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Authors: Jennifer Haigh

News from Heaven

BOOK: News from Heaven

News From Heaven

The Bakerton Stories

Jennifer Haigh


For my mother

Beast and Bird

very Sunday morning, at seven o'clock promptly, the two Polish girls crossed the park and walked fifty blocks downtown to church. Early morning: the avenue wide as a farmer's field, the sunlight tempered with frost. The girls were bare-legged, in ankle socks and long coats, their blond hair dark at the ends from their morning ablutions. The younger, Annie Lubicki, was also the prettier. She had just turned sixteen.

Knowing less, Annie listened more than she spoke. Frances Zroka was three years older, a city girl from Passaic, New Jersey. Occasionally she went on dates. Annie had seen her waiting at the curb—wearing dark lipstick, nylon stockings instead of socks, a pocketbook looped over her elbow. Annie had never been on a date. She spent her free day looking in shop windows, or sitting alone in the park.

The girls walked quickly, both excited. A date had taken place the night before. Frances offered each detail delicately, like the tinned butter cookies Mrs. Nudelman favored, each in its own dainty paper cup. The young man had taken her to a restaurant. “He wore a fancy shirt, with cuff links. You know.” She pantomimed buttoning at her wrists.

“Yes,” Annie said, because an answer seemed to be required. She might have guessed what cuff links were, but she wouldn't have been sure. She was a girl to whom people gave instructions. Mrs. Nudelman directed her in English and in Polish, which Annie understood; and sometimes in Yiddish, which she did not. The repetition didn't bother her. She liked knowing what was expected, the exact requirements of serving and washing up, which in the Nudelmans' kitchen were precise indeed.

Church bells rang in the distance. In a few hours taxicabs would clog the avenue; the neighborhood women would crowd the bakeries, wealthy matrons, beautifully dressed. But for now the girls owned the sidewalk. They could have danced there, if they wanted to. They could have turned cartwheels in the street.

“This way,” said Frances, pointing down a side street. “It's quicker.”

They turned a sharp corner, Annie glancing over her shoulder looking for landmarks, knowing it was hopeless. At home in Pennsylvania she could find her way through a forest at night. The woods were full of helpful markers, simple and unmistakable. Water flowed downhill. The sun rose in the east. City streets had their own order—surely they did—but to Annie the patterns were invisible. Her first weeks in New York, she'd gotten lost daily. Kind strangers had returned her to the apartment. Now she could locate the fish market and the butcher; by retracing her steps, she could find her way back. Any further exploration of the city terrified her.

“He paid for everything,” Frances reported. “After dinner we had lemon cake.”

The bells grew louder, and Annie recognized the church halfway down the block, the familiar towering steeple. As always, her friend had been right.

In the street they tied scarves over their hair.

hey were serving girls, employed by families on the Upper West Side. The families, the Nudelmans and the Grossmans, lived one floor apart. The girls inhabited the back corners of the apartments, small square rooms identical except for their color. Her friend's room had pink walls. Annie's was painted white.

She had come to New York three days after Christmas. A slow train had delivered her to Penn Station, a ten-hour journey from Bakerton, Pennsylvania. Until that day she'd ridden only coal trains; the rickety local had standing space for passengers in the rear. Because the Nudelmans had paid her passage, Annie had a seat in a compartment. At the halfway point she ate an apple and a boiled egg, the lunch her mother had packed.

She was the eldest of nine children. In school she'd gone as far as the eighth grade. After that she'd kept house. Her father was a coal miner, and her mother preferred outdoor chores. The family garden covered an acre. There were chickens and a Jersey cow. Her mother milked, gathered, fed, and butchered; she hoed, watered, picked, and weeded. Certain plants she set aside for medicine, to soothe colic, rashes, dyspepsia, croup. Annie was the cook and the cleaner, the bather and the mender. Mondays and Thursdays she washed tubs of laundry—coal-black overalls, dozens of diapers. On Tuesdays she baked six loaves of bread.

A neighbor had told Annie's mother about the job in New York. Her own daughter kept house for Mrs. Nudelman's brother, who owned a glove factory in Newark. Mrs. Nudelman wanted a Polish girl like her brother's: quiet, a hard worker, a girl who did as she was told. The Nudelmans would feed and keep her. That they offered wages in addition, Annie's mother found incredible. It was late fall then, the outdoor chores finished. She could manage the house herself until springtime, when Annie's younger sister Helen would leave school.

Mr. Nudelman had met her train at the station, a square little man with a round beaming face. “Miss Lubicki!” he said, sounding elated, as though he had made a great discovery. He took her small suitcase and steered her by the elbow through the crowd. All the while he peppered her with questions. Was this her first visit to New York? As the train approached the city, had she seen the Empire State Building? Annie groped for answers, unused to such attention. He listened intently to her replies and nodded sagely, as though she'd said something profound. His quick dark eyes unnerved her, so she kept her eyes on the feather in his hat.

The taxi ride passed quickly. She clutched the door handle as they cruised the wide avenues. Cars were rare in Bakerton. When one climbed the hill where her parents lived, her younger brothers ran into the street to stare.

Mr. Nudelman led her into the elevator, a contraption she recognized from the movies. He pulled shut the metal grille and the little cage rose noisily, a low grinding of gears. At the apartment door Mrs. Nudelman greeted her in Polish. She was a stout woman with a high bosom, her hair hidden by a flowered scarf. She showed Annie down a long corridor, past a series of closed doors. “My son's room,” she whispered, stepping quietly. “He isn't well.” Behind her Annie rose on tiptoe, conscious of her heavy shoes.

The apartment was not large, but its luxury astonished her. Thick curtains draped the parlor windows. There was a sofa with a curving back, covered in burgundy velvet. Matching chairs flanked the fireplace. The dark wood floors were softened by carpets, intricately patterned: fruits and flowers and diamond shapes, outlined in green and gold.

Mrs. Nudelman led her into the kitchen and flicked on an overhead bulb. Annie blinked. For a moment it seemed the light had tricked her eyes. The kitchen had two of everything: two sinks of gleaming white porcelain; in opposite corners, two separate stoves. One stove was for noodle pudding and custards; the other for cholent and brisket, for roasting lamb and frying kreplach. “Simple,” Mrs. Nudelman said in English. Meat was cooked on the big stove. The smaller one was for everything else.

Annie stared in silent wonder. Her English was as good as her Polish; she used them without preference, as she used her two legs. But Mrs. Nudelman spoke with a strange accent. Perhaps somehow she'd misunderstood.

She listened intently as Mrs. Nudelman repeated the instructions in Polish. There were two sets of pots, two dish towels, two drawers of spoons and forks. Two complete sets of dishes: fleishig plates with a red stripe around the border, milchig plates rimmed in blue. The dishes were to be washed in different sinks, dried with different towels. Meat was to be sliced on one counter, cheese on the other. If ever Annie made a mistake, she was to tell Mrs. Nudelman immediately. This was the most important thing.

Annie nodded, keeping her eyes on the floor. She thought of the Klezek boy at home, who heard voices; a neighbor lady who scrubbed her hands until the skin cracked and bled. If Mrs. Nudelman were poor, her madness would be simpler; wealth permitted this elaborate variant. Annie's family had chicken soup on Sundays, meat on Christmas and Easter. There was nothing to keep separate. Her last supper at home had been fried cabbage and noodles, served on mismatched plates.

As Mrs. Nudelman talked, a boy appeared in the doorway behind her. He wore black trousers and a white shirt, open at the throat. He was perhaps Annie's age, tall and slender. His dark hair was wild, as though he'd come in from a storm.

“This is my son, Daniel,” Mrs. Nudelman said in Polish. She spoke to him briefly in Yiddish. The boy smiled at Annie and bowed his head. Pinned there was a small black cap, nearly hidden by his curly hair.

eeks passed. In the apartment Annie lived softly. She had never imagined rooms so easeful: the hissing radiator in her bedroom, the reliable heat of the bathroom tap, the clean simplicity of the gas stoves, the high smooth bed all to herself.

Outdoors was another matter. There wasn't any outdoors.

Her first free afternoon, she followed Mr. Nudelman's directions to the park. A handsome stone wall screened it from traffic. Its lawns were clipped, its paths neatly paved. Annie sat on a bench and stared up at the sky. She thought of her mother, who would have lived as happily out in the open, slept in the field like a horse or a dog.

In New York the outdoors had furniture. The outdoors was just like the indoors.

The next morning she mailed two envelopes off to Bakerton: a letter for Helen to read to their mother, and one for Helen alone. In the first envelope she placed the bills Mr. Nudelman had given her, enough to buy flour and sugar, a little coal for the stove.

During the day she didn't think of her loneliness. She thought fleishig and milchig, red stripes and blue. She lived in horror of making a mistake, though what the consequences would be, she couldn't begin to guess. Preparing supper was her greatest anguish, the most taxing hour of the day. Serving did not unnerve her. It pleased her to move neatly around the table, silent as a ghost. Her employers scarcely noticed her. Their attention was focused, always, on their son. From soup to dessert, Daniel was questioned: what he had learned at school or read in the newspaper; his opinions and observations; the quality of his sleep and digestion; his worries, his plans. Poor Daniel, Annie thought as she cleared the table. She looked forward to cleaning up, the cheerful business of washing and drying. The dirty dishes she piled on a small table in the kitchen, afraid to place them on the countertop.

She preferred simple tasks, where the potential for error was slight: washing floors, mashing potatoes, chopping a mountain of carrots for the sweet stew Mrs. Nudelman loved. Then she could settle in and enjoy the warmth of the kitchen, the wash of sunlight from the window above the sink. The radio played Mrs. Nudelman's favorite programs, serials and news reports and, each day at noon, a musical revue. The announcer spoke in a booming voice:
From atop the Loew's State Theatre Building, the B. Manischewitz Company, world's largest matzoh bakers, happily present
Yiddish Melodies in Swing
Between songs came a torrent of words, some English, some foreign; in the announcer's sawing accent, they sounded nearly the same. The audience erupted periodically in raucous laughter. Annie listened intently, longing to share in their good time.

At night, the floors washed, she took tea and cake to Daniel, who studied late in his room. She knocked softly, opened the door, and set the plate and saucer at the corner of his desk. He wore round spectacles, a wool sweater over his white shirt. He didn't speak, just nodded courteously. In the morning, outside his door, she found the dishes on the floor.

he'd been at the Nudelmans' a few weeks when she met Frances in the lobby downstairs. Another serving girl: Annie knew it immediately, without knowing how she knew. “Well, of course,” Frances said when Annie told her this later. The daughters of the building had dark hair. All the serving girls were blond.

For two years Frances had worked at the Grossmans', where her duties were the same as Annie's: milchig and fleishig, the twin sinks and stoves. Mrs. Grossman was as crazy as Mrs. Nudelman. They shared the same mania for keeping things separate.

“But why?” Annie demanded.

“They're Jews,” Frances said.

In two years she'd learned a few things about her employers. Mr. Grossman worked for his wife's father, a fat man who came to Friday dinner and ate enough for two. The Grossmans' youngest daughter was a little beauty, spoiled by her father. The older sisters were plain as milk. All three had large wardrobes, which required much ironing. Frances didn't care for these daughters, nor for any of the Grossmans. She was tired of living among Jews.

“Just wait until springtime,” she told Annie as they walked to the fish market. “They'll work you like a slave.” Last year Frances had cleaned late into the night, scrubbing down every inch of the kitchen. Mrs. Grossman had inspected all the pantry cabinets, looking for crumbs of bread.

Annie nodded, slightly puzzled. Though she cleaned the kitchen each night after dinner, it was never truly dirty. There was no coal stove to contend with, no small children's dirty shoes.

On Thursdays both girls were free. Together they walked the avenues, looking in store windows. One evening they returned to their building and stepped into the open elevator. Too late, Annie saw Daniel Nudelman standing at the rear. She hesitated a moment, inexplicably embarrassed. If she had seen him first, she would have taken the stairs.

Daniel nodded silently. He reached past the girls and pulled shut the grille.

The elevator stopped at the second floor and Frances stepped out. “See you later,” Annie said softly, aware of how the small space amplified her voice.

Daniel closed the grille and turned to Annie. “You speak English?” he said, his black eyebrows raised.

“Of course.” Why would she not speak English? This is America, she thought.

They waited in silence until the elevator stopped. He fumbled in his pocket for a key. Inside, the apartment was dark and silent. Annie went to the kitchen and put on water for his tea.

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