stove, but there was no money.
“In the toilet, maybe? Did little Brownie put the money in the toilet?”
And Usher ran into the bathroom, and sure enough, there lay the twenty-seven cents on the bathroom floor.
Then Usher banged the dog in the face with his hand and said, “You dirty crook! That’ll teach you a lesson!”
“Let’s go to bed,” cried Usher’s father, “it’s enough for one night!”
And Berenice began to extract her money from her pocketbook.
“Pocketbooks are not safe, anymore!” she said, as she raised her nightgown and began to push the money down her stocking while Benyomin the Magnificent looked slyly from the corner of his eye. Then when she could not fit in any more, she began to push the money down the stocking of her other leg. And when this failed her, she started to fill up the bosom of her nightgown.
“To bed! To bed!” cried Usher’s father, putting out the light.
That night, Brownie made his getaway.
And, so, Usher’s aunt, Berenice, on his mother’s side, was now a sort of walking pay-station. When she had to pay her rent, she dug. When she had to give Usher a nickel for running some errand, she went for it in the most outlandish places. And then, she was always embarrassing you by feeling to see if her assets were intact. Thus, the Berenice that had existed before, was still there, only more so. Yet, no one in Usher’s house, or on our street, for that matter, felt that she was doing the wrong thing by carrying her money on her person, for they had all lived through an unhappy experience with a bank, all as one.
There had once stood a great bank on one of our streets. It had marble columns, and porticoes, and piazzas. On the front of this bank hung its name, in marble, of course. “Bank of the United States” it was called, or at least, its real name was almost as good.
“How can such a bank fail?” cried the Jews of our street. “It’s America’s own bank!”
Recommendation, good enough. Is it not?
And as if the entire civilized world had been culled for the enlightenment of our Jews, murals, depicting Hammurabi, the Phoenicians, and Benjamin Franklin, hung on its walls. Yes! There was even one of Moses beckoning his Jews across the Red Sea.
“How can such a bank fail?” cried the Jews of our street. “Moses, himself, asks you to come across!”
A real production.
And as if this was not enough, the tellers in their marble cages all had straight noses and spoke in whispers when they took your money.
“How can such a bank fail?” cried the Jews of our street. “It’s a pleasure to give them the money! They take it with such respect!”
Take my money. And give me a whisper in return.
But when this bank failed, it was not whispers that were heard. There were loud raucous cries. There was screaming!
And so, Usher’s aunt, Berenice, went about with her dignity unquestioned.
It happened one night that Usher and I came running up into his house. Finding the kitchen empty, Usher began to attack the icebox, and finally tiring of this, he said:
“Where’s dat Benjy boy? He isn’t exercising today. I’m going in to say ‘hello’ to him and see what’s going on with his muscles!”
When from the boarder’s room there came the sound of a woman squealing in laughter.
“What’s this?” cried Usher. “Something new, here?”
And leading me by the arm, we went into the hallway and quietly climbed up the metal ladder to the roof.
It was cold and dark up there. And from the open skylight of Benyomin’s room, there came a bright light that lit up the roof like a jack-o-lantern.
“Do you hear anything?” whispered Usher, putting his ear to the skylight.
“No, I don’t hear a sound!”
“Dat Benjy is wasting my old man’s heat with his skylight open that way? Do you see anything?”
I put my eye to the corner of the open skylight and looked. My head was twisted and my neck was forced into an uncomfortable position, when with one eye, I could make out a piece of our boarder and help! help! would you believe it! another piece of Berenice and both pieces were put together like one as Berenice sat on our boarder’s lap. And Benyomin had one hand extended about her waist, while the other was pawing her thigh, just where her stockings ended.
I fell back, shocked, that our Benjy could do such a thing, when Usher proceeded to contort his head and place his eye to the opening in the skylight.
“That dirty Benjy!” cried Usher as he fell back in astonishment. “Kissing a girl! That no-good traitor!”
Like the dead weight of a hammer was this traitorous blow to Usher.
“Usher, darling, finish your breakfast!” said his mother.
“I ain’t hungry!”
“Eat! Don’t those bananas and cream look delicious?” said his mother.
“I ain’t hungry.”
“Ain’t hungry? You must be sick. Castor oil, it’ll be!”
Usher fled from the kitchen.
Like a bad dream that had to be blotted out.
“How’s Benjy boy?” I asked by mistake one day.
“What boy are you talkin’ about?” said Usher.
“You know—Benjy boy!”
“I don’t know nobody by that name!” said Usher.
“You don’t know nobody by that name! What’s the matter? You sick in the head or something! Don’t you know Benjy boy—your boarder?”
“We ain’t got no boarder by that name!” insisted Usher as he turned away.
Even the name of the Magnificent had become anathema.
Yet, slowly, insidiously, in another fashion, Benyomin the boarder was to creep back into Usher’s life.
On our street, there lived at this time an “American.” Her distinguishing characteristics were that she wore high heels, kept herself aloof from our neighbors, and had packages delivered by the Macy truck.
And when that truck from Macy’s appeared on our street, it was even better than one of our perennial fires, for from the houses and the stoops issued children, and from the windows peered our women to see this outlandish sight.
“Rich! Macy’s truck!” came the impressed voices from the windows.
Her husband was a cop. Thus, with that Macy truck coming to deliver packages, and that big six-foot wielder of a nightstick, it was enough to earmark this “American” in a pale all her own. And the fact that this woman had only one child, a girl named Dora, served further to isolate her from our world of women who bore children in more fruitful quantities.
“One child! A real high-tone lady! Rich!” said the voice from the windows.
What this family was doing living on our street, I will never know. It was as if they had gotten lost; or maybe, the rent was just cheap. But when the “American” fearlessly walked by our houses, every Saturday like clockwork, with her Dora on their way to the child’s dancing studio, eyes followed them, fingers pointed. And, indeed, it took courage to walk the plank surrounded by peering eyes on both sides.
“Rich! Dancing lessons for the child! Rich!” said the voices from the windows.
“Look how that child carries herself! Such grace! A real dancer! A Hollywood actress! Rich! Rich!”
“Hey, Dora!” said Usher one day as we were standing outside his house. “You wanna make a nickel?”
I swallowed spit at the nerve of that Usher talking to our Dora.
“What did you say?” said the dancer of our street as she stopped.
Yes! she was human. It suddenly occurred to me that this Dresden china doll was only too glad to have someone talk to her. Human, all too human!
“Come into the hallway, I’ll give you a nickel!”
“Gimmie the nickel, first!”
“First, come into the hallway!”
“The nickel, first!”
“Into the hallway!” ordered Usher and then turning to me and giving me the coin, he added, “Let him hold the nickel! He’s honest!”
And that cheap, nickel-plated Dresden doll went into the hallway with Usher! Human, all too human!
I did not recognize that hallway. Mysterious squeaks came from the stairs to frighten us. The walls sent forth a tidal wave of moisture that seemed to match the anxious perspiration that cascaded from us. And the steam-fitting on the radiator hissed and hissed like some awful witch hurling steady imprecations at us for what we were about to do.
And would you believe it, instead of my hero, Usher, doing the kissing, that Dresden Dora pulled Usher to her, clasped her arms around his shoulders and kissed and kissed and kissed. Then, as if that was not enough, our china doll turned to me, and before you could say, “Hello, Mama! Papa’s here!” there she had her pouting lips planted on mine, and she was kissing away to beat the band.
The Stars and Stripes Forever! Anchors Away! Onward Christian Soldiers! In Dixie-land, I’ll Take My Stand! Hooray! Hooray!
Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!
“Hey!” cried Usher. “He didn’t pay! He ain’t entitled to no kisses!”
And so, she turned back to her breadwinner and planted her lips on his.
On the Shores of Tripoli! By the Waters of Minnetonka! Tipperary! O Tipperary! Tipperary! O Tipperary!
Kiss! Kiss! Kiss! How that Dresden doll did kiss!
“Stop!” cried Usher. “Gimmie a minute to catch my breath!”
And while Usher held her off to synchronize his breathing, that dancing Dora turned to me and began all over again.
“OK!” she said finally. “Give me my nickel!”
“What do you say, Ush? Does she get the nickel?” I asked.
“She gets the nickel! It’s hers! She worked for it!” cried the satisfied Usher.
“You would have had to give me the nickel, anyway. My Pop’s a cop!” said Dora as she took the coin and very gracefully began to walk out of the hallway. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
She was a good dancer!
Yankee Doodle Went Uptown! Riding on a Pony! Yankee Doodle Went Uptown! Went Uptown!
She was a good dancer!
Naturally, Usher became a steady visitor in Dora’s house.
“How do you do, Dora’s mother,” said Usher as he and I made our entrance one day.
“Won’t you sit down and make yourselves comfortable,” said the “American” who was all dressed up to go out.
Usher and I sat down, ill at ease.
“Dora, I’m going to Macy’s,” said this Queen of the department stores as she went to the door. “You stay home and watch the house!”
And as soon as we heard the high heels of this mother descend the stairs, we were galvanized into activity, and Dora did the honors by allowing us to search the house. We went through closets and drawers and found all kinds of fascinating things: brass knuckles, policemen’s uniforms, guns, bullets, torn socks.
“Your Pop ever shoot anybody?” asked Usher.
“Of course, you ninny! He shoots somebody at least once a day!”
“If he shoots somebody,” Usher challenged, “let’s see the medals!”
“Medals! Medals! The whole place is full of those medals,” said our dancer as she opened a drawer and pulled out a host of medals. “My mother says if he brings home another medal, she’ll scream!”
But Usher and I were deaf to this girl as we gazed fascinated and stirred beyond human comprehension by this fabulous sight before our eyes. It seemed to me as if these were not mere medals, but preciously woven jewels that could be regarded only with an emotion of religious awe.
“Can I touch it?” asked Usher as this emotion slowly thawed.
“Yes! But be careful to put it back,” said Dora, “otherwise he hollers, and when he hollers, watch out, because he’s liable to do anything, like breaking the dishes, or spilling out the chicken soup into the garbage pail.”
Carefully, tenderly, with the greatest of humility, Usher took one of the medals and hung it on his chest. I could almost see the tears forming in his eyes, while drums beat, and armies marched, and mothers tearfully bid their boys goodbye as they went off to war. This was happiness.
What, with nobody coming into that house, Usher and I were, indeed, very welcome. Upon entering, he would immediately make a dash for the medals and in a few short moments, adorn himself with row upon row of the hardware.
“Wife,” would Usher, metallically adorned, cry as he sat down at the table, “bring me my hat!”
And Dora would run to her father’s closet and bring out a policeman’s hat.
“Wife,” Usher would cry, putting on the policeman’s hat and banging on the table, “bring me my club!”
And Dora would run and bring my hero a night stick.
“Wife,” Usher would cry banging the stick on the table, “where is my supper?”
And Dora would run to the closet and bring back an empty plate.
“Wife,” Usher would cry, “you didn’t give me a kiss!”
“Gimmie a nickel, first!” Dora would say.
And Usher would take out a coin from his trouser pocket and give it to our dancer, who would immediately throw the coin into a glass which she kept on top of the kitchen stove. And it was not long before those coins in that glass began to mount up and up.
I told you, she was a good dancer.
It happened one night when Usher and I appeared in Dora’s house, that Usher, adorned with his medals, equipped with a night stick, and bedecked in a policeman’s hat, began to bang on the table.
“Wife! Gimmie my gun!”
The dutiful dancer ran and returned with an empty holster which she proceeded to tie around Usher’s waist.
Bang, went the stick on the table.
“Wife! Gimmie my supper!”
Over to the kitchen closet. Out came the empty plate. Down it went in front of Usher.
Usher looked and looked.
“What’s in that plate?” asked Usher.
“Ham and eggs,” said Dora.
“Ham and eggs!” shouted Usher. “I ain’t eatin’ no ham and eggs! What do you think I wanna do—poison myself! Gimmie horse-radish and bread, instead. I ain’t no goy!”
The enduring dancer skipped to the cupboard and returned with “horseradish” and “bread.”
Usher began to eat.
Bang, went the holster on the table.
“In one minute, I’m gonna shoot up this place with my gun!” he cried. “You didn’t give me no horseradish!”
“I gave you horseradish!” cried Dora.
“Where is it, then?”
“There—on the plate! You’re going blind from screaming so much! That’s the reason you can’t see the horseradish!”
“Where’s the horseradish?”
“There—can’t you see it?”
Usher looked suspiciously at the empty plate.
“Well! What do you know! It’s horseradish, all right!” said Usher and then added, “Wife! Give me a kiss!”
“Five cents, please!” said Dora as she put out her hand and took the coin from Usher.
Plunk! Into the glass went the nickel.
“Wife! It’s getting late,” said my hero, “let’s go to bed!”
“Ten cents, please,” said Dora.
Plunk! Into the glass went the dime.
Soon, my hero was on the couch, holster on his hip, cap on head, night stick at his side, and medals dangling; and there sat Dora on his lap, as he entwined one hand around her waist and with the other began to paw her thigh.
I was terrified. Suppose someone should walk in! The medals on Usher’s chest clinked musically. Once in a while a titter would come from the dancer. Otherwise, the room was quiet, except for my own busy breathing.
Somewhere, someplace, it occurred to me I had seen this before—a piece of Usher and a piece of Dora, and both pieces put together for a kiss. And I saw myself going up the ladder to Usher’s roof, and peering down the open skylight into Benyomin’s bedroom, and seeing Benyomin with Usher’s aunt on his lap.
Life! It was life, itself, that beckoned to Usher and me. And I was frightened. In Dora’s house! In Benyomin’s bedroom! Life was beckoning to me!
And there was Usher kiss, kiss, kissing. Usher, who was usually so awkward and ungainly, and who was, now, possessed with confidence and fearlessness, while I sat trembling, fearful of a black cloud.
And the black cloud came, because just at this very moment, dressed in that garb representing everything that was lawful and orderly, appeared Dora’s father, who hovered over us, and who stamped out everything in an instant and turned all to despair.
With one full sweep of his arm, he tore the unsuspecting Usher from his kisses, and with one full kick of his leg, he hit my hero in the rear, to send him sprawling across the floor.
“If I ever catch you in this house again,” roared the cop, purple with rage, “I’ll send you up for twenty years! Get out of here, you dirty gutter-bum, you filthy sewer-rat!”
Yankee Doodle went uptown! Riding on a pony! He stuck a feather in his—and out came macaroni.
My hero, Usher, sprawled on the floor, sought the protection that tears could bring, and began to cry. And how we managed to get out of the kitchen, and how we managed to make our way into the hallway and down the stairs, I swear I do not know. But as we went, I cringed, I shut my eyes, I closed my ears to the awful screams that came from Dora’s kitchen as her father was laying it on thick on that dancer.
Thus, denuded of the medals, without his hat, the night stick returned to its original owner, the holster now gone, my hero limped slowly down the stairs, weeping.
Yankee Doodle went downstairs! Went downstairs!
“That lousy Benjy!” cried Usher sitting down on the stoop, weeping bitterly. “He’s to blame for everything!”
Benjy! What did Benjy have to do with it?
When suddenly, from nowhere and everywhere, people began running down the street.
“Must be another fire!” I said not even moving from my perch.
“It’s a fire, all right! My crazy aunt Berenice!” cried Usher, his eyes popping.
In a flash, we were running in the direction of Usher’s house, and there was his aunt Berenice, attired in her nightgown, surrounded by a multitude and screaming her head off.
“Good people! Honest friends and neighbors! Jews of Brownsville!” screamed Berenice. “A terrible thing has happened on our street!”
“What happened! What happened!” cried Mrs. Goldberg in agony.
What happened! For God’s sake, I screamed within myself! What terrible thing happened!
“Worthy brothers and sisters! There are thieves walking around free on this street! And worse than thieves, there are murderers, murderers who victimize innocent young girls!”
“Still a girl?” cried the incredulous Mrs. Feinerman.
“Listen to me!” cried Berenice. “Listen to my story, so that you will know enough to guard the virtue of your daughters! Listen to my tale! Hear me out!”
“Dear child!” cried one of the old ones of our street. “I’m listening!”
“He told me he would marry me!” cried Berenice, the tears streaming down her face. “And I, like a fool, was going to give him the money! Benyominal darling! I said to him, here’s my money, and we’ll get married. And we’ll open up a delicatessen store and buy a little house, and we’ll be happy, so happy!”
“What else did you give him?” cried Mrs. Rosenstein.
“And he said to me, gimmie the money, and I promise you we’ll both stand under the canopy. And he even threw a glass on the floor and stamped his feet on it. Good people! Honest friends and neighbors! Jews of Brownsville! Never believe these fortune hunters, these monsters! Sign the marriage contract first, I said, and then, I’ll give you the money!”
“Good girl!” cried Mrs. Needleman. “Good girl! A real Jewish head!”
“Neighbors! Friends! What do you think he did?”
“What! What!” cried Mrs. Finkelberg.
“These snakes do not stop at anything! They creep! They crawl! They slide! Once they smell money, they fasten themselves on their victims, and you can’t shake them off!”
“If you didn’t keep the money in your bosom, he would never get to it!” said Mrs. Eisenberg.
And now Usher’s father came out.
“Get out of here!” he shouted scooting the crowd away and turning to Berenice, he cried, “Get up stairs, you fool! People are laughing at you! So, he crept to you and your money! So what! You and your money are still intact!”
“I’ll mary you without money!” cried Mr. Mandelbaum the tenant laughingly.
And Berenice, her hair disarranged, tears streaming from her eyes, went up the stairs.
“A free show!” said Mrs. Greenblatt.
“It’s better than the movies!” said Mrs. Haegerman.
“But no samples!” said Mandelbaum the tenant. The street roared.
Frightened, I began to run up the stairs. What did this mean? Was Benjy leaving us? Was he gone? Who’s going to give us that One! Two! Three! if you go, I cried? Who’s going to show us his big strong muscles, or lift us into the air to hit the ceiling? And didn’t you have fun with us, too? Didn’t you laugh when we opened up our mouths in amazement when you did those famous somersaults? Benjy boy, you wouldn’t leave us, now, would you? You are the greatest! The greatest of them all!
And the higher I got up the stairs, the worse it got.
Benjy boy, I cried, don’t leave me! I don’t know what I’ll do without you! Take her money! Take all her money! She should give it to you with pleasure! Take the whole world’s money, if it’s money you want! And if that’s not enough, I’ll go out and steal some more! Only don’t leave me!
And running like two lost rats into the boarder’s room, we suddenly came to a halt! No Benjy!
“He’s gone!” cried Usher. “He’s gone! And he didn’t even say goodbye!”
“Not only is he gone,” said Usher’s mother, “he took my best pillowcases with him!”
“Not even a goodbye!” cried Usher stamping his foot on the floor. “He didn’t even say goodbye!”
“Who was that man I saw downstairs yesterday, standing in the crowd?” began Berenice the next morning, all dressed up, sitting in the kitchen, drinking tea and lemon.
“Which one?” said Usher’s mother. “There were thousands of people standing in that crowd yesterday.”
“You know the one I mean,” said Berenice, “the one with the long distinguished nose! So refined! So cultured!”
“Do you mean Mexile?” said Usher’s mother.
“Such a respectable appearance! Such an intellectual look! A prince!”
“A pushcart peddler!” sighed Usher’s mother.
“Now, who would have thought that Benyomin would turn out to be such a disappointment!” said Berenice, all dressed up, sitting in the kitchen, drinking tea and lemon. “He had such an honest nose!”
Three! Two! One!