The Straw Hat
Deborah said to her brother, who remained alone with her at the long dinner table after her son-in-law and daughter had gone to their own room, “Some performance, eh?”
Ben raised his brows noncommittally. Although Deborah hadn’t enjoyed her meal, he had enjoyed his—all of it: the chicken à la king; the beefsteak; the rosy still Burgundy; the steaming, aromatic demitasse. He could see from where he sat the open windows of the adjacent living room, and was in fact gazing at the leafy Riverdale sidewalk and the house across the street, nestled in an en-shadowed declivity.
Quite different was the view from Ben’s apartment, also in the Bronx, but three miles south: rooftops, the A & P where 167th Street sloped eastward, and at night a towering, luminous white chimney in the shape of a milk bottle, which crowned a milk terminal on Webster Avenue.
“In-laws,” Ben judiciously replied, “simply are not created to live together.”
Deborah sniffed. “There are in-laws and in-laws,” she said, paraphrasing what her son-in-law had told Ben in an aside before dinner had started.
Ben smiled. She was not very happy, Deborah, in spite of her money, her success. Her pale, gray eyes, which formerly had been strong, were now petulant merely. She was forty-six, her head was graying, and the skin under her jaw beginning to sag badly.
Her daughter’s husband was the son of an unsuccessful optometrist in the southeast Bronx, near St. Mary’s Park. His name, like his son’s, was Peter Wenzel. They were Gentiles. The younger Wenzel was an intellectual, a critic who cultivated the editors of the worst-paying periodicals in America. Peter was no angel, Ben knew, but Deborah had literally asked for the situation, since she had convinced everyone that living in a furnished room was out of the question for Marion, her daughter. And so they all lived together, and quarreled.
Wenzel answered Deborah’s demands with every possible stinging tactic. Deborah requested him to wear a tie and jacket to dinner. He came down in his army pants, a grimy sweatshirt partially covered by an ascot, and a tan, hand-stitched sport jacket with very wide lapels. His black hair was cut short, and his face was handsome, with brown, limpid eyes, a delicately modeled nose, curving lips, and a strong jaw, jutting slightly but not too much. Poor, pale, harried Marion melted almost into prettiness when she looked at him.
In addition to his costume, he had offended tonight by taking his shower in the wrong stall. He had chosen the one that was leaking, though Deborah swore she had begged him not to. Peter shrugged and ate and answered that she had said no such thing. The maid had to place an empty pail in the living room, on the rich, pastel blue carpeting. During the frequent silences of the meal they listened to the dripping of the water from upstairs. Deborah from time to time leaped up and ran into the other room, mistakenly thinking there was an overflow. Fringing the bottom of the pail was the dark blot of the original wetting.
Ben’s presence had been at first quieting to Deborah. By a series of nods, glances, and headshakes she directed him to witness the evidence of her suffering. But toward the end of the meal she lost her self-restraint.
“You didn’t have to worry which shower you were going to use down at St. Mary’s Park. You were lucky if you had warm water for your Saturday night bath, let alone a choice of showers—”
To which Peter replied, “My father is a hard-working man, and if his honest living wasn’t quite enough to live on, it was no fault of his or mine.”
Deborah exclaimed, “Now the father is dragged into it!”
Thus the wrangling persisted.
Ben, who up to now had been amused by the anticipation of retailing Deborah’s plight to the poor relations, suddenly became peeved. Why should she complain to him, who had nothing? He could not even call himself a failure, since failing implied an objective. What had his goal ever been? All right, in his boyhood people told him he had a fine tenor voice that should be trained. But he had used it only at parties before his marriage to Edna, and in the tub afterwards. Now, Edna was dead; at forty-five, with a shining scalp fringed above the ears with hair, a hooked nose, and a shelf of a jaw, there was nothing to sing about. Why, with Debbie’s money, with part of it—
“Debbie,” he suggested drily, “why don’t you buy them an apartment or a house, and kiss them goodbye?”
She twisted her neck, and tilted her head to one side. “Right away! What am I, his gold mine?”
Ben shrugged, but she ignored the gesture and went on, “He has it too good, she too—both of them. They don’t know what it is to struggle. So he was in the army. Ten million others were too. It would have been better if he hadn’t been in the army, the smiling lieutenant. She had to see him in uniform!”
Her diatribe lapsed as the maid came to clear the table. Deborah led the way to the living room, and sat down on the couch. Ben, desiring not to lose the suburban view, took one of the straight chairs facing it; but he loved to slouch, to lie down, if possible, after a heavy meal. The chair was exquisite, and uncomfortable. He moved to the couch beside her, adjusted a cushion, and leaned back. Gently water dripped from the splotched plaster overhead into the bucket in the middle of the floor. He smiled quietly, and repressed the smile as Deborah glanced from the bucket to him.
“Go ahead, laugh,” she snapped. “It’s hilarious. . . . My God! The spoiled brats! I remember when I was nine years old, living in a hovel on the East Side, and going to a Poor School that was run, mind you, by the Lutheran church, I—” she tapped her index finger half a dozen times against her chest just below the shoulder “—a Jewish girl, because my parents needed the clothing they handed out! And God knows that I consider myself a Jew, and what it must have meant to me to go to a place like that—”
Ben, who of course had been there too, leaned forward to protest. But he saw her eyes stare past him dreamily, not seeing him at all. He said nothing.
“There was a time, I remember, when everybody was wearing straw hats with artificial flowers. Oh, how I was dying for one, how I wanted a straw hat myself! My mother didn’t have the quarter to go to a pushcart and buy one. And then, like a miracle, in one of the clothing handouts, there was a straw hat! It wasn’t trimmed, but I got flowers for it somehow, and Mama sewed them on. And I was happy, damn happy, let me tell the world! And they, with all this . . . they complain!”
She turned once more to Ben, and generalized on the shortcomings of the modern generation. Ben was pained. A vague nostalgia had crept into him and twisted his mouth into a little, sad smile. He kept nodding, and from time to time murmured “yes, yes, yes,” but it was his turn to retreat into himself, and he didn’t really hear what she was saying.
Before Ben left, Peter appeared and offered explanations, no doubt prompted by Marion, who did not come down. The explanations were pithy, cogent, and not listened to. They didn’t quite constitute an apology, as was at once apparent to Deborah. Since she knew that she nevertheless would have to accept them as such, she countered with reproaches, including her anecdote about the straw hat. It touched Peter not at all, and served only to increase Ben’s silly longing for his childhood.
When the time to go arrived, instead of waiting for a bus to the subway station, he walked through the fragrant streets, past the private homes glowing warmly behind their neat lawns and gardens. Leaves rustled, and their fluttering shadows were cast underfoot by the gleaming lamplights.
Avenue C and the Poor School had been different: drab in retrospect, hateful really. But they covered what he always thought had been the best period of his life, the time before the beginning of hopes, and consequently, of disillusion. He was on the periphery of everything now; at his age, moving closer to the periphery of life itself. Then, he had been in its very center.
It was wrong, of course, not to enjoy the present, to be living in the past. He dutifully paused, looked down the shadowy street, and inhaled, filling his chest with green-smelling air. Then he walked along, doing again what it was wrong to do.
He had to laugh. What was there to remember?—the kid upstairs who used to take him to the roof and beat him up every day? his father proudly leading the family up five steep flights to the newly found flat on Avenue C, and panting, “You see? A toilet, right inside here”? or the Poor School?
There was nothing, except the feeling that once there had been a little boy named Ben Eisenberg, and that the little boy had been gone for a long, long time.
But no, there were memories, memories of Debbie and her straw hat. He snickered, and thought, “I ate her meal. Now I’m digesting her past.”
The Poor School.
Going there had been Deborah’s idea. She had heard from kids on the block that at that school they gave you hot soup for lunch, and bread and honey. At the public school they gave you nothing. When it was time for her to go to school, she told Mama and Papa she was going to the Poor School. She was a short, thin child, with black hair, and a pale face colorless except for her eyes: they were narrow, gray, and imperious from the beginning. She had her way almost always with her mother, a stout, amiable, slow-moving woman who somehow raised a family of five.
But Papa had something to do with her going also. If it had mattered to Papa that the school was in a building connected to the back of a Lutheran church, Deborah would not have been permitted to go.
Papa didn’t care. He had had the Bible and the Laws beaten into him by a teacher in the old country, and when he was old enough to make his own decisions, he decided that the Law and the observances didn’t matter to him. He was neither for nor against them, and, if pressed, was willing to affirm a belief in God. What interested him was making a living, which was hard, and getting his brother David to accept him as a partner in the clothing factory where he worked, which was harder.
Deborah made her defiant request, Mama raised her brows and looked a little shocked, and Papa said, “Let her go. If they can convert this bargain, they’re welcome to her—” Then he smiled, and rumpled Deborah’s hair to take the edge off his words. But the smile and the rumpling were an afterthought, and Deborah drew away, ran into her room, and slammed the door.
Papa, who was sitting in the living room on the green, button-studded couch from the top of which peeked some gray matting and coil, shrugged. He stared thoughtfully at the children’s underwear and socks hanging to dry on some twine that Mama had strung across the room. He stared at Ben, who was still a year too young for school, and at Mama, who was clucking to herself and shaking her head while making desultory swipes, in an effort to clean up, at the litter cluttering the room.
“Listen,” said Papa, in self-justification, “that Poor School was here a long time before the Jews came to the East Side. If they’re willing to feed Jewish children bread and honey, I won’t stand in their way.”
Ben was very interested, though a little puzzled, and he wanted to hear more about it. But it had been dark for some time, and he yawned. As he feared, Papa turned to him and demanded, “What are you doing up so late?”
“I was waiting for you, Papa.”
Papa stretched out his arms, and took Ben on his lap. He kissed Ben and, stroking his hair, began to tell Mama a story about a different child.
“You remember about that boy we have pulling threads in the shop, Amedeo—his name means he loves God, or God loves him, I don’t know which, my guess is the first. . . . Anyway, tonight I had an argument with Dave over him.”
“Must you fight with him so much?” Mama protested mildly.
Papa grinned, the skin of his lean face stretching and wrinkling, and his wide mouth becoming still wider under his bony, twisted nose.
“I’ll fight, and he’ll listen. Without me, he can close up his factory. All day long, ‘Nat, tell me this,’ or ‘Nat, what do you think about that?’ I don’t have to take any nonsense from my brother Dave. . . . Well, it’s Friday night, the Sabbath, if you like. All the men except me and Dave go home before sundown. And it’s the first Friday for this boy, this child. How old can he be, twelve? At the outside. I told Dave right away, it’s a crime to hire a baby when you can get a man to do the work. But no, he’s got to save a dollar. All right. We’re alone, the three of us, and Amedeo is watching Dave for the word ‘Go home.’ He’s sitting there, stooped over, ready to fall off the chair he’s so tired. Dave stands with that big fat back of his to the boy. So finally I said, ‘Amedeo, go home.’ The boy rushes out, and Dave turns pink, red, white—all colors. ‘Who are you to tell him when to go home? ‘he asks me. “You’re worried he might be late to synagogue? Ha, look at this’”
Ben had closed his eyes for a minute. He was not asleep. He was listening to the story, but Papa’s voice had become mixed with the wind moaning outside and he saw Debbie bend over the blue-white snow covering the gutter and make a snowball and draw her arm back to throw it at him. . . . He started, opened his eyes, closed them, and opened them again.
“Go,” Papa said gently, “get undressed, Benny.”
Ben slipped to his feet, and went unsteadily to the cubbyhole of a room he shared with Deborah. She was on her cot, already asleep, or pretending to be. His cot was so close to hers that he had to climb in over the front end.
Ben took off his clothing, listening to Papa.
‘. . . my advice on all of the other things!’ I said to him. ‘All right, all right, don’t excite yourself,’ he tells me, ‘but it’s still my business. Let me run it a little bit.’ ‘Listen,’ I tell him, ‘you can run it all. I’m tired of sitting here and running it for you on an operator’s wages. I’m getting out.’ He grabs my sleeve, like a tramp begging for a nickel. ‘Wait,’ he begs me, ‘wait. Another three months to develop the capital. After all, capital you’re not bringing in.’ So I said, Three months, as I’m your brother, and not a day more.’
Ben stretched out in his underwear, and sighed. In the silence, the gas jet of the living room sighed in reply. Deborah breathed softly. Mama still moved around, picking up things. All the sounds were comforting. He sighed again. Papa said, “It’s worth waiting, even six months. Each of us alone is nothing. Together, well get rich. . . . How’d you like to live uptown, eh, Hannah?” And then Mama sighed. Ben had a quick vision of a big house, standing alone, at the border of Central Park. Papa had once taken them uptown to the zoo and Ben had seen the house and now they were going to move uptown and live there and he would go to the zoo every day. . . .
Deborah went to the Poor School, and liked it so well that she began attending Sunday school also. She would get up very early on Sunday, and would start out a few minutes after Papa left for work.
In addition to illustrations of the teachings of Jesus, the rector’s assistant would give the children fruit. Deborah would hide in the entrance of a tenement adjoining the school, devour her apple or orange, and go home. Nobody knew.
But one snowy morning, when huge, feathery wafers were drifting from the gray sky and blanketing the streets and rooftops, she burst out of the flat too soon, and, without seeing Papa, passed him in the street. He followed her through the slush of Avenue C, and into Seventh Street, where stood the church, a narrow, red-brick building with an alley on either side leading to the school in back of it
When she reached the steps leading down to the church basement, he called her. She turned slowly, stoop-shouldered in her worn, green coat, her shoes caked with snow. He waited, and when she came to him, he said, “What are you doing here?”
She told him, sullenly.
“I don’t need you in any Sunday school,” he said. “Get home.”
She fixed her eyes stubbornly on him, and said, “Why?”
“Because you’re a Jew.”
“I’m not a Jew during the week. Why do I have to be one on Sunday?”
“All right. You’re finished with that school. All through, you understand?”
“No, Papa, please!” She touched his sleeve. “No! . . . I’ll go home, Papa!”
And she went home.
Shortly afterward, she brought home some clothing that the school had donated. There were ladies’ dresses, and a pair of shoes for Papa. The dresses didn’t fit Mama, and while the shoes were Papa’s size, he was unwilling to wear them. “The Lutheran shoes pinch a little on the left foot,” he explained offhandedly to Deborah.
She was furious. She took one of the shoes and flung it across the room and into the kitchen, where it hit the kerosene stove and fell with a thud to the floor. She lifted the other one, but Papa seized her arm and shook the shoe out of her hand.
“What is this!” he exclaimed. “Who do you think you are, madam?”
Deborah burst into tears, sobbing, “Did you think I liked to bring that stuff home, with the kids from the public school pointing at us and yelling ‘Charity! Charity!’ I wish I was a boy so I could throw rocks at them like the boys did—”
She gasped and sobbed and covered her face and her skinny shoulders heaved.
“But you like the bread and honey, eh?” Papa shouted.
Deborah raised her face, tracked with tears, and wailed, “Yes, I do. . . .”
Papa stared for a second. The corner of his mouth moved up unhappily to crease his cheek, and he muttered, “Well—” And then he said, “Benny, get me that shoe from the kitchen.”
Ben ran happily for the shoe and brought it back, and also gave Papa the other one. Papa took Deborah’s hand. “Debbie, sit here next to me, on the couch. . . . That’s a good girl, don’t cry.” He wiped her face with his handkerchief, and tried on the shoes. “Maybe I was wrong about these Lutheran shoes, or are they Presbyterian? . . . Let’s see.”
He strode about before the wide-eyed children. Deborah still breathed in loud sniffs, and Papa kept walking until she breathed normally. He raised his brows, thrust forward his lips, and nodded strongly. “They could be worse. In fact, they’re all right, a good fit, and well broken in into the bargain.”
Ben was so pleased that he ran around butting his head against the faded upholstery of the furniture; Deborah blinked, her eyes defenseless for once, and her mouth fluttered into a grateful smile.
February passed, and March, and in April the frost vanished, and the sun shone on straw hats.
So it seemed to Deborah. She was seven years old, and had to have a straw hat. She ached to feel its texture and to own the splash of color that would decorate it from front to side. Why, girls in her class at school owned straw hats!
Every morning, every night, she pestered Mama. But Mama at that time was pregnant again. Climbing the five flights of stairs to and from the flat was in itself a day’s work; not to mention cleaning, cooking, serving, and getting a man off to work and a child to school. She refused even to think of buying her a straw hat.
Papa, who was preoccupied with the ripening partnership scheme, paid no attention at first to Deborah’s nagging. However, he was brought finally to the point of saying to Mama one night after Deborah was asleep, “My God, go to a pushcart on Ridge Street and buy the child a straw hat so we’ll have some peace here!”
“Absolutely not,” said Mama, with rare firmness. “I told her no, and it will be no.”
“Must we make an issue of such an item?” asked Papa.
“All right,” Mama acceded. “If you want to, get it. It’s up to you. Only leave me out.”
“Fine. I Only shouldn’t forget.”
Mama laughed. “Some chance!”
Papa brought the thing home, the next day, wrapped in a sheet of the World. The weather had turned cold, and a wind whipping in from the river had reddened his cheeks and nose and stiffened the brisdes of his unshaven face. He said drily to Deborah, “Here’s something you asked for.”
The wise, gray, narrow eyes slanted up at him cautiously, and she unfolded the wrapping with care, saying nothing.
Papa, without looking at Deborah or seeming to expect thanks, tossed his hat and coat to Ben, who loved to climb a bedroom chair and hang up his father’s clothing. Papa then went into the kitchen, with its warm, acrid stench of kerosene, and put his arm about Mama’s shoulder as she stood at the burner, heating a pan of noodles for him.
“It’s ready,” she said. “Sit down, Nathan.” He drew a chair to the broad shelf which he’d built into the wall to take the place of a kitchen table.
“Papa,” Deborah said hesitantly from the doorway, holding the pale-yellow hat in one hand and the newspaper that had covered it in the other.
He looked at her coldly. “Yes?”
She came to him, and in a voice full of disappointment said, “It has no flowers.”
Papa took the news sheet from her, and, turning to Mama, remarked, “What do you think of this? They locked up Emma Goldman on Blackwell’s Island last week.”
“Emma Goldman? Is she from the house?”
Papa laughed. “Personally I think she’s from an insane asylum. . . .”
Deborah kept staring at him, the corners of her mouth drooping just a little. She watched him pour pot cheese on his noodles, salt the mess, stir it, and ladle it in. She walked to her room, squeezed herself between the cots, and sat at the edge of hers. Ben had quietly trailed her, but he didn’t go in. He saw her cradle the hat like a doll, rock it in her arms, whisper to it, and kiss it. Her face was very sad.
The hat was put away, and not mentioned for two weeks. Then one day at the Poor School, teamsters carried in three barrels full of daisies. During lunch period, in the dim, gray-stoned gymnasium where a faint light trickled through the grated windows and fell among the stone pillars, the barrels were overturned. A white and gold effusion poured over the floor.
The children, not knowing what was meant or what to do, looked toward the two teachers, each of whom wore a low pompadour, a dark, puff-shouldered dress that reached the ground, and a white apron around her waist. The teachers exchanged glances of sagacious boredom.
One of them said, “Those are called daisies. You may take some.”
The quiet ones still hesitated, but the bold ones grabbed at the long stems. Soon the children were tearing apart the flowers, throwing them at one another, or thrusting them into their hair and staggering wildly around the gymnasium. An odor of fresh, uptorn earth pervaded the room.
Deborah selected six perfect daisies and kept them close to her until school was over. Then she ran home, knocking into people, who turned and cursed and shook their fists at her. Up the five flights she ran, and into the kitchen, where Mama was working.
“Look!” Deborah cried. “Look! They gave them to us in school!” She tugged at Mama’s apron. “Mama, sew them on right away—please, Mama?”
“They’re pretty,” said Mama. “What are they?”
“The teacher said daisies. . . . Will you, Mama? Please sew them on!”
Mama turned up her palms. “On what? Who sews flowers?”
“On my straw hat!” Deborah exclaimed, losing patience.
Mama put the daisies in a jar of water. “These are not for a hat, Debbie. For a hat they don’t use real flowers.”
“No?” said Deborah, her voice quavering, dismayed, looking left and right as though a different, better answer might come from another direction.
Mama said, “Debbie, look how pretty.” She placed the jar on the table-shelf. “Never mind, I’ll get you something to sew on.”
Deborah was incredulous. “You will?”
Mama nodded. “I will.”
Mama bought a feather, a huge, yellow plume, and attached it to the side of Deborah’s hat. Then she had to scold Deborah to make her take off her hat at mealtime. Ben kept pointing at the hat and making fun of the feather, which swayed in a gentle arc downward. Deborah didn’t care what he said, and so he stopped.
Papa said it was very nice, beautiful in fact, and hoped she would enjoy it and wear it in the best of health. “You can show it to Uncle Dave,” he suggested. “He’ll be here tonight.” To Mama, he added, “Tonight it’ll be settled. Tomorrow well be partners, and when the new baby is born, you’ll see, the silver spoon will be ready.” He gave Mama a hug.
Deborah swaggered under the hat to her room. Ben followed, and watched her stand at the foot of the cot, staring out the window at the darkness. She stared and stared.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Thinking, if you must know,” Deborah replied.
She decided, in the end, to show off the hat by itself first. After supper, when she heard Uncle trudging upstairs, she placed her hat on top of the couch backrest, a little to the side of where the upholstery was broken and the coil showed. She then hid in her unlighted room. After Uncle was stunned, and asked to see it on her, she would come out and wear it for him.
“Why are you in the dark?” demanded the ever-present Ben.
“None of your business. Get out of here.”
Ben went into the living room. Papa and Uncle shook hands, and Papa took Uncle’s coat and derby into the bedroom, while Uncle threw himself heavily on the couch, in front of Deborah’s hat, which he did not notice. It took him a moment or two to notice Ben, whom he then beckoned to and patted on the head.
He lit a cigarette, looked around for an ash tray, saw none, was about to toss the match to the floor, glanced at Ben’s wide eyes, and decided against it. He rose, touching Deborah’s hat with his shoulder. The hat fell to the seat of the couch, and Uncle went to deposit the match in the kitchen sink.
Mama was at the shelf, sipping tea, with a vinegar-soaked cloth around her temples. Uncle slipped the match into his pocket, and said, “So, Hannah, it’s hard to be a woman!”
Mama nodded, smiling weakly.
Uncle returned to the living room and, to Ben’s astonishment, sat down on Deborah’s hat. As. Papa entered, there was a crunching of straw and a squeal from Ben, who exclaimed, “Debbie’s hat!”
Uncle raised the object from beneath him, a pitiful caved-in thing with a plume snapped in half.
Debbie raced in, emitted a cry of pain, and stood speechless in the center of the room, her legs trembling.
“What is this?” asked Uncle in his slow voice, scrutinizing the former hat.
“Debbie’s hat!” Ben repeated, pointing.
“Oh,” Uncle said, turning his chubby face apologetically to Papa. “A hat. For my part it could have stayed a hat. I didn’t know it was there.”
Papa shrugged, leaned forward for the hat, and tossed it to a straight chair next to the bedroom door.
Deborah ran for it, clasped it to her flat bosom, and wailed, “My hat! Papa, my hat!”
Papa said over his shoulder, “It was an accident.”
“But my hat!”
“Enough! If you can’t be quiet, go out of the room!”
Deborah became very still. She stared at Uncle, her lips compressed, a long time. Then she looked into her parents’ bedroom and entered it very quietly, with Ben, whom she didn’t see, at her heels. The living room jets clarified the darkness to some extent. On the shadowy bed lay Uncle’s coat, and, above it, his derby. Deborah let her hat slip to the floor, and moved Uncle’s hat to the middle of the bed.
Uncle, inside, was saying: “A complete line knee-pants? Well, I don’t know. Are you sure? Of course, boys got knees, and they need pants—”
Deborah leaped, and Ben gasped. She bounced up and down, each time landing on Uncle’s derby. Ben sneaked back to the living room, his face tingling.
Deborah sauntered in a moment later with Uncle’s hat, a flattened, black piece of material. She wasn’t immediately noticed.
“Is this a hat?” she said brightly. “For my part it could have stayed a hat.”
Both men turned, and Uncle’s face became a mottled red. He sprang up, twisted his hat out of Deborah’s hand, drew it back in his own, and brought it down across her cheek with such force that she fell and narrowly missed the corner of the chair.
Papa leaped up and grabbed Uncle by the back of his collar and the seat of his pants. Uncle twisted and jerked, trying to release himself. Papa was stronger. He shoved Uncle to the door, out of the door to the landing, and slammed the door in his face.
Uncle pounded, shouting, “My coat! Where’s my coat, you crook, you no-good bum, you ganeff!”
Papa stamped back for Uncle’s coat, muttering, “Striking my child like that!”
Mama stumbled in from the kitchen, and saw Papa throw the coat at Uncle and slam the door again.
“You’ll never set foot in my place of business from this day on, you can be sure of that!” Uncle yelled.
“You should hang until you see me there!” Papa yelled back.
Uncle’s footsteps, heavy on the stairs, were heard descending. Papa glared around the room, panting, his hair disheveled. Ben had retreated to the kitchen door, where he stood next to Mama with lips parted. Mama was holding a hand to her cheek, crying noiselessly. Deborah had got up from where she had fallen, near the bedroom, and watched Papa with shrewd, half-frightened eyes. On her cheek was the red imprint of Uncle’s hat, which lay at her feet.
Papa strode across the room to her, seized her arm, and gave her three hard wallops. As he spanked her, he declared through clenched teeth, “Let this teach you, there’ll be no revolutionaries, no nihilists in this household. . . .”
Papa and Uncle didn’t see each other after that night until Ben’s wedding, sixteen years later. They both agreed that they had been foolish, because Papa had remained an operator, and Uncle, whose business had long since failed, had become one. “Well,” said Uncle, shrugging his shoulders, which had become even fatter than before, “what can you do? That’s how life is. . . .”
The Sunday after Ben had dined in Riverdale, he woke late and lingered over coffee and a cigarette, gazing out the open kitchen window. The rooftops descended in a gently inverted curve into the Morrisania valley, and rose again to jut unevenly against the blue, cloudless sky. They lay ahead in a sad monotony, like the prospect of his day, and the loneliness was intensified by the sunlight gleaming against an occasional white streak of fluttering laundry.
The doorbell rang.
He started, and began to clear the mess of dishes from the table into the sink. A rapping at the door interrupted him.
Deborah marched in, sniffed, and remarked, “You could give those curtains to the laundry once in a while.”
His eyes followed hers to the grimy rayon suspended from the window rods.
“You’re letting yourself run down.” Entering the living room, she added, “I’ll admit it doesn’t look so bad in here.”
“I never go in there.”
“Don’t apologize. Start dressing. I’m taking my son-in-law for a ride down to the East Side, to show him how I used to live.”
“O my God!” Ben exclaimed. “Leave me out of it, please!”
“What are you going to do, sit and stagnate with the dishes? Get dressed.”
As he obeyed, Deborah moved nervously about the room, examining things that had been Edna’s. The furniture was ten years old, heavily upholstered, and, to Deborah, boring. There were her books. Deborah removed one from the bookcase and handled it.
“You can have the living room dusted too,” she called.
“Edna used to do it,” Ben answered, and the sad irrelevance of his reply touched him.
Downstairs, Peter Wenzel and the chauffeur were chatting with some children who had come to stare at the limousine. The children made way for Deborah, who didn’t really see them.
The car sped down the un-crowded lanes of the Concourse, past the formal lawns of Joyce Kilmer Park, the massive, square County Courthouse, and the broad white steps of the Bronx Central Post Office. Ben and Wenzel watched the scenery, but Deborah talked.
. . . I especially wanted Marion to come, to see that money didn’t always pour in from a restaurant. But no, she says she knows all about it. She knows! What she knows I could put in my eye. The years I spent working day and night, slaving, cooking, making sandwiches in a little store. Yes, and washing the floors after closing, too. She thinks the restaurant came to life in full bloom, just like it is today. What she knows!
The car turned left into Manhattan and the East River Drive.
Wenzel said, “I really think she should have come. A thing like this can be fascinating. I may do a little article on it.”
“Never mind about your articles,” said Deborah. “Just try to learn a little moral from what you’re going to see.”
“I’ll try, Mother,” Wenzel replied.
He wore his hand-stitched jacket, but otherwise he was today dressed faultlessly. Deborah glanced toward Ben, who gazed steadfastly across the water at the low buildings and greenery of Welfare Island.
People swarmed over the East Side streets: shops were open and crowded; pushcarts lined the curbs.
“The streets seem narrower,” said Deborah.
The car moved very slowly between the two rows of tenements on Avenue C. Deborah ordered the chauffeur to stop beside an empty lot, fenced around with wire mesh and littered with trash. “Wasn’t it near here?” she asked Ben.
They got out of the car.
“This was it,” Ben said. “They’ve torn it down.” Deborah stared.
“And the others are standing,” she murmured. “Was ours any worse?”
Ben suddenly felt sorry for her. “Let’s go over and have a look at the school.”
“No!” she cried, “no! Who wants to hunt for these old buildings any more. . . .” She turned to Wenzel, the folds over her cheeks narrowing her eyes painfully. “Look around, only just look around, and maybe you’ll begin to understand!”