By Anne Corey
Isak came home one day after working with his gutters and pipes and copper sheets and sat down on a slatted kitchen chair. He did not first go into the bathroom to wash the heavy black grease from his hands or scrub out the dirt caked under his fingernails. He held his hands in front of him on the shining wood of the tabletop and rubbed his fingers together. Anyuta stared at the black grease marks and wondered if they would leave a stain. He sat there without speaking. The minutes passed.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, because he seemed to be waiting for her to speak. She sat down facing him, ready for the start of a too familiar scene.
“I was working on 17th Street today.”
“Yes, I know. That roof of Mrs. Johnsen's. You said. The one that keeps leaking.”
“So I was working on 17th St. and I had to go over to Neptune Avenue to get some more wire.”
He paused, as though waiting for a response to this. When she did not provide one, he continued. “I saw you today. I saw you walking on Neptune Avenue. You were not alone. I saw you walking with someone on Neptune Avenue.”
Anyuta was having trouble putting together what Isak was saying. She had taken Leah to school and then come home. Later in the day she had gone out to find a chicken for dinner. Was that when he saw her? Was she on Neptune Avenue to buy the chicken? Then she remembered - the teacher from her night class. She had spotted him as she was waiting for the butcher to finish the order ahead of hers. Her teacher had a slight stoop and a prematurely balding head. She recognized his black overcoat with the shiny, threadbare lapels. He wore this coat in class at every session, never taking it off. She had watched him as he stared into the glass meat case at a tray of bones, a puzzled expression on his face. All the other customers were women. It was unusual for a man to be shopping for meat, but Anyuta had been told that his wife was an invalid. She was not sure if this was true, but the women at the night class talked. They thought he was a nice-looking young man, which was their basic opinion of all young men. They wondered if he had a wife and why his eyes always stayed sad, even when his mouth smiled. That was when Mrs. Cohen said she had heard he was married but his wife was not well, and this information seemed to answer a lot of questions.
When Anyuta saw him - Eugene Green was his name - she greeted him in English. She said, “Hello, Mr. Green,” because that is what they called him in class.
He smiled at her and said, “Hello, Anyuta. Buying some meat today?”
His greeting reminded Anyuta of the exercises they did in class. In fact, the topic for discussion in the last class had been about preparing a meal. The teacher wanted them to practice the words that had to do with buying food in the market and preparing the various ingredients.
“What is for your dinner?” Mrs. Hirsch had asked.
Mrs. Bernstein answered, “I will be cooking for my dinner one piece meat and three piece potatoes.”
“Oh, that is good food. Where do you buy the food?”
“I go to Mr. Rubin's market for the potato food,” Mrs. Bernstein replied.
Anyuta had looked up from the conversation and seen that Mr. Green was watching. She could not tell if he was looking at her or just at the group. Then she smiled at him and he came over.
“Continue with your talking. I will just stand here and listen for a moment,” he smiled. They attempted to ignore him and continue. When it was Anyuta's turn, she tried to remember a meal she had cooked. Her mother was really the one who cooked the more elaborate foods and meals, but in this group, in her conversation, she could pretend that she was the one who did all the cooking and baking in their extended family
“I made blintzes,” she said.
“With cheese and maybe cherries?” Mrs. Hirsch asked.
“Yes, yes, cheese and cherries.”
So now, at the butcher's, the question was familiar. “Yes, of course I buy meat,” she answered. They spoke in English and she was seized with the desire to show off her English but at the same time not say too much and make a mistake. The air in the shop smelled like a combination of dried blood and fresh sawdust, the acrid scent of the raw meat mixing in a not unpleasant way with the dust from the newly swept floors. The butcher, Mr. Shapiro, asked her what she wanted as he wiped his bloodied hands on the front of the stained white apron straining across his ample stomach. He spoke to her in Yiddish. She wanted to answer him in English, just to show Mr. Green that she could, but then got embarrassed. It would not be good if Mr. Shapiro misunderstood her, so she told him in Yiddish that she wanted a chicken to make soup.
“I have a very nice chicken, just saved for you, Mrs. Korach,” he answered. She did not know how much of her conversation with the butcher her teacher overheard, but he stood there smiling at their words. Mr. Shapiro wrapped up the chicken in brown paper, and then put it in a bag.
“How much?” she asked. He told her and she handed him the money, carefully counting out the coins. She was glad that it was a day when she had enough with her and did not have to tell the butcher she would pay him the rest another day. He was good about letting her owe a little money, and kept a record of it in his ledger, but she would have been embarrassed in front of the teacher. Her mind was focused on language and on money, nothing else.
Anyuta and her teacher left the store at the same time and both turned right when they got outside, so it was natural for them to be walking together down the street. Anyuta wondered if that was when Isak saw her and saw Mr. Green. She remembered that she was trying very hard to speak correctly, and that she had made some sort of silly mistake in English. She was nervous and her mind went blank. She could not remember the English word for chicken and called the chicken a cat. Mr. Green corrected her and then they both laughed at her mistake. Maybe that shared laughter was what Isak saw, what made him so angry.
“I don't know what is bothering you, Isak. I went to buy a chicken and ran into my teacher, Mr. Green. Surely you remember him? When you went those few times to class? It is the same instructor still.” Isak did not attend the English language night classes with her any more. He claimed that he was too tired after work, but the difficulty he was having with the language might have kept him away. His wife was picking it up so much faster and it annoyed him to be lagging behind her.
“You were laughing and smiling at him. I was on the other side of the street. I would have called to you but you were too busy with that man. You did not even look around you.”
“We were talking. Some joke came up. I made a mistake in my English. I called the chicken by the wrong name. It was a funny mistake. We laughed. That is what people do, they laugh. There is nothing wrong with laughing. You cannot make it into something wrong.”
“You looked like you were having a very good time with him. Were you? Were you two having a good time together?”
“Isak, stop it!” she pleaded. “You are making something out of nothing. We walked down the street after meeting in the butcher shop. When we got to the corner, I crossed the street and went home and he kept going straight down Neptune Avenue to his own home and his wife. You didn't see that, did you? You are torturing yourself over something that is in your mind only.”
“I do not want you talking to him like that again. Do you hear me? You are making a fool of me.”
“You are making a fool of yourself. You are making up what is not there. Don't you have better things to worry about?”
“Why did you let him touch your hand?”
“What are you talking about? He did not touch me.”
“You are not telling me the truth. I saw with my own eyes.”
Then she remembered that at one point when she had made the cat-chicken mistake he had casually put his hand on the bag she was carrying as he repeated the English word for chicken.
“He was touching my butcher bag, not me!” she told Isak, but that was not the end of it.
“I could see how he was looking at you. I want you to stop going to those classes. They are just a way for you to see other men. You are not there to learn English.”
“How dare you tell me what I can and cannot do? Tell me where I can and cannot go? I am a human being. I am free, I go where I want and talk to anyone I want. You are not the tsar of this house. And even the tsar is dead. He is no longer in charge and you are not in charge, of me.” She was out of control and what she was saying began to lose its sense. She was vaguely reminded of all her girlhood fights with her older sister Lillian, where the only logic to how they found the words were that they were hurtful and had popped into their heads at the moment.
“I see how other men look at you. You wear your fashionable dresses and you laugh at their conversation. Do you think I do not see this?” He was clasping the edges of the table now with both hands, and she could see that his hands were shaking. She was not afraid of him, but the extent of his anger was frightening. Oddly, she kept thinking about the table and how hard it would be to clean it. She almost wanted to tell him to go and wash his hands before continuing with this fight.
The door squeaked and she saw Leah peering through the crack, watching and listening to her parents. “Leah, go into the other room. Go and do your homework,” her mother told her. She had only wanted to let Isak know that he had an audience for his nonsense, but Leah ignored her order and ran over to where her father was sitting. She gave him a hug and he put one dirt-stained arm around her waist. Over her shoulder he looked at his wife.
“You are making a bad example for the child. She should not see her mother in this way. You should have more respect for yourself, more respect for me. Shame, shame, woman.”
“You are the one acting like a bad example. Making accusations to your own wife. Seeing things that are not there. Making up lies and calling them the truth. You tell stories in your own mind and then you come to me with these stories. You should make your living as a storyteller instead of as a tinsmith and roofer. You could earn a good living doing that, you are so talented. And then maybe we would have enough money to live and I would not have to go counting pennies at the butcher's to buy us a chicken!”
The harsh exhange was too much for Leah, who disentangled herself from her father's clasp and left the room. Anyuta no longer cared how cruel her words might be. When she looked down and again noticed his filthy hands on the table, she could not contain herself.
“You are ruining the table. How will I get that grease off? Go and wash yourself and do not come back into my kitchen with this dirt all over you and with this dirt in your mind!”
Isak jumped up from the table and stood frowning at her. Then he went down the hall to the bathroom. She could hear the water running and the banging of the hand brush and the soap container against the sink. He was in there for a long time, and when he came out she thought he had fallen back into his silent, sullen behavior and that they would not talk to each other for the rest of that night. But that was not the case.
Isak stared at her for a long moment, and then walked toward the door. “I leave,” he muttered.
“Fine, fine. You leave,” she screamed after him, as she heard his feet pounding the stairs. She went out on the landing and yelled down after him, “You think only you can leave? I can leave too. I can take the children and I can leave too -” But the door had already slammed at the bottom of the stairs and her last words echoed in the empty hallway. The hallway was not empty for long, as Anyuta could see her neighbors opening their doors on the landings, shaking their heads at this disturbance.
When Anyuta woke the next day, Isak had not yet returned. She kept Leah home from school and picked up Jacob from his grandmother’s care. Anyuta had them help putting their clothes into cloth bags while she took her own clothes and folded them into a cardboard suitcase. She went around the apartment looking for items that she wanted to take and sticking these into the sides of the suitcase. She felt dizzy and did not know if she was taking the things she needed or wanted. She loaded two boxes with pots and kitchen things. She could feel the blood pounding in her head. What was essential? What should she take? What should she leave? She felt confused and uncertain about what was necessary, grabbing whatever she saw: a pack of playing cards, a box of matches. Nothing seemed to have more importance than anything else. She took money from the jar in the kitchen where she kept the earnings from her sewing. Without counting the bills, she stuffed them in her pocket.
And where could she go? Of course her mother would welcome her. But Baba was at Lillian's and Anyuta was never a welcome presence at her sister's home. Going there was not an option. She would think of something else to do, someplace else to go. She just had to leave. She could not give Isak the satisfaction of still being there when he got home. Not after the fight they had had last night, not after he had walked out and slammed the door.
She maneuvered the children and the bags and boxes and suitcase downstairs and outside. They stood in front of the building while Anyuta tried to flag down a cab.
“Where are we going?” Leah asked.
Jacob looked at Leah, his blue eyes wide with unshed tears, and echoed her question, “Where are we going, Mommy?” Then he released the tears and began to wail.
“We are leaving Daddy,” she answered. “That is where we are going. We are leaving Daddy.”
She was aware that this explanation did not provide a destination, but that was all she could think of to say. Leah began to cry, too.It was mid-morning, and there was not much traffic on the street, but finally a cab came by and stopped for them. Business must have been slow, because the cab driver was willing to pick them up even though he could see that his fare was a distraught woman with two crying children and a motley assortment of luggage. He opened his door and went around to the trunk, stowing the light but bulky assortment of luggage inside as Anyuta helped her children into the back seat. He returned to the driver’s seat. “Where to, lady?” he asked, once they were inside the cab. He began driving before she had a chance to respond.
There was a stop sign at the corner, and he asked again as he waited there. “Lady, I gotta know which way to turn. Where are we going?”
Anyuta could not think. She found herself getting more and more dizzy. “Turn left,” she told him. “And then, when you get to the corner, make another left.”
He looked annoyed, but followed her instructions. “Circle the block,” she told him next. And when they were in front of her building again, she asked him to circle the block twice more. When they arrived at the same place for the third time, the driver stopped.
“Listen lady, I can see you got some problems, but maybe you better just go home.”
“Yes, yes,” she responded. “That is a good idea. I think I will just go home.”
Leah threw open the taxi door and leaped out. Jacob clung to his mother. Anyuta searched through her purse for the money to pay the driver as he lifted her possessions from the trunk. Then she took her son's hand in hers, rubbed it gently, and began lugging the bags and boxes and suitcases back upstairs.