Thursday, September 30, 2010


[Here's the conclusion of B.N.'s story, Still Life with Girl]


By the time the grandmother arrived the house was strewn with trash.  They had eaten raw rice from a box and pasta.  They drank maple syrup.  The grandmother screamed the mother’s name through the house—“Aliza, she yelled the stairs and down into the basement.  The mother was gone.  This was not the first scandal to hit the Village of Ramapo.  There had been the scandal about kosher chicken, one about meat and an entire dairy had been closed by the department of agriculture.  There were scandals that unraveled from 47th street all the way up the Turnpike and the Garden State.  There were the brothers that sold the same lot to five people and then decamped to Jerusalem.  This was different.

On the day the grandmother went to meet the principal she aimed to be prepared. She wore a sky blue dress with a belt that matched, a hat with bright red plastic cherries and a blue band. As support her girlhood friend Rebbitzin Gruner accompanied her, the one who supplied school clothes and shoes, who had some weight in the community.  And who also had if needed, a check book and her husband’s word that tuition would be paid.   She came fully made up, with a wicker handbag and dressed after all not to plead and not to offer an explanation, because she had none, but rather to attempt to assure the girl a place.  Seated in the inner office the first thing the principle said to the grandmother was that he knew for a fact that Mrs. Leiber was in Canada under the care of professionals, resting and making a fine progress and he had no reason to not expect her to return to her family soon. This was not just merely a piece of information passed from one to another in casual conversation, it was an opportunity, a chance, that in fact she had no chance of grasping onto. The grandmother understood this and felt that forgiveness was a wave that hit the shore and quickly went back out to sea.  Finaly with no tone of regret he said the truth was many people knew the story and he had other children to protect and donors to consider.

The mother would call sometimes and demand things—her books, a silver sugar bowl, a worn carpet. The grandmother cleaned the house and parsed through the children.  When she called the grandmother said that she did not know where the things were.  The boy sent to other relatives with money who could raise and educate a boy and the girl and baby stay with grandmother.  They moved out of the house into a small apartment closer to stores and a new school that would become one of many.  The grandmother made friends with the neighbors in the new neighborhood. She graciously accepted their cooked dishes the week the moved in, the invitations that followed and even the shared duties of watching children play.  The grandmother’s affiliation with Mrs. Gruner also carried freight along with curiosity. Her willingness to converse in Yiddish and to hem a dress here and pants there were well appreciated. The women admired the grandmother’s eye for decorating, for adding small details to a room, a vase, a golden and blue throw pillow.  They admired her upright stance, the fact that each step was measured. The truth was they still eyed the girl at a distance, unsure what she knew, what she had seen, how much she understood. And they after all had their own children to protect.

Once the grandmother took the girl to visit the mother in a house on a lake and there was a small row boat turned upside down next to a small dock.  They walked from the road where the taxi had left them off up a gravel and dirt path, the whole time the grandmother saying, “ How do you find such a place? Who could find such a place.” The girl sat on a lumpy torn couch with her feet dangling across from the mother in a captain’s chair that she recognized.  The mother did not offer anything to eat or drink and did not ask her about school.  The mother just sat and gave the girl a long hard look.  There was another woman there, older than the mother and she stood behind the mother’s chair. The grandmother stood with her back to them staring out a window that looked on to the lake—she said something about the view.  When they left the grandmother turned for an instant, just outside the turn and was about to say, “Please Aliza, please.” But before she could speak the mother looked at her and said “don’t start.” And closed the door.

Invariably they settled into a routine—a poorly mended rag doll family, flopping awkwardly through town.  Those times when the girl offered that she had not been invited to yet another one of her classmates parties, and had been crossed off every possible list real and imagined, and not counted in the tight social tally the grandmother would nod.  She did not offer to comfort or compensation by way of an alternative treat, never saying they would do something themselves that would be just as fun.  Except once the grandmother drew a long breath.  Just then girl wanted to say she hates this town, these people, having to be alone, but she knew if she said that it would sound to like her mother who they never mentioned and just the mere hint of startled the grandmother.  By this point she had matured enough to understand the pairings required in this life.  She could see the line of demarcation drawn, that outer distance, the tree line half way up the mountain, an off limits boundary where nothing could grow, where her mother stood, both hands blowing mock kisses.  The opportunity for return receded into the distance growing smaller and smaller until it was a faint speck. It was that breath taken from the air pocket.

Nobody could see the whole, some reactions expected, predictable, others a variable.   How far the tale traveled and how distorted it may have become and how crudely it may have been interpreted and internalized were random.  By that time the world had not changed and the grandmother bought her a new outfit for the holidays.  It was a white skirt with orange and brown stripes and a matching brown button-down shirt with a collar.  The entire neighborhood had the sukkas out decorated with plastic grapes and construction paper chains.  Across the street from their apartment was a boy’s Yeshiva.  A perfectly square building with a flat roof, a brick flash cube had the largest succah in the parking lot.  The girl never crossed the street to the school’s side except this once when two boys singled to her and shouted in Yiddish,  “ve koift min fish?”  She in fact knew where the fish market was and she crossed the street to point them in the direction.  The parking lot was empty, the school out for the holiday.  It seemed odd that boys would be sent to buy fish so late in the afternoon and in the middle of the vacation week.  These thoughts just skimmed across the surface of her mind. They both wore the identical uniform of black pants and white button shirts, with stiff black shoes. One had his shirttails out and bright red hair.   When she came closer she saw that one was loosening his belt and had his hand in the top of his white underwear and was pulling.  At first the girl though he was retarded, and she was about to tell him kindly but firmly that he can’t undress in public and to go home.  Before she could speak they pulled her behind the school. 

What he was holding had a slightly different complexion than the boy’s pale frecked face, darker, more the color of lips.  One of them circled around her and somehow maneuvered her up against a heavy metal door. When they pushed on her shoulders she slumped to the pavement, with her back against the door.  The redheaded boy’s pants were around his ankles and he landed on top of her and pushed her new sweater up to clear a space on her exposed stomach. Nisht z’vishen der baineh “Not between the legs” the other boy ordered and kept speaking in imperatives hurried speech that she could not understand, firing off commands.  The redheaded one held her arms back and then lunging back and forth against her exposed stomach until she heard a faint grunt and that sigh. On her stomach he left something wet and milky and she suddenly imagined it to be puss from a wound, a terrible disease, a sickness that was killing him and now her.  After, he stood up.  Looked straight at her, and said in perfect English. “Tell your mother.”  How could she explain it?  The skirt for the holiday was ruined from the dirt on the ground and all the leaves that had collected near the door were all over her, all over her.

© 2010
If you'd like to read more poetry & fiction by B.N., you can search the label B.N. writing; you can also read an interview with her here.


  1. It's been a while since I've seen a story that captures ostracism and isolation so completely.

    When I read the first part a few days ago I got the sense that the girl had a still small voice trapped inside her. Some of her voice and thoughts seem to be struggling out in the last couple of sections, just barely. But which person can she talk to? She has slipped almost soundlessly through the cracks, and it's the human impulse to look away. I'm glad this story doesn't look away.

  2. Hi HKatz: I am so glad to see such a thoughtful & perceptive comment--something BN's story really deserves. Thanks so much.


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