Saturday, March 27, 2010

Excerpt: The Sweetness by Sande Boritz Berger

(Amazon novel contest Semi-finalist)

Vilna, 1941

Like most Friday nights I wait for Poppa by the cracked parlor window. Leaning against the glass where someone recently threw a fistful of stones, I run my fingers along the spidery break. Bubbe looks up from her crocheting (she is making a wool cap for me in this heat) and scolds. She warns me to move away from the window this minute. There is such fright in her voice that the hairs on my arms shoot straight up. Still I don’t budge.
“They might see you,” Bubbe says, “no matter what Rosha, you must not let them see you.”
And because I am not certain who it is that may be watching me, and Bubbe’s words create even more curiosity in my mind, I must have one more peek.
“I am watching for Poppa, like always, Bubbe, what is the harm?”
Without speaking, my grandmother raises herself up from the creaky wooden rocking chair and crosses the room. The floor appears to sink a bit under each of her steps. My hand is twisted around a piece of lacy white curtain, and as she moves closer, I poke one finger through a circular hole. It is a tiny hole, the center of a floral pattern, maybe roses, and very convenient to peek from. Beside me now, Bubbe peels my bent fingers, one by one, from the curtains.
“Ouch,” I complain. But Bubbe is not really hurting me
“Never mind, mein kind,” she says. She takes both my hands in hers and kisses the top of my forehead. Her breath smells from pickled herring and onions and yet I allow her to kiss me, mostly because she has not yet smacked me. She smacked me only the other day, for the very first time, after she caught me stealing the melted wax from a Yahrtseit candle. Bubbe had lit the large white candle for her husband, my Grandpa Yussel, who died last year of something called the pneumonia. She had slapped my hands until they stung, and said I might have put the entire house on fire, and that children should stay away from matches, flames, and anything hot. But it was so much fun to pour the melted wax into the palm of my hand. Feeling the warmth ooze between my fingers, I rolled the soft glob into many shapes, working quickly before the wax became too brittle like candy. I made a little bear like the ones Poppa says live inside Ponary, a forest only a few miles out of town. Another time, when I didn’t get caught, I’d made a giraffe out of our Friday night shabbos candles.
“Come sit with your Bubbe, and let me hear you read.” She licks her fingers and smoothes my long braids, and now all I can think is now I, too, will smell of pickled herring and onions. But I don’t move. I look up at my grandmother and smile as if I am really happy. I show her my new two front teeth that take up too much space in my mouth.
So my question about what harm can come from standing by the window goes unanswered. Like most of the questions I ask in our house, this one is also ignored. Instead, like always, someone stands or moves around and says something that has nothing to do with my question, until I become very confused, sometimes even frightened.
Still, I try to do what I am told. Especially because of all the tears and sadness since Grandpa Yussel was buried, and Bubbe and Poppa threw red dirt on the pine box that carried his body. Since then, Bubbe spends a lot of time with us on our floor, though she has her own place still, downstairs at 118 Sadowa Street. She and Grandpa Yussel have owned this building for many years, since the family moved here, from many different places, places like Riga in Latvia, Prague in a country I can not say, and some from as far as Budapest, which Poppa says is in Hungary and has nothing to do with being hungry.
Bubbe is Poppa’s mother, and so he often teases her that she spends much too much of her time worrying about things that aren’t real. And I think, oh yes, like over me burning down the house and putting us out on the street. Thank you, Poppa.
Once I almost said, Poppa, now I see why you are so careful to always do or say the right thing, so not to make a mistake; isn’t that a little bit like worrying? But I kept the thought inside. Besides, I love to watch when Poppa thinks long and hard about a problem. I laugh when the pointy V appears between his bushy dark eyebrows, and his tongue pokes in and out like bait teasing for an answer. No matter how hard the question, Poppa always finds an answer.
Lately, there are lots of people with questions, and talk that sounds mostly like worry. Wherever we go down Sadowa Street, to the grocer, the butcher, the tailor or to the open market before each weekend, all we hear are people’s deep sighs and the dry clucking sounds made by their tongues. When they talk, their heads shake and smiling eyes turn dark as they whisper. All of which makes me think I am not paying good enough attention. That I am indeed a dreamer as Bubbe likes to mention time and time again.
Wearing her Friday evening dress-up apron, Mama walks out of the kitchen and marches straight to the scrunched up curtains. She pretends to be fluffing them out, but I know she is looking for Poppa. I know because of what she says next. What no one has ever said before.
“It is nearly sundown, and Mordecai is late. Could he have forgotten today is Friday?” She asks Bubbe. “No one in our shtetl is to be out after dark. Everywhere they have patrols.” Mama stops talking as fast as she started realizing I am listening to her every word.
I am split into three separate pieces: one piece thinking, of course, about Poppa’s whereabouts; the second, trying to understand the meaning behind Mama’s words; and mostly wanting to go sit in Bubbe’s mushy lap, to forget everything and help her roll up a skein of the pretty pink yarn.
While Mama circles the table arranging the dinner plates, I squeeze my eyes shut and think of us all together before everything became so mysterious and confusing. Before I had to stay at home to learn my lessons, while some of my friends still went to the neighborhood school. Before the soldiers with those scrunched-up mean faces stood guard on every corner and forced people to empty their pockets for no reason at all.
I miss playing outdoors, especially now in warmer weather. It was only a few weeks ago when Mama and me went about our Friday preparing for Shabbos. I remember how the heat settled on the cobblestones baking them after they were washed by the shopkeepers. Mama and I counted the rainbows that danced upon the rock’s slippery surfaces, brightening the dull blues and grays until the colors blended into the hot, humid air. I was glad Mama had seen the rainbows as well, or Poppa might not have believed me. He might have asked if I was “stretching the truth” like, I’ll admit, I do sometimes to get his attention. But because he wears a wide grin when he asks, I know a little bit of truth-stretching is far from a terrible thing.
The warm sun sat on our shoulders as we made our way down the aisles of the open market, located in the square, steps from the old synagogue. Though now we can no longer pray there at night. I miss watching the hundreds of candles flickering behind the bimmeh, near the carved doors that hold the Torah and the ancient scrolls. Everyone stands up when they take out the Torah, they unroll it tenderly as if they are handling a newborn, and people, once even Poppa, was called to read a story in special Hebrew words.
That morning Mama bought two whole chickens from Mr. Gursko─ one for Bubbe, which she says will last an entire week since Bubbe eats like a birdie herself now with her Yussel gone, and one for us, though I won’t swallow one bite since I looked up at the exact moment that Mr. Gursko chopped off the chicken’s droopy head. All I can think about is the blood squirting like soda pop on Mr. Gursko’s white jacket and the red speck that landed on his nose the precise moment of impact. Yes, I am done with chicken. I will agree to some spoonfuls of potato soup, a slice of Mama’s stringy flanken, but not one bite of chicken.
We made our last stop Mrs. Juraska, the candle maker. Mama likes to keep a supply of candles in the drawer next to the silverware, and so almost every week she stops to chat with Mrs. Juraska who sometimes let me watch her make her candles when she wasn’t too busy. She took me in the back of her tented space and showed me the hundreds of little tin molds she used, the large blocks of paraffin and the vials of food coloring and dried wildflowers that she often presses into wax molds.
The candle maker, who is only a few years older than Mama, looks as old as Bubbe. I wonder if that’s because she has two children and Mama has only me. I once heard her telling Mama that children can rob the life out of you. Still, I wish, sometimes, Mama would have another. It would be nice to have a baby sister with whom I could play indoors. Sometimes, it gets very lonely here on Sadowa Street.
“Rosha, you are getting so tall,” Mrs. Juraska said, her eyes widening with such surprise. She was wrapping four long white candles in dark brown paper, reminding us they might melt if we didn’t go straight home.
“She is much too skinny, my precious Rosha. Not so tall,” Mama said, paying the smiling candle maker, “she eats just like her grandmother. The food seems to grow in her plate.” Mama brushed my hair back with her fingers. I grabbed her pinky and held it tight.
“Well, you never know Mrs. Kaninsky, one day she may be as big as a house or like the monument on the square, a real hausfrau like me. I, too, was once a very scrawny child. Thank goodness my husband likes a little flesh on his women.
Mama tried to be polite and smiled. Impossible, I thought quietly, me, a big girl? I gazed down the street to the bronze statue of a heavy peasant woman carrying a basket of fruit on her head. Pigeons have made it a favorite nesting spot, and there is usually white pigeon poop dripping down the poor woman’s face.
Just as we were about to leave, Mrs. Juraska held up two long tapered candles. They were peach-colored and wavy like hair ribbons. I had never seen such beautiful candles, but Mama shook her head no.
“Nothing too fancy for shabbos,” she said, and smiled. “Only pure white.” Then she said: “but perhaps another time, and I felt happy picturing the wavy candles glowing on our dinner table, or on the shelf near the kitchen window. As soon as we walked away, Mama leaned in and whispered what I never knew. “Mrs. Juraska is a Catholic woman,” she said, and her husband is like us− He is Jewish.”
“Really?” I said, and then Mama said she’d forgotten something.
“Wait here, Rosha.” I saw Mama dig deep into her satchel and hand Mrs. Juraska a white envelope. I thought maybe she had forgotten to pay her but then I remember seeing a few sheckels pass between their fingers.
“What was that, Mama?” I asked when she grabbed my hand again and started walking towards home.
“What was what, Rosha?”
“Never mind,” I said. I was too hot, too tired and nauseous thinking about the poor dead chicken.
I wondered if the candle maker ever got the chance to light and enjoy all the beautiful candles she made. I really wanted to know. Did she and her husband celebrate the Sabbath? Did she watch them glow against the walls and ceilings of her home through long summer evenings until their flames flickered and the wax disintegrated into nothing. But Mama sighed loudly and said: “Enough with the questions, Rosha, it’s late, time to go home.”

“Thank God, Thank God,” Bubbe and Mama sing together like a chorus. Poppa’s footsteps sound exactly like thunder. I imagine him climbing the stairs two at a time, each step stamped like the period at the end of a sentence. When he enters the room he is out of breath and sweating, carrying his suit jacket over his arm.
Bubbe stays glued to her chair, but she is rocking back and forth so hard I am afraid she may go flying across the room. Mama runs to Poppa, her eyes searching every inch of him, every speck.
“I waited to light the candles, Mordecai. Is everything all right?” Mama glances in my direction; she suddenly remembers I’m in the room. “Never mind, we’ll talk later. Go now, wash up.”
I am standing next to the buffet table getting ready to do my special job, the one I do every Friday night. Carefully, I fit the tall white candles into their shiny silver holders so they will not tip over onto the doily when Mama says the blessing into her hands before lighting them.
“I’m going to change out of my damp shirt,” Poppa says, moving quickly past the women in this room. His women, he calls us. He places a kiss on the back of Mama’s neck, nods to Bubbe who stalls in her chair. And just when I am certain he has forgotten me, he sticks his fingers into my ribs for a surprise tickle making me giggle and buckle at the knees.
“Hurry Morde,” Mama says, stealing away my fun with Poppa. He tosses his jacket across the arm of a dining room chair. Mama picks it up, shakes it out, then stares.
“What’s that, Mama?” But like so many questions─ the too many I’m told I ask, this one does not need an answer. What I see, what we all see, is as clear as the glass that used to shine brightly in our parlor window. Wrapped tightly around the sleeve of Poppa’s jacket is a cuff made out of gauzy, dark cloth. Sewn into the middle and as large as the melting July sun is a huge six-pointed, yellow star. In the middle, are the letters: J-U-D-E.

Brooklyn, 1941


In stocking feet, Mira Kane leaned into the gilded vanity mirror to apply the final touches of make-up. She was already on her third coat of mascara, thinking: apply wet brush to cake, make creamy, again and again, until her long black lashes looked as though they were about to take flight. But wasn’t that exactly how Betty’s looked, and Joan’s, and Jean’s? She had studied the glossy pages of Modern Screen as if it were a medical journal describing an intricate life-saving procedure. At last, Mira thought she had the technique down to a science.
Yet, her most skillful trick was to sneak from the house before her parents arose from their warm cushiony beds. More than once they had made it a point to tell her that they hated whenever she looked “painted.”
“We don’t understand, daughter. Why do you wish to look thirty when you’re only eighteen?” her mother had asked only last week when halting Mira at the top of the landing. Her father quickly ushered Mira into the bathroom, tossed her a washcloth and stood there, hands on hips, while she scrubbed her entire face, until it was free of all pancake make-up, lipstick and mascara. Even the perfect beauty mark she’d penciled on her cheek swirled right down the drain. Mira was furious, but, as always, bit her tongue. Satisfied, but perhaps a bit guilty, having witnessed her daughter’s obvious disappointment, Mira’s mother cast one small, pitying gaze.
As if to say she truly liked the face Mira had created— the one that altered her into the glamorous young woman standing before her, hiding the gawky teenage girl.
But today luck seemed to be on her side. As she tip-toed down the long hallway to the staircase, she could hear her parents’ loud harmonious snoring, rising and falling in perfect sync with Big Ben─ the mahogany clock that stood like a staunch and dependable watchman on the landing. The time was 7:05 A.M., and in just minutes Mira would be flying out the door on her way to the most exciting place in the world, New York City. It was the one place where she could pretend to be whoever she pleased. Here she could block out all concerns about her parent’s approval, worrisome thoughts that often draped her shoulders like an invisible shawl.
Mira scanned the hallway, settling on the cut-glass knob attached to the door that gave entry into Aunt Jeanette and Aunt Rena’s room− her father’s two unmarried younger sisters. Next door, slept Roy─ Mira’s older and only brother who shared a room with the bachelor Uncle, Louie, the oldest male in the Kane family. Everyone who resided in this house on Avenue T was employed by Kane Knitting— everyone but Ina Kane, Mira’s mother, who managed to keep busy by chairing various charity benefits, fancy luncheons attended by be-jeweled, buxom women, not to mention the planning of elaborate dinners for her own family.
The aunts, Jeanette and Rena, worked in the sewing plant, supervising the finishing process of the knitwear, while brother, Roy, and Uncle Louie haggled with buyers from the company’s plush midtown showroom. That is, when the two weren’t screaming their lungs out at suppliers or hurling blame at each other for any new faux pas, of which lately there were many.
Now though, during the early morning hours, before the familiar clatter of breakfast dishes, and the windstorm of hurled resentments, the atmosphere was blissfully tranquil, void of the unexpected commotion that was capable of sending Mira out feeling unnerved and jittery─ making it difficult for her to catch her breath. Today, alone in the house she had grown to love so much, she felt almost royal, as if roaming a lavish, medieval castle. She knew she was privileged to enjoy such privacy, which was certainly a rarity for the only daughter of Ina and Charles Kane.
A rough spot on the wooden banister snagged one of her brand new stockings.
“Ouch!” Mira said, “Damn!” She leaned over and straightened her seams, wondering if royalty ever cursed, and imagining what punishment might befall them if caught in the act. When she approached the vestibule, she was startled by Hattie, the housekeeper, who was spitting into a dust rag and about to buff an ornate cherry wood table.
“My, my, dear girl,” Hattie said, one hand pressed against her chipmunk cheeks.
“Shh!” Mira brushed past her and reached for her black portfolio that she’d kept on the floor of the hall closet. “Not one word, Hattie, please.”
“But those stockings, Mira. Mr. K. will have himself a conniption.”
“They’ll be off by the time he gets home tonight for dinner. Besides, all the girls in the city wear nylons. They ‘re so much sleeker than old bobby sox, don’t you agree?”
“All right, then, but what about that ridiculous speck growing out of your cheek?” Hattie pressed her damp fingers to Mira’s skin. She stood so close that Mira could smell the Nescafe layered on her breath. She smiled noticing her own reflection in Hattie’s warm brown eyes. Leaning in, she puckered her lips in place of a kiss before flying out the front door. As usual Mira was late.
Today, her favorite day, Friday, she wore a tailored gray knit gabardine suit with a peplum jacket─ one of her father’s most successful and early sell-out styles. She’d placed a pink sleeveless sweater underneath to show off her nearly alabaster skin. Mira’s face was framed by jet black hair, which she tied in a netted snood at the nape of her neck. On this dewy June morning, the lilac bushes and honeysuckle were bursting with fragrance; bees brushed past Mira as if in a frenzy. She picked some honeysuckle and tasted the sweet nectar. Nature, better than any breakfast, she thought. She felt lucky to feel this unbound, this free of any cares. But then she reminded herself not to take anything for granted. To do so would be irresponsible. Under her breath, she began her ritual of thanking God. If she forgot to thank Him, she was certain something dreadful would happen to her or her family. She didn’t mind the power of this fear, how it was adhered to her like an extra layer of skin; she was certain she needed it to keep herself in check. Only lately, had she begun to worry that her prayers could not influence the problems that seemed to be multiplying in other parts of the world. She had pressed her ears to her parent’s door on many nights and heard the deep fear that resonated in their pillow talk. The talk was always the same. Why hadn’t they heard from Mira’s uncle, wife and small child that had remained in Vilna because of his job?
Her long, thin legs carried her down the terracotta steps of her parents’ three-story brick and stucco home, and as she did most mornings, she paused to glance back at the house that gave her such pride. For a second, she thought she saw the curtains moving, ever so slightly, in the second floor window at her parent’s bedroom. Just in case and because she felt jubilant, Mira blew a kiss in their direction. She imagined them beaming, perhaps poking each other gently and whispering: There goes our lovely young daughter. Isn’t she something? If they only knew how often she dreamed of running away they would be heartbroken. But now, all she could do was study hard and work hard and maybe one day her talent would be discovered. Maybe one day she would be on her own.

The Kane residence on Avenue T was the grandest of three Spanish style homes on a densely tree-lined block in the section of Brooklyn, which intersected Ocean Parkway. Over the years, the area had become an integral part of the affluent neighborhood of Syrian and Eastern European Jews where people often strolled, pushed prams or just relaxed on benches playing cards or chess, catching up on the latest gossip. Police officers, wearing shiny black boots, sat astride stately horses trotting up and down the designated center aisle of Ocean Parkway where redwood benches and bicycle racks sat parallel to manicured lawns─ emerald in tone and lush with the spring shrubbery of fuchsia and white azaleas.
As Mira reached the corner of Ocean and Avenue T, she squinted and spotted her bus heading west about a quarter a mile away. She’d have to make a mad dash across two local lanes, the grassy park area, and the double lane parkway. And, as she did most mornings, not waiting for the light, Mira raised up her large black portfolio as a shield from the oncoming traffic. She surprised herself that she could sometimes be so fearless, for someone with a million fears, or as her brother preferred to label her— so incredibly idiotic.
“Thank you, thank you,” she yelled, as cars came to a dead halt, short of a pile-up, allowing her to cross and reach the bus stop.
Today, her bus driver was Jackie, (she made it her business to know their names) and he just shook his head. He had witnessed Mira’s brazen routine too many times before. “Come on, Mira, move it, girl. Ain’t you a little young to be sporting those stilettos? And hey, what you got on your cheek, lady?”
Out of breath, her heart soaring underneath the sweater, Mira put a nickel in the metal box and plopped down on the seat behind him. She was totally out of breath and loved the feeling of complete surrender. Jackie usually had some comment about her looks. She expected it and had no intention of answering him. She placed the portfolio horizontally on her lap, apologizing to the little woman in the next seat who she had accidentally bumped. The woman smiled broadly mumbling in a thick Yiddish accent. The only words Mira could decipher were Shana Maidele, which she knew meant: pretty girl.
“Thank you,” Mira said, fiddling with hairpins in the netted snood that had loosened. The woman, about sixty, reminded Mira of a munchkin from her favorite movie─ The Wizard of Oz. Her feet didn’t even come close to touching the floor. She wore her peppered gray hair chopped short. Her eyes sparkled with flecks of green and gold. Mira detected the familiar smell of mothballs, most likely, from clothes that had been stored away during the winter. The woman motioned towards Mira’s portfolio.
“Vat’s that, dear?”
“I go to school,” said Mira, “for fashion design.” The woman stared at her blankly, and Mira referred to her suit, sweeping her hand along the buttons, gesturing to her waistline. Still no response, so Mira unzipped her portfolio and the woman shimmied in closer. Their heads touched only slightly as they looked through the several sketches in Mira’s book. But any onlooker might think they were related. The woman reached out and ran her fingers over one of the drawings. Most were of very attractive young women wearing Mira’s designs. Some of them actually resembled Mira, especially the one wearing a beauty mark placed precisely on the left cheek.
The fashions themselves were upscale and elegant, not what anyone would expect emanating from an eighteen-year-old imagination. Mira had used her paints to simulate fabrics like shiny satins and plush velvets. Her brush strokes were so fine that she managed to create the look of fur trim along a sweeping dolman sleeve. She used sparkles of silver and gold glitter to indicate beading. Her teachers constantly had showered her with praise and some of their notes were written in the far corners of the sketches: “Spectacular, Mira” or “Mira, no doubt you have a future in couture!” Without hesitation the woman leaned over and planted a slightly moist kiss on Mira’s cheek. The gesture seemed so genuine that Mira was immediately overwhelmed with pride. Again, the woman spoke, and although Mira didn’t understand a single word of what she was saying, she could tell by her exuberance that the woman was impressed, and so, to be respectful she nodded her appreciation enthusiastically.
As they neared Mira’s stop, she began tucking several loose sketches into a folder and gathering up her things. Though tempted, she decided not to share her very latest design, mostly because she wasn’t quite sure the work was finished, and until she had given the design every last drop of her scrutiny, it would have to remain under wraps.
The woman reached into her purse and pulled out a small picture, its edges frayed and worn. She tugged at Mira’s suit sleeve, coaxing her to please have a look. It was a photo of a young man in his early twenties. Leaning against the side of a brick building, though it was hard to tell, he looked quite tall and slender. His hair was dark, rather glossy and worn parted down the middle. His expression was that of quiet seriousness and impatience, as if annoyed at being photographed. Mira instantly liked that. She could see he was handsome but without an air of vanity or arrogance like too many of the boys from the neighborhood. Boys from such well-to-do families, boys like her brother, Roy, spoiled American boys, passively parented by hard-working European parents. Perhaps all this giving made up for the hard adjustment of leaving their homeland and coming to a place with such freedom.
“Your son?” Mira asked, holding the photo close to her eyes before returning it.
“Boychick,” the woman nodded, enthusiastically. Her face became nearly angelic while she stared at the picture as if for the very first time.
“Oh, so nice,” Mira said as she stood up from her seat. “He looks like a lovely young man.” She turned once to wave goodbye before stepping down from the bus. The woman held out the picture as if she were offering it as a gift, but just as Mira was about to take it, the doors closed. Jackie shook his head, once more, having witnessed Mira’s near tumble onto the sidewalk. As she watched the bus pull away, a strange wave of sadness swept over Mira piercing the vivacity she had felt upon awakening this morning. She routinely checked her portfolio and all of her supplies. But as hard as she tried, she couldn’t shake the awful tugging sensation− a sense that she had been careless, leaving something important behind. Once more, she mumbled a prayer to her ever present God. She fought the desire to glance over her shoulder. She counted to three. Giving in, she allowed herself one tiny peek but saw nothing.

Rosha Away

All night long they whisper. Once I thought I heard Mama weeping, so I leaned against their bedroom door and tried my hardest to listen. (continued)


Anonymous Anonymous said...



April 17, 2010 at 5:49 PM  

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