[Over the next three days we'll be serializing B.N.'s story Still Life with Girl. It's a very powerful piece of writing that I'm proud to have appear on this blog.]
STILL LIFE, WITH GIRL
It was as if they were in a submarine and the air lock had been breached. When the water rushed in, each hoped for an air pocket to keep them alive. Nothing more. The truth, the family was different especially the mother, and as such they were approached with caution and viewed as suspect by their neighbors. She wore her hair long uncovered and loose, a mane of the dark brown, that would always catch the slightest breeze and cause her to toss her head back and with one hand sweep the hair away from her face. Other married woman wore their hair under a wig or covered by a scarf. Such are the requirements of Orthodox women in communities and most women meet these requirements at least in part.
Suburban conformity spread into the rural, a mediocre idea that grew. The remains of an orchard that had sustained generations of landowning, hardworking Gentiles reduced to an apple tree in every other front yard. The house a remnant—a moss green caricature slanted at the roof, leaned against underbrush and overgrown trees, an inlet of neglect. Twice removed from the newer mirror image split-levels that flanked it on either side.
Inside, thumbtacked or taped to the walls were posters from distant farmer’s markets, Frank Stella exhibitions and quaint products, elixirs not sold for half a century, if ever. Throughout the house stacks of books created an obstacle course, so moving from room to room had to be done with care. The furniture mismatched and quirky, at the tables, chairs were unpredictable, some were whole, others are not, like lame animals allowed to remain out of kindness. A slight shudder shifted all of them, like the seismic plates, under the crust of the earth, imperceptible at first, save a slight trembling of a glass of water at the bedside—a fault line that ran down the center of their lives. It was more than the chafing between assimilated and unassimilated, more than a value placed on secular humanism and the possibility of world citizens. The mother asserted that she was educated and cultured and as if one thing followed from the other, showed little interest, in the color or length of curtains or in the price of eggs or in the latest trends in child rearing. She told this to the girl often. She would not interact with the neighbors and had turned down invitations so often that they stopped.
In contrast, the other mothers watched children play in tight yards and talked to each other. They shared ingredients and knew each others’ anguish at every toy stuffed inquisitively down the toilets. They exchanged easy bright smiles. Yet nothing humbled her, not the initial warmth at door, not the meals sent over when they first moved in, not the offers to share in a car pool. Aliza Ahronson Berg would not go and join them. She had not lowered herself to that. She would not even give them a second glance when she backed the car (like a bat out of hell) out of the driveway getting out to get the mail dressed in a fringed brown leather jacket and peasant skirt with mauve ribbons tied in little bows and stitched around the hem line.
Long afternoons they sat inside, the mother read poetry and advised the girl to have a critical mind. She repeated lines from poems—“ Do I dare to eat a peach” or “ I have measure my life in coffee spoons.” Wisps of wordy smoke. After she read she looked up and directly at the girl waiting for some mysterious response. A fixed gaze. Her eyes implored the girl—say something, say something, you dimwit.
Mrs. Failkoff said today that there was a giant hanging on Noach’s ark,” the girl offered because it was what she was thinking about, since it had just started to rain.
“And they pay her a salary for this?” the mother said.
There were multi-colored maps of the world hung on walls and she is told they are in the world. Lands conquered and claimed. Independence fought for and won. Maps prove the world has changed, borders change when the world changes and then the maps change. Taped to the fridge was a picture of the President under which it said “would you buy a used car from this man?” Alongside it were pictures of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein.
Aliza Ahronson Berg dabbled in domestic trickery and meals were a whole other kettle of fish, sometimes a whole dinner of artichokes or chocolate sandwiches. With an emotion stronger than any ordinary envy the girl wanted, longed for what she had seen others have on their plates for meals, she would ask for mixed canned or frozen vegetables, a confetti of color, or even meat with a sauce, or a soft white bread sandwich. Once the mother agreed after the girl hoarded the frozen vegetables in the back of the freezer. She attended school with some of the other girls on the street. A small worn to the bone school with dingy ceiling tiles that hung slack. The girl often late or not there at all. When she was there, most of the teachers overlooked her, one openly objected and one was nice and let her sit beside the big desk. She watched the other girls the way she might have watched fish sliding behind glass in a aquarium. The mother did not ask her about school and did not look up when she pushed the mimeograph worksheets under her nose, did not react as she repeated something the teacher said.
The girl could walk home from school or take the bus. Most days she walked as it eliminated the seat dilemma. The bus was a complex social situation, based on family, older siblings, cousins and what a father did. She would just as well walk herself over the railroad tracks and past the store with takeout chickens turning on a spit in the window. Even the newest stores still with Grand Opening Sale hung in the window already looked ratty. When the long driveway snaked at the pine tree the girl would cut across the yard to the back kitchen door next to the bay window. Always through the ice lace on the pane she could decipher the mood she was about to enter. Dirty dishes on the table meant nothing, a book open and out signaled the mother had gotten out of bed and moved through the house.
It was March; there were still some patches of snow on the ground and the lawn pitted with small pools of melted brown broth. Through the window she saw them both standing in front of the white refrigerator. She recognized Mrs. Leiber from the library. Her mother’s hand around Mrs. Leiber’s upper arm and the other plunged, splayed fingers into her hair, their lips touching and Mrs. Leiber’s head tilled back as if she was looking up but her eyes were closed. Mrs. Leiber’s sheital, not just a wig but a stylized blond affair with outward turned curls on either side, was not on her head and she was dressed in the mother’s blue and white striped robe and stood barefoot.
When she opened the door from the entranceway she heard them a Morse code of sighs. Although she could only intuit it on the most general level—each signaling the way the girl’s life would change. “ I’m so wet.” Mrs. Leiber said before she noticed the girl standing there. These sighs, the sound that rose over the hum of the refrigerator would replay in her mind over and over and would precede ten thousand harsh stares in school, on the street, in stores. These, notes of human music that would follow the girl escorted out of schools that had previously made a place for her. Each time she carried all the contents of her desk and her coat. As a principle would drive her silently home. Each time she knew she would never see that school or those teachers again. A scene repeated itself with some regularity. That day Mrs. Leiber fled the kitchen and then reemerged fully dressed and sprinted out the back door. “She’ll be back.” The mother said as she closed the screen door after her.
She was the oldest, the other two were babies—one could walk with a tipsy gait, the other did not even sit up and only took a bottle. They each mostly slept dressed only in an undershirt and diaper. They never went and there was neither stroller or carriage. They both always smell funny like rusty nails. The mother wanted to go to a protest, she said that they would write a lawyer’s number on their arm with a ball point in case the cops arrested them.
The mother’s mood lightened, she put combs in her hair like a Spanish dancer and said, pointing to a map, “The world is changing and we will be part of it.” She did a little dance around the dining room adjusting the volume to Joan Baez on the record player: "you got to walk that lonesome valley, you got to walk it by yourself, ain’t nobody here can walk it for you, you got walk by yourself…” each chord loosening the knots in the coarse ropes of conventionality.
Men left a footprint on the moon and in the summer they closed Rt 17 and the New York State Throughway because of Woodstock, the counter culture just a few miles away, and about to knock on the door. About to usher in a new value system. The mother listened intently to the music like at the festival. Sad plaintive folk songs about love and loss, louder rebellious protest songs about war and death, and songs about taking, smoking or drinking enough of whatever that anything yelled at the top of the lungs sounded worthwhile.
Mrs.Leiber always walked home down Viola Rd, passed the twisted rows of apple trees on either side and crossed 306 to the intersection passing over the invisible boundary into the area where the women wear small pillbox hats over their sheital, where English was only spoken by outsiders. The style of her dress was such that she never looked disheveled, smart European suits favor by the wealthy Chassidic women, crisp lapels on the jacket, a mid-calf skirt of the same material and her wig frozen into style. She returned to her children, to the maid, to the cooked foods in the kitchen. Mrs. Leiber spoke German with her mother, sometimes French. They both spoke many languages and lived in other countries.
[Please check in tomorrow for the next installment!]