第3章B

外语2020-11-30 11:35:37 52
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"Whoa, whoa—what's a 'stick,' dear?" Aunt Evelyn asked, and gladly he obliged her with the lengthiest possible explanation. And so what's a curing barn, she asked, what's topping, what's suckering, what's worming—and the more questions Aunt Evelyn came up with, the more authoritative Sandy became, so that even when we got to Summit Avenue and my father pulled the car into the alleyway, he was still going on about raising tobacco as though expecting us all to head right for the backyard and start preparing the weedy patch of dirt next to the garbage cans for Newark's first crop ever of white burley. "It's the sweetened burley in Luckys," he informed us, "that gives 'em the taste," and meanwhile I was itching to feel his biceps again, which to me were no less extraordinary than the regional accent, if that's what it was—he said "cain't" for "can't" and "rimember" for "remember" and "fahr" for "fire" and "agin" for "again" and "awalkin'" and "atalkin'" for "walking" and "talking," and whatever you wanted to call that concoction of English, it wasn't what we natives of New Jersey spoke.

Aunt Evelyn was triumphant but my father was stymied, said almost nothing, and at the dinner table that evening looked especially glum when Sandy got around to reporting on what a paragon Mr. Mawhinney was. First off, Mr. Mawhinney had graduated from the College of Agriculture at the University of Kentucky, while my father, like most other Newark slum children before the World War, hadn't been educated beyond the eighth grade. Mr. Mawhinney owned not just one farm but three—the lesser two rented to tenants—land that had been in his family going back nearly to the days of Daniel Boone, and my father owned nothing more impressive than a six-year-old car. Mr. Mawhinney could saddle a horse, drive a tractor, operate a thresher, ride a fertilizer drill, work a field as easily with a team of mules as with a team of oxen; he could rotate crops and manage hired men, both white and Negro; he could repair tools, sharpen plow points and mowers, put up fences, string barbed wire, raise chickens, dip sheep, dehorn cattle, slaughter pigs, smoke bacon, sugar-cure ham—and he raised watermelons that were the sweetest and juiciest Sandy had ever eaten. By cultivating tobacco, corn, and potatoes, Mr. Mawhinney was able to make a living right out of the earth and then, at Sunday dinner (where the six-foot-three-inch, two-hundred-and-thirty-pound farmer consumed more fried chicken with cream gravy than everyone else at the table combined), eat only food that he himself had raised, and all my father could do was sell insurance. It went without saying that Mr. Mawhinney was a Christian, a long-standing member of the great overpowering majority that fought the Revolution and founded the nation and conquered the wilderness and subjugated the Indian and enslaved the Negro and emancipated the Negro and segregated the Negro, one of the good, clean, hard-working Christian millions who settled the frontier, tilled the farms, built the cities, governed the states, sat in Congress, occupied the White House, amassed the wealth, possessed the land, owned the steel mills and the ball clubs and the railroads and the banks, even owned and oversaw the language, one of those unassailable Nordic and Anglo-Saxon Protestants who ran America and would always run it—generals, dignitaries, magnates, tycoons, the men who laid down the law and called the shots and read the riot act when they chose to—while my father, of course, was only a Jew.

 

 

Sandy got the news about Alvin once Aunt Evelyn had gone home. My father was at the kitchen table working on his account books preparatory to going out to make his evening collections and my mother was in the cellar with Sandy sorting through the clothes he'd brought back from Kentucky, deciding what to repair and what to throw out before putting everything else in the washtub. My mother always did immediately whatever had to be done, and she was set on disposing of his dirty clothes before she went to bed. I was down there with them, unable to let my brother out of my sight. He'd always known everything I didn't know, and he'd come back from Kentucky knowing still more.

"I have to tell you about Alvin," my mother said to him. "I didn't want to write because. . .well, I didn't want to shock you, dear." Here, having gathered herself together to make certain she wouldn't cry, she said in a low voice, "Alvin was wounded. He's in a hospital in England. He's there recovering from his wounds."

Astonished, Sandy asked, "Who wounded him?" as though she were reporting an occurrence in our neighborhood rather than in Nazi-occupied Europe, where people were being maimed, wounded, and killed all the time.

"We don't know any details," my mother said. "But it wasn't a superficial wound. I have to tell you something very sad, Sanford." And despite her attempt to keep everyone's courage up, her voice began to waver when she said, "Alvin's lost a leg."

"A leg?" There aren't many words less abstruse than "leg," but it took some doing for him to comprehend it.

"Yes. According to a letter we got from one of his nurses, his left leg below the knee." As if it might somehow soothe him, she added, "If you'd like to read it, the letter's upstairs."

"But—how will he walk?"

"They're going to fit him with an artificial leg."

"But I don't understand who wounded him. How did he get wounded?"

"Well, they were there to fight the Germans," she said, "so it must have been one of them."

Still half staving off what was half sinking in, Sandy asked, "Which leg?"

As tenderly as she could, she repeated, "The left."

"The whole leg? The whole thing?"

"No, no, no," she rushed to reassure him. "I told you, dear—below the knee."

Suddenly Sandy began to cry, and because he was so much bigger across the shoulders and through the chest and around the wrists than he'd been just last spring, because his arms were now brawny like a man's rather than stringy like a child's, I was so startled to see tears running down his deeply tanned face that I started crying too.

"Dear, it's awful," my mother said. "But Alvin is not dead. He is still alive, and now at least he's out of the war."

"What?" Sandy erupted. "Did you hear what you just said to me?"

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Didn't you hear yourself? You said, 'He's out of the war.'"

"And he is. Absolutely. And because he is, he'll now come home before anything more can possibly happen."

"But why was he even in the war, Ma?"

"Because—"

"Because of Dad!" Sandy shouted.

"Dear, no, this isn't true," and her hand flew up to cover her mouth as though it were she who had spoken those unpardonable words. "That is not so," she objected. "Alvin went off to Canada without telling us. He ran away on that Friday night. You remember how terrible it was. Nobody wanted Alvin to go to war—he just went, on his own."

"But Dad wants the whole country to go to war. Well, doesn't he? Isn't that why he voted for Roosevelt?"

"Lower your voice, please."

"First you say thank God that Alvin is out of the war—"

"Lower your voice!" and the tension of the day now so overwhelmed her that she lost her temper, and to the boy she had so painfully missed all summer long, she snapped, "You don't know what you're talking about!"

"But you won't listen," he shouted. "If it wasn't for President Lindbergh—"

That name again! I would rather have heard a bomb go off than to have to hear one more time the name that was tormenting us all.

Just then my father appeared in the dim light of the landing at the top of the cellar stairs. It was probably a good thing that from where we were standing by the deep laundry sink, all we could see of him were trousers and shoes.

"He's upset about Alvin," my mother said, looking up to explain what the shouting was about. "I made a mistake." To Sandy she said, "I should never have told you tonight. It's not easy for a boy to come home from a big experience like that. . .it's never easy to go from one place to another. . .and anyway you're so tired. . .," and then, helpless, giving herself up to her own exhaustion, she said, "The two of you, both of you, go upstairs now so I can do the wash."

And so we turned to mount the stairs and found, fortunately, that my father had already disappeared from the landing and was off in the car to make his evening collections.

 

 

In bed, one hour later. The lights are out all over the house. We whisper.

Did you really have a good time?

I had a great time.

What made it so great?

Being on a farm is great. You get to get up early in the morning, and you're outside all day, and there are all these animals. I drew a lot of animals, I'll show you my drawings. And we had ice cream every night. Mrs. Mawhinney makes it herself. There's fresh milk there.

All milk is fresh.

No, we got it right from the cow. It was still warm. We put it on the stove and we'd boil it and just take the cream off the top, and then we'd drink it.

You couldn't get sick from it?

That's why you boil it.

But you don't just drink it right out of the cow.

I tried that once but it doesn't taste so good. It's so creamy.

Did you milk a cow?

Orin showed me how to do it. It's hard to do. Orin would squirt it, and the cats would come around, and they'd try to catch the milk.

Did you have any friends?

Well, Orin's my best friend.

Orin Mawhinney?

Yeah. He's my age. He goes to school there. He works on the farm. He gets up at four o'clock in the morning. He does chores. It's not like us. He goes to school on the bus. It's about forty-five minutes on the bus, and then he comes back in the evening, and he does some more chores, and he does his homework, and he goes to bed. He gets up at four o'clock the next morning. It's hard work to be a farmer's son.

But they're rich, aren't they?

They're pretty rich.

How come you talk like that now?

Why shouldn't I? That's the way they talk in Kentucky. You should hear Mrs. Mawhinney. She's from Georgia. She makes pancakes for breakfast every morning. With bacon. Mr. Mawhinney smokes his own bacon. In a smokehouse. He knows how to.

You ate bacon every morning?

Every morning. It's delicious. And on Sundays when we got up we had pancakes and bacon and eggs. From their own chickens. The eggs—they're almost red in the middle, they're so fresh. You go and take 'em from the chickens and bring 'em in and you eat 'em right there.

Did you eat ham?

We had ham for dinner about two times a week. Mr. Mawhinney makes his own ham. He has a special family recipe. He says if a ham isn't hung up to be aged for a year he doesn't want to eat it.

Did you eat sausage?

Yeah. He makes the sausage, too. They grind it in a sausage grinder. We had sausage sometimes instead of bacon. It's good. Pork chops. They're good too. They're great. I don't really know why we don't eat it.

Because it's stuff from a pig.

So what? Why do you think farmers raise pigs? For people to look at 'em? It's like anything else you eat. You just eat it, and it's really good.

You going to keep eating it now?

Sure.

It was really hot there, though, huh?

During the day. But we'd come in at lunchtime, and we'd have tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches. With lemonade—with lots of lemonade. We'd rest inside and then we'd go back out into the fields and do whatever we had to. Weeding. Weed all afternoon. Weed the corn. Weed the tobacco. We had a vegetable garden, me and Orin, and we'd weed that. We'd work with the hired hands, and there were some Negroes, day laborers. And there's one Negro, Randolph, who is a tenant, and he rose from hired hand. He's a grade-A farmer, Mr. Mawhinney says.

Can you understand when the Negroes talk?

Sure.

Can you imitate one?

They say "'bacca" for tobacco. They say "I 'clare." I 'clare this and I 'clare that. But they don't talk much. Mostly they work. At hog-killing time, Mr. Mawhinney has Clete and Old Henry who gut the hogs. They're Negroes, they're brothers, and they take the intestines home and eat 'em fried. Chitterlings.

Would you eat that?

Do I look like a Negro? Mr. Mawhinney says Negroes are starting to move away from the farm because they think they can earn more money in the city. Sometimes Old Henry got arrested on Saturday nights. For drinking. Mr. Mawhinney pays the fine to get him out because he needs him on Monday.

Do they have shoes?

Some. The kids are barefoot. The Mawhinneys give them their clothes when they're done with them. But they were happy.

Anybody say anything about anti-Semitism?

They don't even think about it, Philip. I was the first Jew they ever met. They told me that. But they never said anything mean. It's Kentucky. People there are really friendly.

So, are you glad to be home?

Sort of. I don't know.

You going to go back next year?

Sure.

What if Mom and Dad won't let you?

I'll go anyway.

 

Seemingly as a direct consequence of Sandy's having eaten bacon, ham, pork chops, and sausage, there was no containing the transformation of our lives. Rabbi Bengelsdorf was coming to dinner. Aunt Evelyn was bringing him.

"Why us?" my father said to my mother. Dinner was over, Sandy was on his bed writing to Orin Mawhinney, and I was alone with them in the living room, intent on seeing how my father was going to take the news now that everything around us was moving at once.

"She is my sister," said my mother, a touch belligerently, "he is her boss—I can't tell her no."

"I can," he said.

"You will do nothing of the sort."

"Then explain again why we deserve this great honor? The big shot has nothing more pressing than to come here?"

"Evelyn wants him to meet your son."

"That's ridiculous. Your sister has always been ridiculous. My son is in the eighth grade at Chancellor Avenue School. He spent the summer pulling weeds. This is all ridiculous."

"Herman, they're coming on Thursday night, and we're going to make them welcome. You may hate him, but he's not nobody."

"I know that," he said impatiently. "That's why I hate him."

When he walked about the house now a copy of PM was constantly in his hands, either rolled up like a weapon—as though he were preparing, if called upon, to go to war himself—or turned back to a page where there was something he wanted to read aloud to my mother. He was perplexed on this particular evening as to why the Germans continued to advance so easily into Russia, and so, rattling the paper in exasperation, he all at once exclaimed, "Why don't those Russians fight? They have planes—why don't they use them? Why doesn't anybody over there put up a fight? Hitler walks into a country, crosses the border and walks right in, and bingo, it's his. England," he announced, "is the only country in Europe to stand up to that dog. He pounds away at those English cities every single night, and they just come back and keep on fighting him with the RAF. Thank God for the men of the RAF."

"When is Hitler going to invade England?" I asked him. "Why doesn't he invade England now?"

"That was part of the deal he made with Mr. Lindbergh up in Iceland. Lindbergh wants to be the savior of mankind," my father explained to me, "and negotiate the peace that ends the war, and so after Hitler takes Russia, and after he takes the Middle East, and after he takes everything else he could possibly want, Lindbergh will call a phony peace conference—the kind that's right up the Germans' alley. The Germans will be there, and the price for world peace and no German invasion of Great Britain will be installing in England an English fascist government. Putting a fascist prime minister in Downing Street. And when the English say no, then Hitler will invade, and all with the consent of our president the peacemaker."

"Is that what Walter Winchell says?" I asked, thinking that all he had explained to me was just too smart for him.

"That's what I say," he told me, and probably that was true. The pressure of what was happening was accelerating everyone's education, my own included. "But thank God for Walter Winchell. Without him we'd be lost. He's the last person left on the radio to speak out against these dirty dogs. It's disgusting. It's worse than disgusting. Slowly but surely, there's nobody in America willing to speak out against Lindbergh's kissing Hitler's behind."

"What about the Democrats?" I asked.

"Son, don't ask me about the Democrats. I'm angry enough as it is."

My mother had me help her set the table in the dining room on Thursday evening, and then sent me to my bedroom to change into my good clothes. Aunt Evelyn and Rabbi Bengelsdorf were to arrive at seven, forty-five minutes later than we would ordinarily have finished eating in the kitchen, but seven was the earliest the rabbi could manage to get to our house because of all his official duties. This was the very traitor whom my father, usually so respectful of the Jewish clergy, had accused aloud of making "a stupid, lying speech" in behalf of Lindbergh at Madison Square Garden, the "Jewish fake," according to Alvin, who'd guaranteed Roosevelt's defeat by "koshering Lindbergh for the goyim," and so it was puzzling to witness the lengths to which we were going to feed him. I was myself instructed beforehand not to use the fresh towels in the bathroom or to go anywhere near my father's armchair, which was for the rabbi to occupy before we ate dinner.

First we all sat stiffly in the living room while my father offered the rabbi a highball or, if he preferred, a shot of schnapps, both of which Bengelsdorf declined in favor of a glass of tap water. "Newark has the best drinking water in the world," the rabbi said, and said it as he would say everything, with deep consideration. Graciously he received the glass, on a coaster, from my mother, whom I could still recall back in October running from the radio in order not to have to hear him praise Lindbergh. "You have a most agreeable house," he said to her. "Everything in its place and everything placed perfectly. It bespeaks the love of order which I myself share. I see you have a penchant for the color green."

"Forest green," said my mother, trying to smile and trying to please but speaking with difficulty and unable as yet to look his way.

"You should take great pride in your lovely home. I am honored to be a guest here."


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