I never liked it when my mother went off on her own like that. It got me nervous. There was something particular about the tennis lessons: the way she would neatly iron both sides of her white cotton shirt and preen in front of the mirror before heading out, only to forget her keys and run back for them.
BY ALAN BEHR
My father was around far less often than was she, but his long absences didn't bother me as much because they were so common. Uncle Marc said Dad could be on his way to his first million, which was substantial money in those days, enough to make you honestly rich. Dad commuted to a commercial real-estate brokerage office in New York and usually got home late each weeknight, which was probably why Mom put such effort on Wednesdays and Fridays into transforming her negligible backhand. Her lessons with Pete Vaughn, the clubhouse pro, meant I got out of the house too, and if Aunt Rose came with the bargain once in a while, what could you do?
She was my mother's sister, older by three years, as my mother often sweetly teased her, and-not that it should have mattered-by no means the fairer of the two.
"I gave him the money," said my mother, throwing her racket and tube of tennis balls onto the front seat. Him was me. By the time you are eleven, you are used to having adults treat you like a commodity, and you don't take offense for it.
"Any no-no's?" said Aunt Rose, her voice more clipped and anxious than usual.
Mom thought it over. "No large Cokes. No oversized Hershey bars, right young man?"
"Yeah, right," I said. So what if they had gotten me nauseous the last time? Life is about taking risks, Dad liked to say.
"Anything else, Linda, dear?"
"No, Rosie. Enjoy the film."
A kiss for Mom, then she drove off, and Rose and I followed up Lakeview Lane. Rose's long, red nails protruding like fence pickets over the top of the wheel, which she grasped with bent thumbs. Mom turned right at Crescent Road-the direction to the club-and I was undeniably on my own with Rose.
All week I had lobbied my parents to take me to the movies. This was the last day, the absolute last chance on God's earth to see John Wayne win the Vietnam War (then still in progress) in The Green Berets. It had opened in New York in June, had come in July (while I as in camp) to the sole screen of the solitary theater in Carthage Township, had gone, then returned for a one-week reprise. Tomorrow, a Thursday, the movie would change. The weekend was the Labor Day holiday, and then school would start.
"You want to see this one so bad?" asked Rose.
"Such violence. You really enjoy this kind of thing?"
A stupid question, but a common one, and you had to make allowances for the unknowing women who asked it. A little promotion might help the afternoon: "You'll see. It's going to be great."
I had watched John Wayne win countless wars and skirmishes before, but they had been fought on television, where milk-fed heroes with names like Vic Morrow and Robert Lansing could do just as well. It was going to be a privilege to see him triumph in a theater, which was where all descent wars were won. In my mind, I could see the helicopters bearing down on the Vietcong.
"Oh, for God's sake, did you ever in your life!" Southeast Asia disappeared from view, and I was back in New Jersey with Rose. "Of all the stupid-where do they come from?"
"Cut right in front of me, didn't look where he was going, just eyes in front like he owned the road." Rose shook her head in frustration. "Where do they find me? How do all the nuts in the world know where to find me?"
I could see the tail fins of an old, two-toned Plymouth Fury-enormous fins, contoured for flight-streaking far ahead of us. I felt sorry for Aunt Rose. The nuts were always finding her.
"Now what? Oh, come on!"
This one I saw: the pale-blue Falcon in front of us had moved slightly forward as soon as the light had changed, only to jerk to a halt, then keep on going.
"Did you ever!" Rose smacked her steering wheel with her right palm, the red nails careful splayed. "How stupid can you get?"
"Maybe she was going to turn," I said, "but she got spooked on account of how close you were following."
Wrong thing to say. "Maybe she was scared."
"Scared of what?"
"I don't know. Maybe she's dumb." I suppose my aunt took pity on me; she let it drop.
The Carthage Theatre was in a strip shopping center that also had a candy store and a diner. At the diner I could get a hamburger for thirty-five cents, French fries for twenty-five, and fifteen would buy the small Coke my mother allowed me. Even with the sales tax (a new concoction, hated by all) and a tip, less than one dollar got me the meal that was the staple of life. The large Hershey bar was a loss, but the candy store would sell the small kind for a nickel apiece, and it had comic books at twelve cents a copy. The movie would set me back seventy-five cents. I satisfied myself that, properly allocated, my two dollars would do just fine, and there was another of my own in reserve. Only then did I realize we were on Oak Street, driving past the theater. The marquee, with its missing letters blown away or swiped by high-school students, called to me: JOHN WAY E, and under that: GREEN BE ETS. "Where are we going?"
"The movie is not for a whole hour. I have to pick up a little present for Uncle Marc. It'll take five minutes, then we'll get a bite."
When you are a kid, you accept that your life isn't your own. I feel sorry for the toddlers you see swaying helplessly in those tricycle strollers which joggers push around, thereby assuring that parenting doesn't interfere with exercise. Childhood is about finding things that interest you in situations you would rather have avoided.
We parked two shopping centers over, about three miles distant from the theater. By order of Uncle Marc, Rose always left the car at the far end of the lot. It was a blue Le Mans, which everyone knew was the Pontiac you bought if you couldn't afford a Bonneville or Grand Prix, but Uncle Marc was funny about his cars. He'd kept its predecessor, a bulbous derelict from the '40s-ripped seats, rust holes and all-until its transmission fell out on Indigo Pond Lane. I'd learned to resent those long walks through parking lots, and it would be with much schadenfreude that, two years later, I would greet the news that the Le Mans had been stolen from just such an isolated berth while Marc had gone into the Two Guys in Totowa to buy a garden hose. The insurance company would replace it with a second-hand Le Mans that had scratches on its fenders. Things like that happened to Uncle Marc.
Rose took me to a store that had woodwork I would later learn was meant to recall the Tudor style. The name of the store, neatly lettered above, was Ye Olde English Shoppe. "They can't spell," I said, rather proud for my insight.
"It's supposed to be that way," said Rose in that smiling way an adult will contemplate a child's gaffe.
I countered with the child's universal question: "Why?"
"Because it's sophisticated."
The merchandise had that ornate non-importance I had come to ascribe as feminine. The men of Carthage bought needed things like Uncle Marc's hose; women bought the tchotchkes of this shop: the porcelain dolls; the fountain pens too expensive to lose; the set of round, pungent soaps and the thick, printed paper towels laid out in the small bathroom when guests were expected ("Don't touch, they're for company!") and carefully stored the moment company had left. A set of ceramic bowls and sugar and flower containers rested on a shelf along with a hand-lettered placard of indigenous poetry:
If you pick me up
And break me,
Please pay for me
And take me.
A stout woman sat behind the counter. Tan seashell clips covered her earlobes. She greeted Rose, who quickly settled in for serious shopping, raising the lids of empty jars, handling combs, brushes, emery boards. I walked around and the woman with the shell earrings came from behind the counter. Whichever aisle I went into, there she was, watching me. I knew she expected me to steal or drop something; it insulted me, but I was as reticent as I was honest and said nothing.
The clock on the back wall said it was coming on to four. The movie would start at 4:45. "See anything you like for Uncle Marc?" I reminded Rose.
"Not yet." She motioned me closer. "It's so pricey."
I wandered around, the seashells always in view. On the counter was a familiar sight: the standard-issue clear Bic pen with the press-on top, the kind every schoolkid knew you could pull the end knob out of and would eventually leak all over your shirt pocket. It was nineteen cents anywhere that sanity prevailed, but these old English wanted twenty-two for theirs.
A quick check of the wall clock showed that, with barely half an hour until show time, my hamburger window was rapidly shutting. "I'm hungry, Aunt Rose."
"Almost finished." Rose approached the counter, merchandise in hand. The stout salesclerk put on glasses with thick, black rims that turned upward toward her temples. Rose changed her mind. The glasses came off. Rose changed her mind again, and the final round did the trick. Out came the metal receipt box. The clerk wrote the receipt and drew it from the box by a pen inserted as a lever, handing over a carbon copy. I didn't mind the hike back to the car-anything not to see the stout woman again and to get to Vietnam.
We were in the car and Rose couldn't resist opening the paper bag the woman had rolled closed. As I'd thought, the purchase had nothing to do with Uncle Marc. It was a plastic box with cosmetics, a sewing kit, a comb, breath mints and those chemically treated folded cloths my mother would use to clean up my sisters and me when we went on car trips. It was neatly bound with a ribbon, which Rose was busily undoing. Its label had a picture of an ascending passenger jet and called it Flight of Fancy. Rose said it was a travel necessities kit and that she would take it when we went to the shore.
We didn't go many places as a family except for the shore, which in our lexicon meant the New Jersey coastline-Wildwood, Wildwood Crest. Aunt Rose and Uncle Marc would often join us for part of the trip, taking rooms at the same motel for themselves and their two boys. We knew that they stayed for a shorter time than we did because they had less money. The Mandelbaums were the last branch of my mother's side of the family to move from Brooklyn (described to me as a kind of negative Eden) to the suburbs, there to stake their quarter acre, claim their wood-framed house and show they were certifiably, inalienably middle class.
I was fretting over my hamburger, now surely lost, when I heard a rustling noise. Rose was manhandling her Flight of Fancy, contorting her fingers so as to pry open the clasp without imperiling her long red nails. "Can I help?" I asked.
"I've got it. Just a second."
"Aunt Rose, I don't think-"
"Just a second."
I always assumed no one was interested in my opinion; and in my assumption I was rarely disappointed, but though I was only eleven, I had enough experience with plastic model airplanes to see danger. "It's just that it might-"
"I'm busy!" There was a crack and then a ping as something flew from the box and ricocheted from the windshield. Pink powder billowed into the air, and Rose was shouting hysterically, "Oh oh oh oh." Four seconds of utter silence followed as Rose realized in turn that she had broken the plastic clasp, that the box had upended, that the compact inside the box had catapulted open into her lap and that the long red nail on her right index finger was sliced halfway along the width of its exposed tip. "Look what you made me do!" was all the thanks I got.
The big woman with the seashells knew something was up when she saw us come back in. She folded away her black-rimmed reading glasses and stood, waiting. Her eyes were on the powder that stained Rose's skirt and blouse despite a pounding and brushing Rose had given herself outside the car. "This exploded in my face," said Rose, placing the Flight of Fancy on the glass counter. "Absolutely exploded. It's-" she paused for the most telling word she could deliver, "defective."
The woman didn't touch the box. "I'm sorry, miss. You broke it. I can see right here that the clasp is busted."
"It was defective."
"Nothing I can do about it. Can't send it back the way it is now. You wrecked it."
"I don't believe it. I just don't believe it."
I felt bad for Aunt Rose. She may have been rough with the plastic but it shouldn't have happened. The movie was in fifteen minutes, and I was just praying Rose would get her money back and we could leave.
"Are you the manager?"
"Lady, I told you. Nothing I can do about it. The stuff inside is still good. That's what you bought it for."
"Are you the manager?"
"I'm sorry, but that's all there is to say."
"I asked you, and I'm asking you again: are you the manager of this store?"
"I've been working here seven years and I'm just as capable as anyone else of telling you what's what."
"Where is the manager?"
"Excuse me, I have to help this customer." A young woman had somehow interposed herself on the scene. Obviously uncomfortable, she paid for whatever she was carrying and got out of there.
"Where is the manager?" said Rose again.
The salesclerk shrugged. She had held her ground long enough and, calmed by the diversion, could give way with honor. "Mrs. Jakes is due back any minute."
"Not here, you don't." She peered over her glasses and nodded toward the distance. "You can sit if it suits you."
Rose drew me toward two stools set up by the cosmetics counter, mounted one and pointed for me to do the same.
"Aunt Rose, the movie," I said.
"Did you ever? Unbelievable!"
"It's John Wayne!"
"I heard you, Steven. There's another show after this one, isn't there?"
"At 7:25," I said warily, "but-"
"But what?" It was a challenge I dared not answer. "This woman cheated me out of $4.79 plus tax. We can't let her get away with it."
In my family, spending money was something you only undertook with a sense of loss. To watch cash leave your hands was like it must have been to stand on a Galway pier and see your relatives sail for America, surely never to know their like again. It had to be a clear and present danger to cause me to volunteer, "I've got three bucks on me-seventy-five cents for the movie, and the rest is for you."
"That's so sweet of you." Rose smiled for the first time since she'd picked me up from home. She gently stroked my hair with her hand, careful to raise her index finger so as not to scratch me with the damaged nail. "This is a matter of principle."
"What does that mean?"
"We have to show them we won't be cheated."
So we sat there and waited. The clock ticked past the previews and opening credits. The stout woman was reading a magazine, occasionally waiting on isolated shoppers who didn't buy much. Rose would mutter, "Did you ever?" and promise that no one would abuse a Mandelbaum this way. You have to stand up to tyrants, she whispered, especially the petty ones while they are still small: that's what history had taught us.
Each time the front door swung open, we'd look, but forty minutes passed before the salesclerk ditched her magazine and stood the moment someone came in. There was no doubt that the übertyrant Jakes had made her appearance. She was tall and thin, with auburn hair that came down over her ears, flicked up at the sides and was secured by a headband. She wore a short-sleeved waisted dress with a square-cut bodice, and if you thought of the hippies who were current then, you knew that this was what they were reacting against.
Rose was at the counter before the stout woman's interoffice explanation was complete. I came up behind at my own speed; I'd grown listless and dispirited from the wait.
"I'm Rose Mandelbaum. Are you the manager?"
"I'm the owner," said Jakes. She opened the Flight of Fancy with quick, birdlike movements, shoving around the tumbled contents with the mirthless efficiency of an Israeli security guard. What also caught her attention, though she was trying not to show it, were the powder stains on Rose. "This has been broken with great force."
"It was defective. It wouldn't open, then it exploded, absolutely exploded in my face. I could have been hurt. What if a piece had hit the boy in the eye?"
Either it was compassion or images of litigation avoided by chance that mellowed Jakes. "Your son is nice eyes."
"He's not my son. He's my nephew. My boys have nice eyes too."
Keep going, I thought; she's working her way to it.
"Am I getting my money now or what?"
Jakes stiffened. "You're asking me to take a real loss here. I have no idea what you did to it."
"I did nothing. You saw it, didn't you, Steve? Tell Mrs. Jakes what you saw."
I had feared this was coming. "I saw a lot of stuff flying around. The lock broke."
"There. It was defective!"
"Okay, okay, I heard you the first time." Jakes looked over the box, drumming her fingers on the counter. "I'll split it with you-half back."
"I don't believe it!" Rose's palm hit the glass countertop above where the first dollar earned by the shop lay flattened like a specimen on a microscope slide. "You're lucky I don't bill you for my dry cleaning. And for this!" She stuck up her broken nail. "I could have been seriously injured!"
"I'm sorry that you broke her nail-"
"And if it was the boy's neck, would you have been sorry then?"
The women behind the counter looked at each other. Jakes called the big one by her name, which I've forgotten. "Write it up as a return," she said, then disappeared, leaving her employee to hand over $4.79 plus tax.
We took the long walk to the car. One of us was happy. "We showed them, didn't we?"
"I'm hungry. Can I have a hamburger?"
Some brushing got most of the powder off Uncle Marc's sacred seat, and I was just grateful to get out of there, to watch the shopping center disappear behind us. I looked at Rose's damaged fingernail, and I thought, was I as money-obsessed as she? Not possible. Or was it? Really, not possible-I hoped. Then I noticed that we were going the wrong way.
"Where are we?"
"You want a hamburger and chocolate, right? There's this candy store I know with a fountain and a grill."
That sounded fair. Rose lived a few towns over, and she would not likely know my haunts. Another strip shopping center, and another hike through a parking lot, and we were in a candy store where I got my hamburger, my French fries and my Coca-Cola for exactly the price I expected, and Rose even paid for it, along with whatever it was she ate. (I have a good memory for that day, but some minutia remain beyond me.)
"Any comic books you like?" said Rose.
A sizeable rack partitioned the store, and the owner, a gentle, gray-haired man, invited me to help myself and take all the time I needed. There was Superman-the Zeus of comic-book heroes and always appropriate. Batman was a possibility, but twice weekly on television was Batman enough, even if the show had just been canceled. Richie Rich was fun; I liked his father, I craved his allowance, but I was outgrowing him. There was a Sgt. Rock drawn by Joe Kubert-that was a must, of course. I sat down and began reading about good fighting evil, about the American army thrashing the Germans in what was known in my family simply as The War. The brainy older brother of a friend had sneered that Sgt. Rock and Easy Company had done in more Tiger tanks than Germany had produced, but it was hard to take your eyes off all that bravery, and hold on, what was the time?
I had to go around the rack to see the clock on the wall opposite the fountain, and each step brought mounting dread. I was angry with myself for letting time flee again. It could happen to me so easily; I'd have my mind on something, and something else would come along, and my mind would follow it like a devoted puppy, even as time would dive out the back door. I spent my childhood constantly afraid that time was against me, that I was missing something fundamental about life, even as, in a town with little going for it except the annual Firemen's Fair and Independence Day fireworks, nothing much ever happened.
Relief: the clock said 6:30-nearly an hour left. I took a stack of comics to the counter, threw in a (small) Hershey bar and a pack of M&M's, and paid a young man what I owed him from the money my mother had given me. Rose was having coffee and a merry laugh with the owner. "Can we go now?" I asked.
"Listen to this," said Rose to the owner. "The pisher. Has to leave now. Such a busy executive we have here." Then she addressed me. "Tell Mr. Smith that story about how you rescued the boy."
His name actually wasn't Smith-I've forgotten it-but I wouldn't have cared then if he were my dearest friend. I wanted to go. "Come on," Rose taunted me. "Don't be a spoil sport."
I told the story how I'd called the police to rescue a boy I'd found stuck in behind the wire enclosure of my elementary school's playground. He'd locked himself in there somehow, and the police told a reporter, who'd written a three-paragraph item as if it were a lifesaving mission: POLICE SAVE CARTHAGE BOY, 8. I started talking, and then the awful thing happened and time got past me again. When the alarm went off inside me, I saw it was 6:45. "We have to go," I said.
"My master speaks," said Rose, only to linger over a farewell anecdote. It had taken long enough but we were at last moving, at last heading for the car. Comic books, candy, a hamburger in the belly and money left for another Coke: I was rigged for Vietnam.
Whenever we left our driveway, we habitually turned left because that was the way to the stores and most friends. Indeed, the part of the road to the right of our house was largely unexplored territory for me, and as a non-driver and indifferent bicycle rider, my knowledge of the streets of Carthage was primitive. We were nearly back at my house before I realized where Rose had taken me.
She slowed and put on the blinker. "Why are we going home?" I asked.
"Your mother's car is in the driveway," she said. "I'm sorry, dear."
She was so cryptic, even as we went through the kitchen door, I still thought it was a stopover on the way to the theater. "Why are we here?"
"It's too late for the movies, dear. Some other time."
I had only a few seconds to ponder the news before Rose charged into our den. "You won't believe what happened," she said. "You just won't believe what this idiot did to me."
My mother, showered and fresh after tennis and looking uncommonly relaxed, had been on the sofa, watching our new-our first-color television. "What got on your skirt?"
Rose and my mother had a sisterly bond in shared stories about the perfidy of store clerks. Rose was hot to relate the experience, pointing her damaged nail to the sky like a shtetl bride displaying her ring. The overhanging portion had severed completely, leaving only chipped paint and a ragged edge.
None of it kept my mother from noticing my long face. "What's wrong?"
"Linda, dear, I'm sorry, but we never made it to the movies. It couldn't be helped."
"There is still time," I said, "if we hurry." But I knew it was futile. Things didn't work like that in my family.
"Honey, I'm sorry. I can't leave the girls alone, and your Dad isn't home yet."
"I thought as much," said Rose. "Really, I'm sorry, but I have to get back to Marc and the boys."
I was too young to see what was going on between the sisters. "Steve, dear, could you leave Aunt Rose and me alone for a few minutes?"
I sulked off to my room. I tried interesting myself in the comic books, but I couldn't. They seemed like consolation prizes. In my mind, that true source of my childhood entertainment, I could see the see the listless teenager sweep the spilled Cokes and popcorn kernels from the aisles of the Carthage Theatre and the surviving letters of John Wayne's name coming down from the backlighted marquee. The bluing dusk told me that summer was ending. I stared out the window at the Jersey fields and the wood-frame houses, row on row, thinking, was Rose stalling me in the candy store? Had she known all along that, once we missed the afternoon show, the movie was a lost cause? It was so awful to contemplate that I decided it wasn't true.
I was only marginally aware of the voices flaring from the den, then subsiding, then flaring again. My two sisters, freshly returned from a friend's house, were in their bedroom, playing; the door had closed, and for all I know they didn't hear. In the coming months, I would notice that Rose and my mother would have uncommonly little to say to each other. The next summer, for the first time in years, Uncle Marc, Aunt Rose and their sons would not join us at the shore. The summer after that, we gave up the motel for a Nantucket hotel with a fireplace in the lobby and breakfast in our beds. My father opened his own real-estate office and we soon had a summer house on Long Beach Island.
It never occurred to me that I might have been a reason for the chill between my mother and Rose. Nor was I yet aware that internecine conflict was second nature, that rounds in this bout between the Weisman sisters had been fought since the prehistoric days of Brooklyn, over causes long forgotten in name but deeply felt in spirit, that Rose had resented my mother's better looks, better marriage, even the name Linda-which both agreed was both more melodious and less provincial-and that she had felt shunted aside by their parents in favor of her more exciting younger sister. It would be another twenty years before I would learn that Rose had been offended to have been used by Linda that day when I was eleven, that she had been asked to take me to the movies to free Linda for a shameful thing. Those twenty years would help me gain insight into the guilt my mother must have felt over a brief but thrilling love affair with a tennis instructor who was cute and still tolerably young, though broke and a Methodist at that. Maybe she should have been more appreciative about how hard it is for a man who could be on his way to his first million to make his wife feel like his main object of desire, but no one walks through life without collecting a packet of regrets.
Since that day when I was eleven, I have seen The Green Berets twice on television and once in a college auditorium, where we all jeered. I could have rented the videotape. I probably could have bought it. Yet I never quite felt the same about my old, put-upon Aunt Rose. It must have been something like that back in Brooklyn which had first come between Linda and Rose Weisman. Nearly every bad moment I remember from my childhood was actually about something quite small, but that was never the point.
"So There" was originally published in Press, Issue 8.
Copyright © 1998, 2002 by Alan Behr