The Crimson Cap
By Ken Schept
The autumn light tarnished the silver—a scalpel, forceps and a filigreed clamp—arranged like a place setting on the white Shabbos tablecloth, which was padded with towels and draped over a card table. A square bottle of kosher wine, still sealed, and an open black leather satchel with instruments and gauze, rested nearby. Outside the window, two pigeons strutted nervously on the ledge.
Nat cradled his son against his white shirt, tie tucked safely inside. In swaddling and a cap that revealed only his reddish face with tiny flat features, the infant seemed cocooned and peaceful, unaware of his father swaying from side-to-side to calm himself, or the hushed crowd of pensive men. Nat had given the day no real thought. To him, religion was a muddle of illustrated Bible stories. Barbara’s mother had made the arrangements.
When Barbara delivered, he’d been in the waiting room smoking and glancing at year-old magazines filled with photos of VE Day. He saw his son hours later, through the blinds of the nursery window. The week since then had been a blur of driving to the hospital every evening, finally bringing Barbara and the baby home, then waking every few hours during the night until it was time to get up for a weary breakfast with Barbara’s sister, Millie, who was there when he left for work and when he returned.
Today, Nat realized, was the baby’s first trip to the outside world. He raised his son close to his face and breathed in the sweet and powdery scent of a newborn. Nat felt at one with his son and wanted to flee. At that moment, the moyel reached across the table, his palms raised as if in supplication. Because of his grizzled beard and well-worn long coat, he looked patriarchal and pious to Nat. With this reassurance, he delivered his son into the hands of the moyel, where boy looked like a small parcel resting on a scale.
The moyel lowered the baby slowly to the table and began uncoiling the bunting. Bent over, he worked with well-practiced motions and speed. Nat wanted him to take his time. Barbara’s mother or her sister Millie might have insisted, but the women had left the room, and the men were transfixed. Nat winced at the sight of his naked son on his back in the center of the table, pale and plump, eyes shut tight, ears covered with tiny fists.
The moyel pressed the baby’s penis in his meaty fingers and pulled loose skin upward until it formed a pointy cap. He reached for a flat instrument shaped like a hand with narrow slot separating two wide fingers. When the moyel slid the stretched skin into the slot the baby’s eyes opened. In an instant, the moyel swiped the scalpel and sliced off the cap of skin, which adhered to the clamp like a tiny suction cup. The baby shrieked. Blood oozed from the cut. The moyel pinched the top of the penis, and in a sweeping motion he reached into the black leather satchel for gauze. He released the penis just long enough to pour drops of wine onto two strips of gauze. He squeezed one strip around the wound, the other he crumpled and touched to the baby’s lips. The baby closed his mouth around the gauze and sucked. Then he wailed, loudly and continuously.
“He’s not feeling pain. He’s just stunned,” said the moyel.
Nat felt dizzy, and feared he was about to faint at the sight of his son splayed naked and hurting. Gripping the edge of the table to steady himself, he lowered his head and closed his eyes, as if in prayer. The infant howled in long bursts that seem to draw all the air from his lungs. With each roar, he sounded more inconsolable and angry. When Nat opened his eyes the moyel was dripping wine onto the tight sponge of gauze that he touched to the infant’s lips. He left the purple pacifier resting on his mouth while he removed the bloody gauze from the boy’s penis. When the moyel wound fresh gauze and wrapped the boy in swaddling, the piercing cries subsided to a resigned whimper. The moyel closed his eyes and recited Hebrew prayers, and the men shouted their relief in a reverberating chorus of “Amen.”
“So, what’s the name of this little mensch?” the moyel asked.
Nat drew a paper from his pants pocket and unfolded it before handing it to the moyel, who mumbled more prayers and read the name that Barbara’s mother had written in Hebrew and English. Then he returned the boy to Nat, who raised his son’s head next to his own and whispered, “It gets better, Mark. I promise.”
About six weeks later, on an unusually warm and sunny November day, Barbara decided to take her son to the park. By eleven she’d already been up for almost six hours. She’d boiled the bottles and nipples. The diaper man had delivered a fresh supply of diapers and picked up the damp soiled ones from the white enamel pail in the bathroom. On most days, she’d now listen to the radio or nap along with Mark. But Barbara felt cooped up in their three small rooms.
She took her gray wool coat, a red plaid scarf, and a black beret from the hall closet and laid them on the bed. From the shelf above the clothes she pulled down the stroller cover, pewter-colored with a blue monogram of Mark’s initials, a gift from her brother Irwin and his wife. She lifted her sleeping son from his crib and kissed him on the forehead before lowering him onto the bed. He fussed but remained asleep as she changed his diaper and inserted him, one limb at a time, into one-piece yellow pajamas. After she bundled Mark tightly in a blanket and the carriage cover, she slipped on her coat and hat and wrapped the scarf around her neck. At the apartment door, she clamped Mark’s head under her chin as she turned the knob. She’d practiced this exit sequence many times in her head, yearning for a day warm enough to venture outside.
She gripped the iron handrail and cautiously descended the stairs, stopping occasionally to lean against the wall. When she reached the first floor, where a marble balustrade replaced the metal railing, she thought of her brothers, who were making money now in real estate. They liked this building and had convinced her to move in. Nat objected because of the rent, but the brothers promised a monthly subsidy. One more flight down and she was in the basement, which felt like a vast cave divided by red brick pillars. A network of pipes, encased in white with black metal straps, hung from the low ceiling. She found the carriage under a white sheet in one of the many wood and chicken wire stalls.
With a heavy chrome frame and grey fabric body, the carriage was a hand-me-down from the children of her brother Herman, whose wife had said it was top-of-the-line. Nat naturally wanted to refuse this gift but relented after Barbara priced carriages on Montgomery Street. She lowered the infant onto the narrow mattress and he squirmed as she adjusted the baby blanket and the monogrammed carriage cover. Like a streetcar tethered to a wire, she pushed the carriage directly under a pipe, turned where it elbowed to the right, and reached the basement door, which she propped open with a brick. Pushing down on the carriage handle, she raised the front wheels over the threshold. When she nudged the brick with her toe the door slammed shut.
She felt overheated but proud that she’d managed get to the street without any help. She savored late autumn in Jersey City, the sweetness of decaying leaves mixed with the faint odor of exhaust fumes. She raised the bonnet and pushed the carriage passed brick apartment buildings with limestone trim, to the doctors’ row of stately homes with wide porches, round turrets, and iron fences. She made a game of weaving the carriage around the thick tree roots that lifted the bluestone slabs to uneven inclines.
When she reached the corner where a bank sat like a granite tomb, she stepped onto the metal bar that locked the brakes. Sliding her hand between the mattress and the side of the carriage, she pulled out a crimson cap with a border of gold stars. She touched the cap to her cheek to feel the softness of the wool. Millie had made a six-months size, but Barbara couldn’t wait. Lifting her son’s head, she slipped her sister’s handiwork over her son’s white cotton cap, enveloping his head in an enormous crown.
On Hudson Boulevard, a wide and busy street with four lanes of traffic, she spotted Mrs. Glaser, her mother’s friend, bundled in a fur coat and hat, walking slowly with a cane, her head down. When the woman was almost next to the carriage, Barbara said loudly, “Good morning, Mrs. Glaser.”
The woman slowly straightened to a tall and elegant posture. She hooked her cane over her arm and placed a white-gloved hand on the side of the carriage for support. “Good morning, dear,” she said. “I’m so sorry. I’m afraid I didn’t see you.”
Mrs. Glaser called people she liked “dear” but not in an offensive way. She spoke with what Barbara deemed impeccable diction. Her late husband spoke with a German accent, which may have been highbrow in Germany, but Barbara’s brothers as teenagers delighted in imitating it. They’d crack each other up, bowing slightly and saying “Guten morgen,” which is how Mr. Glaser greeted customers at his department store in Journal Square. Irwin and Herman gained more respect for Mr. Glaser as they grew older and he began commuting in the back seat of a Buick Century driven by a liveried Negro.
With her gloved hand on the edge of the carriage, Mrs. Glaser leaned over to get a good look at the baby. She’d sent an exquisite deep green corduroy bathrobe, made in England, boxed with tissue paper and ribbons and bows, and an ivory-colored gift card embossed with an elephant stepping on a circus stool. Barbara hadn’t yet sent thank you notes and now felt guilty.
“Does he really need two hats today, dear?”
Barbara took this comment as a criticism of her judgement. She knew that Mrs. Glaser could be excessively polite. At the weekly bridge game among her mother’s friends, only Mrs. Glaser refrained from gossip, which Barbara knew offended some of the women who felt that Mrs. Glaser was cheating them, not contributing her share of the ante.
“He needs to grow into it, I know,” Barbara said.
“Well, when he does, he will look quite handsome. He looks handsome now, sleeping.”
Barbara was grateful that Mrs. Glaser, unlike most people, didn’t say whether she thought Mark looked like his mother or father. Barbara saw herself in Mark’s dark eyes and full lips and Nat in the flat nose and lighter complexion. She assumed that people saw what they wanted, or needed, to see. The pediatrician’s nurse had declared with confidence that Mark, at four weeks, would grow up to be a doctor or an engineer, or maybe an accountant. Barbara had more realistic expectations for herself, her marriage, and her son. She thought of the nurse as a starched witch, weighing and measuring, dispensing prophesies and curses.
She was surprised when Mrs. Glaser grasped her hands and looked at her with an intensity that made her feel uncomfortable. For an old woman, the blue of Mrs. Glaser’s eyes was remarkably vibrant. “Barbara, Mr. Glaser, may he rest in peace, and I watched you grow up. I can’t say I remember seeing you in a carriage at this age, but I probably did. I don’t like to give advice, but make sure you feel the great joys when they come your way.”
Barbara felt embarrassed and exposed, as if the old woman had recognized the discontent she felt, confined by schedule feeding and a husband who expressed little understanding, who expressed little of anything. Before she could respond, the smooth cotton of Mrs. Glaser’s gloves slipped over Barbara’s fingers, as the woman lifted the cane from her arm stepped back.
“Goodbye, dear,” she waved.
With her first step, Mrs. Glaser was again bent over, ignoring everything around her except the bumps and cracks in her path. After watching Mrs. Glaser take a few deliberate steps, Barbara turned and continued to the park, where she hoped to arrive before Mark woke for his bottle. She considered what it would be like to change places with the old woman. It seemed preferable to know what hand life had dealt than to wait, confused and impatient, to learn the outcome. In six months, Mark’s cap would fit perfectly. In eighteen months it would be snug, and in two years too small. That much was predictable. Until now, her life had been ordained by her parents and brothers and, especially, her sister. She preferred it that way.
When she reached the corner, she waited for the light to turn and hurried across the wide street to the tall granite altar where Abraham Lincoln sat serenely at the entrance to the park. Her secrets and darkest impulses were safe with him. The baby stirred, and she thought about lifting Mark high over her head to rest him in Lincoln’s lap and leave him in his care. She felt no more prepared than Abraham to raise a son.