[Here's Part 2 of B.N.'s story Still Life, with Girl]
STILL LIFE, WITH GIRL (part 2)
The world separates as neatly as a sheet torn from the top of a tablet. There are good people and bad people. Nixon is bad, the mother says. Vietnam is bad. Martin Luther King was good, he was shot. The FBI reads peoples’ mail, they have lists, the mother is sure she is on a list and her mail is read. Whenever a piece of mail had the slightest crease the mother held it to the light, convinced that it had been opened, read, resealed by an entire team of government underlings hunched over an expansive dark wood conference table. The people in this small community are bad, they are, she did not even hate to say it, little petty Jews. They are not on a list. The mother comes from a big city, several in fact, and studied at the Sorbonne, she speaks languages. Not Yiddish, that is not a language, more of a vulgarity. Even though nothing in the house matches or is a set such that the neighbors at first asked when the furniture would be arriving she has silver flatware and trays and a sterling tea set and candlesticks as if to prove her lineage. She is elegant but that is not important. The mind is important. The mother has no mother or father and no brothers or sisters. Only a mother-in-law that she calls my soon to be former mother-in-law. She is waiting for peoples’ minds to open in new ways as her’s had. Then she will assume her rightful place wearing the crimson mantle. She reminds the girl of this often. She reads and shakes her head. They get the Village Voice and New York Times. Stonewall was amazing. Then she calls a friend that comes over. More friends come, they drive up from the city and hold poetry readings in the play- room. Sometimes they bring food, strange gooey concoctions from Chinatown, bits of red floating in a brown sauce eaten with black lacquered chop sticks. They sit on the counters in the kitchen with legs dangling or Indian style on the floor using cups for ash trays. They blast music and open windows Like a memorized dialogue the girl hears about Jacques Brel and Lotta Lenya and living in Greenwich Village.
“Do you see what I have going on here? “ the mother says to her friends.
“You drove in, did you see them, it is like an ant hill, and they don’t even speak English, It is a nightmare…. Well I made one friend” And with that the mother would flop into a chair and pick at the stuffing leaking from a tear in the upholstery.
The mother savored hating the community, delicacies served up in Waterford bowls, relished (just a small bite) hating Chassidim, and without expanding on it—just plain hated the grandparents and the father and maybe the children. Not the littlest baby named Freda, which means happy. The mother refused to call the baby by her name and cooed to her in French. The baby smiles and smiles a world of smiles, soap bubbles of smiles.
What sent it all careening out of control and over the cliff was the day at the dress store on Rt 59. The mother went in and bought Mrs. Leiber crinolines and petticoats. In fact after looking through the racks, she took the whole new Fall line, piled them on the counter told the lady at the cash register to have them delivered to Mrs. Leiber, as a gift. She then asked for a card to enclose. The lady at the counter looked over the huge pile at the mother with an expression of confusion. “These aren’t your size.” The woman said. The girl recognized her as the mother of a classmate. A comet streaking past the mother flashed her a fierce and haughty look. “I told you to pack them and deliver them, and if you must know they are a gift of love for my lover. So nosy, why are you so nosy” It will be this look that caused the woman at the counter to recoil. To turn instantly away from the grey cash register and, to reach for the phone the moment the door closed behind the mother. The woman at the counter made three well-placed calls. She calls the Rav in the shul off Rt. 45, she calls the principal of the school, who was the brother of the Rabbi of the shul off Rt 45, she calls her own husband to come and pick her up—right away.
In the car the mother slaps the girl across the face, even though the girl has said nothing. The mother drives the girl home and leaves her at the end of the driveway and then turns the car around. The girl watches as the car snakes back down Viola Rd. The men are out walking with the boys, the street begins to fill. The girl runs into the house. There is no mother, no father. The babies are flushed from screaming and their hair is matted with sweat and dirt to their heads. The girl takes a bag of frozen peas and sprinkles it into the cribs for the babies to pick up and eat. By this point they were greedy and smelled. She remembers that Freda needs a bottle, that she props up for her by wedging it between the crib slats—like a water bottle in a gerbil cage. They pull and strained against being lifted. There are no diapers. The mother, a rogue pigeon escaped from the cote, did not return. The girl ate raw meat because she has been warned never to go near the stove with her long hair. The first few days the girl imagined that they were like a land-locked Robinson Crusoe, on an adventure. She felt safe in the house during the day, at night each tap of a branch against a window sent ribbons of fear through her. After a few days, the days got bad too.
[Please check in tomorrow for the final installment!]