The Bronx, 1956
Easy for the doctor to recommend cosmetic surgery to Hannah after the fire. That big macher didn’t have to scrape up rent for a two-room cold-water flat.
Mr. Henley could give her a raise if she asked. John McGraw could return to manage the Giants, too.
Jerry would’ve smooched her and said she still looked like Ingrid Bergman. That one was a charmer from the night Hannah met him at the dance hall, but she didn’t need placating. She knew what she looked like now.
The scarring, from her left cheek, down her jaw and onto her upper shoulder, couldn’t disappear with a few flattering words. They couldn’t bring Jerry back from that same fire, either.
Long sleeves and turtlenecks brought her out of her apartment weeks later. Mr. Henley, though, moved her from the ticket booth at the Loews Paradise to the candy counter inside, with its lower lighting. Air conditioning in the summer made her clothes tolerable, but oy, when she stepped outside into the eighty degree weather…
She would endure. Even if she had to go it alone. G-d would provide.
Then Mr. Kowalski, a widower, moved into her building. He worked in Washington Heights. He’d take the 36 bus on East 180th Street with her every morning, staying on when she transferred at Grand Concourse.
Hannah would hide the scars when they chatted, but he said he had seen worse during the war. He never gawked at her like she was Boris Karloff. In fact, he studied her face carefully, then glanced away when she stared back.
Why would he do that unless…?
Impossible. What man would want her now? Anyway, no one could replace Jerry in her heart.
This man, though… Her hand to G-d, Mr. Kowalski was a gentleman, but once, on the bus, his knee leaned against hers. She pulled away, but stole a peek at his dark blonde hair, his green eyes. He blushed and waved goodbye when her stop approached.
On the sidewalk, when no one watched, she cracked her knuckles; first her left hand, then her right. Her thumb passed over her wedding ring.
Surely he didn’t find this face attractive?
Weeks passed. On the bus, she’d talk about Willie Mays and the price of eggs. Mr. Kowalski, so dapper in his gray wool cap, discussed his job as a custodian at Yeshiva University. When she asked about his family once, his voice diminished. An uncle helped bring him to America. He wouldn’t say more, and she didn’t want to be a nebby.
Across the aisle, a pair of kids noshed on Atomic Fireballs. Mr. Kowalski mistook the candy for a pill. Hannah explained it. They were big sellers at the Loews.
Jerry came over to America as a child, as did Hannah. Growing up here, they understood this country better than their parents did. Perhaps that was why they got along so well.
After eight years, Mr. Kowalski still struggled grasping things like hot dogs and women’s fashions and the sacrifice fly. More and more, he called upon Hannah to clarify. This kind of relationship with a man was unusual to her. It made her chuckle. She couldn’t help it.
But she didn’t mind.
One day he invited her to dinner in the city: Veselka, in Greenwich Village. So far downtown? She’d never been close to the Village before. Was it as Bohemian as people said it was?
Black-clad “beatniks,” long-haired musicians, men holding hands with other men? Looked like it was.
She ordered a beef stroganoff so tender and juicy her nana could’ve made it. At one point Hannah and Mr. Kowalski reached for the pepper. His hand touched hers. He withdrew, avoiding her eyes, but for a second, he had lingered there. It was rough and worn, not like Jerry’s.
Underneath the table, she cracked her knuckles. Jerry would’ve kissed her hand and played with it, the meshuggeneh.
He had made her smile again after their baby miscarried. He had sat by her side when she watched Papa’s emphysema get the best of him. Jerry would’ve helped her live with her affliction too.
But he was gone… and here was a handsome, soft-spoken man courting her after she had given up on any man doing so. Yet she held him at arm’s length. Nu, did she want to be alone for the rest of her life or what?
Late that night, Hannah talked to Jerry in her head. She had never said goodbye to him. She couldn’t, not yet. Kind as Mr. Kowalski was, Jerry’s memory would help her adjust to living with these scars.
The next morning, while waiting for the bus, she broke this to Mr. Kowalski. She braced for his reaction.
Even with the scars, she resembled his sweetheart, executed by the Nazis. His lip quivered. The poor man wished he had been stronger, done more for the woman he loved.
Meeting Hannah was like a second chance at first, he said, until he stopped seeing his lost love and started seeing Hannah. Still, he understood her dilemma. He kissed her on the forehead.
Hannah was all verklempt. The thought of a man caring for her despite her condition made her blood run hot and cold.
The bus arrived. They stepped aboard and sat next to each other. His knee touched hers again. She started to crack her knuckles again, but stopped.
He was here. He was part of her life now. Someday she would be strong enough to move on without Jerry. If she was blessed, Mr. Kowalski would remain, and she’d be ready to receive what he had to offer. She left her knee next to his.
Rich Watson has been published in the literary magazine Newtown Literary and the movie magazine The Dark Pages. He blogged at the site Wide Screen World from 2010-21. He currently blogs at ByRichWatson.blogspot.com.