Commentary Magazine


From the American Scene: Summer Day

We live beyond experiences, but we do not always oudive them. Even today the smell of fresh rye bread and the click of billiard balls waken memories of my childhood which almost thirty years have not swept away. The gas-lit, red brick house in which I passed my fifth to my thirteenth year comes alive in all its dinginess, its wooden steps and banisters rickety, the smell of alley cat everlastingly over its halls. And there is the bakery on one side of the street door and the poolroom on the other.

One day in particular lingers, defying time to touch it. It was a day during my tenth summer, lonely and tortured by longing and hope and frustration as were so many like it. All around me loomed a world that brushed me aside, making light of my desires and laughing at me. But before the day ended I had stood up and demanded that my voice be heard.

During the summer months I was alone most of the time. My mother, ever since my father died, worked in a mattress factory nearby. One of my two sisters had an office job with interminable hours, while the other was always away at the homes of her friends. Except on Saturday I hardly ever saw either of them. Each morning my mother said to me, “Stay in the park until I come home for lunch. And cross the street with a big person.” When she left, she turned her head in a last worried look. That my spirit might be in danger never entered her mind. She knew that I kept away from the street rowdies, and she had surrounded me closely with all the shalt nots of her intense religious faith.

It was still early when I came to the park on the water front that morning, and a moist, sticky breeze hung in from the river. The sun heaving up from behind the gray-blue latticework of the Navy Yard on the Brooklyn side was already hot. An olive-tan tugboat pulling a sea-train screeched forlornly as it rounded Corlears Hook and passed into the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. There were no people on the long green benches; only crumpled Eskimo-pie wrappers of the day before lay strewn underfoot. At this hour the unrelieved shabbiness of the park, a desert of yellowed crab grass behind broken chicken-wire fences, was unbearable and I walked back home.

As I stood peeking through the window of the bakery to see if Evie Becker was at the counter, her father bumped into me with a bakepan of jelly tarts he was carrying from the cellar.

“Already you’re looking for Evier?” the baker said. ‘Ten years old and already in love! It’s too early in the morning. What’s your hurry?” His eyes twinkled and his muscles rolled up and down his bare arms as he rested the tray on his knees. Summer and winter he dressed in an undershirt, a pair of flour-whitened pants, and a golfer’s cap.

I flushed and stammered. “I—uh—just wanted to see if it isn’t busy in the store. Ida lets me read the News.”

“Sure, sure, it’s the newspaper, not love,” he said and pulled my white sailor hat over my eyes. But when he had brought the paper out to me, I sat on the curbstone, holding it before me but not reading. I felt scorned and mocked. Only two Sundays ago I had gone with Evie to the movies on Chatham Square to see The Covered Wagon. The picture had been exciting, but much more memorable had been walking home through the dark streets afterwards, holding hands with Evie. She had cowered against me each time a strange-looking Chinese had passed, even though she was two years older than I and very clever for her age. I thought of a dozen excuses each day now to go into the bakery just to catch sight of Evie.

I went back to the store and laid the newspaper under the window case. Between the window and the counter there was a little wooden bench, and I sat down on it. The morning rush for fresh rolls was still on, and neither Mrs. Becker nor Evie’s older sister Ida took notice of me as I watched the people come and go. The beautiful warm, yeasty smell wound itself about me like a web.

Mrs. Becker fascinated me. She was a short, chunky woman with heavy bosom and a mass of inky black hair which she wore in a pompadour. She had pince-nez glasses attached by a gold chain to her ear and carried herself with a teacher-like sternness. She even doled out rolls and gave out change with authority. Yet though she was never genial like her husband, she was sometimes so motherly to me that I forgave her sharp words. I never knew whether I was really fond of her.

When there was a lull in the stream of customers, Mrs. Becker looked up and said, “Already he’s here—Evie’s sheik.”

“That’s what I call true love,” said Ida. At fifteen she already looked a full-grown woman, and she aped one. “What did Evie do to deserve it?”

“And who asked you, Bigmouth?” said Mrs. Becker, suddenly angry with Ida.

I felt myself grow crimson. Hastily I grabbed up the newspaper and said, “I’m reading the comics in the News.”

“Oh, Papa took the paper out to you,” Ida said, eyeing me with affected slyness. “I saw him even.”

“I didn’t finish,” I insisted. I pretended to read, holding the paper high enough to hide my face.

Mr. Becker came in with a huge basket of onion rolls and emptied them into a bin. He drew out a cigarette and lit it. “My last one,” he said. “You’ll go across the street to the candy store and get me a pack of Schinazis, sonny?”

As I started through the screen door, Ida said, “Wait a minute, kiddo. Will you do me a favor too?”

I lowered my eyes and said in a choked voice, “No.”

“Aw, you silly kid,” cried Ida. “Just imagine! He gets sore I’m kidding him about Evie. Here—get me two bricks of ice cream.” She laughed and forced the money on me.

When I came back, Mr. Becker told me to keep the two cents change left from the cigarette money. Ida immediately bit into one ice-cream brick and shoved the other at me. I protested at first, for my mother had scolded me for letting Ida treat me before. “Don’t take from anybody,” my mother had said. “I can afford, thank God, to buy you ice cream myself.” Yet she seemed to have forgotten always to give me the money for it.

For the moment I lost myself in delight: I bit into a little of each flavor, letting the sweetness of the vanilla mix with the faintly bitter chocolate and the sour aftertaste of the strawberry.

Suddenly I heard someone come into the little kitchen in the back of the store. I pretended unconcern, but inwardly I trembled. I sneaked a glance: through the half-open door I saw Evie at the gas stove. There was a quick sizzle of grease and a smell of smoked salmon and eggs frying. Oh, how I wished that Evie would call me into the kitchen! But suddenly I could not bear to have Evie find me there eating Ida’s ice cream. There would be jokes and laughter, and I would sit uncomfortably blushing. I had to escape. I put the paper away and slowly pushed the screen door open.

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It was after ten o’clock now. The sun was blazing and no breeze from the river tempered the muggy heat. I walked the block to the park, hoping that one of my few friends would be there. I looked for them in the shade of the overgrown privet hedges, where we had a secret bunk. In this weather the yellowish white blooms smelled like rancid butter. Our bunk was deserted.

From the dock of the flour mill naked boys were already diving into the rainbow oily water. They almost all made the sign of the cross before they dove. A few days before a man had hit his head on an upturned milk-can cover and never came up alive.

As I lost myself watching the swimmers, two grimy boys armed with iron spikes came suddenly upon me and said, “Get out of this park, Jew boy, or we’ll mopolize you.” But first they tore the sailor hat from my head and went through my pockets. They rejected pencil stubs, bits of colored chalk, and a broken toy frog. They seized eagerly on the two cents, and one of them kicked my behind while the other snarled, “You wanna live? Don’t let us ketch you around here again—unnerstand?”

I wiped my tears with my shirt sleeve. If only I belonged to a gang! I would come back with my comrades, seek out the two with the iron spikes, and have my revenge. But I was alone.

I went back to the bakery and found Evie alone at the counter now. She called through the plate-glass window, “Here’s the News, Skinny!” For the third time that morning I tried to read the comics. In the presence of Evie I saw nothing at all of the print. I looked at her furtively. She had plump arms, curly dark brown hair, and eyes of two different colors, one brown and one blue. I would never have known that, but a man once came into the store and said, “Evie, why don’t you get two eyes that match?” Evie had been ready with a quick answer, “They’re the best pair of eyes I have. I got no complaints, Mr. Buttinsky.” After that Evie had become more attractive to me than ever; nothing about her was ordinary.

Evie was saying something, but I heard nothing at first for the music that flowed through my head. “My mother is taking us to Coney Island, if it’s a nice day Saturday,” I heard her say at last. “Maybe we’ll even go to Steeplechase. You think you could come with us?”

“No,” I answered. “My mother wouldn’t let me go on Saturday. It’s Shabbos.”

“Aw, Shabbos!” exclaimed Evie. “Do you hurt somebody if you go somewhere on Shabbos?

I clenched my fists in frustration. My mother kept the Sabbath so religiously that we were not allowed even to turn on the gaslight after the Friday evening candles burned out. On cold winter Sabbaths we shivered in bed until an Italian boy came to start a fire in the stove. After breakfast we all went to synagogue. In the afternoon I listened to my mother read the Bible chapter for the week in Yiddish translation, and then we went for a quiet walk in the park. This was the holy day of rest, and my mother suffered nothing to disturb the complete peace of it.

The smell of seeded rye started hunger pangs in me. A fly caught on a strip of flypaper was buzzing madly. The flypaper had a castor-oil smell which was usually pleasant somehow. Now it nauseated me.

“Don’t forget. Ask your mother. Maybe she’ll let you come,” said Evie.

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Upstairs in the crowded little kitchen I spooned my beet soup slowly. “Hurry, my son, you know I have only a half hour for lunch,” my mother said. “What are you dreaming about anyway?”

“Mama!” I blurted out. “Can I go to Coney Island?”

“Coney Island? What’s the matter all of a sudden?” my mother asked. Her face was careworn but determined, and her faded blue eyes turned on me, suddenly alert

“Evie’s mother will take me,” I said.

“Oh, so! And when are they going?” my mother asked.

“The day after tomorrow,” I said, feeling all my determination drain away.

“On Shabbos!” she exclaimed. “Suddenly you’re crazy?” She put a slice of pumpernickel overlaid with sardines before me. “Against the Beckers I have nothing, absolutely nothing. Mrs. Becker is better than a bad sister to me. But when it comes to religion, she might as well be a goy. Now hurry up.”

“I can’t eat any more,” I said and left the table.

I sat on the doorstep of my house, wondering if Evie was still at the counter, but not daring to go see. After a while I heard Fatso, the poolroom owner, cranking his awning down. A few idlers began to drift in. I stood alongside the door, watching them chalk their cues. A smell of cheap cigars and stale perspiration hung about the poolroom. Fatso went over the floor delicately with a broom, sweeping into the gutter the more inescapable refuse like cigarette butts and tootsie-roll wrappers.

An open black car drove up to the curb. A broadly built man in a gleaming white starched shirt with the sleeves rolled up halfway to the elbow got out and slammed the door. He brushed roughly past me. “Out of my way, kid,” he ordered.

“You’re looking like a million,” Fatso greeted him. I watched how the others made way for Gimp at the front table. One boy hastily gathered the balls together from the pockets and arranged them in the rack.

As his cold gray eyes measured the huddled clump of balls, the muscles on Gimp’s face hardened. His cue smashed brutally into the target, and for a moment his eyes flashed with savage power. Each of Gimp’s strokes had the same calculated command of force. I watched, hypnotized.

A tough-looking red-headed boy slunk into the poolroom. Gimp talked to him for a few minutes in a low voice, holding the cue like a horsewhip, hand end up. Finally the stick moved menacingly and the red-head put his arm up defensively.

“How many times I gotta tell you anyone works for me keeps his nose clean?” Gimp snarled. He struck a ball so furiously that it jumped off the table. I ran in to pick the ball up.

I stood at the door again, quivering with excitement. The hours rushed by, but I was lost in a world without time. Suddenly I felt myself yanked by the collar, and my mother’s voice cried out, “This is the son I’m bringing up! How lucky for your father that he didn’t live to see this!”

She pulled me into the bakeshop. “See what I give my life for! I slave in the shop day after day, and my only son will send me to an early grave!” she lamented. Luckily only Mrs. Becker was in the store.

“Such a son I should have,” said Mrs. Becker. “A good head he has, a bum he isn’t. What do you want of him?”

“If he stands all day in the poolroom, what is he if not a bum?” cried my mother. “What do you want him to do yet? Rob? Murder?”

“Such a bum my Evie’s husband should be,” Mrs. Becker replied.

Embarrassment washed over me like heat from the bakery cellar. I pulled away from my mother’s grip and ran out of the store. I wandered through the furnace-hot streets, dazzled by the tight lines of pushcarts on Monroe Street, repelled and drawn by the acrid smell of rotten onions and the fragrance of half-sour pickles and hot peppered fava beans. A Negro on a wagon piled with watermelons was holding a quarter slice aloft on the tip of a knife and chanting, “Wahdeemelons! Wahdeemelons! Sweet as honey—good as money! Wahdeemelons! Wahdeemelons!” I grew painfully hungry and turned towards home.

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It was so hot in our flat after supper that my mother sent me down for fresh air. Someone behind me put his hands over my eyes and cried, “Guess who?”

“Jack Dempsey, world champion,” I said.

“Wrong! Harry Wills can beat Dempsey any day, but they won’t give him a chance. My father says so,” said Sammy Fink, pulling his hands away. I was so happy to see a friend at last that when he said, “Let’s go to the park!” I didn’t object. Yet my experience of that morning was still terrifyingly fresh.

The park was stuffed with people now. They spilled over the benches, onto the grass and the fences. A searchlight beam from across the river picked out couples huddled in the bushes, and there were squeals of laughter.

The tide came in with a smell of sewage and salt spray, and washed with ominous rhythm against the breakwater. We saw a crowd gathered around something covered with a tarpaulin on a dock at the edge of the park. A cop held back the people, swinging his club with a bored expression.

“They just picked up a body from the river,” a man told us. A revolting stench floated toward the crowd. A boy stole past the cop and lifted a cover of the tarpaulin. The crowd roared with laughter at the cop’s anger.

I felt like vomiting and shouted at Sammy, “Last one out of the park smells like a dead fish!”

I mounted the creaking wooden steps to our flat. The smell of cat hung heavy over the hall. Silhouetted by the dim gaslight, a girl was embracing a fellow on the third floor landing.

I lay on my cot bewildered. I saw myself surrounded everywhere by high strong fences. How would I ever break those fences down? Someday I would take Evie away from here, I thought. Just as in the story books, we would wander through green fields. From a hilltop we would see the valley below, we who had known only the clamor of the city.

From below came the clicking of billiard balls. Suddenly there was a sound of crashing balls, powerful, masterful, decisive beyond all the others. Before me was a vision of the muscles hardening about Gimp’s jaws. Before such a face all fences would crash to the ground. “Gimp! Gimp!” I whispered m the dark.

I jumped up from my cot and rushed into the kitchen where my mother was still up reading a Yiddish newspaper by gaslight. “Mama!” I cried. “I’m going to Coney Island with Evie!”

My mother’s eyes opened wide with as tonishment. “God in heaven, a dybbuk has come into the child! Go to sleep!”

“No, I’ll go to Coney Island on Shabbos!

“Go to sleep—or I’ll give you Coney Island with a strap!” she ordered angrily.

“No! No! I’m going!” I shouted.

My mother took a length of clothesline and lashed me. I retreated to my room crying, “I’m going! I’m going!”

Suddenly my mother burst into tears and threw her arms around me. “Oh my son, my only son,” she pleaded, “have pity on me. I’ll take a day off. I’ll go with you to Coney Island. Only have pity on me.”

My mother’s tears were unconquerable. More quickly than it had flared up, my rebellion died, leaving me miserable and guilty in defeat. I knew that there would be no day at Coney Island with Evie and that I could never, never be like Gimp.

And yet I was not altogether unhappy. I had cried out against my mother, and only her tears had put me down. Next time I would hold out, even against tears. Lifted on a strange surge of triumph, I fell asleep.

Saul Gottlieb’s poems have appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies. The one we print here is from a group that won the 1952 major Hopwood Award in poetry at the University of Michigan.

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