Pearls before swine! All Alma’s fault, these yearly family parties. Just to give Debra a God-knows what notion about their Jewish roots! Well, he is partly to blame, he gave into this nonsense. Alma, bless her heart, lives in a dream world, when will she wake up! Never? Stands to reason, spoiled only child, never had to worry, thanks to Papa Lensky paying for everything, including doctoral studies at Columbia. But, he, Barton, suffered. The taunts and jeers of the homeroom follow him everywhere, even 40 years after Abramovitz had become Sturges, back in 1926. He can still see those awful 10 year olds, his classmates, smirking in their bedroom, where he’s buffing his shoes. He puts up with it, all for the love of Alma. Love of Alma? Well, yes, he might say it is, or has become, love. But damn it ! (Barton pulls murderously on the shoe rag.) What does Alma see in that typically Jewish family of his? Jealous maybe? All her relatives are dead.
“Com’ovuh here, waddya bin doin’!”
Charlie attacks from behind, via her belt. Debra has 1.27 seconds to avoid the floor, and social disgrace. Besides, Father would kill her for staining the carpet. It is a very expensive Shiraz, she knows. She lap lands. A hot vicious mouth presses against her ear, Yaouw! It tickles, she wants to yell. Next, two kneading fingers tug at her cheek, and the inevitable, “I can’t get over how tall you got. Wad a’ you? Six feet or sumpin?”
Aunt Bessie, the jerker’s wife, pipes up, “She’s got her father’s nose.”
“Aunt Bessie, you wanna drink?” Debra holds up the last vodka orange like Excalibur before the tray hits the floor, Thank Goodness empty.
“Hey gimme that!” Charlie whips it out of Debra’s hand.
“Charles you have had enough!”
“Go to Hell woman !” Aunt Bessie turns away. Debra’s problem now.
“So what’ you been doing Red Head ?”
“Been going to school. I’m almost a senior.” Debra ventures lamely to the ancient.
Uncle Charlie attacks the vodka, drinks like an anteater, but in stereo. “Ain’t tchou sumpin’” He sets the vodka down on a coaster, starts to jiggle her on his knees, like she was five instead of fifteen.
“So you’re like your Dad. Shmarrt !”
A burp kicks Bessie onto the return track, “Charles stop that at once!”
Water off a duck’s back. “Yeah, the smaarrt one, just like huh faaduh.” His hairy arm holds Debra, squirming, while Aunt Bessie works the other side, his wrist.
“ An’ she’s a red head, like that shikseh Bart was crazy about when he was in collegsh. She kicked him over; Yah know, yer a shikseh, lid’le one? Like the girl with the red hair. I remembuh, her name was Fransesca or sumpin. Yeah, Francesca, the Italian. ”
“Charles Cohn, just Let Her Be!” Bessie crescendos as the prisoner, finally free, slides from his lap to the floor and all 3A are there for the show. Tush landing, no problem. Gets up with a Charlie Brown smile. No need to drop a tray on the Shiraz, social sin already committed. Red head Red head. Fire in the wood shed! Wake up Debra, get real! What was that for?
And where were her parents during the ordeal? Barton was in the kitchen, like the police, never around when she needed him and Alma, well…But, who was this good looking boy coming over with Alma? A knight in shining armor, a prince charming, a savior! “Danny Levine, your cousin Gil’s son.” Alma introduced him, and then “you kids can sit here and be by yourselves, pay no attention to the older generation.” She found them a seat in a corner and served them orange juice.
“What fantastic hair you have !” Danny remarked, settling down to get acquainted. Okay, rub it in, she was a freak – red hair, freckles, sludge color eyes ! Tall and awkward, a big bird, her father’s nightmare. Catherine of Washington Square. Barton had wondered out loud where she came from. Alma was small and fine boned with dark hair and blue eyes, Barton was mousy brown with a pinched face and dull gray skin. But, here she was, an aberration! Irish redness with Jewish sensitivity! The worst of the worst. And Debra wasn’t even Irish. Hair might be fantastic but the knife sure as hell turns in the wound of identity.
“Yes! “Debra flared up, “I have always had red hair and don’t ask me how I got it!”
“I am sorry, Danny apologized with a soothing and honest smile. “ But , I really like it.” He had a classically straight nose, dark hair and tan skin, periwinkle blue eyes, and a neat, muscular body.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter! Where do you go to school?” Debra asked with a toss of her head .
“Well, I don’t know just right now. You know about my parents divorcing so change is in the air. If Mom moves back to the city, I might consider Stuyvesant or Bronx Science for my senior year. I took the test for both and got in. But, of course, a lot depends on Dad, where he is relocating.”
“I suppose it has been really rough on you. I mean, with your parents breaking up. I never did get to meet your Mom.” Debra said without thinking.
“I think I would like to talk about something else.”
“Of course, I understand. Gee, I am sorry. Always come out with the wrong thing.” Debra sighed, embarrassed. “I thought of trying out for Bronx Science, you know, but I’m no good in math and science. Play the piano a bit and the flute. I thought I would try out for Music and Art. Father taught there…”
“I know.” Danny broke in enthusiastically, “One of my buddies, Jerome Kagen, landed in his English class. Your old man was strict ! Knew his stuff though. He was one of the few who really cared. The other teachers just came in, did their job and walked away. Not your Dad! You know, I even remember Jerome telling me that your Dad took an hour of his time to explain a difficult passage in a short story they had studied. I think it was by Hemingway. You ever read any of his?”
“Just the Nick stories. I prefer Saroyen. I love Willa Cather and…” She was about to say Harper Lee when Danny interrupted, “You know, I couldn’t make up my mind to do math and science or English. I write poetry, do you ? I heard that you jumped two years ahead in school so you must be a bit of a brain.”
She smoothed her skirt and sipped the orange juice. “ I don’t go in for poetry. I have tried my hand at short stories, though. One is appearing in June in the senior year book.”
“What’s it about?”
“Oh, it’s about a Japanese girl who is hit by the A bomb and is laid out to die. On the day she shuts her eyes, a dove comes onto her hospital window sill and inspires her to make airplane peace signs. I am not describing it correctly, but basically it is a plea for peace, now the conflict in Vietnam is getting really serious.”
Danny touched her hand, “I would like to see it, if you don’t mind. Talk it over with you. Do you have a copy? ”
Flattered and feeling a little giddy, Debra said, “Sure, in my room. I have done more writing, mostly historical stuff. Let’s go. ”
The pre-War apartment with its Chagall prints on the walls and abstract drawings by unknown artists screamed “teachers’ abode.” Debra’s room was papered in green flowers, an overcrowded desk occupied a large wall space. Danny shut the door. They were alone and far from the planet of drunken adulthood. She handed him the story, he sat down on the bed, while she swiveled nervously in the desk chair.
After a time, Danny raised his head, and ran his fingers through his hair, “Yeah, I like it very much. Can I give you a bit of advice?”
“Oh, please do!”
“You have got talent, voice, style and the right sentiments. But, you don’t need all those qualifiers. White can stand as white, you don’t have to say pearly white. Let the reader do some of the imagining. I know I sound pedantic, but that is what Mr. Lyons, a marvelous English teacher I had last year, told the class. He really taught his students, like your Dad. He said, ‘Make it pithy and pitiless.’ Good writing is cutting all the lace work, getting down to the essentials. Good writing starts with awareness of motives, you know, what lies behind passionate love or unrelenting hatred, for example, why these passions exist, and for whom, and how they interact, and what surprising forms they take, even when your characters wear masks, or social tags. Good writing is the product of an unforgiving, even brutal, honesty that sweeps across social, sexual even family lines, honesty with yourself first, then in regard to others. It may be hard to call a spade a spade, it’s even harder to recognize that a spade is a spade. As I said, push aside all the moss, tell it like it is. I think writing is like a connect with reality, and the wonder of it, is that it produces fiction, marvelous fiction. Didn’t your father tell you all that? Sorry, I am being simplistic and I’m probably boring you to death.”
What had Barton said about her writing? That it “needs vast effort.” Good bye, the end, get out of my way. “ No, you certainly are not boring! I don’t really discuss things like my writing with my father. He was pleased when the yearbook staff asked me to write Planes of Peace. I just let it go at that.”
Danny asked to see her historical stuff which she kept hidden under the desk as her father had no conception of privacy. The box was a tightly folded carton containing paperback biographies of Cleopatra, Jezebel, Messalina and Lucretia Borgia. Each book held loose pages blackened with handwriting. “What is this all about?”
Debra rose from her chair , “I guess you would say it is my real self. My beautiful alabaster skin, my hair which runs in blue black silken waves, like ripples on the ocean at night, the feline grace in each of my movements. I show the cunning of a fox when I speak to my admirers and my plotting ministers. Stately and solemn, I walk to the foot of the eternal and mysterious sphinx and I worship Isis at sunrise. I raise my hand and Cesar and Anthony drop to their knees, I drop a pearl into a chalice and it dissolves in a hiss, I know that I am the object of court intrigues, but I am wily and shrewd and ruthless, I have spies everywhere, and counter spies and I know who is trying to poison me! I choose to die at the serpent’s sweet bite. I am Cleopatra the unvanquished!”
“Great ! Just great!” Danny clapped and laughed.” You know, you could be a marvelous actress. Have you done any acting?”
Actress? Her? Actresses were pretty, petite, always on display, “No, I er I guess not.”
“ Well, if you ever want to be an actress, I think you’d be a great one. Or a writer. Maybe they are not so different. Can I ask you what these stories are about ?” Danny had sat on the floor, leaning his back against the bed, taking a notebook.
Debra returned to her desk chair. “I take up where history and Shakespeare leave off. I pretend Cleopatra staged her own death and ran off in search of a kingdom where she could rule and be safe. She meets all sorts of historical and mythical figures on the way, like Aeneas and Romulus and Hannibal and they become lovers, and she influences their future conquests.”
“ That sounds really great! And you do the same with Jezebel and..”
“Yes, although with the others it is harder because they were really wicked women. Cleopatra at least had some good points. But, I find these evil women fascinating. Even Jezebel… Did you know… ”
But before Debra could finish, Danny was up on his feet, and a photo fell from his shirt pocket. “Isn’t she beautiful?” he said in a soft voice, showing it to Debra. Wavy ash blond hair in a loose chignon, finely chiseled nose, high prominent cheekbones, black slanted eyes, pale skin.
“Yes. Is she your girlfriend?”
“She certainly is! Hannah Abelman. We’ve been dating for three years. She skipped a year, like you!” Danny looked intently at his cousin. “She got early admission to Barnard, but does not know if she’ll go there or the Fashion Institute. Perhaps will do both. Tremendous talent . Wants to be a designer. ”
“How tall is she?”
“Huh? Five three, five four. Does it matter? Not everybody is fortunate to be tall like you! ”
The guests had left. Alma called Debra into the kitchen while Barton disappeared into his study. They had finished the dishes when Alma in a soft serious voice told Debra that “Father wants us in the office.”
Barton was at his desk with his back to the door. A finely chiseled tulip shaped brandy glass, filled to the brim, stood above an ocean of papers. A telephone and special lighting had been installed, Barton had weak eyes and was accustomed to working late on his scholarly books and articles.
Alma took a seat beside her husband, who had turned his chair around and motioned Debra to a stool. Debra said she preferred to stand, to which he replied, “As you please.” He turned to the brandy and sipped it parsimoniously, perhaps as a demonstration of how to drink a cordial. “You may stand, but please, do not give me the spectacle of your infernal slouching ! Spare me that, if nothing else!” Debra took the stool.
“ Bart, Debra’s tired. Why not tell her why you asked us in, dear ?” Alma inquired trying out an innocent tone of voice.
Barton pursed his lips and cocked an eyebrow, another slow sip of brandy. He had all the time in the world. “There are two reasons why I asked you both to come in tonight. The first, and I think Mother will agree fully with me on this, is that it is indecent and unfitting to receive a young man in your room behind closed doors. I know you and your cousin have done nothing blamable , but it is not suitable to distance yourself from a crowd with a boy your age. The consequences, you must realize, will fall on your family as gossip and wrongful supposition.”
“Don’t give a damn, now,” thought Debra, but Alma replied, “ I think… dear, I think that it is all my fault. I wanted to get Debra away from Charles, and it was I who suggested that the young people go off and talk.”
“And that is exactly why you are here tonight, Alma !” He pointed a finger at his wife and spoke harshly. “I insist on putting an end to these family parties! I will no longer be the victim of your misplaced generosity and our daughter’s utter disregard for her and our reputation! No discussion, the end ! ” Alma muttered that she understood and that the parties would cease.
“May I go now, Father?” Debra said resignedly. “I’ve work to do.”
“You certainly may not. I have not finished.” He reached for the brandy, took a loud sip, followed by a loud gulp, followed by a tense minute of silence. “I trust you will not engage in that behavior anymore. But, if it were only that, I would not have called you in and have you interrupt my work. What I have to say to you will come as a surprise to your mother. I wonder how this disappointment will sit with her.”
Alma and Debra exchanged glances. Barton went on, “You know, Debra, that we as parents have been very generous with pocket money, supplemented, it is true, by your baby sitting, but you cannot say that we have refused you any worthwhile cultural or educational pastime. You agree with what I have just said?”
Oh no! There it was! Well, let it come! And ,yes, she has the courage. Didn’t Danny say she was a good writer?
Barton cleared his throat, and lowered his chin. Another slow sip of the brandy. “Very well, then. If you agree that you have been privileged, and even far more privileged than most of your friends by everything your parents are doing for you, you can well understand my very profound disappointment at finding the rubbish you have been hiding under your desk!”
“You really had no right to explore the contents of my desk.” Debra said dispassionately, raising her eyebrows.
New development, this insidious placidity! What was his daughter up to? “Of course I had a right ! It was my pocket money that was being spent in such a horrible and negligent way! What’s more, you are a liar and a thief, as that pocket money was very specifically set aside for museum trips, and books of fine literature! And when I asked you what you were reading, you answered Dickens! Well the Dickens you were! Liar!” Barton glared and growled and reached for the tulip.
Alma rose from her chair and pleaded , “Barton, I think the child is tired, and I don’t think it is so terrible, this adolescent liking for drugstore literature. Every child goes through it. I remember I…”
“No, Alma, not every child reads pornography…!”
“You hate me, Father, don’t you? ” Debra said in a stony voice.
“Debra! How can you say that? Father and I only want the best for you!” Alma rose and folded her arms about Debra.
“No, Mother. Father hates me, and now, I know why he hates me.” Debra replied with a certain coldness.
“Debra dearest, we know you are not reading pornography. It just is … Well, how can I express it? It is as if someone gave you a beautiful Greek statue and you took a horrid crayon and began scribbling all over that beautiful statue and spoiling everything that was good and beautiful about it…”
“And oh yes, now that you mention Greek statues, Alma, our daughter does have a taste for classical literature. Do you know what terrible things she has been reading?”
“What terrible things has she been reading ?” Debra mimicked, gently setting aside her mother’s arms.
“Quiet you ! I am speaking to your mother! The so-called life of Cleopatra, four volumes of the most terrible rot. “
“Barton, enough of this !” Alma cried out loudly, removing a tissue from her pocket, “She is just curious !”
“ Curious ? Our daughter! No! She’s a liar and a thief!”
Another long slow sip of brandy. Silence for a moment. Was he selecting a form of punishment or had he finished the assault? “ Do you, my dear Alma, really want to know what our daughter is like? Well, then, I will tell you.”
Barton set his voice into a mocking singsong, “ Dearest Alma, our daughter is like Cleopatra… Serpent of the Nile, or she is like Jezebel …”
“Or,” said Debra, walking to the door and looking pointedly at her father, “She is like Francesca the girl with the red hair.”
Copyright © Diana Pollin