Sunken Meadow

“So Miriam’s driving to the beach tomorrow,” my mother said to my father at supper, slapping two salmon I croquettes on each plate stacked on the washing machine which served as our sideboard—it was Monday, that’s what we always had—as if the information meant more to him than to me. A mechanic just home from work, with hands that never quite got clean no matter how hard he scrubbed, he nodded. He was eating in his sleep, in his dreams already settled in the brown easy chair stained from his hair tonic and sweaty palms, feet up.

Evelyn my just-barely-older sister rolled her eyes at the news. She put on more clothes for the beach than she did on the days we spent at the park across the street. “It’s such a long drive,” she whined, imagining the carsickness she’d soon feel. In the back seat, Luca always cracked up—a little too much, I thought—at the sight of Evie’s head hanging out the window like a dog’s.

“Sunken Meadow’s a bathtub, not a beach,” my father said, relishing a sip of ginger ale, wishing it were beer. He’d been in the Navy and loved the ocean—the rougher the surf, the better.

I didn’t make such fine distinctions. The way some kids waited for Christmas, that’s how I waited for the summer day when we drove to Sunken Meadow with Luca and her mother. But they had it easier, Christian children, because Christmas came no matter what the weather, whereas I had to pray for sun. A single dark cloud or drop of rain could run everything.

Luca’s real name was Elizabeth, which was my favorite because it had so many permutations. Beth, Bess, Bessie, Betty, Liza, Eliza, Lissa, Liz, Lizzie, even Lis. But we called her Luca, the last syllable curt, like French, halfway between an “a” and an “e.”

She was older than I was, two grades ahead, and during the school year we saw each other only on holidays, like Halloween, when she’d be allowed to wear everything I wasn’t—lipstick, high heels, a straight skirt, while I had to dress up like a stupid witch; and on Christmas, when we’d go over to her apartment to gawk at her tree. But come summer I was closer to her than her own sweat. Shorter than I, she had black hair that shone and that did anything she wanted, but mostly what I loved was that she knew things I didn’t, like which shard of glass was a treasure called beach glass and which was just trash. One time, when we were walking by the water, she stopped suddenly and said, “Look at your nails.” I did, and she said, “I thought so.” At first she wouldn’t tell me what she meant, but then she explained that if you looked at your nails by spreading them out in front of you like a starfish, that meant you were really a girl, but if you turned your palm to face you and crooked your finger sat the knuckles the way I had, well, that meant you were really a boy.

I turned away so Luca wouldn’t see the blush spreading under my tan but I was too late; she’d already started to smile. “Race you back,” she said, knowing I couldn’t beat her even with my long legs, when I was so close to tears.

Luca’s was an exotic family; they could have been air-dropped into our development of red brick, six-story apartment buildings—Windsor Park, it was named, as if to trick the returning veterans it was built for into thinking that they resided somewhere in England rather than in the damp northeast corner of Bay side, Queens. For one thing, Miriam was the only woman of all my mother’s friends who could drive. She learned in Berlin where she was born; that’s why she spoke with an accent. Her husband was also born in Europe—Spain, I think. He took the bus and subway to work, leaving before dawn, returning after dark.

“I don’t know,” Luca would say when I asked her what her father, the compact and dark Roberto, did for a living. He had a beautiful smile, full of small very white teeth, almost brilliantly white, but he never spoke. I knew she was lying—she just didn’t feel like telling me—but there was no way you could get Luca to do what she didn’t want to.

“God,” I whispered in bed that night, “let it be sunny tomorrow, please. Please let us go.” I lay on my back, rigid as a saint, pushing my palms together. Jews didn’t pray that way, I knew. I couldn’t see much from the balcony of the synagogue I went to with my mother and Evelyn, in the dark, smelly building behind the kosher deli, but whatever the men and boys were doing down there had nothing to do with standing still and clasping their hands. Perpetual motion machines, they stomped their feet, fidgeted, moaned and swayed—doing everything they could think of to snag God’s attention.

“Only Indians pray for sun,” I heard Evelyn say under her breath, and then aloud, “Ma, she’s talking to herself again.”

“Shut up, Evie,” I hissed at her. Her bed was about two arms’ lengths away, and she was reading some book or other under the covers, using our father’s Navy flashlight, stubby and battleship gray, which she snuck out of his bottom dresser drawer each evening—we weren’t supposed to go through his things, God knows why—and replaced during the day after he left for work. I could see the warm circle of light under her covers, as if she were concealing a little sun.

“It’s going to rain tomorrow,” she said, “no matter how hard you pray—I heard it on the weather.”

“Please make her shut up, God,” I prayed, realizing how easy it was to slide from one prayer into the next, nothing too insignificant to ask for.

I heard the rain before I opened my eyes and when I did, I saw Evelyn smiling. What difference did it make to her, a rainy day meant she could read four books instead of three. I felt something iron inside of me, a tiny pellet, a cold iron pellet of fury at everything I couldn’t control.

“You can go over to Luca’s after chores,” my mother said at breakfast, cheerful in her Tuesday outfit, yellow blouse and blue skirt. Outfits and chores were as regimented as dinner—Tuesdays we scrubbed the bathroom, using toothbrushes to get behind the faucets. Something about the inexhaustible amount of dirt my family inadvertently generated seem to buoy my mother, to give her hope.

Luca’s family never cleaned, I realized, finally free to knock on their door. Their furniture had a thin veneer of dust, cups and plates a faint film, all of which served to dampen footstep sand conversation, as if the apartment were a cave.

Luca opened the door and motioned for me to follow her. Miriam, I figured, was doing the laundry in the basement; mother-wise she’d be in the kitchen at the sliver of a table with her hand wrapped around a faintly lipstick-stained coffee cup, looking toward the window that opened to the fire escape.

“What’s that song?” I asked about the number on the radio in Luca’s room.

“It’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,'” she said, she said, exhaling impatience through her nose, as if I’d asked her the color of the sky. “Peter Paul and Mary. But Bob Dylan wrote it.”

Names I didn’t know; sounds I’d never heard. I wanted to sit on her bed and listen, to hear all the words that just kept coming, to piece the sense of it together, but Luca wasn’t interested in music this morning; she walked into her parents’ bedroom knowing I’d follow. Wordlessly, she knelt in front of their closet, and pulled me down beside her Rooting around in the dark, she extracted what looked like an old circular hatbox, and from that a small wooden box with a gold clasp. “You shouldn’t be doing this,” I said, thinking of Evie, rifling through my father’s dresser drawers.

“Look at this,” Luca said. Wrapped in brittle pink tissue paper were two pieces of jewelry—a tiny gold Jewish star, smaller than a Lifesaver, the kind you could wear around your neck on a chain; and the other so beautiful I gasped.

“Is that a diamond?”

“Diamond, sapphires and rubies,” Luca said.

“What is it, a pin?”

“Actually, it’s called a brooch,” Luca said.

“My mother had another, exactly the same, but she had to use it to get out of Germany.”

It wasn’t that big, but it shone like a sun in the dark room, as luminous as Evelyn’s flashlight.

“Why did she have to get out of Germany? “I asked.

Luca looked at me and again exhaled noisily. “Don’t you know anything?” she asked.

“I know about Germany,” I pouted, stung as if she’d slapped me; “I know”—though in fact I knew very little. Once a year we lit candles for people who had died like my grandfather, and my mother included one for the poor cousins, only she used the Yiddish word nebuch instead of “poor,” the last syllable rattling around somewhere deep in her throat. Sometimes when they thought they were alone my mother and grandmother talked in a hush about people I didn’t know, people with variously sibilant and guttural names like Ruchel, Chaimy, Schaindele—about letters that had arrived but then stopped, branches of the family tree dying, the genealogical scent petering out and ending in a black pit. “The letters stopped,” my mother once told me; names disappeared, they were lost.

But somehow Miriam had gotten out, along with her pin. She’d made her way to London where she met Roberto on the tube and before the short ride was over he asked if he could see her that night—it was love at first sight, Luca had told me; he was going to America and he would take her, but his mother was a widow and very religious. Miriam would have to act like a Catholic if she wanted to be with him. They were married the day before they left on the boat for New York.

“You can hold it,” Luca said, reaching for my hand with the brooch.

I pulled it back as if she’d dropped a flaming match in it. “I don’t want to,” I said, not understanding why.

“Just do what I say,” she said, placing the brooch in the center of my palm and closing my fingers over it.

That’s when we heard Miriam’s step in the foyer. Luca clamped one hand over my mouth so I wouldn’t yelp and with the other replaced both boxes in the closet just a split second before Miriam came into the bedroom pulling the shopping cart she used to transport the clean clothes. “We’re going to the libraiy,” she said to her mother. “I was just looking for your umbrella.” 

We cut through the parking lot behind the A & P, and crossed Bell Boulevard. Behind the deli was the little house with the iron gate, now locked. A faint light emanated from a basement room I’d never noticed. “That your temple?” Luca asked. “Sort of,” I said. “We only go there in the fall.” With Luca walking so quickly, it was hard to explain my family’s state of religious observance. As for Luca, she went to church some Sunday mornings with her father, and every Saturday afternoon when her grandmother, the black-clad widow, came to visit. “Does your mother ever go to church?” I asked. “Or does she go to synagogue?”

“She never goes anywhere religious,” Luca said, as if this were yet another fact I should have known. When we walked right past the library’s entrance, I realized with a start that we were actually heading for Luca’s church, the something of the Sacred Heart, which took up an entire block by itself a mountain of craggy gray stone.

“Here’s what you need to do,” she said, as we huddled under the narrow overhang of a side entrance. “You go first because we can’t go in at the same time, it’ll look suspicious. Just walk straight ahead, count fifty steps, turn right, and you’ll see a little desk with candles burning. Light three candles, hold the pin in front of you, and saya prayer. Whatever prayer you want, it doesn’t matter. I’ll come in right after to get you. We just can’t do it together We’ll cancel each other out. “I was clutching the pin so hard my hand felt like a furnace; I worried that the stones might melt. “I don’t want to,” I said.

“Don’t be an infant,” Luca said, sounding like a mother, though neither hers nor mine. “This pin is special, it was Miriam’s lucky charm. She looks at it every day; I see her It’s like a passport. We can use it to get to the beach tomorrow. Just hold it and pray for the weather to clear up.”

“I’m not supposed to pray for the weather,” I said. “God doesn’t care about that.”

“I can,” Luca said. “I’m Christian, remember”

“Only half,” I said.

“For Christ’s sake, just do this for me,” she said, running her fingers up my arm. I remembered another test she’d given me one day at the beach—I had to close my eyes as she inched her finger tips up the underside of my arm starting at my wrist, and say “Now!” when she reached my elbow crease. As she gave me my instructions, her face was so close to mine I could see her faint lady moustache, and the black hairs inside her nose.

“Don’t wait too long,” she crooned, “but don’t wait too short. You have to get it just right.”

I closed my eyes. I could feel her breath on my cheek. “Now?” I said miserably, already sick at heart; I didn’t have a prayer of getting this right.

“Too soon!” she yelled trying not to sound gleeful. “Look, I was that far away”—and she held her thumb and index finger an inch apart.

Now again she pulled me that close again and for a second I thought she might kiss me. But instead she grabbed my hand, the one not holding the pin, and giving it a little twist, like an Indian burn. “Don’t,” I said, dangerously close to crying.

Her voice turned soft. “Trust me.” I looked at her, her eyes so dark I couldn’t see where the brown ring melted into the black center.

I opened the door, counting my steps, walking down a long aisle. The church was dark and surprisingly cool, and I thought I heard water dropping into a bucket. With stone and wood everywhere—the pews, statues, altar—I could have been walking in a forest. Though I’d never been in a church before I was afraid to look around. Luca’s directions were easy to follow. I placed the pin between the candles and began looking for the matches, counting to a hundred, when I heard swishing footsteps. “Luca?” I whispered.

It wasn’t Luca at all but a woman, a nun, in gray robes. “Can I help you, dear?” she asked.

“My friend,” I stammered, “she’s coming.”

She quietly appraised me in the damp darkness. Three drops of water splashed into the bucket. “I don’t think you belong here, dear, “she said. “Why don’t you come with me?

“The pin! I couldn’t leave it there. Blindly I groped for it.

“What’s in your hand, dear?” the nun asked. From what I could glimpse of her face, which wasn’t much, she didn’t look very old,not that much older than Luca.

“Nothing,” I said.

“It’s most definitely something,” she said. She reached for my arm and began trying to pry my fingers open.

“Leave me alone, quit it!” I yelled, but she wouldn’t stop. “Luca!” I wailed.

“Come with me,” the nun said. She took me by the elbow and we began retracing my route back to the door where Luca was waiting.

“Elizabeth!” the nun said, seeing Luca standing there, drawing her name out for about three minutes, long enough for me to realize I’d never heard Luca’s full name spoken aloud. “What in the world is going on?” The nun adopted the tone of a much older woman. For a moment I thought Luca would crack up, but her face was as somber as I’d ever seen it. “This pin is priceless. What is this girl doing with it?”

“It’s OK,” Luca said. Her eyes narrowed and her voice sounded funny too, deeper, as if she were trying to talk like a man, or without moving her lips. “My mother doesn’t mind, she lets me play with it all the time,” Luca said.

“I don’t think that’s true,” the nun said.

Luca took another deep breath. “Sharon came over this morning to play and she begged me to show her my mother’s jewelry and then she said maybe we can take the pin to get it blessed so it will be sunny tomorrow…”

“That’s not true,” I said under my breath; no one heard me.

On and on she went, about how I wouldn’t take no for an answer. The nun’s fingers on my arm gradually relaxed. “You turn right around and return the pin to Luca’s mother. Tell her you stole it and you’re sorry and promise you’ll never steal from her or from anyone ever again. Do you understand me? Elizabeth, you stay here with me.”

Luca nodded. Her face began to relax; she stole a look at me for the first time since we were caught, and her smile drew me in. We’re safe, her eyes told me: she’d fooled the nun. Go back home, I’ll come over as soon as I’m done here, we’ll put the pin back, no one will ever know.

It wasn’t raining when I left the church. I walked home slowly, as if it were a sunny day after all and Luca and I were at the beach, at Sunken Meadow, strolling together at the water’s edge, looking for pearly shells and beach glass. “Oh look,” I’d say, bending down to scoop up the beautiful brooch that had been washed up on the shore, lying there in plain sight, waiting for anyone to find. “Look how beautiful it is.” We’d turn it this way and that, watching the sun bounce off the facets of the stones. Luca would hold it up to her eye like a kaleidoscope. “I wonder whose it is.”

“Finders keepers,” Luca would say.

I didn’t believe that. If something was yours, it was yours forever, even if someone else found it.

When I reached my building, I slipped the brooch, which I’d been clutching the whole time, into my pants’ pocket. Luca would be over soon. She’d mimic the nun’s silly tone of voice, and we’d talk about going to the beach tomorrow—by now the sun was poking out. “Why do you think it’s called Sunken Meadow?” I’d ask her. “It’s not a meadow, and it’s not sunken.”

Luca wouldn’t know the answer, but she’d make one up. I’d ask her if she could bring her transistor radio so we could listen for more songs of Bob Dylan. “Sure,” she’d say. And then she’d ask for the pin back.

“Losers weepers,” I’d say.

I wasn’t sure what would happen next. She could do anything, I knew that now. She could lunge for me and feel each pocket, she could empty all of my dresser drawers, she could tell my mother the lie she’d told the nun. All I really wanted was to see the split second her eyes narrowed in fear.

As for the pin, I’d give it back to her eventually; I’d have to. But first I’d make her beg.  

Roberta Israeloff most recent book is Kindling the Flame: Reflections on Ritual, Faith and Family (Simon & Schuster). She lives and teaches writing in East Northport, NY.