The Zernsville Lions – Jessica Lipnack

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It was the same every Sunday. Papa had to finish two cups of Maxwell House, his Camel, and the Philadelphia Bulletin’s front page before we could leave for Tuckers. There, in addition to bagels and lox, was Sunday’s whole point: ample visiting time with Uncle Morris and his granddaughter. Marcie was a year ahead, my idol already in first grade.

After five hundred hours, Papa said, “Are you finally ready to go?” He lifted me into our black Plymouth and off we drove to the kosher butcher. We were “gastronomic Jews,” according to my mother, distancing us from any association with organized religion. She liked to tell the story of how she was baking a ham fragrant with cloves on a day when she didn’t expect the rabbi to drop by. She repeated the story like a prayer, its purpose to eradicate any lingering doubt that we observed the ancient food laws that she regarded as primitive, unsophisticated, and not the cuisine of assimilated Americans like us. Gastronomic Jews, empathically not kosher.

“No bialys?” Papa always pushed through Tuckers’ swinging doors calling out to Uncle Morris and Marcie, who usually were behind the whitefish and sable counter. Pickles and sawdust and smoked fish and rye bread and very strong coffee, Tuckers’ own aromatics, swirled into our nostrils.

“Max! It’s Maxie! And the Lioness!” Uncle Morris called me that because of my middle name, Ariella, which, Papa said just about every time someone used my nickname, meant Lioness of God. Instead of a teddy bear, I had a stuffed lion. Two actually, one knit by my mother.

“Well, if it isn’t the Wizard of Oys!” Papa shouted back as I did my lion imitation, a little roar as only a five-year-old could produce.

Every week there was a call for bialys, an oy, and maybe even two roars if Marcie was there.
Uncle Morris, who wasn’t really my uncle, came out from behind the fish and picked me up. “Give me another roar. You’re just as cute as Marcie.” I liked being compared to Marcie who knew so many things I didn’t, whose family was bigger than mine, whose grandfather spent his Sundays with her, while mine lived so far away.

“Where is Marcie?”

“She wasn’t…” Uncle Morris hesitated. “She couldn’t come with me today.” He kissed my cheek extra-long and put me down.

He took a step back and placed his right hand to his chin. His face was broad and lined, his hair thick and white. “Max, I have a question for you. No, I think it’s a question for you, Paulina. You’re such a yiddishe girl, such a little rebbetzin. Why do you have such a name, such a Spanish name?”

“My name is spinach?” I looked up at Papa.

“Not spinach, darling, Spanish. It’s a language, like Yiddish. But Uncle Morris is wr-r-rong.” He wobbled his finger beside his forehead and rolled his rrr’s. “Your name isn’t Spanish. It’s R-r-russian. You’re named for Paulina Berlinsky, the great Russian revolutionary who dressed like a man to fight the Czar’s thugs.”
“You would name your daughter for a Russian rabble-rouser, Max, especially one nobody’s ever heard of.”
“But my Russian name is Pesha.”

“That’s your Jewish name. Pesha … which is why we call you Peshhhh-kaaa-laaaa.” Papa said it as if the syllables formed my first, middle, and last names.

“No, you call me ‘Peshkala,’ Papa. No one else.”

“I think you’re right, Miss Spinach Peshkala.” Uncle Morris tousled my curls until his hand stopped dead on my head, his smile sagging to a frown, his arm stiffening. “Max, listen, I need to talk to you. Can you and Spinachkala come sit in the back? I’ll close the store for a few minutes. You know people in New York. I need to talk to you about . . .” His hand still heavy on my head, he stepped in front of me and whispered something I couldn’t quite hear to Papa but I was pretty sure I heard him say Marcie.

“How was it? Was it really hard?” I was on the phone asking Marcie about the test she had to take to get into the class for gifted kids. A year ahead, Marcie was the star of the fifth grade. We were big kids now, nine and ten.

“It’s not that hard,” she said. “You’re so smart, Paulina. You’ll do really well on the test. It won’t be that hard for you.”

“I wish I was you. I’m really scared.”

“Scared? What about clenching your fists?” She asked her question as if that were it were the solution to test fear.

“Clenching my fists?”

“When I get scared, I clench my fists really, really tight, so tight my fingernails dig into my palms. I scrunch everything that’s scared in me into my hands. And then when it feels like it’s all in my hands, I take a really big breath, whoosh my fingers straight out. Then I stick my tongue out, and push all that’s scared in me out into the sky. If no one’s around, I roar like a lion. You taught me about roaring when we were little, remember? And then it all goes out, out, way out to the stars where it’s so small no one can see it. And you know what? You can do it with being sad too.” She started giggling. “I bet you think I made that up myself.”

“Did you?”

“Nope. I found it in my mother’s weird yoga book. I told you about that. Where the man can twist his arms and legs into a pretzel. It’s called ‘The Lion.’ It’s perfect for you, Paulina.”

We both roared.

“Marcie, you’re so smart. You always find important things I don’t know anything about.”

“Well, one thing you think is important is the hardest question on the stupid test, the one with the water and the pints and quarts.”

“Tell me, tell me. It sounds really hard.”

“It’s easy, Aniluap.”

“So tell me, Eicram.” We competed with each other to say everyone’s names backwards as fast as we could.

“Easy, easy. All you have to do is . . .” Marcie explained how to fill each container with the proper amount of water without having to pour any out. It sounded so simple. But I hung up feeling very guilty.

When I got into bed that night, I couldn’t read. I hadn’t even taken the test yet and already I’d cheated. Maybe I shouldn’t even take the test, I thought. If I know the answer to the hardest question, they’ll know I was cheating. And I’ll probably mess up the other answers too. Why did Marcie help me cheat? She was always so good. Thinking of Marcie reminded me to clench my fists. This made me feel even worse, like such a fake for using Marcie’s method for something so selfish, to do better on a test. I dreamt I had to take the test in a language I didn’t understand.

“Paulina, Please come in. It’s your turn now.” Known to us as “Sussim Reffuats,” the teacher already was seated in the library when I arrived. Mrs. Stauffer, whose Gifted Class Marcie was in, pointed to a chair on the other side of the long oak table. She had two booklets, a pencil, and an eraser in front of her.

I tried to smile but my lips were quivering. I sat down, neatly tucking the pleats of my red-plaid dress under me. Mama had taught me how not to muss my skirt when I sat down.

“I know you’ve heard a lot about this, especially from Marcie.”

I heard a little gasp in my throat. How did Simmus Reffuats know that already? I hoped the teacher just meant that we were friends.

“Yes, she tells me a lot about the Gifted Class. She recited a poem she memorized on the phone. I think she said it was called ‘Annabelle Lee?’” Thinking about Marcie made me feel better but what I said made me feel worse. Marcie always got As, even this year when she’d missed a lot of school to go on trips with her mother.

“I’m going to give you what we call an I.Q. test now. Do you have any questions?”

My mother, who called herself “a bit of an expert” on them, had explained I.Q. tests several times, using relatives as examples. My aunt, Mama’s younger sister, had a very high one, “a genius, actually,” she said, while my father’s oldest sister had “the I.Q. of an idiot.”

My I.Q. had to be at least 120 to get into the Gifted Class. If I got in, I’d go to different schools for the next two years. For fifth grade, I’d go to a brand new one, right in the center of town, and study Latin. In sixth grade, I’d learn Algebra and how to type.

For the next three hours, Simmus Reffuats asked me to solve arithmetic problems, memorize lists, pick out the thing that was different from the rest, and which pair was the same. The faster I answered, the more quickly Simmus Reffuats asked the next question until I heard the words “pints-and-quarts” and all the air went right out of the room. I tried to take a big breath in, like Marcie had instructed, but instead I exhaled with a yawn, my lips quivering again.

“Are you getting tired, Paulina?”

“A little.”

“Well, we only have a few more questions and then we’re done.”

Then I heard Marcie’s voice in my head. I spiked my nails into my palms and the answer came right out through my mouth, bypassing my brain.

“Very good,” Simmus Reffuats said. “Very good, Paulina. You’ve done very well.”

But my head was pounding with the word fake.

When the telephone rang a few weeks later, the small table where it sat shook first as if to wake the equipment up. My hand was on the receiver before the end of the first long brinnnnnng.

“Mrs. Shoket, please.” It was a familiar voice on the other end.

“Who may I say is calling, please?” Mama had taught me the proper way to answer the phone.

“Mrs. Stauffer, Paulina.”

I knew by the way she said my name that I was in.

“Yes, we’re delighted to have her in the class,” Mama said, nodding fast and pulling me into a hug. “And thank you for the I.Q. information. We knew it had to be very high. This is just right for her. Thank you so very much, Mrs. Stauffer, and we’ll look forward to the summer reading list. By the way, have you included Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren? Paulina just finished it and I think it’s very important for the children to read, especially the girls.” Mama was making it sound like Mrs. Stauffer didn’t know something she should. I wanted her to just hang up and tell me what she was saying.

“Well, you’re welcome, Mrs. Stauffer. Yes, I’d be happy to put my thoughts in a letter to you. And thank you again so very much for the very good news. Goodbye.”

“What did she say? What did she say?” I squealed, jumped up and down, and twirled around the room.

“You did very, very, very well. You’re in,” Mama shrieked back. “This fills me with such, such … you, you’ll never know.” She pulled my head toward her heart. “But it will be very demanding, Paulina.” Then she pushed me away. “You’re going to have to work all the time. It won’t be like school’s been for you. You’ll have lots of homework and you’re going to have to work hard.”

Mama hesitated, pulling me toward her again. “But not too hard. You have to remember to play. My mother always punished me for playing. And we’re probably going to have to buy you a typewriter.” She let me go again, glanced at the telephone stand, the credenza, the end table, and curled her top lip up to her wrinkled nose, assuming her I’m-trying-to-figure-something-out face. “I don’t know what we’re going to do about that. We don’t have the money for a typewriter. We don’t even have anywhere to put it.” She looked as if she already had the typewriter in her hands.

“Mama, stop. It doesn’t matter. I got into the Gifted Class. That’s what matters. Maybe I can get a newspaper route and save money for it.”

“Oh, pussycat, don’t you worry. You’re right, we’ll figure it out. This is very exciting. I have to call Aunt Gretchen.” This was her aunt with the genius I.Q. in New York. Whenever I did well in school, Mama called my aunt to brag, which embarrassed me.

“What about Papa? I want to call Papa first.”

I reached for the dial, turning it four times, first to the eight, then twice to the four, and then to the zero, for Papa’s store.

“Papa, I got in! I got into the Special Class!”

“Of course you got in, darling. Did you ever doubt for a minute that you would get in? You’re the smartest little girl in all of Pennsyl-tuckie. And the prettiest too, shanala maidela.”

“Oh, Papa. But Mama is worried. She says we’ll have to buy a typewriter and we don’t have the money.”

“Don’t listen to her, Peshki. I have the money. Tell her I have the money and to stop her kvetching. This is a mitzvah, this, this is a very important day. Tell her I’m bringing home steaks from the butcher and a loaf from the Italian.”

“He’s bringing steaks and the good bread home and he said to tell you not to worry about the typewriter.” I put the receiver back in the cradle.

“Paulina, he’s such a dreamer. But at least he’s a mensch bringing the T-bones and the ciabatta. We can really live it up tonight and celebrate you, kid. You’re a winner, Paulina Ariella Shoket.” Mama toasted with an imaginary glass and I tipped my invisible one back.

“Mama, I’m going to call Marcie and tell her! I know she wants to know.”

“Oh, no, Paulina.” All the sparkle that had just lit the room fizzled out. “Oh, no, no, darling.”
“What’s wrong, Mama? You look so upset.”

Mama sat down suddenly at the dining room table and pulled me onto her lap.

“I’m going to tell you something that will be hard for you to understand. It’s a little beyond you.”
“Mama, I just got in the Gifted Class.”

“Yes, I know you’re smart, darling.”

I realized by the way she said it that this wasn’t about my I.Q.

“Oh, Paulina, you can’t call Marcie anymore. She’s very sick. Very sick. What I’m about to tell you, you can’t tell any of the other children. None of the parents are telling them. But you know we always try to talk to you like a grown-up and you love Marcie so much.

“Look at me, darling.” Mama whispered, cupping my chin in her hands. “Marcie has cancer. Children who have it are very sick and … It’s very baaaaa…” Mama’s crying was drowning her words. “You know how much everyone loves Marcie.”

“Oh, Mama, it’s OK.” I cuddled into her and patted her back. “Is she going to…?” I couldn’t say the word.
“Yes, darling.”

“Marcie, Marcie.” When I sobbed out her name, my fists began to clench. “When? When?”

“They say a couple of months.”

My fingertips were supposed to be stiff as spears, digging into my palms, but they were quivering instead. I couldn’t clench at all. “No, no.”

“I know, darling, no one wants this but there’s nothing we can do. They’ve tried everything—they even took her to Lourdes.”

“Lourdes?”

“It’s a place in France where there are supposed to be special mineral waters that produce miracles. It’s Catholic.”

“Catholic? When? Why did she take Marcie to a Catholic place?”

“Last summer. It’s not important that it’s Catholic.”

“I’m going to tell God.” I already was writing a letter in my mind and thinking how I would have to spell it G-d.

Mama cry-laughed. “Oh, Paulina, you can tell God but it won’t help.” She said God as if it were a foreign word.

“No, I mean pray. Maybe if I pray, then Marcie won’t die. Isn’t that why they took her to France?”

“Oh, baby. People pray because someone taught them to. They pray because they’re delusional.” Mama laughed even more, which made me giggle but I was still crying.

“Delusional?”

“It’s what religion does to people, sweetie pie, and you know how I feel about religion. I know you’ll feel the same way when you’re a grown-up. You know your father and I don’t agree on this. But oh, Marcie, it’s very sad, sunflower, very sad. It’s not normal and I know how much you love her. But you’ll be o.k., I promise you, you’ll be o.k.”

“I’m o.k.” I dug my fingernails so far in that I thought I might start bleeding.

“O.k., honey, then I need to go lie down. Do you want to come rest a little or do you want to watch ‘Bandstand.’ Maybe you can take your mind off this. I’ll get up in a little while and start dinner.” As Mama climbed the stairs to the second floor, which she did most afternoons, I thought about how many times I’d gone up and down those stairs with Marcie, all the times we’d tied a rope around my lion and lowered it down into the imaginary deep-water tank to take our explorations of the Aniluap Eicram Aes.

I turned on the Sylvania and sat down to watch. Arlene and Kenny, the South Philly regulars who danced on the show every day, were jitterbugging to “Wake Up, Little Susie.” Normally I would have been studying their moves but today they looked stupid.

“’Wake Up, Little Susie’ by the Everly Brothers,” Dick Clark said, flashing a big grin and throwing his hand in the air. More tears. All I could think was that someday Marcie wasn’t going to wake up. I rubbed my eyes hoping that would make me stop crying but the harder I pressed, the more I cried. I wanted to start praying right then but I remembered what Mama had said about how stupid it was to pray.

The table shivered again and I ran to the phone.

“I’m mad.” It was Sunny calling, Marcie’s cousin.

“What’s wrong?”

“Aunt Norma won’t let me come over. This is the third day in a row that she says I can’t come over because Marcie is too tired. She won’t even let me talk to her on the phone. Will she let you talk to her?”

I could feel words crowding each other out in my throat. I’d promised Mama not to tell anyone about Marcie.

“‘Too tired.’ My mother says that all the time,” I said, steering away from Marcie.

“About Marcie?” Sunny sounded confused.

“No, about herself. She always says she’s too tired. She just went upstairs to lie down. But I’m not tired. Get your bike and I’ll meet you at the corner. We can go get Eskimo Pies. I’ve got two dimes.”

“O.K., but I hate Marcie’s mother, even if she is my aunt.”

“I hate Aunt Norma too and she’s not my aunt.”

By the time we came back from their bike ride, Mama was up, moving slowly around the kitchen. When Papa came in with the steaks a few minutes after eight, Mama took them from him with a kiss and said a few words in Yiddish that I couldn’t understand, which is how they kept secrets from me. At dinner, which didn’t start until nearly nine, they told stories I’d heard a hundred times, how I’d talked at nine months, walked at ten months, read when I turned two, insulted the cantor at the synagogue when I was five. By the time I’d finished helping clean up, it was nearly 10:30.

I’d just started Jo’s Boys but was too sleepy to read a whole chapter. Marcie had warned me that it wouldn’t be nearly as good as Little Women. I closed the book and turned out the light.

“Please let Marcie live, God.” I mouthed the words, making them very big in my mind. “I’ll pray every night for her if you’ll let her live. I promise. I will be a very good person, God. I will never cheat again. Shema Y’israel adonoi elohaynu adonoi ehad.” I threw that in, the only prayer I knew, thinking that I might get God’s attention if I said what the rabbi called “the holiest of prayers.” Papa took me to services on the High Holidays and they seemed to say that all the time. I made my mind very quiet, listened hard, and thought I heard God, or whoever it was, say one word: “Yes.” Just to be safe, I clenched both fists, stretched my fingers out wide, stuck my tongue out as far as I could, and gave a small roar into my pillow.

I never told Mama but I prayed every night and, if I remembered, during the day, when no one was watching. Since I couldn’t call Marcie, I wrote to her instead at least once a week, telling her what I’d read, which girl liked which boy, and what song I liked the best. I signed the letters, “Clench your fists and roar, Eicram! Your friend, Aniluap.” Marcie never wrote back but Aunt Norma called every now and then to say how much Marcie liked the letters.

Six months of prayers and clenched fists later, my family piled into the Plymouth to drive to Long Island for my cousin Herbie’s Bar Mitzvah. It was in a big new synagogue with shining floors and a carpeted pulpit, so different from our small shul, where the aging building groaned with every step. Instead of saying prayers in Hebrew as our congregation did, Herbie and his rabbi said most of theirs in English.

Papa must have seen how confused I was because he leaned over and whispered. “It’s a new kind of Judaism. It’s very popular in New York. It’s more modern, more American.”

“I like ours better,” I whispered back.

“Don’t tell your mother.” He smiled and put his arm around me. She was sitting on the other side of Papa. I hoped she hadn’t heard him.

There was a big party that night in the hall next to the sanctuary. Everyone, including my parents, danced for hours. They may have spent a lot of time arguing, about religion, about money, about whether the Dodgers were better than the Yankees, but when they danced it was as if they were born to do only this. Everyone formed a circle with my parents, the best dancers there, doing the Charleston in the middle, crossing their hands and knees in opposite directions at the same time, kicking their legs high, huge crazy smiles on their faces. I loved seeing them laughing and happy like this.

When the party was over late that night, we drove back into New York to stay at my grandfather’s apartment on the Lower East Side. We were breaking up the trip back to Zernsville. It was two in the morning by the time I was in the small cot where I slept when we visited, next to Grandpa’s sewing machine. “I can’t pray tonight, God. I’m too tired. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” Grandpa’s snores drowsed me to dreams.

By the time I got up, Grandpa had already had been out and come back with bags of bialys and “creamed” cheese, as he called it, and lots of fish. I thought the bialys tasted the best at Grandpa’s apartment; he always cut a little bit of the first one that he’d fixed for himself before I got up and gave it to me when I sat down at the chipped enamel table.

We arrived back in Zernsville just in time for “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and when it was over, I went to bed without being told. I was tired and happy from the weekend in New York with my real relatives, read a few pages of my book, said my prayer for Marcie, heard the phone ring, and fell asleep.

I went downstairs the next morning right after Papa, who was already in the kitchen He was sitting at the small kitchen table, his coffee untouched, three Camels snuffed out in the ashtray, his head down low over the newspaper. When he heard me come in, he looked up, startled, his eyes red.

“Papa, Papa. What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” I’ll never forget how slowly he shook his head back and forth, as if time had lost its way, and spoke in a voice I’d never heard before. “Marcie’s gone.” He pointed to an article on the front page. I grabbed the paper and struggled to read but tears blurred the words. All I could make out was the headline:
Zernsville student, 12, dies of bone cancer at home; funeral at 9 today.

“I want to go. I want to go. I’ve… I’ve… I’ve… Marcie…”.

“Pauli, Pauli, Peshie, I know, I know.” Papa pulled me into his lap. “Only the grown-ups are going. You’ve got to go to school. I wish you could come but you have to go. Mrs. Stauffer knows. I called her last night after Uncle Morris called to tell me, and she’ll take care of you today, bubele, in school.” I was trembling, trying to make myself invisible, elsewhere, gone like Marcie, anything, anywhere but right there and then. Papa rocked me slowly and hummed “Ofyn Pripetshik,” the Yiddish folk song about the warm hearth and how important learning is, calmly, over and again, and as he did, I realized my mother was there too, her arms encircling us both.

The drive to school was silent, except for my crying, which I couldn’t get under control. Papa put his hand on mine and stroked it with his thumb then laced his fingers through mine, as if he were trying to keep me there, next to him, on earth.

I was late. Everyone was already in their seats and unusually quiet. A few of the students looked like they’d been crying too.

“Class, children, children,” Mrs. Stauffer said in a soothing tone, one I’d never heard before, just like Papa’s when I walked into the kitchen. “I’m going to spend a few minutes talking to Paulina. We’ll be back soon. If you need to talk, just be very quiet. Or you can read whatever you like. The only thing I ask is that you stay in your seats. You’re such good children. Maggie, you’re in charge.”

Mrs. Stauffer motioned me out the door. “Let’s walk, Paulina. Let’s keep walking.”

She spoke so slowly. “This is life, dear child, this is life. This is why life is so sweet, because we love each other so much. I lost my Marcie too.”

I wasn’t sure what she was talking about. “I lost my daughter, Carol, when she was 12, just like Marcie. I broke apart when she died even though I prayed all the time for her to live.” When I heard the the word prayer, I wrenched as far away from her as I could and lost my footing, ending up on the floor. Mrs. Stauffer sat right down beside me.

“It’s not your fault, honey,” she said, squeezing my hands together and pulling them into her chest. I knew I was responsible because I’d been so selfish, because instead of praying for Marcie, I let myself go to sleep. I was even a fake at praying. I wanted to tell Mrs. Stauffer the truth about praying, about cheating on the IQ test, but where words should have been, there were only sobs. We stayed on the floor like this for a good while, my teacher shushing me with gentle kisses on my cheeks. When I quieted, Mrs. Stauffer lifted me up off the floor and moved us back down the hall.

“Come on, little one,” she said. “We need to go into class.”

I noticed their coats first. Everyone had their coats on and they were all standing in a line when Mrs. Stauffer opened the door.

“Mrs. Stauffer,” Maggie said, “we had a meeting while you and Paulina were out of the room and took a vote. We want to walk Paulina to the cemetery. We know she wants to say goodbye to Marcie and we do too.”
Mrs. Stauffer shook her head disbelievingly, back and forth, put the palm of her hand on Maggie’s face, and grabbed her coat. Tears fell down many cheeks.

And so the thirty students from the fifth-grade Gifted Class headed toward the cemetery in silence. Maggie was the first to pick up a small pebble from the sidewalk along the way, then I did, and so did each of the others. As we approached the first traffic light, we saw another group of students waiting to cross the street coming toward us. It was Marcie’s class, walking from the sixth grade in another building, led by their teacher. A few blocks later, I saw Sunny, leading her class from yet another school. And just after that, I saw two of Sunny’s other cousins coming from the junior high with their eighth- and ninth-grade classes. By the time we reached the cemetery, nearly two hundred students had gathered, most with pebbles they’d picked up along the way.

One by one the students walked to the fresh mound of earth that was Marcie’s grave, and placed their pebbles side-by-side. They stood aside as I, the last, approached the grave. I bent over very slowly to place the final pebble then stood up straight.

With all eyes on me, I clenched the tightest fists ever, raised both arms high over my head, shot my fingers straight out from my palms, stuck out my tongue until its tip nearly touched my chin, roared like a lion, and sent all the sadness and guilt to the heavens where it became very small.

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