OPEN ROAD REVIEW SHORT STORY PRIZE, 2015 (Joint Runners Up)
- 1940:Pushed and Pushing
As Mama pushes the twin stroller, Lydia and Lester vie for attention. Lydia, snug in a puffy, hooded one-piece zip-up snowsuit, appears to have the edge, though Lester’s rumpled curls and dark, wounded-deer eyes make him a stiff contender. Strangers stop to establish eye contact, first with twin A, then with twin B. Not every stranger wants contact with both twins. A white-haired woman waves shyly at smiling Lydia, pauses briefly at Lydia’s side of the stroller before she continues down the Brooklyn street. Lydia gratifies with a wide grin, reveals several evenly spaced, white baby teeth. Lester is gap-toothed, by some reckoning a point in his favor; the gap between his two front teeth adds winsomeness to his dimpled smile. On this occasion, however, he fails to smile. Lester does not welcome all comers. He is highly selective. After all, the white-haired lady did not seek him out.
Lester is the larger and stronger twin. Snow-suited in blue, he demonstrates his superior mettle once more. Earlier this morning he had done so by shoving Lydia to the mat of their shared play-pen (with wooden slats) and standing upon her right leg—an attempt to turn her into a convenient step stool as he strove without success to climb out of the cage-like playpen. Now he decisively pushes her out of the black wicker, twin stroller and onto the Pierrepont Street sidewalk. Lydia, well padded by the snowsuit, is unhurt by the fall, but cries anyway. Mama picks her up and consoles her, first braking the stroller to prevent its escape with Lester. Mama scolds him with quivering voice: “Don’t push your sister! Don’t hurt your sister! Love your sister!”
Both twins are in tears and much in need of Mama’s cotton handkerchief, which she applies even-handedly, first to one dripping two-year-old nose, then to the other. The November day is cold. The twins wear hand-knitted mittens, hers pink, his blue. They snuggle under a fringed, plaid wool blanket as Mama pushes them laboriously toward the playground.
2. 1942:The Unity and Conflict of Opposites
Lester and Lydia perform an improvised dance to a 78-rpm recording of “Meadowlands,” sung by the Soviet Army Chorus featuring a life-like recreation of the rhythmic beat of horses prancing on the Siberian steppes. The chorus of men sings in Russian, a language they don’t understand, but they are told the words are about heroes and valor. On this Sunday morning, a box of Shredded Wheat dry cereal sits on the oil-cloth-covered, square kitchen table, along with a two quart bottle of Borden’s milk adorned with the cheerful cartoon image of Elsie the Cow. Grinning Elsie wears a chain of daisies around her cow neck. On the kitchen door rack hangs an enormous, white terry-cloth towel, now soiled by the diminutive hands of hot chocolate drinkers, sandbox diggers and finger-painters. On the sunshine-yellow wall near the door, a multi-colored, unfolded paper map of the world is mounted on the wall with thumbtacks. Papa presses straight pins into various locations on the map after he has listened to the morning radio news and read the first section of The New York Times. He marks the progress of the Allied troops.
Lester and Lydia know that there is a war on, and that Uncle Mitch is part of it, an American Army soldier somewhere overseas. They have Kodak photos of him in his khaki uniform. Papa is with them in Brooklyn, not overseas, but he has a uniform too, which he wears only sometimes. His uniform includes a white cap with a shiny black peak and a dark blue jacket with gold-braid stripes on the sleeves. The children know about air raids; when sirens blare, you have to stay indoors and you must close the venetian blinds and turn off all lights. They know about ration books and cans of saved fat and large balls of accumulated aluminum foil. Ellis, the twins’ older brother, collects foil to aid the war effort, layering it in bits from found gum wrappers onto a large, silvery sphere. Ellis tells a joke about the fat cans: “Ladies, take your fat cans down to the nearest grocer.” Get it? The ladies have fat bottoms!
They deposit occasional nickels, dimes, and even quarters into an orange coin bank that says “Russian War Relief” that occupies a prominent place on a desk next to the black rotary-dial telephone. The children know their phone number begins MA(Main)-4. Ellis knows the entire phone number by heart. They know that Americans and Russians are good, Nazis are bad. Ellis, who’s in fourth grade at P.S. 8, has taught them to sing:
Whistle while you work
Hitler is a jerk
Mussolini is a meanie
And the Japs are worse.
The large square kitchen has a linoleum floor patterned in ample black and white squares. Chubby-cheeked Lester places himself on the corner of one black square. Lydia, slight and pale, faces him on the diagonal, standing on the corner of an opposite white square. The twins know a little about prizefights. They have watched Joe Lewis raise his gloved hand in triumph during The March of Time newsreels preceding Danny Kaye movies deemed suitable for five-year-olds.
“Is this a dance or a fight?” Lydia wants to know. She steps toward Lester, uncertain.
“Gong,” they say in unison as they step toward each other in the center of the room, which they pretend is The Ring in Madison Square Garden. Lydia relaxes her fists as Lester places his left hand, newly washed, on Lydia’s robed waist. They join right hands and sway in time to the hoof beats and chorus as the phonograph, which dominates a corner of the kitchen, plays a record of a song with these words, sung in Russian:
Through you heroes now are treading
Red Army heroes of the nation
Heroes of the mighty Red Army, Ah!
3. 1943: Democracy Lessons
A staunch believer in public education, Mama enrolls Lester and Lydia in afternoon kindergarten at P.S. 8, the school Ellis already attends. Few of their classmates speak English at home. Most were born in Puerto Rico and speak Spanish. After their first day, Lester soberly informs Mama that he and Lydia are the only Americans in their class. Mama explains that all of their classmates are American, even if they are still learning English. What’s more, she informs, some of the greatest Americans, or their parents, or grandparents, were not born in the U.S.A. Look at Mayor La Guardia! Look at Vito Marcantonio! Americans of Italian descent! The Statue of Liberty came from France. Mama reminds them that three of their four grandparents didn’t speak English when they first came to New York, they spoke Yiddish, a language Grandpa still uses to tell apparently uproarious jokes and stories to Grandma or Uncle Simon.
Miss Cunningham, their kind teacher, praises both Lester and Lydia as models of good behavior, although Lester receives a “U” for “Unsatisfactory” for “Use of Handkerchief” on his first pale yellow report card. Each receives “S” or “Satisfactory” in “Works and Plays Well with Others.” Both can tie their shoelaces, though Lester is by far the more adept tier. Lester is also the superior skipper and hopper, while Lydia excels in singing. She’s good at learning song lyrics, too, and can perform all the Songs of Safety, beginning with:
Remember your name and address
And telephone number too
And if some day you lose your way
You’ll know just what to do:
Walk up to that kind policeman. . .
They learn to sing and dance “How Do You Do My Partner?”, although they are not partnered with one another. Their teacher feels, and Mama concurs, that twins should sometimes be separated. But for “How Do You Do My Partner?” the twins ask to be partners. Lester has told Papa that some day he plans to marry Lydia. Papa smiles while he explains that this would violate the law, and what’s more, would be unhealthy. Lester isn’t sure why. He still plans to become Lydia’s husband some day, and Lydia has consented. “Two out of three wins,” clever Lester insists to Papa.
4. 1945: At the Seashore
Downed by a rough wave at Long Beach, Lester emerges in tears from the shallow surf, rushes as best he can through wet, then dry sand into Mama’s all-soothing arms. “Someone put salt in the water,” he wails.
“Baby, baby, stick your head in gravy,” Lydia taunts, as she unmolds her pail to make a perfect sand cylinder, the foundation of her elaborate castle and fortress in progress.
Blue-lipped, Lester huddles in a terry-cloth beach towel on Mama’s lap. “Don’t you want to help Lydia build her castle?” Mama coaxes Lester. Lydia extends her arm to offer him her bucket, but he, glowering, hurls it aside.
In a matter of moments Lester joins his twin sister in constructing a complex of turreted castles, surrounded by lower structures and a moat. Ellis supervises, self-appointed director of buildings and grounds. Drips of saturated sand create spires. The children work intently, overturn bucket after bucket of wet sand, shape cylinders into turrets, drips into spires, and dig a water-filled moat with shovels and bare hands. To those beyond earshot, they appear models of sibling cooperation. Those within earshot, however, hear Lester snipe Lydia: “Yours are falling down, because you don’t know how to do it.” Ellis sometimes helps with building, sometimes simply bosses the twins. Soon enough, the entire royal-medieval housing complex of sand submerges in a tide of salt water and low waves. The mother and children collect buckets, shovels, towels, beach blanket. With partial success they rid their bodies of sand, and set out on foot toward their summer house.
5. 1945 (Continued): The War is Over
The newspaper and radio news reports shriek: JAPAN SURRENDERS/ THE WAR IS OVER, in boldface. American troops stationed overseas, including their uncle Mitch, will return to the States, no longer in uniform. The children will see photos of people on the streets of New York embracing, throwing ticker tape ribbons and confetti. There will be parades. Eisenhower will be cheered. His face will appear on the cover of LIFE. Today, August 9th, with their parents, they tie some empty tin cans on the back fender of the old Studebaker that came with the house and collect some banging instruments – metal kitchen pots and pot lids, large stainless steel spoons – and tumble helter-skelter, all three, into the rumble seat. Papa takes the wheel, Mama sits beside him, smiling, and as they drive into the center of town the children bang away, making as much of a ruckus as they can. No one hushes them. They head to Broad’s soda fountain and order ice cream cones: Butter Pecan for Lester, Fresh Peach for Lydia, Chocolate Chip for Ellis. All three pick sugar cones.
Strangers grin and talk to them as they lick away the ice cream, which begins a slow drip, drip down the sides of the cones, making their hands moist and sticky. When the family returns to its scruffy, shingled summer house, Lydia rushes upstairs to find a piece of white chalk, which she takes outside. On the sloped tar road in front of the house, she writes, “THE WAR IS OVER” in the largest capital letters she can print.
6. 1945 (continued): Lydia’s Thumb
Lester’s habit of nail-biting seems to have abated, but Lydia continues to suck her thumb when sleeping. Their pediatrician, a man of somber demeanor, voices concern for the future shape of her palate, and suggests painting Lydia’s thumb with Tabasco Sauce, or perhaps tying her arms to her sides at night. Mama and Papa wouldn’t dream of such measures. They know that their daughter will shed this vestige of babyhood. “Are you still going to suck your thumb when you’re a grown-up?” Papa teases.
“I’ll suck my husband’s thumb,” she assures him.
7. 1945 (further continuation): Throwing Up Absurd
Agile Lester likes to hang upside down on the monkey bars and to swing high or spin like a top when at the playground. Lydia enjoys none of these kinetic pleasures. She suffers from motion sickness. She hates swinging high on the playground swing, preferring moderate, gentle and soothing rhythms. She dreads traveling by bus. Cars present an on-going problem. On weekend and vacation trips to Long Beach, Lydia sits in front, her window rolled all the way down, beside Papa, who commands the wheel. Mama, Lester and Ellis squeeze together in the back seat of the family Buick. Legroom is adequate, but seat-room scarce. Ellis and Lester are slender children, as is Lydia. Mama feels pinched, though she does not complain. In front, Lydia suffers the pangs of nausea. She gulps fresh air from out the window, but sometimes that air fails the freshness test. Gas fumes serve as triggers. Mother Sill’s Seasickness Pills proffered by Mama, offer scant remedy. For Lydia, the mere sight of the little cardboard pillbox that bares the tiny, far from reassuring image of the black prow of a steamship, combined with the waxy odor of the capsules, prompts queasiness.
Subways don’t make her nauseous, but the elevator to street level from the subway station sometimes does. Mama and the three children return on the IRT-Seventh Avenue from a holiday visit to Aunt Belle on the Upper West Side. Aunt Belle has presented each brother with a miniature metal vehicle (a fire engine for Ellis, a yellow taxi for Lester, with doors that open). Lydia receives a doll with rooted hair, eyes that open and shut, and the life-like ability to cry “Mama” when overturned. The children carry their gifts on the subway, enjoying them. They are well behaved, for the most part, and dressed up for the December holiday season. The boys wear neckties, a rare occurrence, and long-sleeved, button-front shirts under hooded storm jackets. Over a red and white cotton dress hand-sewn by grandmother, Lydia wears a princess style, gray wool coat. They carry mittens in their pockets, because outdoors it’s cold. So far today, not a single mitten is missing.
They exit the train at the Clark Street subway station, climb a flight of stairs, walk the length of a fluorescent-lit corridor with other subway riders and enter a huge elevator that will, with the help of a uniformed attendant, lift them to street level. Passengers crowd the doors, their coats pressed against each other. Mama holds on to the twins, but has no hand for Ellis, which he prefers not to do anyway. The elevator door slides shut. As they lurch and rise toward street level, Lydia senses an overwhelming nausea. She fears she’ll soil the new doll clutched in her free arm. A man’s large overcoat pocket materializes at mouth level. Lydia opens the pocket flap, and as quietly as she can, disgorges into it. Mama blanches, but says nothing to the man in the obliging overcoat, who has noticed only that the elevator reeks of the unmistakable stench of vomit. The doll emerges dry and unharmed.
At home, Lydia drinks a glass of tap water, and she soon feels ever so much better. The boys improvise a game called “Car Crash,” in which they dispatch their miniature metal vehicles toward each other on the floor to make them collide head-on. VARROOM, BANG. Wheels spin on wood, metal crashes against metal. The cars get scratched but do not dent or break into pieces. As the boys’ car game resumes, Lydia takes her new doll to the couch in the living room. She turns her baby on its tummy, pretends to burp it on her shoulder, then, less maternally, she spins it around on the floor. The doll’s puckered reddish-brown lips betray no signs of distress or disequilibrium. Its blue eyes and dark lashes blink. Its rosy cheeks shine. Its benign expression remains fixed. Turned onto its chubby belly by Lydia, the docile doll cries, “Mama.”
7. 1947: Walking To School
Lydia and Lester are promoted to Miss McCarthy’s fifth grade class at P.S. 8, a solid, stolid square building topped by a 48-star American flag and a lesser banner, blue and gold, the school colors. The same flags hang indoors in the school auditorium, where Lydia plays “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” on the piano once a week as the classes file in for Assembly. She and Lester wait for each other and walk the six blocks between school and home twice a day, because Mama likes to give them a hot lunch. As they walk, they avoid stepping on any lines on the sidewalk. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.”
Going and coming, they pass Mr. Coleman’s Hicks Street tailor shop, which gives off the comfortable, toasty smell of steam-pressed wool, where a large round indoor wall clock visible from the street reads 8:20, if they are on time in the morning, and 12:50 when they return from lunch. Outside a French Laundry they see a fat, pipe-smoking man who seems permanently, precariously balanced on a three-legged stool. On cold days Lydia loves to stand on the iron sidewalk grate near the St. George hotel, letting gusts of warm air from beneath the street warm her legs.
Lester announces impatiently that he can’t keep waiting for Lydia. She walks slowly, pauses too often. She lingers on the grate. He ditches her and walks ahead, although Mama has told them to always walk together.
At home Lydia reports his misdeed and Mama reproaches him. “OK,” he agrees. “She gets one more chance.”
8. The Uprising of ‘48
But the seeds of unrest have been planted. On a Wednesday at school, Miss McCarthy is called away from the classroom briefly and has left class president Lydia in charge. “Write the names of any talkers on the blackboard,” Miss McCarthy instructs Lydia after assigning the class a workbook arithmetic problem that will occupy them in her absence.
Lydia faces her seated classmates, between Miss McCarthy’s desk and the blackboard, playing teacher. Despite her long braids and crisp cotton pinafore, she assumes the demeanor of a junior martinet, using the blackboard pointer to underline the teacher’s chalked words on the blackboard: SILENCE, PLEASE. NO TALKING. Maria Colon is the first to say something to a friend seated next to her. Lydia writes her name on the blackboard. Thomas Lopez’s name soon joins it. Then the name Lester Guwurtz appears in uppercase letters.
“No fair,” Lester calls out. “I was just telling the others to be quiet.”
“Too bad,” says the pinafored substitute in a commanding tone of voice.
Miss McCarthy returns to her post to find the classroom in an uproar.
“She’s too bossy,” Lester explodes, pointing at his sister with his right index finger as he rises from his seat. He wears a plaid flannel shirt and brown corduroy pants. Lydia goes back to her seat.
Miss McCarthy, her grey hair askew, stands behind her desk, staring down the students until the uproar subsides.
“I’m waiting,” she says to the class, counting to ten, pausing after each number in her habitual manner. “One, Two. Three. Four. Five. . . .” The room falls silent.
“Now,” she says softly, appraising the situation. “How many would like to hold an election for a new class president?”
The entire class, with the exception of Lydia, assents with raised hands.
Nominations for the office of president are accepted. Lester is among the nominees named by his classmates. Balloting, or writing the name of a preferred candidate on a slip of paper, then dropping it into a cardboard box, takes place. Miss McCarthy counts and tallies the votes. To tumultuous applause, Lester accepts his new post as class president-elect.
Lydia walks home alone after school, along an extended, circuitous route. She bypasses the familiar landmarks – the tailor’s clock, the grate, the fat man – and ponders retaliation against usurper Lester as she mentally reviews the words to “Remember Your Name and Address.” Then if some day you lose your way, you’ll know just what to do.
She ventures across Fulton Street, a wide thoroughfare, dense with traffic, where a strange man purses his lips and makes a sucking sound at her as she passes by. Nervously she makes her way through the throng of downtown shoppers and into Woolworth’s, where she approaches the soda fountain. She has a dime in her pocket and orders a Vanilla Freeze, “The Drink You Can Eat with a Spoon,” with raspberry syrup. She lingers over the tall frosted glass, plunges her long spoon down to the bottom where the delicious red syrup collects.
She can still taste the cold, delicious sweetness as she drifts homeward, no opportunity missed to step on a crack as she thinks up an excuse for coming home late, solo.
As it turns out, no excuse is required. No one except Lester has noticed her absence. Mama is home late too. She volunteers at a neighborhood soup kitchen for machinists who are on strike. Papa is still at work. Ellis has Scouts.
At dinner Lydia announces that tomorrow morning she will not leave for school with Lester. “I’m just going to walk by myself,” she declares with resolve as she uses her knife and spoon to mold her plate’s mound of buttery mashed potatoes into the shape of a round fortress. At the beach in summertime, she and Ellis used to construct their sand castles together, bickering sometimes as they worked. Now, in the city, she sculpts a citadel alone.