Annie cooked a special breakfast on Sunday in honor of Jesus. She expected my family to partake of her Sabbath bounty even though we were Jews and atheists. Since it was her day off, she rose early so she would have time to take me to 10 A.M. mass at Saint Patrick’s in the city. I didn’t know what story she concocted for my parents but Annie and I had an unspoken agreement. In exchange for a double-decker bus ride along Fifth Avenue and a trip to the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, followed by hot chocolate topped with whip cream, I would forget to tell my parents about Saint Patrick’s.
“Your eggs are cold as ice, Princess,” Annie hollered down the basement stairs. I was always Princess to Annie, never Rebecca. The Princess was short for Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister, who, in Annie’s Irish eyes, represented everything rotten about the British Empire. Margaret’s picture in Confidential Magazine with a cigarette dangling out of her mouth, at the end of a long, tapered whalebone holder, said it all.
“That’s what comes from cavorting with married men like a common whore,” Annie said.
The fact that my mother was also named Margaret doubled the insult and added a level of unintended irony, since my mother was a card-carrying member of the communist party. But, I got the point: we were spoiled and inconsiderate and also my mother smoked Pall Mall cigarettes by the bucketful.
“Making the house smell like a toilet and your poor father has to abide with her,” Annie said each time she emptied an ashtray.
Annie didn’t hold out much hope for me, but as my nanny she accepted the burden of saving my soul from all manner of things. The list of my sins was endless, but at the top were being sloppy, godless, a tomboy, rude, dreamy and always having my head in a book.
I was in the basement, curled up inside a long, narrow closet under the steps, re-reading Bambi for the eight millionth time. The front wall of the closet was lined with my father’s collection of old Daily Workers, dating back to the last days of Lenin. The Worker was a strange choice for my father to collect since everyone knew the paper was stubbornly loyal to Stalin while my father was a staunch Trotskyite. By everyone, I mean the small group of aging communists who gathered around our asparagus green dining room table for Saturday night dinners. They came for the politics and the conversation, definitely not for the food. My father could manage a passable brisket, but every pot in our kitchen was scarred with the ugly black remains of my mother’s desperate attempts at cooking.
I got the idea of creating a secret hideout from Anne Frank’s Diary. Instead of using a bookcase to conceal the entryway, I constructed a false wall by turning a cardboard grocery box on its side, near the far end of the closet, a short way from the foot of the staircase.
The space was small but it had the advantage of being located right next to an air vent leading up to the kitchen table.
I found listening holes all over the house where I could spy on conversations in every room. I’d curl up on the top or bottom steps of the staircase and wait. When company came I sat silently under the dining room table, next to my father’s chair, listening. But I have to admit I dosed off on more than one occasion during heated arguments about whether Stalin actually slaughtered millions of people or it was all just American propaganda.
My best stakeout was strategically located next to my parents’ bedroom inside the linen closet, behind a large quilt comforter, where I could hear their fights about money, children, the McCarthy Committee and Annie.
Around me they told their secrets in Yiddish, a language I never bothered to learn. The secret code to most of what I needed to know was hidden in those conversations, but I hated its strange sounds and rhythms. I knew that a good detective would never let personal feelings influence her work but I couldn’t help myself. And I knew enough about Joe Friday’s Dragnet procedures to understand that good detective work was often tedious. It involved eavesdropping on endless telephone calls, skulking at the top of the staircase, steaming open envelopes and rummaging through files of old papers.
The sound of Annie’s voice calling me was muffled by the hunters’ thunderclaps and the shrill screams of the pheasants scattering away from the shots. It was my favorite and saddest part of the book, where everyone is fleeing from the bullets and Bambi gets separated from his mother and starts running wildly into the deep woods to escape the danger. I knew how this would end, but I read on hoping, just this once, it would be different.
Bambi was a baby book, which I devoured in secret, to escape the ridicule of my older brother Jerry. He once bet me that I couldn’t recite the entire book from memory. I could. Jerry didn’t understand that Bambi knew the secret to escaping danger.
I had my ear to the vent so that I could track my father’s footsteps from his bedroom, down the steps and into kitchen above me.
“I want you should pour me a little borsht instead of the pancakes,” I heard him tell Annie. His Yiddish accent was thicker than Annie’s brogue but the tone of his voice was soft and seductive. Annie always refused to cook us separate breakfasts. She said was a trained housekeeper and not some kind of indentured servant but sometimes she made an exception for my father. Above me, the refrigerator door slammed shut.
“Not today,” she said.
I had reached the part where Bambi sees the dying pheasant lying in a pool of blood. I took my book and sat down at the bottom of the basement stairs right below the kitchen door and listened for my mother. There were too many pages to finish before breakfast but I would never leave Bambi all alone in the middle of his terror.
Luck was with us and Bambi was able to race out of the open meadow into the safe, dark thicket before Annie called down the steps again.
“I’ve called you several times now, Rebecca. You need to learn how to your elders.” Her slow words and phony patience, plus the fact that she called me Rebecca, were the clues informing me that my mother had arrived in the kitchen. Annie could never resist an opportunity to educate my mother on parenting skills. She believed that the sins of the parents fell upon the children, which left very little to hope for me.
“What can you expect from a woman who wears dirty brown shoes with the heels worn off in the back. And she calls herself a teacher,” Annie once said.
“Well, she is a teacher,” I would’ve answered if I had an ounce of courage in my body.
The express train was leaving the station when Annie and I stepped off the local at Roosevelt Avenue.
“Hold on to my hand,” Annie demanded, tugging me across the platform. I grabbed on tight and did a half running step to keep up with her but I kept bumping into people pushing back in the other direction. A large man banged against my shoulder and pushed me off balance.
“Watch out girlie,” he barked. Tears threatened to spill down my face so I blinked my eyes fast and furious and sniffed up my nose so hard that air pushed against the insides of my head and startled the tears away. I had been practicing this technique for some time because everyone was always telling me to stop acting like a baby, but no one would tell me how to do it.
As we pushed past the closing doors I took a deep breath and nearly barfed. The air was filled with the smell of vomit mixed with pee and something sharp like vinegar. I looked around the empty car twice before I saw the old man sprawled out in the far corner with his legs spread out across a double seat. Paper bags, overflowing with magazines, empty cans and dirty rags were scattered on the seat and the floor around him. He leaned against the window with his eyes closed but I could tell that he was faking from the way his mouth puckered around his quivering lips.
I understood the reason for the empty train but I couldn’t figure out how everyone else knew to stay out of this car. Was there some secret signal that Annie and I had missed, like a mark on the door or a hand sign from the conductor? There were too many riddles in the world and I didn’t know how I would ever learn the answers. Annie tugged my hand and moved down to the other end of the car but I kept checking back over my shoulder to see if he was watching.
“Hey little miss,” he said, or at least I that was what thought he said. He mumbled the words softly and sucked them back in through two missing teeth on the top of his mouth.
Deep wrinkles formed double–ues across his forehead and halfway up his skull, which was sprinkled with wisps of white hair and ugly black moles. His eyebrows stuck out like porcupine needles and hung down his cheeks like teardrops. He was wearing too many clothes, which made his body look fat under his long, boney face.
Annie and I sat down near the door as far away from him as we could get.
“Stay close to me Princess,” she said. She pulled a white, lace handkerchief from inside her sleeve and covered her nose. I pressed my head against her shoulder and listened to the soft clicking sound of her rosary beads knocking against each other as she slid them between the fingers of her left hand. Her soft blue Bible rested on her lap. I knew better then to ask if I could look at it.
I didn’t have my own book with me because Annie made me leave it home so I wouldn’t lose it and anyway, she said, she was not about to carry it around for me when I got tired.
The old man mumbled something, pointing his left hand at Annie’s face. I could make out the dark veins on the back of his hand from all the way across the car. They reminded me of the tangled roots at the foot of Bambi’s old sycamore tree.
Annie put her finger to her mouth to shush me even though I wasn’t about to say anything.
The train stopped for a moment at Ely Street, which was a ghost station because no one ever got on or off. The platform didn’t even have a bench. I thought we might try to change cars but Annie didn’t move. I sat quietly, studying her dark, shiny hair and her smooth white skin. My mother had gray hair and lots of wrinkles. Everyone took her for my Grandma.
I knew nothing about Annie’s life before she came to work for us. If I asked her a question, Annie said something stupid to shut me up like “curiosity killed the cat,” so I stopped asking. All I knew for sure was that she was born in Cork, in Southern Ireland, and that she left there because there were no jobs or husbands to be had. I also knew that we were not the first people she worked for and that the others had also let her down.
I never heard of anyone being drowned going through the long tunnel under the East River but I started counting Mississippi’s anyway to keep myself from staring out the window at the tiny drops of water dripping off the roof. I kept my eyes pointed straight ahead me and started reading the overhead ads. “Meet Joanne,” one of them said under a picture of a lady wearing the darkest lipstick I ever saw. “Miss Subway for October. Joanne works as a secretary and enjoys ballroom dancing and reading romance novels.”
Annie wound her rosary around her wrist and cradled one large red bead between her thumb and forefinger to mark her place. The overhead lights flickered and dimmed but they did not go out. It takes 152 Mississippi’s to get from Ely Avenue to the Lexington Avenue station.
I poked my hands deep into the pockets of my green pea jacket searching for goodies. There was a sticky wrapper at the bottom, lots of fuzzy little things, a wrinkled tissue, three pennies, a rubber band and two completely unopened pieces of Wrigley Chewing Gum. I unwrapped one stick and placed it under my tongue, doing my best not to make chewing sounds. I worked the gum with my lips and spread it thinly over the tip of my tongue. I managed to blow one small bubble and then it collapsed. There really was no way to make a stick of Wrigley’s act like a piece of Bazooka. After a while I got bored with that and looked over at the old man to see what he was doing. He didn’t look back but his dejected face needed something to make it smile.
I lifted my head off Annie’s shoulder and slid silently down the seat. She glanced at me for a second and went back to praying. I turned away from her in the direction of the old man and bent the unopened stick of gum gently down the middle being careful not to snap it in half. I spread the rubber band between my thumb and finger as wide as I could and waited.
A few minutes later the train pulled into Rockefeller Station. Annie stood up and motioned for me to follow. As I stepped through the door, I turned around and pulled back as hard as I could on the rubber band. The gum landed with a plop in the middle of the car. Annie looked startled.
“What was that?” she asked. I took her hand and followed her out of the train.
I held tight to Annie’s hand and walked through the crowds on Fifth Avenue, following the sound of the Cathedral bells. The problem with being so small was that I couldn’t see anything but backs and heads.
“Watch out for tourists and the thieves,” Annie said. I nodded but I couldn’t figure out how I would know who they were.
“Jesus said, suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me.” Do you know why he said that?”
I looked down and the sidewalk and started counting shoes. There were three pairs of black high heels, four brown oxfords and a few more that I didn’t know the names of.
“Little souls need saving,” she told me.
I kept my eyes down on the sidewalk and making sure to step over the cracks because I did not want to break my mother’s back. Then out of nowhere, I was staring up at two giant candy cones covered in lace.
“Those are the spires,” Annie said. “They point the way to heaven.”
We climbed to the top the stairway and stood in front a pair of humungous bronze doors waiting for our turn to enter. The doors were carved all over with statues and Annie started reciting the names of all the saints, Patrick and Joseph and somebody but my eyes were too full to pay attention.
“Light the candle. Go ahead! Use the wick to start the other one. Be careful now. Don't burn yourself. Now pray! Pray for the soul of your mother. She'll go to Hell directly.”
I moved my lips like I was praying but I didn’t say anything, I didn’t even think anything. I closed my eyes for a moment and breathed in the deep honeysuckle scent of the burning candles. When Annie clasped her hands together in prayer, little bits of red nail polish glimmered through the open weave in her black lace gloves making her fingertips look like tiny stained glass windows.
The problem was I didn’t have a saint to pray to. Annie had Bridget, who came to Ireland and turned herself ugly so that no man would want her except Jesus and then after her father let her become a nun, Jesus made her pretty again. Then she started a convent to save young girls souls for God. I wasn’t sure if the girls were pretty or ugly after they got saved but I knew better then to ask Annie.
While Annie knelt at the front of the chapel I wandered down the aisles, dazed by the silence and the light. I imagined kneeling a down next to the red velvet confessional, asking the priest for forgiveness. I needed it desperately, for my snooping, my disloyalty and most of all for my crazy love of Annie.
A naked, gold colored giant was leaping through a big hoop right over of the people skating around the ice rink to the sound to the Little Drummer Boy.
“Do you know that is?” Annie asked. I didn’t, but the story was written on the back of the menu in the Rockefeller Café. It said he was the Greek God Prometheus and the thing in his right hand was fire. He stole it from Zeus, who got really mad, so he chained Prometheus to a rock for all eternity. Then, every day he sent an eagle to devour Prometheus’ liver. And every day the liver grew back. It sounded pretty stupid to me.
“It’s just a myth,” Annie said. “You mustn’t believe it.”
A girl in a red dress with a white fur collar was making figure eights in the center of the rink. Her mother stood outside snapping photographs while the little drummer boy kept singing “pa rum, pum, pum, pum.” It was chilly in the restaurant so I wrapped my red scarf tight around my neck.
“Your whole family is evil, especially your father,” Annie said as soon as we sit down. I took a sip of chocolate using the tip of my tongue to scoop a small puff of whip cream and mix it with the hot liquid in my mouth.
“I won’t forgive him,” she continued. The rage in her voice made me flinch. She pursed her lips and stared at me. I was supposed to ask what happened but I bit my lip and kept quiet. I listened to Annie’s spoon clinking against her soup bowl and watched the girl in red make the same stupid eights over and over again. I closed my eyes and imagined her face, smashed up against the ice. I opened them and she was still there.
Annie looked straight ahead at the skaters. Bing Crosby started crooning White Christmas, which was Annie’s favorite. Her spoon stopped clinking. She was right next to me, so far away that I might as well be dead.
My fingers were tangled in my hair but I couldn’t remember how they got there. They slid along my frizzy curls feeling for shiny spots. They rolled the hairs like strands of spaghetti and yanked one sharply from my skull popping it onto my bottom lip. It tasted salty. Annie turned her head. I stuffed my hand under my rear end and sat on it. It worked for a minute then the hand snuck out from under me and found its way back into my hair.
I picked up the menu and held it tight between my hands, doing my best not to fidget. The statue of Prometheus weighed eight tons, which was like four elephants glued to the sharp tip of the rock. I put the menu down and tugged on Annie’s sleeve. She jerked her hand away from me.
“Sit still, child.”
“Did you go ice skating when you were my age?” I asked.
“No. I went dancing. “I wore a white dress and high top shoes.”
I dipped my tongue into the cup. The chocolate was cold and slimy but it still tasted sweet.
“Tell me about it,” I begged.
“It was too long ago,” she said.
Back home, my father was face down on our Kelly-green living room couch listening to Prince Igor on the record player in the dusky living room. Annie hung her coat in the hall closet and stomped up the stairs.
It was the end of the opera where everything gets really loud with the Prince’s wife screaming and wailing and all the townspeople joining in. The music spilled out of our half open window where it could be heard all over the block. I was pretty sick of hearing everyone complaining about my father’s music. By everyone I meant the neighbors on both sides and the people across the street. The complaints were bad but the questions were even worse.
“Why doesn’t he close the window?”
“I don’t know?”
“Is it communist music?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you talk to him?”
“I don’t know.”
That’s all I ever said because anything else could and would be used against us. Anyway, I had no answers to give them. All I knew for sure was that he listened to Russian operas when he was sad, which was most of the time. I stood next to couch for a while, watching him, but he never looked up, so I didn’t say anything. But I knew exactly what I was supposed to do. My mother had told me often enough.
“Show some consideration for your poor father.” I went straight up to my room.
Annie went out without a word. It wasn’t fair. We always picked out Annie’s Sunday movie together because we shared a belief in movies as a force for good. We read the reviews in the Daily News and the fan magazines and studied the lives of the movies stars and we always debated the plots of latest movies, whether or not we had an opportunity to see them. I didn’t know what I had done and there was nothing I could do about it.
Anyway, I knew that she was going to see Samson and Delilah, which was playing at the Trylon on Queens Boulevard at 7:15. I could tell from when she left the house, the time it took to walk to the theater and because it was one of her favorite movies.
She said it was a “cautionary tale” that showed how even the strongest man in the world could be brought down by a whore. I wasn’t exactly clear about what a whore did but I got the general idea. They wore skimpy clothes and made men do things they didn’t want to do.
Jerry entered my room without knocking, as usual. I turned away from him to hide my face.
“What’s the matter Pipsqueak?” I hated that name.
“Go away,” I said.
“No. Tell me what's the matter.”
He put his hand on my shoulder. I counted silently to four and then I crumbled.
“Annie says everyone in our family is evil and we're all going to Hell, even daddy.”
His cheeks turned the color of blood. “That nasty old bitch,” he said.
“Don’t tell anybody,” I pleaded but he had already left the room.
Downstairs, I curled up in the big red leather living room chair, waiting for Annie to come home, because it had the best view of the front door. It was dark in the living room except for the streetlight shining dimly through the living room window. The only sound in the room was violin music playing on the radio upstairs.
The next thing I heard was the sound of birds screeching. I opened my eyes to listen but it was gone. I was back in my own bed but I didn’t know how I got there. The sound I’d heard was my father’s nightmare and I knew everything that would happen next. My father’s cried out “they’re burning,” and I could hear him gasping and sobbing. My mother spoke to him in a soft voice, but as usual I could not make out the words.
A thin stream of light crept under their door into the hallway that connected our rooms. My mother went into the bathroom, turned on the water and came back to their room. Soon the light went out again. Their bed creaked and groaned.
I rolled my pillow tight, curled onto my side and tucked one knee against my chest. My other foot swept the bedding in search of wispy shreds of silk that clung to the hem of my old blue blanket. The material was as smooth as water. I wove it through my toes and slid the cool shine across the insides of my legs. I closed my eyes. My right index finger rested in the groove at the back of my top front teeth. The enamel was cool against my skin. The sharp edge of a tooth cut into my flesh. My left hand pulled the blanket over my head.
In the morning there were seven empty hangers in Annie’s closet where her dresses used to hang. Her old black dresser was empty except for some dust balls and a single string of black rosary beads. I wrapped them around my neck and I bit down hard on one of them. It tasted cold and metallic. I held the bead between my teeth and pulled on the string until it broke. The black beads rolled all around the room. I crouched down on my hands and knees and started scooping them into my pockets. I crawled under the bed and reach behind the dresser.
I moved through the house dropping little black beads wherever I went. When they were almost gone, I took the last little handful and poured them into one of my mother’s shoes, which was lying on its side right under the coffee table. I picked the shoe up and shook it. I heard Annie’s voice echoing in my head.
Ruth Diamond studied English Literature at Queens College in New York City and nursing at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. She has been a psychotherapist, a programmer and a teacher of the Alexander Technique. She is an editor on the AmSAT Journal and has published articles in professional journals. She loves to travel, particularly on a bicycle.