I have learned about someone,” my mother said.
My parents rarely spoke during dinner. For both of them, the focus of attention was either the food, eaten intensely and without reflection, or a Yiddish newspaper propped before their plates. There was nothing polite about our table.
A wall of paper separated us. Though I understood the spoken words, I could only stare at the black lettering splattered across the page like smashed insects.
And my eye was always drawn to the gnarled sawed-off stubs of both my father’s index fingers as one hand gripped the newspaper while the other worked the fork.
His body brought to mind his butchered fingers. He was short, broad shouldered, with a wide face and very little neck. Thick, wiry black hair covered his head snugly as a knit cap. His down turned brows clamped his eyes into a perpetually angry squint. Unshaven as he often was, he looked like an ill-tempered bulldog waiting to frighten children.
But on this autumn evening in 1959, my mother filled our plates with soup and followed with words. At first it was Polish and then in the vernacular I understood.
“That is what she said. For years they have lived there.” Her mouth puckered and her brown eyes were indignant. “And nobody told me, not a word.” She took a deep breath and it puffed up the cheeks of her already very round face.
“Maybe it’s not the same one,” my father said.
“How not the same? It’s her, Eva, Eva Perl.” She sat and scowled as if the name were a strange flavor in the soup.
“The woman can be wrong. It could be someone she doesn’t know.”
“She knows. She belongs to the group. She sits with her at the meetings.” My mother picked up her soup spoon and squeezed the handle with her plump fingertips.
“And if she is married, how does she keep her old name, if she is the same one?”
“The man’s name is Kratz,” my mother said. “She kept her own.”
My father sipped his soup, a noodle curling into his mouth. “Kratz,” he repeated. “Not the best name.” The word means to scratch, and there is a slightly vulgar connotation to it in Yiddish.
“And nobody told me, nobody called,” my mother said again.
“Who is supposed to tell you?” my father answered. “Who do you know here to tell you, the Amerikanas?
“To pick up a telephone, to make a call, how hard is that?”
“Maybe they don’t know you are here. Maybe she doesn’t know.”
“The woman said, ‘She has a list, she calls everyone in the state, she is the head of the group.'”
My father shrugged. “Well…”
“Telephone everybody, that she can do. She has a list. But why, why not me?”
“You can call her.”
“A friend, my friend. Years, years in the home, in the camp, ach! She cannot pick up a telephone?”
It went on like this until I broke in with a whine. “Who? Who are you talking about?”
“Someone Mama knew from the old home,” my father said.
“Will she be my tante? My neighborhood chums often spoke of aunts who might surprise them with gifts or pinches–an exciting prospect. And maybe an uncle, dispensing gifts, a guy above the fray, ready to take my side during an argument.
“I will call her,” my mother said. “It could be she didn’t have the number. Such a circumstance!”
“So call.” My father went back to his soup and newspaper.
They came by choice to this small town that straddled the borders of New York and Connecticut. After arriving by boat in 1949, they were offered temporary shelter in Queens by the sponsoring organization. But neither of them had lived in a city before and the stories they heard about New York worried them.
There was a factory supplying parts for an automobile maker outside the town and help was needed. It was a good time to be a welder and my father got the job. They headed north.
It was a nice little town with prim white houses owned by pale skinned people from Scandinavian roots. Thorsen, Olsen and Nelson were the most common names. We were the dark people of the town.
I was born there and for me the living was easy. There was Main Street and the candy store; a swimming hole and empty lots; a swamp on the outskirts of town where I caught frogs, turtles and salamanders; the cemetery on a hill overlooking it all where summer afternoons were spent dozing among the headstones. I had several friends.
But I knew I was different. “Oh,” I remember a neighbor saying as I removed my red rubber Satan mask on Halloween. “You’re the Jews.” He smiled good-naturedly and dropped a Milky Way in my pillowcase.
My father spent long hours at the factory. He liked welding and the solitary nature of the work. Just a man, a blow torch and something metal waiting to be fused. He had few friends at the factory and rarely socialized since he didn’t drink beer. When he came home he wanted food, the newspaper, the shows on television and sleep.
For my mother, the isolation was vexing. For a time, she became the pet of a ladies auxiliary church group. But they grew tired of her broken English and disinterest in floral arrangements. Forbidden by my father to work, she nevertheless found herself a job. She searched for her father, her mother, her brothers and sisters. For anyone with her maiden name. For everyone who had lived in that other small town in Poland, now vanished. They haunted her dreams and wouldn’t allow her to rest. Each night she paced until a few hours before daybreak when she collapsed into sleep.
Every other Sunday she travelled by bus to New York and I accompanied her on these trips. We’d go to a dairy luncheonette somewhere in the guts of the Seventh Avenue subway station in Times Square. The owner, a fat man with a birthmark on his face, was also an immigrant and camp survivor. A greenah, like my parents: someone new to this country but still marked by the old world. He always asked me the same question. “So boychik, you like the Elvis Pretzel?”
From a telephone booth in the back, with its whirring fan and winking crown of fluorescent light, she made her calls. The Manhattan telephone book kept supplying the names but the voices on the other end invariably disappointed. Until that Sunday in October when her eyes blinked many times and I heard her exclaim, “Who it is you say? No I can’t believe!”
That was when I first heard the name of Eva Perl.
When dinner sat on the table the next day, I looked down at a plate of kasha, meat loaf and a salad of cucumbers drowned in vinegar. I would have dearly preferred hot dogs, pretzels and Jello.
“Well, I have made the call,” my mother announced as my father opened the newspaper.
“How did she sound?”
“Like she was just from the bed.”
“And did you get to know each other again?”
“A long time she couldn’t talk. She had to go.”
“And how does she make out?”
“The man is a jeweler, they have a big house and a fine car.”
“So good.” He waved his hand. “Let them go.”
“For what? I want to see my friend.”
“Go. Go and see her jewelry.”
“Always, Eva wanted money, always. In the camp, she was a good one for selling things for food. She could get gold from the mouth of her mother if she wanted.”
“And now in America, she can make better.”
“Oh Eva,” my mother sighed. “Eva Perl, a smart one. She wants us to have a supper with her, and her man, and the children.”
“Let her eat her cake alone.”
“What? What, you don’t want to have a supper with my friend? The one time, the one person I have found in years since we are here? Is that what you say?”
My father put down his fork. “I say nothing.”
“And I said we will have a supper with her family, two children, a boy and a girl.”
“And the jeweler. What talk should I make, show him my fingers and ask for two of the same rings?”
“What are you talking, you are always–”
“What am I talking? A jeweler lives in America with his wife, they know you but they wait for you to call.”
“This is not what you said yesterday.”
“Let them go.”
“I am going,” my mother said with surprising finality.
“Go. Go walk.”
“You go nowhere, nowhere. Never a place do we visit, do we drive to.”
“I am going to the work in my car every day, that is where I go. It’s enough.”
“To a restaurant even, you will never go. And to a house too, you cannot make a visit?”
My father raised his eyebrows with an expression of resignation. “A dog can only dream of bones.” He pushed his plate aside. “All right. We make a trip.” In his eyes was a wavering look, as if he could already see himself stepping into the parlor of Eva Perl.
As the day approached, little was said about it. My father washed the car, a Ford Sedan, long out-of-date for 1959, and attended to a dent near the right head lamp. He touched it up with paint, holding a thin brush by his thumb and stump finger like a calligrapher.
My mother seemed serene, humming songs in the evening.
When the afternoon of the appointed Saturday began to wane, my father grew irritable. He kept trying on and taking off the several shirts he owned which could be considered formal. He settled on one and chose a tie.
It was wide, wildly colored, and emblazoned boldly with the legend, Bronx Zoo. He regarded himself in the bathroom mirror for a few minutes and then ripped the tie off his neck and pulled the shirt over his head.
He stamped shirtless through the straight line of living room, dining room and kitchen, his hands slapping the air as if he were swatting flies. My mother was rummaging through the small attic above, making slight thuds. After a while, his pace slackened until he settled into a march, and began to chant in a mixture of Yiddish and English–
Mr. Kratz und Mrs. Kratz
die ganzen veld is filled mit rats
Mr. Kratz und Mrs. Kratz
all the world is full of rats
He waved me alongside so that we marched and sang the ditty in ensemble.
Which of course brought down my mother to watch, her hands on her wide hips, unsure how to react to this parade bellowing through her home.
“Enough! You crazy! Go to the hell!”
Which, interestingly, brought my father to a stop and a smile and then a bow, grateful for the attention.
“Good,” she said. “Enough. Make a bath, he is schmutzig like a dog.”
“So,” my father said to me, “what are you doing so dirty and singing so crazy? Make for a bath, come.”
It was true I was filthy, for this was my day to bathe, and I always felt a hoarding pride in maintaining the grime of my feet, fingernails and forearms to better color the soap bubbles. As I climbed into the tub and thrust my head beneath the spout, my father closed the door of the bathroom and sat on the john.
He reached into his pocket for a cigarette and with a flat tarnished lighter, set fire to it with a squeak. My weekly bath was his secret smoking club. No matter the temperature outdoors, he opened the window to vent the smoke and hide his habit. He must have found another escape when I outgrew his help.
When five cigarettes were gone, so was my bath concluded.
From the hallway outside the bathroom came my mother’s voice. “Put on him good clothes, nothing dirty.”
When I opened the door, she was standing there stuffed into a black strapped dress hemmed just above the knees. My father said, “For what are you wearing Kim Novak?”
“And if I am, so what is it for you?”
This was surely unusual attire, my mother incongruous inside it. I had seen the dress once before. It had been named when we entered the town’s only movie house, on a rare excursion to view one of the documentaries about the war which were prevalent then. Scourge of the Reich or something like that. We passed a startling poster for a coming attraction. My father pointed to the actress with approval. “Kim Novak,” he nodded. “Polish girl.” She was wearing a similar dress, though with different results.
“You are going to a supper,” he said, “not to nightclubs.”
“Big talker, you know from nightclubs.”
“Copacabana,” he said. Everyone knew it from television. “It’s not where you’re going.”
“And I am wearing my gold earrings,” she added.
“Good,” my father said, “let the jeweler give you a present of diamonds around the neck.”
“Better than a dog’s collar, even that you would not buy for me.”
Instead of growing angry, he laughed and dismissed us both with a wave. “I am getting dressed,” he announced. “And I am wearing my finest jacket, my best clothes.”
When we stepped out of the house on that cool, drizzling evening in November, we were all wearing something out of the ordinary, stiff insignias of discomfort. For me it was a blaring red jacket, a bow-tie clipped to a white shirt and overly snug blue slacks. I felt like a store window dummy.
As we drove, it was a strange treat to see a world of lights pass by in the night and to hear the rhythmic sing-song of the windshield wipers keep time to Jerry Vale, who was belting out “Volare” over the car radio.
We had driven far enough to be in Eva Perl’s neighborhood. I could see my father’s jawbone working, as if he were grinding nuts with his teeth. My mother sat silently, her eyes blinking. She held her handbag in her lap as a child cradles a kitten.
I was growing nervous. I had never been a guest before in a stranger’s home, and the concept began to frighten me. I farted, silently.
My mother gasped and my father rolled down his window, cursing in Polish vigorously and violently. The damp cold air made me feel worse, and I began to cry.
“You bandit! You sissy! Be quiet!” my father snarled, each word increasing in aspirated force.
“I want a cigarette!” I shrieked. “I want a cigarette!”
“A cigarette?” my mother said with wonder.
“Here, have a candy,” my father said, now placating me, hoping to avoid further inquiry. He reached into his jacket pocket and passed back two sticks of gum. “Better than a cigarette.”
I accepted the gum and promptly found contentment in chewing.
“A cigarette? From how does he know a cigarette?”
My father said, “Well, we are here. This would be the block.”
We passed an ornate placard lit from below by three small spotlights announcing this to be “Montblanc Estates.” Through the mist, houses could be viewed by the light from gas lanterns planted in every yard. The houses were uniform and huge, with jutting picture windows, artificial shutters and built-in garages wide enough for three cars. Living rooms sparkled with the illumination from chandeliers and the glare of television sets.
When we found the house, my father turned off the headlights and we stole up the driveway quietly like thieves. On the sloping front yard, next to the gas lantern was a nameplate surrounded by carved chipmunks: “The Kratzes.”
My father turned off the ignition. “Kratz mine tuchus,” he said. Scratch my ass.
We walked along a needlessly serpentine slate path that led to several brick steps decorated with meticulous wrought iron handrails on either side. As we ascended, I could hear heavy footsteps within.
I stood behind my parents and listened as the chimes of the doorbell filled the house with a languid disturbance, so very different from the unsettling attack of our own electric buzzer.
We waited in the drizzle longer than might have been expected and I could see my father growing tense. The back of his neck was rigid as a potato peeler. My mother cleared her throat several times and sniffled.
When the door finally opened a carpet of light rolled out and enveloped us. We huddled closer and stood dumbly while Eva Perl beckoned from the doorway, “Come in, come in.”
We did so, trundling in, heads bowed.
“Well hello and good evening my friends,” Eva Perl said, assessing us as she and my mother moved to embrace.
“Oh Eva, oh Eva,” my mother repeated. “So long.”
Eva Perl pushed her away after a moment and shook my father’s hand. “Hello,” she said in a hearty voice, “you are welcome in my home.” She gripped his hand and didn’t flinch in the least at the touch of his mangled finger. When she released him, I saw a series of green numbers inscribed on her forearm.
Eva Perl was a formidable sight. She had the look of a woman who liked speedboats, smart red cars and well-constructed men. Her eyes were ponds of promise, and her raven hair dangled to her shoulders with wicked languor. She wore a magenta silk dress gathered tightly at the waist to reveal her bosom, her cleavage rising and falling with each breath. Staring at it, I felt a rash of embarrassment creep up my neck.
My father, though, seemed to expand before my eyes. “Of you I have heard very much and now I am very happy to find you.”
Eva Perl made an enticing move with her mouth and shoulder, a practiced expression of pleased sensuality, and turned away. She looked down at me and smiled now like a parent. “So handsome, and so, so big.”
“Hello,” I gulped.
“Hello young man,” she said with gracious finality. As she ushered us into her home, she signaled for her family.
A man and two children appeared. The man was older than my father and other than a few wisps of grey hair combed back over his head, quite bald. He shuffled forward slowly as if his shoes were weighted and extended his hand toward all of us. It swayed in the air like a divining rod. My father moved quickly to take it.
“Yonkel Kratz,” he announced, revealing a gold tooth at the apex of his mouth. Other than the golden tooth, though, there was an amorphous, featureless quality to his face, which looked like something brought to life by yeast. His skin was pale, almost grey. He did not look well.
“This is Morris and Ilene.” He held his children before him and had his hands on their shoulders. Ilene was my age, seven, Morris older. Both seemed deeply bored.
“So nice,” my mother said. She looked at Eva Perl and began blinking. “Such a beautiful family.”
“Come sit down,” Eva Perl said, pointing to some angular furniture arranged around several tiered formica coffee tables. It was all as perfect and purposeful as a showroom display.
We all found seats except for Eva Perl and my mother who disappeared into the kitchen. The room dwarfed us and the furniture seemed so new, the pillows beneath us so firm. For a while no one said a thing, Yonkel Kratz in his armchair moving his head in a satisfied way, his hands on his knees. “And what is your business?” he finally asked my father in a voice that was soft, almost feminine.
“I am welding parts for cars.”
“Ah, auto parts.” He nodded. “The Amerikanas, you can sell them anything. From this business, a man can make a good living.”
My father did not correct him. “Yes, sure,” he said, “a man can make a beautiful dollar.”
I noticed Morris and Ilene sitting across the room from me, glancing at each other with conspiracy in their eyes. Ilene looked at me, not in my face, but in my direction. When I tried to meet her eyes, she evaded mine. “What’s your favorite color?” she said, looking down.
“Blue,” I said.
“Like your pants?” Morris asked.
Yonkel Kratz reached for a walnut and cracked it. He spoke to my father but nodded at me. “Do you go with him to the sports?”
“Mmm, baseball maybe.” He pronounced it bazeboll. “Sometimes, I take Morris–”
“Don’t call me that, it’s not my name,” Morris whined.
“It’s not your name,” his father agreed soothingly. “I’m sorry. Show them your real name.”
Morris stepped to the middle of the room and presented his left arm, letting the wrist droop. A bracelet of gold dangled from it. “See, you can read it, it says so,” he said proudly.
My father hunched forward but I went up to him and made out the name M-A-R-C engraved in flowing letters. “Why don’t you have a ‘k’ ?” I asked.
He looked at Ilene again and rolled his eyes.
“Morris is a real swinger in his school,” Yonkel Kratz said. “He is a Marc and has a gold ID bracelet, better than any of the Amerikanas, right Morris?”
“Yes, yes. So anyway,” Yonkel Kratz turned to my father and his son sat down. “Sometimes I take Marc to the baseball, to see the Yankees”–which he pronounced Djenkees–“mit the Mickey Mantle and the rest. It’s a better class of people than was in Brooklyn. The ones used to watch the Dodgers, all of them, wild animals. I’m glad they went someplace else.”
“I have no interest,” my father said.
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” said Yonkel Kratz. “I like this homeruns.” He made a flying gesture with his hand and whistled. “Goodbye Charlie.”
Ilene was still staring at me, at my lap, my legs. I looked
down and realized why. The material rubbing against my thighs had worn away and pink bulges of my flesh were squeezing through the holes. I closed my legs, terribly shamed. I got up and walked into the kitchen where Eva Perl and my mother were speaking.
The brightness of the room was overwhelming. There was so much whiteness it obscured more than it revealed. Shining appliances sat on the counters–a chrome toaster, an electric coffee maker, an electric knife. The clock on the wall was in the shape of a star, long rays streaming from its face. I was dazzled.
“And she has woman’s problems,” my mother was saying in a hushed voice.
Eva Perl shifted in her seat. “Well, handsome young man, what would you like?”
“Glass of water.”
“Of course.” She reached into the double door refrigerator for a siphon and sprayed seltzer into a glass. “Does he go to camp?” she asked my mother. “He should,” she said without waiting for an answer. “My Morris and Ilene take off the summer, they swim, they ride horses, they meet new friends from good families.”
“Such money we don’t have.”
Eva Perl dismissed the explanation. “Ah, the money.” She handed me the glass of sparkling water and faced my mother. “Listen to me, tell your man, move his car. This is a fine neighborhood, his jalopy will make people talk. Park it down, away from the light.” She looked down at me and moved her fingers my hair. It was a gesture of affection without the slightest expression of care.
My mother didn’t move or speak.
“Still you are like that?” Eva Perl said with disgust. “I will tell him.”
She walked into the living room and sat next to my father on the couch. My mother and I also went in.
“Will you have a cigarette?”
“Eva,” Yonkel Kratz said in censure.
“In America, we can live so we like. Right Marc?”
“Sure, a cigarette I’m happy to have,” my father said. His spirits rose with the descent of Eva Perl’s body onto the cushion they shared.
He moved to light her cigarette, and she accepted with half-closed eyes, a suburban femme fatale.
My father held his between the thumb and stubbed index finger of his right hand; it seemed as if he were a sophisticate, smoking from a cigarette holder.
“And how did they get that way?” Eva Perl said, eyeing his fingers with the slightest movement of her thin brows.
“With the partisans,” he answered, “from a bomb.”
Ilene and Morris brightened. Yonkel Kratz sank into his chair and closed his eyes.
“I was holding a gun like so.” He pantomimed loading a carbine with bullets. “The bomb falls, a-ba-boom! The bomb takes pieces from the gun and the gun takes pieces from my fingers. So.”
“Ach, thank God,” my mother said, “we are here now in America.” She glanced at his cigarette and turned away.
Eva Perl made a sliding sound with her voice. “Still,” she said provocatively, “I am sure you kept your most important finger.”
Her children giggled. My father blew smoke from his nose, his face a masquerade of indifference as if he were Bogart to her Bacall.
“Now come, Eva Perl said to us all. “It is time to go into the dining room for supper.”
While everyone made to rise, adjusting and straightening their clothing, Eva Perl bent towards my father and said something in his ear. As she whispered, she moved her torso rhythmically, like a cat getting set to pounce.
A few minutes later, he joined all of us in the dining room. “The fog is now so thick,” he said, “it could be borscht.”
“Ilene, open the window then and bring some in. I didn’t have time to make any,” Eva Perl laughed.
What did she have time to prepare? This was a subject of suspense for me. I had visions of turkey, of roast beef; something adult and impressive. The table was set to suggest otherwise.
On this raw night in November, there were brightly colored metal tumblers, cold to the touch, placed around the table. The plates set before us were divided into three sections. “TV Dinner” plates, plastic and powder blue like the utensils.
In the center, surrounded by these childish artifacts of festivity, sat an elegant candelabra. It was like an aged aristocrat forced to tolerate a gathering of boors; the unlit candles an expression of aversion, the face of a person turning away from an unpleasant scene.
“Eva,” my mother called out towards the kitchen, “everything inside your house is as beautiful as the outside.”
“Thank you,” said Yonkel Kratz. “Your house is comfortable too, I am sure.”
“If you come and see it,” my father said, “maybe you will like it.”
Eva Perl stepped into the doorway, holding a platter filled with spaghetti and meatballs. “Oh yes,” she said in a lazy way, “we drove past your house once.”
A small choking noise came from my mother’s throat.
Eva Perl set down the food and placed two plastic serving spoons alongside it, “Please. Help yourself, as they say in this country.”
My mother turned to me. “Shpaghettis, you like it.” There was something unusual in her voice.
“Of course he does,” said Eva Perl. “Let him take.”
I did. And I did like it, because this was food we rarely ate at home.
“The Amerikanas,” my mother said, “all they eat is the hot dogs with the canned soups, everything from a can. From this they get the cancer.”
“We’re getting a colored television,” Ilene said. “It shows everything just like real, in color.”
“We have one,” I said.
Yonkel Kratz lifted the platter and looked at me with interest. “You do?”
“What are you saying?” My father sounded amused and annoyed.
“We do. The plastic sheet makes it color.”
“Plastic?” said Yonkel Kratz.
“Ah sure,” my father explained. “The plastic goes over the front, with green and orange and blue, in stripes. It makes just like color television.”
Ilene and Morris and Yonkel Kratz laughed heartily.
My father joined them. “It’s cheaper and not so bad.” He speared a meatball and crammed half of it into his mouth, still laughing. He seemed quite relaxed, and as he was about to eat another forkful, he said chidingly to my mother, “You should make something so good, this is a delicious sauce.”
“I am happy you like it,” Eva Perl said sweetly. “I made it from a can.”
“A can? It must be a special can.”
“No,” she said in a voice as light as powdered sugar, “just the Del Monte.” She looked at my mother. “So easy this way. Even Marc can make it.”
“Yeah,” Morris said, mashing a meatball over and over, “but I don’t like this.”
“What you like to eat?” my mother said to the two children.
“I like steak,” Morris said. “We have steak every night.”
“Yeah,” said Ilene, making a face as pinched as a pin cushion. “Let’s have steak. This is for you greenahs.”
“Ilene,” Yonkel Kratz said angrily.
My mother covered her mouth. Tears blew out of her eyes as butter bursts from chicken kiev.
“For greenahs? This she learned from you,” my mother rasped to Eva Perl.
“Stop,” my father said.
“Shpaghettis? I would not serve this to a dog for supper. You are so busy you cannot lift the telephone to call me for all these years?” She banged her fist on the table and rose. “Take your shpaghettis, and your color television, and your, and your fine car, and give it to the Germans like you gave away yourself!”
She ran out. My father followed her into the living room, trying to restrain her as she reached for the front door. Eva Perl rushed after, Yonkel Kratz making a motion with his hands to calm
“Go!” Eva Perl screamed at my mother, who was now outdoors. “Cook in your house all day for your family. I am still young. I have many places to go. I have no time for greenahs without a penny who come in a fershtinkener jalopy not even a gypsy would drive!”
I could hear our old Ford starting up and peeked out the picture window. My father had not reached the car, yet my mother was at the wheel. It pulled away, slowly edging forward in the deep and frightening fog.
Apart from an unsuccessful lesson that ended in an argument, she had never driven an automobile.
My father called out to her but she gave it gas and the car jolted forward. It moved haltingly, stopping abruptly, starting again, until it came to rest at the end of the block. I saw my father run alongside and glimpsed the back of my mother’s head as he opened the door and the interior light came on.
I felt queasy standing in the doorway, looking out, seeing Eva Perl before me and the red back lights of the car far away.
“Go boy,” Yonkel Kratz said to me, his hand on my shoulder. “Go to them.”
And I ran, groping through the fog towards the round beacons burning in the distance.