Bricks and Mortar
Women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time, the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has indeed so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics.
–– Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Bricks and mortar. The assumption–a white woman's assumption–that we African American women have been imprisoned in the home, when in actuality our experience has been that of work. The women of my family have worked–in the cotton fields of Texas, thirty years as a nurse, thirty years as a social worker, who knows how many as a clerk in the eye clinic, the last my grandmother, wise woman of the Shepherd clan, who I never dreamed, in even the farthest recesses of my mind, had only an eighth grade education. The other two my aunt and mother.
We are working women, we Shepherds, and we are women alone. I learned this at my mother's knee. It is a strange heritage of self-denial I've been lovingly handed in a carpetbag, strangled by silence. I do not scream as another year of teaching part-time two places with no break looms. I do not scream as the dissertation continues to bear down. I do not scream as the monthly income is only seventeen hundred after taxes and I just manage to pay the bills. I did not scream as my brother tried to insert his penis when I was three years old and he a very tall ten. We are not screamers, we Shepherd women. My mother never spoke of her stepfather's nightly visits until she began to menstruate, and she did not scream when my grandmother made the responsibility to keep from getting pregnant, hers.
So when you speak to me of bricks and mortar, of harnessing pen and brush, I think only of screaming walls, driven mad by the secrets they have been forced to keep. Walls that never spoke of the incest in my mother's house, of the heritage there. No one knew of the beatings by my brother until the neighbor called him out from the middle of our street and dared him to touch me again. I never thought to hurl bricks and mortar, to fight back, to strip those walls of their elements and turn the construction materials into ammunition. If not for the pen. Pens, when you think about it, are very feeble tools. Can be snapped by the slightest pressure.
But if not for the journal writing class, taught in a trailer, low lighting, during the cusp of evening the year I would be kicked out of college for No Reports turning into F's, me of the advanced enrichment classes since seventh grade; if not for journal writing class, the freedom of paper with no lines, a bound book yet limitless, our first instruction to break the rules, write sideways, up and down, breathe into the candle and blow away constriction. It has taken me twenty years to buy again a journal with no lines, but I am ready for the next leap, the next influx of air.
Business and politics. We do not harness ourselves to anything, we Shepherd women, because we have known the shackles of jobs, of children, of no space or time for creativity. My mother never picked up a pen except to write in a chart. She did not write her own version of the night my father left; of her surprise, even thirty years later, that this man, this family man, would leave his children. I am the speaker of the clan. The youngest, I step into this role as clearly and cleanly as I stepped away from the strangling family circle to a dream of my own: graduate school in Philadelphia. My mother and aunt had braved the trek from Texas as young women, my mother on a wartime train alone, only eleven, her older cousin seated elsewhere the train was so packed. Her ticket paid by a white woman back home who could tolerate stories of the abuse no longer. My mother never went back to visit that woman, though I, her daughter, know this woman's name better than I do that of many of my relatives. It is I who will go in search of Miss Ada.
For I understand the crushing blows of bricks and mortar that cannot speak. First you are fifteen and in love with a high school football player. Then you are pregnant. Then you are married. Then you are nineteen, a nursing school graduate, a wife and mother. You have not begun to live yet. Then there are three children, a newly bought house, and a husband who strays. Then you are alone with a daughter who sucks up any anger the bricks and mortar do not absorb, any fuming silence that breaks out every time your now ex comes to what used to be his front door.
We as African American women do not dive into business and politics because we are breadwinning, mothering, seeing to the emotional needs of children who love a father who beats them, a daughter attached to a brother who rapes her, we shy forcefully away from the memories of our own horrors these realities call up.
We do smile though. When daughter finds her voice and speaks lovingly, angrily, for and of the entire family, we are glad we have held onto the house despite three mortgages. We hold her first poetry reading there and it is standing room only. Aunt can't make it, but aunt reads first collection of short stories by niece and shares her sympathy, creates a warm spot with her love.
And it is not just a woman thing. The sons are loved in their way. While you smile and rely on daughter who has flown on clipped wings, you accept oldest son when he moves back home at slightest ill wind. You wonder what internal demon makes him quake. You have only barred door against number two son, purveyor of drugs, consumer of far too many, clean now for fourteen years. He remains with a diagnosis of mental illness, and though you have visited him in hospitals from Long Beach to Camarillo, his now infrequent psychoses make him a safety risk. Besides, he gets on your nerves.
Pens and brushes will not undo the damage. You wonder if they have any power at all. You witness how daughter clings to them, and remember the first time you saw light in her face after she turned eighteen: when she stepped to the podium to accept an award. She had written a book, an entire book, and all of USC had taken notice. She smiled. The first free gesture you'd seen on her face since you had disapproved, five years ago, of her entrance into the writing program. She would work herself to death, you feared, with a full-time job and graduate school.
But you forgot she was a Shepherd woman, a Shepherd woman who'd made other choices, who broke the band of silence. As you watch her, as you lose your memory to the grip of a brain disease, you carefully preserve the notion that she will write it all down, free herself, free you. She is breaking the hold of bricks and mortar by speaking, by writing, by standing before audiences wielding a pen. You are proud. As you slip into the nexus of hell left to you by forty years of blood pressure medicine and too much stress, you remember the night this jewel spewed forth from your body, at three in the morning. She hasn't gone to bed early since.
You are proud. You love her. Particularly because you like her brand of dynamite.
LIDO. 5:20 PM, leaving. Where is the swimming?
We walk along the shore, cut off from the shore by villas, a grand hotel, must be all new since nineteen sixty-eight, the other way vague memories stir in me.
Where ... Did Solomon and I wait for a bus? Did Solomon and Jan and I wait for a bus to return?
The ride out to the Lido is long. We take the local bus and at first try to get off early and walk through the park and along the shady street a block away from the canal. Walking far enough brings us back to San Marco where the rehearsal is in full swing.
Tired from the long walk Werner and I decide to take dinner at a café on the Grande Canal and later to sit in the coolness of the evening at the rehearsal.
Another day Werner and I take the vaparetto to its last stop and walk in a different direction until we come to what is designated as the public beach. There is a café, a self-service. Solomon would be shocked. Werner and I watch with amusement as two young men and two young women try to converse in two separate languages from two separate worlds.
The Italians (the men) decide to make their advance in broken English. The Swedes (the women) meet them at last in their (different style) of broken English. The men laugh broadly and make comments to each other in Italian, and the Swedes giggle and confer on issues in Swedish.
The gist of it all as it comes to us is the different ways different cultures view virginity and how it affects the lives of women and therefore the men they marry or, as the men insist, do not marry, in the long run.
In the long run, virginity is a most serious matter. The women laugh. Yes, yes, the men insist. No Italian man would marry a woman who is not a virgin. While the women insist that it does not matter in their country. What an outdated idea!
The mother is important, the men insist. The mother and the baby. Ah, the Madonna and child. They sigh. Madonna. Madonna. They revere the Madonna.
The blondes laugh. They sip their cokes. They toss their long blonde hair. They stretch their sunburned legs. Soon it is time for parting. The men make no attempt to keep them. The girls walk away. The blue sea stretches. The white sand calls.
They run back. They wave a camera. They must have pictures of all this, this experience. They pose. First, one handsome dark man puts his arms around two girls. The fourth takes the picture. Then, the other handsome man has his picture snapped with the Swedes. Then I volunteer my services, snap the four of them.
Hugs all around with those four. The Swedes are gone. I reseat myself opposite Werner at our table. The Swedes are gone. The men laugh. They hug each other. They saunter off down the beach in search of ... women. They find two more. The mating dance starts anew.
Werner and I sit quietly. We watch the panorama of the beach play before us. There are the men embracing each other. They look deep into each other's eyes, aware only of each other. There is a bambino between them on the lap of the Madonna. The man to her right lifts the baby. He tosses the child over the lap of the Madonna to the man who flanks her on the left. The Madonna leans on her arms outstretched behind her. She makes room as the babe is tossed between the men. The child floats in the air from the grasp of one male strength caught in the other's strong arms. Giggles, strong male laughter, baby’s sighs. There is the woman seated between them, the Madonna. Behind whose back the men seek out each other's hand to hold, as the woman now softly cradles the child nuzzling at her breast.
It is Sunday. I am alone in Venice. Werner went off the previous Monday. I am alone. He left me.
The Unicorn and the Tailor's Cat
The bedroom was darker than usual when Lieber woke at six-thirty. Which meant the day itself would be dark. Most of the apartment's windows faced south toward the steep hill of Fort Tryon. To make the place his own when his father died eight years ago, Lieber had replaced the heavy damask draperies that the old man had made with sheer white curtains and translucent shades. Now Lieber could tell what sort of day it was as soon as he opened his eyes. Today it would probably rain. He had missed the weather report last night. Once again he had fallen asleep in the easy chair and he hardly remembered turning off the television set and putting himself to bed.
The telephone rang as soon as Lieber had raised the shades and closed the bedroom window. The room was chilly. A hint of spring and the heat is turned off, Lieber thought, and he cursed the landlord mildly as he padded barefoot into the hall.
“Hello Jacob,” he said. “Of course I knew it was you. Who else would call me at such an hour? Look, I won’t be going to shul this morning. I’m under the weather. Literally. Have you seen the sky? It looks like a large wet blanket, ha! Don’t worry, you’ll probably have a minyan today. Cohen is out of the hospital. Minna won’t be able to hold him back. Shul for Cohen is like a gambling addiction: he pants for those short term winnings, even though he knows he’ll lose big in the long run.... Yes, today I am of little faith, as they say.... Do not tell me that I should remarry. What is this all of a sudden? Never mind. We’ll have lunch. I’ll collect you from the Pork Butt at one.... Don’t yell. I kid you, that’s all. I know, I know ... ‘adapt or die’.”
Lieber hung up and went into the kitchen. He measured coffee and water into the automatic coffee maker and turned it on. He stood with his finger forgotten on the switch and stared out the window. Through the soft green of the new foliage, he could see the prison-colored stone of The Cloisters rising at the top of the hill. Since childhood he had measured the pace of the seasons by the leafing of Fort Tryon Park, by how well he could see the hilltop museum that held what his father had called idols from the dark ages. In the black-green depths of summer he could see only the top of the tower and its incongruous roof-peak red light. In late fall and winter trees mimicked stone, dull color for color.
Lieber’s ex-wife Judith, who knew such things, once told him that The Cloisters had opened in 1938, ten years before Lieber and his father arrived in America. Like so many, they came to this northernmost tip of Manhattan Island from Germany, after his parents’ liberation from the hell of a forced labor camp by the Allies, and then from the hell of the displaced persons’ camp where Lieber was born, by Jacob’s father, Uncle Aaron Altschul, who had made a home for his family here in the late thirties. Lieber’s mother had stayed behind to take care of her own mother, who was also in the camp, and who was too frail at the time to make the long trip to New York. They were to follow as soon as the older woman was stronger. Within a month, both women died of flu. Max Altschul never forgave himself for not insisting that they leave with him. Over and over, day after day, year after year, in the shop where he plied his tailor’s trade, around the corner from the big bright flat rented for what was to have been a large merry family, Max Altschul was heard by his son to say, in German, over the hum of the big black Singer, “Never mind what the Doctor says. You will come with us!” After a time, for Lieber, the words became incantatory, a spell cast to release his mother from death. A photograph of her sat on a table in the living room of the apartment. It had always been merely a picture. He did not remember her, nor did he remember his infancy in the camp. He supposed that he had grieved, but his grief was so tied to his father’s grief that he did not know if what he had felt was his own.
Once in a while, Lieber and his father climbed the twisting flight of steps on the hillside to wander in the gardens and to walk silently through the stony rooms of the museum, stopping at some work of art that struck the father’s senses. Lieber always tried to guess why his father was attracted to one object and not another, why he stopped at this statue and not that one. Lieber himself was drawn to the Unicorn Tapestries, not for their beauty, but for what his child’s mind had perceived as their horror. That mind had been darkly absorbed in the story of the cruel capture of the beautiful white animal as it was told on the seven pieces of closely stitched cloth. And he felt a dark magic in the labyrinthine building itself and in the stillness of the landscaped cloisters. Even the breathtaking walk up the steps on the hillside had seemed enchanted. Lieber as a child had nightmares for years, dreams of sharp flying lances and blood that streamed from the sky, white horses crushed by stones, dreams he never revealed to his grieving, preoccupied father. When he grew up he attempted to exorcize the nightmares by trips up the hill with Judith, when he might see the tapestries as art and art alone. But somehow, he was never able to divorce the objects from his fantasy and he had not climbed those forested, winding stairs in years.
As the sleek little coffee maker sputtered and hissed, Lieber reached automatically into cupboards and drawers and set the kitchen table for his breakfast. Then he left the kitchen and walked down the hall into the bathroom. Lieber became aware of his legs as they heavily thrust themselves one in front of the other, the flat feel of his feet as they slapped and brushed the hall rug, the slight roll of his hips. He felt that he must look like an animated cartoon figure, somehow not exactly, not completely alive.
He took a shower so hot that the bathroom was within moments clouded with steam, and when he stepped out he opened the door and fanned it several times to clear the air. He said, as he said each morning, “Why do I bother to close the door?”
He wiped the condensation from the mirror over the sink and looked at his face. His beard would need trimming soon. Gray was threading his reddish hair. His forehead was higher than it had been the last time he had noticed.
“Well. One gets older or else,” he said.
He gave a grim smile to the reflection of his burly body in the full-length mirror on the door and went into his bedroom. He dressed, made the bed with swift, practiced movements, went back to the kitchen and ate his breakfast, while he stared through the window at the greening of the hill.
He went into the front hall and took a brown tweed jacket from the coat closet. He ran his hands over the pleasingly rough fabric as he settled it around his body. He took a black yarmulke from the table next to the door and put it in his jacket pocket. He opened the door. Then he closed the door, removed the yarmulke from his pocket and replaced it on the table. For a moment he stood, shifting and bewildered. Then he turned and went into the living room and sat down in the easy chair. A great sigh rumbled up through his chest. It felt to him like a volcano erupting on the ocean floor, and he sank back into the chair, limp, as if all the air and all the bones had left his body.
“He is too much alone,” he said at last.
“Yes. He says that every day,” he continued. “What else does he say every day? He says, ‘The cup is half empty’ or ‘The cup is half full’. He says, ‘I shall go to the ballet,’; ‘I shall get tickets for all the Altschuls for the circus,’; ‘I shall fly to the Caribbean.’ And what does he do? He plays bridge on Thursdays with Minna and Michael Cohen who are eighty years old and whoever else they can get to be a fourth who is also on his last legs. He goes with Jacob and Alicia to concerts at the Nagle Avenue Y on Sundays. He plays pickup tennis at the court on Seaman Avenue. He goes to synagogue on Friday nights and almost every morning of his life. And six days a week, he opens his shop, which is around the corner from his home, and he practices his trade, which was his father’s trade before him, so that he may enjoy this luxurious and exciting life.”
Lieber nodded. “You were married, you had that.”
“For five years, dummy. Five years. She left you, dummy, more than twenty years ago.”
Suddenly, Lieber leapt from his chair and roared like some maddened beast. This was new, this roaring, and he shook a triumphant fist and laughed at the violence of the sound he had made. Then he flung himself toward the front door and ran out of the apartment. The metal door slammed and vibrated as he thrust it shut. He pressed the button for the elevator, danced with impatience on the tile floor for a moment and then abandoned the elevator for the stairwell. He heard the elevator creaking toward the fifth floor as he tapped rapidly down the worn stone steps.
When he reached the street, he stopped. “Where am I going?” he said, and he shrugged his shoulders and walked around the corner to his shop.
“So I open up early,” he said as he raised the steel gate. He looked up at the weatherbeaten metal sign above the doorway. It read, “Altschul’s Fine Tailoring – Since 1948.”
“It’s time for a new sign,” he said.
“He says that every morning,” he said responsively, and he took a cautionary look up and down the street as he prepared to unlock the door.
There she was. She was early herself today. Swinging easily along the sidewalk, so centered, so confident, that even her idlest movements had purpose. That definite grace was the second thing he noticed about her two months ago when he first saw her. The first thing he noticed – was her remarkable beauty. He had seen her come toward him, just as she was doing now. Then, she had worn a long pale coat, unbuttoned in the February wind, its skirt floating about her like a heavy veil. As she passed, he saw skin honey dark, eyes snapping black, hair short and straight and thick and silky and of a brown the color of the richest coffee. She was not thin, not even slim. Lieber wondered if she dieted. He thought not. She seemed so unselfconscious. The narrow brown skirt barely brushed her kneecaps and it fit her perfectly, hugging nicely a hint of rounded belly. She looked strong, athletic, as if she might play soccer, or another of the sports young women played so well now. But she was not young. That first day, as she drew close (Lieber, as now, frozen in the act of unlocking the shop door), she saw him watching her – it must have been with an intensity, he thought now and went red with embarrassment, to heat the neighborhood – and she smiled a small smile and mouthed, “Good morning.” Her face had on it the signs of middle age – the trenches that smiling digs beside the mouth, the furrows of surprise and doubt in the forehead. There were silvery lights in her dark hair. She would be in her late forties, he had decided. His eyes, automatic, had gone to her left hand. There was no wedding band. Although that did not mean anything these days. Wasn’t the current word “involved”?
Now, as he watched her approach him, he realized that her beauty gave no hint of her race, her nationality. Perhaps she was a real American, of many cultures, he thought now, as she came up to him and stopped. Stopped! Lieber’s heart banged noisily.
“Hi,” she said. “You’re the tailor?” She pointed up toward the sign. “Mr. Altschul?” Her voice was low and soothing.
“Yes. Ah. Yes. I’m...” Lieber looked up. “I’m his son. I’m... Lieber... Mr. Altschul.”
“I’m Carol Davis. I’ve noticed you sewing in your window there. With your cat for company.” She smiled. Her teeth were strong and straight and very white against her beautiful skin.
Lieber’s chest hurt. He feared he might weep and he cleared his throat and quickly turned to unlock the shop door. “Yes,” he said, and he ventured a smile and felt better for trying. “My cat. Moses. The latest of a long and distinguished line. Please, come in.” Lieber turned on the lights and ushered her into the shop. “Please wait. I’ll be right with you.”
Lieber moved quickly past the counter, past the racks of dry-cleaned clothes in their plastic film, past the little blue-curtained dressing room, into the back room of the store. He skirted the mangle and the steam presser and opened the alley door. The big white and orange cat was sitting patiently just outside.
“Good morning, Moses,” Lieber said. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting. We have a very early customer. Truth to tell, it’s the lady I sometimes talk about.”
The big cat padded into a corner of the room and waited at a small refrigerator. Lieber fed him, and for a moment, bent slightly forward, absently combing his beard with his fingers, he watched Moses eat and drink, the cat placid and unhurried as always. Then Lieber straightened and went back to Carol Davis, who stood calmly looking out the window at the gray day.
“So,” Lieber said. “What can I do for you?”
“I’ve seen you... I guess you could say I’ve spied on you.” As if to confirm some speculation, Carol Davis looked around the shop, at the big black Singer on its wooden table that faced the storefront, at the mysterious shape of the black and silver hemmer on its own table against a wall of pegboard covered with numberless spools of bright thread, at the worn spot in the linoleum where the wheels of Lieber’s swivel chair had turned about for years, at the high wooden counter that, for Lieber, separated the art of the tailor from the mundane services of the dry cleaner.
“You don’t just do alterations,” she continued. “You make clothes from scratch. You're very good.”
“Thank you. My father taught me. It’s... good work. Satisfying to the, ah, hands.”
Carol Davis looked straight at Lieber for a moment. Then, with a brief smooth angling of her head that caused the lovely silk of her hair to fall forward, she reached into a wide leather shoulder bag and withdrew a tissue-wrapped packet and a folded magazine page.
“I like handmade clothes,” she said. “I used to sew but I don’t have time any more. When I moved to this neighborhood, I knew that if I kept my eyes open, there would be a good tailor here if there was one left anywhere on earth. And here you are! One of an almost extinct species.” She smiled at Lieber and shook her head. “Sorry. I don't mean that the way it sounds.”
She unfolded the packet and the glossy sheet of paper. The packet was a slim bolt of creamy sheer fabric, soft and crisp at once, probably a handkerchief linen. Lieber involuntarily reached out and ran a finger over it. The magazine picture was of a blouse, plainly cut and elegant, with a deep sailor collar. These days Lieber rarely was offered the chance to do such delicate work. A great deal of it could be done by hand.
“Do you do this sort of thing,” Carol Davis said. She made her question sound like a statement, as if she knew he did “do this sort of thing,” but wished to let him choose to make the blouse or not.
“Yes. Once in a while, one of the Catholic mothers asks me to make the daughter’s communion dress. I’ll be happy to accept this commission.” Lieber laughed, stiffly, he thought. “I’ll, ah, need your measurements.”
“Oh, of course.” Carol Davis reached again into the leather bag and handed Lieber a much-folded sheet of yellow ruled paper. “Here they are.” Her soothing voice became brisk. “How much will it cost?”
“Forty-five dollars,” he said, his voice equally brisk. Why not forty-five dollars? “If you wish, I can do the stitching around the collar by hand; that will add a few dollars to the cost.”
“Fine. Whatever you think. I want it to be right.” She moved toward the door.
“I’ll have it ready for a fitting this afternoon, if you like. I’m open till seven.”
“Great! Fine! I teach at the....”
“Yes, I know.”
“Oh.... I can be here at about 3:30 if that gives you enough time.”
“Oh yes, plenty of time,” said Lieber.
“Okay. I’ll see you at 3:30, then. Thank you.”
The bell above the door tinked faintly and she was gone.
Lieber stood, numb, trembling, his hand holding his beard as if it were a lifeline. What had happened! What had he said! What had she said! What had she seen when she looked at him, this woman he had two months ago taken into his mind like a song that will not stop singing. His wife Judith had told him often in the early days that he looked like a tender-hearted pirate with his gingery hair and cinnamon brown eyes and “sweet” smile. “‘Sweet’! What is ‘sweet’?” he had asked her. “Kind, Lieber. You have a kind smile, all right?” So demanding he had been, so needful of approval all the time. For a while, he had thought his demands were the reason for her leaving. “Why! Why!” he had cried. And she had said, “Because I am suffocating.” He was only beginning to understand now. His father said Judith wanted the fast life, the night life, not a home and a husband and children. Lieber had accepted his father’s judgment and for a time was shy of women. But his loneliness finally propelled him into a series of aimless, formal relationships with women presented to him by the numberless matchmakers of the neighborhood, including his father, his uncle, and cousin Jacob. God, he was so eligible! A solid, if modest business, a “sweet” smile for icing on the cake. He reckoned that every single Jewish woman in the neighborhood had appeared in his shop. The “measurements” he had taken over the years! Ha!
Now, once again, he passionately wanted a woman’s approval. For the first time in years, his body, the special heated place in his mind, were set to violent trembling and a rich aching. And this time, the woman was very beautiful and mysterious.
Lieber’s sigh could be heard, he was certain, beyond Fort Tryon. Moses the cat certainly heard it, for suddenly he was there. He rubbed against Lieber’s leg and then jumped up into the bed of the store window, where he stretched out and lay blinking drowsily. Lieber watched the cat flatten into sleep.
“Moses, Moses,” he said. “She seemed... I think... No, I am certain that there is something, some electricity between us. Shall I fall on my knees? Confess to her that since I first saw her, I have undressed her, put my hands on her body, made love to her hundreds of times? What a jackass I am. You’re the sensible one. You leave by the alley door, you catch a mouse for dinner, you find a lady, you have children, you reappear and sleep in my window without a thought for all the Moseses who came before you. A good, sensible life.”
Lieber turned abruptly. He took the picture and the fabric into the back room and turned on the shaded bulbs that hung low over the scarred cutting table. He cut a large sheet of pattern paper from a roll standing in a corner behind a dusty dress form and, referring frequently to the sheet of Carol Davis’s measurements, he drafted and cut a pattern for the blouse. He tacked the fabric onto the cutting table, pinned onto it the pattern pieces, and cut out the pieces of the blouse. Then he pulled out the dress form and wiped away the dust. The mannequin had been a birthday gift from Judith. It was a perfect size ten. So was Carol Davis. Lieber’s hands trembled.
“I need not to think,” said Lieber. He took a pin and jabbed it into the little finger of his left hand. For a moment, with a brief chuckle at the melodramatic nature of his gesture, he watched blood run down his finger. Then he took an adhesive bandage from a cupboard and wrapped it around his finger. The doorbell rang and Lieber went to wait on a customer with a suit for dry cleaning.
Lieber decided to baste the pieces of the blouse together at the sewing machine. He wanted to handle the delicate material as little as possible. He chalked the pinned seams and carefully removed the pins from the fabric and the fabric from the mannequin. He took the pieces of the blouse to the front of the store and sat down at the sewing machine that Max Altschul had bought in 1948. Within a few minutes the blouse was ready for the real Carol Davis. He put it on a hanger and hung it on a hook on the wall above the sewing machine. Lieber then moved to work on skirt and trouser hems and seams, the work that made up the bulk of his sewing income. He had not been asked to make a suit or even a jacket in many months. A dying species, he was that indeed!
Lieber worked automatically now, his blunt-fingered, clever hands deftly moving fabric this way and that, while his knee pressed as necessary the lever suspended below the sewing table. The machine ticked or thrummed, depending on the pressure of Lieber's knee. Customers came into the shop. Cohen (“You weren't at shul, Lieber. Your father, may he rest, would turn.”) needed new trouser pockets. (“Again new pockets? Michael, you make too much money. Ha!”).
At noon, hunger caused Lieber to look up. He turned to view the morning’s principal work, the blouse for Carol Davis. The still-separate collar rested on the blouse’s shoulders; it would be joined once the button holes were placed, once the body of the blouse was a certain fit. The delicate fabric looked rough in its incomplete state, but it was for Lieber the incarnation of Carol Davis. He looked at it and he saw this not so young, but oh so magnificent woman. Burnished, she was burnished, he thought. Like copper, or bronze, or gold. But she was not hard and unyielding like metal; she was more like the crisp and delicate cloth of her blouse. Lieber realized that he was stroking his beard again. Suddenly, it seemed an old man’s gesture and he drew his hand down. He said, “Moses, mind the store,” hung the WILL RETURN sign on the door, locked up and ran around the corner to his apartment.
When the deed was done, Lieber looked at himself in the mirror. “What have you done, maniac!”
“I shaved off the beard, sobersides. So I look like paste.”
Lieber turned his face from side to side. Not only was he pale, his face was sore. Red blotches were beginning to appear on his cheeks. But the jaw line was barely blurred and his chin was bolder than he remembered. It was not a bad face at all. He laughed at his mottled skin and cleared from the sink the mass of red and silver that had covered his face since Judith left him and put it in the wastebasket. He gently rubbed lotion into his tender skin and then, with what seemed to him a demented smile, he said, “Now it starts.”
“What on earth did you do!” said Jacob when Lieber walked into his cousin’s butcher shop. The shop was empty for the moment and in the stillness, Lieber could smell the meat. Lieber might have joined Jacob in the butcher shop after City College. After all, as Jacob had said, “People will always need meat for their tables and many people will want fresh meat, despite the supermarket. Tailors, on the other hand, are now only for the rich.”
“Yes, yes,” Lieber had said. “Adapt or die, right?” But Lieber did not like the smell of raw meat. Besides, as a child, he had learned his father’s trade. He liked guiding and shaping fabric, the feeling of various textures in his hands. He knew that Jacob made more money than he did, but these days Jacob was forced to sell pork. One could go too far with this adapt or die. Still, Jacob was a good man, and Lieber’s best friend and confidant. When Lieber, new to America and without English, first met his cousin – Jacob had been eight to Lieber’s three – Jacob had helped him learn the new language so well that, despite the influence of his father’s accent, only the merest trace of German remained in Lieber’s speech, as a slight heaviness, the occasional slanting of the grammar.
“I have shaved on impulse my beard,” Lieber said.
“Lieber, it worries me when you do something impulsive. In fact, I don’t think you ever have before. So, I'm doubly worried.”
“Well. But how do I look?”
“Very much like me,” his cousin replied, laughing. “Only the coloring is different. You aren’t yet completely gray. Let’s go to lunch.”
“So,” Jacob continued, as the cousins ate pot pie and salad in a booth in a nearby coffee shop. “What made you do something so impulsive as to show your face after twenty years in hiding?”
“I won't lie to you, Jake. I have, ha!, taken off my mask because I’ve met a wonderful woman and I want her to see me.”
“Aha!” Jacob said, both frowning and smiling at his cousin. “This is a surprise. Who is she? Do I know her?”
“I don’t think so,” Lieber said. “She – her name is Carol Davis....”
“I–I don't know, Jacob. Maybe yes, maybe no.”
“What is this ‘ah’? For God’s sake, the twenty-first century is upon us!”
“I know that; you don't.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Lieber, Lieber.... Oh, go on. Tell me more.”
“She is beautiful, but in such a way, and not so young....” Lieber tried to describe Carol Davis to his cousin, tried to tell him about the weeks of thinking of nothing else and the incredible and lucky event of that morning. It seemed to Lieber that he was telling a story, one so rich in detail, in feeling, one so clear, so full of promise, that it must have at least as clear, intense and detailed an ending, a fulfillment of its promise.
“That’s all you know about her?” Jacob said when Lieber had finished his tale.
“Yes, that's it.”
“Lieber, she could be anything.”
“Once, a beautiful woman came into the shop – this was many years ago, before Alicia. One thing led to another....”
“Did I know about this?”
“You were very young then.... Anyway, I asked her to go out with me and she told me that much as she’d like to, she had better not, that she knew I was Jewish. Her father had been a Nazi.”
“You’re crazy, you know that? You're suggesting that Carol Davis is a Nazi?”
“I’m not suggesting anything. I’m just trying to tell you to be careful. Lieber, I have begged you hundreds of times to look at the world, to go out into it and see what is there, both for you and against you. I thought when you and Judith married that she would pull you with her into life. But you refused to go and she went finally without you. You – and I blame Uncle Max for this, may he rest – you have made your life small because you think you must in order to survive. You watched your father, who never stopped grieving, whose mind was turned always toward the horror, and you watch other survivors, like Minna and Michael Cohen, curl up inside themselves and you think that is the only way to live. A small life goes unnoticed, you think. You’re wrong, of course. As my father used to say, may he rest, the cat catches the smallest mouse. Lieber, my cousin, my good friend, you have created a ghetto for yourself right here in New York, and you know it.”
Jacob slid out of the booth. He stood looking down at Lieber and said, “Your idea of modern life is to own an automatic coffee maker.” Then he threw his hands up. “Look – do what you will. You’re right, the century has turned. Besides, it will be good for you to find things out for yourself. You’re too old now for me to warn you about the big bad wolf.”
Jacob went to the cashier at the front of the restaurant and paid the check. He turned and called to Lieber, “You can pay next time,” and then he walked out.
As Jacob left, Lieber muttered, “You're the one creating the ghetto, Jacob, my cousin, my good friend.” He had never before been angry at Jacob, ever, and now he felt rage swelling his body and heating his face.
It was raining when Lieber left the restaurant, a fine mist, soft and chilly, that helped to clear his head, and he stood for a moment and watched the green fuzz on the hillside become a watery blur. Of course Jacob was right, right about the old Lieber. But now, but now!
The day cleared while Lieber worked and waited for Carol Davis to reappear. He waited on customers like an automaton and mindlessly cut and sewed new pockets into Michael Cohen’s trousers. He had performed this sort of task so often that had he been blind, he would still have done it perfectly.
When Carol Davis walked into the shop, Lieber realized that not once had he doubted that she would return. He was certain that she knew his feelings, and despite his near-certainty that she felt the same currents in the air, she might have decided that she had best not come back. Lieber imagined her whisking past the store every day without a nod in his direction for the next twenty years. He almost laughed at the ludicrousness of it and then he realized that he and Carol Davis were staring intently at one another.
“Ah. Your blouse is ready for fitting,” Lieber said finally and with less awkwardness than he would have expected.
“Thank you,” said Carol Davis. “You work quickly.” She smiled at him as if they shared a joke, and allowed him to escort her to the little dressing room just beyond the counter.
The blouse fit almost perfectly. A bit of easing at the shoulders and nipping-in at the side seams was all the adjustment necessary. Lieber was again surprised at his calm, his professional attitude. Although standing so close to Carol Davis, touching her, feeling her even breathing against his fingers, set him adrift on an erotic sea, his hands were steady. It seemed to him that something natural, something beyond the complicated process of thought or his uncertainty and confusion had taken over, some ancient animal pattern, like the rhythm and movements of a courtship dance of birds. Lieber relaxed further at the thought of himself as a bird. He wondered what Carol Davis was thinking as she faced the long narrow mirror on the wall next to the dressing room. She seemed to be regarding herself merely as the wearer of a new blouse, no more. Lieber knew that his face did not betray him any more than her face betrayed her.
“The blouse is beautiful,” she said.
“Thank you,” Lieber said.
And then, and then!! Lieber wanted to speak, but his lips were frozen. The customer changed her clothes. The tailor promised the finished blouse for the day after tomorrow. The customer smiled, thanked the tailor once again for his wonderful work and left. And that was all, that was it. What had he expected to happen? Had he really thought that one of them would say, “Your place or mine?”? But, he should have said something! Lieber said to the cat, as the great white and orange beast moved toward the alley door, “Moses, is it significant that she did not notice that I have shaved my beard?”
For a few minutes he sat at the Singer and tried to work, his mind going over the details of his latest meeting with Carol Davis, with Jacob’s comments in mind. Yes, Lieber had hidden himself away from life. But then, at the same time, Jacob was telling him to be careful? How could one know what to fear?
Suddenly, Lieber stood up. He clapped his hands and laughed. He looked at his watch. It will still be open, he thought, and he laughed again. “Ach, more melodrama!” he said, as he locked the door of the shop and walked to the park. He passed a wide tree-shaded playground to the flight of steps that wound steep and secret up the hillside. It was dim and cool in the woods and Lieber could smell the cold earth. At the top, breathless, he stepped onto the roadway outside the entrance to The Cloisters. Lieber went into the dark foyer and up a graceful flight of stone stairs to the reception desk where he asked the way to the Unicorn Tapestries.
He stood in the middle of the small room that held the seven sixteenth-century tapestries that portrayed the hunt of the Unicorn, and he forced himself to remember how, as a child, he had been so obsessed with the mystery of the elegant white creature with the long sharp horn rising in the middle of its forehead. He recalled his horror at the killing of the magic animal. He remembered how Judith had tried to put it into perspective for him, how she told him about the two ways of interpreting the story told by the tapestries. In one, the Unicorn represented Christ and the story was a retelling of the Passion; the other was an allegory of courtly love, the tapestries woven in honor of a noble marriage of the time. Lieber thought that one must certainly know such things to understand a work of art. All he saw, still, was the cruel hunt and murder of a harmless creature, one endowed with magic so powerful that its horn could freshen poisoned water. He saw the hunters with their fat spears, the dogs tearing into the Unicorn’s flesh, and he suddenly noticed, in a tapestry where only fragments remained, the pale softness of a woman’s arm encircling the Unicorn’s neck.
Lieber looked at the seventh and final tapestry, at the animal imprisoned in a small pen, chained to its fence. He stepped as close as the rope stanchioned in front of the hanging would permit and studied the tapestry. It was so closely woven that it looked like a painting. Lieber found himself wondering who had gone blind doing such exquisite work. He imagined men and women weaving for long hours, stumbling homeward, hands cramped, necks stiff, and eyes that burned. Eating their scratched-together suppers, reaching for one another tiredly in the dark and cold. Then, before daylight, prayers, a crude meal and to work again. And for what? Their lives were rude, their deaths early and terrible. Still they prayed, they ate, they slept. Routine and ritual, food and faith. It was all, thought Lieber, of one piece of fabric. Even good and evil. Judith had said that in this final tapestry there was represented both the risen Christ and the consummation of marriage. Lieber saw a chained and wounded animal, blood running down his body in several places. He felt again some of the horror that he had felt as a child, the pain that was almost physical, of being helpless in the face of cruelty, and he could feel tears building behind his eyes.
“It’s not blood,” a voice said at his ear.
“What?” Lieber said, his heart pounding. He turned toward the voice. A slight, balding museum guard who had been standing at the entrance to the room was next to him.
“It’s pomegranate juice. See? Look up there.” The guard pointed and Lieber looked and saw the small round fruit hanging from the branches of the tree growing behind the Unicorn. Some of the fruit seemed to be split open.
“The pomegranate burst, see,” the guard continued, “and it dripped all over the Unicorn. The Unicorn’s not hurt anymore. It’s about life, real life and life everlasting.”
“Thank you,” Lieber said.
The guard nodded and said, “Any time,” and went to stand sentinel again.
The tears rose and spilled and flowed down Lieber’s cheeks. He put his hands up to his wet face and felt the smooth new skin. Then he drew a deep breath and turned to leave. Well, so that is it, that is the way it is, he thought as his footsteps resounded on the stone floor. Well. Tomorrow morning I will go to shul and then I will sew seams and give out the dry cleaning and eat pot pie at the coffee shop. And tomorrow evening I will play bridge with Michael and Minna. Minna, who talks about the redecoration of her living room and who holds her cards so that one can see the numbers tattooed on the soft flesh of her forearm. And on Friday, I will go to shul, and Carol Davis will come to pick up her blouse. And then, we shall see.
A Step Beyond
("A Step Beyond" was first published in the journal Versal )
When the house was too much to care for, the yard too much to mow, my parents decided to downsize. They were impatient and began the process before they secured an apartment or a smaller house. My sister and I helped them give many of their belongings to my nieces and nephews. The giving was followed by a yard sale. Finally my parents took much of what was left to the Salvation Army. Yet they failed to find a new place to live. When the time came and their house sold, it was agreed they would move in with me. I had no husband, no children, and most importantly, an extra room.
My parents had immigrated to America from Russia as small children sixty years before and my home was their third in adulthood. My mother, the daughter of a diplomat, was silent and exact in her dealings; she must have seen much as a child, but she never spoke of her youth. My father, the son of a poor man who'd crossed the ocean with his family as stowaways, spoke often of his parents – their willingness to work, to learn, to love. He talked of understanding and my mother nodded, as if she understood. They were socialists, living in a democracy, he said. And in their old age, they became parents living in their youngest child's home.
As my mother stood in my kitchen, peering down into the drawers, I remembered the phone conversation we had before they decided to move. "I'm tired," she said, "and I can't cook every meal anymore. Your father's losing weight." Yet she seemed to have plenty of energy as she finished alphabetizing my spices and commenced an inspection of my flatware. And my father, sitting up perfectly straight at my kitchen table reading the newspaper, hardly looked frail.
I thought we were waiting for a truck to arrive with the last of their belongings. They'd carried with them only one small suitcase apiece. I could not understand why my mother, who had not yet begun to unpack, felt such a pressing need to move my blender to the closet and to organize the few pieces of flatware she'd found acceptable.
The truck never arrived and eventually my father told me it had been sent to the Salvation Army.
"What happened to the drawings Grandpa brought back from China?" I asked. "Unlce Louie's samovar? Your wedding photos?"
"Someday," my father said, "you'll understand. Those are just things. You can't hold on to things."
"You can't if you give them away," I said.
He shook his head and my mother squeezed his arm. Then she opened my pantry, studied the contents and began.
We didn't have a lot of belongings when I was growing up, but I couldn't recall my parents having been so quick to part with their possessions. Something had to be done, and as I thought they were only going to be living with me for a short while, I decided to work around them. The next day I dropped by the Salvation Army store on my way home from work. For fifty cents, I purchased a stack of family photos. I asked about the samovar, but the employees claimed no one had seen it. I found the drawings, out of their frames, rolled up and leaning in a corner. For twenty-five cents, they were mine. More looking netted me several other items I didn't think I was ready to part with. I drove the lot to my sister's house. She cleared a shelf in her garage where I would store their things until they left.
But rather than search for a new place, my parents made themselves at home in mine. My mother managed to do all the cooking she claimed she couldn't do, and the kitchen, now arranged to her liking, filled with piles of thick pancakes and dishes of jelly; bowls of salads made with beets, eggs and mayonnaise; kabobs and sliced vegetables. I ate and ate, unable to stop myself, until I began to put on weight. My father washed the dishes and didn't gain an ounce. He refused to eat my mother's cooking.
"I've been eating those things for forty years," he said. "I need something different."
Two weeks after they'd moved in, he began to call me on my cell phone while I was at work. "Please stop on your way home and get me a pizza," he'd ask.
"Dad, I won't be home until six. And what's Mom going to say?"
"Leave it on the back porch when you come in. I'll feed the leftovers to the cat."
Thus began a scheme of deception and guilt. My father ate standing at the bottom of the back steps, like some sort of stray. I finished what he didn't of my mother's cooking, so she wouldn't see her hard work go unappreciated. I noticed my cat gained weight, too.
One day during my lunch break, I bought a vase I'd spotted in the window of a department store. The glass had a swirl of frosted pastels whirling upwards, the palest petals caught in a snow storm, a magical blurring of the seasons in glass. When I got home, I showed my mother.
"A waste of money," she declared. "You saw us get rid of our things. You think we don't know what we're doing?"
"I didn't see you get rid of anything," I replied. "You got rid of your stuff while I wasn't looking. And anyhow, this vase will bring me pleasure."
My father wandered into the room. "Someday you'll understand," he said, as he peered down into the opening of the vase.
I put it on my nightstand and I looked at it when I woke and before I went to sleep, and it did make me happy.
I tried to urge them into their own home. I picked up brochures from retirement communities, glossy things with bright photos of seniors on lounge chairs by pools, but my parents barely glanced at them. They seemed to be happy where they were. By this time, my mother had completely rearranged my home. She reorganized my closets. She moved things around in the bathroom, more than once. "A lifetime of living," she said, "teaches one a thing or two."
Dad took to planting vegetables in the back yard. "Wouldn't you like to have your own garden?" I asked, but he shook his head. He preferred mine. He gave my mother whatever she wanted and she cooked it up into dishes he refused to eat. The excess he gave to my neighbors, a door-to-door free produce service. He continued to leave messages on my cell phone. "Two tacos, no onions, extra cheese. And, please, if you have time, one of those shakes from the other place."
Before they came, I had envisioned my elderly parents sitting in my sun room, afraid to go down the stairs for a cup of coffee. I imagined spats about how I should fold my kitchen towels and what sort of milk I should be drinking. Instead, I had a couple of worker bees. But I was busy and therefore, tolerant. My closet was easier to use after she rearranged it. The garden looked nice. It wasn't altogether unpleasant.
Then things began to disappear.
It took some time for what was happening to register. My college yearbooks, the extra set of measuring cups, my spare black shoes–they might have simply been misplaced, like a book I thought I had, but could have loaned to someone. Then slowly, it began to sink in. A tiny glass sculpture from an art fair I attended two years ago was not something I could have misplaced or loaned out. My extra winter coat never moved in the summer.
One night as I got into bed, I discovered there was no longer a vase on my nightstand.
The next morning, I confronted them. "Where did it go?" I asked.
They looked at me as if they had no idea what I was talking about.
"My vase. Everything that's disappeared. Where did you take it?"
I stared at them over a hill of pancakes. My father had a plate of newspaper and a cup of coffee. Mother refused to sit and hovered at the stove, ready to make more food.
"Things come and go," my father said. "Come and go, like people."
"No," I said. "Things stay put. Unless someone comes along and moves them."
They said nothing. Mother poured another batch of batter onto the hot griddle and I listened to the oil crackle until it stopped.
One neighbor called me at work to tell me my father was not only hanging around the back steps eating, but he had taken to handing misshapen sacks to a strange man several times a week. Another called to say the Salvation Army truck was pulling up in front of my house on a regular basis.
I stopped by the thrift store once again. There was my vase, seventy five cents. A set of three porcelain babies, which I hadn't even realized were missing, for fifty cents. No glass sculpture. I took it all to my sister's house, added it to the shelf. "What are you going to do," she asked, "wait until they're dead to take these things back?"
I shook my head. "I'll wait until they're gone, whenever that is. I suppose I'm in no hurry."
One day as I sat down to breakfast, I noticed there were three chairs at the table instead of four. "Where's the other chair?" I asked.
"We only need three," my mother said. "Three people, three chairs."
"I suppose if I drop by the Salvation Army, I'll find my chair there, for a nickel." I stared at them, my father shaking his head, my mother's hand, poised to flip an omelet. "Don't you think this is going too far?" I asked. "You live in my house. Follow my rules." I cringed at my words. They'd said them a thousand times before, when I was growing up.
To their credit, they looked at me with feeling in their eyes. They could empathize with the pain of loss. Only not with the desire to hold on.
They said nothing, made no movement, but something changed. Later in the week, I saw them looking through the brochures and I heard my father's muffled voice speaking to someone over the phone.
It was raining the day they left. My mother, the elderly daughter of a long-dead diplomat, crept across the front porch empty-handed; her feet inch-worming forward in tiny increments. She refused to take an umbrella. My dad, the son of a poor man who'd loved his family, called after her. "Evelyn. Come back here." But she'd gone down the walk, beyond the steps and out onto the sidewalk.
Dad put his hat on, picked up his umbrella and followed her. With one look back, stern, tired, resigned, he said to me for the last time, "Some day you'll understand." Then he closed the door. They took nothing with them save the clothes on their backs. Even their toiletries remained in my bathroom.
I sometimes wonder if I should have tried to stop them, or at least gone to the window to watch them walk away.
On certain sunny days, I can almost imagine them returning, as if nothing had happened. Since they've been gone, I've accumulated no new belongings, and perhaps they'd be proud. Nor have I reclaimed anything from either the Salvation Army or my sister's garage. The two empty chairs at the table reminded me of their absence in a way three never could, so I took the extras out to the back porch, and now I dine alone.
Sometimes it seems as if the spaces take up more room than the things themselves ever could, yet I can't imagine bringing more things in, as if it were possible to fill the space. I wonder if this is what they understood.
Myself, I understand nothing.
H A M I L T O N S T O N E E
D I T I O N S
p.o. box 43, Maplewood, New Jersey 07040