“A boy making cakes.” My father wore a thin-strapped undershirt, plaid Bermuda shorts and leather sandals.
The smothering August morning weighted the air.
“Go away,” my mother said, not even glancing at him while she stirred sugar into two dozen yolks.
“Outside the sidewalk burns and you turn on an oven. You’ll roast my back, not bake your cake.”
Holding an electric beater steady as it transformed a watery glog of egg whites into the stiff white peaks required for sponge cake—this was my chore. Seven books of S&H Green Stamps brought that mixer into my hand and I was grateful. Before the miracle of this modern appliance, every Saturday morning found me handcuffed to a spin beater, rotating the small wooden knob over and over for what seemed hours.
“It’s not for me this cake I am making.” My mother’s light blue house dress was moist from perspiration. She wiped away a necklace of beaded water.
“Buy from the store something a day old,” my father said. Marked down pastries were better than fresh, he claimed. More flavor.
“And everything here is for the garbage? It’s not the way, to throw away money.”
“No? Not the way? Why is it the way to pay ten dollars for a waste of time with your Ladies’ Club?”
“Again you start? It’s finished. I paid.”
“Into the toilet.”
“We go tonight.”
“Where? To give someone money and not even know what place they take you?”
“The trip is a Mystery Bus Ride. It’s not for you to know,” she said.
“A mystery,” he sneered. “You want mystery, watch the television. Stay at home, Alfred Hitchcock will give you the mystery.”
“Maybe they take us to Atlantic City.”
My father dismissed her with a disgusted wave. “Sooner a midnight at noon.”
They were the flotsam and jetsam of the Liberation. How they met, I don’t know. Where they wandered, I have only a vague idea. Displaced persons. Refugees. The notion seems far away, reserved for faces in newsprint. I know they bundled tin plates and tablecloths into a trunk, arriving in steerage in 1949. I know they were dispatched to a small town in Pennsylvania, where I was born. But of those years immediately after the War, nothing was mentioned in our American bungalow.
My father drove a bread truck. He left early in the morning to load the fresh loaves, delivering them mostly to individual households, returning in the afternoon.
Occasionally, I would accompany him, especially during the summer. The homes we passed were modest, most with long porches, all with immaculate lawns. A family man’s paradise. From female hands the landscape received color. Rectangles of red and yellow blossoms grew across sharp divides from manicured grass.
We sat silently in the truck for the most part, going from house to house. He would sometimes make a comment under his breath, usually about women. “The wife of that house is a good
one,” or “She eats the bread half naked.”
This was of no importance to me, because in my mind, it was all a military mission. We were delivering bread, by parachute, to prisoners of war, swerving in the air to avoid enemy fire. The crack across the windshield: a close call. The loud grinding gears: the drone of propellers. Sitting on the scalding black seats: an act of cockpit bravery.
I knew what it was to be strong in the face of the enemy. To accept fate. Twice each week I was captured, hustled into a Mercedes, and driven to a prison camp. Small and plump, silent and defiant, engulfed by the back seat, I always stared straight ahead.
The wood-paneled dashboard, surrounded by steel, stared back at me; the driver’s lacquered helmet of silvery yellow hair partially blocked my view.
His name was Ulrich Leammon. We never spoke.
In his Mercedes, my taxi, he transported me to another town, where Sunday mornings and Tuesday evenings I took lessons with six other boys. Sitting around a pock-carved table, on the top floor of a small brick building, I attended Hebrew School.
Hardship loomed also on the bread truck, particularly on Fridays, when payment was due and I was forced to work behind enemy lines. Because my father disliked the ritual of knocking, waiting, collecting and thanking, he assigned me the duty. Holding bread in my arms and a bill between my fingers, I would sheepishly ring the bell, hoping for a clean, wordless encounter. The older women, terrifying with their leathery skin and webs of wrinkles, had hard, clear eyes. Their stares tore at me. Dressed like a dwarf version of my father, I must have looked like a weed in a flower patch.
But at one home, I stayed in the truck, while my father bounced from his seat and sauntered to the door. He stretched his neck as if to add another inch to his compact body. Then he knocked and stepped back, shifting his weight like a boxer.
Trim and blond, Hannah Leammon came to the door with the cheerful lilt of a canary.
After a few words, she smiled as he slipped two loaves of bread through the crook of her elbow. They tucked against her waist like the arm of a suitor.
Back inside the truck, turning on the ignition, he sighed. “If a man knew where he would fall, he would spread straw first.”
“For one time you will be like everybody else,” my mother said. “Henry Bluestone will be there. Also Myron Zeif.”
“So?” she said raising her shoulders. “With their wives they go to a show, to a dinner.”
A mystery bus trip. Something about it intrigued me, a delicious stew of anticipation and fear. Like the first morning of kindergarten.
“I want to go!”
“Take him,” my father said.
“For what you always pour vinegar on the cream? The wives go with their man.”
“Take him, look how nice he makes the work for you, better than a man.”
“I want to go!”
“No poopala,” she said, “it’s not for you. You stay with Ruthie.”
“Then don’t take him,” my father continued. “Take with you a monkey and dress him in a suit. The alte cockers will have a new friend.”
“It’s because you are ashamed.”
“Ashamed? What shamed?”
“Because they wear gold watches, run a business, and buy for their women minks.”
My father disliked people with money, not out of ideology, but from resentment of his past deprivations. Anyone who prospered did so at the expense of his bitter years in the Soviet army. And since he had simple tastes and an aversion to being patronized, we rarely ate in restaurants. Those who did were wasting money; a fool who served such people was wasting his life. It was part of the American scheme to make money and spend it. His instinct was to squirrel, not squander.
“Let your businessmen take a nap on the railroad tracks,” he said.
My mother stood, brandishing the yolk covered spoon. “You laugh at everybody and for what? You are worse than a wild animal. You take me no place. You laugh at the Jews, the Amerikanas, at me!” The syrupy yolk dripped like tears onto her dress.
“The Amerikanas? I don’t laugh at the Amerikanas. I spit in their faces.”
“And their wives, do you spit at them or do you lick them like a dog when they pay you with pennies?”
Later that afternoon, when we walked along a nearby lake, his fury remained hot like the sand. At the height of the argument, he had pulled me from the mixer. Egg whites spattering. Vibrating beaters shaking the bowl, crashing to the floor as my mother flung the wooden spoon at his feet.
“So we go!” he had said.
“No. I go!” she had said.
“Then go with the devil to your mystery trip.” With those words he had pulled me away, into the small pantry that led to the back yard.
He was out the screen door, gripping my wrist, but I turned and saw her. She stood, arms folded.
She gave a little smile and waved goodbye. Confusion had plugged my tears. She was another person. Calm, relaxed, even pleased.
Now, at the edge of the swimming hole, water lapped our ankles. Children splashed and there were the usual shouts from water fights. A lifeguard sat atop his wooden seat, a whistle dangling from his neck. He was sturdy and tall, probably not even twenty.
As we passed, he saw a short, wide-shouldered man with the gait of an ape and his boy, a baby Buddha with rolls of flesh cascading onto swimming trunks so long they might have been cut-off trousers. He raised his bull horn, aiming his voice in our direction.
“That’s comic,” he said and we looked up. I was startled to be addressed. “The two of you like that, really comic.”
I was still looking up when my father took hold of my shoulder and hissed, “Come.”
Back in the truck, he quietly said, “Put on your shirt.” The veins in his neck were visible. I expected him to smash his fist against the dashboard, but instead, he reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a small plastic tube the color of jade. I thought it was Vick’s Sinus Inhaler.
He twisted off the top, pressed it to his eye and looked up at the sky through the cracked windshield. Then he handed it to me, with a raised eyebrow.
“What is it?”
He smiled. “A lesson. Look.”
Against a sepia background of palm trees, on a sandy beach, a woman brushed back her thick, dark hair while staring at me with a beguiling mixture of innocence and enticement. All she wore was a garland of flower petals.
“We make our own mystery trip,” my father said.
A stick pin impaled the note in the middle of the front door.
My father ignored it. He twisted the knob and stepped in half way. As if it were not his home, he sniffed the air. “Empty houses are filled with noise,” he said.
Finally he entered.
Every object in the living room seemed incongruously polite. Pillows were propped. Nothing stood out of place.
My father began stalking the house. I followed. In the kitchen, closets were flung open.
In the bathroom, towels fell from their orderly piles. In the bedroom, clothing on hangers shuffled like playing cards with sweep of his hand.
Then he turned, heading for the front door.
I ran after him, fearful he was leaving. But he stopped at the note and pulled it free.
“On her trip. With her friends.” Then with distinct, biting enunciation. “With Mr. Herbert Spear.”
“We have food soon.”
“I’m hungry now.
“We eat tonight in a better way. With my friends. Dress yourself with better clothes.”
A few minutes later I stood before him, ready.
“Take away from you the face.”
“You know for why.”
“It’s…cool.” This was a word I heard on television.
“I’m not caring if it’s ice. Off with the mask.”
The Devils Head. A supple rubber red face, improbably handsome with its slashing eyebrows and slim, jutting goatee.
Devils were everywhere. On varnish cans. On tins of sandwich spread. Wearing turtlenecks in whiskey ads. Sometimes in a beret, slapping bongos and ogling round-rumped women in toreador pants.
The face with the goatee was ambitious, aggressive, and somehow not a part of the normal everyday world. The Devil Head didn’t wear a grey suit. No sweet children tugged at his legs. He didn’t live in a bungalow.
He was alone, envied by others. He was everything I wanted to be: tall, lithe, well-dressed. Accomplished. Effortlessly in command.
My Woolworth’s mask gave me that feeling. I wore it whenever I could. It was a cheap, but good mask, well-shaped and protective. I favored military attire with it. In a navy blue jacket, I became THE DEVIL MARINE.
“Today is not Purim. Take him off.”
I had no choice. My face, so unlike the latex mold, felt the hot summer air. I slipped the mask into my jacket pocket.
“Leave here the coat.”
It was hot. But the shame I felt that morning on the beach had made its impact. I needed a covering for the flesh that had provoked the lifeguard’s amusement.
“I want it.”
My father shrugged. “So schvitz.”
There it was. The black Mercedes parked in the driveway. Why were we here? Was I
going to be sent off in the back seat? Did we come to collect money?
But the door opened and she appeared, smiling, waving. Hannah Leammon clearly expected us. Behind her stood her husband, Ulrich.
“Mir sult sprechen wilkommen,” she said as we approached the front steps.
My father smiled toothily and awkwardly extended his hand, first to her and then to him.
“A man that is a guest is a man that is honored,” Ulrich Leammon said with a structured smile.
“I am thanking you,” my father said, and he half turned to me. “With me is the boy.”
“A healthy one,” said Hannah Leammon.
The smell of something earthy came from the house.
“Come in from the heat,” said Ulrich Leammon. “At least we have air.”
Inside the small house, a fan as large as an antenna rotated while serene orchestral music played on the hi-fi.
“Have you ever heard our Mozart?” Hannah Leammon asked me.
“No, who’s he?”
She kneeled to face me. Her small feet were jammed into a pair of black shoes. Her round face flushed from the heat, her eyes too close to mine. “The finest writer of music, beautiful music.” She took my hand and I felt squeamish and excited. “Can you feel its spirit?” She placed my hand over her heart. “Here?”
I opened my mouth like a fish and said, “I don’t know. I like “My Friend The Witch Doctor.”
It was a comfortable room with a painting of mountains on one wall and a forest on another. There were two leather arm chairs, a couch that didn’t match, and in between a small table with legs that turned into carved talons, gripping globes of brass.
“Please. Will you drink a beer?”
I heard my father’s repeated incantation whenever we passed a tavern during his rounds. “The goyim. All they do is drink the beer.”
My father nodded at Mr. Leammon. “Yes. It’s good to have a beer.”
“In Vienna,” said Hannah Leammon, “my father always offered a sweet wine to a guest. Here there is no sweet wine I am afraid to say. Not of such quality.”
“Ah.” Ulrich Leammon was a pouring a bottle into a long thin glass.
“It’s a good name,” my father said. “Schaefer.”
Mr. Leammon poured one for himself. “Good beer and good health.” He held up his glass. “Prost.”
Mr. Leammon sat back in his arm chair, and I noticed both he and his wife had crossed their legs. The elegance of this position astounded me. This was a vision of restraint and pleasure, knowledge and experience. Cool, off-handed, ever so slightly bored. Comfortably arranged thighs, parallel to each other, dangling feet lightly treading on the world.
I looked at my father. Square, shoes on the floor. A box of meat.
I looked at them. Feathers. Silk.
My own short thighs, so wide and tight in my pants suddenly burdened me. How did you
cross your legs?
I lifted one ankle onto another and tried from there to move my right leg up. It would not go further than my knee. I reached for my right ankle and lifted it, fighting the flesh that had never been lifted in this way. I tugged it atop the left knee. This wasn’t what they were doing but at least my foot had left the ground.
“And so my years at university for nothing, for the stupidity of this foolish krieg. And of course, when they learned who was with the SDP,” Mr. Leammon smiled tightly, “that was how they made jobs for the sewer rats in their black uniforms. And our comrades could do nothing. It was the leadership, so stupid, so ready to sink. “
“The politics I never understood.”
“But what you did was noble. You fought for the people.”
“To escape the Nazis, I fought for the devil.”
“Stalin was a man of the people.”
My father waved his hand. “What people?”
“Marxist, Socialist, Intellectual, Jew. All were the same to them. Do you know what they did to Hannah’s brother, what they forced her to see?”
“Ulrich please now stop. The boy.”
To sit among adults, ignored, understanding more than I wanted to acknowledge: this was nothing new. But to hear Mozart, to be among goyim, to smell the bitter aroma of beer and see my father a party to such circumstances froze me into some kind of half-life.
As they turned to me, I felt a streak of bristling pinches in my inner thigh, my reward for sitting in grotesque imitation of the blonde hosts.
Hannah Leammon stood with a cheerful smile. “Come with me, kleine, let me give you a
I was so surprised to hear her use a word my mother would have said that all I noticed was my father’s expression when I fell forward onto the table, striking the sleek glasses with an outstretched arm that reflexively tried to brace my collapse. With my crossed leg asleep, and the other unable to support my weight, the rest of me covered the tabletop and everything that had been placed on it.
My father began swearing in a language I did not understand, but could feel.
Ulrich Leammon sat impassively while his wife swept over me making dove sounds. She lifted me, and with a free hand, wiped the beer off my cheeks. I shut my eyes but tears came out. “Come. Come.” She was tugging me.
I walked with her and could smell the room I was entering. The kitchen.
I opened my eyes to flowered wall paper. Black pots sat on the range, and on a counter there was a cake, with the whitest frosting I had ever seen.
“Here is a Coca-Cola.” I took the drink and watched as she went to the pots and began stirring. “So warm,” she said, not looking at me. “Are you warm? Take off the jacket.”
“I don’t want to.”
She sipped from the wooden spoon and nodded, not at my words but with the taste of the food.
Hannah Leammon found more beer in the refrigerator, reached into a cabinet for another pair of pilsner glasses and walked back into the living room.
The telephone rang and she answered it. “Hello, yes? Yes? So? Yes. This is. It is. He is. The number please. The place please. Yes. Yes. Goodbye.”
“Eine Dame ist am Markt mit viele Taschen. Sie mochte abgeholdt und nach Hause gefahren werden.”
They continued in German for a short while and I poked my head around the corner of the hall, avoiding my father’s face.
Ulrich Leammon rose. “I am sorry to leave,” he said.
“It is best,” Hannah Leammon stroked his shoulder. “The food will be fine. We will wait.”
Ulrich Leammon straightened himself. “A taxi driver in this country is like a doctor. He must be prepared to help those with need at any hour.”
“No one in this country will wait,” my father said. “Not even for a red light. That is a manufact.” He used this expression when he wanted to be emphatic. I never understood what it meant.
Ulrich Leammon shook hands with my father and left like a hero, his Mercedes the waiting steed. We watched from the screen door as he drove away.
Hannah Leammon turned to me. “On the television is a program for you? We let Mozart rest.”
“Let him watch the kets,” my father said. “It’s all he likes.”
Kets was his word for cartoons, and it wasn’t true. “I want to watch “Million Dollar Movie,” I said. “That’s what I want to see.”
The television snapped to attention, the white dot in the middle of the screen growing from pinpoint to picture. Hannah Leammon switched to the channel I asked for.
I nodded and sat in one of the leather armchairs, my legs swinging.
“Come now,” Hannah Leammon said to my father. “You will help me with the dinner.”
This sounded strange and stranger still was my father’s readiness to obey. They went into the kitchen, and I watched the screen. Men were singing about Wildroot hair tonic.
When the film came on, I grimaced. “Million Dollar Movie” was shown three times each day, the same show for an entire week. If it was a good week, I could watch “King Kong” or “A Walk in the Sun” or some shield-and-sword epic like “Suleiman the Conqueror.”
But here was a domestic scene with women walking arm-in-arm. I hoped for a lunatic to pounce and kidnap them. Then of course they could be strapped down to await the fiendish experiments of a deranged doctor.
No such luck. At the end of the segment, the announcer let me know that after another message, “I Remember Mama” would return.
And now I did remember Mama. Where was she? Who was Mr. Herbert Spear? Why did I have to be here?
I slipped off the leather armchair and stepped gingerly around the table with the half-filled pilsner glasses.
In the kitchen was another domestic scene, though to my eyes, lunatic in its own way. Their
backs to me, standing before the simmering pots, my father’s hairy forearm clutched Hannah Leammon’s thin waist. They were very close.
I don’t know how long I watched, but I remember the glassy expression Hannah Leammon gave me when she turned her head.
“I am glad you like my stew,” she said, separating herself from the forearm. “Taste again.”
My father said, “What?”
“Taste.” She pushed him away and drew a wooden spoon to his mouth. “More salt?”
Then he saw me. I wasn’t sure what had happened but he seemed to change places with me. He had the face of a boy. “Let him taste.”
She beckoned me and bent over so that I could see the swell of her breasts.
The spoon rose before my eyes and I saw the woman in the eyepiece sitting naked on the sepia beach.
I swallowed the slimy brown things on the spoon. “What is it?”
“Mushrooms,” Hannah Leammon said. “Do you like mushrooms?”
Mushrooms! Mold, putrefaction, maggots at the bottom of garbage cans.
Mushrooms! The dirty spawn of stinking dirt.
Mushrooms! Poisonous pus. Death Angels.
Hannah Leammon’s brows came together, her eyes were tender. “Just let it out.”
“Meshugganah!” my father said.
“Into my hand,” said Hannah Leammon.
“He has a handkerchief,” my father said.
She reached into my pocket and found something. My mask.
I spit it all out. “I want my mask!”
I snatched back the mask and slipped it over my head. My tears were now hidden.
“Where is mama? Where’s my mama?” I saw the white frosting on the counter and heard the electric mixer crash to the floor. “Where’s my cake? I want my cake!”
Hannah Leammon quickly sliced a large wedge of the desert and slid it onto a dish. “Ach so, this is called food for an angel but now it will be good for the devil.”
“Hannah!” Ulrich Leammon called from the screen door. “I am back.”
With the back of his hand, my father wiped the dampness from his throat. “Better bread with water,” he said, “than cake with trouble.”