(Excerpt from a Novella)
By Gail Benick
I wanted to take Terry Sue’s picture because the mirror in her bedroom was lying to her. Before we went outside, I reread the instructions that came with my Brownie Hawkeye, this time more carefully to take the truest possible snapshot.
#1 Make it interesting. Your picture should tell a story at a glance. Always stand steady, hold your breath and release the shutter with a smooth squeeze action.
I told Terry Sue to stand facing the sun and do something interesting, like wave goodbye at the front door. She was wearing a cardigan sweater and a satin bow anchored with a bobby pin to her thinning hair. The scratches on her scalp—I could hardly see them—came from the sharp metal end of the bobby pin. The rubber tip fell off when she opened it with her teeth, a habit Mother hated.
“Don’t breathe,” I said to Terry Sue. My eye focused on the viewfinder image of her, stiff as a skeleton. Her skin was greyish blue, the bones in her hands jutting out from her flesh. Standing on the porch, skinny and shivering, she looked the opposite of our family’s favourite saying: “Thin is good; thinner is better.” My older sisters, Hetty and Tilya, made up that gem, but even they would agree that our third sister had gone too far.
“Stop,” she said to me on the porch. “Your finger is covering the lens.” I moved it, trying to keep the shrunken Terry Sue centered in the frame at least until I punched my finger as hard as I could on the shutter release.
#2 Double Exposure: Two pictures accidentally taken on one film. It won’t happen if you wind the film immediately after taking each picture.
We sat on the front steps, elbows propped on our knees, in the after-school light of early October. Our eyes searched the street for Father, who had promised to take us to a special event, some sort of a parade, downtown. I felt excited. And relieved. I’d go anywhere to get away from the smell lingering in our kitchen. All houses had their own smells. I knew that from Fruma Goldfarb’s house which always reminded me of herring. But ours stank from something much worse: kasha. Mother made kasha varnishkes every Sunday, although she never cooked the bowtie pasta until just before she served brisket for dinner. “Your Auntie Tzophia would prepare hers with lots of kasha and not so many bows,” Mother repeated each time she made the dish. “My recipe is more like pasta with some buckwheat, mushrooms, and onion tossed in.” At the mention of Tzophia, the tears began, like pools of sadness rippling through her to us.
I didn’t need to ask who Aunt Tzophia was. One Sunday several months ago, as Mother was roasting the dry kasha in a hot pan, she started to tell us about her younger sister who was called Tzofie for short. Hetty had interrupted. “That frying pan is smoking, Mother.” The kasha was already sticking and turning black. “You’re going to start a fire in here.”
Using a wooden spoon, Mother shuffled the kasha around in the pan. “You remember, Hetty, how we left Lodz with Aunt Tzophie and Uncle Shmul?” I waited for my sister to answer, but she didn’t.
“Hetty,” Mother went on. “Remember how we packed the tea cups, forks, knives and my Bubbie’s candlesticks into a suitcase?”
I said, “Hetty isn’t in the kitchen anymore, Mother.”
“All of us together, we went to Warsaw in a buggy pulled by a horse. Late at night.”
“Mother, she’s not here.”
“Do you remember your little cousins Shana and Yitzy went with us?” She had removed the kasha from the heat. “How, when your father and I decided to came back to Lodz with you, we never saw any of them again.”
I gazed at Terry Sue now, hunched next to me on the porch. When had she stopped eating Mother’s kasha? Don’t know. As I advanced the film, the clicking of the plastic knob seemed to startle her. Seven exposures were left.
“Don’t you dare show that picture of me to anyone.” She sat up and wrapped her arms around her chest. “I’m so fat.”
#3 Dirty Lens. Your camera can’t see through a dirty lens. Keep it clean; it pays. Use Kodak Lens Cleaning Paper and Kodak Lens Cleaner. Never use silicon-treated tissues.
Father made the decision to take Terry Sue and me to the Veiled Prophet parade because of his friend Chaim Rubenstein. The Rubenstein family had come for Sunday dinner the week before the parade. Rebecca Rubenstein, their fourteen-year-old daughter, sat with Terry Sue and me at the kids’ end of the table, talking a mile a minute about a big event held annually in St. Louis.
“Jewish girls don’t go to the Veiled Prophet Ball,” she said. For a reason I couldn’t explain—either she was religious or more likely a show-off—Rebecca’s head was covered by a white beret worn slouchily and tilted to one side. Hatless, Terry Sue and I looked like the poor country cousins, yokels in our own dining room. Rebecca sighed. “Because Jews are not invited.”
Moments later, Mother appeared from the kitchen with the brisket, cut in thick chunks and surrounded on the platter by mini-size potatoes. Fanny Rubenstein, Chaim’s wife, said, “Imagine that in 1958. The war may be over but Jews are not allowed in lots of places in this city.” I stared at her honey-coloured hair, fixed in a beehive with a can of hair spray. Chaim Rubenstein touched his wife’s arm, but she continued: “Jews are never on the guest list to witness the Veiled Prophet crown his Queen of Love and Beauty in the exclusive ballroom of the Chase Park Plaza Hotel.”
“Oooo la la,” said Rebecca. “And swanky debutantes will be presented to the who’s who of St. Louis, too.”
“Also not Jewish,” her mother said.
Father suggested that we bless the wine before the meal, though Fanny and Rebecca Rubenstein had wrecked my appetite. I overheard him questioning Chaim Rubenstein about this mysterious man who covered his face with a veil. “What kind of prophet is he?” Father asked. “Like Moses?”
Chaim Rubenstein lowered his voice. It sounded like he whispered the word God.
Fanny Rubenstein said, “Of course, every child in St. Louis can attend the parade. It’s always in autumn around the time of Sukkot.” Glancing at the trees almost barren in the twilight, I noticed a lone cardinal perched on a twig. I loved red birds. “And you’ll be able to see the Queen of Love and Beauty with her Maids of Honour riding on the floats,” Fanny Rubenstein enthused, “even if you can’t go to the VP Ball.”
Rebecca, spooning a few bowties onto her plate, gave us a know-it-all smile. Her beret didn’t budge.
From the moment the Rubensteins mentioned the Queen of Love and Beauty that night and described her Maids of Honour, Terry Sue seemed to enter a society girl fantasy, as if she were a debutante being presented at the VP ball. During dinner, she had pushed up the sleeves of her sweater and pretended to be smoothing gloves—probably like those long white ones worn by Grace Kelly—over her hands and up her arms. Then she dabbed her baby finger into the lukewarm tea and stroked her eyebrows until they resembled half moons. She had eaten next to nothing (that’s what Mother said), but when Fanny Rubenstein told Father that every child in St. Louis could attend the VP parade, Terry Sue sprang from her seat, raced around the table and kissed him on the cheek.
Hetty said, “You mean, the parade is kosher, and the snooty ball isn’t?” Father gave her a stern look, but the Rubensteins paid no attention. The three of them launched into the story of the St. Louis Veiled Prophet parade that seemed longer than the Mississippi and a lot more twisty. “It dated back to 1878,” Chaim Rubenstein told us.
“And once,” Fanny Rubenstein added, “a national plowing contest took place on Parade Day.”
“Plowing?” my father said, jerking his head upright. His attention seemed to be wandering. “Nu,” he murmured, “it was the harvest time, like Sukkot.” When Mother finally sat down next to Father at the table, he began to sing “My Sukkaleh,” a Yiddish song he sang every year for the holiday, but this time more slowly, almost in a broken voice, stretching the ending of each word, raising the silver wine goblet between verses and lifting his eyes, as if he expected to find Aunt Tzophie, her husband, and two children on the road from Warsaw to Lodz.
“What about the Queen of Love and Beauty?” Terry Sue had asked the minute the Rubensteins left. “They didn’t even tell us who she is.” Icky bits of brisket and kasha clung to the dirty dishes piled on the kitchen counter. Tea bags floating in lemon-coloured water sat in glass cups stacked four high, one smudged by Fanny Rubenstein’s dark lipstick and another by Rebecca’s lighter pink shade.
Just then, Tilya returned home. She’d missed Sunday dinner with the Rubensteins to research her first philosophy paper at Washington University (about someone important, a German philosopher named Haggle, I think she said). She studied the mess: “This kitchen looks like a tornado hit it.”
Hetty glared at Tilya while wrapping the leftovers and cramming them into the packed ice box. “Don’t get Mother started on tornadoes, alright.”
Everyone in the family knew that any mention of bad weather alarmed Mother, who always rocked back and forth, from heel to toe, toe to heel, as soon as the weatherman reported a sighting of a funnel cloud in Missouri, Kansas, Alabama, or Tennessee. She’d remind us of the tornado that touched down in St. Louis in 1950. The winds were so strong that the feathers were plucked right off a chicken. So, I thought, why hadn’t the Rubensteins said a word about the threat of tornadoes ever ruining the Veiled Prophet parade? Maybe the prophet had some magic power to make tornadoes go away. Nothing seemed to stop him.
“Man tracht,” Mother said into the air. “Und Gott lacht.” I didn’t understand what that meant or why she was wringing her hands.
“What’s Mother so agitated about?” Tilya asked.
“The Veiled Prophet parade.” Hetty continued to run water into the burnt roasting pan and placed it on the top of the stove to soak overnight. She told Terry Sue and me to finish clearing the dining room table, which we did not do immediately. Mother was shaking, like a spooked horse I once saw on TV.
“All of a sudden I should love parades?”
“It’s just a stupid procession, Mother,” Hetty said. “How in the world can you be so afraid of people dressed in costumes parading by you?”
“Like the Nazis marching into Poland. I’ll give you parades.” Hetty searched for Tilya’s eyes, but I noticed that their usual agreement on unspoken things seemed to be missing. I jumped in because any idiot could figure out that the Rubensteins hadn’t told us everything.
“I still don’t understand why the prophet wears a veil.”
“So nobody will know who he is, dummy,” Tilya said. Since starting university, she spoke with a new kind of smartness as if she was seeing the world for the first time through a properly cleaned lens. “He wears a white sheet and covers his face with a mask to be really secretive and scary. Just put two plus two together, stupid. The Veiled Prophet belongs to the Ku Klux Klan. That’s what I think. Why else would he wear a pointy hat and carry a shotgun?”
“That’s not what the Rubensteins said, Tilya.”
Hetty tried to avoid any further talk of the prophet, particularly in front of Mother, by insisting that Terry Sue and I retrieve every dessert dish, wine glass, and serving spoon from the dining room. It was too late to ask Tilya to explain more about the Ku Klux Klan. She could, however, have said whether the Veiled Prophet still carried a shotgun. Terry Sue and I threw away all the crumpled dinner napkins and tucked the dining room chairs into the table before going to bed.
#4 Subject partly cut off: This is merely another case of careless viewfinding. Keep your eye on the viewfinder image and keep the subject accurately framed until after the shutter clicks.
On the night of the parade, Terry Sue stood close to me, her hollow eyes pressed against the window of the garment factory where Father worked on Washington Avenue. From the second floor of his building, we saw thousands of people lining the parade route along the streets of downtown St. Louis. It was still light enough to see Miss Hulling’s Cafeteria on the corner of Olive and Eighth where Father and Chaim Rubenstein sometimes stopped for coffee and fresh fruit pie. He showed us the big table where he cut dresses from bolts of cotton and offered to make one for Terry Sue in whatever colour she wanted. I tried to imagine her in a sleeveless summer shift, her arms stick-figure thin, like a person swinging from the gallows in a game of Hangman.
Soon the floats began to pass in front of us, one featuring a circus with clowns juggling balls, an elephant squirting water into the crowd, and a live band. I could barely hear the music, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the piano player whose left pant leg dangled loosely over the bench with a knot tied at the bottom. Probably a Korean War vet, Father said. The Wild West float seemed no less strange. The men, dressed like cowboys and cowgirls, were square dancing together. The fiddler’s dark moustache drooped lower than his chin, resembling a walrus in the zoo. Terry Sue didn’t smile or speak. She stood at the factory window, waiting.
“Old money,” Father said when eight horses came clopping down the parade route pulling the float with the Veiled Prophet. “Those, my kinder, are the famous Budweiser Clydesdales owned by Augie Busch.” He put his arms around us, pulling our bodies closer to his. I was leaning forward, impressed by the height of the Clydesdales with their strong legs, white and feathery, and hooves lifting high off the pavement, when I saw a kid on the street below, standing on the shoulders of two other boys.
“What’s in that kid’s hand?” I nudged Terry Sue and pointed to the three boys making a pyramid. “Can’t you see he’s holding something orange up to his lips, like a straw?” A beer bottle flew through the air, just missing the side of the boy’s face, crashing into the Wild West float. Through the factory window, I watched several other kids barrel into the pyramid and knock over the boy with the straw. Shots were fired from somewhere as the crowd began to disperse along Washington Avenue. I hadn’t used my Hawkeye to take a single picture.
Father looked at the ruckus outside, then moved us to a safer spot.
“You’ve had enough,” he said. Terry Sue begged to stay for the rest of the parade, pleaded to see her Fairy Queen of Love and Beauty, but Father, in a quiet voice, said that it was getting late and we should leave. Terry Sue, without dropping her eyes from his face, said, “All right.” The ride on the bus back home went quickly, with Father squeezed between Terry Sue and me on the seat behind the rear door. Not sleepy, we pestered Father for a story about something.
Terry Sue wanted to hear more about the Queen of Love and Beauty. “Who was she?” she asked Father. “Does she live in a castle? How was she chosen?” He shook his head, clueless like us.
“Okay,” I said. “So maybe you can tell us what happened to Aunt Tzophie, her husband, and their two children in Warsaw.” Father hesitated, becoming sad, well, very sad. “Did they find a place to live?” I asked. “Where did our cousins go to school? Does Aunt Tzophie still make kasha varnishkes with more kasha and not so many bowties?”
On Delmar and Purdue, we got off the bus. The streets were empty as the three of us walked home.
#5 Subject out of focus: This kind of fuzzy-wuzzy comes up when you take pictures closer than 5 feet. Close-ups can be made with a Kodak Close-Up Attachment No. 13.
The morning after we went to the VP parade, the Post Dispatch was spread across the table at breakfast. Mother was still in bed when Father put on his glasses and read aloud a short report he found at the bottom corner of the front page.
St. Louis. Police arrested a suspect in a pea shooting incident at the Veiled Prophet parade last night that left one Clydesdale with a bloody eye, a float damaged, and the Veiled Prophet unharmed. The suspect, a thirteen-year-old Negro male residing in the Pruitt-Igoe Public Housing Project, was taken into custody and is being held on charges of juvenile delinquency. In an unrelated incident, police found a Red Ryder BB gun on the roof of a garment factory located on Washington and Eighth while they were investigating shots fired into the crowd. No further arrests were made.
Without a care for the arrested pea shooter or the bleeding Clydesdale, I turned to Father. Between gulps of orange juice, I cried that we had left the parade too early for me to take any good photos of the Veiled Prophet or the Queen of Love and Beauty.
Tilya said, “It was probably too dark anyway, so stop kvetching about it.” I looked at her wet hair smelling of Breck shampoo, jealous of how the glossy strands hung straight to her collarbones. She grabbed the last bagel to eat during her philosophy lecture. “Don’t you know anything about cameras?” she said to me over her shoulder. “That Brownie Hawkeye of yours isn’t even the Flash model.”
The door slammed as I was about to explain. The Hawkeye Flash model was not what I needed. I wanted the Close Up Attachment #13 to take a true picture of Terry Sue, the real Terry Sue without any fuzzy-wuzzies, before it was too late.
Dear sweetest, youngest sis (Missouri State Mental Hospital, October 3, 1962)
Sorry for not writing sooner. The summer was so hot in this lunatic place that I hardly wanted to move. You’d think the dome would keep the building cool but surprise, surprise. It’s suffocating from June through August. You must have started Grade 8 in September and I would be a sophomore in high school this year. I guess I can make up the years I missed when I get out of here. Right this minute I’m looking at the autumn colours through my window. Don’t the reds and golds always remind you of Sukkot? Remember how we made long paper chains to decorate the sukkah at Sunday school and hung plastic apples and oranges from the ceiling? I want to vomit when I remember the Rubensteins once coming to our house around that time. Why did Father invite them anyway? Ever since Rebecca Rubenstein mentioned the Veiled Prophet Ball at dinner, all I think about is being skinny enough to be a debutante. Did I tell you that I found a picture of the VP Queen of Love and Beauty in a magazine? She was so thin and beautiful in a brocade white dress and a tiara with a plume on top. I was heartbroken when we didn’t get to see the queen’s float the only year we went to the parade with Father. I still don’t think it was so dangerous to be at the parade. I’m sure those gun shots we heard were only from a toy gun. Anyway, wouldn’t you love to be the VP queen? I’d give anything to be her, even for a day.
Love ya always, TS
Copyright © Gail Benick 2012
Gail Benick is a writer living in Toronto. She teaches at Sheridan College in the field of Diaspora literature and memoir. Her recent publications include essays on the practice of digital storytelling in higher education.