Anne’s husband, Barry, had fucked someone else. It wasn’t a one-time thing either. He’d been with the same women through Anne’s late pregnancy and early motherhood. He and his woman were both teachers at the local high school. Barry would tell Anne that he’d be staying late after school. Then, he and his satisfaction would head to a hotel instead. Anne would cook herself tea and put Barry’s up for him. He’d come back, tell Anne about his day at school and eat his tea. Just like the nights he would finish at normal time.
A few years after the affair, a friend of Anne’s, Marcy, asked if she could come round to Anne’s for a chat, tea and cakes. Anne thought it would have been about her having a child, there was some talk of it a few weeks before. But Marcy had been told about Barry’s affair. The chat had started with Anne asking about Marcy and her husband and general everyday goings-on. Anne could see Marcy was uneasy. She fidgeted, she stroked the edge of her tea cup and the manner of her replies were unconfident and lacking in detail.
“What’s up?” Anne asks, leaning forward and putting her cup on the coffee table.
“Do you remember your pregnancy well?”
“Of course. Not only was it great having something growing in me but that’s the best I’ve looked. Ever. I haven’t found anything that makes me look like that,” Anne says.
“I remember you looking great. I’m looking forward to that. And the baby, of course.”
“So you’re pregnant?”
“Not yet,” Marcy replies. She puts her cup on the coffee table and slides her bracelet back to her wrist from her forearm. Marcy tells Anne everything she knew about Barry’s affair: the what, where and who. Anne starts to pick the nail varnish off her nails.
As Marcy finishes, she tells Anne that the why is something she needs to find out. Shuffling across, she puts her arm around her shoulder and pulls her close, “The truth of the why can only come from Barry.”
Marcy offered to stay and be there for when Barry got back. Anne told her it wasn’t necessary. Then, Marcy leaves. Anne struggles to keep herself occupied until Barry gets back. Hannah helps somewhat, pestering her mum to help her colour in her colouring book.
Barry walks in and Hannah greets him with an embrace. They exchange talk about how they were and how their days had been. Anne sits on the sofa putting lip gloss on. She rolls her lips together as she puts the lip gloss away. Hannah pulls her Dad to go up the stairs to show her days colouring.
“You go on. Daddy will be up in a sec,” Anne says.
Hannah bundles up the stairs. Barry leans his briefcase beside the sofa and sits next to Anne.
“What’s up?” Barry asks.
Anne tells Barry everything Marcy had been told. She never raises her voice or throws her arms about. Barry sits back in the seat and absorbs it all. His eyes skirt around Anne and he says nothing.
“Why did you do it?” Anne asks.
“I just needed something else in that moment. Not the mother of my child.” He winces as he speaks.
“And what’s stopping you from wanting that something else again?”
“Hannah. The idea of having a baby was far less appealing than actually having one. That’s why I wanted to leave and why I stayed.”
Anne puts her hand to her lips. A shimmery patch was left on her hand.
“Raising a child with you made me fall in love again. The second time felt more adult and more real.”
“I don’t think I can do any more at the moment. You can have the sofa for a while,” Anne stands and heads up stairs.
Anne sits at the dresser. It’s a white furnished dresser with an illuminated mirror. She runs her fingers along her cheeks and then through her hair. Foundation, blusher, eye liner, mascara, eye shadow and lip gloss sit on the dresser. A thick headband is hanging off a hook on the wall beside mirror, she takes it and puts it on. Her eyes become wide and her pale skin taught as her mousy brown hair is strapped back. She stands and pulls the curtain behind the dresser shut, bathing herself in shade. Her pale skin becomes darker. Anne pinches her cheeks. They redden and she smiles. Twisting her head, she admires herself from different angles. Natural, she thinks. The red starts to fade. She watches it go then opens the curtain again. Sitting down, she looks at the foundation and opens it. She smooths it over her face and her skin becomes a few tones lighter than it was in the shade.
A knock on the bedroom doors captures Anne’s interest. Hannah is coming down from her tip toes as she lets go of the handle. She drags a stool into the room. The stool has pink legs and a white, cushioned seat. It takes its place beside Anne. Hannah brings her knee up onto the seat and levers herself up.
“You’ve got jam around your mouth.” Anne takes a tissue from a box on the dresser. She licks it and wipes the jam from Hannah’s mouth.
“What’s next, Mummy?” Hannah asks.
Anne puts her hands together and looks at her make-up collection. “The eyes. What colour do you think I should wear today?”
“That one.” Hannah gets on her knees and reaches across her mum’s dresser for the single disc of green compact power. She tries to undo the case.
“Pass it here,” Anne says. “Good choice, darling.” Anne brushes the green to her upper eyelids. She begins to tell Hannah about the day’s plans as she takes the lid off the eye liner. Her mouth is held open as she draws on the rims of her eyes.
“Is Dad coming with us?” Hannah asks.
She stops drawing and says, “Probably not. It’s the weekend, he won’t want to walk around town.”
“Is Dad okay on the sofa?”
Anne finishes one eye. “His side of the bed is broken. We need to find someone to fix it,” she says.
Hannah looks at her mum’s reflection in the mirror.
Anne’s mouth is open again as she defines her eye. After finishing the second eye, she puts the top on the eye liner and picks up the mascara.
“Do you still love Daddy?” Hannah asks.
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t talk to him.”
Anne pauses. She pushes the brush into the mascara and pulls it out. “Don’t worry about it, sweetie. It’s an adult thing.”
“But it makes me sad.”
Anne looks at Hannah, who’s rubbing her fingers into her palm.
“Come here,” Anne says.
Hannah stands up on the chair and steps across to her mum’s lap. She sits it down and puts her arms around her mum’s neck. Anne wipes her eye with the back of her hand. Eye make-up is smeared across her face.
Anne comes down the stairs taking each step with both feet. Her green heeled-shoes sink into the shaggy carpet. She straightens her white, knitted mini-dress and fixes her hair in the mirror at the bottom of the stairs. Barry is still sitting on the sofa. He has his head back and his eyes closed listening to David Bowie, through headphones, on a tape player. Anne’s movement through the lounge stirs him.
He removes the headphones and asks, “Going out?”
“Yeah,” Anne replies. She opens up her bag on the kitchen table.
Barry wraps the headphones around the tape player and puts them on top of the rolled duvet beside the sofa. “Where are you off?”
Barry stands and plumps the cushions on his seat. “I can come.”
“It’s your day off. I’m sure there’s something on the television.” Anne pulls her purse from the bag. She opens it and checks the amount of money in there.
“Does Hannah want to spend the day with me? I can find something to do.”
“She’s putting her coat and shoes on now.”
Barry nods and adjusts his trousers. He walks through into the kitchen and takes his wallet from beside the fruit bowl. After taking out £10, he offers it to Anne. She looks at it and fiddles with the coins in her purse.
“Take it,” Barry says.
Anne closes up her purse and puts it in her bag.
“This isn’t healthy for any of us, Anne.”
Anne goes to the bottom of the stairs and shouts, “Are you ready, Hannah?”
“Hannah needs both of us. Kids need both of their parents. A father and a mother,” Barry says. He gets his coat from the hall and takes his shoes from the shoe rack in the hall.
Anne watches as Barry puts his coat and shoes on. Hannah comes down the stairs, “Mummy, can you do the zip? Daddy, are you coming?”
“Yeah I am, is that ok?”
Anne kneels and does Hannah’s zip up.
“Yeah!” Hannah says.
“All ready then?” Barry looks from Hannah to Anne. He unlocks the door and Hannah takes his hand.
Anne takes her pearly lip gloss from her bag. She stands at the mirror and applies it. Her pearl lips disappear amongst her skin.
Audrey has already forgotten your name twice. You are outside of the warehouse on the set of Sabrina, snapping at her with your Kodak as she does laps around you on her bike.
Audrey is excitable today, she only stops talking to look at the camera and pose.
‘-it’s funny because you don’t realise how much you enjoy riding a bike until you’re on one. I think I might get a bike and ride around Central Park, are we far from Central park? I probably would only use the bike once. Who knows? Maybe I will get one.’ Audrey takes her feet off the pedals, freewheeling with her legs out to either side of her.
She is the best thing you’ve ever photographed. The kid’s face is so expressive that it naturally contorts in more ways that you’ve ever seen. Each pose is unique, displaying emotions indescribable, like a colour you’ve never seen before. You are quick to snap them up in case she never poses like that ever again, and they are lost to everyone.
The writers from Vogue are keeping their distance while they try to interview her, but she isn’t paying much attention. You figure Audrey is the type that would find it hard to keep all of her attention on one thing.
The Vogue people love Audrey, they follow her everywhere. They have been at the last two shoots you did, giving her clothes to try on, and harassing you her portraits. They describe her as the ‘sex kitten’s antithesis’.
One of the many questions they yell out at Audrey, causes her to halt her bike.
‘Miss Hepburn, where exactly did you come from?’
‘Not many people know this but I was born in Ixelles. I-X-E-double l-E-S.’
‘It’s true. Gregory Peck said I’m the best thing to leave Belgium since the Germans.’ There’s a few laughs and Audrey is off again. She’s doing larger circles now so she loops around the Vogue people as well as you. ‘My mother was Dutch and my father was English, or was he Irish?’
The admiration you feel towards her isn’t very personal, or physical, more like a Zoologist stumbling upon a new, alien species.
‘Is there a man in your life Miss Hepburn?’
‘Too many, and I wouldn’t complain if a few of them dropped off the face of the Earth.’ Audrey turns her bike and almost collides with Copper walking past. ‘Oops! Morning officer.’ They laugh while the police officer just grins shyly at everyone and goes on his way.
‘Are you a Feminist Miss Hepburn?’
‘I can’t imagine why not. Why wouldn’t a woman want to be a Feminist? The question is, are men ready to be Feminists?’ She is looking at you. ‘What about you, Mark is it? What do you think?’
You are not sure if you want to put her in a cage, or be a fly on the wall so you can watch her for the rest of her life.
This story won a Metro Eireann Writing Award, a short story competition judged by Man Booker Prize-winning author Roddy Doyle.
Caravan of Love
They were New Age Travellers before the phrase even existed. Or what we might now call ‘economic migrants’. To me though, as a ten year-old boy back in 1973, anybody who lived in a caravan was a gypsy. Their camp was set up by the side of our football pitch; three caravans by the footpath that ran along the length of The Green. They’d been there for the past few Saturdays, and I thought it a strange place for them to set up camp. It made more sense to be on the edge of town, closer to the site of the new steel plant where – presumably – there was work to be had for those that wanted it. We all felt the same way about the camp and took our cue from our parents, who’d say things like,
“I see that gypsy camp is still on The Green.”
They managed to convey their disapproval without actually expressing it.
Everything changed, though, when I learnt that Rory lived in one of the caravans.
Rory had been my new best friend since he started school at the beginning of the summer term. His hair was dyed bright orange and cut to look like Ziggy Stardust. Anybody else but Rory would have had their hairstyle beaten out of them in the playground – this was the usual class response to anything that little bit different – but there was something about Rory that warned off the bullies, and this was one of the reasons I was so pleased to have him as my friend. He was from Ireland, though he was born in New York and his ‘real da’ still lived there. His mum had met his ‘new da’ in Ireland. I’d never come across the concept of having more than one dad. Rory told me they were here because his new dad – who was a qualified electrician and had worked in the steel plants of Pittsburgh – was looking for work at the plant. I didn’t know exactly where Pittsburgh was, but I agreed to ask my own dad if he knew of anything going.
My grandma loved Rory – mainly, I think, because she could talk to him about Ireland – and it was through her interest that I learnt most of the things I knew about him. When I saw them together, Rory’s strangeness and otherworldliness seemed to disappear. New York, for example, or travelling in an aeroplane – these were things I could barely imagine at the time. And when Rory casually mentioned the many places he’d been to in Ireland, I recognised them all as part of my grandma’s long distant past. I knew my family were from Ireland, as I knew that more or less all my friends’ families were from Ireland. Father Lennon, our Parish Priest, was from Ireland; all the nuns were from Ireland; and I presumed all our teachers were from Ireland too, though I’m not too sure now about Mr. Pederson – I think he may have been from somewhere in Scandinavia. But hearing my grandma talk about these things made them different somehow, and I wondered for the first time how we’d all come to live in this one place. The idea of all these people, thousands of families, uprooting to live in a different country – in Scunthorpe, even – it had never occurred to me to ask why. This was where we lived and I just accepted that as a given fact.
When I first called for Rory, I stood a safe distance away from the three dogs that guarded the caravans. The dogs were tied to stakes driven deep into the ground, but I wasn’t taking any chances. There were dried splatters of mud on each caravan, thrown by daring boys when the camp appeared to be deserted. Rory must have seen me waiting, because he came out and stood by the dogs.
“They won’t bite,” he said.
He bent to pet one of the dogs and, as this dog jumped up at Rory, I jumped back.
“Sit!” commanded Rory, and the dog sat. The other two dogs started barking out of jealousy and Rory told them to be quiet. If I had any sense or any awareness at all, I’d have noticed the dogs wagging their tails, but I didn’t.
“Would you like to pet them?” Rory asked, trying to put me at my ease. There wasn’t a hope in hell of that happening, but I appreciated the gesture.
I relaxed as we walked away from the caravans and across to the park.
“Are there any other kids in the camp?” I asked.
“You mean kids our age? No, but there are three babies; one of them’s my sister.”
The camp seemed too quiet to have babies inside, but I didn’t know what it was like to have a baby sister – or a baby anything, for that matter.
“What do you do all day?”
“Just play.”“With your sister?”
“No, my sister’s with my ma. I’m there on my own.”
Had he been watching us play football these past few weeks? Building up the nerve to ask us for a game?
“What’s your sister’s name?”
“And where’s your mum – your ma?”
“Out looking for a job.”
“With Jessica?”“Looking for money, then.”
“You mean begging?” I was relentless.
“It’s easier if you have a baby,” he said.
I met Rory’s mum – Alice – on the day we went picking peas. Rory had told me there was good money to be made, that the previous Saturday he’d made thirty pence. This was three times the amount of my weekly pocket money, and more than I ever got for serving Mass at weddings and funerals.
“It’s hard work, though,” he said.
I had to be at Rory’s caravan for six in the morning, so I asked my dad to wake me before he went to work. I ate some cereal and packed a sandwich and a drink in the duffel bag I used for football at school; I had to take out my boots and empty out the clumps of dried mud and grass into the sink. I made it to the caravan on time, but first I had to get past those dogs.
“Give me your bike,” said Rory. He took my pushbike and leant it against his caravan. He ordered all three dogs to sit and be quiet. “Now, hold out your hand in front of you – like this.” Rory hung his arm limply, with back of his hand held out to the dog closest to us. “He just wants to smell you,” he said. “Once he knows you, you’ll be fine.”
I wasn’t a doggy person, never having had pets at home. To me they were just a threat, out to do me harm. But even I could see this dog was happy to see me, and I was fairly confident that Rory now had it under control. The dog inched forward to sniff the back of my hand.
“Now, move your hand along the side of his mouth and stroke him behind the ears.”
It was the mouth that I was worried about – or at least the teeth inside – but I found myself stroking the dog, bringing my other hand round to the other ear, and even bending down to say hello. Of course, given this encouragement, the dog jumped up to rest his paws on my chest and the other dogs started barking again out of jealousy.
“Tell him to sit,” said Rory.
“Sit,” I tried and the dog sat.
“They’re just excited. You’d best say hello to the other two.”
“What are their names?”
“This one’s Jack, and that’s Suzie and Bob. Suzie’s Bob’s mum.”
“And is Jack the dad?”
“No, Jack wasn’t around before Bob was born.”
“Do they know their names?”
“Sure – try them.”
I did so, and each dog in turn responded by lifting an ear and wagging their tail.
“Are you guys coming inside?”
I looked up and saw a young woman, standing by the open door of the caravan.
“Hi, I’m Alice,” she said, in an unmistakeably American accent. Now I’m older, I know it to have been a New York accent – or, more specifically, a Brooklyn accent – but at the time all I heard was America. “So this is the famous Bernard, is it?”
I didn’t know if she was asking me a direct question, or talking to Rory whilst looking at me, so I just stood there and said nothing. She was wearing a short dress and holding a baby on her hip. I thought she must be a woman from one of the other caravans, that there might be more Americans here; it certainly didn’t occur to me that this might be Rory’s mother.
“Come on inside,” she said, and held the door open for first Rory and then for me to duck beneath her arms and into the caravan. My face felt hot as I walked past her.
I don’t know what I’d expected – maybe some gypsy gold or jewels – but inside it was small and pretty mundane. It was simply a caravan, cramped and confined, with a box of cereal and milk and dirty bowls on the lean-to table. It was crowded in there too, because there were two grown men sat drinking tea at the table. They looked identical to each other; either that or I hadn’t looked properly. They had dark skin – not black, because I didn’t see my first black man until later that year – and they were kind of wiry. They looked tough, and I figured that Rory had picked up some of this same toughness. I wandered if this might not be Rory’s caravan after all, though I was pretty sure this was the one he always appeared from. Was one of these guys his dad? Were they both his dad? Had his real dad come from America, and might there be trouble? Or did Rory live in some sort of hippy commune? I’d heard about these, with people swapping partners and practicing free love.
I was introduced to the men, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at them. They stood up and one of them bent down to kiss Alice; he kissed the baby too and made to ruffle his hand through Rory’s hair. Rory dodged out the way and the man laughed; like he knew it was off limits to touch the Ziggy haircut but enjoyed trying anyway.
“We’d best get going,” he said.
The baby – Rory’s sister, Jessica, I guessed – had started to make a fuss and wriggle around on Alice’s hip. I’d never really seen a baby up close before; she didn’t look very happy, and I could see she was about to cry. Alice kind of bobbed her up and down, but it didn’t seem to be doing any good. Rory picked up the dirty dishes and moved them over to the tiny sink area.
I asked Alice if she wanted anything doing. She laughed and called me a sweetie, the first time I’d ever heard that expression.
“No,” she said, “I just need to change the baby and put on some warm clothes before we go.”
“Are you Rory’s mum?” I asked.
“Why yes, sweetie – who did you think I might be?”
Alice opened a cupboard above the sink and put away the cereal box. I wanted to help but the best I could do was to stay out the way. I felt awkward, but Rory and Alice seemed well used to the restricted space. Rory reached across me for a towel and spread it out across the table. Alice gently lowered Jessica on to the towel.
“Come on,” said Rory. “You don’t want to see this.”
It wasn’t the baby-changing I was looking at; I could see to the tops of Alice’s legs from the way she was bent over the table.
Rory opened the door of the caravan and we stepped outside.
“Let’s get going,” he said. “We have to walk down to the bottom of Queensway.”
I asked Rory about leaving my pushbike unlocked and out in the open, but he said it would be safe.
“What do you think the dogs are for?” he asked.
We set off walking down the path that ran along the side of the road. When Alice caught up with us, she was wearing jeans and a big woolly sweater; my mum never wore jeans.
“Have you a jacket or something, sweetie,” Alice asked. “It gets cold on the back of that truck.”
I showed her the jacket I had in my bag.
There were five of us: Rory and myself, Alice, Rory’s dad and the man I figured to be Rory’s dad’s brother – his uncle, I guess you’d call him. I didn’t know their names because I hadn’t listened when Alice first told me; besides, I didn’t know whether I should call them by their first names or not. They all seemed closer in age to Rory and me than to my own parents; they were adults but it didn’t feel like I was in the company of grown-ups. I wondered what it was like for Rory to have such young parents, and if his real dad in America was as young as Alice seemed to be.
“Where’s Jessica?” I asked Rory.
“She’s staying with the others so my ma can come. They take turns to look after the babies.”
Again, this sounded pretty strange to me – hippy shit, as my brother Ritchie might have said – but I believe now that Alice came along that Saturday to look after us two boys. I had to ask Rory something else that had been bothering me.
“Do you not have a car?”
This wasn’t as tactless as it might seem – how else had they got the caravans here from Ireland?
“We had to sell it,” said Rory. “We needed the money.”
“So how will you ever move the caravans from The Green?”
“When my da finds a job we can get a new car. Or we’ll live in a house so we won’t need the caravans any more.”
I saw Alice look at Rory and smile, like she was proud of him.
A crowd of about thirty or so people stood waiting in a lay-by, just before the roundabout at the end of Queensway. The new steel plant was only a few hundred yards away, and it was obviously already in use. There were no other kids waiting to get picked up for work; if Rory hadn’t been the week before, I’d have guessed what was happening here was for adults only. There was no one particular type of person at the lay-by, and I’m not sure I’d have noticed anyway – my mind just didn’t work in that way. It’s difficult to think of this scene today without relating it somehow to Mexican labour gangs in the southern United States but, again, race was something that hadn’t yet entered my consciousness. I knew nothing of such things at that age and for me it was just an adventure, a day out and a break from my normal Saturday routine. I presumed everyone was there for the same reason as me: to earn some extra pocket money.
We climbed up and piled into the back of the flat-bottomed truck that drove us out to the Lincolnshire countryside. I couldn’t tell you where we went. It took over an hour to get there and my bum was both numb and sore by the time we arrived. It was cold, as Alice had said it would be, and we sat wedged against each other for warmth and so we wouldn’t get thrown around by the truck. I was stiff when I jumped down and realised I had no idea what picking peas might entail. We lined up and were handed an empty sack. I stuck close to Rory and Alice and followed them out into the field.
“What do we do?” I asked Rory.
“I’ll show you.”
We were each allotted a row of plants and I made sure I was in the row next to Rory. He showed me how and where to pull the pods of peas off each plant. The pods went into the sack and Rory moved on to the next plant.
“When you’ve filled the sack, you take it to the van over there and they give you a ticket. At the end of the day, you get ten pence for every ticket.”
“So you picked three sacks last week?”
I thought I could do better than that but it was hard work – and boring too. After an hour or so, I still hadn’t filled one sack and I was falling way behind all the other pickers. Alice, who was in the next row along, picked from my row for a while and in this way I was able to at least catch up with Rory.
“It’s hard,” I said to Rory.
“You’ll get used to it.”
My technique did improve, but I was so tired I couldn’t increase my speed. My back hurt from bending over and after a while I copied Rory and just knelt down in the soil. At this rate, I’d be lucky to complete one row of peas by the end of the day. The field we were in seemed endless. Alice helped me out again, so at least the three of us were stragglers together. I looked up and I could see pickers who were way off into the distance, or carrying full sacks back to the van, or starting new rows with empty sacks. Rory’s dad was one of these and I saw he was using a knife to cut off the pods – three slashes of the knife and he had a plant stripped. He and his brother were by far the fastest of the pickers and I watched for a while, unashamedly impressed. Alice finished her first sack and took it back to the van. When she came back with her empty sack, she smiled and I got back to work. I noticed she was wearing Levi Strauss jeans and I added this to the many things I couldn’t figure out about Rory’s family: how could you have so little money and still afford a pair of Levi’s? But then I thought: maybe Levi’s are cheap in America?
I sat and rested with Rory once we’d each finished our first sack. We had to help each other take the sacks to the van and once we got back we were far behind Alice; some of the other pickers were level with us on their second or third row. I was about a quarter of my way along the row and I estimated that by the end of the day I might just about reach the end. If Rory had managed three sacks last week, I should at least be able to do the same. We weren’t so obviously behind everybody else now because pickers were starting fresh rows, and I began to view the completion of the row as my target for the day.
“I’m starving,” I said. Our bags were back on the truck.
“They break at one o’clock for dinner,” said Rory.
“What time do we finish for the day?”
I was beginning to think my one sandwich wasn’t going to be enough to see me through the day but, as it turned out, Alice had brought plenty of extra food. I was in awe of Rory’s dad as he sat quietly eating his dinner by the side of the truck. He seemed lost in thought and only occasionally looked up at Alice – and at Rory too sometimes – and his brother was similarly quiet. I was so tired; my second sack wasn’t half-full and I couldn’t see how I was going to finish my one row of peas. We went back to work. In the end, as it approached four-thirty, Alice doubled back and helped complete our rows. She emptied the peas she’d picked into our sacks and so Rory and I earned our three tickets and left with thirty pence each in our pockets.
We were all so tired on the way home that most of us just sat there with our eyes closed, giving in to the movement of the truck. Alice sat next to Rory’s dad; she held on to his arm and rested her head on his shoulder. He didn’t shut his eyes and he caught me looking at him, so I pretended to be asleep for the rest of the journey – or maybe I didn’t need to pretend? We were dropped off at the bottom of Queensway and all the pickers went their separate ways. We walked back to the caravans and, when we got there, Rory’s uncle went straight to his own caravan without saying a word. The dogs were naturally excited to see us but, when they started barking, Rory’s dad made to hit out at one of the dogs.
“Da!” shouted Rory, and his dad stopped short of striking the dog. He lent his head back and looked up at the sky. I didn’t know what was happening.
“John,” said Alice.
He looked down at her and took in a deep breath. I think he was close to tears.
“One pound thirty,” he said.
“I know,” said Alice.
“One pound thirty,” he said again, louder this time.
I remember the amount because I knew it meant he’d picked thirteen sacks of peas in one day and I was so impressed.
“Come on,” said Alice. “Let’s get inside.”
I went home. Rory’s dad never found any work at the steel plant and, before the start of the summer holidays, they’d moved on to another town.
Title: “For Bravery On The Field Of Battle”
Author: Thomas Bailey Aldrich [More Titles by Aldrich]
The recruiting-office at Rivermouth was in a small, unpainted, weather- stained building on Anchor Street, not far from the custom-house. The tumble-down shell had long remained tenantless, and now, with its mouse- colored exterior, easily lent itself to its present requirements as a little military mouse-trap. In former years it had been occupied as a thread-and-needle and candy shop by one Dame Trippew. All such petty shops in the town were always kept by old women, and these old women were always styled dames. It is to be lamented that they and their innocent traffic have vanished into the unknown.
The interior of the building, consisting of one room and an attic covered by a lean-to roof, had undergone no change beyond the removal of Dame Trippew’s pathetic stock at the time of her bankruptcy. The narrow counter, painted pea-green and divided in the centre by a swinging gate, still stretched from wall to wall at the farther end of the room, and behind the counter rose a series of small wooden drawers, which now held nothing but a fleeting and inaccurate memory of the lavender, and pennyroyal, and the other sweet herbs that used to be deposited in them. Even the tiny cow-bell, which once served to warn Dame Trippew of the advent of a customer, still hung from a bit of curved iron on the inner side of the street-door, and continued to give out a petulant, spasmodic jingle whenever that door was opened, however cautiously. If the good soul could have returned to the scene of her terrestrial commerce, she might have resumed business at the old stand without making any alterations whatever. Everything remained precisely as she had left it at the instant of her exit. But a wide gulf separated Dame Trippew from the present occupant of the premises. Dame Trippew’s slight figure, with its crisp, snowy cap and apron, and steel-bowed spectacles, had been replaced by the stalwart personage of a sergeant of artillery in the regular army, between whose overhanging red mustache and the faint white down that had of late years come to Dame Trippew’s upper lip, it would have been impossible to establish a parallel. The only things these two might have claimed in common were a slackness of trade and a liking for the aromatic Virginia leaf, though Dame Trippew had taken hers in a dainty idealistic powder, and the sergeant took his in realistic plug through the medium of an aggressive clay pipe.
In spite of the starry shield, supported by two crossed cannon cut out of tin and surmounted by the national bird in the same material, which hung proudly over the transom outside; in spite of the drummer-boy from the fort, who broke the silence into slivers at intervals throughout the day; in brief, in spite of his own martial bearing and smart uniform, the sergeant found trade very slack. At Rivermouth the war with Mexico was not a popular undertaking. If there were any heroic blood left in the old town by the sea, it appeared to be in no hurry to come forward and get itself shed. There were hours in which Sergeant O’Neil despaired of his country. But by degrees the situation brightened, recruits began to come in, and finally the town and the outlying districts–chiefly the outlying districts–managed to furnish a company for the State regiment. One or two prominent citizens had been lured by commissions as officers; but neither of the two Rivermouthians who went in as privates was of the slightest civic importance. One of these men was named James Dutton.
Why on earth James Dutton wanted to go to the war was a puzzle to the few townsfolk who had any intimate acquaintance with the young man. Intimate acquaintance is perhaps too strong a term; for though Button was born in the town and had always lived there, he was more or less a stranger to those who knew him best. Comrades he had, of course, in a manner: the boys with whom he had formerly gone to the public school, and two or three maturer persons whose acquaintance he had contracted later in the way of trade. But with these he could scarcely be said to be intimate. James Dutton’s rather isolated condition was not in consequence of any morbid or uncouth streak in his mental make-up. He was of a shy and gentle nature, and his sedentary occupation had simply let the habit of solitude and unsociability form a shell about him. Dutton was a shoemaker and cobbler, like his father before him, plying his craft in the shabby cottage where he was born and had lived ever since, at the foot of a narrow lane leading down to the river–a lonely, doleful sort of place, enlivened with a bit of shelving sand where an ancient fisherman occasionally came to boil lobsters.
In the open lots facing the unhinged gate was an old relinquished tannery that still flavored the air with decayed hemlock and fir bark, which lay here and there in dull-red patches, killing the grass. The undulations of a colonial graveyard broke tamely against the western base of the house. Head-stones and monuments–if there had ever been any monuments–had melted away. Only tradition and those slowly subsiding wave-like ridges of graves revealed the character of the spot. Within the memory of man nobody had been dropped into that Dead Sea. The Duttons, father and son, had dwelt here nearly twenty-four years. They owned the shanty. The old man was now dead, having laid down his awl and lapstone just a year before the rise of those international complications which resulted in the appearance of Sergeant O’Neil in Rivermouth, where he immediately tacked up the blazoned aegis of the United States over the doorway of Dame Trippew’s little shop.
As has been indicated, the war with Mexico was not looked upon with favor by the inhabitants of Rivermouth, who clearly perceived its underlying motive–the extension of slave territory. The abolition element in the town had instantly been blown to a white heat. Moreover, war in itself, excepting as a defensive measure or on a point of honor, seemed rather poor business to the thrifty Rivermouthians. They were wholly of the opinion of Birdofredom Sawin, that
“Nimepunce a day fer killin’ folks comes kind o’ low fer murder.”
That old Nehemiah Dutton’s son should have any interest one way or the other in the questions involved was inconceivable, and the morning he presented himself at the recruiting-office a strong ripple of surprise ran over the group of idlers that hung day after day around the door of the crazy tenement, drawn thither by the drum-taps and a morbid sense of gunpowder in the air. These idlers were too sharp or too unpatriotic to enlist themselves, but they had unbounded enthusiasm for those who did. After a moment’s hesitation, they cheered Jemmy Dutton handsomely.
On the afternoon of his enlistment, he was met near the post-office by Marcellus Palfrey, the sexton of the Old Brick Church.
“What are you up to, anyhow, Jemmy?” asked Palfrey. “What’s your idee?”
“My idea is,” replied Dutton, “that I’ve never been able to live freely and respectably, as I’ve wanted to live; but I mean to die like a gentleman, when it comes to that.”
“What do you call a gentleman, Jemmy?”
“Well, a man who serves faithfully, and stands by to lay down his life for his duty–he’s a gentleman.”
“That’s so,” said Palfrey. “He needn’t have no silver-plated handles, nor much outside finish, if he’s got a satin linin’. He’s one of God’s men.”
What really sent James Dutton to the war? Had he some unformulated and hitherto unsuspected dream of military glory, or did he have an eye to supposable gold ingots piled up in the sub-basement of the halls of the Montezumas? Was it a case of despised love, or was he simply tired of re-heeling and re-soling the boots of Rivermouth folk; tired to death of the river that twice a day crept up to lap the strip of sandy beach at the foot of Nutter’s Lane; tired to death of being alone, and poor, and aimless? His motive is not positively to be known, only to be guessed at. We shall not trouble ourselves about it. Neither shall the war, which for a moment casts a lurid light on his figure, delay us long. It was a tidy, comfortable little war, not without picturesque aspects. Out of its flame and smoke leaped two or three fine names that dazzled men’s eyes awhile; and among the fortunate was a silent young lieutenant of infantry–a taciturn, but not unamiable young lieutenant–who was afterward destined to give the name of a great general into the keeping of history forever. Wrapped up somewhere in this Mexican war is the material for a brief American epic; but it is not to be unrolled and recited here.
With the departure of Our Country’s Gallant Defenders, as they were loosely denominated by some–the Idiots, as they were compactly described by others–monotony again settled down upon Rivermouth. Sergeant O’Neil’s heraldic emblems disappeared from Anchor Street, and the quick rattle of the tenor drum at five o’clock in the morning no longer disturbed the repose of peace-loving citizens. The tide of battle rolled afar, and its echoes were not of a quality to startle the drowsy old seaport. Indeed, it had little at stake. Only four men had gone from the town proper. One, Captain Kittery, died before reaching the seat of war; one deserted on the way; one, Lieutenant Bangs, was sent home invalided; and only James Dutton was left to represent the land force of his native town. He might as well have died or deserted, for he was promptly forgotten.
From time to time accounts of battles and bombardments were given in the columns of the Rivermouth Barnacle, on which occasions the Stars and Stripes, held in the claws of a spread eagle, decorated the editorial page–a cut which until then had been used only to celebrate the bloodless victories of the ballot. The lists of dead, wounded, and missing were always read with interest or anxiety, as might happen, for one had friends and country acquaintances, if not fellow-townsmen, with the army on the Rio Grande. Meanwhile nobody took the trouble to bestow a thought on James Dutton. He was as remote and shadowy in men’s memories as if he had been killed at Thermopylae or Bunker’s Hill. But one day the name of James Dutton blazed forth in a despatch that electrified the community. At the storming of Chapultepec, Private James Dutton, Company K, Rivermouth, had done a very valorous deed. He had crawled back to a plateau on the heights, from which the American troops had been driven, and had brought off his captain, who had been momentarily stunned by the wind of a round-shot. Not content with that, Private Dutton had returned to the dangerous plateau, and, under a heavy fire, had secured a small field-piece which was about to fall into the hands of the enemy. Later in the day this little howitzer did eminent service. After touching on one or two other minor matters, the despatch remarked, incidentally, that Private James Dutton had had his left leg blown off.
The name of James Dutton was instantly on every lip in town. Citizens who had previously ignored his existence, or really had not been aware of it, were proud of him. The Hon. Jedd Deane said that he had. long regarded James Dutton as a young man of great promise, a–er–most remarkable young person, in short; one of the kind with much–er–latent ability. Postmaster Mugridge observed, with the strong approval of those who heard him, that young Dutton was nobody’s fool, though what especial wisdom Dutton had evinced in having his leg blown off was not clear. Captain Tewksberry, commanding the local militia company, the Rivermouth Tigers, was convinced that no one who had not carefully studied Scott’s Tactics could have brought away that gun under the circumstances. “Here, you will observe, was the exposed flank of the heights; there, behind the chevaux-de-frise, lay the enemy,” etc., etc. Dutton’s former school- fellows began to remember that there had always been something tough and gritty in Jim Dutton. The event was one not to be passed over by Parson Wibird Hawkins, who made a most direct reference to it in his Sunday’s sermon–Job xxxix. 25: “He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.”
After the first burst of local pride and enthusiasm had exhausted itself over young Dutton’s brilliant action, the grim fact connected with young Dutton’s left leg began to occupy the public mind. The despatch had vaguely hinted at amputation, and had stopped there. If his leg had been shot away, was it necessary that the rest of him should be amputated? In the opinion of Schoolmaster Grimshaw, such treatment seemed almost tautological. However, all was presumably over by this time. Had poor Dutton died under the operation? Solicitude on that point was widespread and genuine. Later official intelligence relieved the stress of anxiety. Private Dutton had undergone the operation successfully and with great fortitude; he was doing well, and as soon as it was possible for him to bear transportation he was to be sent home. He had been complimented in the commanding officer’s report of the action to headquarters, and General Winfield Scott had sent Private Dutton a silver medal “for bravery on the field of battle.” If the Government had wanted one or two hundred volunteers from Rivermouth, that week was the week to get them.
Then intervened a long silence touching James Dutton. This meant feverish nights and weary days in hospital, and finally blissful convalescence, when the scent of the orange and magnolia blossoms blown in at the open window seemed to James Dutton a richer recompense than he deserved for his martyrdom. At last he was in condition to be put on board a transport for New Orleans. Thence a man-of-war was to convey him to Rivermouth, where the ship was to be overhauled and have its own wounds doctored.
When it was announced from the fort that the vessel bearing James Dutton had been sighted off the coast and would soon be in the Narrows, the town was thrown into such a glow of excitement as it had not experienced since the day a breathless and bedraggled man on horseback had dashed into Rivermouth with the news that the Sons of Liberty in Boston had pitched the British tea overboard. The hero of Chapultepec–the only hero Rivermouth had had since the colonial period–was coming up the Narrows! It is odd that three fourths of anything should be more estimable than the whole, supposing the whole to be estimable. When James Dutton had all his limbs he was lightly esteemed, and here was Rivermouth about to celebrate a fragment of him.
The normally quiet and unfrequented street leading down to the boat- landing was presently thronged by Rivermouthians–men, women, and children. The arrival of a United States vessel always stirred an emotion in the town. Naval officers were prime favorites in aristocratic circles, and there were few ships in the service that did not count among their blue-jackets one or more men belonging to the port. Thus all sea-worn mariners in Uncle Sam’s employ were sure of both patrician and democratic welcome at Rivermouth. But the present ship contained an especially valuable cargo.
It was a patient and characteristically undemonstrative crowd that assembled on the wharf, a crowd content to wait an hour or more without a murmur after the ship had dropped anchor in midstream for the captain’s gig to be lowered from the davits. The shrill falsetto of the boatswain’s whistle suddenly informed those on shore of what was taking place on the starboard side, and in a few minutes the gig came sweeping across the blue water, with James Dutton seated in the stern-sheets and looking very pale. He sat there, from time to time pulling his blond mustache, evidently embarrassed. A cheer or two rose from the wharf when the eight gleaming blades simultaneously stood upright in air, as if the movement had been performed by some mechanism. The disembarkment followed in dead silence, for the interest was too novel and too intense to express itself noisily. Those nearest to James Dutton pressed forward to shake hands with him, but this ceremony had to be dispensed with as he hobbled on his crutches through the crowd, piloted by Postmaster Mugridge to the hack which stood in waiting at the head of the wharf.
Dutton was driven directly to his own little cottage in Nutter’s Lane, which had been put in order for his occupancy. The small grocery closet had been filled with supplies, the fire had been lighted in the diminutive kitchen stove, and the tea-kettle was twittering on top, like a bird on a bough. The Twombly girls, Priscilla and Mehitabel, had set some pansies and lilacs here and there in blue china mugs, and decorated with greenery the faded daguerreotype of old Nehemiah Dutton, which hung like a slowly dissolving ghost over his ancient shoemaker’s bench. As James Dutton hobbled into the contracted room where he had spent the tedious years of his youth and manhood, he had to lift a hand from one of the crutches to brush away the tears that blinded him. It was so good to be at home again!
That afternoon, Dutton held an informal reception. There was a constant coming and going of persons not in the habit of paying visits in so unfashionable a neighborhood as Nutter’s Lane. Now and then a townsman, conscious that his unimportance did not warrant his unintroduced presence inside, lounged carelessly by the door; and through the rest of the day several small boys turned somersaults and skylarked under the window, or sat in rows on the rail fence opposite the gate. Among others came the Hon. Jedd Deane, with his most pronounced Websterian air–he was always oscillating between the manner of Webster and that of Rufus Choate–to pay his respects to James Dutton, which was considered a great compliment indeed. A few days later, this statesman invited Dutton to dine with him at the ancestral mansion in Mulberry Avenue, in company with Parson Wibird Hawkins, Postmaster Mugridge, and Silas Trefethen, the Collector of the Port. It was intimated that young Dutton had handled himself under this ordeal with as much self-possession and dignity as if he had always dined off colonial china, and had always stirred his after-dinner coffee with a spoon manufactured by Paul Revere.
A motion to give James Dutton a limited public banquet, at which the politicians could have a chance to unfold their eloquence, was discussed and approved by the Board of Selectmen, but subsequently laid on the table, it being reported that Mr. Dutton had declared that he would rather have his other leg blown off than make a speech. This necessarily killed the project, for a reply from him to the chairman’s opening address was a sine qua non.
Life now opened up all sunshine to James Dutton. His personal surroundings were of the humblest, but it was home, sweet, sweet home. One may roam amid palaces–even amid the halls of the Montezumas–yet, after all, one’s own imperfect drain is the best. The very leather- parings and bits of thread that had drifted from the work-bench into the front yard, and seemed to have taken root there like some strange exotic weed, were a delight to him. Dutton’s inability to move about as in former years sometimes irked him, but everything else was pleasant. He resolved to make the best of this one misfortune, since without it he would never have been treated with such kindness and consideration. The constant employment he found at his trade helped him to forget that he had not two legs. A man who is obliged to occupy a cobbler’s bench day after day has no special need of legs at all. Everybody brought jobs to his door, and Dutton had as much work as he could do. At times, indeed, he was forced to decline a commission. He could hardly credit his senses when this occurred.
So life ran very smoothly with him. For the first time in his existence he found himself humming or whistling an accompaniment to the rat-tat- tat of his hammer on the sole-leather. No hour of the twenty-four hung heavily on him. In the rear of the cottage was a bit of ground, perhaps forty feet square, with an old elm in the centre, under which Dutton liked to take his nooning. It was here he used to play years ago, a quiet, dreamy lad, with no companions except the squirrels. A family of them still inhabited the ancient boughs, and it amused him to remember how he once believed that the nimble brown creatures belonged to a tribe of dwarf Indians who might attempt to scalp him with their little knives if they caught him out after dusk. Though his childhood had not been happy, he had reached a bend in the road where to pause and look back was to find the retrospect full of fairy lights and coloring.
Almost every evening one or two old acquaintances, with whom he had not been acquainted, dropped in to chat with him, mainly about the war. He had shared in all the skirmishes and battles from Cerro Gordo and Molino del Rey up to the capture of Chapultepec; and it was something to hear of these matters from one who had been a part of what he saw. It was considered a favor to be allowed to examine at short range that medal “for bravery on the field of battle.” It was a kind of honor “just to heft it,” as somebody said one night. There were visitors upon whom the impression was strong that General Scott had made the medal with his own hands.
James Dutton was ever modest in speaking of his single personal exploit. He guessed he didn’t know what he was doing at the moment when he tumbled the howitzer into the ravine, from which the boys afterward fished it out. “You see, things were anyway up on that plateau. The copper bullets were flying like hailstones, so it didn’t much matter where a fellow went–he was sure to get peppered. Of course the captain couldn’t be left up there–we wanted him for morning parades. Then I happened to see the little field-piece stranded among the chaparral. It was a cursed nice little cannon. It would have been a blighting shame to have lost it.”
“I suppose you didn’t leave your heart down there along with the senoriteers, did you, Jemmy?” inquired a town Lovelace.
“No,” said Dutton, always perfectly matter of fact; “I left my leg.”
Ah, yes; life was very pleasant to him in those days!
Not only kindnesses, but honors were showered upon him. Parson Wibird Hawkins, in the course of an address before the Rivermouth Historical and Genealogical Society, that winter, paid an eloquent tribute to “the glorious military career of our young townsman”–which was no more than justice; for if a man who has had a limb shot off in battle has not had a touch of glory, then war is an imposition. Whenever a distinguished stranger visited the town, he was not let off without the question, “Are you aware, sir, that we have among us one of the heroes of the late Mexican war?” And then a stroll about town to the various points of historic interest invariably ended at the unpretending doorstep of Dutton’s cottage.
At the celebration of the first Fourth of July following his return from Mexico, James Dutton was pretty nearly, if not quite, the chief feature of the procession, riding in an open barouche immediately behind that of the Governor. The boys would have marched him all by himself if it had been possible to form him into a hollow square. From this day James Dutton, in his faded coat and battered artillery cap, was held an indispensable adjunct to all turnouts of a warlike complexion. Nor was his fame wholly local. Now and then, as time went on, some old comrade of the Army of the Rio Grande, a member perhaps of old Company K, would turn up in Rivermouth for no other apparent purpose than to smoke a pipe or so with Button at his headquarters in Nutter’s Lane. If he sometimes chanced to furnish the caller with a dollar or two of “the sinews of war,” it was nobody’s business. The days on which these visits fell were red-letter days to James Dutton.
It was a proud moment when he found himself one afternoon sitting, at Schoolmaster Grimshaw’s invitation, on the platform in the recitation- room of the Temple Grammar School–sitting on the very platform with the green baize-covered table to which he had many a time marched up sideways to take a feruling. Something of the old awe and apprehension which Master Grimshaw used to inspire crept over him. There were instants when Dutton would have abjectly held out his hand if he had been told to do it. He had been invited to witness the evolutions of the graduating class in history and oratory, and the moisture gathered in his honest blue eyes when a panic-stricken urchin faltered forth–
“We were not many, we who stood
Before the iron sleet that day.”
Dutton listened to it all with unruffled gravity. There was never a more gentle hero, or one with a slighter sense of humor, than the hero of Chapultepec.
Dutton’s lot was now so prosperous as to exclude any disturbing thoughts concerning the future. The idea of applying for a pension never entered his head until the subject was suggested to him by Postmaster Mugridge, a more worldly man, an office-holder himself, with a carefully peeled eye on Government patronage. Dutton then reflected that perhaps a pension would be handy in his old age, when he could not expect to work steadily at his trade, even if he were able to work at all. He looked about him for somebody to manage the affair for him. Lawyer Penhallow undertook the business with alacrity; but the alacrity was all on his side, for there were thousands of yards of red tape to be unrolled at Washington before anything in that sort could be done. At that conservative stage of our national progress, it was not possible for a man to obtain a pension simply because he happened to know the brother of a man who knew another man that had intended to go to the war, and didn’t. Dutton’s claims, too, were seriously complicated by the fact that he had lost his discharge papers; so the matter dragged, and was still dragging when it ceased to be of any importance to anybody.
Whenever James Dutton glanced into the future, it was with a tranquil mind. He pictured himself, should he not fall out of the ranks, a white- haired, possibly a bald-headed old boy, sitting of summer evenings on the doorstep of his shop, and telling stories to the children–the children and grandchildren of his present associates and friends. He would naturally have laid up something by that time; besides, there was his pension. Meanwhile, though he moved in a humble sphere, was not his lot an enviable one? There were long years of pleasant existence to be passed through before he reached the period of old age. Of course that would have its ailments and discomforts, but its compensations, also. It seemed scarcely predictable that the years to come held for him either great sorrows or great felicities: he would never marry, and though he might have to grieve over a fallen comrade here and there, his heart was not to be wrung by the possible death of wife or child. With the tints of the present he painted his simple future, and was content.
Sometimes the experiences of the last few years took on the semblance of a haunting dream; those long marches through a land rich with strange foliage and fruits, the enchanted Southern nights, the life in camp, the roar of battle, and that one bewildering day on the heights of Chapultepec–it all seemed phantasmagoric. But there was his mutilation to assure him of the reality, and there on Anchor Street, growing grayer and more wrinkled every season, stood the little building where he had enlisted. To be sure, the shield was gone from the transom, and the spiders had stretched their reticulated barricades across the entrance; but whenever Dutton hobbled by the place, he could almost see Sergeant O’Neil leaning in an insidious attitude against the door-sill, and smoking his short clay pipe as of old. Yet as time elapsed, this figure also grew indistinct and elusive, like the rest. Possibly–but this is the merest conjecture, and has bearing only on a later period–possibly it may have sometimes occurred to James Dutton, in a vague way, that after all there had been something ironical and sinister in his good fortune. The very circumstance that had lifted him from his obscurity had shut him out from further usefulness in life; his one success had defeated him; he was stranded, and could do no more. If such a reflection ever came to him, no expression of it found a way to his lips.
The weeks turned themselves into months, and the months into years. Perhaps four years had passed by when clouds of a perceptible density began to gather on James Dutton’s bright horizon.
The wisest of poets has told us that custom dulls the edge of appetite. One gets used to everything, even to heroes. James Dutton was beginning to lose the bloom of his novelty. Indeed, he had already lost it. The process had been so gradual, so subtile, in its working, that the final result came upon him like something that had happened suddenly. But this was not the fact. He might have seen it coming, if he had watched. One by one his customers had drifted away from him; his shop was out of the beaten track, and a fashionable boot and shoe establishment, newly sprung up in the business part of the town, had quietly absorbed his patrons. There was no conscious unkindness in this desertion. Thoughtless neglect, all the more bitter by contrast, had followed thoughtless admiration. Admiration and neglect are apt to hunt in couples. Nearly all the customers left on Dutton’s hands had resolved themselves into two collateral classes, those who delayed and those who forgot to pay. That unreached pension, which flitted like an ignis fatuus the instant one got anywhere near it, would have been very handy to have just then. The want of it had come long before old age. Dutton was only twenty-nine. Yet he somehow seemed old. The indoor confinement explained his pallor, but not the deepening lines that recently began to spread themselves fan-like at the corners of his eyes.
Callers at Nutter’s Lane had now become rare birds. The dwindling of his visitors had at first scarcely attracted his notice; it had been so gradual, like the rest. But at last Dutton found himself alone. The old solitude of his youth had re-knitted its shell around him. Now that he was unsustained by the likelihood of some one looking in on him, the evenings, especially the winter evenings, were long to Dutton. Owing to weak eyes, he was unable to read much, and then he was not naturally a reader. He was too proud or too shy to seek the companionship which he might have found at Meeks’s drug-store. Moreover, the society there was not of a kind that pleased him; it had not pleased him in the old days, and now he saw how narrow and poor it was, having had a glimpse of the broad world. The moonlight nights, when he could sit at the window, and look out on the gleaming river and the objects on the farther shore, were bearable. Something seemed always to be going on in the old disused burying-ground; he was positive that on certain nights uncanny figures flitted from dark to dark through a broad intervening belt of silvery moonshine. A busy spot after all these years! But when it was pitch- black outside, he had no resources. His work-bench with its polished concave leather seat, the scanty furniture, and his father’s picture on the wall, grew hateful to him. At an hour when the social life of the town was at its beginning, he would extinguish his melancholy tallow-dip and go to bed, lying awake until long after all the rest of the world slumbered. This lying awake soon became a habit. The slightest sound broke his sleep–the gnawing of a mouse behind the mopboard, or a change in the wind; and then insomnia seized upon him. He lay there listening to the summer breeze among the elms, or to the autumn winds that, sweeping up from the sea, teased his ear with muffled accents of wrecked and drowning men.
The pay for the few jobs which came to him at this juncture was insufficient to supply many of his simple wants. It was sometimes a choice with him between food and fuel. When he was younger, he used to get all the chips and kindling he wanted from Sherburn’s shipyard, three quarters of a mile away. But handicapped as he now was, it was impossible for him to compass that distance over the slippery sidewalk or through the drifted road-bed. During the particular winter here in question, James Dutton was often cold, and oftener hungry–and nobody suspected it.
A word in the ear of Parson Wibird Hawkins, or the Hon. Jedd Deane, or any of the scores of kind-hearted townsfolk, would have changed the situation. But to make known his distress, to appeal for charity, to hold out his hand and be a pauper–that was not in him. From his point of view, if he could have done that, he would not have been the man to rescue his captain on the fiery plateau, and then go back through that hell of musketry to get the mountain howitzer. He was secretly and justly proud of saving his captain’s life and of bringing off that “cursed nice little cannon.” He gloried over it many a time to himself, and often of late took the medal of honor from its imitation-morocco case, and read the inscription by the light of his flickering candle. The embossed silver words seemed to spread a lambent glow over all the squalid little cabin–seemed almost to set it on fire! More than once some irrepressible small boy, prowling at night in the neighborhood and drawn like a moth by the flame of Dutton’s candle, had set his eye to a crack in the door-panel and seen the shoemaker sitting on the edge of his bed with the medal in his hand.
Until within a year or eighteen months, Dutton had regularly attended the Sunday morning service at the Old Brick Church. One service was all he could manage, for it was difficult for him to mount the steep staircase leading to his seat in the gallery. That his attendance slackened and finally ceased altogether, he tried, in his own mind, to attribute to this difficulty, and not to the fact that his best suit had become so threadbare as to make him ashamed; though the congregation now seldom glanced up, as it used to do, at the organ-loft where he sat separated from the choir by a low green curtain. Thus he had on his hands the whole unemployed day, with no break in its monotony; and it often seemed interminable. The Puritan Sabbath as it then existed was not a thing to be trifled with. All temporal affairs were sternly set aside; earth came to a standstill. Dutton, however, conceived the plan of writing down in a little blank-book the events of his life. The task would occupy and divert him, and be no flagrant sin. But there had been no events in his life until the one great event; so his autobiography resolved itself into a single line on the first page– Sept. 13, 1847. Had my leg shot off.
What else was there to record, except a transient gleam of sunshine immediately after his return home, and his present helplessness and isolation?
It was one morning at the close of a particularly bitter December. The river-shore was sheathed in thicker ice than had been known for twenty years. The cold snap, with its freaks among water-pipes and window-glass and straw-bedded roots in front gardens, was a thing that was to be remembered and commented on for twenty years to come. All natural phenomena have a curious attraction for persons who live in small towns and villages. The weathercock on the spire and the barometer on the back piazza are studied as they are not studied by dwellers in cities. A habit of keen observation of trivial matters becomes second nature in rural places. The provincial eye grows as sharp as the woodsman’s. Thus it happened that somebody passing casually through Nutter’s Lane that morning noticed–noticed it as a thing of course, since it was so–that no smoke was coming out of Dutton’s chimney. The observer presently mentioned the fact at the Brick Market up town, and some of the bystanders began wondering if Dutton had overslept himself, or if he were under the weather. Nobody recollected seeing him lately, and nobody recollected not seeing him; a person so seldom in the street as Dutton is not soon missed. Dr. Meeks concluded that he would look in at Nutter’s Lane on the way home with his marketing. The man who had remarked the absence of smoke had now a blurred impression that the shutters of Dutton’s shop-window had not been taken down. It looked as if things were not quite right with him. Two or three persons were going in Dr. Meeks’s direction, so they accompanied him, and turned into Nutter’s Lane with the doctor.
The shop-shutters were still up, and no feather of smoke was curling from the one chimney of Dutton’s little house. Dr. Meeks rapped smartly on the door without bringing a response. After waiting a moment he knocked again, somewhat more heavily, but with like ill success. Then he tried the latch. The door was bolted.
“I think the lad must be sick,” said Dr. Meeks, glancing hurriedly over his shoulder at his companions. “What shall we do?”
“I guess we’d better see if he is,” said a man named Philbrick. “Let me come there,” and without further words Philbrick pressed his full weight against the pine-wood panels. The rusty fastening gave way, and the door flew open. Cold as it was without, a colder breath seemed to issue from the interior. The door opened directly into the main apartment, which was Dutton’s shop and sleeping-place in one. It was a lovely morning, and the sunshine, as if it had caught a glitter from the floating points of ice on the river, poured in through a rear window and flooded the room with gold. James Dutton was lying on his pallet in the farther corner. He was dead. He must have been dead several hours, perhaps two or three days. The medal lay on his breast, from which his right hand had evidently slipped. The down-like frost on the medal was so thick as to make it impossible to distinguish the words–
As I sit working at my back window, I look out on a long row of other people’s back windows; and it is quite impossible for me to help seeing and being interested in my neighbours. There are a good many children in those houses; and though I don’t know one of their names, I know them a great deal better than they think I do. I never spoke a word to any of them, and never expect to do so; yet I have my likes and dislikes among them, and could tell them things that they have said and done, which would astonish them very much, I assure you.
First, the babies,–for there are three: the aristocratic baby, the happy-go-lucky baby, and the forlorn baby. The aristocratic baby lives in a fine, well-furnished room, has a pretty little mamma, who wears white gowns, and pink ribbons in her cap; likewise, a fond young papa, who evidently thinks _this_ the most wonderful baby in Boston. There is a stout, motherly lady, who is the grandma, I fancy, for she is always hovering about ‘the dear’ with cups, blankets, or a gorgeous red worsted bird to amuse it. Baby is a plump, rosy, sweet-faced little creature, always smiling and kissing its hand to the world in general. In its pretty white frocks, with its own little pink or blue ribbons, and its young mamma proudly holding it up to see and be seen, my aristocratic neighbour has an easy life of it, and is evidently one of the little lilies who do nothing but blossom in the sunshine.
The happy-go-lucky baby is just able to toddle; and I seldom pull up my curtain in the morning without seeing him at his window in his yellow flannel night-gown, taking a look at the weather. No matter whether it rains or shines, there he is, smiling and nodding, and looking so merry, that it is evident he has plenty of sunshine bottled up in his own little heart for private use. I depend on seeing him, and feel as if the world was not right until this golden little sun rises to shine upon me. He don’t seem to have any one to take care of him, but trots about all day, and takes care of himself. Sometimes he is up in the chambers with the girl, while she makes beds, and he helps; then he takes a stroll into the parlour, and spins the gay curtain-tassels to his heart’s content; next, he dives into the kitchen (I hope he does not tumble downstairs, but I dare say he wouldn’t mind if he did), and he gets pushed about by all the busy women, as they ‘fly round.’ I rather think it gets too hot for him there about dinner-time; for he often comes out into the yard for a walk at noon, and seems to find endless wonders and delights in the ash barrel, the water-but, two old flower-pots, and a little grass plat, in which he plants a choice variety of articles, in the firm faith they will come up in full bloom. I hope the big spoon and his own red shoe _will_ sprout and appear before any trouble is made about their mysterious disappearance. At night I see a little shadow bobbing about on the curtain, and watch it, till with a parting glimpse at a sleepy face at the window, my small sun sets, and I leave him to his dreams.
The forlorn baby roars all day, and I don’t blame him; for he is trotted, shaken, spanked, and scolded by a very cross nurse, who treats him like a meal bag. I pity that little neighbour, and don’t believe he will stand it long; for I see him double up his tiny fists, and spar away at nothing, as if getting ready for a good tussle with the world by and by, if he lives to try it.
Then the boys,–bless their buttons!–how amusing they are. One young man, aged about ten, keeps hens; and the trials of that boy are really pathetic. The biddies get out every day or two, and fly away all over the neighbourhood, like feathers when you shake a pillow. They cackle and crow, and get up on sheds and fences, and trot down the streets, all at once, and that poor fellow spins round after them like a distracted top. One by one he gets them and comes lugging them back, upside down, in the most undignified attitude, and shuts them up, and hammers away, and thinks they are all safe, and sits down to rest, when a triumphant crow from some neighbouring shed tells him that that rascally black rooster is out again for another promenade. I’m not blood-thirsty; but I really do long for Thanksgiving that my neighbour Henry may find rest for the sole of his foot; for, not till his poultry are safely eaten will he ever know where they are.
Another boy has a circus about once a week, and tries to break his neck jumping through hoops, hanging to a rope by his heels, turning somersaults in the air, and frightening his mother out of her wits by his pranks. I suspect that he has been to see Leotard, and I admire his energy, for he is never discouraged; and, after tumbling flat, half-a-dozen times, he merely rubs his elbows and knees, and then up and takes another.
There is a good, domestic boy, who brushes and curls his three little sisters’ hair every morning, and must do it very gently, for they seem to like it; and I often see them watch at the back gate for him, and clap their hands, and run to meet him, sure of being welcomed as little sisters like to be met by the big brothers whom they love. I respect that virtuous boy.
The naughty boy is very funny; and the running fight he keeps up with the cross cook is as good as a farce. He _is_ a torment, but I think she could tame him, if she took the right way. The other day she wouldn’t let him in because she had washed up her kitchen and his boots were muddy. He wiped them on the grass, but that wouldn’t do; and, after going at her with his head down, like a battering ram, he gave it up, or seemed to; for, the minute she locked the door behind her and came out to take in her clothes, that sly dog whipped up one of the low windows, scrambled in, and danced a hornpipe all over the kitchen, while the fat cook scolded and fumbled for her key, for _she_ couldn’t follow through the window. Of course he was off upstairs by the time she got in; but I’m afraid he had a shaking, for I saw him glowering fiercely as he came out later with a basket, going some ‘confounded errand.’ Occasionally his father brings him out and whips him for some extra bad offence, during which performance he howls dismally; but when he is left sitting despondently and miraculously on an old chair without any seat, he soon cheers up, boos at a strange cat, whistles to his dog,–who is just like him,–or falls back on that standing cure for all the ills that boys are heir to, and whittles vigorously. I know I ought to frown upon this reprehensible young person, and morally close my eyes to his pranks; but I really can’t do it, and am afraid I find this little black sheep the most interesting of the flock.
The girls have tea-parties, make calls, and play mother, of course; and the sisters of the good boy have capital times up in a big nursery, with such large dollies that I can hardly tell which are the babies and which the mammas. One little girl plays about at home with a dirty face, tumbled hair, and an old pinafore on. She won’t be made tidy, and I see her kick and cry when they try to make her neat. Now and then there is a great dressing and curling; and then I see her prancing away in her light boots, smart hat, and pretty dress, looking as fresh as a daisy. But I don’t admire her; for I’ve been behind the scenes, you see, and I know that she likes to be fine rather than neat.
So is the girl who torments her kitty, slaps her sister, and runs away when her mother tells her not to go out of the yard. But the house-wifely little girl who tends the baby, washes the cups, and goes to school early with a sunshiny face and kiss all round, _she_, now, is a neighbour worth having, and I’d put a good mark against her name if I knew it.
I don’t know as it would be proper for me to mention the grown-up people over the way. They go on very much as the children do; for there is the lazy, dandified man, who gets up late, and drinks; the cross man, who swears at the shed-door when it won’t shut; the fatherly man, who sits among his children every evening, and the cheery old man up in the attic, who has a flower in his window, and looks out at the world with very much the same serene smile as my orange-coloured baby.
The women, too, keep house, make calls, and play mother; and some don’t do it well either. The forlorn baby’s mamma never seems to cuddle and comfort him; and some day, when the little fist lies cold and quiet, I’m afraid she’ll wish she had. Then the naughty boy’s mother. I’m very sure, if she put her arms round him sometimes, and smoothed that rough head of his, and spoke to him as only mothers can speak, that it would tame him far better than the scoldings and thrashings: for I know there is a true boy’s heart, warm and tender, somewhere under the jacket that gets dusted so often. As for the fine lady who lets her children do as they can, while she trims her bonnet, or makes panniers, I wouldn’t be introduced to her on any account. But as some might think it was unjustifiable curiosity on my part to see these things, and an actionable offence to speak of them, I won’t mention them.
I sometimes wonder if the kind spirits who feel an interest in mortals ever take a look at us on the shady side which we don’t show the world, seeing the trouble, vanities, and sins which we think no one knows. If they love, pity, or condemn us? What records they keep, and what rewards they prepare for those who are so busy with their work and play that they forget who may be watching their back windows with clearer eyes and truer charity than any inquisitive old lady with a pen in her hand?
When the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser took control of the Suez Canal, threatening Western access to that vital route, an agitated France shifted allegiances, joining forces with Britain and Israel against Egypt. This is a fact neither here nor there, except that during the 1956 Sinai Campaign there were soldiers in the Israeli Army and soldiers in the Egyptian Army who ended up wearing identical French-supplied uniforms to battle.
Not long into the fighting, an Israeli platoon came to rest at a captured Egyptian camp to the east of Bir Gafgafa, in the Sinai Desert. There Private Shimmy Gezer (formerly Shimon Bibberblat, of Warsaw, Poland) sat down to eat at a makeshift outdoor mess. Four armed commandos sat down with him. He grunted. They grunted. Shimmy dug into his lunch.
A squad-mate of Shimmy’s came over to join them. Professor Tendler (who was then only Private Tendler, not yet a professor, and not yet even in possession of a high-school degree) placed the tin cup that he was carrying on the edge of the table, taking care not to spill his tea. Then he took up his gun and shot each of the commandos in the head.
They fell quite neatly. The first two, who had been facing Professor Tendler, tipped back off the bench into the sand. The second pair, who had their backs to the Professor and were still staring open-mouthed at their dead friends, fell face down, the sound of their skulls hitting the table somehow more violent than the report of the gun.
Shocked by the murder of four fellow-soldiers, Shimmy Gezer tackled his friend. To Professor Tendler, who was much bigger than Shimmy, the attack was more startling than threatening. Tendler grabbed hold of Shimmy’s hands while screaming, “Egyptians! Egyptians!” in Hebrew. He was using the same word about the same people in the same desert that had been used thousands of years before. The main difference, if the old stories are to be believed, was that God no longer raised His own fist in the fight.
Professor Tendler quickly managed to contain Shimmy in a bear hug. “Egyptian commandos—confused,” Tendler said, switching to Yiddish. “The enemy. The enemy joined you for lunch.”
Shimmy listened. Shimmy calmed down.
Professor Tendler, thinking the matter was settled, let Shimmy go. As soon as he did, Shimmy swung wildly. He continued attacking, because who cared who those four men were? They were people. They were human beings who had sat down at the wrong table for lunch. They were dead people who had not had to die.
“You could have taken them prisoner,” Shimmy yelled. “Halt!” he screamed in German. “That’s all—halt!” Then, with tears streaming and fists flying, Shimmy said, “You didn’t have to shoot.”
By then Professor Tendler had had enough. He proceeded to beat Shimmy Gezer. He didn’t just defend himself. He didn’t subdue his friend. He flipped Shimmy over, straddled his body, and pounded it down until it was level with the sand. He beat his friend until his friend couldn’t take any more beating, and then he beat him some more. Finally, he climbed off his friend, looked up into the hot sun, and pushed through the crowd of soldiers who had assembled in the minutes since the Egyptians sat down to their fate. Tendler went off to have a smoke.
For those who had come running at the sound of gunfire to find five bodies in the sand, it was the consensus that a pummelled Shimmy Gezer looked to be in the worst condition of the bunch.
At the fruit-and-vegetable stand that Shimmy Gezer eventually opened in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, his son, little Etgar, asked about the story of Professor Tendler again and again. From the time he was six, Etgar had worked the duchan at his father’s side whenever he wasn’t in school. At that age, knowing only a child’s version of the story—that Tendler had done something in one of the wars that upset Etgar’s father, and Etgar’s father had jumped on the man, and the man had (his father never hesitated to admit) beat him up very badly—Etgar couldn’t understand why his father was so nice to the Professor now. Reared, as he was, on the laws of the small family business, Etgar couldn’t grasp why he was forbidden to accept a single lira from Tendler. The Professor got his vegetables free.
After Etgar weighed the tomatoes and the cucumbers, his father would take up the bag, stick in a nice fat eggplant, unasked, and pass it over to Professor Tendler.
“Kach,” his father would say. “Take it. And wish your wife well.”
As Etgar turned nine and ten and eleven, the story began to fill out. He was told about the commandos and the uniforms, about shipping routes and the Suez, and the Americans and the British and the French. He learned about the shots to the head. He learned about all the wars his father had fought in—’73, ’67, ’56, ’48—though Shimmy Gezer still stopped short of the one he’d first been swept up in, the war that ran from 1939 to 1945.
Etgar’s father explained the hazy morality of combat, the split-second decisions, the assessment of threat and response, the nature of percentages and absolutes. Shimmy did his best to make clear to his son that Israelis—in their nation of unfinished borders and unwritten constitution—were trapped in a gray space that was called real life.
In this gray space, he explained, even absolutes could maintain more than one position, reflect more than one truth. “You, too,” he said to his son, “may someday face a decision such as Professor Tendler’s—may you never know from it.” He pointed at the bloody stall across from theirs, pointed at a fish below the mallet, flopping on the block. “God forbid you should have to live with the consequences of decisions, permanent, eternal, that will chase you in your head, turning from this side to that, tossing between wrong and right.”
But Etgar still couldn’t comprehend how his father saw the story to be that of a fish flip-flopping, when it was, in his eyes, only ever about that mallet coming down.
Etgar wasn’t one for the gray. He was a tiny, thoughtful, bucktoothed boy of certainties. And, every Friday when Tendler came by the stand, Etgar would pack up the man’s produce and then run through the story again, searching for black-and-white.
This man had saved his father’s life, but maybe he hadn’t. He’d done what was necessary, but maybe he could have done it another way. And even if the basic schoolyard rule applied in adult life—that a beating delivered earns a beating in return—did it ever justify one as fierce as the beating his father had described? A pummelling so severe that Shimmy, while telling the story, would run Etgar’s fingers along his left cheek, to show him where Professor Tendler had flattened the bone.
Even if the violence had been justified, even if his father didn’t always say, “You must risk your friend’s life, your family’s, your own, you must be willing to die—even to save the life of your enemy—if ever, of two deeds, the humane one may be done,” it was not his father’s act of forgiveness but his kindness that baffled Etgar.
Shimmy would send him running across Agrippas Street to bring back two cups of coffee or two glasses of tea to welcome Professor Tendler, telling Etgar to snatch a good-sized handful of pistachios from Eizenberg’s cart along the way. This treatment his father reserved only for his oldest friends.
And absolutely no one but the war widows got their produce free. Quietly and with dignity, so as to cause these women no shame, Etgar’s father would send them off with fresh fruit and big bags of vegetables, sometimes for years after their losses. He always took care of the young widows. When they protested, he’d say, “You sacrifice, I sacrifice. All in all, what’s a bag of apples?”
“It’s all for one country,” he’d say.
When it came to Professor Tendler, so clear an answer never came.
When Etgar was twelve, his father acknowledged the complexities of Tendler’s tale.
“Do you want to know why I can care for a man who once beat me? Because to a story there is context. There is always context in life.”
“That’s it?” Etgar asked.
At thirteen, he was told a different story. Because at thirteen Etgar was a man.
“You know I was in the war,” Shimmy said to his son. The way he said it Etgar knew that he didn’t mean ’48 or ’56, ’67 or ’73. He did not mean the Jewish wars, in all of which he had fought. He meant the big one. The war that no one in his family but Shimmy had survived, which was also the case for Etgar’s mother. This was why they had taken a new name, Shimmy explained. In the whole world, the Gezers were three.
“Yes,” Etgar said. “I know.”
“Professor Tendler was also in that war,” Shimmy said.
“Yes,” Etgar said.
“It was hard on him,” Shimmy said. “And that is why, why I am always nice.”
Etgar thought. Etgar spoke.
“But you were there, too. You’ve had the same life as him. And you’d never have shot four men, even the enemy, if you could have taken them prisoner, if you could have spared a life. Even if you were in danger, you’d risk—” Etgar’s father smiled, and stopped him.
“Kodem kol,” he said, “a similar life is not a same life. There is a difference.” Here Shimmy’s face turned serious, the lightness gone. “In that first war, in that big war, I was the lucky one,” he said. “In the Shoah, I survived.”
“But he’s here,” Etgar said. “He survived, just the same as you.”
“No,” Etgar’s father said. “He made it through the camps. He walks, he breathes, and he was very close to making it out of Europe alive. But they killed him. After the war, we still lost people. They killed what was left of him in the end.”
For the first time, without Professor Tendler there, without one of Shimmy’s friends from the ghetto who stopped by to talk in Yiddish, without one of the soldier buddies from his unit in the reserves, or one of the kibbutzniks from whom he bought his fruits and his vegetables, Etgar’s father sent Etgar across Agrippas Street to get two glasses of tea. One for Etgar and one for him.
“Hurry,” Shimmy said, sending Etgar off with a slap on his behind. Before Etgar had taken a step, his father grabbed his collar and popped open the register, handing him a brand-new ten-shekel bill. “And buy us a nice big bag of seeds from Eizenberg. Tell him to keep the change. You and I, we are going to sit awhile.”
Shimmy took out the second folding chair from behind the register. It would also be the first time that father and son had ever sat down in the store together. Another rule of good business: a customer should always find you standing. Always there’s something you can be doing—sweeping, stacking, polishing apples. The customers will come to a place where there is pride.
This is why Professor Tendler got his tomatoes free, why the sight of the man who beat Shimmy made his gaze go soft with kindness in the way that it did when one of the miskenot came by—why it took on what Etgar called his father’s Free-Fruit-for-Young-Widows eyes. This is the story that Shimmy told Etgar when he felt that his boy was a man:
The first thing Professor Tendler saw when his death camp was liberated was two big, tough American soldiers fainting dead away. The pair (presumably war-hardened) stood before the immense, heretofore unimaginable brutality of modern extermination, frozen, slack-jawed before a mountain of putrid, naked corpses, a hill of men.
And from this pile of broken bodies that had been—prior to the American invasion—set to be burned, a rickety skeletal Tendler stared back. Professor Tendler stared and studied, and when he was sure that those soldiers were not Nazi soldiers he crawled out from his hiding place among the corpses, pushing and shoving those balsa-wood arms and legs aside.
It was this hill of bodies that had protected Tendler day after day. The poor Sonderkommando who dumped the bodies, as well as those who came to cart them to the ovens, knew that the boy was inside. They brought him the crumbs of their crumbs to keep him going. And though it was certain death for these prisoners to protect him, it allowed them a sliver of humanity in their inhuman jobs. This was what Shimmy was trying to explain to his son—that these palest shadows of kindness were enough to keep a dead man alive.
When Tendler finally got to his feet, straightening his body out, when the corpse that was Professor Tendler at age thirteen—“your age”—came crawling from that nightmare, he looked at the two Yankee soldiers, who looked at him and then hit the ground with a thud.
Professor Tendler had already seen so much in life that this was not worth even a pause, and so he walked on. He walked on naked through the gates of the camp, walked on until he got some food and some clothes, walked on until he had shoes and then a coat. He walked on until he had a little bread and a potato in his pocket—a surplus.
Soon there was also in that pocket a cigarette and then a second; a coin and then a second. Surviving in this way, Tendler walked across borders until he was able to stand straight and tall, until he showed up in his childhood town in a matching suit of clothes, with a few bills in his pocket and, in his waistband, a six-shooter with five bullets chambered, in order to protect himself during the nights that he slept by the side of the road.
Professor Tendler was expecting no surprises, no reunions. He’d seen his mother killed in front of him, his father, his three sisters, his grandparents, and, after some months in the camp, the two boys that he knew from back home.
But home—that was the thing he held on to. Maybe his house was still there, and his bed. Maybe the cow was still giving milk, and the goats still chewing garbage, and his dog still barking at the chickens as before. And maybe his other family—the nurse at whose breast he had become strong (before weakened), her husband who had farmed his father’s field, and their son (his age), and another (two years younger), boys with whom he had played like a brother—maybe this family was still there waiting. Waiting for him to come home.
Tendler could make a new family in that house. He could call every child he might one day have by his dead loved ones’ names.
The town looked as it had when he’d left. The streets were his streets, the linden trees in the square taller but laid out as before. And, when Tendler turned down the dirt road that led to his gate, he fought to keep himself from running, and he fought to keep himself from crying, because, after what he had seen, he knew that to survive in this world he must always act like a man.
So Tendler buttoned his coat and walked quietly toward the fence, wishing that he had a hat to take off as he passed through the gate—just the way the man of the house would when coming home to what was his.
But when he saw her in the yard—when he saw Fanushka his nurse, their maid—the tears came anyway. Tendler popped a precious button from his coat as he ran to her and threw himself into her arms, and he cried for the first time since the trains.
With her husband at her side, Fanushka said to him, “Welcome home, son,” and “Welcome home, child,” and “We prayed,” “We lit candles,” “We dreamed of your return.”
When they asked, “Are your parents also coming? Are your sisters and your grandparents far behind?,” when they asked after all the old neighbors, house by house, Tendler answered, not by metaphor, and not by insinuation. When he knew the fate, he stated it as it was: beaten or starved, shot, cut in half, the front of the head caved in. All this he related without feeling—matters, each, of fact. All this he shared before venturing a step through his front door.
Looking through that open door, Tendler decided that he would live with these people as family until he had a family of his own. He would grow old in this house. Free to be free, he would gate himself up again. But it would be his gate, his lock, his world.
A hand on his hand pulled him from his reverie. It was Fanushka talking, a sad smile on her face. “Time to fatten you up,” she said. “A feast for first dinner.” And she grabbed the chicken at her feet and twisted its neck right there in the yard. “Come in,” she said, while the animal twitched. “The master of the house has returned.”
“Just as you left it,” she said. “Only a few of our things.”
Tendler stepped inside.
It was exactly as he remembered it: the table, the chairs, except that all that was personal was gone.
Fanushka’s two sons came in, and Tendler understood what time had done. These boys, fed and housed, warmed and loved, were fully twice his size. He felt, then, something he had never known in the camps, a civilized emotion that would have served no use. Tendler felt ashamed. He turned red, clenched his jaw tight, and felt his gums bleeding into his mouth.
“You have to understand,” Etgar’s father said to his son. “These boys, his brothers, they were now twice his size and strangers to him.”
The boys, prodded, shook hands with Tendler. They did not know him anymore.
“Still, it is a nice story,” Etgar said. “Sad. But also happy. He makes it home to a home. It’s what you always say. Survival, that’s what matters. Surviving to start again.”
Etgar’s father held up a sunflower seed, thinking about this. He cracked it between his front teeth.
“So they are all making a dinner for Professor Tendler,” he said. “And he is sitting on the kitchen floor, legs crossed, as he did when he was a boy, and he is watching. Watching happily, drinking a glass of goat’s milk, still warm. And then the father goes out to slaughter that goat. ‘A feast for dinner,’ he says. ‘A chicken’s not enough.’ Professor Tendler, who has not had meat in years, looks at him, and the father, running a nail along his knife, says, ‘I remember the kosher way.’ ”
Tendler was so happy that he could not bear it. So happy and so sad. And, with the cup of warm milk and the warm feeling, Tendler had to pee. But he didn’t want to move now that he was there with his other mother and, resting on her shoulder, a baby sister. A year and a half old and one curl on the head. A little girl, fat and happy. Fat in the ankle, fat in the wrist.
Professor Tendler rushed out at the last second, out of the warm kitchen, out from under his roof. Professor Tendler, a man whom other men had tried to turn into an animal, did not race to the outhouse. It didn’t cross his mind. He stood right under the kitchen window to smell the kitchen smells, to stay close. And he took a piss. Over the sound of the stream, he heard his nurse lamenting.
He knew what she must be lamenting—the Tendler family destroyed.
He listened to what she was saying. And he heard.
“He will take everything” is what she said. “He will take it all from us—our house, our field. He’ll snatch away all we’ve built and protected, everything that has been—for so long—ours.”
There outside the window, pissing and listening, and also “disassociating,” as Professor Tendler would call it (though he did not then have the word), he knew only that he was watching himself from above, that he could see himself feeling all the disappointment as he felt it, until he was keenly and wildly aware that he had felt nothing all those years, felt nothing when his father and mother were shot, felt nothing while in the camps, nothing, in fact, from the moment he was driven from his home to the moment he returned.
In that instant, Tendler’s guilt was sharper than any sensation he had ever known.
And here, in response to his precocious son, Shimmy said, “Yes, yes, of course it was about survival—Tendler’s way of coping. Of course he’d been feeling all along.” But Tendler—a boy who had stepped over his mother’s body and kept walking—had, for those peasants, opened up.
It was right then, Professor Tendler later told Shimmy, that he became a philosopher.
“He will steal it all away,” Fanushka said. “Everything. He has come for our lives.”
And her son, whom Tendler had considered a brother, said, “No.” And Tendler’s other almost-brother said, “No.”
“We will eat,” Fanushka said. “We will celebrate. And when he sleeps we will kill him.” To one of the sons she said, “Go. Tell your father to keep that knife sharp.” To the other she said, “You get to sleep early, and you get up early, and before you grab the first tit on that cow I want his throat slit. Ours. Ours, not to be taken away.”
Tendler ran. Not toward the street but back toward the outhouse in time to turn around as the kitchen door flew open, in time to smile at the younger brother on his way to find his father, in time for Tendler to be heading back the right way.
“Do you want to hear what was shared at such a dinner?” Shimmy asked his son. “The memories roused and oaths sworn? There was wine, I know. ‘Drink, drink,’ the mother said. There was the chicken and a pot of goat stew. And, in a time of great deprivation, there was also sugar for the tea.” At this, Shimmy pointed at the bounty of their stand. “And, as if nothing, next to the baby’s basket on the kitchen floor sat a basket of apples. Tendler hadn’t had an apple in who knows how long.”
Tendler brought the basket to the table. The family laughed as he peeled the apples with a knife, first eating the peels, then the flesh, and savoring even the seeds and the cores. It was a celebration, a joyous night. So much so that Professor Tendler could not by its end, belly distended, eyes crossed with drink, believe what he knew to have been said.
There were hugs and there were kisses, and Tendler—the master of the house—was given his parents’ bedroom upstairs, the two boys across the hall, and below, in the kitchen (“It will be warmest”), slept the mother and the father and the fat-ankled girl.
“Sleep well,” Fanushka said. “Welcome home, my son.” And, sweetly, she kissed Tendler on both eyes.
Tendler climbed the stairs. He took off his suit and went to bed. And that was where he was when Fanushka popped through the door and asked him if he was warm enough, if he needed a lamp by which to read.
“No, thank you,” he said.
“So formal? No thanks necessary,” Fanushka said. “Only ‘Yes, Mother,’ or ‘No, Mother,’ my poor reclaimed orphan son.”
“No light, Mother,” Tendler said, and Fanushka closed the door.
Tendler got out of bed. He put on his suit. Once again without any shame to his actions, Tendler searched the room for anything of value, robbing his own home.
Then he waited. He waited until the house had settled into itself, the last creak slipping from the floorboards as the walls pushed back against the wind. He waited until his mother, his Fanushka, must surely sleep, until a brother intent on staying up for the night—a brother who had never once fought for his life—convinced himself that it would be all right to close his eyes.
Tendler waited until he, too, had to sleep, and that’s when he tied the laces of his shoes together and hung them over his shoulder. That’s when he took his pillow with one hand and, with the other, quietly cocked his gun.
Then, with goose feathers flying, Tendler moved through the house. A bullet for each brother, one for the father and one for the mother. Tendler fired until he found himself standing in the warmth of the kitchen, one bullet left to protect him on the nights when he would sleep by the side of the road.
That last bullet Tendler left in the fat baby girl, because he did not know from mercy, and did not need to leave another of that family to grow to kill him at some future time.
“He murdered them,” Etgar said. “A murderer.”
“No,” his father told him. “There was no such notion at the time.”
“Even so, it is murder,” Etgar said.
“If it is, then it’s only fair. They killed him first. It was his right.”
“But you always say—”
“But the baby. The girl.”
“The baby is hardest, I admit. But these are questions for the philosopher. These are the theoretical instances put into flesh and blood.”
“But it’s not a question. These people, they are not the ones who murdered his family.”
“They were coming for him that night.”
“He could have escaped. He could have run for the gate when he overheard. He didn’t need to race back toward the outhouse, race to face the brother as he came the other way.”
“Maybe there was no more running in him. Anyway, do you understand ‘an eye for an eye’? Can you imagine a broader meaning of ‘self-defense’?”
“You always forgive him,” Etgar said. “You suffered the same things—but you aren’t that way. You would not have done what he did.”
“It is hard to know what a person would and wouldn’t do in any specific instance. And you, spoiled child, apply the rules of civilization to a boy who had seen only its opposite. Maybe the fault for those deaths lies in a system designed for the killing of Tendlers that failed to do its job. An error, a slip that allowed a Tendler, no longer fit, back loose in the world.”
“Is that what you think?”
“It’s what I ask. And I ask you, my Etgar, what you would have done if you were Tendler that night?”
“Then you die.”
“Only the grownups.”
“But it was a boy who was sent to cut Tendler’s throat.”
“How about killing only those who would do harm?”
“Still it’s murder. Still it is killing people who have yet to act, murdering them in their sleep.”
“I guess,” Etgar said. “I can see how they deserved it, the four. How I might, if I were him, have killed them.”
Shimmy shook his head, looking sad.
“And whoever are we, my son, to decide who should die?”
It was on that day that Etgar Gezer became a philosopher himself. Not in the manner of Professor Tendler, who taught theories up at the university on the mountain, but, like his father, practical and concrete. Etgar would not finish high school or go to college, and, except for his three years in the Army, he would spend his life—happily—working the stand in the shuk. He’d stack the fruit into pyramids and contemplate weighty questions with a seriousness of thought. And when there were answers Etgar would try employing them to make for himself and others, in whatever small way, a better life.
It was on that day, too, that Etgar decided Professor Tendler was both a murderer and, at the same time, a misken. He believed he understood how and why Professor Tendler had come to kill that peasant family, and how men sent to battle in uniform—even in the same uniform—would find no mercy at his hand. Etgar also came to see how Tendler’s story could just as easily have ended for the Professor that first night, back in his parents’ room, in his parents’ bed, a gun with four bullets held in a suicide’s hand—how the first bullet Tendler ever fired might have been into his own head.
Still, every Friday Etgar packed up Tendler’s fruit and vegetables. And in that bag Etgar would add, when he had them, a pineapple or a few fat mangos dripping honey. Handing it to Tendler, Etgar would say, “Kach, Professor. Take it.” This, even after his father had died.
Jeremy lived out on Coney Island with his mother, father, and sister Cleo. He’d inhaled the smell of the ocean since the day he was born, and there was nothing in the world he liked better than to go for a walk on the beach.
Rain or shine, Jeremy hit the beach every day. He watched ships in the distance, listened to the waves, buoy-bells and foghorns, felt the sand and water on his feet and dreamed about sailing. Beach walks always made him hungry, and what Jeremy liked to eat was fish. In fact, anything that came out of the sea was just fine.
One day, after a particularly excellent walk, during the course of which he’d seen a three-masted schooner go by and a horseshoe crab wandering around at the shoreline, Jeremy went home and was delighted to see that his mother had bought lobsters for dinner. They were on the kitchen counter, still alive, wriggling their legs and antennae. Jeremy inspected them. He was seriously hungry and wanted to reserve the biggest one for himself. One of the lobsters was quite a bit bigger than the others. Its shell was almost black. Jeremy picked it up and looked into its beady little lobster eyes.
“Hey boss!” the lobster whispered. “Get me out of this jam and I will definitely make it worth your while.”
Jeremy, startled, nearly dropped the lobster.
“Keep your cool, kid. That fat lady over there might be watching us.”
“Hey, that’s my mother,” Jeremy said.
“Oops, sorry. Listen boss…you look smart. Think of something, fast. Get me outta here!”
Jeremy thought fast. He petted the lobster like it was a cat and carried it over to his mother at the stove.
“Mama, this is the most amazingly beautiful lobster I’ve ever seen. Would it be all right if I kept him as a pet and had a sardine sandwich for dinner instead?”
Jeremy’s mother shot him a strange look. “But Jeremy, you love lobster. I got them especially for you.”
“Well, if that’s what you really want, I guess it’s all right.”
“Thanks, mom.” Jeremy hustled the lobster out of the kitchen and up to his room.
“Whew,” the lobster said, “that was mighty close. The water in that dirty pot was almost boiling. Boss, you sure are one sharp character, and this is your lucky day, because…I am a magic lobster.”
“That’s right. And you’ve got some wishes coming.”
“Sure, but I’ll need a few things first. Like some water — salt water — in a clear tank, so I can see out. And please, please get these rubber bands off my claws.”
Jeremy rummaged around the house until he found a decent-sized clear plastic tub. He filled it with water and sea salt and put the lobster in.
“Brrr. Hey, this water’s cold, kid. Go get me some warm water, fast!”
“You sure are fussy,” Jeremy said. “I thought you lobsters didn’t like hot water.”
“Did I say hot? Warm, kid. Think vacation in Florida.”
Jeremy fetched warm water. Then he had to sit through dinner eating a sardine sandwich while everyone else devoured lobsters with home-made mayonnaise.
Before going to bed that night, Jeremy leaned over the plastic tank on his table. The lobster seemed to be taking a little snooze.
“Hey!” Jeremy said. “I’ve thought up a wish. How does this work?”
“Hunh? Oh, yeah…uhm, tell me…what’re you gonna wish for?”
“What I’ve really always wanted is a sailboat. Nothing too big, maybe a yawl. I’d paint her green and red and call her The Green Dolphin. I want to sail around the world, see the southern constellations, weather storms, ride out monster waves, catch fish, mend ropes, get some tattoos, smoke a pipe and play the accordion.”
“Whoa, kid. Try to keep it simple. Here’s the deal…you want a sailboat? OK, go to sleep now and dream of that sailboat. Then, with the magical power granted me by Neptune, I’ll have it out there waiting for you just off the beach in the morning. Green and red, just like you said.”
Jeremy dreamt of the Green Dolphin all night long.
Early the next morning, Jeremy raced out onto the beach, expecting to see his new sailboat fully rigged and ready to ply the bounding main. What he saw instead were some tar-stained plastic bottles bobbing in the low tide and some dead jellyfish on the sand.
When he got home from school, Jeremy sat down to have a talk with the lobster.
“Uh, to tell you the truth, kid, you forgot to feed me last night. I’d like to see you conjure up a whole sailboat on an empty stomach.”
“OK, OK,” Jeremy said. “Let’s see, I read somewhere that lobsters eat little fish, barnacles and seaweed, is that right?”
“Well yeah, kid. Usually that kind of stuff is all right, but a nice hamburger, rare, with some smoked oysters and spinach and maybe an eye-dropperful of your daddy’s best whiskey…that’d make me feel highly magical, if you know what I mean.”
“Yeah,” Jeremy said. “I guess so.”
Jeremy got all the stuff for the lobster’s dinner, then watched him eat it. Wasn’t a pretty sight.
“Ah, delicious! Now, what was it you were wishing for again?”
“A sailboat. Something with two masts, painted green and red.”
“Oh yeah…listen kid, why don’t we start out with something a little smaller? See, I haven’t done this for a while.”
“You know: a navigational instrument, made of brass, with lenses and a mirror, used to gauge the angle of the sun at noon, or the other stars at night. I got a book about how to use a sextant from the library, but they’re expensive and I don’t think my parents would buy me one.”
“How big is one of these six-shooter things?”
“Sextant. Not too big. Like a camera, I guess.”
“All right, you got it! Now let’s get some shut-eye, huh? Remember, dream about that saxophone you want and it’ll be here when you awake, all shiny and new.”
Jeremy woke up excited and anxious to go out on the beach to take a reading of the sun with his new sextant, but he couldn’t find the thing anywhere. He tapped on the lobster’s tank and woke him up. “Hey,” Jeremy said. “Where is it?”
“Where’s what, kid? You’re bothering me.”
“The sextant I wished for.”
“Oh…listen, kid, I tried real hard, honest. But I couldn’t work my magic because I was…’cause I was lonely.”
“I didn’t know lobsters got lonely.”
“Sure we do, same as anyone. Here’s what you do…there’s gotta be a fish store here in the neighborhood, right? Well, you go on in there and tell the nice man you want the prettiest little female-type lobsterette he’s got. Tell him to make her about two pounds, with long hind legs, a fan-shaped tail and dainty claws with rubber bands on ’em. You got that, kid?”
“Yeah, I got it.”
So Jeremy broke his piggy bank and spent his savings on a blue-shelled female lobster, the prettiest one in the whole fish store, according to the fishmonger. The magic lobster seemed highly pleased with her. He winked his beady eyes, clicked his claws and smoothed back his antennae.
“Ooh-la-la! Nice work, kid. She’s gorgeous. You drop her right on in here and then go get us something to eat.”
“Then will you get me a sextant?”
“Well, let’s talk about that, kid. See, a sexton’s kinda complicated. I couldn’t quite get it to look right. Maybe you ought to wish for something simpler.”
“All right. How about a ship’s whistle, on a rope lanyard? Then I could at least pretend I was about to board a sailboat for a round-the-world voyage. Can you manage that?”
“Sure kid, sure. Ship’s whistle. Nothing could be simpler. Now get lost for a while. Me and this nice-lookin’ lady got to get acquainted.”
Strange noises from the lobster tank kept Jeremy awake most of the night.
Next morning there was no trace of a ship’s whistle anywhere in the house.
Jeremy got angry. “Hey, where’s the whistle I wished for? You said it was easy. Are you sure you’re a magic lobster?”
“Huh? Sure I am, kid. Of course I am. I just forgot to tell you…I need some magic clothes. You know, a silk top hat and cape and a black cane with a white knob on the end that I can use as a magic wand. What do you expect me to do, unless I got the right outfit? Besides, I gotta look sharp for my new girlfriend here…”
Jeremy put on his jacket, pulled the magic lobster out of the tank and headed for the beach.
“Hey kid, what’s going on? You sore? Just say so. I’ll try to work a little harder, I swear. You’re not going to sell me to some restaurant, are you?”
Jeremy didn’t answer. He walked down to the beach and out onto the long pier. The lobster began to shake in terror.
“I’m throwing you back where you belong. You’re no magic lobster.”
“Aw, don’t do that, kid. It’s murder out there. Nothing but other fish trying to eat me and fishermen in boats trying to catch me in a trap. It’s cold and dark and it’s tough to find food. Besides, I am too magic. I can talk, can’t I?”
“Yeah, but you’re just a big liar.”
Jeremy threw the magic lobster as far as he could. It waved its claws in the air, made a splash and was gone. A few bubbles rose to the surface.
Jeremy kept the female lobster as a pet. Her bright blue shell reminded Jeremy of the sea on a clear day. She didn’t seem to miss the magic lobster much either.