Commentary Magazine


In Our Infancy

Paul, in the bathroom which connected his room with his mother’s, listened tensely at her door. He could hear only her singing, the same old song: he knew it by heart. She had chosen the hotel suite they had had the year before; there was one room for her, another for him. He was seven, a pale, rather ugly child, undersized, with a large mouth, blue eyes slightly protruding, and dryish light-brown hair.

He tried the doorknob, seizing it firmly and turning it with intent stealth. He pressed against it and discovered that, as he supposed, she had locked the door. He undressed, filled with discontent, put on his pajamas, and washed. He dried his face and hands, straightened out the damp towel neatly on the rack, and went into his room, where he stood at the window for a long time looking at the landscaped lawn of the hotel. The yellows, blues, and pinks of the flowerbeds swayed in the early evening breeze.

It was the last of June. School was over, and the great treat had now arrived: he was in the country. He wished he had never seen the country! School was bad enough, but at least his father sometimes played with him before bedtime at home. His father had promised him that he would come to the hotel every week-end. But his father had made that promise last year, too, and hadn’t kept it. When Paul asked his mother why, she had smiled and told him his father would have to answer that. His mother liked the country because she always had plenty to do there: she played cards and golf and swam. Nestled amidst the expanses of the golf course was the swimming pool, which had a pavilion with white, wooden lattices and a copper-colored roof. A patch of steel grey water glistened. It must be freezing in there, he thought. Then he thought of the governess, last year, who was in charge of all the children at the hotel. She had not cared much about him. She had just wanted him to keep quiet. He hadn’t liked her much, either.

The smooth-cut stretches of grass, bordered by trees and bushes, were the fairways of the golf course. They rolled in bumps and hillocks down to the foot of the mountain. Then there was the valley, with its scattered white houses and winding railroad tracks that reminded him of his electric-train set at home. And in a quick upward sweep, another mountain rose, towering to the purple and orange bars in the darkening sky. The landscape served in its vastness only to make him more desolate.

_____________

 

“Are you in bed, Paul?” his mother called from inside.

“Yes, mother,” he answered. He scampered to the bed, crawled beneath the lavish quilting, and lay with his eyes open, hoping she would come in. But her voice, seconds later, said, “That’s a good boy. Good night.” Her door opened, and closed. He heard her footfalls, muffled by the thick carpeting in the corridor, passing his room. Tears welled in his eyes. He fought hard, and managed not to cry.

The room slowly darkened. Its objects began to blur and lose shape; they became mysterious and threatening, and started slowly to shift and move. He closed his eyes tight, fearful and trembling, but they popped open despite him and stared at the terrifying shapes of darkness. The incessant call of the crickets filled the black outside. Occasionally leaves fluttered in the wind, and the sound was like a brief patter of rain. Suddenly he felt a spasmodic twitching of the fingers of his right hand. He held his hand up and tried to look at it. The darkness made of it only another vague shadow. He tried to stop the movement of the fingers by clenching his fist, but they jerked around as though they were separate from him and not his fingers at all. He sat up and clutched at the night-table lamp with his left hand. He touched instead a thin, cold, cylindrical object and gasped. He pulled the covers over his head.

Slowly he realized that it was the telephone he had touched. He reached again, pulled it toward him, and removed the receiver from the hook.

“Hotel, hello,” said a man’s voice.

Paul didn’t know what to say. “Hello,” said the voice.

“I’m cold!” Paul blurted, and hung up.

For five minutes he lay partly ashamed of having complained he was cold when he wasn’t, and partly in despair of anyone’s coming. Then the door opened. Click! The room was light. Through squinting lids he saw a bellhop in a blue uniform with a blanket under his arm.

“Who’s cold around here?” the bellhop demanded in a rough voice. “You?” He pointed at Paul.

Paul nodded timidly.

“Go on,” exclaimed the bellhop. “You’re not cold. It’s hot in here.” With that he pulled the quilt from the bed, revealing Paul’s curled-up figure and the convulsive fingers of Paul’s hand. The bellhop, a good-looking youth with wavy black hair, bent over him and examined his fingers. “What’s wrong with your hand?”

Paul shrugged, but his fingers in the bellhop’s warm, friendly palm became quiet as abruptly as they had before begun to move.

“Okay,” said the bellhop. “Now where are you cold? There?” He poked Paul lightly in the ribs. “There?” He poked him in the stomach. “There?” In the left side. “There?” In the right side.

Paul rolled around on the bed, trying to escape, his body shaking helplessly with laughter. The bellhop stood over him, arms akimbo. Paul looked up. “You’re tickling me!” he said.

“You’re tickaling me!” the bellhop mimicked. “Here!”

He tucked Paul in expertly with sheet, blanket, and quilt.

“Well, are you still cold?”

Paul shook his head.

“Okay, sign off,” said the bellhop.

“What’s your name?” asked Paul.

“None of your business, you little stifferoo you.”

“Mine’s Paul.”

“Who cares?” responded the bellhop cheerily, and clicking off the light, he left the room.

Paul tried to think of all that had just happened, but his face and body felt flushed and heavy with sleep. His eyes closed, and when they opened again it was morning.

_____________

 

After breakfast, he walked slowly past the bellhops’ bench off the lobby and peeked in; his friend of the night before was not there.

Rain tapped gently against the glass of the festoon-draped French windows leading to the upper porch. Paul gazed at the billowy mist and fog covering the valley below. All the greenness outside was sodden, bent with pearly rain. The wet stone flights descending to the swimming pool were slate grey. The downpour washed away all the joy he had slept on, and left in its place a vacuum of boredom. His mother, when he went from his room, had not been up; she was no use. He pressed his forehead and nose against the cool glass.

“What’s your name?” someone asked him. He was startled. That was what he had asked the bellhop last night, but the bellhop hadn’t told him.

This was a girl, pretty in a quiet way, with brown hair, and hazel eyes which to Paul appeared friendly. Behind her, gazing inquisitively at Paul, were a little blonde girl with a blue hair ribbon and a boy of about Paul’s size.

He told her his name.

“I’m Miss Shulman,” she said.

He perused her doubtfully.

“Have you had breakfast, Paul?”

He had.

“How’d you like to come down to the play-room and have some fun with us?”

He hesitated. “Are you the girl who takes care of the kids?” he inquired.

“Yes, I am, Paul.”

“The one who took care of the kids last year was mean,” said Paul. “She didn’t like me.”

“Well,” said Miss Shulman taking him by the hand, “I’m not mean, and I like you.”

By noon he believed that she did. All morning he played games and painted and slid down the slide and shouted and ran around the play-room. He had never had such fun before. When everyone was tired, Miss Shulman played the piano and sang children’s songs in a sweet voice. Paul liked her voice better than his mother’s. She finished and Paul announced boldly, “I can sing a song.”

Miss Shulman asked him please to sing it and he did, tunefully, singing the words in a grown-up style:

A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces,
An airline ticket to romantic places,
And still my heart has wings,
These foolish things
Remind me of you. . . .

“How did you learn that song?” Miss Shulman asked after he was through.

“Oh, she sings it.”

“Who is she?

“My mother. She used to be a singer. She sang in the International Casino.”

The little girl with the blue ribbon twisted restlessly and asserted: “My mother can sing better than your mother.”

Paul was surprised by the pugnacity of her tone. “I never said she couldn’t,” he mildly replied. The little girl was silenced completely.

It had not occurred to Paul that one’s own mother should do everything best.

_____________

 

Each afternoon as the sun descended and the gold-specked shadows lengthened on the grass where he played, Paul’s anxiety grew and darkened the happiness of his day. As suppertime drew near, he clung moodily to Miss Shulman. He didn’t want to leave her, yet knew he had to. He knew also that waiting for him was his great empty room. He was afraid. All the sounds were strange at night, and there was the twitching of his hands and feet. He thought often of phoning for the bellhop who had been nice to him. But everybody would only say he was a pest, and nobody would like him.

Some nights he lay tossing till dawn, and then, when the birds began to sing, he dozed for an hour or two. He would get up and eat breakfast impatiently. At nine, Miss Shulman would come.

One morning she noticed that his eyes were puffy, and when she discovered that he hadn’t slept, she was so sorry for him that he didn’t care if he never slept again. At five o’clock that afternoon he lingered until the others were gone. He had a gift for bier.

“Where did you get these?” she asked uneasily on looking at the present. It was a booklet of passes to the Times Square Burlesque.

Paul felt disappointed and hurt. “Don’t you want them?” he asked. Miss Shulman said nothing, but her expression seemed to demand an explanation. “My father gives them to me to give to my friends. That’s why I gave them to you. They’re for one of his theaters. . . ..”

Miss Shulman knelt and squeezed him tightly. “Why you poor kid!” she exclaimed. “Thank you, Paul. It was sweet of you to think of me!” And she kissed him.

That night as he lay in bed he thought as hard as he could of the kiss: how soft her lips were! how soft they had been against his cheek! It would be nice, he reflected idly, if instead of his real mother, Miss Shulman were his mother. He would get some more passes for Miss Shulman when his father came, although one week-end had passed already and his father hadn’t come. He felt very sleepy. His pillow was nice and warm and smooth like Miss Shulman’s kiss. He had almost fallen asleep when suddenly the pillow became wrinkled like the skin which sometimes formed on the surface of his cocoa. He tried to smooth it, but the wrinkles spread to the sheets, to the cover, all over: narrow, fine, disgusting wrinkles, like the skin on the cocoa. He cried out, but there was no one to hear him. He called into the phone “Send him in, send him in, send him in!” He no longer cared what they thought of him.

The door opened and the light went on. Paul saw it was the wrong bellhop. “Not you, not you!” he cried. “The one with the blanket. I want the one with the blanket!”

“Okay,” said the bellhop, “you mean Roy. Don’t go ‘way. Stay right where you are.”

The bellhop went out, and a moment later Roy came. He had a fierce look on his face.

“My pillow’s wrinkled,” Paul announced hollowly.

“So what?” demanded Roy.

“My pillow’s wrinkled. I’m afraid.”

Roy grasped the fear in the child’s voice.

“That’s different,” he said. “I’ll get you another pillow.”

He took the pillow away and returned in a few seconds. “Here’s a smooth one now,” he said.

Paul knew it was the same pillow but he didn’t care. His fear had vanished. He snuggled into the pillow, and it was all right. “Do you like me, Roy?” he murmured.

“Sure I like you. Do you want me to hang around for awhile, or are you ready to go to sleep?”

“You don’t have to stay, Roy,” Paul answered. “I’ll go to sleep now.”

“Good night,” said Roy.

“Good night. . . .” Then, just before Roy closed the door, Paul said, “Roy, will you put me to sleep tomorrow night?”

Roy sighed. “Okay. I’ll put you to sleep tomorrow night.”

_____________

 

Roy kept his promise and dropped in each evening. He would grab Paul and shake him like a pillow. He would lift him under the chest and thighs and sail him around the room like an airplane. He would toss him up to the ceiling. He would tickle him until Paul chortled with delight.

Then, one evening, he talked with him.

“Does your mother know you call me in here every night?” he asked.

“Oh no!” Paul exclaimed. “She doesn’t know.”

Roy was sitting on the edge of the bed. He tapped Paul seriously on the chest with a forefinger. “Then you’d better tell her,” he advised.

Paul became very solemn, and his face assumed a strange maturity. “I’ll never tell her or anybody, Roy. It’s a secret. You see, you and I know about it, but if we told anyone they’d make fun of me. They’d say I was a pest.”

“Oh,” said Roy. “I see. They’d say you were a pest.”

“That’s right,” said Paul. “You won’t tell, will you Roy?”

“Don’t you know that kids aren’t supposed to keep secrets from their mother?”

“She’s not my mother anyway,” Paul declared calmly.

Roy clapped a hand to his head. “Boy, are you a crazy kid! Who is your mother?”

“Miss Shulman,” Paul blandly replied.

Roy burst into a brief spasm of laughter. “Frieda? Your mother? Does she know it?”

“Who’s Frieda?”

“Frieda is your mother—Miss Shulman. Don’t you even know her name? Oh, when she hears this!” He went off into another roar.

“Roy, you won’t tell her! It’s a secret!”

“What isn’t a secret?. . . .Listen, you tell your mother that Roy the bellhop comes in every night and puts you to sleep. He’s working his way through med school and needs the cabbage, understand? You tell her that.”

“What’s cabbage?”

“Money. Cabbage is money.”

“Oh,” said Paul, “my mother doesn’t give

out any money. My father takes care of all the money.”

“Well, when’s he going to be around?”

Paul shrugged. “He said he’d be here every Saturday, but he doesn’t come. I think he’s mad at her. They had a big fight before we came here. She doesn’t like me. She said so. And she doesn’t like him either. She likes a saxophone player. My father said so. He said any time she wants she can go to Reno. Where’s that?. . . .She just smiled all the time. She said he has a kid at the Hotel Victoria. I was to the Hotel Victoria but I never saw the kid. My father took me to have milk there after we were to his theater. Roxie Davis was backstage and she went with us when I had milk. . . ..”

“Roxie Davis?” said Roy. “Did she do a striptease for you?”

“No,” said Paul. “My father doesn’t let me see the show. He says I’m too young to see the show.”

“He must be delicate,” said Roy.

“What’s that mean?”

“That means that you tell your mother what I told you to.”

Paul leaned forward. “But she’s not my mother. I told you.”

Roy pushed him in the chest and he fell back to the pillow. “Sign off,” Roy growled, and went out.

Paul didn’t care. Roy was his best friend in the world. And in the daytime, Miss Shulman was his best friend in the world.

_____________

 

The children were going to entertain in the main ballroom, and each of them was going to sing or recite or dance. Miss Shulman coached them for a week, and on the evening of the entertainment they were permitted to stay up later than usual. They followed Miss Shulman from place to place, prancing excitedly in her wake. Just as they were entering the ballroom, someone called Paul’s name. He didn’t readily recognize the voice, but he turned and saw it was his father. His father squeezed him tightly and kissed him, and the rough stubble of his father’s face felt unpleasant and scratchy against his own.

“Well!” his father said. “Are you enjoying yourself? Having a good time here?”

The question seemed so vague to Paul that he hardly knew what to reply. He said, finally, “Yes, papa, I’m having a good time. I’m going to sing ‘Old Folks At Home.’ ”

“How’s your mother? She having a good time?”

Paul shrugged uncomfortably. He twisted his head, looking into the ballroom where the children were gathered in a semi-circle around Miss Shulman, who was speaking to them.

“Can I go to Miss Shulman now, Papa?” he said.

“Why not?” answered his father, reaching out to pat Paul’s head, but he was slow, and Paul escaped agilely to the ballroom.

Miss Shulman put her arm about his shoulders and asked, “How would you like to go on first?”

Would he! He was proud and happy, and forgot all about his father. In high excitement he watched the grownups who were beginning to stroll into the ballroom. The slender, gilded legs of the cane chairs were reflected in the brilliant wax finish of the floor; the room, otherwise, was discreetly illuminated by soft radiations from the crystal chandeliers.

At last the ballroom was filled and it was time to begin. Miss Shulman, who was at the piano, introduced Paul to the audience and announced the song: “Old Folks At Home.” He bowed. Miss Shulman played a few bars and he opened his mouth to sing. At that moment he became aware of his parents in the first row. His father, bald, short, with a large protruding stomach and bulging eyes, was smiling benignly. His fat hands rested clumsily on his thighs, and from one of his fingers glittered the stone of a tremendous diamond ring. His mother, an attractive blonde in her late twenties, was staring at him, the corner of her mouth curled in a small, tight-lipped smile. Paul’s face began to tingle and his song slipped word by word from his memory.

Miss Shulman tried to prompt him, but it was useless. He could see that they were all laughing at him. He would show them! He started the song he knew by heart, the one his mother was always singing when she thought she was alone in her room:

A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces,
An airline ticket to romantic places. . ..

A ripple of subdued tittering crossed the audience.

Those stumbling words that told you what
    my heart meant. . . .
These foolish things
Remind me of you. . . .

A couple entered the ballroom. The woman touched her companion’s arm and whispered into his ear. He listened, then broadly grinned.

You came, you saw, you conquered me . . .

A deep flush spread over the face of Paul’s father.

. . .Now the ghost of you clings,
These foolish things
Remind me of you.

The listeners exploded in a roar of mirth and applause. Paul’s mother continued sitting with the little smile on her mouth. His father did not move a finger. Paul stared at them a second and then turned and went quickly to Miss Shulman, who told him he had been wonderful. He sat in the corner behind her until it was over. Miss Shulman distributed a prize to each child. Paul was given a little bow-and-arrow set. He took it with him to bed and fell asleep happily.

The following afternoon, Paul’s father appeared at the children’s playground, which was a level clearing on a rise behind the hotel. He told Paul he was going home and asked if Paul wanted to go with him.

Oh no! Far from it. Paul wanted to get back to his play, and could scarcely stand politely and not fidget while his father kissed him and told him to be a good boy and that he would see him at home after the summer was over. At last his father released him. He became an Indian and hunted everywhere with his bow and arrow.

_____________

 

At five o’clock, Paul reported reluctantly to his mother to be bathed and changed for supper. She was playing bridge on the expansive upper veranda and was in the middle of a game when he arrived. She told him to run along and wash himself. He didn’t mind; she could play cards always for all he cared.

He prowled downstairs and around the outside of the hotel, an Indian once again. He trod softly over the uncharted wilds of the golf course, searching for enemies. At the top of a gently sloping incline an enemy brave got him. He tumbled to the grass, rolling over and over till he reached the bottom. Then he drew his bow and killed an unwary pioneer. He clapped his hand against his lips and uttered a victory call.

The hunt was not over. He entered a wild forest where only an Indian could get through. He twisted and squirmed his way among the trees and bushes, being careful not to step on twigs or dried leaves. He was marvelously quiet. He stole thus a long way down the mountain, as far as the beginning of the fairway furthest from the hotel. He emerged from the wilderness, coming out in front of the fifth-hole tee.

To his surprise and pleasure, there on the bench were his best friends in the world: Roy and Miss Shulman. Roy, in blue bellhop’s pants and a white basque shirt, was hugging and squeezing Miss Shulman and had his face pressed against her cheek. Paul was delighted to see that they knew each other and were friends.

“Hello,” he said brightly.

His friends started, and quickly separated. Roy turned around. His face assumed a twist of anguish. “Good God!” he exclaimed. “Look what’s here!”

“Hello Roy,” said Paul. “I’m an Indian.”

“Indian?” Roy repeated. “You’re a pest!” And to Miss Shulman: “Did you ever see anything like this? Kid ubiquitous!”

Paul smiled. Roy was always joking! “What does that mean?” he asked.

Roy replied, unsmiling, “That means I’m sick and tired of you and I don’t want you around. Go hunt for your mother.”

_____________

 

It was a joke of course. Paul’s smile faded into a little, uncertain grin. He gazed into Roy’s eyes, but couldn’t comprehend their expression. Confused, he turned to Miss Shulman. He was about to tell her he didn’t have to hunt for his mother, he knew she was on the porch, but Miss Shulman’s face wore something of the annoyance with which the governess last year used to regard him. And he heard the last year’s governess’ voice when Miss Shulman said, “Paul, please go and get dressed for supper the way you’re supposed to.”

The confusion filled his chest and whirled around in his head. These were his friends; it simply couldn’t be. He had told his father he would not go home only because they were here.

“I’d rather stay with you,” he said, putting the thought into faltering words.

“But we don’t want you to stay with us. It’s time for your mother to take care of you,” said Roy, in a slow, even voice which sounded very strange and unlike him.

Paul hesitated, appealing again to Miss Shulman. He felt as if he were in a nightmare in which his only two friends, the only two people who liked him, didn’t want him. It was as horrible as the night when his pillow became wrinkled. It was a dream. His friends were far away and they were mad at him. The strange voice of Roy said, “Do you know I’ve been putting this kid to sleep every night? His mother leaves him shivering in bed, with his hands twitching, and he calls me on the phone. It’s too hot, it’s too cold, open the window, close the window. . . .” Then, from himself, he heard wrenched a wailing plea: “Roy!” But the strange voice continued, exposing and shaming him, as Roy’s diminishing figure paced back and forth on the tee. “It’s all a big secret. I never interrupted her bridge to annoy her about it. I want to be nice, but what the hell—there’s a limit! The rich can take care of their own lonely children once in a while.” Again the ejaculation welled in his throat, then burst forth: “Roy! Please, Roy!” Now in the dream he saw Roy standing arms akimbo, facing him. He himself was getting smaller and smaller and soon would be blown away, like a shriveled leaf. “Maybe you can get rid of him, Frieda,” the incessant voice suggested. “You’re his pal. He told me his mother isn’t his mother; you’re his mother.”

Before the spinning really began in his head, a vague image of Miss Shulman rose from the bench and said in a soft voice which he knew he was not supposed to overhear, “It’s no use, Roy. It’s a pity. It’s not the kid’s fault. I might as well take him back.” The image approached him and became very large before he fell backwards away from it. Something from within tossed and jerked him convulsively. His arms and hands beat the ground; he couldn’t make them stop. His legs flailed; he couldn’t stand on them. Roy loomed gigantically above him. He opened his mouth to scream; no sound came. He descended into a broad empty fear. He opened his eyes wide: he saw the white of a cloud, a green streak of leaves. He panted.

Then it stopped. He closed his eyes and breathed more easily. A coolness freshened his face. He rose, shakily. It was like waking up. He rubbed his lids. It seemed to him that he was on the porch and had tripped and fallen in front of everyone. Mother would be annoyed with him.

But, opening his eyes, he found the he was not on the porch at all. He became confused. Below, a valley, white houses and winding railroad tracks. Opposite, a mountain, towering to the sky. He turned. Mother? A man in blue bellhop’s pants and a white basque shirt. For a second Paul knew him (Roy?), then didn’t.

His lip quivered. He was lost.

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