The Substitution – Lois Barr

Louisville, September 14, 1937—the day of Kol Nidrei

Bess awoke to slamming of doors and her grandmother’s cane banging on the kitchen floor.

“What’s going on Bubby?”

“You mother’s going to the hospital.”

“But the baby’s not due for a month.”

“What does God know from due dates?”

“I want to go.”

“No, you must stay home with Calman and take care of the kapores for me.”

Her grandmother pulled a handkerchief out of her bosom and untied the knot.  She showed Bess a roll of quarters and told her to buy a hen and a rooster at the Haymarket before she and her brother had breakfast.  Then they should go to school.

“You know where I keep my basket.  And here is the prayer.  Calman must hold the rooster over his head and you must hold the hen.  Don’t forget, three times you must wave the chicken over your head while you say the prayer.”

“But Bubby, you know I don’t believe in such superstition.  And last year I got a big scratch…”

“A scratch?  A scratch!  You want your mother should lose the baby?  Or the baby should be born, God forbid, deformed?  You want your father should die from his sickness?  For me, I don’t care, I wish the Almighty would take me already, so you wouldn’t have another mouth to feed, but as long as I am alive, I will take care of my family.  You do this Bess.  And don’t buy no black chickens.  They should be pure white.  Go now before they run out of the perfect ones.”

Her bubby slammed the quarters on the kitchen table, tied a kerchief over her best wig, grabbed her cane and walked out.  Bess went to the window; she could see her mother and father in a cab in the alley.  She heard her grandmother descending as quickly as her old bones would allow her down the back stairs.

Bess went back to her daybed and put her covers back over her and tried to go back to sleep.   For once it was cool in the kitchen and so quiet. 

“Sis, where’s my breakfast?” Calvin asked tugging at his sister’s blanket.

“Fix it yourself.”

“Hey, who left us this fortune?  I can double this before you can whistle “Dixie.”

“Leave it alone.  It’s Bubby’s money for the kapores.  We have to go to the Haymarket to buy a rooster and a hen and say the prayers.  Bubby can’t do it cause they’ve taken Momma to the hospital.  The baby’s coming early.  We’re supposed to go marketing before we have our breakfast.  Then we’ll have to hurry to get to school before the bell.”

“I’m not skipping breakfast.”

“I’ll buy you doughnuts if you go with me to the market.  I dread this business of holding the live chickens and then the killing.  At least Bubby doesn’t want us to kill them.  Just go get dressed.”

Bess went into the bathroom and saw spots of blood on the floor.  Was her mother going to lose another baby?  It would almost be better.  How would they take care of another child when Poppa was so sick he might lose the tailor shop?  And her foolish bubby: so much money for a stupid superstition.  As she washed her hands, she was ashamed of thinking they didn’t need another baby.  And she worried that her mother might die in the hospital having it.  Her neighbor Nancy had lost her mother to typhoid after the flood.  Then she was sent to an orphanage although Bess hadn’t realized where Nancy was until a school chum told her the terrible details.

“Come on Sis.  Let’s get this show on the road.” Calvin was banging on the door to get his turn.

As they walked down Broadway to Brook Street, Calvin went on about how he could parlay $5.25 into a fortune.  Bess tried to divert his attention by telling him how their grandmother used to kill the chickens herself.

“You were a baby, you probably don’t remember.  She’d swirl the bird over her head and say the prayer and then she’d snap its neck off with her bare hands.  Those chickens must have known the end was near, they always squawked so much. Then she took the dead birds to the rabbi to make sure they were ritually perfect, and she’d take them to a poor family that wouldn’t have a holiday meal.  “

“I remember that.  Look, Sis, just give me a penny.  You see those kids down that alley, they’re pitching pennies and I can win us some money fast.”

There was a knot of kids about Calvin’s age and an older boy standing at the edge of the alley, maybe fifteen like Bess or older, certainly taller.  Bess didn’t like the looks of the group, but they waved to Calvin. 

“You know the ropes, you gotta touch the wall and the winner is the one closest.”

On the first toss Calvin’s penny landed on top of another player’s coin pretty close to the wall, but the last player put his coin within millimeters of the wall.  So he asked for another penny from Bess.

“Calvin, we have to get going.”

“Just give me the penny, Sis.”

On the next toss Calvin’s coin took a bad bounce on a brick that was sticking up and didn’t even hit the wall.

The tallest boy asked Calvin, “So, who’s your girlfriend?”

“This is my big sister, and I better not see a one of you bothering her.”

The tall boy shrugged and one of the younger boys giggled.

The game continued, and Calvin won a few pennies and lost a few.

Bess felt sorry for the younger kids who seemed to keep losing money.  Especially, a boy her brother knew named Billie.  She didn’t think she’d ever seen a dirtier kid.  How did her brother know these boys?

“Okay, Sis, I can feel my luck coming.  Give me a penny.”

“I don’t have any more pennies, just the money from Bubby.”

“Okay, men, I’m going to up the ante.  Who’s got the guts to pitch a quarter?”

Only a few kids had quarters and were willing to take Calvin’s dare.

Calvin turned to Bess who handed over a quarter with a look of disgust on her face.  He pitched his quarter and it landed right by the wall.  The four other boys came close, but Calvin was clearly the winner.  A boy named Billie looked desperate when he saw Calvin take his quarter off the ground and pocket it.  Calvin announced he had to get his breakfast and go to the market.

“Hey, not so fast.  You know how we end it.  We gotta do tips.”

“But I don’t got no pennies,” Calvin grumbled.

“I’ll see you one and you’ll give me two if you win,” offered Billie.

They went through the elaborate process of pitching and calling heads or tails.  Finally, just about everyone had gotten a penny or two and Calvin gave Billie his two cents.  Billie took the two pennies and loped off down the alley without saying goodbye.  Bess thought he looked like he was about to cry.  The oldest boy patted Calvin on the shoulder and said he’d see him around.

“Hey, Sis, I’m treating for the doughnuts.”

As they pulled doughnuts out of a greasy brown bag, Calvin said, “Let’s skip school and go see how Momma is doing.  We’ll tell Bubby we did the kapores.”

Bess didn’t like the idea, but she really wanted to see how her mother was too. 

“If you want to buy the kapores we can go to the market after the hospital.  We have enough money to take the trolley.”

On the trolley, Bess asked her brother who the oldest boy in the alley was.

“Oh, he stands guard to watch for the truant officer.”

“Why are you two such good buddies?”

“Well, we learned him a thing or two one time when they tried to cheat me.”

“What do you mean you taught him a lesson?  He’s a head taller than you and a lot heavier.”

“Well, me and Joe together.  We showed him we mean business.  Remember when I came home with a shiner?”

“Yes, Momma was frantic.  She thought you would lose your eye.”

“Well, you should have seen Tommy.”

“You mean the big kid?  I know you’re scrappy and Cousin Joe’s a terrific boxer, but that boy’s bigger than the two of you put together.  “

“Not with Benny Kagan.”

Bess laughed out loud.  Benny was her aunt and uncle’s neighbor, and he was way too old to be hanging around with the likes of Calvin and Joe. 

“Why would Benny want to get into a fight for you guys?”

“Let’s just say he owes us.”

“Hey, here’s Jewish Hospital.”

They hopped off the trolley and crossed the street to the dark brick building.

The lady at the reception desk was attending to a big family, so she didn’t see Calvin and Bess slip into the stairwell.  They knew their way to the women’s section.

The first person they saw was their grandmother who was napping in a chair.  Actually, everyone was asleep, but their father woke up, put his fingers on his lips, and led the children out.  They couldn’t stop staring at their mother with tubes in her arms and fluid hanging in a bag above her head. 

“Come away from the door.  Your momma needs her rest.”

“She looks so white.”

“How’s she doing, Poppa?”

“ Dr. Rubel says, she has a good chance, but they want her to rest and get some fluids until she has the baby.  I thought you were going marketing for the fowl and then you were supposed to go to school.”

“Yup, we did it,” Calvin said before Bess could think of what to say.

“Look, you kids shouldn’t be here.”

“But, we were so worried about Momma, we had to see her.”

“Well, you won’t help her making noise here, so go on home and help Annabelle get everything ready for your dinner tonight before the fast.”

“Okay, Poppa, but I ain’t fasting the whole day until after I have my Bar Mitzvah.  Momma said…”

Poppa laughed and tussled Calvin’s hair, “Don’t worry, but you could at least fast until lunch tomorrow.  And you too Bess.”

“Poppa, you know I’ve done the whole fast for two years now,” Bess objected.  She was proud to be counted among the adults although she really hated almost everything about the Day of Atonement.  She hated how dark the house was and she hated having to sit so long in synagogue and pound her chest and say she was sorry for sins she couldn’t understand even when they were translated into English.  The only good thing about Yom Kippur was that their family from Indianapolis came and stayed with them but this year they weren’t coming. 

The two kids were quiet as they walked out of the hospital.  They didn’t like the way their mother looked.

“Good thing Bubby was napping.  I don’t know if I could lie to her.”

“Let me do the talking, Bess.  She can’t boss me around anymore.”

Bess knew that Calvin resented how often their grandmother disciplined him.  She was the only one who didn’t think Calvin was the perfect child.  She told Calvin what her grandmother had said about wanting to die and Calvin said, “Well, life would be a heck of a lot easier without her.” Bess felt the same way, but she felt terrible for thinking it.

“So should we go to school?”

“I say we go have lunch and I think we should do the kapores.  I mean Momma might need a little help from the man upstairs.”

Bess liked Calvin’s idea.  A few blocks from Jewish Hospital they found a little diner.  Calvin ordered a bologna sandwich and Bess ordered grilled cheese.  She wasn’t going to chide her brother for ordering non-kosher meat, but she did tell him what a bad idea it was to gamble his money away.

“Hey, I won, didn’t I? 

“Yes, but did you see the kid who lost his quarter?  He probably won’t eat today.  You really need to spend more time in school and less time gambling.”

“I don’t miss much school and anyway, I’m a sure thing with pitching pennies.”

“Yes, but Calvin you could have lost our money.”

“Nope, it’s just as much skill as luck.   If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

“But Calvin, our family has always worked.  That’s how we get our money.”

“But Poppa can’t work no more, and Jackson keeps talking about setting up his own business or going up North.”

“Yes, but some way or another we’ll work and tonight we’ll have a meal without your gambling money.  Annabelle is making chicken croquettes.”

“Yeah, I like Annabelle’s croquettes well enough but I’m sure we’ll each get one or two. And how are we supposed to fast tomorrow on two measly croquettes. “

“But the point is we’ll eat.”

Calvin had half a mind to order another bologna sandwich, but his sister said, “We have to get to the market fast because the slaughterer closes early before the holiday.”

“Oh well, we’ll have money left over after we buy the darned poultry.”

“I think we should give that to charity too.”

“I’ll put a dime in the tzedakah box and the rest is ours.  I won it fair and square and charity begins at home, right, Sis?”

The Haymarket was quiet when they got there; some of the trucks were taking up their awnings and others were pulling away.  They went to the stall where their bubby always did business and asked for a white cock and a white hen.

“Well, you kids came kinda late to be getting that today.  I got a couple of spotted roosters and that’s it.”

Bess felt stricken.  Maybe she was being punished for going along with Calvin and for not doing as her grandmother had wanted. 

“You know, a couple of your people bought other poultry for their holiday.  I have a pair of white ducks left, but they’ll cost you plenty.”

“Mister, you got something cheap like quails or pigeons?”

“Take the ducks or leave them.  I’m closing for the day.”

“Calvin, we have to buy something, the shochet will be closed pretty soon.  We’ll take the ducks.”

“I know a shortcut,” Calvin yelled as he ran down the alley with the ducks honking madly in the basket. 

“Hey, wait, Calvin, we have to do the prayer.”

“Well, how are we going to get home and do the prayer and get to the slaughterer in time?”

“There’s a little park, I guess we could do it there.”  But when they got closer, Bess saw the mother of one of her schoolmates from Atherton High.  So they turned around and ran back to the alley.

Calvin shrugged and put down the basket.  He untied the lid and one of the ducks flew out and scampered away.  He shoved the other duck back into the basket and told his sister to keep a lid on it.  He ran down the alley, caught the duck and ran back.

“Phew that was close.  So what’s the prayer anyway?”

Bess reached into her pocket and pulled out the little card in Hebrew and English her grandmother had given her.  She didn’t read Hebrew as well as Calvin, so he recited the prayer. 

“You have to hold the female and I have to hold the male.”

“How do we know which is which?  The ducks were squawking and wriggling.  Calvin held one up over his head and said, “Darned if I know.  Well, this one is bigger, so it must be the male.”

A car rumbled down the brick alley and the driver yelled, “Hey, you kids get out of the way?  You wanna get hit?”

“Okay, let’s do this. This is my atonement, this is my substitute, this rooster will go to its death and I will live a long life of peace.”

He held the duck tightly over his head and made three circles.  Bess stood there hoping her brother would live a long life of peace even if he wasn’t exactly the peaceful type.  Calvin put his bird back in the basket and carefully handed the smaller one to Bess.  He held the body while she held the neck and together they circled it over her head.  The strength she could feel as the duck struggled against her grip made her feel they both might take flight.   She was glad she didn’t have to slaughter it.  Calvin said the prayer for her.  They put them back into their bubby’s market basket and tied the lid tightly. 

When they got to the butcher shop, there was a handwritten sign, Closed until 7 a.m. Thursday.

“Come on, we’ll go around the back.  “

They knocked at the slaughterer’s door and an old lady shook her finger sternly at them through the window. 

“Now, what do we do?” Calvin said, “How about we let them go loose at Cave Hill Cemetery.”

“No, they’re supposed to go to charity. That old lady is Bubby’s friend.  She’ll tell Bubby she saw us for sure.”

“I guess our goose, or our ducks are cooked,” Calvin laughed.

“Calvin it’s not funny.  We lied to Bubby and now the ducks haven’t been killed by a kosher butcher and we’re not even giving them to someone needy.”

“Well, I guess I know someone needy all right.  Remember the kid Billie who lost his quarter?”

“Yes.  He looked as scrawny and dirty as anyone I’ve ever seen.”

“He’s got seven brothers and sisters.”

“Do you know where they live?”

“They’re on Baxter not too far from us.  Just across the alley.”

“What will we say?”

“We’ll say it’s a gift from the Lutherans.”

“No, then they might say something to Pastor Habermann.  We must keep this quiet.”

“Well, I’ll think of something.”

As they approached Baxter and Broadway, Calvin said, “Remember, let me do the talking.”

They asked at every apartment for Billie’s family.  Finally, someone told them they lived around back in the basement.

When Billie’s mother opened the door a kid in a droopy gray diaper ran out the door.  The woman yelled, “You get back in here or I’ll tan your hide.”

“What do y’all two want?” she said as she yanked the toddler hard and motioned them both to come inside.

“Uh, we’re friends of Billie’s where is he?”

“He’s helping his brother load coal down the way.  Y’all one of his durn gambling buddies, I bet.”

“Oh no ma’am, I know him from school and I, we, just came from the church.  From St. Paul’s to be exact.  The priest wanted us to give you these ducks.”

Calvin opened the basket and the ducks squawked and flew about.  The toddler ran after the bigger one and the bird arched its neck and bit the kid on his hand.  The kid let out a scream and then a baby started crying.

“Now look what you’ve done.  What am I supposed to do with these animals?”

“Eat them?  Do you want me to kill them?”

“Nah, my oldest son will be home soon enough, and he’ll do the deed.”

“Do you have something my brother can put them in?  We have to take this basket back home,” Bess told the woman. 

The women pulled a box full of rags out from under a bed and emptied it onto the table.  Calvin placed the unhappy ducks into the box and then the woman put the lid down and placed a skillet on top.

“Well, I reckon the kids will be happy of a good meal.  You two didn’t steal them ducks I hope.”

“No ma’am, we bought… I mean the priest gave them to us…  Anyways, you better make sure they have some air to breathe.”

As they walked down the alley, they saw Billie coming home even dirtier than he’d been that morning.

“Hey Billie.”

“Hey Cal, I ain’t playing no games with you.  My mother tanned my hide for losing money this morning.”

“Well, actually, we left a pair of ducks for your family to have for dinner.”

“What do you mean? Duck?”

“Didn’t you ever eat duck?”

“We eat duck durn near every day and on Sundays we have turkey and ham.  Y’all wanna eat with us?”

“Oh, we got our dinner waiting for us, you enjoy ‘em.”

“Boy oh boy, Cal, y’all sure can be a pal sometimes.”

“Oh, I didn’t do nothing, it was the church.  Father, I forget his name, asked me to bring them by.  And Billie, look here.  This is the quarter you lost this morning.  Guess you should stay from them games.  You don’t have the toss.”

“Bess was beaming as they walked down the alley toward home.”

“You were terrific!  Did you see the smile on Billie’s face?”

“It’s okay.  We still have $1.75 left.”

“Well, you better put that in the pushkie tonight before we light the candles.”

“All of it?”

“It all goes in the charity box.”

It seemed strange to have the meal before the fast without their mother and father and the rest of the family.  Bubby had come home from the hospital on the trolley and she was ordering them about even though Annabelle had made the meal and set the table.  As they washed their hands in the special bowl before lighting the candles, Adel looked quizzically at her granddaughter’s arms. 

“No chicken scratches this year?”

Bess didn’t answer, she just handed her grandmother the matches.  Bess didn’t like seeing the candles lit without her mother there.  As she chewed on the chicken croquette, she wondered if their lie would be bad for the family.  Would something terrible happen to Momma?  Would Poppa’s hands get shakier?  She didn’t believe in all that stuff.  Especially, The Book of Life: that tonight it would be written who would live and who would die this year.  But still…

“How is Poppa going to get home?”

“He is staying at the hospital.” 

Bess never enjoyed the evening meal before the Day of Atonement.  They ate early and quickly.  Then they were supposed to fast for over 24 hours, until you could see a star in the sky.  And their grandmother wouldn’t let them leave a light on anywhere but in the bathroom.  Usually the whole family ran out after dinner in a sweat to get to synagogue and the chanting of Kol Nidre.  At least tonight they didn’t have to hurry.  With Momma and Poppa at the hospital, they wouldn’t be going to schul.  After Bess and her brother finished the dishes then what would they do?  You couldn’t play piano, you couldn’t listen to the radio, you couldn’t read a schoolbook, you couldn’t even tear toilet paper.   

Bess lay on her bed and watched the candles flicker out.  It was so quiet without Momma and Poppa in their bedroom chatting or arguing.  She felt terrible for wishing Momma wouldn’t have a baby.  She wouldn’t mind talking with Calvin, but he hadn’t crept out of the parlor to sneak away anywhere, so he must be asleep.  The conscience of an angel.  Well, he wasn’t a bad egg.   She thought about the hectic day she and Calvin had had.  He had looked at her once during dinner and almost broke out laughing.  Bubby stared at the two of them all through dinner as though she suspected something.  She had grilled Calvin about the money he put in the charity box.  But Calvin just said it was his money he had saved.  As Bess lay on her bed in the kitchen, she missed the bedtime glass of milk Momma always made her drink even now that she was fifteen years old.  Even if her mother did fine, her father wouldn’t be at synagogue.  He would probably need to rest.  Nothing felt right.  She tossed and turned.  She felt terrible about lying to her grandmother and even about what she and Calvin had said about being better off without her.  She felt like maybe she should go in and tell her grandmother about the ducks but then her grandmother would worry about Momma losing the baby and Papa getting weaker.  Then she thought about Billie’s family.  She hadn’t smelled such foul odors since the Ohio River had receded from their neighborhood leaving mud and dead fish everywhere.  If Billie’s mother could keep seven kids out of the orphanage, then surely she and Calvin could figure out a way to keep their family going.  The smile on Billie’s face when Calvin gave him back his money was priceless, but her mind went back to the lies.  At least they had done the kapores and said the prayer.  What if their mother lost another baby?

At 6 a.m. the phone rang, and Bess ran down to her father’s shop to answer.

It was Poppa.  Momma had delivered.   Baby and mother were doing fine.  The kids should get Bubby to synagogue, and then they could come to the hospital at the afternoon break and meet their beautiful new baby sister Toviah.


Lois Baer Barr is a reading buddy for the Open Books Foundation in Chicago and an emerita professor of Spanish at Lake Forest College where she will be teaching creative writing in Spanish this fall.   Her publications include a chapbook of poetry Biopoesis which won Poetica Magazine’s first prize and a chapbook of extremely short stories, Lope de Vega’s Daughter, forthcoming from Red Bird Press.  She has studied Torah and exhibited with the Artist Beit Midrash of N.S. Beth El for the past five years.  Her story, “Mrs. Parmenter’s Dress,” a companion piece with “The Substitution,” was published by The Jewish Literary Journal (June 2014). 

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