Commentary Magazine


Faigele the Idiotke A Story

The Nazis were marching all over Europe and I could already see them crossing the Atlantic and capturing the Empire State Building or holding maneuvers in Central Park. “Manny,” my mother kept telling me, “join up with the Merchant Marines or get a job in a defense plant,” but I sat home, without taking a step or making a move. Phil was talking about going to New Orleans. We had both just finished high school and we knew that in a month or two we would be shipped off to the army. If only we had had ten more years to live, we both solemnly agreed, we would have been the greatest painters in the world. “One month,” Phil said, “gimme one month in New Orleans and then they can take me away.” He wanted me to go with him, but to tell the truth I had never been away from home even for a day and I was scared. New Orleans, it was like the end of the world. “Manny,” Phil said, “who knows where we’ll be in another three months. They’ll bury us both in Africa somewhere.” He was right, but I was still afraid to go. “Phil,” I said, “if you want to paint, you can paint in the Bronx too.” So he went by himself. And I sat home and didn’t say a word to anybody and every time I heard the air raid sirens wail I died a little. I could feel my heart contract and dig all the way down to my bowels, looking for some place to hide. It was no joke. I couldn’t paint or eat or anything. And then in about a week I got a letter from Phil. “Manny,” he said, “it’s great.” And he told me stories about fantastically dark and fragrant women with melon-shaped breasts and soft, honeyed lips, and now my heart ached and I dreamed about them day and night. Every day I got another letter from Phil with stories about even more fantastic women. “I gotta get out,” I said, cursing myself and bemoaning my fate, but I knew I could never work up enough courage to go to New Orleans. With each day that passed I felt as if I were losing a year out of my life. I had to have at least one little adventure. So I stuffed three pairs of pants, some T-shirts, a whole arsenal of paints, and my canvas stretcher into my duffel bag and I took out the hundred dollars that I had kept in a shoe box under my bed—who could trust a bank with the Germans only three thousand miles away?—and one morning when no one was home, I sneaked out, without even leaving a note. I knew that if my mother had been home, she would have been able to stop me in a minute. And then, feeling like some great adventurer, a Leif Ericson or a Daniel Boone, I took the “D” train down to Delancey Street. Holding my duffel bag as if it contained some magnificent treasure, I started walking toward Second Avenue. I tried to find a room, but everywhere I went I was told that all the rooms were reserved for soldiers and sailors on leave. “Be a patriot,” one woman told me, “and sleep out in the street.” Then I steeled myself, and hiding inside a telephone booth with the duffel bag in my lap, I called my mother. At first she laughed and called me a clown, but when I told her I wasn’t coming back, she started to cry. “Manny, come home,” she said. I held on to the duffel bag as if it were some kind of monstrous doll, and I said, “No. Ma, I’m not a million miles away. I’m down near Delancey Street. I’ll call you every Tuesday. . . Ma, I have to get out . . . so send the cops after me. . . Ma, listen. . . .” There was no use talking any more, so I counted to ten, said a quick goodbye and hung up. It started to rain and I panicked a little and sat inside the telephone booth, clutching the duffel bag. A woman wanted to make a phone call, but I glared at her and cursed her under my breath, and finally she went away. I saw a “Rooms for Rent” sign hanging from a fire escape across the street, and right away I felt a little better. I opened the door of the telephone booth tentatively, popped my head out like a wily turtle, felt the rain beat harmlessly on my neck and face, and then, still clutching the duffel bag, I ran across the street.

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The front of the house was blackened and some of the windows were boarded, but I went inside anyway. A woman with a bald spot at the back of her head and a patch over one eye met me at the door. Two black cats stood next to her with their backs humped threateningly. I almost dropped the duffel bag, and staring dumbly at her I somehow managed to communicate to her the fact that I wanted to rent a room. She took me up three flights of rickety stairs. The floor boards creaked ominously and the two black cats followed us like sentries wherever we went. I took the first room she showed me, and I figured that after I got rid of her, I’d pick up my duffel bag and sneak out. She came up close to me and I thought for a minute that I saw a fang mark on her neck. I swear to God I would have screamed or thrown the duffel bag at her or just simply started to cry, but then she smiled a little shamefacedly and said, “Tell me, you’re a Jewish boy?” I no longer noticed the patch or the bald spot, and the fang marks miraculously disappeared. I wagged my head.

“Good,” she said, “I usually rent out this room for fifteen dollars but for you let it be ten.” The two black cats now brushed against my shoes and started to purr. I felt as if I had been living in the room all my life.

“If you need any soap, or towels, don’t be ashamed to ask. There’s a toilet on every floor but if it gets to be like Grand Central Station over there just come downstairs to me. Be my guest. My name is Mrs. Geller.”

“Mrs. Geller,” I said, “the room, is that ten dollars a week?”

“What do you think this is, the Waldorf? Oy,” she said, clapping her hands and smiling, “it’s a lucky thing for you you’re a Jewish boy. Tell me, it’s the first time you’re in New York? You never rented out a room before. Learn, quick, another landlady would eat you up alive! Don’t be a schlemiel, it’s ten dollars a month.” She started laughing to herself; the patch above her left eye moved up and down unevenly. “Sonny,” she said, “be careful, or somebody’ll steal off your pants.” She straightened out her patch, picked up both cats, and left. I unpacked my duffel bag and inspected the room. The walls were chipped and cracked and the ceiling sagged miserably. There was a sink near the door with two leaky faucets and a corroded pipe that belched all the time. An unvarnished chest with a missing drawer and a lumpy bed with four crooked legs faced each other uneasily in one corner of the room. I killed two giant roaches and an army of silverfish and then approached the bed. I punched the mattress twice and waited eagerly for the bedbugs to appear. I turned the mattress over and punched it again. “Wait,” I said to myself, “maybe they’re just a little shy.” I took out my paints and rubbed my palms together for good luck. I searched through my duffel bag and remembered with a groan that I had left my roll of canvas on top of the closet in my mother’s room. I cursed myself and then noticed a wrinkled, moth-eaten shade attached to the top of the window. I tore the shade off the window feverishly, removed one of the drawers of the chest, found a nail and two pins, and, singing to myself, tried to stretch the shade across the back of the drawer. But the shade began to crumble, and I flung the drawer halfway across the room. Two gigantic plaster chips fell from the ceiling and almost took out my eye. I began to shiver a little and sat down on the bed. I was ready to pack my duffel bag and run home. And then I closed my eyes and miraculously I had a vision of myself crawling across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with a paint brush in my mouth. I opened my eyes and stared hungrily at the ceiling and the walls. I felt inspired. I moved the chest over to the center of the room, loaded my pockets with tubes of paint, and climbed on top of the chest. A woman called, “Faigele, get off the fire escape.” I heard a clanging sound outside my window and the chest began to wobble. Pieces of plaster rained from the ceiling and struck both of my shoulders and the back of my head. I jumped off the chest and ran to the window. The fire escape was trembling violently and I thought for sure the world was coming to an end. And then I saw a girl who must have been at least six feet tall climb up the fire escape three steps at a time. Her skirt flared unevenly and exposed her bony kneecaps and her unwashed underwear. She stopped for a moment in front of my window and pressed her angular face against one of the panes. I was startled and stepped back. One of her ears was larger than the other and her eyes seemed hollowed out. She smiled queerly and climbed up to the roof, the steps of the fire escape trembling in her wake. I took two deep breaths and went down to Mrs. Geller. I asked her for a room without a fire escape. “Shah,” she told me, “shah. It’s only Faigele. She’s harmless.”

I was furious. “How the hell can I get any work done with her running around like that?”

“Sonny,” she said, “you’ll get used to her. Shah.”

“Why don’t you have her arrested or something?”

“Arrested? She’s only twelve years old.”

Mrs. Geller’s cats started arching their backs and right away I calmed down a little. “Well, why don’t somebody tell her father?”

“Father? Her father is dead. He was killed in the war. And her mother, she works all day and when she’s not working who knows where she is? So what can I do? Who else would take her in with a daughter like that? Should I throw them out in the street better, hah? After all, they’re not goyim. Faigele’s a Jewish girl. This I can guarantee.” I don’t know what she expected me to say, but now she was the one who was getting worked up. “Go, if you want, pack up and go. I don’t care if the whole house moves out. Who needs boarders! I should worry. Faigele stays! That’s final!”

“All right, Mrs. Geller, all right. But could you tell her to stay away from my fire escape, huh?”

“No! The girl goes wherever she wants.” Then she backed down a little. “Sonny,” she said, “you know why they call her Faigele, hah? Faigele, it means bird in Yiddish. I myself gave her that name. Why? Because she reminds me of a bird the way she runs around and hops all over. And she’s kind like a bird too. The lousy kids around here they make up other names for her. But if you ask me, they’re the ones who are the dopes.”

She looked at me pleadingly, so I slapped my sides and said, “Let her use the fire escape, okay?” and I went up to my room. I left the chest in the middle of the room and wrote a letter to Phil and gave him my new address. “Phil,” I said, “Second Avenue is not New Orleans, I know, but a little freedom is better than nothing. All I’ve met so far are an idiot girl and a woman with a patch over her eye, but I’ve only been here for half a day.” I had nothing fantastic to tell Phil, so I made the letter short. “I’ll mail it tomorrow,” I said, and using my pants for a pillow, I went to sleep. I thought for sure I’d have some kind of nightmare about Faigele or Mrs. Geller’s cats and I’d start screaming in the middle of the night, but I slept soundly. When I woke up I started to sneeze, and I looked around and saw that half of my body was covered with plaster chips. I heard somebody shout, “Faigele, Faigele, the Idiotke,” from the roof. The ceiling began to bulge in five or six places and I protected my head from the bombardment of falling chips. “That’s enough,” I said, and after putting on my pants, I went right up to the roof. Six kids were up there and they stood around in a circle and all of them were shouting at Faigele. “Faigele the Idiotke,” they kept saying, louder and louder. Five of the kids wore black skullcaps. The other kid wore a sailor hat. He was the ringleader and his name was Hymie. Faigele was sitting on the tar floor of the roof with her skirt hitched up to her knees. She was searching for her shoes. Hymie started pumping his arms and said, “Fly, Faigele, fly!” Then the other kids joined in “Fly, Faigele, fly.” One kid said, “Let’s play hot potata,” and he tossed something up in the air that looked like a gigantic loaf of bread or maybe a football. Then I took a closer look and I saw it wasn’t a football or anything, it was one of Faigele’s shoes. It was the biggest shoe I had ever seen in my life. “Hey,” I said to Hymie, “why don’t you give her back her shoe, huh?” “No,” Hymie said, “not until she flies for us.” And then the other kids joined in again. “Fly, Faigele, fly.” I tried to grab the shoe, but the kids kept tossing it over my head and shouting, “Hold on to the hot potata.” Finally one of the kids dropped the shoe, and I snatched it up before any of them could run over. Now Hymie called the other kids over for a huddle. And meanwhile I stood on my guard, because with kids like these anything could happen. They let out some kind of a crazy cheer and then they all separated. Faigele was still sitting on the tar floor and I wanted to warn her and give her back her shoe, but the kids started picking up dried lumps of tar and they threw them at Faigele and me. “Revenge from the Maccabees,” they kept shouting. It was no joke, because some of the lumps were as big as an egg. Faigele was an easy target because she was sitting on the floor, so most of the kids aimed at her. She kept getting pelted with lumps of tar and she didn’t even hide her head or anything, so I figured it was time for a little action. I couldn’t catch all six of the little bastards at one time, so I went after Hymie. He kept dodging in and out of the clotheslines, and once or twice I tripped and I thought for sure I was going to fall off the roof. But finally I caught him and I gave him a good hard kick in the can to remember me by. Then I looked over and I saw that Hymie’s chums had surrounded Faigele and they were getting ready to bombard her. And when they saw me coming, they ran over to the next roof and started in throwing lumps of tar from over there, but they were too far away to do any damage. One of Faigele’s shoes was still missing and I looked all over the roof for it. I couldn’t find it, so I helped Faigele lace up her one shoe, and then she stood up, limped a little, and started somersaulting crazily across the roof. I guess she was performing for me or something. She ran nimbly along the ledge of the roof, making a noise that sounded a little like a moo. “Faigele,” I said, “you’ll fall off,” but she didn’t listen to me or anything. It was lucky for her that we were out of range, because if Hymie’s gang had hit her with even one lump of tar, she would have fallen right off the roof. Then Faigele climbed down the ladder that led to the fire escape and she disappeared. And I went back down to my room.

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About ten minutes later I heard a thumping sound outside in the hall, and I figured that maybe Faigele was coming up to pay me a visit. But I should have known better. She would have come through the fire escape. And like a fool I opened up the door and was ready to put on a little performance of my own for Faigele, when somebody grabbed me by the shirt and threw me right across the room, and I knew right away it wasn’t Faigele. It was Hymie’s father. He couldn’t have been much more than five feet tall, but his shoulders were almost as wide as the door, and standing there with his huge nostrils flaring and with his arms dangling down almost to his knees, he looked more like an ape than a man. Right away I made up a name for him: King Kong. I wanted to open the window and join Faigele outside on the fire escape, but I was too scared to make a move. King Kong wore an apron that was smeared with dried blood, and I figured to myself that he must be a butcher.

“You,” he said, pointing one of his stubby fingers at me, and I felt as if I had just been sentenced to death. “You like to go around kicking kids, huh?” Then he noticed a few tubes of paint that I had left on top of the chest. “A painter boy, huh?” He picked up one of the tubes, tossed it once or twice, and then began to squeeze it. I groaned inwardly as I saw the cap pop off and a snaky string of cobalt blue shoot out of the tube and fall with a plop on the uncarpeted floor. He seemed to be enjoying himself, and one by one he went to work on my tubes of paint. I turned around for a second and saw Faigele peering sadly through the window, and then King Kong, laughing wildly and squeezing out my last tube of paint, started coming toward me, and I must have fainted or something, because the next thing I knew, Mrs. Geller was leaning over me and slapping my face with a lumpy rag. The two black cats were climbing all over me.

“Oy, look at him, he’s turning blue. Sonny, get up!”

“I’m all right,” I said, “and stop hitting me with that rag, huh?” I shooed the cats away from me and then stood up, dizzily. The whole room was cluttered with lumps of paint and it looked as if a dozen birds had left their mark with a vengeance right on my floor.

“I know the whole story,” Mrs. Geller said. “We’ll fix him, wait. He thinks he’s the boss around here, that gorilla. I’ll have him dispossessed, wait. Out in the street he’ll go. And Hymie, that little gangster, he’ll catch it from me too. Wait!”

“Thanks, Mrs. Geller, I appreciate everything, but I’m a little tired, and. . . .”

“I understand, Sonny. Come down later and I’ll make you some soup.” She signaled to the two cats and left.

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I examined myself in the mirror, but I couldn’t find a bump or even a bruise. Then I heard a light tap coming from the window. I opened the window and looked outside, but no one was around. I noticed a cracked pigeon egg and a rotten carrot on the landing of the fire escape. Presents from Faigele? Probably. The egg and the carrot stank unbearably and I wanted to close the window quickly and leave them out on the fire escape, but I felt that somewhere Faigele was watching me, so I cursed myself, reached out and brought the booty back into the room. I almost fainted again from the smell, but I wrapped the carrot and the egg in some newspaper and dropped them into the bottom of the chest.

The next morning I woke up with my nostrils stinging. The room smelled worse than a sewer and if I hadn’t gulped down three glasses of water from one of the leaky faucets, I think I would have choked to death. I ran over to the window and saw a dozen pigeon eggs, a wormy apple, and two blackened turnips sitting out on the fire escape. “Faigele, Faigele,” I cried out, but no one answered my call. After putting on my T-shirt inside out, I went down to Mrs. Geller. Her two cats glared at me and prepared to hump their backs, but I ignored them completely. I would have taken on King Kong himself had I met him in the hall, that’s how furious I was. “Mrs. Geller,” I said, “enough is enough. Tell me where Faigele’s mother lives?”

Mrs. Geller stared at me woodenly for a moment, and then, after playing nervously with her patch, she said, “On the second floor.”

“Which room?”

“The one . . . the one near the stairway. But you won’t find her there. She’s never home. Tell me, what happened?”

“Later,” I said, “later,” and I ran up to the second floor. I stood in front of the door near the stairway and knocked on it forcefully with my fist. No light came through the chink at the top of the door, and I knew that no one was home. I sat at the top of the stairs for almost an hour, and then I went up to my room. I stuffed my nostrils with some cotton, and using a rusty tablespoon I scooped the dozen eggs, the wormy apple, and the two blackened turnips into a paper bag. I went down one flight and left the bag with a little note in front of Faigele’s mother’s door. “The hell with it,” I said, more out of mischief than spite, “if I stink everybody out of the house, it’s Faigele’s fault.” I heard someone coming up the steps, and I thought it might be Faigele’s mother, so I peered down the darkened stairwell and in the meager light of the tiny lamp at the bottom of the banister I recognized the monstrous shoulders of King Kong, and after chuckling to myself, I ran up to my room.

The next morning there were no pigeon eggs or turnips outside my window, and I thought that maybe now the problem of Faigele was solved. King Kong had destroyed all my Venetian red and cobalt blue, but luckily I had kept a few tubes of paint in my duffel bag. I didn’t feel like sneaking home to get my roll of canvas, so I went downstairs, scoured the block like a hungry scavenger, and finally found several large pieces of cardboard outside an abandoned grocery store. “If Picasso can paint on cardboard,” I said, trying to console myself, “so can I!” On the way upstairs I stopped off at the second floor, but the paper bag was gone. I was eager to get back to work, so I didn’t wait around to see if Faigele’s mother was at home. I figured I’d try a self portrait, so I arranged my remaining tubes of paint on the chest, posed myself in front of the mirror and started to sketch scratchily on the cardboard with a stumpy blue crayon. Then, instinctively, I turned around and saw Faigele outside on the fire escape. Mrs. Geller’s two cats were with her. “Faigele’s friends,” I said to myself, but I kept on working. I couldn’t help it, I had to turn around again, and I saw that Faigele was looking at me in a funny way. She opened her mouth wide and made a sound that was somewhere between a caw and a moo, and I dropped the crayon and started to shake a little. “Oh, my God, she’s serenading me,” I said with a groan, and I walked over to the window and gently tried to chase her away. But Faigele stood on the fire escape and kept it up. I tried to finish the sketch, but my hand kept shaking, and Faigele’s serenade froze my heart a little and made it beat erratically. I charged down to the second floor and beat on the door near the stairway like a wild man with both fists. The door across the hall opened and I saw Hymie come out. “Ma, ma, look who’s here!” he said, and, after shaking his can at me, he ran back in. Hymie’s mother came over to the door. Her belly hung down like some kind of a pouch, and her ears pointed upward, and she looked more like a kangaroo than anything else. I was trying to think up a name for her too, but then she started talking. “What’s the commotion?”

“I’m looking for Faigele’s mother.”

“Faigele’s mother?”

Yeah. Mrs. Geller told me she lives on this floor. Next to the stairs.”

She started laughing, and her pouch heaved up and down uncontrollably. She cupped her hand over her mouth for a second, and said,” Excuse me.” But her belly kept heaving. “Mrs. Geller told you that? And you believed her yet? Dummy, Mrs. Geller herself is Faigele’s mother!”

“Wha?” I said dumbly, and then Hymie’s mother walked over to the door near the stairway. I thought she was going to ram it open with her belly, but she just touched the knob and the door opened by itself. I looked inside and saw that it was a storeroom. A monstrous metal crib stood near the door. A metal hoop, some gigantic wooden blocks, and a doll that was taller than I was, were piled behind the crib. Faigele’s old toys? Probably.

“Now you believe me or not?” Hymie’s mother said.

“What about Faigele’s father? Didn’t he die in the war?”

She started laughing again, and I had to wait almost a minute before she calmed down. “Can she make up a story! Dummy, nobody knows who Faigele’s father is . . . not even Mrs. Geller herself, that gypsy!”

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It started driving me crazy to watch her belly heave, so I went down to Mrs. Geller. Her cats weren’t around, and she looked a little lost without them. She took one look at me, and I guess she knew her little game was up. Even the patch over her eye started to sag.

“Mrs. Geller,” I said, “why the hell did you make up such a lie?”

She looked around desperately for her cats, and then she raised the patch, trying to compose herself a little, and said, “Sonny, I’m sorry.” She started to cry. “I didn’t want you to move out. Who can find boarders?” A solitary tear appeared from beneath her patch and dribbled down the left side of her bumpy face. I think I was ready to break down and cry myself, especially when I saw that tear, it was so lonely looking.

“Don’t cry, Mrs. Geller,” I said, “I like Faigele, I mean it.”

She grabbed the end of my T-shirt and started wiping her eyes with it, and I was a little embarrassed, because my belly button showed for a minute.

“Don’t be angry with her, Sonny. You protected her before from those little bandits and she was trying to show her appreciation.”

“It was nothing, Mrs. Geller. But please tell her not to leave any more eggs outside my window and to stay away from my fire escape. I mean, if she wants to come around once in a while, fine, but Mrs. Geller, the way it is now, I can’t get any work done.”

“I’ll tell her, Sonny, I swear. She didn’t mean no harm.”

She wanted to kiss my hands, but I pulled them away quickly and put them in my pocket.

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Geller,” I said, hastily, “who knows, maybe I’ll paint Faigele’s picture for you one of these days,” and, without giving her a chance to say anything else, I went straight up to my room. Faigele and the cats were gone, but about an hour later I had another guest. King Kong. I wasn’t expecting him, so I opened the door unsuspectingly, and he pushed his way in. He was holding some kind of a petition.

“Sign it,” he said, “sign it.”

“Sign what?”

“It’s a petition to get Faigele committed. All we need is one more signature and then maybe we’ll be able to get some action on it. Sign it, or I’ll break your arm!”

I retreated immediately and my whole body started shaking, but I said to myself, “Manny, for once in your life be a mensch instead of a mole,” and I refused to sign.

“Go ‘head,” I said, and I offered him my left arm. “Break it if you want, but I’m not going to sign.”

He looked at me as if I were some kind of an idiot, and then he folded the petition and put it in his pocket. He shook his head twice and started walking toward the door, but he changed his mind, came over to me again and started pleading with me. “What’s the matter, ain’t you got any sense? The girl’s an idiot. Everybody knows it, even her own mother. Look, we’ll be doing Faigele a favor if we get her committed. That’s a fact. Sure, if she stays around here, one of these days she’ll fall off the fire escape and crack her head. I’m telling you, it’s better off for everybody if Faigele goes. Mrs. Geller can’t rent out a room with her around. The whole second floor is empty except for me and my wife and the kid. Everybody moved out.” He took out the petition again and extended it to me, coaxingly. “Come on, sign it. Be a sport.”

“No,” I said, flatly.

His eyebrows began to knit convulsively, and for a minute I though he was going to pounce on me and tear me apart. But then he waved the petition at me and said, “Who needs you, you dopey jerk! We’ll get her committed without your help. And lemme tell you, you’re the next one to go.” He stormed out of the room, his enormous back twitching furiously.

I stood in front of the mirror and congratulated myself. “Manny,” I said, gloating at my image, “hello. You finally turned out to be a mensch. You stood up to King Kong and you beat him yet.” I was too overjoyed to do any work. I sat back on my bed with my hands clasped absently behind my neck and started to dream. Manny, Faigele’s protector, that’s me.

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Two days passed. I had already written three letters to Phil, but I hadn’t received any answer yet. It was Tuesday, so I went downstairs and called my mother. I asked her if I had received my draft notification or any letters from Phil. She said no both times, and then she started screaming over the phone. I tried to calm her down. “Ma,” I said, “stop worrying. I’m still alive. I’ll call you every day if you want. Ma . . . so send ten detectives after me, who cares! They’ll never find me, anyway. Ah, it’s no use talking to you,” I said and I hung up. I felt a little ashamed. “Manny,” I said to myself, “after all, she worries about you,” and I was going to call her up again, but then I figured what the hell, it’s only going to be the same thing all over again. Three words, that’s all she knows: “Manny, come home!”

I met Mrs. Geller in the hall, and I told her about King Kong’s petition. “Sonny,” she said, looking a little worried, “you didn’t sign it, no?”

“Mrs. Geller, what kind of a guy do you think I am? Sure I didn’t sign.” And when I told her that, she grabbed me around and started hugging me and kissing me, right in the hall. Finally I made her let me go, and I went upstairs. “Sonny,” she called up to me, “now they’ll never be able to take Faigele away. I have you for an ally!”

I figured I’d continue working on the self portrait I’d started, so I posed myself in front of the mirror again. I heard something drop down with a plop on my fire escape. “Not again,” I said, and I was ready to tear out my hair. “Faigele, Faigele, lemme have some peace.” I figured she was dropping down some more booty from the roof, and I looked around frantically for a paper bag. What’s it going to be this time, a turnip, a carrot, another dozen eggs, or maybe something extra special? I’m telling you, if King Kong had come back right then with his petition, I would have signed it on the spot. That’s how fed up I was. Well, I walked over to the window ready to scoop up any turnips or eggs or whatever it was, and then I saw that half my fire escape was covered with tremendous lumps of horse manure. I knew right away that this wasn’t Faigele’s doing. I mean, there’s a difference between sending somebody a rotten pigeon egg and a lump of drek! I looked up and saw Hymie’s impish face peering over the ledge of the roof. And now I knew what the story was. King Kong was trying to put the pressure on me. I stuck my head out of the window, and shaking my fist at Hymie, I said, “You can tell your father that I’ll never sign his lousy petition, no matter what!” And then I realized how vulnerable I was with my head sticking out like that, so I pulled my head back inside the window. And my timing was perfect, because a lump of horse manure dropped down right where my head had been. I closed the window quickly and was ready to charge up to the roof, but then I saw Faigele dash past my window, and about half a minute later I heard Hymie cry, “Help, help!” I started cheering like a maniac. “Hurray, hurray, Faigele’s fighting back!” I became a little frightened. Suppose she throws him off the roof or something? After all, it’s partly my fault. I protected her before, so now she was protecting me. And I went right up to the roof. Faigele was already gone, but I saw Hymie’s legs dangling out of an orange crate that was half filled with horse manure. I laughed so hard that I had to sit down for a minute to catch my breath. “Help, help!” Hymie cried, and finally he managed to climb out of the crate.

“She made you eat your own ammunition, huh Hymie?”

Hymie’s little can drooped dejectedly, and he walked over to the next roof without cursing me or saying a word.

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I bolted my door and put the chest next to it for a barricade, and waited for King Kong to show up. I figured he’d be angry as hell, and I wasn’t going to take any chances. I spent half the day sitting on top of the chest, listening, like some kind of an insane spy, for footfalls outside my room. After a while my chin dropped down on my chest and I started to dream. Faigele and I were playing on the roof, pretending to be birds. She kept flapping her arms, and then, all of a sudden she just took off and started to fly. She flew rapturously over the roof, and I cupped my hands over my mouth and called after her. “Faigele, Faigele, come down. People can’t fly. Come down, before you fall.” But she kept flying higher and higher. And I had to find some way to make her come back, so I started pumping my arms like mad, and believe it or not, here I was, flying too. Nobody knows how wonderful it is to be able to fly. If people could fly, I don’t think they’d ever want to do anything else. I can’t imagine anyone ever getting tired of flying. My arms moved up and down effortlessly and I followed Faigele halfway across the sky. “Faigele,” I said, “wait up,” but I could never catch up with her. And then, my arms started feeling a little heavy, and my body began to spin. And no matter how hard I flapped my arms, I couldn’t keep myself from falling. But even as I plunged I thought to myself : It’s worth it, just to be able to fly for a little while. I heard somebody screaming at me. I looked up, and right away I knew that I had fallen off the chest. Both of my buttocks ached miserably, and I said with a groan, “Some flying machine you turned out to be.” I saw the door begin to shake, and now I knew why I had fallen off the chest. King Kong was outside my room, banging away at the door, and the whole room was beginning to fall apart. The chest was rocking back and forth as if it were possessed, the pipe beneath the sink was beginning to moan, and the ceiling looked as if it were ready to crack. Plaster chips were falling everywhere and there was no place to hide. I thought for a minute King Kong was going to knock down the door, but then I quieted the chest and leaned against it with all my might. “Lemme in,” King Kong said, “lemme in. You saw what she did to my kid, the idiot. And you’re the one who’s responsible for everything. I’ll give you three to come out. One. Two. Three.” He started ramming the door with his shoulder, and a tremendous chunk of plaster fell down from the ceiling and almost knocked me down. But I still didn’t give in. And for the first time in a long time I didn’t feel guilty about not being in the army. The hell with the Germans, I had a private war of my own.

“I’m telling you,” King Kong said, “you better sign the petition if you wanna live to see tomorrow . . . all right, if you’re too afraid to come out, here, I’ll push the petition under the door. Sign it, and then I’ll go away.” When the petition came through the door, I picked it up deliriously, and tore it into at least a hundred pieces. With a demonic grin I sent the petition back piece by piece through the door. I heard King Kong begin to groan. And he charged at the door again. “Thank God,” I said to myself, “that they build these old houses with strong doors.” I heard King Kong drop down on his knees outside the door. He must’ve been trying to assemble all the pieces of the petition. I think he was crying. I heard him get up again. “Now you’re gonna stay inside of that room for the rest of your life. Because if you ever try to come out, I’m gonna tear you apart. Nobody’s gonna save you now. I’ll be waiting for you.” And then he walked down to the next floor. Out of spite I wanted to open up the door and shout something down to him, but I was too petrified even to go near the door. “Okay, King Kong,” I said to myself, “I’ll wait out your siege, you’ll see.”

_____________

 

Luckily I had stored seven cans of tuna fish in the bottom drawer of the chest, or probably I would have starved to death. Three days passed. I tried to send signals down to Mrs. Geller, but Faigele didn’t come near my window, not even once. I was going to ask King Kong for some kind of a truce, but I knew it wouldn’t work. I was down to my last two cans of tuna fish. And then, during the afternoon of the fourth day of the siege I heard a knock on the door. Somebody called, “Manny, open up,” and it wasn’t King Kong. “Phil?” I said, pressing my ear against the door, “is that you?”

“Who the hell do you think it is? Come on, open up.”

I hesitated, of course, but then I figured that even if King Kong was a ventriloquist, how would he know what Phil’s voice sounded like? So with trembling hands I opened up the door. Phil was wearing a dirty T-shirt, and he looked as if he hadn’t slept for a week. I hugged him anyway, that’s how glad I was to see him. I was going to tell him about Faigele and the siege and everything, but he waved me off and said, “Please, Manny, lemme rest up for a minute. I haven’t been off my feet for days.” Letting him use my shoulder for a crutch, I led him toward the bed. He took off his shoes and put them on the window sill. The heels and soles of his shoes were worn through, and his feet were absolutely black. He wanted to fall asleep right away, but I wouldn’t let him.

“Phil,” I said, “what happened? Why’d you come back from New Orleans?” He rubbed his feet and kept quiet.

“So?” I said, thinking about the women with melon-shaped breasts and honeyed lips, and I waited eagerly for Phil to tell me about his adventures. But all he did was look sourly at me and rub his belly. “I’m hungry,” he said. “If you won’t lemme sleep, then at least gimme something to eat.” So I gave Phil my last can of tuna fish. Poor guy, he must have been hungry as hell, because he gobbled up the whole can in less than a minute. After he licked the oil off his fingers he looked at me for a minute with his baggy eyes, and then he turned his head away. I knew now it wasn’t any fantastic stories that I was going to hear.

“Manny,” he said, looking woodenly at the wall, “the first day I got to New Orleans this guy and a girl caught me in back of a bar and stole my wallet and my watch. The girl wanted to take my pants and my shirt, and I hadda beg the guy to lemme keep ‘em. I had to sleep out in the street for two nights and I was even arrested for being a vagrant. Don’t ask! Manny, even the army couldn’t be any worse than that.”

“Phil,” I said, “what about those letters you wrote me?”

“Ah,” he said, “all lies. I thought maybe you’d come out there if I wrote you all that. It was terrible being by myself, Manny. And after a while I started believing all the crap I wrote, and I felt a whole lot better. You know. I didn’t meet anybody out there. No women, nothin’.”

Then I started thinking to myself. If Phil hadn’t sent those damn letters I would still be home, instead of sweating it out here with Faigele on one side and King Kong on the other. And I couldn’t help it, but I felt like strangling him.

“Hey Manny,” Phil said, stretching his arms lazily, “wake me up after it gets dark, huh?”

And that’s when I grabbed him by the ankles and threw him off the bed.

“Get out.”

“What?” he said, bewildered. And then he started to laugh. “Quit it, Manny. I’m tired. Later, huh? Then we’ll play games.”

“Get out!”

He looked at me unbelievingly with his baggy eyes and quickly put on his shoes. “You a nut, huh Manny? First you hug me and now you wanna throw me out. All I wanted to do was stay here for one—”

I pushed him out of the room and bolted the door.

“Manny,” he said, standing outside, “you turned into a madman, I mean it. Lemme in. I don’t wanna go home. Manny?”

He asked me one more time before he left. I stood near the door for a minute and then I began to panic. I didn’t want to stay by myself any more. “I’m sorry,” I said, and I opened up the door. “Phil,” I called out, but no one answered. I wanted to run down after him, but I was too afraid to leave my room. I figured that with King Kong in the house I would never get past the second floor. So I bolted the door again and sat down on the floor, and believe it or not, I started to cry. “Manny,” I said to myself, “you’re the king of the shmoes!” An artist I wanted to be yet!

_____________

 

And then, almost miraculously, I saw Faigele’s face in the window. At first I thought it was only a vision, but when she started to moo, I knew that it was Faigele in the flesh! “Faigele,” I said, “wait, don’t go away!” but she climbed up to the roof. “I’ll show them,” I said, and gathering up a brush, a large piece of cardboard, and some random tubes of paint, I opened the window and climbed out on the fire escape. I looked around to see if Hymie was spying on me or anything, and then I tiptoed up to the roof, gripping the metal banister tightly after every step. I looked down once and right away I became dizzy and almost dropped a tube of paint. Faigele was playing behind a clothesline, so I walked over to her quietly, sat down on the lumpy tar floor, and placed the piece of cardboard against my knees. I watched her play for about ten minutes, and then I took out my crayon. A pigeon landed on the roof and Faigele started to imitate the way it walked. The pigeon limped for a minute, and Faigele started limping too. She smiled at the pigeon, and I stared at her dumbly for a moment, because it wasn’t the smile of an idiot girl, no. Her whole face glowed and her smile was so gentle and warm that even the pigeon was baffled and stood motionless for a moment. God, I thought to myself, if only I could paint the way she smiled, I’d be some kind of a genius. She reached out her hand to touch the pigeon, but then she started to moo, and right away her features coarsened and her smile lost all of its enchantment. She was Faigele the Idiotke again, and the pigeon flapped its wings wildly and retreated to the other end of the roof. Faigele flapped her arms too and ran after the pigeon. “Faigele, Faigele,” I cried, “come back.” I saw Hymie and a few of the Maccabees standing behind me and I knew King Kong would be up in a minute. I stood up, dropped the tubes of paint and the cardboard, and galloped after Faigele with a prolonged groan. The pigeon stood on the ledge of the roof. Faigele approached the ledge, flapping her arms and mooing. Hymie and the Maccabees started to shout. “Fly, Faigele, fly.” The pigeon remained on the ledge for another moment and then flew off triumphantly. “Fly, Faigele, fly!” Faigele stood on the ledge and watched the pigeon longingly, and I could see now she was crying. “Fly, Faigele, fly.” She looked at me once, and then flapping her arms rhythmically, she jumped off the roof. I leaned over the ledge and tried to grab one of her legs, but it was too late. Her arms flapped once or twice as her body plunged, and for a minute I thought she really was going to fly, and then her body struck the ground with a heavy thud and she lay motionless out in the yard. Mrs. Geller’s cats appeared suddenly, ran over to Faigele, and started licking her body. Hymie and the Maccabees ran downstairs and I remained alone up on the roof. I heard the cats begin to howl.

Even King Kong cried later when he saw Faigele out in the yard. Mrs. Geller kept beating her chest and her patch dropped all the way down and exposed the gutted socket of her eye. “I should have sent her away,” she sobbed brokenly, and King Kong put his arm around her and comforted her. The two cats kept howling. I signed seven different forms, and I told the story over and over again, and finally the police left. I went up to my room and started packing. I found the pigeon egg and the carrot that I had left in the bottom drawer of the chest, and I dropped them gently into the duffel bag. And then I said goodbye to the room and went downstairs.

I spent half the night wandering through the streets, with my back bent over from the weight of the duffel bag. I kept mumbling to myself. “Let Phil be a birdman if he wants, I’m staying on the ground. I don’t want to fly. Faigele, Faigele. . . I should have signed the petition.” A taxicab almost ran me over and twice I was stopped by a policeman. A drunken sailor offered to buy me a beer, and when I walked past him without saying a word, he kicked me in the butt and I tumbled over and fell in the gutter. The sailor picked me up and told me ten times how sorry he was, and he made me keep his sailor hat. I peed in the middle of the street and was almost arrested, but luckily I was wearing the sailor hat and the policeman let me go. “Save it for Germany,” he said with a wink. Finally I settled outside a recruiting station and sat quietly on my duffel bag. I glanced at all the recruiting posters. Uncle Sam pointed his bony finger at me and I must have been going out of my mind, because I heard him say, “Faigele, Faigele, Faigele,” over and over again. I buried my head in the folds of the duffel bag and cried bitterly for a little while.

_____________

 

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