Authors: Jennifer Weiner
For lunch at Bubbe and Zayde’s, Bubbe would give Bethie a heel of bread, spread with real butter, sprinkled with white sugar, and a bowl of split pea or chicken noodle soup, because Bubbe believed all children needed hot soup to grow, even in the summertime. Her mother and her
would have soup, too, and her
would have pickled herring and black bread.
When lunch was over, Sarah would go run whatever errands required English. Sometimes, Bethie would go to the bedroom and climb onto Bubbe and Zayde’s hard bed for a nap. Back in the kitchen, it was her job to punch down the dough. Her
would show her how to make her hand into a fist, and she’d pull her hand back and then wallop the dough. It would make a whooshing sound, and Bethie would feel her hand sinking into the warm, yielding depth all the way up to her elbow while Zayde smiled his approval. After the second, shorter rising, Zayde would divide the dough into balls and roll the balls out into long strands, pinch six strands together, and braid them,
looping them in overlapping patterns, his hands moving fast, like the three-card monte dealer Bethie had once seen on the corner, until he had one, two, three, four loaves. Bethie would brush the loaves with beaten egg and carefully sprinkle poppy seeds on top. Then Sarah would put two loaves onto the cookie sheet she’d brought, cover them with wax paper, and put them into the back of the Old Car for the slow, cautious trip home.
When they arrived, the house would be gleaming, the floors freshly washed, the air smelling of furniture polish and Pine-Sol. Mae would leave a pan of corn bread cooling on the counter, and Sarah would let Bethie have a slice. The challah would stay in the icebox while Sarah prepared the rest of the Shabbat meal: roast chicken and potatoes, green beans and onions, and cholent, a stew of beans and meat and barley that would cook overnight in the heavy orange pot in the still-warm but turned-off oven, until Saturday afternoon, when they would eat it for lunch. Bethie would sit at the kitchen table, or in the living room, looking at her library books, while the house filled up with good smells of roasting chicken and fresh-baked challah. Sarah would bustle around the kitchen, her skirt swishing, her high heels tap-tap-tapping, whisking the gravy, snapping the ends off the green beans, getting out the Shabbat candlesticks, the candles, and the wine. When it started to get dark, Bethie and Jo would have their baths and get into fresh dresses. Daddy would come home and, together, the girls and their mother would make the blessings over the candles. “Good Shabbos,” Sarah would say, and give each girl a kiss, leaving a red-lipsticked bow on their cheeks. Bethie would smell her mother’s hairspray and perfume and hear the rustle of her mother’s dress, and her heart would feel like a balloon, stretched tight, bursting with love. Her father would bless the bread and the wine, and Bethie and Jo would each have a little sip of the sweet red liquor, and the family would sit at the table, beneath its special Friday-night white tablecloth, and eat chicken and gravy and fresh challah with honey, honey cake or rugelach rolled in nuts and sugar and cinnamon and filled with apricot
jam for dessert. When it was bedtime, she’d lie in the darkened bedroom, with her face and hands washed and her teeth brushed, with the house full of good smells and her tummy full of good food and her sister in the next bed, close enough to touch. Then the best part of Friday would come. Jo would tell her a story about a princess named Bethie who lived in a castle, where the birds and mice would sew her dresses and help her make her bed. Something bad would always happen. The princess’s mother would die, and Princess Bethie’s father would marry a wicked woman, who hated Princess Bethie because of her beauty, and she would make Bethie be a servant, or send her into the haunted forest, where, after dark, the trees’ branches would turn into arms and reach out to grab little girls.
“Not too scary,” Bethie would whisper.
“Princess Bethie ran and ran, until there were holes in her pretty silk slippers, and her long silk dress was ripped,” Jo would say. “She ran through the darkness until she found a tall stone tower stretching high up into the sky. The door was shut, but Bethie pulled on the iron handle as hard as she could, and it creaked open, and she began to climb . . .”
Sometimes the princess would climb to the top of the tower, only a thicket of thorns would grow, hiding Princess Bethie from the world, and the birds and mice would have to bring her tiny sips of water and berries to eat. Sometimes Princess Bethie would prick her finger on a poison spinning wheel, and she would sleep for fifty years until a prince’s kiss woke her. Sometimes a fairy godmother would grant Bethie her wish for wings, and she’d go flying out the window, soaring high above the kingdom, or the prince would help her onto his horse and they would ride away together, or she would fly away on a dragon that she’d tamed. Whatever came next, however Jo told it, Bethie knew how the story would end. Princess Bethie would escape the tower or tame the dragon. She would marry the prince and inherit the kingdom, she would save her father from the evil witch, and all of them would live happily ever after.
osette Kaufman, get back here right this minute!”
Jo raced down the hall, feet flying, arms pumping, chest tight and her breath coming in short, painful gasps. She ran to the bedroom, slammed the door, and locked it, startling her sister, who was lying on her bed, paging through
The Bobbsey Twins on Blueberry Island
. Before Bethie could ask what was going on, Jo opened the closet, climbed onto the dresser, reached onto the top shelf, and nudged her blue suitcase with its shiny brass clasps until it fell on the floor.
“Jo!” Sarah was hammering on the door, sounding furious.
Jo ignored her, tossing her suitcase onto her bed. The suitcase, made of cardboard and covered in a blue tweedy fabric, had a stretchy pale-blue satin pocket stitched inside for underwear and socks. Jo threw in three pairs of underwear, two shirts, a sweater, her dungarees and socks and sneakers, her brown leather vest with a sheriff’s gold star on the front, and her two new library books. She put the robin’s egg that she’d found the previous summer and kept wrapped in a handkerchief on the bedside table into the suitcase’s satin pouch and clicked the gold-colored clasps shut.
As Bethie stared and Sarah banged and shouted, Jo climbed on top of the dresser again, opened the window, pushed the suitcase onto the lawn, then shimmied through the gap between the sill and the screen, scraping her belly as she went, until her sneakered feet hit the grass. She grabbed the suitcase and ran down the driveway, onto Alhambra Street, crossing Clarita and Margareta Avenues, heading toward Livernois. Mae lived on Gratiot Street, in a neighborhood that Frieda said was called Black Bottom. Jo wasn’t exactly sure where that was, but she figured if she kept going on Livernois, she’d get there.
After four blocks, Jo slowed from a run to a trot. After five, her arm started to ache, so she switched the suitcase to her other hand. She trudged along the sidewalk, past drugstores and candy stores, feeling her shirt starting to stick to her back. It was May and already hot and humid, the sky a washed-out blue, the trees and grass a brilliant green. The suitcase bumped against her thigh with every step she took. She’d just crossed Thatcher Avenue when she heard a car behind her. When she walked faster, the car sped up and someone called her name. Jo turned around and saw that it was her father. “Hey, Sport,” he called through the open window. “Want to go to a Tigers game?”
For a minute, Jo just stared. She and her father had listened to dozens of Tigers games together, on the car radio or in the backyard in the summer as the sky turned orange and gold and the smell of fresh-cut grass surrounded them, but she had never even imagined going to the stadium. Especially not when she was in trouble . . . but maybe her dad didn’t know.
“They’re playing the Yanks,” he said, and looked at her expectantly.
“Really?” She could hardly believe it. A chance to actually go to Briggs Stadium and see Hoot Evers and Vic Wertz in person? A chance to spend an entire afternoon with her father, just the two of them?
Jo decided she could find Mae some other time. She raced around the car, threw her suitcase into the back seat, and jumped
into the front seat, next to her dad. Her father handled the car easily, slipping through the rush-hour traffic until they reached the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. He paid a quarter to park behind Brooks Lumber, right in the shadow of the stadium. “Hold my hand,” he said, and Jo slipped her small hand into his big one, gripping tight, as they joined the crowd. Jo could smell gasoline and bus exhaust, newsprint from the stacks of papers and hot dogs from the carts. Everyone walked fast, like they had somewhere important to be and were in a big hurry to get there. Her father walked up to the ticket window, and Jo tugged on his sleeve, not wanting to be greedy but knowing she’d kick herself later if she didn’t at least ask.
“Do they have seats for right field?”
“You think you could catch a fly ball?” her father asked, and Jo felt her stomach lurch, realizing that, of course, she did not have her baseball glove, the one she’d begged and pestered her parents to buy her for Chanukah so she wouldn’t have to keep borrowing from the Stein boys across the street. It was still at home in the toy box at the foot of her bed.
Her father reached into his suit jacket and, like a magician producing a rabbit, pulled out Jo’s glove. Jo stared at him in disbelief and jumped in the air, cheering. They walked through the dark, narrow tunnel, then climbed up and up and up through the bleachers, one flight of steep stairs after another. Jo gripped her father’s hand in the press of the crowd. The men wore shirtsleeves and hats, or suits and loosened ties; the women had curled hair and lipstick-y smiles. Jo saw a young couple on a date, and watched as the young man took a sip of beer from a plastic cup and handed it to his girl. Down on the field, the lights were dazzling. The grass, far below them, was an emerald green so deep and vibrant that it seemed to glow, and the players, standing in a line, looked no larger than her sister’s paper dolls. Jo was overwhelmed with happiness, here, in the place she’d wanted most to be in the whole world, an enchanted kingdom she’d never imagined that she would visit.
She was looking down at the field, trying to see if she could spot Mickey Mantle, the Yankees’ new and much-touted rookie, when her father said, “Want to tell me what happened?”
Jo felt her heartbeat speed up and her skin grow cold. Her dad put his hand on the back of her neck and left it there, its warm weight a comfort. He’d taken off his suit jacket and hung it from the back of his chair, and his white shirt glimmered in the afternoon sunshine. “I’m not mad,” he said.
“But Mom is,” Jo said. The trouble had started when she’d come home from school that day for lunch. It was Tuesday, and Tuesday was a Mae day, and sometimes Frieda would be there, too. Jo had hurried through the door, dumping her books on the living-room floor, racing to the kitchen. There she stopped short. An unfamiliar woman with freckled white skin and a coil of brown braids that wrapped around her head was standing at the sink, filling a bucket with water. The woman was tall and boxy, with heavy arms and big pink hands. She wore a white shirt and brown pants. There was no bright silk scarf on her head, no gap between her front teeth. Instead of music, the radio was tuned to an all-news channel, and Jo couldn’t smell corn bread, just Ajax.
“Who’re you?” Jo asked the strange woman.
“Josette Kaufman, where are your manners?” Sarah was sitting at the table, pen in hand, making out a grocery list. A cigarette burned from the lip of the glass ashtray.
“I’m sorry,” said Jo. She turned back toward the woman. “Excuse me, but who are you?” she asked.
“I’m Iris,” said the woman without turning away from the sink.
“Do you know Mae?” Jo asked.
“No’m,” said the woman, just as Sarah said, “Mae won’t be coming anymore.”
Jo whirled to face her mother. “Why?”
“Because she had other work to do.”
“What other work?”
“Other work,” Sarah said in a tone that let Jo know she wasn’t supposed to ask more questions. “And did I hear the sound of someone leaving a mess on the floor?”
Jo went back to the living room, collected her books, and tossed them on her bedroom floor. Back to the kitchen, the new lady was washing the floor with big swishes of the mop. “Is Mae coming back?” Jo asked.
Sarah shook her head.
“Can I go see her?”
“Jo, Mae is busy. She has other families she needs to clean for.”
Jo chewed her lip. “What about Frieda?”
Sarah set down her pen and looked at her daughter. “You have so many nice friends in the neighborhood. Why don’t you go play with Sheila? Or Claire? Or maybe Bethie wants to roller-skate with you?”
Jo’s face was getting red, and she could feel her insides starting to churn and fizz, like her blood was turning to hot lava. “Because I want to play with Frieda. Can I go see her? I can take the streetcar if you tell me where to go.”
“Eight years old is too young to take the streetcar. And Frieda has her own little friends to play with.”
“Frieda is my friend. She came to my birthday party.” Sarah hadn’t even wanted Frieda to come to Jo’s party the month before. Jo had seen her frown when she’d asked for Jo’s list and Frieda’s name was right on the top. “She might have other plans,” Sarah had said, and “It’s a long trip for Mae to have to make on her day off.” Jo had gone to her father, and Ken must have said something to Sarah, because, on the appointed Saturday afternoon, Frieda had been the first one to ring the doorbell, wearing a pink-and-green party dress, with a wrapped present in her hand. They’d played pin the tail on the donkey and duck, duck, goose, and had ice cream and cake, and Frieda had given Jo a fringed buckskin vest with a gold sheriff’s badge pinned to the chest. Jo loved that vest. She would have worn it every day if her mother had let her. She’d asked her parents for cowboy boots, which would have
matched the vest perfectly, but they’d given her a charm bracelet and a comb-and-brush set instead.