He has called M’s house on the island the day before, in the hopes of finding her there, and had no reply. Now he is leaving the place. He puts down his heavy suitcase full of books which he has carried up the stairs onto the ferry, kisses his wife good-bye, and holds her slender body against his for a moment with regret. “Will you be alright?” he asks guiltily, knowing she cannot possibly be. She nods bravely and is gone fast in her grey, cotton dress.
He finds an empty bench and settles himself in with his suitcase, computer, and the book he carries in his hand, when M. surprises and delights him by suddenly appearing, it seems to him out of nowhere. He is not sure where she has come from or what she is doing here on this ferry which is going to the mainland so early in the morning. She greets him and sits down opposite him with the almost cat-like, yet careless grace of the famous and the privileged. She carries no baggage, though she has a heavy, bound book in her hand. She apologizes for not returning his call, and he says rather rudely that it was probably better that way. He cannot really imagine her at his in-law’s place. He thinks of their huge, white summer house on the hill with its vast and lonely view of sea and sky, the flowerless garden – “the bunnies eat everything,” his mother-in-law has said, standing in her white, silk dressing gown on the terrace, a cup of black tea in her hand, gazing blankly into nothingness. In his mind’s eye he sees the endless, elegant, anonymous rooms, with no knick-knacks, no family photographs, no disorder of any kind, no flowers inside as well as out, except for the one perfect orchid with its three large white blooms which has lasted four months, his mother-in-law has said, “almost as though it were not real.”
He sees the thick, white towels, all embroidered with the family initials in navy blue and the white deck chairs, with their thick soft blue and white cushions, the narrow lap pool which is heated to such a degree, the steam rising from the water in the early mornings, that he has preferred to run along the narrow road in danger of being hit by a car, to find a rocky beach and the icy sea and to throw himself with relief into the seaweed and grey waves. He imagines his in-laws who are early risers already eating their sliced grapefruit and prunes at this hour on the shiny granite table, his mother-in- law, her dark hair impeccably pinned at the back of her head, stretching forth a fine, trembling white hand, to protest when his father-in-law in a moment of inattention dares to put down the orange juice carton on the breakfast table, while he sits on the bench on this ferry watching this woman sprawled effortlessly and elegantly before him. He likes the way she looks at him directly, as he sits opposite her, as if she sees nothing else but him, her grey-blue eyes smiling, open wide, almost, it seems, without blinking. He hardly notices the ferry pulling away from the island, the pale blue, summer sky, or the choppy, grey sea. He is looking at her, a youthful looking woman, though she must be ten years older than he, but with an air of innocence, he thinks, probably in her early fifties. She wears her hair almost shaved which gives her a slightly surprised air, and her blue jeans with holes at the knees, though he knows she must be quite wealthy, perhaps even rich, surely, a successful film having been made from one of her books, he seems to remember, and probably many prizes won, and owning property on the exclusive island they have just left behind. He knows some of her work and admires it, and he once read something she wrote about prayer which surprised and moved him. He knows, too, that she has recently received harsh criticism for a book, and he regrets now not having taken the trouble to read it and not being able to say something complimentary and kind.
She jumps up to go and buy her ticket and offers to buy his, too. Surely she is not going to pay for his, he thinks. Why on earth would she? He runs after her protesting, and finds she has only bought her own because he has followed her. There is a moment of confusion, before they sit down again face to face. He mentions the teaching which he knows she has just done, and she looks glad. He imagines she is pleased he has found an easy subject of conversation. Perhaps she, too, is thinking she has not read his first book of stories, or perhaps anything he has ever written and had published in various magazines. They talk about the difficulties of the teaching she has just done: the large classes, the student tutorials, and compare it to the teaching they have both done at another university. They mention some of the faculty and the head of the program whom they both like or are careful enough to say they do. There is a pause, which she fills to his delight by asking what he is reading. After the last few days on the island with his wife’s parents who never question him, or show interest of any kind in what he has done, or thinks, but talk when they talk at all, of people, often famous dead people from their past, poets and painters, that he doesn’t know or of their own various ailments or previous exploits, it is a delight and relief to have someone at least professing interest in what he might be reading.
He holds up his slim volume of Jane Austen’s Persuasion which lay on the wooden bench beside him.
“Ah, my favorite!” she exclaims, charmingly, he thinks, for he somehow takes her remark as a compliment to him, as though he had written the book. “Such a wise book and sad, in a way, don’t you think?”
“The last book she wrote, though Northanger Abbey was published later. She died at forty,” he informs her. He has recently read the excellent introduction to the book.
“ Forty? So young, and she had written so much,” she comments and smiles wistfully. There is something most endearing about the way she smiles, he thinks, the same smile coming to him again, the mouth curling up at the corners, like a cat in a cartoon – a most charming and accomplished woman, indeed, with such an air of sincerity and intensity. Or he, at forty, thinks of her as a charming and accomplished woman with an air of sincerity and intensity, though he realizes from her remark that she probably doesn’t think of herself as that accomplished, though he knows how successful she has been.
He is only sorry he hadn’t bothered to make more of an effort that morning, or to put on the smart khaki trousers which he had considered wearing, instead of his rather grubby white pants and blue-jean jacket when leaving the house on the island so early in the morning in order to escape it as soon as he could.
“Really, your favorite?” he queries and goes on to say that he has just reread Pride and Prejudice as well, and thought it so much better than the later book.
“But this one is really about persuasion while Pride and Prejudice is not really about pride and prejudice. It’s about...” she says and waves her rather stubby fingers in the air. “Yes, you’re right about that. It’s about will – Lizzie – or – won’t – she – marry – Mr. Darcy. And persuasion is a good subject. I’ve certainly been persuaded in my life, often enough, and sometimes against my will.”
“Jane Austen’s fiance was persuaded not to marry her, apparently,” he interrupts her to say.
“How sad,” she says, and he nods and smiles, and thinks that really he likes everything this woman says.
He’s delighted to have met her again in this way, without anyone else around, in a neutral zone as it were – such an intelligent woman and so nice, capable of intelligent conversation, someone who has actually read something. Having spent a week in his in-laws’ summer house on the island where he had hardly been able to find a book which was not one of those large expensive glossy picture-books about decorating, finance, or sailing, he feels no one really reads the way he does anymore – with the constant need for a book, rather like food or sleep or sex or at least a companion. For the hour-long ferry ride, he will be able to talk about what he considers interests him most: books. He is able to forget for a moment that he is leaving behind his poor, defenceless wife to cope on her own with the probable constant assault of criticism from her parents.
“I don’t like this steak. This doesn’t taste like steak. It tastes like beef,” her mother has said wrinkling up her small nose, and pushing away her plate with the fillet mignon, after her only daughter has bought it, oiled and herbed it, and grilled it for her with care on the outside grill. “It’s only forty-eight hours” he has told his wife, professing the dire necessity of going into the city to the library to consult his books. Now he says he has been rereading all of Jane Austen in order to plunge into the mind, the conversation, even the language of the late eighteenth century, for a book he is researching, an historical novel about a woman who leaves France during the revolution and makes the sea crossing under great difficulties to escape the revolution.
She tells him that she is reading hundreds of books for a national prize and that oddly enough many of them are bad historical novels. “I’m not sure why – but you will do it well, as you are such an excellent writer,” she adds even more charmingly. He shakes his head with modesty at this compliment about his writing but wonders then if his publishers will have sent his first book, a book of stories, for this yearly and prestigious prize, and if this adorable woman might have read it and might even feel inclined to include it in her list of suggested prize winning books, if she considers he is such an excellent writer. Really, he wants to get up and give her a hug or even a kiss on both her rather plump, rosy cheeks. He would like to pick her up – she’s not very large, and put her on his lap or perhaps even sit on hers, he doesn’t weigh that much, and run his fingers through the stubble on her head. Instead it is she who rises and goes to the window to show him the nuclear submarine which is pulling up alongside the ferry, just the turret and the grey top emerging from the sea, with a few men standing precariously there. She explains that there is a nuclear submarine base nearby.
“Good God!” he says looking down at the large, menacing grey mass surging surreally through the water beside them. “I would last about five minutes in one of those,” he says and puts his hand to his throat, imagining the cramped quarters, the lack of air, the constant claustrophobia. He doesn’t like cramped quarters.
She nods her head and laughs agreeably. Then she adds that there is one book amongst the many historical novels that she has had to read for the prize which he might like. It is also about France and the same period he is writing about. He wonders if it is the recent book by his friend, and, indeed, this is the one she likes the best.
“Oh, I have read it!” he exclaims enthusiastically, clapping his hands together, when she mentions it. “He’s a friend of mine, you know, and I think it’s the best thing he’s done. It seemed to me much freer and stronger somehow than some of his earlier work. I liked it so much. In fact he inspired me to tackle my own.”
“Very good, isn’t it!” she says with equal enthusiasm as they sit down again face to face, looking into one another’s eyes with the mutual satisfaction of finding themselves in this intellectual agreement.
Then he thinks of his friend and what a prize of this kind would do to his career as a young writer. “And the book has been so unfortunate and received such horrible reviews,” he protests on his friend’s behalf loyally and vehemently, he believes.
“It did? Really?” she says incredulously.
“It got a horrid little ‘In Brief’ in the Times,” he informs her, which is true. However he does not think to mention the glowing reviews in several other prestigious magazines and newspapers, that he knows about. He thinks then that this may be just the sort of information which would make this decent, intelligent woman want to champion the book and give it the prize.
“How surprising,” she says. And slyly she asks him what his friend is like.
What is he to say, he wonders. “Haven’t you met him?” he asks, rather surprised, himself, for he imagines they move in the same circles.
She nods and confesses, “Briefly. He rather frightens me – so cool and elegant.”
“He is elegant, isn’t he?” he thinks for a moment of Julian arriving at a party in white linen trousers and a transparent white shirt, shaking hands with people with a bored expression on his sharp face. He would like to add that his friend is rather cool and reserved, an intelligent, ambitious man whom he has seen less and less of as his friend’s career has advanced. Instead, he says, “A very private person. I have known him for a long time, but I can’t say I really know him that well.” He adds quickly, “He’s quite brilliant, of course.”
“Yes, he would be,” she says and looks at him and crosses her legs and smiles with what he takes for understanding. He’s convinced this woman understands everything left unsaid as well as what has been said. She looks out the window and tells him about the nuclear submarine station which they are drawing near to at this point. “After Nine Eleven there were sharp-shooters around here to protect the station,” she says.
“Really. Good God!” he says again, amazed.
“How old is he, do you suppose?” she asks, reverting to their former discussion and asking the age of his friend.
“A few years older than I – probably about forty-five,” he says, adding on, perhaps, a year or two.
“ Well, he’s written an excellent book.”
“Yes, it is – ” he hesitates and cannot resist adding, “Though I must confess I got a bit bogged down in the middle bits with all the confusing different factions: the Jacobins and Jacobites and Girondins; the Mountain. I thought that went on for a bit too long.”
“I haven’t got to that part yet,” she says and smiles.
When he leaves the ferry for the train he means to take into the city, she does not allow him to help her with her suitcase down the stairs. He puts this down to her age. Probably women of her age consider an offer to help an older woman with a suitcase insulting these days, he decides. Nor does she offer to drive him in her car to the station which is, after all, only a few feet away and probably more accessible on foot. They wave goodbye as she goes to her Mercedes, without having to go through the awkward business of shaking hands or even embracing. He calls out quite sincerely what a pleasure it was to talk to her. He walks off alone carrying his suitcase filled with books. He finds he is already swaying a little back and forth from the movement of the ferry which he has hardly noticed during the trip, and he sways even more when he hears his friend has won the prize.
Excerpt from The Woman Upstairs
There’s always a story, the ones we choose to tell and those we don’t. Among the latter we have a selection of moments, anecdotes, secrets that help convince us we’re “interesting” because we felt passion of some sort or we happened to be in a certain place when something memorable occurred, or because we met famous people or had a few wild nights. It’s the photo-op sense of “interesting.”
And then there are the other stories we don’t tell because they hurt too much or because we’ve buried them so deep we don’t notice their existence except in our migraines and shortness of breath, in cancer (my mother said it was “psychological,” the multiple myeloma that spread through her marrow) and all the hundreds of little balancing acts we do to make sure attention is paid and not-paid, that people show their concern but don’t look where we don’t want them to.
I have tried for many years not to tell my story. Who knows and who cares has become my mantra. Why should I waste my time (my time? What could that be?) writing down that I was born in the town of blah-blah, in the year blah-blah-blah, of these particular people, and I did x, y, z until so-and-so came along, and then maybe I shifted gears a little, a lot, or not at all; and after that there are children, grandchildren, and somewhere in the piece the requisite death-and-resurrection theme and then inevitably, the notes on my Sickness, bringing the reader along to the new youngish doctor and his experimental ways with cancer. There it is: the novel, the memoir, the attempt at justifying what is completely without cause, meaning or direction, except for the descent.
My mother’s name was Gala (pronounced with a soft “a,” as in Allah), not the name she was given at birth but one she adopted, ridding herself of the stodgy Germanic syllables of her parents’ choosing (Gustavina) by the time she first went to school, when she was fourteen. Before then, she’d been tutored at home, English governess, French teacher, the tennis coach and the others who saw to it that Gala would acquire all the charming skills and studies considered suitable to a girl like her. After Hitler came and they found their way to America, my parents bought a house in Queens, a place name appropriate for Gala, though not at all a place to her liking (how could it be?) and there I was born.
“You see here?” She would point to the wound inflicted on her neck when I had lurched unexpectedly in the womb, thereby upsetting the tray she was carrying and causing a piece of glass to cut her. The scar was small, deep rose in color and vaguely in the shape of a “y” or a delta. “You did this,” she would always add, at the different times or stages in my life when she brought it up. There are people who can go through the worst of tortures, through war, the death of their children, solitary confinement in prison, and come out obsessing about a scratch on the skin. This, too, is a way of telling a story.
“You did this to me in my belly. Cut my neck.” Gala’s English was tenuous, despite the governess. She mistrusted words in all languages and tried to wrest them into meanings and shapes of her own. She was, as it happened, an excellent sculptor, forming animals out of her imagination to signify more than she could put into words. She spoke four languages by the age of seven, but she lived in America, in English, and it grated on her, the strangeness, the preponderance of long vowels, the refusal of Americans to understand words other than their own. She resisted the absoluteness of Word as Fact, a word as the encapsulation of one particular event and no other. Gala’s own vocabulary was diffuse and scattershot. “Neck,” for instance, was a synonym for “throat,” as “head” was for “hat,” and “New York” for “America.” She was self-conscious about her accent and didn’t like speaking to officials or functionaries. She wouldn’t come to my school for any reason whatever, not for P.T.A. meetings of course, and also not to meet my teachers or for conferences on my schoolwork, which thankfully was good enough not to need much alteration.
Mainly, she was not the sort of person who would attend anything that had to do with the upbringing of children or the training of servants. She was an artist. In Prague, her only paying job had been a kind of debutante position at the haute couture house of Rosenbaum. And when she came to America she designed handbags for a short while. Then I was born, we lived in Queens – first in Forest Hills, near the tennis courts – and by the time we moved to Kew Gardens, when I was almost three, she had a studio of her own, up in the attic.
She began with painting, which would turn out not to be her medium. The paintings were too conscious in a way, too much of an attempt to find meaning on canvas. Her drawings, by contrast, were light and full of animation, the fly-away charcoal attached firmly to the paper by fixative she blew onto the finished sheet through a thin golden rod she held between her lips like a cigarette, leaving the imprint of her coral lipstick behind. Her watercolors showed a lightness of spirit that revealed her definite talent and a lack of inhibition. In painting she was held back, I think, by the heaviness of the oils, by a sense of the long history of European painting, by the weightiness of it. Later she would turn to graphics and eventually to sculpture and in both of these found expression for her particular genius in the inventions of animal forms, part observation, part dream, that would make up figures in the bestiary of her feelings, animals in place of words: a two-headed turtle (of two minds, no doubt); a shy little creature called Nobody, the Fowl Owl, a Lamb of God covered by a shaggy coat, his head hanging down. She did a series of color lithos of owls, the animal she appropriated as a symbol of herself. Many of them had double heads, one on top of the other or the two side by side. The owl was wise, gray-eyed Athena’s bird, but Gala claimed it for other reasons. Partly it was that her eyes had a tendency to puff up during the night (particularly in sleeping cars), and she would refer to herself in the morning as “eine Eule,” partly also, I believe, it was that the owl comes to life at night when there is no one to observe it. And too, she admired the owl’s ability to turn its head all the way around and see what was behind her.
But this work would come later. In Kew Gardens in the forties, she painted. Upstairs, in her Provencal-yellow smock, her thick auburn hair hidden by a kerchief, her profile pure as Nefertiti’s, her strong hands professionally manicured with pale half-moons at the base of gleaming coral nails, she worked all morning, frowning, stepping back, removing the Chesterfield from between her lips when it came close to the end and stamping it to death in an ashtray. A few crumbs of tobacco would adhere to her lower lip, and she removed them with the tip of her tongue first, securing the flecks until she could pick them off with the tweezers formed of her thumb and forefinger, flicking them to the air. The smells of turpentine, oils, fixative and cigarettes (and sometimes a trace of “Femme” that she’d not washed off from the night before) marked the room as so territorially hers that no sign was needed to keep us out.
She was not like other mothers, and I adored her in so many ways there may not have been room left for anyone else. Of course I fought her and hated her, and grew up in spite of her, out of sympathy as much as I was hopelessly implicated with, in and by her, often unable to tell the difference between us. Ich bin dich/Und du bist mich was the first poem I composed in my life, according to her. I was three and the grammar is bad. It means I am you and you are me.
The symbiotic love poem. A preview of my dreams at sixty.
She worked in her studio, the front room of the attic, overlooking our block. The attic held three other rooms, all tiny. In the back, a bedroom faced the yard, flowerbeds, bushes, my sand box and little log cabin from Macy’s. The roof sloped so steeply that even at three I couldn’t stand up at the sides. In that room old women would stay for periods of uncertain length, the European refugees who were perhaps Gala’s age but seemed ancient, old women dressed in blacks and grays like my grandmother, German-speaking and grateful to the point of cringing. To me their apologetic stance seemed natural, given the constrictions of space in the little room. I don’t remember them as individuals, and probably they stayed with us when they first arrived in America, before their own relatives or talents could place them somewhere else. Gala, who was willing enough to share her space and food with them, did not want them cluttering up her salon. She assigned them the job of looking after me to explain their position in the household, though I remember them being as reluctant to enter into that relationship as I was. Uninteresting, Gala called them. She liked people to be talented, glamorous, mondaine. Good was irrelevant. She had contempt for people who were known for having “a good heart.” Especially women. She referred to all women as “females.”
After the war the old ladies were gone and her youngest brother, Rudy, sometimes stayed up there. He had come to America with my father’s help at the outbreak of the war, on a student visa. He then joined the Navy, which speeded up his naturalization, and became a radar man in the Pacific. He came home to us in Kew Gardens wearing a pea jacket, the real thing, which Gala immediately claimed. On her it looked echt Chanel, long and lean and a bit risqué, her hair pulled in an upsweep, the navy blue of the sturdy wool contending with the peppery auburn. She was built like a boy, the opposite of me: her shoulders were broad, her hips narrow, the kind of figure that never ages. The side rooms of the attic were for storage, one of them not much bigger than a crawl space. The other, facing the side of the house onto our neighbor Mr. Styne’s property, held steamer trunks from the S.S. Normandy, on which they’d sailed to America, and which thereafter housed the summer clothes in winter, the winter clothes in summer. There were also cartons and bales containing letters and books, photos and news clippings, whatever they salvaged and brought along, the leftovers of Central and Hapsburg Europe. It is the room that inevitably comes to mind whenever I hear about a hanging. Teenage suicides in Westchester (a fad in the 70’s or 80’s), political hangings, a friend’s father, even the hangings in literature: I picture the rafters of the side room in the attic and see the lifeless body swinging there.
The forties was a time of death, families wiped out, the heart of Europe left bleeding. But it wasn’t that, not anything grandiose. I think it had more to do with a woman, or female, as Gala would have called her, someone I learned about comparatively recently, whose existence, or the end of it, probably changed the course of my life. Certainly it must have influenced me in those years, growing up in Kew Gardens, unaware and complicit.
“Fev” is the name the old woman uses when she talks to herself as a child. Fev had been her nickname when she was little. The name of the old woman is Lisa. When she says “I,” half a dozen people jump to attention – all her American grown-up selves – but the little girl who lived in Baden near Vienna only waves from the distance.
“Fev,” Lisa whispers, “I still feel guilty that you stole. I can hardly believe you did that.”
“I had to,” Fev says. Then she falls silent.
The old woman thinks how circumscribed our choices are in childhood. And every path you take... “Every path I took, I felt eerily alone.”
It is evening. The old woman is preparing to go to bed. When she was nine years old, she stole money from the girl who sat next to her in elementary school. Not just once. She did it over and over, for weeks, maybe months. Why hasn’t she ever told anyone about this before?
She’s not sure. “It was so long ago. Maybe I was waiting for what it all means to be revealed to me.”
The old woman tells herself a story:
Once there was a little girl called “Fev,” who lived with her father and mother, her two brothers and a governess in a house which stood on the border between city and country. The year was 1934.
The old woman tries to visualize the house. It has yellow walls, long corridors, her parents’ bedrooms, the living room, a veranda, a children’s room with windows you can climb in and out of. A garden with fruit trees and flowers. The house was rebuilt by Fev’s father to accommodate the family. Nothing special, Fev interrupts, but it was nicer than the houses of most of their neighbors.
The goveness sits in the children’s room, sewing. Her name is Fraeuli.
Many of the children in Fev’s school are poor. Their fathers are unemployed. They do odd jobs and grow vegetables on a small plot of land. But some of the children have lots of money. Hilda, for instance, with her little pink leather purse stuffed with change.
Hilda is the doughy-faced, chubby little girl who sits next to Fev in class. At lunchtime she shows Fev the eclairs and Sachertorte she brings to school but she hardly ever shares them.
Hilda’s father is headwaiter at the Cafe Raimund. He is dignified and has a paunch from the left-over pastries he’s allowed to take home every day. Fev watches to see if Hilda is developing a paunch too. Fev’s mother says that Herr Schneider is polite to the Jewish customers even though it’s well known that he has become a Nazi. Fev’s mother has stopped going to the Cafe Raimund.
Hilda loves her father. She told Fev that she climbs into his lap every evening and robs him of a few coins. She told her this at the beginning of the school year when the girls were still speaking with each other. Hilda says that her father pretends not to notice. Fev can just see Herr Schneider smiling down on his precious darling’s straw blond hair that’s wrapped around her head in braids.
Hilda used to curl up her nose at the sight of Fev’s typical lunch of hard-boiled eggs, pumpernickel, cheese and apples. Only a few times when she wanted to copy Fev’s homework did she offer to trade a cupcake for it – an offer that was accepted.
Fev never really liked Hilda very much, which didn’t keep her from playing tic-tac-toe with her under the raised lid of the desk. Under that same lid the little girls showed each other their drawings. Fev’s drawings, which tried to make the teacher look like a pig and the class bully, Franzl, like a mouse; Hilda’s, which were of penises and fat behinds. But one day Hilda made a drawing of an old man with a big crooked nose, fingers like worms, and a long black beard. She dropped the drawing, which she had entitled “Jew!” on Fev’s desk just before recess. When Fev saw it, everything went black before her eyes. During recess she snuck back upstairs, crumpled up the drawing, and threw it inside Hilda’s desk.
Thus war was declared. A few days later Hilda brought a note from her father, requesting that she be allowed to change her seat. Hilda moved two rows back. Fev was relieved. When the teacher put a pretty little girl named Mitzi in the empty seat next to her, it all seemed to have been for the best.
There are only a handful of other Jewish children in Fev’s elementary school On the way to school they often get beaten up by a small gang of kids, led by the class bully, Franzl. Mitzi is in that gang too but she never spits at Fev or says anything mean. She just looks embarrassed. The other children allow her to tag along but they call her “dummy.”
Fev and her brothers know that if you have some pocket money or a candy bar or a salami sandwich, you can bribe your way out of getting beaten.
“Sure, I needed the money,” Fev says to the old woman. “But it wasn’t just a practical thing. You remember how I liked to buy presents for Mitzi, and there were other reasons too...”
Lisa tries to visualize her parents at that time. Didn’t her father wear a pince-nez? Her mother’s thick auburn hair was wrapped in two “snails” around her ears. They said they liked to live in a small town surrounded by fields and woods. So much healthier for the children. Her father was an architect, her mother a poet. They were not poor. But fear of the neighbors’ envy informed all their choices – apart from having a maid and a governess, they lived frugally; unobtrusively.
“I never had a new bicycle,” Fev complains, “and my allowance was just ten groschen a week. Hilda must have had at least three schillings in that little pink purse of hers – that’s three hundred groschen.”
My parents lived in constant fear of anti-Semitism, the old woman, Lisa, reflects. It was still four years before the Anschluss but many people were already secret Nazis.
The old woman tries to engage Fev. “Weren’t you scared out of your wits? You knew what it would mean to our family if you were caught stealing.”
It is twelve o’clock noon. The school is a former convent. In the school yard, the boys and girls are separated by a wall. Most of the little girls stand around in small groups in the paved courtyard, eating their lunch.
...Who is Mitzi talking to? Fev peers in Mitzi’s direction. Why is she laughing? I want her to laugh only when she is with me.
Mitzi has rosy cheeks and mischievous black eyes. She is popular even though she is poor. Her velvet skirt is faded. There is a hole in her sock but nobody seems to mind.
“It was like this,” Fev says. “I heard a voice that said, ‘Go up to the classroom and take ten groschen out of Hilda’s purse.’ I had to obey.”
“Okay,” the old woman says. “I can understand. Once, twice. You wanted revenge. But to do this for weeks... Didn’t you understand the danger?”
“I pretended I had to go to the toilet. Someone, not me, flew up the stairs. It was she who opened the classroom door. Her heart was pounding. I could hear the voice say just like in a fairy tale: ‘Do not fear.’”
“I sailed right up to Hilda’s desk. I snapped open the little purse. Ten groschen was all I ever took.”
“Those ten groschen added up...”
“When my fingers touched that money, it was like sparklers going off inside me. I had shown my bravery. God was on my side. I went down the stairs, it was more like flying. Nothing bad could happen to me. If somebody had asked me what I was doing up in the classroom, I would have said, ‘Looking for my handkerchief...’”
“And afterwards? Didn’t you feel something like remorse?”
“Why are you asking me that, trying to make me feel bad? Yeah, later it was as if I woke up from a dream. I felt awful. What would happen if I was discovered? We were Jews! It would have been in the papers. ‘Rich Jewish child steals from waiter’s daughter.’ We would have had to leave town in the middle of the night.”
“You knew all that and yet you did it?”
“I never kept a groschen for myself. I bought violets for Fraueli and candy for the kids that never used to talk to me before because I was Jewish. I felt safe. I was popular. Especially with Mitzi. I bought her things I knew she wanted – a comb with glitter on it; a tiny bird whistle; a pencil with a glass top. If you held it up against the light, you could see the steeple of St. Stephen’s Cathedral.”
“I’m amazed that you weren’t discovered.”
“Yeah, I am too now. At night I prayed to God to help me stop. Not to have to do this any more. I thought it wouldn’t happen ever again but at the stroke of noon I heard the voice. This other me would leave my body and float upstairs. She took the money. Lights would flash inside me. I felt powerful. God was on my side.”
“Are you sure you didn’t want to be discovered? To bring trouble on our family? Maybe you were mad at our parents because you got such a small allowance or because they made Fraueli take care of you?”
The old woman feels she’s being heavy-handed. Her questions will drive Fev away.
Fev looks at her and squints. “There is nothing you can say that I haven’t thought of myself. I wasn’t stupid when I was nine. And I didn’t want to hurt our parents. The whole thing was a test.”
“I felt I had to do the most dangerous thing in the world, to prove to myself that God was on my side and that I wasn’t a scared Jew.”
Lisa sees a gang of snotty children in pursuit of a little girl. What would they do to her? Taunt her? Beat her up? “Be brave and fight,” she would admonish Fev. No, that was what Fev said to herself.
Who wouldn’t run if they were outnumbered eight to one? Lisa thinks. Those children were poor. They knew we lived in a nice house. Their being poor made it harder to hate them.
“It was lovely, having money,” Fev reminisced. “When I treated the kids I was everybody’s friend. Even Fraeuli was nicer to me when I brought her flowers.”
“And what about Hilda?” the old woman persists. “No guilt there?”
“The way I saw it was, ‘I’m a poor Jew, I’m only taking a little and she has so much. And I’m making other people happy.’ You see, I was already a socialist.”
“There are many rich Jews too, you know.”
“Leave me alone.” Fev turns a somersault inside Lisa. Lisa is getting a stomachache.
“All right, I’ll drop it. But what about at night?” Lisa, the inquisitor continues.
“I couldn’t sleep. I was arguing with God. ‘Why don’t you stop me? Punish me. Give me a sign. If you can’t do that, what good are you? Maybe you don’t even exist?’”
The old woman, Lisa, wonders if Fev was really so articulate, arguing with God. But she remembers how disappointed she was when another day started and she hadn’t been struck dead. Another day when she would be driven to commit a crime.
Fev is shocked. “Do you really think it was a ‘crime’? Haven’t you forgiven me yet?”
How much nicer Mitzi had been than this grown-up Lisa. Mitzi never asked where the money came from.
“I have something for you,” Fev would say. Then they would go behind the barn near Mitzi’s house and Mitzi would tickle her, trying to find the present that was hidden in Fev’s skirt. When she finally got hold of it, she would throw her arms around Fev and kiss her. “I like you better than all the others,” she would murmur, pressing her cheek against Fev’s. “But don’t tell anyone I said so.”
The old woman can’t remember how the stealing came to an end.
“I just stopped cold one day,” Fev recalls. “I guess I had had enough.”
“Wasn’t the summer vacation starting? And in the fall, weren’t you going to go the Maedchenlyzeum, the private middle school?”
“That too,” Fev said. “But also because I became convinced that God didn’t exist. Or, at least, he didn’t care about me. I think I stole so he would notice me. To wake him up. I wanted him to see all the risks I was taking...”
Fev’s line of reasoning sounds faintly familiar to the old woman, though she can’t quite follow the logic of it.
“So that he should take pity on us and lead us out of Egypt? And you were going to be Moses...?”
“Now I’m really embarrassed. I can’t tell you anything without you making me feel like a fool.”
Lisa is sorry for Fev. The child has suffered enough. She wants to change the subject.
“What about Mitzi?”
“She became ‘best friends’ with somebody else. The gang went back to calling me ‘dirty Jew.’ For a while I had been something special, like a stunt pilot or a shining knight. Those were the glory days. Then life became safe and dull again.”
“I wouldn’t call it ‘safe,’” Lisa murmurs, but Fev has given a sign that she’s not interested in further discussion.
The old woman, still wide-awake, is thinking about her ‘criminal childhood.’ What did it all mean? She has a strong desire to edit this story and bring it to a point.
Fev is sleepy. She’s glad they’ve talked, even though nothing new came out of it. Some things, she thinks, can never be explained...
“But you plunge into them all the same,” Lisa murmurs. “And they mark you for life.”
The old woman would like to hold Fev close to her. “We’ve each been so alone,” she murmurs, folding a pillow in her arms. Soon they are both asleep.
What the kids in Mr. Martin’s 6th grade English class for the gifted at the Geronimo School for Boys wanted to know most of all was: if, as rumor had it, Mr. Martin had formerly been Ms. Martin, did he now have a penis? And if he did, what was it like, and could it piss as well as do the rest? And if he didn’t have a penis, well, what did he have, exactly? He had a trace of a beard. Biceps. Sort of. And a deep voice when he read stuff aloud to them on Friday mornings. “I found the whole thing on the Net,” said James, who surfed a lot while he waited for his mother to come home from work. “The whole thing. The operation. Drawings. Interviews. MRI slices in color. My mom put a block on it when she saw I was into it.” The class collapsed, hooting and laughing. It was then that they elected James to be the one to catch Mr. Martin in the faculty bathroom. James was to see and report. He could say he had a stomachache and needed to vomit right away. Pretend to gag. Or gag, actually. Stick a finger down his own throat.
James, after he had been made Penis Captain, began to have dreams. James’s own penis had been acting up lately much more than it usually did, and he had gotten sort of interested in it. Its mechanisms. Its tricks. He wondered, what were its various talents? What exactly could it do and not do? It changed shape so often it was unreliable. He had begun to try to imagine Mr. Martin’s equipment. Was something attached there between his legs just for show? Was it plastic? Or was it made from some sort of laminated cloth? Or a state-of-the-art lightweight ceramic? Maybe it used batteries that had to be installed properly, negative pole to negative space, etc. etc. But it probably was some skin type deal – transported from, say, his thigh. Or someone else’s thigh? Or his butt. And where was it exactly?
Maybe it was Velcroed into his armpit when he wasn’t using it? Or did he tuck it into what used to be the basic-girl-thing part of him? The part that was left over? If it were left over? He touched his own penis with new respect and care as he dreamed and thought, surprised, of this magic bit that was attached to him, hanging there, whose doings he had, perhaps, hugely underestimated. He had known for years what the sex booklets had to tell him and had admired his childhood penis as it floated and bobbed on top of the bath water. He took showers now. But he had never thought of a penis as something so valuable that someone would want to invent one, as Mr. Martin…well. Soon they would know.
When the day came, all went as planned. The kids in the 6th grade were posted everywhere up and down the hall in case James needed them. Just as Mr. Martin was unzipping, James burst through the door of the faculty bathroom, gagging loudly and with conviction. But as he lurched toward the sink to clarify his view, he wasn’t exactly sure what he saw. Before the zipper had reached the level of Mr. Martin’s belt—had James heard the sound of a frail stream of urine?—he thought that maybe he had seen two penises, flapping adrift of the usual location, one a mysterious thin, misshapen and of indeterminate color and size; the other, which seemed rather familiar, the organ of a young boy. Mr. Martin smiled sweetly and kindly in his usual gentlemanly way, as he buttoned the waist button on his pants. “Maybe go to the nurse, James,” he said. “Hope you’ll feel better soon.” His eyes, as he spoke, were polite, but the intensity of his voice was that of magician casting a spell, or trying to. And James thought that Mr. Martin had cast a quick but urgent glance – as if Mr. Martin had x-ray vision? – at James’s crotch.
When the 6th grade boys, whooping and slapping each other on the back, rushed toward him, waiting, excited and somewhat dazed, for his report, James said, “Couldn’t see a fucking thing,” and went home.
James’s dreams that night were penisless. And when, half asleep, he went to stroke his own, it seemed to have vanished and in its place, built into his flesh – for a moment? forever? velvety and unusual – the basic-girl-thing, ready for romance.
H A M I L T O N S T O N E E D I T I O N S