The war was over. They said so on the radio every five minutes, and the newspapers were covered with big black headlines announcing VICTORY. Neighbors who hadn’t talked to each other in years were hugging and crying in the courtyard of our apartment house, and truck drivers blew their horns on the streets all day long. For me, it was good riddance to blackouts and air raid sirens, victory gardens and ugly khaki socks that itched—not to mention the “sneaky Jap” movies featured every weekend at the Livonia Avenue Dump for three years. The war had been going on for as long as I could remember, and now it was over. The grownups would have nothing to talk about at dinner, and the radio broadcasters would lose their jobs for lack of commentaries that would enrage my father and make him sit down and write letters to H.V. Kaltenborn. With the war over, the outside world wouldn’t count for so much anymore, and all our little private troubles would be harder to ignore.
The neighborhood block association planned a party that covered our voting district, and every street in Brooklyn was caked in bunting. In open contempt for the food shortages, the local butcher had strung whole salamis from every light post on Powell Street. The Veterans of Foreign Wars on Christopher Street featured a marching band composed entirely of retired World War One musicians, not one of them under sixty-five. Everyone was shouting and applauding like mad as the old geezers blew their hearts out; even Murray Rosenblum’s father, who lifted weights and walked around the neighborhood in his air raid warden’s helmet during the days when there were no air raids—even he cried.
The ladies of Sackman Street formed a “food brigade.” My mother, my aunt Ida, and Hennie Frayman stayed up all night before the block party, boiling and skinning potatoes for the huge potato salad that was supposed to decorate the forty wooden folding tables that Sam Flinker Movers had donated for the occasion. The owner of the Riverdale Avenue kosher deli, who had a reputation for hoarding food, surprised everyone by presenting the block association with one hundred pounds of chopped liver free of charge. By noon the streets were jammed with people stuffing themselves, blowing horns, and drinking beer from a potbellied Rheingold keg that the brewery had painted red, white, and blue and set up on a pushcart at the Livonia and Stone Avenue crossing.
I sat upstairs watching the celebration from the Frayman’s bedroom window, looking out for my mother in the crowd behind the food tables. My parents thought it would be safer for me to watch the party from upstairs, where I could see what was going on rather than be crushed underfoot by the grownups. It was a good idea. I sat around for as long as I felt like it, then amused myself by jumping up and down on Hennie and Max Frayman’s double bed.
“It’s a once in a lifetime. . . ” Max said, as he escorted me upstairs. “There’s some pumpernickel with tuna fish in the refrigerator if you get hungry.”
Max suggested that I lean on his old car pillow on the windowsill so I wouldn’t scrape my elbows; then he left me to myself. I could follow his bald spot for about five minutes as he wove through the masses of people toward the table where Hennie and my mother were dishing out potato salad; I lost him when he disappeared behind a Veteran tuba player. I sat there for two hours, staring down at the grownups going crazy. Deanna Miller’s father got drunk and tried to make a speech standing on a table, but his wife coaxed him down and everyone cheered. For part of the time, I must have dozed off, but the noisy throb of the refrigerator woke me up again.
At nine o’clock, well after they’d turned on the floodlights, it got chilly. I must have been sleeping, because I forgot where I was for a minute, and my head was aching. Every time I tried to lift it, I saw purple sparklers flashing up out of the car pillow. When I could turn my neck about six inches, I thought I saw my uncle Harry standing in the doorway. But I knew I was dreaming when I saw him jumping around on the bed and disappearing again. Someone in the street screamed then, and that woke me up for good. I was scared of being alone in the dark. I rushed through the kitchen and out the front door, running down the stairs two at a time to my parents’ apartment on the ground floor, where there were plenty of people clogging the lobby. The door was open and I went inside. My father was standing in the living room wrapped in his prayer shawl as if there were no party and no parade, nothing going on at all, as if the biggest war in the world hadn’t just ended and been won by the Americans. He was standing around praying as if it were any old regular week night.
He turned and saw me watching him from the foyer.
“Dad,” I said, “the war is over, why aren’t you outside celebrating?”
“I am celebrating,” he said. “I’m celebrating the One who ended it. . . ” He spread his prayer shawl open and motioned me to him. I snuggled into the safe, warm white cloth and tucked it around me while he went back to his prayers.
“I tell you it’s scarlet fever,” Doctor Adler said.
“And I tell you that you’re a quack who’d better go back to med school and learn the difference between measles and scarlet fever,” my father said.
I watched the doctor shake the thermometer and I looked into his face over his Benjamin Franklin glasses as he stuck it under my tongue. He was a family friend as well as our doctor, so my father talked to him the way he talked to everyone else— telling him off
“You sound like a Christian Scientist, Jack,” Dr., Adler said. “They don’t believe in doctors either.”
“Don’t get defensive,” my father said.
“How can I not gel defensive if for fifteen years you’ve been contradicting every medical diagnosis I ever made in this family? Either become a doctor yourself, if you’re such a superior diagnostician, or say some hocus pocus over the kid and become a Christian Scientist healer!”
Doctor Adler was over six feet tall, and my father was about five foot five. The two of them standing next lo each other near my bed reminded me of Mull and Jeff If I hadn’t had such a terrible headache, I’d have been laughing. But now nothing seemed funny. Doctor Adler just shrugged. My father got madder. “Who said I called a doctor in the first place?” he yelled.
“Yell all you want, I’m going to have to put up a quarantine sign and notify the Board of Health,” Doctor Adler said, ignoring him.
“Over my dead body! Nobody is posting any misdiagnosed disease notices on my door!”
My mother came in then lo .see what all the yelling was about. She’d been boiling instruments in the green porcelain pan that we reserved especially for “sick days.” She wore large yellow rubber gloves and her hair, which she hadn’t combed since morning, stuck out in wisps from under her pink hairnet. My mother had wanted to be a doctor ever since she was a little girl in Siberia, but the Bolsheviks came and took away all her father’s money, and the family had fled to Palestine and then America. She hadn’t become a doctor, or anything but an Orthodox man’s wife and the mother of his daughter and son, but she always acted like a doctor around the house. Actually, she knew a lot about Siberian folk remedies, and she spent the night wrapping me in cold compresses to bring the fever down. My greatest fear was that my mother would call the cupping lady, as I’d seen her do when Bubba Sarah was sick, and have the old witch with the black satchel stick about fifty hideous glass cups all over my back and belly, pocketing my skin in to the glass until I was covered with red circles. The cups were supposed to suck the fever out, and they worked on Bubba Sarah. But I thought the whole thing was somehow un-American, and I feared the cupping lady worse than death.
My mother said nothing about the cupping-lady, though, and I could see her now from under a film, as if time and form were vanishing and everything around appeared to be visible from the inside of an egg, viscous white, with me at the gooey center.
“What’s the matter here? Why are you screaming?” my mother said, creasing the bridge of her nose.
“Adler has decided to plaster the walls. He’s finally found his true metier—paperhanging,” my father said viciously.
Everyone stopped short then. Clearly, my father had made a booboo, comparing Dr. Adler to Hitler. Half the Adler family had been wiped out in Auschwitz.
“What are you saying?” my mother shrieked. She pretended to spit, “Poo! Poo!” Buryat-style, in order to eradicate the evil spirit my father had called down. “Maybe you have a fever, too. You’re certainly not talking sense!” She looked at Doctor Adler apologetically. “You know Jack, how he gets excited. He doesn’t mean a word of it.”
“It’s all right. . . I know. Would I keep coming back if I took him seriously?” the doctor, always the good sport in such battles with my father, assured her.
My mother looked at my father as if she were studying him under a microscope. Then she turned to the doctor and asked what was really wrong with me. “Tell me the truth,” she said softly. Doctor Adler said it was scarlet fever, and my father started mumbling again.
“Scarlet fever?” my mother repeated in a whisper.
“Don’t listen to this quack,” my father said, shooting forward. “It’s measles, I tell you!”
That was the last I heard before falling into a weird dream where I saw him standing over the bed as the great doctor Maimonides, wearing loose robes and a turban. When I opened my eyes, the egg white blur had lifted, and I could see my father clearly. He was ripping the quarantine notice in two. My mother was standing next to him and Dr. Adler was gone.
“If you’re going to act crazy, I’ll have to call Harry,” my mother said, gathering the leftover sponges, cotton swabs, and thermometer, and placing them on her special “sickness tray” which she kept in a cupboard under the sink all by itself. “I’ll need someone here to watch her while I go out to fill the prescriptions.”
My father rubbed his hands together. “You don’t need any prescriptions. She’ll be okay tomorrow.”
“You said that yesterday, and look at her,” my mother said, nearly in tears now.
“Why bring Harry into it?” my father said.
My mother pressed her lips into a line and, narrowing her eyes, said, “Look. . . I believe Adler. It’s scarlet fever.. . denying it won’t make it go away. We’ve got to arrange something with Hennie about keeping the baby upstairs.”
“Will you stop your yelling!”
Now she was yelling too. If I could have died right then and stopped them from fighting, I would have. I hated it when they fought. I held my breath and prayed for them to stop, but they only got louder and angrier, forgetting that I was lying there and could hear every word: his blaming my mother for my wildness and my inborn hatred for “Jewishness,” her accusing him of “looking down” on her family for not being religious enough; then his listing all of my uncle Harry’s insults and her family’s arrogance, treating him like a slave in the factory, and then her saying he was jealous because people all liked her and her family and didn’t like him and his mother and their obnoxious “German ways.” Then all her old misery came out, and she went on about life meaning nothing if all she could count on was getting up and watching children and cooking all day without ever going to a play or concert, or meeting “better people” at cultural events and not sitting around serving Max and Hennie Frayman dinner all the time on Sackman Street. And then she complained about his mother, who came and looked into her pots and criticized her “unhealthy” cooking, and the ladies from the sisterhood at my yeshiva, the Beis Yakov School for Girls, who thought she wasn’t Orthodox enough and talked behind her back, saying she was breaking the Sabbath laws by using an electric timer to turn the lights on and off. . .
This time it was I who stopped it, hearing myself croak like a frog, “Mom. . . Dad. . . please. . . “
“Are you awake?” My father walked up to the bed and took my hand. “I’m sorry. Maybe if I leave for a while. . . maybe Mom’s right. . . if Harry and Ida come and help it’ll be better. I’m not good around sick people.”
“Oh, Dad, don’t go, please,” I croaked again.
“It’s better if Harry comes. He’ll bring you books to read.”
“I can’t read, . . anything,” I whimpered, too weak to say another word.
I tried crying out for him to stay, but nothing came. I wanted to beg them not to get divorced, like Freddie Field’s parents had a year before. I didn’t want to live like poor Freddie, eating only sandwiches for dinner, and having a “single mother” who brought different boyfriends home every month. Even a crazy family was better than a broken one. Besides, nobody really understood about me and my uncle Harry, about how he always scared me a little whenever we were alone, but how he also understood me better than anyone else in the family, about how I wanted to be an actress and eat in restaurants, and go horseback riding. But none of this got said, and my father walked out the door. If maybe I could confess, I thought, he’d come back and patch things up with my mother. I was sure the whole mess was because of me and my sins: God was punishing my parents because I wasn’t old enough to pay for my own evil ways, for my trips with Harry to Coney Island, where I’d eaten non-kosher Nathan’s hotdogs with everything—mustard and sauerkraut and french fries with crinkles—and worse, even, accompanied my hotdog with a chocolate malted milk! “That’s why I have scarlet fever now,” I wanted to cry out after my father. But he’d already gone, telling my mother to get out of the way because he had important business at the shul to take care of.
My mother slumped into the faded armchair near the window and stared into the courtyard. I lay there, unable to say a word, letting the fever take over, hot, then cold, like sitting too long in the sun at Rockaway Beach. For a long time I found myself back inside the egg again; then, for a few brief moments, life appeared so clearly that I almost couldn’t bear it—my mother outlined against the window, the holes in her hairnet bigger than the moon, the mahogany bureau with the tortoise shell handles, one missing from the third drawer—it almost hurt, feeling every object with my body, as if each were me.
Once, I woke up to see my uncle Harry standing only a few feet from the bed talking to a stranger, a nervous man in a corduroy suit. The man was holding a quarantine notice in one hand, and a hammer in the other. Then the man wasn’t there anymore.
“Dad?” I heard myself call.
Harry asked me if I was feeling better, and I automatically nodded yes so that he wouldn’t worry. He looked queer out of his army uniform, very thin, shorter without all his stripes and gold buttons.
“Who was that man?”
“Someone from the Board of Health.”
“He’s just checking in. You’re a very important patient. Even the mayor of New York sends visitors to see how you’re doing,” Harry said.
“Honest, would I kid you?”
I looked around and saw that the room had changed: mine was the only bed in it; my baby brother’s crib wasn’t there anymore, and against the wall where it had been, there was a white square. My parents’ bed was piled high with books and suitcases and didn’t look as if anyone had slept in it for a long time. The window shades were all drawn down tightly, and someone had hung heavy muslin sheets over the rest of the furniture. Only the top of the bureau still showed, and that was covered with bottles and cotton balls, a rubber enema bulb, and lots of glasses and spoons.
“It looks like a hospital here,” I said to Harry. “Where’s my mother?” He handed me a glass of water with a yellow straw in it and told me to drink. “That’s to keep you from getting dehydrated.” “What’s dehydrated?”
I had a picture of myself shriveling like a mummy and wanted to laugh, but I couldn’t stretch my face. Even my teeth hurt inside my mouth.
“Your mother’s gone to the grocery.”
“Do I have spots?” I noticed that the mirror had been covered over by a muslin sheet, too.
“Well, not exactly.” Harry said. “But you wouldn’t win the Miss Rheingold Contest just yet.”
“Oh.” I leaned back into the damp pillows and tried to push what felt like plastered hair from my forehead.
“No,” Harry said, holding my hands away from my head. “Don’t touch. . . you’ve got a cap on.”
“You know—like a bathing cap.”
“What for?” I pulled my hands free and touched my fingers to my head. Just as Harry had said; there was a tight rubber cap where my hair used to be. Without the mirror it was easy to imagine myself looking like a chimpanzee in a bonnet I’d once seen performing in sign language at Radio City Music Hall.
“It’s to make sure that you . . . that your hair stays in place.”
How could I know that people lost their hair from scarlet fever? It was the farthest thing from my mind then. I didn’t want to ask Harry any more about the cap, so I just let myself drop back into the deep, soundless sleep of escape I’d been enjoying. I wondered if my father was ever coming back home again.
It was night when I next awoke; I could tell from the absence of moving shadows against the shades, and from the dark blue-blackness of the room that made it different from the usual gloom of daylight filtered through muslin and egg white. I could hardly see. A new wave of dry heat surged up both inside and outside my body. I thought of pulling off the rubber cap, but my fingers wouldn’t move and my hands and arms didn’t want to leave my sides. I was paralyzed! I couldn’t scream for help because my vocal chords were paralyzed too. I couldn’t even form a tear and cry for myself. Only my ears seemed to be working properly, uncannily, in fact, for I could hear through the walls! A man and woman were talking.
“He’s impossible,” the man was saying. “How can you stand living with him? Imagine him taking off like that without a word… and the kid so sick, too.”
“Ah. . . ‘” the woman sighed.
Then I noticed that someone was sitting in the old armchair near the window, and that it was my father. He had a finger to his lips. “Don’t make a sound,” he was saying. “Listen to them in there. You can hear them too, can’t you?”
I nodded my head. I wanted to tell him that I was paralyzed, but no sounds would come out of my mouth.
My father was wearing a loose shirt open to the neck; it was so white that it gleamed like phosphorescent paint against the darkness. Medicine jugs sprouted around him like weeds. “This is your garden of punishment,” he said.
I know. I wanted to say. I ate non-kosher food. But all I could do was think it.
“I’m praying for you to live,” my father said. “You were a bad girl, going off with Harry and listening to him instead of me. . . your own father. You know what our sacred Commandments say, ‘Honor thy father and mother!’. . . They tell you that at the yeshiva over and over again. Why don’t you listen?”
The man’s voice through the wall interrupted him then. “Why don’t you call it quits?” That was followed by the sound of shuffling, a cotton housecoat brushing against a wall, and then a woman saying forlornly, “Aah. . . you’ve got to understand him. It’s the pain of not being able to do anything for her. He suffers more than the rest of us because he really believes there’s a God who is responsible for all this.”
I looked toward the armchair, but nobody was sitting there anymore.
“Where do you think he’s disappeared to?” the man asked. “He’s praying alone somewhere. . . day and night, I suppose. Praying for her to get well.”
“Don’t you see the man’s crazy? He wouldn’t even admit that she was sick!”
“As far as he’s concerned, she’s as good as dead without God.”
There was my father again, sitting in the armchair, but this time in a holiday striped suit and wearing a gold tie clip with the Hebrew letters spelling CHAI—LIFE! He was carrying a closed umbrella. “It’s raining out, a Flood,” he said, pointing the umbrella toward the shaded windows.
Why did you stop praying for me, I thought.
“Because it’s no good,” my father answered, reading my mind as clearly as if I’d spoken out loud. “You’ve broken the Covenant, and God is angry, so He’s sent another Flood.”
You know He wouldn’t do that, I thought-argued. Rebbitzn Asher told us that he gave us the rainbow as a sign that He’d never send another Flood again.
“You’re getting too big for your britches,” my father said. “A little bit of learning is a dangerous thing.”
I closed my eyes and got ready for a fight.
“I’m going for a walk,” the man beyond the walls was saying. “Can I get you anything?”
“Can I get you anything, darling?” my father mimicked. Then he opened the umbrella and, sprouting wings, flew up to the ceiling and hovered around the light fixture like a moth. Suddenly, I could see through the walls, as well as hear! There was Harry, kissing my mother. Then my Aunt Ida came rushing in with a cap pistol and started shooting. At that moment the gun went off and lightning filled the room, turning it sunny, fearsomely bright, like a fireworks show. . . the war exploding in my bedroom, where all the while my father was crazily swaying from the light fixture in the ceiling, crying, “The Flood, the Flood against a world full of sin!” Beyond the wall, Harry, wearing pointed civilian wingtipped shoes, was down on his knees begging my mother to run away with him, as my aunt shot him in the back over and over again with cap pistol streamers. I was sure I was done for.
Someone rolled up the window shade with a loud snap and opened the window. The sun, the real one, streamed freely into the room.
“I’m home,” my father said. He approached the bed. This time he was dressed in his usual work clothes, and he was wearing a new hat I’d never seen before—a Panama hat with a gray band. I was hungry. I sat up painlessly. I touched my head, and where the cap was supposed to be there was hair—matted and a little damp—but it was my very own hair.
“Lil!” my father called. “Come here, . . she’s okay.” He was cleanshaven and smiling.
“Are you sure?” my mother asked, running into the room, a pot and scouring pad still in her hands.
“Of course I’m sure. Go on up to the Frayman’s place and bring the baby back home. She’s not contagious. . . she’s fine,” he said, and both my mother and I knew it was true, knew he wasn’t crazy. I moved my toes up and down under the cover to prove I wasn’t paralyzed, then tightened and relaxed the muscles in my calves—everything was working.
“God is good,” said my father, pulling the sheet up from the mirror and rolling it into a ball. “This can go to the laundry.”
My mother just stood there, holding the dripping pot in front of her. Daylight covered them both and swept the wall and coverlets, glinting off the bottles and glasses on the bureau until stars filled the room.
“Is the war really over?” I asked. “What day is this?”
Reflected in the mirror, I saw my father and mother exchange the cautious half smile of strangers meeting for the first time.
Perle Besserman is the author of several books on mysticism, including Kabbalah: The Way of the Jewish Mystic, and a novel. Pilgrimage. She received the Theodore Hoepfner fiction award and currently teaches writing at Rutgers University.
Sherry Zvares Sanabria’s paintings can be seen at the David Adamson Gallery in Washington D.C. Those shown here depict pre-renovation Ellis Island.