You Can Take Me, You Can Leave Me
By Rochelle Distelheim
1913. New York, The Lower East Side.
Herschl. He’d disappeared. Now every morning, just before nine-thirty, Sadie posted herself at the corner of Ludlow and Greene, corseted, rouged, hair curled, an eager sentry in a freshly laundered cotton shirtwaist and skirt.
Ten. Ten-thirty. No Herschl. Throat parched, bunions on fire, Sadie sought the solace of cold lemon tea and a chair pulled up to a bowl of ice chips set in front of her small fan. He would come back. She had her magic spirits; she had her tenant, Mitzi. He’d come riding by like a king on the seat of his ice wagon with his metal tongs and lovely muscles and black peppered-with-white curls, the ice stacked behind like small pieces of Eskimos’ houses. His sweet smile, that polka-dotted bandana around his neck — an adorable Russian gypsy. Wait.
Sadie hated waiting. She’d found three books of Yiddish poetry at the public library and knew what she’d say: “I just read a lovely poem written by the poet H. Leivick,” or, “Do you by any chance know of Celia Dropkin?” And then add — not winking until she was sure he’d appreciate a wink — “Dropkin brings up to my mind Margolin, two gorgeous . . .” — a good word, gorgeous, when speaking about poets, as well as for practicing clean s’s — “. . . two gorgeous poets; different, but nevertheless . . .” — rolling all four syllables of that word over her tongue, taking care to sound breathy — “. . . the same. Do you agree?”
Herschl always did.
On Saturday, sitting on the front steps to catch up with any cooling-off breeze blowing past, Sadie was reading The Daily Forward newspaper, a story about a lady in Chicago who’d chained herself to a fence around City Hall, threatening never to eat until she could vote. She’d been carried away to the hospital, where they did something called forced feeding, a tube pushed down her throat. Against the law, it had to be. This wasn’t Russia, Poland, Hungary. Sadie knew what was and what wasn’t okay to do to honest people who wanted their Declaration of Independence say-so.
At the next meeting for getting women the vote, she’d ask Mrs. Pomerantz, her night school teacher who knew everything, and who had, that week, asked Sadie: what about being in charge of the next march? Delancey Street to Washington Square. Far enough to make a lot of noise and sing patriotic songs if the crowd on the sidewalks didn’t throw rotten fruit, like they did the last time.
Sadie was scissoring the article out of the newspaper when a taxi stopped in front of her building, and Mitzi, in red silk, carrying two string bags filled with packages, got out. Ha! The very woman who should know from finding missing men.
Mitzi pressed forward toward the driver, saying something that made him laugh, then dropped coins into his hand and, turning to the curb, raised her hem to step over the tins and crumpled papers littering the gutter.
All this getting in, getting out, twisting and hopping up, without a single bumping of that thumb-in-your-eye white straw hat she was wearing. She sure knew how to move her moving parts. The two women greeted one another like old friends. Sadie decided: Her advice first. Then they’d talk about Mitzi’s business in her flat for men meeting with young girls. She’ll have to cut that out.
Sadie mentioned having a lost-and-found problem; could she drop up for another visit? Mitzi said, “Sure, three o’clock okay?”
The flat was lit up, sunshine spilling through white lace curtains, and it smelled like a garden, not an easy thing to smell like on Ludlow Street. On all the tables, the mantel, the floor, a convention of glass vases — short, tall, skinny, fat — and inside every one, a wild mishmash of daisies — pink, yellow, white — like someone was passing them out on the street and Mitzi came along and said, “Whoopee, I’ll take ‘em all,” and the daisies right away perked up, happy to be going home with this gorgeous person.
Sadie sat down on the velvet sofa but couldn’t settle back, twisting around to look at the door, at the hall to the bedrooms. If her daughter, Yivvy, was right — and Yivvy made it her business to know who was up, who was down, and how much would it cost — where were the men? She’d seen men who could be customers in the downstairs hall (smoking cigars, twirling gold key chains, derby hats at a nervy angle, expensive woolen suits, spats) sometimes stopping to read an address scrawled across a slip of paper, then looking up when she peeked out of her flat, asking, taking off their hats, real gentlemen, “Oh, excuse me Missus, which way to flat number six?”
And the girls, where were they? She’d never seen anyone in the hall or the flat who fit Yivvy’s description: “A lot of skin, purple satin corset, black feathers, sequins, lace stockings, enough perfume to knock you out for a week.”
Sadie heard Mitzi coming down the hall, humming, snapping her fingers, sunlight blazing against her coppery hair. She’d changed from red silk to pale green organdy — a ruffled robe that made her look like a walking bouquet.
Sadie said thanks to Mitzi’s offer of cold seltzer, trying to decide, while they waited for Lila, Mitzi’s helper, to bring their drinks, if she should begin with: “I wouldn’t allow no more hanky-panky going on here, I run a respectable family building.” Mitzi could say, “Who, me?” or, “Remember me? I pay twice the rent you got for this dump before.”
“So, hon,” Mitzi said, “what or who’d you lose?”
“The guy who’s in love with his dead wife?”
Sadie shrugged. “Dead is dead. I’m here.” She told her about their supper in her flat last week, the poetry book he read from, the dancing to the new cylinder on her phonograph “But ever since, pfffft! Gone. If I can find him, I’ll show him something he’ll love.” Sadie blushed. “Maybe.”
“My night school education.”
“No kiddin’!” Mitzi laughed — the high, tinkling sound, all silvery and delicate, that Sadie practiced but couldn’t get right. “Yeah, night school, books, they’re fine, some men love it. Just the same, I gotta tip. Wanna hear?”
Sadie didn’t like the “you’re-a-dumb-greenhorn” look on Mitzi’s face. She’d seen it before in the eyes of sales clerks at the cosmetics counter in Klein’s Emporium when they said, “Step right up, ladies, try this lotion, this lip cream, this eye pencil — guaranteed to make you young and beautiful,”and Sadie had said,“Lady, explain, please, how it works.”
That look was in the eyes of the cashier at the movie house on Eighth Street too when she pushed her nickel through the grillwork cage and said, “Tell me, lady, is this a good picture. At the end does the girl get the boy?”
If this tip hurt her feelings, she’d say it right now, she’d tell Mitzi, “You can take your business, with the men coming in and going out, and move it out of my building.”
“Flesh,” Mitzi said, flicking ashes into her cupped palm.
“That’s your tip, flesh?” Maybe she should learn how to smoke after all. It made a woman look mysterious.
“That’s what men want, that kinda education. Push flesh.”
There! Practically a confession. “Speaking about . . . ” Sadie began.
“Course, you gotta find him first. Who the hell knows what hole he dropped into?” Mitzi turned thoughtful. Even now her face was prettier than that of the blonde movie star who last week threw herself in front of a train when her lover died of too much measles. “What does he do besides selling ice?”
“Reads?” Mitzi’s eyes said: Huh?
“Poetry. Me too, we’re like twins that way.” If she laughs, I’ll right away cut off her hot water.
Mitzi patted Sadie’s hand. Her look now was stuffed with sympathy. “Go looking for him in all the book stores. Fight fire with fire, but watch out for the smoke.” Mitzi smiled and shook her shoulders without moving the rest of her body — shook them in such an adorable way, Sadie was sure that, if she could only learn how, Herschl would admire it. She couldn’t throw her tenant out of her building now, even if one of those girls came out of a bedroom that minute without her purple satin corset.
The next morning Sadie visited her daughter’s antique shop: cardboard cartons and canvas sacks stacked up everywhere; merchandise — bowls, vases, small statues of women, china birds, glass animals — spilling onto the display cases and over the floor. She’d come to say: “I want a list of the best second-hand book stores.” A short, sweet story. Not a word about chasing after Herschl. Yivvy didn’t believe in romance to begin with. Sadie would look wise, calm, pretend she was taking a class at the Jewish Alliance. Calm was important with Yivvy.
Yivvy beckoned from the back of the store, where she was unpacking a large wooden crate. Sadie moved toward her, stopping suddenly when she spied an intriguing hodgepodge of hammered brass plates and trays. She scooped up several large round plates and an oval tray engraved with elaborate scrolling, along with a beaded crystal candle holder, reaching into the carton once more to find, at the bottom, several stacks of folded sheets and towels in pale shades of yellow, green, blue, pink. She squinted at her daughter through the gloom. “Who you said you got this from?”
“I didn’t say.”
Sadie looked around. “It must have cost you plenty. You won’t sell this many fancy things in . . . in I don’t know how much time.” Yivvy carried a silver dish to the back of the shop and began rubbing it with a cloth. Sadie followed her. “Let me help.”
“I don’t need help. What I need is some quiet so I can get these things counted.”
Sadie studied her daughter for a moment. “Why so touchy? There’s something about this junk.”
“Junk?” Yivvy rubbed the bowl harder.
“My excuse-me. There’s something about this merchandise that’s a secret, you’re so touchy, like a sore boil.”
“What kind of secret?” Yivvy wheeled around. “Always accusing!”
Sadie raised her hands in mock surrender, backing away. “I just stopped in to ask a simple question.”
“So ask already.” Yivvy turned to the back of the store.
The second-hand book stores: which ones were best? She was thinking maybe of taking a class on Yiddish poets at the Jewish Alliance. She was almost shouting. Yivvy’s ears weren’t always so good, or maybe her head was too stuffed with all her new tchotchkes. Her daughter came back, balancing an armload of platters and trays. “There,” nodding to paper and pencil on the desk. Sadie wrote down six names and addresses, noticing the worried look; the crinkled-up eyes, the too-thin lips — like being even a pinch happy was against the law. She felt a ping of reluctant affection. “You look to me tired.”
“I’ll be okay.” Then, brushing the hair from her eyes, “Ma . . . I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, sorry,” Sadie said. “You’re like your papa, when he was alive. First you bite my head off, now you’re sorry.” She moved toward the door.
“Oh, I forgot,” Yivvy called after her. “Izzy Wiznitzer, from the station on Canal, the desk sergeant. He came by to tell me that Mitzi, your Mitzi . . .”
“Yeah, my Mitzi . . .”
“Gimme a minute, I wanna get it right. Izzy said some guy who useta work in Chicago, but got sent here, knew Mitzi from when she ran a house on North, North . . .” She flicked her hand. “Son of a gun, I can’t think, I don’t know Chicago.”
“Halsted, that’s the street, North Halsted, where the saloons and vaudeville places are.”
“I want the facts; she gives me a geography lesson.”
“Hold on. The long ’n short of it is: Mitzi never had a husband; she’s an old-time pro from way back. Her dough came from owning a business, same kinda business she got here, only in Chicago the cops started shakin’ her down, so she packed up ’n took her show on the road.”
Sadie sank against a large cardboard carton. “No husband?”
Yivvy shook her head.
“He’s not dead?”
“Izzy says now that the boys here know where she’s operatin’, they’ll be ’round to pay their respects. He wanted me to tell you.”
“Sooner, if not later.”
Sadie opened the door. “Thanks, I’m happy for your news, like my bubbe was happy to hear the Czar was living in good health.”
Three times that week she met her suffragette ladies in the library. Everyone agreed she would be the number one organizer of their next march in July from Houston Street down Broadway to Washington Square in Greenwich Village, ending in speeches and music, a volunteer ladies’ orchestra, free ice cream and soda pop for anyone who came to hear speeches and stayed to clap. Children would be welcome but no dogs.
Shayna Teitelbaum, a youngish redhead from Minsk, pretty enough, but not as pretty as she thought she was, with curves to spare, and smart besides, ran an office for three dentists on Third Avenue, and she would be Sadie’s second-in-charge.
In the late afternoons, giving Herschl time to finish his rounds, go home, change clothes and come out again, she went in and out of the second-hand book stores on Yivvy’s list. No luck. The owner of the shop called Books By the Pound — a short, squat man with red suspenders and gimme gimme eyes — sold her four pounds of used poetry books and said, if she couldn’t find this other guy, come back, ask for him, he loved reading out loud in the dark to ladies.
That did it, cold water on a hot day. Such a foolishness, she thought, leaving the shop, looking to find a man who didn’t want to be found. Sadie, Sadie, think smart, you can swallow down this craziness. When Mr. Diamond shows his face again, settle the whole thing. Tell him, “Hello. I got for you some news. You can take me, you can leave me, that’s who I am, so call me a pisher.” Finished.
Only admit, it didn’t feel finished.
Late on Thursday afternoon, when the sun was losing its fire, the city beginning to cool, Sadie put on her white linen shirtwaist with the pearl buttons, white pleated sharkskin skirt and white kid boots. White made a lady look sincere. If she knew her men, Herschl was a good customer for sincere. She pinned a red grosgrain bow at the back of her hair, right there where it nestled into her bun, and turned sideways to admire it in the mirror.
How many years since she’d thrown away her shaytel, threw it down the toilet, Fivel watching, predicting she’d never make it into heaven — twenty, twenty-five? — and she’d never grown tired of admiring her hair, of running her fingers through the heavy, dark curls, of feeling the silky wisps where they curled against her ears and neck.
Maybe today she’d laugh like Mitzi. She faced the mirror over her washbasin, inhaled, exhaled, held her breath, but nothing silvery came out. Well anyway, she had her magic love knot, guaranteed to make him love her back: pale pink satin, like a baby’s bottom — round, plump — filled with his shirt button, straw from his horse, a clump of mud from his boot, a speck of sweat; blue velvet string to tie it all together. She cradled it, kissed it, held it to her cheek before settling it at the bottom of her purse and leaving the flat.
She’d try First Avenue, a fifteen-minute walk if she moved fast, which she wouldn’t do. Too hot. She strolled, staying away from the dogs looking to pee, of which there were plenty, stepping around three little boys playing games with dripping ice cones, stopping to tap her foot and shake her shoulders in front of the pint-sized man in a derby blowing on what she thought, but wasn’t sure, was called a clarinet. “Oh, You Beautiful Doll,” he played, or was it “Oy, You Beautiful Doll”?
It felt good to be out, to mix up with a crowd. Since Fivel’s passing, she’d been alone too much, even if she counted talking to him every day the same as having company. If it weren’t for the half-pound of worry she carried on one shoulder about Mitzi’s business, and the pound she carried on the other shoulder about Yivvy’s new merchandise, and when was she going to find time to visit Milly Kaplan in the Twenty Second Street jail — sentenced to two weeks for stopping traffic on Broadway, pushing head first between the cars and the bicycles and the trolleys, with her signs about how it was a shame on America to not let women vote — she could almost feel happy.
On Bryant Street she paused, tapping her face with her handkerchief. Maybe crowds weren’t such a good idea, so many pushing people, especially in this heat. Then: Did she imagine it? Someone hollered out, “Hey, lover!” A raspy voice, a man’s, definitely. “Hey lover!” again. Wheeling around to the nearest shop, Sadie looked into the eyes of a brilliant green parrot — its face ablaze with red, purple, yellow feathers — perched in a wire cage swinging in the doorway. The gold letters on the shop window read: “Frieda’s Pet Shop. If it has four feet or two wings or one tail, we got it. Cheap.”
The parrot lowered its head, studying Sadie. “Lover, lover, lover, hiya tootsie, come’n get it!”
A miracle! A bird that talked like a man and looked like a rainbow. Tante Zippke always said, “Parrots are good luck in the house, even better than a policeman for keeping burglars out.” But feathers had made Fivel sneeze, and too much talking made him nervous.
Sadie cocked her head; the bird did the same. “Come on, baby,” it squawked.
She’d never met a parrot with so much personality. Not yet five o’clock. Herschl wouldn’t get to the bookstores until at least five. What was a few minutes’ delay if she could buy a little good luck? She carried bird and cage into the store. The bald man reading a newspaper behind the counter looked up. “Ahhh, lady, you got some brains. This is a perfect bird for you.”
Too much enthusiasm could add to the price. “Who said anything about perfect? Interesting . . .” She ducked her head, chucking the parrot under its beak, “. . . maybe.”
“Whaddya talkin’? I can smell a parrot lover a mile away.”
The parrot, clinging to the bottom of the cage, watched Sadie with sad, knowing eyes. “Love of my life,” it squawked.
“See?” the man crowed. “He’s already stuck on you. Parrots are very loyal, affectionate animals. They’re not like people.”
Sadie sniffed. “Who taught it so many words?” She was finding a place for the bird in her parlor, near her phonograph
“It came from one of the houses on Cable Street. You know what I mean, ‘houses’?”
“Skip, please, the bubbe meises. No stories. I’m running without time.”
His face crumpled. “All right, I see you’re all business. The lady what owns the house said, ‘smart!’” He rolled his eyes. “My grandchildren should only talk this good.”
“What’s his name?” Sadie offered her finger, the parrot pecked at it.
“Spirit!I can’t believe…”
The parrot made a whistling sound, then: “Hey, beautiful!”
The man patted the parrot’s head. “Believe. A real high class house, only the best customers.”
The parrot looked at Sadie with pleading eyes. This could be a sign from the love knot spirits: Sadie, Herschl is positively about to be yours. She couldn’t ignore it. The spirits hated to be ignored. Her future life depended. “How much?”
“So cheap,” he said, “you’ll say I’m lying.” He held up eight fingers.
“Eight dollars? For that I can buy a living room sofa, a train ticket to Chicago.” The parrot ducked its beak under its wing and scratched. “See!” She pointed. “Fleas.”
The man snatched the cage from the counter and turned toward the window.
“Luvva my life,” the parrot squawked, twisting on its stand to look back at Sadie, who stepped forward, pulling on the cage, sending the bird swinging on its perch.
“Four,” she said.
“All right, I’m a generous person. I’ll take it off your hands.” Sadie eyed the parrot, who was eyeing her. “Five.”
“Six and it’s yours,” the man said, pushing the bird and its cage at Sadie. “With it comes enough food for two weeks, and a custom-to-fit cage cover. It should go to sleep when you do.” He reached into the window for a yellow cloth and a cardboard box.
“Kiss me, you fool,” the parrot squawked.
Loving Neshoma was easier than carrying him. Five-thirty, and the sun refused to go away. She could use a bowl of ice cubes, a soft chair, a fan — iced tea, a little lemon. Sadie set the covered cage down on the sidewalk, eyeing the crush of people pushing past in both directions, and tapped her handkerchief across her forehead, down her cleavage, under her arms.
Five, even six blocks to the next book store. She’d be a sport. A quarter to the next boy flashing by with an empty wagon. Someone in heaven read her mind, or maybe Fivel was following, sending good luck, even if he hated parrots. A short, chubby boy — glasses, beanie hat, about ten, eleven — turned a corner from a side street pulling a battered blue wagon, rusted, empty.
“Sonny, stop,” Sadie called out, waving him over. “You want to get rich?”
The boy looked at Sadie, then at the cage. “Who you got in there?”
“Not who. What.” The boy sniffled, running his sleeve across his nose. Sadie rushed on: “I say rich because I will pay you big money, a full twenty-five cents you should put this cage in your wagon and ride it . . .” — she pointed down the street — “ . . . two, three blocks. Nothing. A minute.”
The boy shrugged. “I charge by the block.”
“What?”Sadie held the cage out to him. “Take, feel, it’s a nothing. Five minutes, we’re there.”
“Hold the phone, hold the phone, tootsie,” Sadie heard from the cage.
“Is it alive?” The boy lifted a corner of the cage cover.
“Don’t touch, please.” She tapped his hand. “He’s delicate.”
“Fifty cents for pulling, ten cents extra for something that talks.”
“You got a union what tells you what money to charge?”
“Take it or leave it, lady.” Pulling the wagon, the boy turned away, just as Sadie’s feet sent up a complaint.
“Wait a minute, sonny.” She put the cage in the wagon. “Tell your mother I see for you a big business future.”
Following boy and wagon, Sadie did the figures. Already this evening had cost her more than she made selling twelve, thirteen love knots. Something good had to come up.
It did. But not immediately. Not until she’d been in the Slightly Used Book Store long enough to find two volumes of Yiddish poetry. Sadie settled the parrot’s cage on a nearby counter, patting the books’ worn leather covers, sniffing them, smelling the books she’d borrowed from the traveling bookseller in her Polish village. “I’ll take,” she said to the shop owner and, looking up, saw Herschl enter the store.
“Hold for me,” she said, thrusting the books at the owner, and moved — not as slowly as she wished to, but not as fast as she could have — toward the front of the store. And there he was, head down, paging through a book, looking like a regular sport in a blue-and-white striped shirt open at the neck, sleeves rolled to his elbows, showing those wonderful muscles. Dark blue pants, red suspenders, a soft cap crowning his curls.
“Why, do I see Mr. Diamond?”
Herschl looked up. “Ahhh.” Was that a happy ahhh or an annoyed ahhh? He pulled his cap off. “Mrs. Schuster.” He looked, but not directly into her eyes. A pity. Her new eyelash pomade, Mitzi’s suggestion, did marvelous things.
“What a coincidence,” she said, enunciating the s sounds. “I come here all the time.”
She gestured around the store. “You, of course, know how books can make you happy.”
He showed no sign of knowing.
“You said at supper that night at my place” — lingering over my place — “Yiddish poetry.”
He opened his mouth, about to say something when, from behind them came a crash, then a whooshing sound and a harsh voice: “Hey, baby, how about some fun, lover?”
Sadie turned around and saw the opened, empty cage lying on the floor amidst a pile of books, the parrot swooping across the ceiling, dropping down here and there to perch atop a bin, taking off again, scattering books, signs, paper bags. “Gevalt,” she shouted.
“Someone you know?” Herschl asked.
“Lady, lady, get him! He’s ruining my store!” The owner ran from behind the cash register waving a cardboard box in one hand, a broom in the other.
“Excuse me, I’ll be right back!” Sadie squeezed past Herschl and between two bins, noticing, as she glanced back, that he was smiling; interested, almost amused.
“Neshoma, Neshoma!” Clucking her tongue, she clapped. “Come back, little spirit.”
“Pretty baby, pretty baby, come ’n get it,” the parrot squawked, swooping low, then rising to settle on a ceiling fan.
“There,” Herschl hollered, pointing up and behind her.
Sadie rushed in that direction, flapping her arms, singing, “Here, here, here” to the parrot on the ceiling fan, upsetting books stacked on the floor as she turned one way, then another. The parrot, hovering perilously close to a gas jet, looked down at Sadie with what she could swear was friendship. Then the smell of its charred feathers floated across the store.
“Hey, sweet cake,” the parrot screeched, flying to the opposite side of the shop. “Hot potato, hot…”
“Look out!” Herschl ducked as the bird’s claws scraped along a sign, shredding it, sending pieces of cardboard sailing down onto a white-haired gentleman in a gray derby and high starched collar.
The owner shook his fist at the parrot, threatening to turn it into a pillow case if it didn’t come down this minute.
“No — there!” Herschl called to Sadie, hurrying to help the white-haired gentleman wade through the sea of books as a young man ran into the street hollering, “Police, help, a wild bird!”
Several people came into the shop, demanding to know what was happening. Someone in the street blew a whistle.
Then a small freckled boy of seven or eight, tears streaming down his face, fists pushing against his mother, cried, “Leave me alone! I didn’t let the birdie out on purpose, ’n besides . . . — stopping to hiccup — “. . . mustn’t put birdies in cages; they could suffercate.”
The parrot, perched atop the highest shelf in the store, cackled, “Hiya, sweet cake. Pucker up!”
The little boy’s mother, a redhead with an orange feather boa around her neck, fixed Sadie with a fierce look. An enormous feather floated atop her blue straw hat. “That your bird?”
Sadie, now holding the broom, preparing to climb atop a shaky stepstool, paused to look at mother and child. “That your little boy? He should be teached to keep his hands off other people’s belongings.” She noticed Herschl brushing the man’s jacket, smiling and looking — was it possible? — like nothing so terrible had happened.
The mother pulled her little boy closer. “Such a dumb thing, stuffing a bird under a cover. My Herbert’s right.” Herbert brushed his sleeve across his nose.
“You got a friend who’s a parrot what told you where parrots like to be put?” Sadie asked.
The woman glared at the shop owner. “Ya’ hear what she just said ta me?”
“I’m ruined,” the owner shrieked, clapping his hands at the parrot, now walking tightrope across a ledge. He shook his fist at Sadie. “You’ll pay!”
“Don’t make threatenings on her.” Herschl came up behind the owner with an armful of books. “It shouldn’t have happened the way it happened, but nobody got killed.”
She could kiss him right here, that sweetheart, for defending her in front of all these people. She teetered atop the stool, trying to catch Herschl’s eye to signal her gratitude, but he was in conversation with the store owner. Slowly, careful to avoid the broom handle, she backed her way down the stool.
“Wait, you’ll fall!” and Herschl was there, holding his hand out.
His hand! She’d dreamed of holding it, of his holding hers, just tightly enough, long enough, to make her feel that, in some tender, silent way, he’d claimed her. The woman marched out of the shop pulling her little boy along, leaving the door swinging open behind her. With a frantic beating of wings, the parrot was through the open door and over First Avenue.
Sadie, unwilling to drop Herschl’s hand, watched the bird disappear, two thoughts colliding: Six dollars and never have I been so happy.
“Look! Just look!” The store owner, slumped in a chair, waved at the debris of books strewn across the store.
“Give us twenty minutes,” Herschl said, and stooping, began gathering books, dusting them off, stacking them on bins.
“Fifteen,” Sadie said, doing the same.
Thirty minutes later, the store was returned to its normal order, Sadie brushed her clothes, checked the bottom of her purse to make certain her love knot was still in place and moved toward the street where Herschl was waiting, looking in the direction of the East River. An idea buzzed in her mind.
“Oh, lady,” the owner called after her, “next time take your business somewhere else.”
Sadie, opening the door, turned around. “I don’t charge you nothing for the bird
cage. Tip-top new. A present.” She joined Herschl at the corner. A cool breeze ruffled her hair. “Such a beautiful night,” she said to the back of his head. If he walked away now!Her best white clothes, her new perfume, and what about all that let-me-help-you business inside?
“Tell me, Mrs. Schuster…” He turned.
“Do you always take your parrot with you into book stores?”
Was that a twinkle in his eyes? This light was terrible. Maybe he had a sense of humor, even if that night at dinner he’d acted what she’d call ungeblozen, American English for crabby.
Straightening her shoulders — Mitzi said straightening narrowed her hips, making her look slimmer — she said, “If you have a minute, we can walk down to the river, find some breaths of cool air, buy an ice cone, talk. I’ll answer your question.”
He hesitated; then without a yes or a no, he put his hand on her elbow, the slightest, easiest touch, and guided her down the quiet, darkened, almost-deserted street towards the East River.
Nice, walking with a man. It made her feel so, so . . . safe. Sadie glanced at Herschl from time to time, but he seemed lost in his own thoughts. She cleared her throat, as though about to speak, but hesitated to break the intimate silence, like they were close friends who shared so much, they didn’t have to always say it out loud. It was wonderful luck that the walk along the river was empty. She knew just the bench she wanted — near a street lamp but not too near — and pointed it out.
Seated, Herschl pulled a small book out of his pocket, Poems of the Time. “Avrom Reyzen,” he said. “You know it?”
“No.” She took the book and leafed through it. “Tell me, how do you know so many poems?”
He talked about his parents — about his father, a teacher in the secondary school, reading to him at home. The light from the gas lamp was tangled in his hair. Sadie had never noticed how beautiful curly hair could look on a man. “Then we came here, and nobody wanted to hire a Russian-Jewish school teacher who didn’t talk English good, so . . .” ducking his head, “ . . .he peddled ice, and I went with to help.”
More words than Fivel had talked to her in six months. And such words, like a sweet, sad “Bintel Brief” story out of The Daily Forward. You didn’t go around talking like this to just any stranger. If she knew him better, she’d press forward and pat his shoulder. So hard to keep her hands folded in her lap, a toucher like her.
He shifted toward her slightly, sitting even closer now. She wanted to tell him how she’d felt once she had stepped into New York — that her life was stretched as wide as that river down there, with night school English and newspapers, the moving pictures, so many new ways to dream. And about Fivel, the way he was chosen for her back in Poland. A good person, but no talking between them — never. She felt happier this minute than she felt after dancing a whole evening at the Irving Street Saturday Night Social Club.
He fussed with the book, opening, then closing it, finally putting it back in his pocket, and said, “Mrs. Schuster,” at the same time she said, “Well, Herschl . . .”
They laughed, then neither one spoke, and she decided: Now! “Your wife,” she said, “she was also from Kiev?” Did she feel him stiffen, pull back?
“We lived in the same shtetl;we were babies together, Gittel and me.” He said her name like he was reading a poem. “I’m sorry . . .” She strained to hear him. “I can’t talk about her without . . .”
“How long is it?”
“Four months,” she repeated.
“And three days.”
Sadie waited. She’d never seen anyone look so wounded without having a bleeding something-or-other. If she could make him feel this sad, she’d be the happiest woman in the world.
“Speaking of selling ice . . .” He stood up. But they weren’t speaking of selling ice, they were speaking about Gittel. “I wake up early.”
Sadie stood up. He must have seen the disappointment on her face, and went on: “I enjoyed talking to you. You’re a very, very nice person.”
Well! Two very’s. Something, at least. Her heart settled into her chest, a cement block. “I’m sorry,” she said, not knowing why exactly, but sorry was such a big part of what she was feeling.
“Twenty-six years,” he said.
“We were married twenty-six years. A lifetime. For me, this . . .” he gestured toward the lamp post, the sidewalk, “. . . this is too soon.”
Call me on Rosh Hashanah, on Halloween, call me on Thanksgiving, Hanukah or New Year’s, I’ll wait. But he was taking her hand, squeezing it, saying, without saying: Enough talking.
They walked along the river to First Avenue, then along Bryant Street to Ludlow, with more silence than talk, unless she counted his “Watch out!” and “Such crazy drivers!” when a runaway pushcart rumbled into their path.
Somewhere between Bryant and Ludlow, Sadie cupped her love knot in her palm and rubbed it against Herschl’s shirt sleeve — once, twice — pretending she was shooing away flies. At the corner of Ludlow and Greene, he shook her hand, stiff and polite, like a friend who had good manners. But she didn’t need another friend. She needed someone to love, someone to read to, someone to let her put her icy feet against his warm back on cold nights. To talk. Someone to love her like Fivel never could.
From her palm, a faint pulsing sensation. Her love knot oozed a flowery scent. She was about to toss it into her pocket when a dark shape and a rough beating of wings caught her attention. Stepping back, Sadie looked up and saw — “Oy!” — Neshoma, perched atop the gas lamp across the street, head cocked at a crazy angle: “Come catch me!”
For sure her eyes were playing tricks. Herschl’s face, even half-shadowed, didn’t show any sign that he heard or saw anything and was, in fact, a perfect picture of calm.
“Good night,” he murmured.
She opened her mouth to ask if he saw what she saw, but without even a squeeze on her fingers, he was stepping away from her, tipping his cap, leaving her on the corner to watch him vanish down the dark street, admiring his healthy stride, the proud set of his broad shoulders. Gone.