by Diana Pollin
part 1 of 2
“Pearls before swine!” Barton thinks. “All Alma’s fault, these yearly family parties. Just to give Debra a God-knows what notion about their Jewish roots! Well, I’m partly to blame, I gave in to this nonsense.
“Alma, bless her heart, lives in a dream world, when will she wake up!? Never? Stands to reason: spoiled only child, never had to worry, thanks to Papa Lensky paying for everything, including my doctoral studies at Columbia.”
Barton had suffered the taunts and jeers of his homeroom classmates. They follow him everywhere, even forty years after the Abramovitz name was changed to Sturges, back in 1926. He can still see those awful 10-year olds smirking in his bedroom, where he’s buffing his shoes. He puts up with it, all for the love of Alma.
Love of Alma? Well, yes, he might say it is or has become love. But damn it! (Barton pulls murderously on the shoe rag.) What does Alma see in that typically Jewish family of his? Jealous maybe? All her relatives are dead.
* * *
“Com’ovuh here, waddya bin doin’!”
Charlie attacks from behind, via her belt. Debra has 1.27 seconds to avoid the floor, and social disgrace. Besides, Father would kill her for staining the carpet. It is a very expensive Shiraz, she knows. She lap lands. A hot vicious mouth presses against her ear, Yaouw! It tickles, she wants to yell. Next, two kneading fingers tug at her cheek, and the inevitable, “I can’t get over how tall you got. Wad a’ you? Six feet or sumpin’?”
Aunt Bessie, the jerker’s wife, pipes up, “She’s got her father’s nose.”
“Aunt Bessie, you wanna drink?” Debra holds up the last vodka orange like Excalibur before the tray hits the floor, Thank Goodness empty.
“Hey gimme that!” Charlie whips it out of Debra’s hand.
“Charles you have had enough!”
“Go to Hell, woman!” Aunt Bessie turns away. Debra’s problem now.
“So what’ you been doing Red Head?”
“Been going to school. I’m almost a senior,” Debra ventures lamely to the ancient.
Uncle Charlie attacks the vodka, drinks like an anteater, but in stereo. “Ain’t tchou sumpin’?” He sets the vodka down on a coaster, starts to jiggle her on his knees, as though she were five instead of fifteen.
“So you’re like your Dad. Shmarrt!”
A burp like the Leviathan kicks Bessie onto the return track, “Charles, stop that at once!”
Water off a duck’s back. “Yeah, the smaarrt one, just like huh faaduh.” His hairy arm holds Debra, squirming, while Aunt Bessie works the other side, his wrist.
“An’ she’s a red head, like that shikseh Bart was crazy about when he was in collegsh. Yah know, yer a shikseh, lid’le one? Like the girl with the red hair.”
“Charles Cohn, just Let Her Be!” Bessie crescendos as the prisoner, finally free, slides from his lap to the floor and all 3A are there for the show. Tush landing, no problem. Gets up with a Charlie Brown smile. No need to drop a tray on the Shiraz, social sin already committed. Red head Red head. Fire in the wood shed! Wake up Debra, get real! What was that for?
And where were her parents during the ordeal? Barton was in the kitchen, like the police, never around when she needed him and Alma, well... But, who was this good-looking boy coming over with Alma? A knight in shining armor, a prince charming, a savior! “Danny Levine, your cousin Gil’s son.” Alma introduced him, and then: “You kids can sit here and be by yourselves, pay no attention to the older generation.” She found them a seat in a corner and served them orange juice.
“What fantastic hair you have!” Danny remarked, settling down to get acquainted. Okay, rub it in, she was a freak: red hair, freckles, sludge-color eyes! Tall and awkward, a big bird, her father’s nightmare. Catherine of Washington Square. Barton had wondered out loud where she came from. Alma was small and fine-boned with dark hair and blue eyes, Barton was mousy brown with a pinched face and dull gray skin. But, here she was, an aberration! Irish type redness combined with Jewish sensitivity! And this cute cousin was turning the knife in the wound!
“Yes!” Debra flared up, “I have always had red hair and don’t ask me how I got it!”
“I am sorry,” Danny apologized with a soothing and honest smile. “But I really like it.” He had a jutting-out nose, dark hair and tan skin, periwinkle blue eyes, and a neat, muscular body.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter! Where do you go to school?” Debra asked with a toss of her head .
“Well, I don’t know just right now. You know about my parents divorcing so change is in the air. If Mom moves back to the city, I might consider Stuyvesant or Bronx Science for my senior year. I took the test for both and got in. But, of course, a lot depends on Dad, where he is relocating.”
“I suppose it has been really rough on you. I mean, with your parents breaking up. I never did get to meet your Mom,” Debra said without thinking.
“I think I would like to talk about something else.”
“Of course, I understand. Gee, I am sorry. Always come out with the wrong thing.” Debra sighed, embarrassed by her faux pas. “I thought of trying out for Bronx Science, you know, but I’m no good in math and science. Play the piano a bit and the flute. I thought I would try out for Music and Art. Father taught there...”
“I know,” Danny broke in enthusiastically. “One of my buddies, Jerome Kagen, landed in his English class. Your old man was strict! Knew his stuff though. He was one of the few who really cared. The other teachers just came in, did their job and walked off. Not your Dad! You know, I even remember Jerome telling me that your Dad took an hour of his time to explain a difficult passage in a short story they had studied. I think it was by Hemingway. You ever read any of his?”
“Just the Nick stories. I prefer Saroyan. I love Willa Cather and...” She was about to say Harper Lee when Danny interrupted.
“You know, I couldn’t make up my mind to do math and science or English. I write poetry, do you? I heard that you jumped two years ahead in school so you must be a bit of a brain.”
She smoothed her skirt and sipped the orange juice. “I don’t go in for poetry. I have tried my hand at short stories, though. One is appearing in June in the senior year book.”
“What’s it about?”
“Oh, it’s about a Japanese girl who is hit by the A-bomb and is laid out to die. On the day she shuts her eyes, a dove comes onto her hospital window sill and inspires her to make airplane peace signs. I am not describing it correctly, but basically it is a plea for peace, now the conflict in Vietnam is getting really serious.”
Danny touched her hand. “I would like to see it, if you don’t mind. Talk it over with you. Do you have a copy?”
Flattered and feeling a little giddy, Debra said, “Sure, in my room. I have done more writing, mostly historical stuff. Let’s go.”
They started down the long corridor of the pre-War apartment with its Chagall prints on the walls and abstract drawings by unknown artists. Debra’s room was papered in green flowers, an overcrowded desk occupied a large wall space. Danny shut the door. They were alone and far from the planet of drunken adulthood. She handed him the story, he sat down on the bed, while she swiveled nervously, and elatedly, in the desk chair.
After a time, Danny raised his head, and ran his fingers through his hair, “Yeah, I like it very much. Can I give you a bit of advice?”
“Oh, please do!”
“You have got talent, voice, style and the right sentiments. But, you don’t need all those qualifiers. White can stand as white, you don’t have to say pearly white. Let the reader do some of the imagining. I know I sound pedantic, but that is what Mr. Lyons, a marvelous English teacher I had last year, told the class. He really taught his students, like your Dad. He said, ‘Make it pithy and pitiless.’
“Good writing is cutting all the lace work, getting down to the essentials. Good writing starts with awareness of motives, you know, what lies behind passionate love or unrelenting hatred, for example, why these passions exist, and for whom, and how they interact, and what surprising forms they take, even when your characters wear masks, or social tags.
“Good writing is the product of an unforgiving, even brutal, honesty that sweeps across social, sexual even family lines, honesty with yourself first, then in regard to others. It may be hard to call a spade a spade, it’s even harder to recognize that a spade is a spade.
“As I said, push aside all the moss, tell it like it is. I think writing is like a connect with reality, and the wonder of it is that it produces fiction, marvelous fiction. Didn’t your father tell you all that? Sorry, I am being simplistic and I’m probably boring you to death.”
What had Barton said about her writing? That it “needs vast effort.” Goodbye, the end, get out of my way. “No, you certainly are not boring! I don’t really discuss things like my writing with my father. He was pleased when the yearbook staff asked me to write Planes of Peace. I just let it go at that.”
Copyright © 2010 by Diana Pollin