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Authors: E.L. Konigsburg

About the B'nai Bagels (2 page)

BOOK: About the B'nai Bagels
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She never remembered that I needed five minutes less than I had before to get to the synagogue because I didn’t meet Hersch any more.

Hersch means Herschel Miller. He and I used to be good friends before his family sold their house two blocks from ours and bought one up on Crescent Hill. Crescent Hill once was a huge estate; someone divided it into lots with houses that were bigger and that looked less alike than the houses in our section of town. All the kids from there went to the Crescent Hill School for the elementary and junior high grades, but they funneled back into our district for senior high. Even in high school, though, they kept a little bit apart from the rest of the kids. I remember Spencer talking about it when he was in high school; they were called the Crescent Hill Mob. Their mothers were always busy with referendums and such to get their own senior high, but something kept stopping the referendums. I think it was fathers. The Mob mixed with us in high school. Some also mixed in
Hebrew School. But not thoroughly. They always separated off into car pools when Hebrew was over. In our part of town we walked.

From third grade through sixth, before Hersch moved, ever since we began Hebrew lessons on a normal twice-a-week basis, Hersch and I would walk home from public school together, would dump our books, would grab something to eat, and would meet on the corner of King and Chestnut. We had two great things going for us: time and geography. We had the same schedules: public school, Hebrew School, Sunday School. And we lived only two blocks from each other. Besides that, we liked some of the same things. I liked baseball more, and last year I talked Hersch into trying out for Little League; he became a pretty good player. Once I had to talk him into seeing a James Bond movie, and he went back twice. Paid each time. And he never missed a James Bond movie after that even though I did.

Sometimes I thought that Hersch was more of a brother to me than Spencer. We each had some bumps in our personalities, but they were in different places and at least they were the same size. That made it good; you need a friend who is a little different from you to rub against. That way you file down each other’s rough edges.

I never thought that Hersch’s moving would make a difference, but it did. By February the only times we saw each other were official times. Like at services or lessons. Besides time and distance, there was something else that got in the way of our friendship; someone else—Barry Jacobs. Barry lived up on Crescent Hill, too, near Hersch. There had been no one to take Hersch’s place for me. Hersch had moved over Labor Day; as everyone knows, the year begins right after that. Years move from left to right from September to January and from right to left from January to June; June through August is a hook that links up to next September. Comes September of a Bar Mitzvah year, a guy doesn’t have much leftover time for social life. Making friends from scratch takes time for walking places together or running over to each other’s house to check on the homework assignment. The kind of time I didn’t have.

So on that fatal night in February, that night of the raisin fight, I walked to and from Hebrew School alone. It was dark before I came from lessons to supper with stuffed cabbage and without Spencer. That makes a quiet meal. Not like chicken soup with crackers and Spencer.

“Mark,” Mom said, “you clear the table and put the dishes into the dishwasher. I have to go to Sisterhood.”

“I have homework,” I replied.

“Another one to sass me back!” She was talking to the Deity again. Then she returned to earth and addressed me. “Is it too much to ask to have you clear the table so that I can get out of the house for a few hours?”

“O.K., I’ll do it,” I said.

“For a few hours. And it’s not even recreation. It’s for you, Mark, that I go to these meetings.”

“I said that I would do it.”

“Don’t do me any favors!” she said as she began banging the dishes around and stacking them into the dishwasher.

I looked at Dad and shrugged. “All I said was that I would do it.”

“Go, Bessie,” Dad said. “Go to the meeting. I’ll clear up the dishes.” And he got up, and
he
began rinsing dishes and putting them into the dishwasher, too.

In no time at all, the dishes were done.

As Mother was leaving, I called to her, “Have a good time.”

“Who can have a good time with that bunch of biddies?” Mother replied. She often referred to the B’nai B’rith Sisterhood as her Biddie Club.

“Then why are you going?” I asked.

“I told you why I’m going. For a few hours I am going. Because you have to go
out
to have
out
side
interests. Your father and your Aunt Thelma say that I need outside interests.”

And so it was because of Spencer and a bunch of dead herbs that Mother went to Sisterhood to get outside interests and as a result she moved into and organized another corner of my life. But it wasn’t until later that I wished there had been a good movie for her to go to that night instead.

The next morning I was eating breakfast when Mother came into the kitchen. Spencer never ate breakfast, a habit that my mother could not adjust to altogether. In fact, if my mother could rewrite the Ten Commandments, one of them would be “Thou shalt eateth of breakfast.” She talked to the ceiling about it a great deal. “You would think that a boy with his education would know that he has to have some food in his stomach to lubricate it. Otherwise, ulcers he’ll get. From the empty walls rubbing together.
Peristalsis
, you named it, dear God.” Then to Spencer she’d explain, “So help me, Spencer, if you come down with a case of the ulcers, don’t look to me for a cream diet. It’s all I can do to satisfy…” There was usually more to her little speech, but none of it was necessary this morning. Spencer was foraging in the refrigerator for things
he usually wouldn’t even look at before noon. With or without raisins.

“How many in your class, Mark?” Mother asked me, making sure that Spencer was listening. I didn’t much like it when she was mad at Spencer and used me as a bank board to bounce questions to him.

“Twenty-seven,” I answered.

“Good,” she said. “I want you to tell the whole class to try out for the Little League team. This year Sisterhood is sponsoring.”

“They can’t all try out,” I explained.

“Anyone who won’t be thirteen until after August 1 is eligible. There aren’t any left-backers in your class. They can all try out.”

“Mother,” I said, “they don’t call it ‘left back’ anymore. They call it ‘retained.’”

“Whatever they are called, there aren’t any in your class, and I want they should all try out. The Sisterhood is sponsoring.”

“They can’t all try out,” I repeated.

I could tell that Mother didn’t want to be drawn into an argument with me because there was nothing that could make Spencer lose interest in a conversation faster than one of Mother’s arguments with me. But Mother couldn’t resist getting answers. “Why?”

“Because fourteen of them are girls.”

The information registered. But Mother wanted to get back to Spencer. There was some message she had to get across to him. The passwords seemed to be
the Sisterhood is sponsoring
, which she said now very loudly.

“The Sisterhood is sponsoring.”

Spencer finally asked. “What happened to the B’nai B’rith Men’s Club?”

“Did you say something, Spencer?” Mother asked innocently.

“Yes, I did. I asked what happened to the B’nai B’rith Men’s Club?”

“Nothing happened. They’re still there. Meeting the last Thursday of every month.”

“I mean,” he said, swallowing a huge wad of onion roll, “how come they’re not sponsoring the team?”

“Management problems they’ve got.”

“What’s that mean?” Spencer closed his eyes and said slowly, “C’mon, Bessie, don’t be coy. I haven’t got all day.”

“What’s coy about management problems? They’ve got no manager.”

“So who—whom?—does Sisterhood have?”

Mother’s eyes grew big and with a hitchhiker’s thumb she pointed to her cheek, smiled, and said, “Me whom. That’s whom.”

“You!” Spencer shrieked. “That is the end! The absolute end!” And he banged his hand on the table. Too bad he had just taken the tomato juice out of the refrigerator.

I ran to get the paper towels, but Mother and Spencer hardly noticed. The juice was plip-plipping onto his Hush Puppy size twelves. I scooted under the table to wipe up. I lifted first one foot and then the other and wiped all around. And he just kept stamping his feet.

“It’s against regulations. No girls allowed.” Stamp. Stamp. Hush Puppy size twelves.

“No girl
players
. Doesn’t say anything about managers.” Stamp. Stamp. Lazy Bones bedroom slippers size eight double A.

Splatter. Stamp. Hush Puppies: “Where will you women stop? Why can’t you stay in the kitchen?”

Stamp. Tap. Tap. Lazy Bones slippers: “And do what? Make rotten stuffed cabbage?”

I rinsed out the sponge and was finishing up the tomato juice when Spencer swept his hand along the table and caused it to rain down peanut butter, cream cheese, and five bagels.

“No one said that your stuffed cabbage was rotten. I said that your mind was closed.”

I rescued three bagels and took a fourth, coated with
cream cheese and soaked in the rest of the tomato juice, to the garbage. Then I sat down to await the conclusion.

“My mind is closed? Listen who’s talking.” She was conferring with the ceiling again. “Listen who’s talking, will You, dear God? The boy who just said that women should stay in the kitchen thinks that he has an open mind.”

“All right, Bessie. Let’s discuss this calmly. Just you and me. Leave Him out of it,” Spencer added, lifting his eyebrows toward the ceiling.

They sat down opposite each other at the kitchen table. Mother propped her chin into her hand and her elbow into a puddle of tomato juice. That began more plip-plipping; I ignored it.

Spencer sat down, too, and continued. “What, may I ask, do you know about baseball?”

Mother appealed to the light fixture again. “He’s asking me, Bessie Setzer, what I know about baseball. I, who—whom—who never miss a Mets home game. I, who am practically a walking encyclopedia of baseball facts. He asks
me
what
I
know about baseball.” Spencer reached across the table and put his hand under Mother’s chin to lower it. Mother looked at her elder son and said, “Shame on you, Spencer. Shame.”

Spencer had about as much patience with shame talk
as he had with one of Mother’s arguments with me. “So, Bessie, you’re a fan. That’s all you’ve told me. You’ve got a good record of attendance at Ladies’ Day. Nothing else.” Mother began to interrupt, but Spencer raised his hands, palms outward in front of his face. “No, Bessie, you’ve merely told me that you are a fan. In words of one syllable, you are a baseball fan. Not a manager.”

“Baseball has two syllables, and manager has three,” I said.

“And you, Mark, you have bad manners,” he snapped.

“Yes,” Mother said, “don’t interrupt your college brother’s bad manners with your own.” Then to Spencer she added, “You giving him lessons in manners is like you giving me lessons in stuffed cabbage.”

“Or like you giving lessons in baseball!” Spencer answered.

Mother got up from the table and standing full height with just the tips of her fingers resting on the table reminded, “Watch it, Spencer, I’m about to lose my temper.”

“Well, tell me just one thing you know about baseball management, Bessie. Not baseball. Baseball management.”

Mother looked at me and then at Spencer. “I know where to get lots of free advice.” And out she marched.

Her toe caught in the last bagel on the floor. She
stooped down, picked it up, and zoomed it over her shoulder. It hit the garbage bag square on. Without looking back at it, she smiled to Spencer and to me and marched upstairs lifting her housecoat ever so slightly. Like a queen.

Spencer yelled after her, “It’s not basketball you’ll be coaching, you know.”

Mother didn’t answer.

F
or a short time following Mother’s announcement there was frantic peace in our house. Almost no arguments. But there was almost no conversation either. Dad was elbow deep in tax accounts; Spencer was finishing a research paper; Mother was attending meetings, meetings, meetings. We seemed to eat out of cans and in shifts during those weeks, but I didn’t especially mind. My thoughts on the subject at that time were: after all, not every guy could have a mother as a manager. Until she had made her announcement, I wasn’t even sure that I’d join the team this year. The B’nai B’rith had been a loser. It had gotten pretty depressing toward the end of the season. The scores sounded more like football: 14-0, 21-3, with us always on the single
digit end. We had won two games all year. Both against the Sears Roebucks. One was by forfeit. The Sears manager had a violent disagreement with the umpire and hadn’t remembered until after his first punch that he was supposed to have been teaching gung-ho good sportsmanship. And to take the edge off those wins—the Sears Roebucks had been the next-to-bottom team.

Actually last season was worse than depressing; it was boring. Our manager and coach were out of town on business over half the time. Our team ended up under the thumbs of the few guys like Barry Jacobs who could handle the ball. Guys like Barry refused to give ordinary type players a break. Myself, being an ordinary type player, resented it. If my mother went to meetings and was made manager this year, I figured I would have a chance. And maybe a little bit better than just a chance. I had visions of helpful practice sessions in our yard before supper.

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