As a kid, I had an angry father who seemed to dislike some people. He made remarks about kikes, wops, spics, and colored. I didn’t understand his belligerence but felt it came from his parents and the Great Depression. It wasn’t my fault that grandma made him go to work instead of college, which his high school principal offered to fund. Maybe it was standing in the breadlines on the Bowery or the drudgery of shift work for Westinghouse in Newark. Most of my childhood I wore a bull’s–eye, and he shot his anger straight at me.
* * *
“Where were you?” he asked in that ready-for-an-argument tone when I came home close to suppertime. I never went far from my street, and he usually didn’t ask questions. To answer his question, I will tell you a story.
On sticky August afternoons when Newark’s air was heavy with humidity, Mrs. Bell sat on her front porch. Her weight filled a flowered sleeveless cotton dress. She wrapped her spongy arms across a broad jelly belly. Sometimes she fanned herself with a folded newspaper and at other times with a Japanese paper fan. Without using an ounce of energy, she watched traffic and neighbors go up and down Runyon Street. Her swollen ankles were set wide apart in house slippers. She seemed to like the little breezes that danced up the steps and found their way under her dress, between her legs, and into the dark, warm spaces she dared not fan.
“Honey, come on up here and talk to me,” she said, using a sweet voice. Sometimes Mrs. Bell scolded me when I made a screeching roller-skate turn in her precious driveway. “Stop that noise! Go skate someplace else! I have a headache!”
I pretended not to hear and had almost reached Johnson Avenue when she called again. I wanted to look for Bobbie Bufanio or any other kid who might be on the street. The afternoon was hot, and I was tired of reading. I spent hours every day of my fourth grade summer playing checkers and reading. George, the boy with cerebral palsy who lived on the second floor next door, smiled and garbled sounds I barely understood. I knew he loved playing checkers, but reading and playing checkers on every summer day had become absolutely boring.
Mrs. Bell broke into my search for some neighborhood kids. If only a fire truck would come to the corner, a fireman might open the hydrant in front of Ziegler’s grocery. An open hydrant always brought kids running into the streets. We would jump into the spray wearing our regular clothes, even our shoes. Sometimes I’d undress to my underwear and prance in the cold water. Abram would even let his dog Measles join the fun.
“What the heck,” I said to myself after hearing Mrs. Bell’s second call, “I’ll look for Bobbie later.”
I went up the steps and plopped into the chair next to hers. Mrs. Bell had curly white hair cut short and combed back from her face, and large breasts that heaved up and down as she sucked in air. Mrs. Bell didn’t have a husband, only a son named Sanford. Someone said her husband had a jewelry store and had died in a bus accident.
Mrs. Bell liked to wear jewelry. Maybe she has the stuff from her husband’s store. Gold rings and rings with pretty stones circled her chubby fingers. White and red plastic bracelets flashed colorful streaks as she fanned. As she exhaled, her breath smelled of onions. The air entered quietly but pushed out through her mouth in a noisy rush. I sat way back in the chair, leaning away from the onion smell and wondering if Sanford might be home. Just sitting on her porch put me that much closer to him.
Sanford worked as a cameraman for CBS Television in New York City. I always made sure I was around when he washed his car on Saturdays. More than anything, I wanted him to make me a television star. From my backyard, two houses up the street, I’d twirl over the metal pipe cemented into the concrete leading to our cellar. I’d twirl and belt out Ethel Merman show tunes in Sanford’s direction. “There’s No Business like Show Business” was my favorite. Sanford just kept washing his car and listening to a Yankees game on the radio.
“How’d you like to do some work for me?” Mrs. Bell asked. “I’ll give you fifty cents if you straighten out my jewelry and my sewing drawers. Would you like to do that for me, honey?”
I thought about the money. With fifty cents I could actually buy the September issue of Photoplay magazine. Without money I’d hang out at Moe’s store and look at the magazine one page at a time. Moe owned the store on Hillisde Avenue, and lived in the back with his family. He sold magazines, newspapers, ice cream, candy, and gum. He liked kids and never seemed to mind me just looking at the magazines.
A more serious thought interrupted my fantasy. I thought about my father and what he would say if I did anything for Mrs. Bell. It was okay if I walked little kids to school and baby-sat and took that money, but my father didn’t like Jewish people. He said they were stingy and always wanted something for nothing. Mrs. Bell was Jewish, and I didn’t know whether she was stingy or not.
“Okay, I’ll help with your drawers,” I agreed, thinking about movie stars and Sanford. Maybe my father wouldn’t ask any questions.
I had barely finished agreeing when she put both hands on the arms of the chair and began to rise like a whale heaving up from a calm sea. Lacking nature’s grace, she stood a second to balance her weight and took flat, heavy steps toward the foyer door. When we were inside, she opened the inner door, and we entered a cooler, darker space.
I blinked to adjust my eyes to the dim hallway that led to her rooms. Mrs. Bell’s flat smelled of fried bologna, just as my mother’s kitchen did sometimes. We walked through the parlor and a middle room. I glanced around for signs of Sanford but didn’t see him. Mrs. Bell went into a large room on the right, her bedroom.
“Come on in. I’ll show you what I want.”
Sunlight beaming through the back window made slashes across her bed. The red spread glowed with rows of fire. She put her weight down at the foot of the bed and reached to open the wide dresser drawer with both hands. Slowly pulling it forward, she revealed a drawer that sparkled with rhinestones – animal and flower pins, circles, beaded necklaces, rings, earrings, and bracelets – a jumbled treasure of beautiful, colorful things. My mother had a pearl necklace and a dragonfly pin with colored stones, but they didn’t compare to Mrs. Bell’s treasures.
“There it is,” she said, holding her palm up to the jumble. She picked up a glass perfume bottle from a collection on the dresser, took out the stopper, and dabbed Crepe de Chine behind each ear and on each wrist. The floor fan combined the aromas of fried bologna and perfume. My senses began to swirl, and I had a job to do.
“You put the rings with the rings, the pins with the pins, okay? You do that, and then we’ll look at the sewing drawer. What you don’t finish today, you’ll do tomorrow. Can you come back tomorrow?”
“Yes, I can do that,” I said with eyes that had just caught sight of one of King Solomon’s mines and the September issue of Photoplay magazine.
Pulling two pillows behind her head and shoulders, Mrs. Bell stretched out long on the bed, holding her fan. With one arm she fanned her face, and her other arm rested across her chest. She pulled her legs close together, and an earthy sweetness drifted through the room.
“I want you to put the jewelry into the boxes, and, if there aren’t enough boxes, put the pieces together nicely into the compartments. Just make the drawer look pretty.” Her soft voice seemed to drift toward a nap. I moved the jewelry pieces here and there – rings with rings, pins with pins. I had the drawer pretty much together and thought I had better go home. No one knew where I was. If my mother looked out, she wouldn’t see me on the porch or on the sidewalk. She’d start to worry, and I’d be in trouble. And, I still had to go to Moe’s for the newspaper.
“Mrs. Bell, I better go now. I did the work, and I’ll be back tomorrow.” Her eyes were closed and she let soft puffs of air pass between her lips. She didn’t know I went home with a dab of Emeraude behind my ears.
* * *
“Where were you?” demanded my father from his place at the kitchen table. My mother was quietly peeling potatoes at the sink, getting ready for supper. He had the graveyard shift this week and would go to sleep after we ate. I knew he disliked Mrs. Bell. If I lied, he would hit me. If I told the truth, I could be punished for his stupidity.
“Out. I went to look for some kids. Then I went to talk to Mrs. Bell.”
“What’d you talk about?”
“Nothing much. She asked me to help straighten out her jewelry and sewing drawers. Said she’d give me fifty cents.”
“What? You were working for that Jew?” His white face flushed red, and blue veins popped on his neck.
“It wasn’t hard work, just putting rings and things together in her jewelry drawer.”
“She pay you?”
“No, I’m going tomorrow to do her sewing drawer.”
“The hell you are! You’re not going to work for some Jew lady who won’t pay you anything.”
“Yes, she will. She said so.”
“Shut up! I said she won’t!” He pointed his finger in my face, and his face took on a rage of red – redder than Mrs. Bell’s bedspread. “You’re not going there again.”
My eyes burned hot with tears. “Ma, make him change his mind,” I pleaded. “She will pay me. It’s not hard work.”
“Your father doesn’t want you to go there anymore. You have to listen to him.”
I ran to my bedroom and threw myself across the bed. Tears rolled down my cheeks and soaked the pillow. I sobbed and sobbed.
“He’s stupid! Just plain stupid!” I cried out between wails. I wouldn’t have a Photoplay of my own. There wouldn’t be a chance to actually meet Sanford Bell in person. There wouldn’t be any more sorting jewelry in Mrs. Bell’s bedroom.
“Why is he my father?” I yelled, but softly enough that no one would hear. “I want a better one than him.”
* * *