Authors: E. L. Doctorow
I think she was a sexy woman, despite her austerity, her home-cut hair, her baggy clothes, her no make-up except for very red lipstick on her small, prim mouth in the full cheeks. Her grim appreciation of life. She was full-breasted and heavy-hocked and wore corsets, which I would see her pull on or off while she said something like “Danny, go turn the light out under the coffee.” She was exacting about cleanliness and kept us all cleaner than we thought was necessary. When she was working, before Susan was born, she would clean the house late at night and on weekends. That miserable little house. In my bed, when she came to fix the covers, I smelled her after her bath—she smelled of the steam of cleanliness, of powdered redness. She made curtains and tacked down linoleum and found bargains at the Salvation Army, and hammered and tacked and waxed and polished and scrubbed. She washed our clothes on a washboard in the deep half of the kitchen sink. She had enormous energy. The whole thing with Rochelle was defending herself against the vicious double-crossing trick that life was. Income was defense. A clean house. A developed political mind. Children. Her weaknesses were not as obvious to me as Paul’s. If someone claims to deal with life so as to survive, you grant him soundness of character. But she was as unstable as he was. In her grim expectations. In her refusal to have illusions. In her cold, dogmatic rage. As if there was some profound missed thing in her life which she could never forget.
Some betrayal of promise. It wasn’t sex. It couldn’t have been sex. They used to make the whole house rock. They really went at it, they balled all the time.
In prison, she began to write.
Her politics was not theoretical or abstract. She had no difficulty making connections. Her politics was like Grandma’s religion—some purchase on the future against the terrible life of the present. Grandma lit candles on Friday night, with a shawl over her head and her hands covering her face while she said her prayer. When she lowered her hands, her eyes, her blue eyes, were filled with tears, and devastation was in her face. That was my mother’s communism. It was something whose promise was so strong that you endured much for it. Like a woman suffering pregnancy and childbirth to get the child. The child would make it worthwhile. The coming of socialism would sanctify those who had suffered. You went out and took your stand, and did what had to be done, not because you expected anything from it, but because someday there would be retribution and you wanted just a little of it to bear your name. If she had been religious like her Mama, she would have conceived this as a memorial plaque on the back of one of the pews in the Synagogue. But she was enlightened, independent, a college graduate, a girl who read and understood, who had joined the radical set at school, had scandalized her mother, had gone to live with her boyfriend when he was drafted and stationed in another city. She was a modern woman.
“Rochelle!” I hear my grandma’s taunt, “Imagine Rochelle!” And then in Yiddish: “Rachel is not good enough for her.”
But this isn’t the couple in the poster. That couple got away. Well funded, and supplied with false passports, they went either to New Zealand or Australia. Or Heaven. In any event, my mother and father, standing in for them, went to their deaths for crimes they did not commit. Or maybe they did committ them. Or maybe my mother and father got away with false passports for crimes they didn’t committ. How do you spell comit? Of one thing we are sure. Everything is elusive. God is elusive. Revolutionary morality is elusive. Justice is elusive. Human character. Quarters for the cigarette machine. You’ve
got these two people in the poster, Daniel, now how you going to get them out? And you’ve got a grandma you mention once or twice, but we don’t know anything about her. And some colored man in the basement—what is that all about? What has that got to do with anything?
It is Sunday, a warm Sunday morning in September. Everyne is up early. The phone is ringing. I am admonishhed to hurry up and wash and get dressed. I have to feed stupid Susan while the grownups get dressed. We are into that efficient cooperative use of time, by which it is saved, like money. I hate it when something like this is going on. My mother directs us all like a military commander. Susan takes the bowl of the spoon into her fat cheeks and clutches the shaft of it in her fat hand. She won’t let go. The phone rings again. I am directed to answer the phone. It is someone wanting to know the schedule. Everyone is meeting at our house. At nine-thirty they begin to arrive. The first, of course, is Dr. Mindish, and his wife and giant daughter. I hate Mindish. He seems to me an insincere man. I never believe anything he says. He is my father’s closest friend and the whole family’s dentist. He’s a tall man, balding, with a fat nose and a perpetually unshaved face. His eyes are small and colorless. He speaks with a foreign intonation. His daughter looks just like him, is as tall, has as big a nose, but with long hair hanging down each side of her face. His wife seems like an intruder in their family. “Well,” Mindish says when I answer the door, “they’ve got a new butler.” He’s really funny. As Linda Mindish, the daughter, walks by me, she pokes me in the ribs. Despising myself I smile at Mindish’s lousy wit and flinch from Linda’s hand. She is twelve or thirteen, and very strong.
A while later, the rest of them begin to troop in. Nate Silverstein, and his wife who teaches school downtown. Silverstein is a furrier, a florid man with a hoarse voice. And then Henry Bergman who is a professional musician, primarily a
fiddler, although good enough on the French horn to play one season with Toscanini’s NBC Symphony. My favorite of my parents’ friends, Ben Cohen, a thin, gentle man with a mustache and an aromatic pipe. If my father died, I would want my mother to marry Ben Cohen. He always speaks softly when he speaks, which is not often. He never patronizes me. He is quiet and contemplative, and I like what he does too: he works for the City in the subway system, in a change booth. This seems to me a really fine job. You’re underground in a stronghold that has barred windows, and a heavy steel door that locks from the inside. It’s a very safe, secure place to be. You can eat your lunch in there, and read when the work is slow. All you have to do is make change, which is easy. If a bomb drops, you probably won’t even feel it. If there’s a storm, you don’t get wet. The only thing wrong about this job is that Ben Cohen never stays in one place. He’s always switching around. If I had the job, I’d want to have the booth in our station, 174th Street. Then I’d be close to home.
And then the Kantrowitz sisters who work for Welfare, the light one, and the dark one, both unmarried. And then other people besides the regulars—people I don’t know too well, people at the edges of my parents’ close friendships. There are about two dozen in all and a few of them have kids, and one couple has an infant in arms. They have all brought their lunch in brown paper bags.
The house is heavy with people, and they are all talking. Every once in a while Grandma comes out of her room and curses loudly from the top of the stairs. They all seem to know she is crazy and try to pay no attention. Rochelle is making our lunch in the kitchen, egg salad sandwiches. The eggs smell warm and visceral, Mindish is there, looking in the refrigerator, his own idea and one that annoys my mother as I can tell from the expression on her face. I have never liked the way Mindish looks at my mother.
My father is calling up the bus company to make sure they have dispatched the bus as they said they would. It is to arrive in front of our house. Our house is the meeting point, a fact which makes me proud. I go out on the porch to see if it is coming. One of the kids follows me. I ham it up for him, holding
onto the porch rails as I lean out and peer down to the corner.
“I’m going,” he says. “Are you?”
I hadn’t thought there was any question about it. My Aunt Frieda has been enlisted to sit with Susan. Across the street, in the sunken schoolyard, the big guys are playing baseball. Home plate is a block away at the other end of the yard—in the corner at Eastburn Avenue. Sometimes, very rarely, a ball hits the Weeks Avenue fence. Even more rarely it comes over and lands in the street in front of my house. Now a ball is rising over the schoolyard over the roof lines of the buildings into the sky, a figure is running around the bases; the ball clears the fence and clunks into the street, and bounces up on the sidewalk in front of the porch. A softball, miraculously whole and in shape after having traveled that fantastic distance.
I grab it and run halfway across the street. In the schoolyard they are all frozen still, and facing backwards looking at me, as if the National Anthem was being played. I heave the ball back over the fence. It drops out of sight. There is silence for a moment; and then I see the ball streaking back to the infield, propelled by the hidden left fielder who caught my toss. I feel a thrill, an electric connection to that ball, also a sharp sense of having let the mightly athletes know that I am alive.
In the meantime a yellow school bus has turned into the block. The driver is hunched over the wheel, peering at house numbers. There are people already in the bus. It passes our house, screeches to a stop, backs up.
I want to announce the bus’s arrival, but by the time I get to our door it is open and people are coming outside. I find my mother in the kitchen and ask her if I’m going. I ask for confirmation. I expect her to say of course, and my heart sinks when she prims her mouth and says, “Your father’s in charge.”
“Please, Rochelle,” he says, “don’t start that.” Whenever my mother says my father is in charge he gets very upset. He is packing the egg salad sandwiches in their wax paper into a khaki rucksack. He likes to carry things camping-style to keep his hands free to read a newspaper or a book. He settles his glasses with the back of his hand. “Don’t you want your child to hear one of the great voices of our time? Don’t you want your son to have that to remember? I don’t see that it’s such
a terrible thing to inflict on a child—that he sees Robeson, a great people’s artist.”
“Pauly, I told you my feelings. You do what you want.”
“There’s a problem?” Mindish says, nibbling a piece of cheese.
“There’s no problem,” my mother says. She puts the mayonnaise in the icebox, wipes the table, walks out of the room.
“Am I going?” I ask my father.
“Yes, yes,” he says irritably. Nothing is really official without my mother’s endorsement. It makes us both uneasy to have something decided without her approval. My father follows her upstairs. “Get ready,” he calls to me, one of those vague orders demonstrating his lack of authority. Its real meaning is that I shouldn’t follow him upstairs.
I wait in the hall. And though the front door is open and people are spilling out of the door onto the porch, and friends like Mindish are milling about, and everyone is talking and anticipating the trip, I hear enough of what’s being said upstairs to understand the issue. It’s a small house.
“There is nothing to be afraid of, Rochelle! If I thought there was the slightest chance of violence, do you think I would allow you to go, let alone the kid? Be sensible.”
“Don’t speak to me of being sensible,” my mother says. “He’s seven years old.”
“Well, let’s just go,” Paul says. “Mindish is taking his daughter. There’s a dozen kids downstairs. There’s a court order protecting the thing, for God’s sake.”
“Court orders,” Rochelle says bitterly.
There is silence for a moment. “And you call yourself a progressive,” my father says, a change in tack. He commences a speech about the forces of reaction and what they thrive on. My mother says wearily, “Oh, Pauly, you’re such a fool sometimes.”
People are calling from the front door. “Let’s go! Come on, let’s go!”
I am really more interested in this conflict of wills than in whether or not I go to the concert. The truth is the prospect bored me; now that some mystery is attached to it, I’m more inclined to put up a fuss if I can’t go.
Somewhere in the silences of their conversation upstairs, my mother relents. “Danny,” she says, coming down the stairs. “Go get your thin blue jacket. And tie your shoelaces, and pull up your socks. And go to the bathroom even if you don’t have to.” She is frowning, looking grim. She has reddened her mouth with lipstick. My father descends behind her, lighting a cigar.
A week before Paul Robeson was supposed to have sung at the Lakeland Picnic Grounds in Peekskill, New York. A local mob blocked the approaches, burned up the camp chairs, attacked the audience that was there, and the concert never came off. After a week of protest meetings, and a court order, Robeson was going to try again to sing in Peekskill. Robeson was a Communist, a proud black Communist. Thousands of people were going to sit in the open air, in the country, and testify by their presence Robeson’s right to sing and their right to listen. Governor Dewey had called out the State Troopers to guard the grounds. In this age of witch hunts, when men were being sent to jail for their political beliefs (like Foster, like Gene Dennis), it was going to be a triumphant affirmation of the right of free assembly, it was going to be a great moment for the forces of progressivism and civilization.
I learn all this on the bus. My father tells me. He is exhilarated, happy. Everyone sings Robeson’s songs in anticipation of hearing him. It is very nice. I’m glad my mother let me come. The bus roars along through the Bronx, heading north across Van Cortlandt Park to the Saw Mill River Parkway, and everyone is singing
Peat Bog Soldiers.
We are the Peat Bog soldiers, marching with our spades to the bog. Only my mother doesn’t sing. I sit on her lap at the window. Next to me my father sings. The whole bus sings. The bus seems to surge along in rhythm. The window of the bus is streaked with dried rain.
It is a long ride. My eyes grow heavy with the backward-moving scenery. Before we get to Peekskill, the singing has stopped. The people in the bus are quiet. In Peekskill, I see men standing on the road shouting and waving their fists. There is a line of police holding them back. “Go home kikes!” someone yells at our bus. I hear the sound of military music. I did not know there was a band at the Robeson Concert. But my father, standing up to peer back through the rear window of
the bus, says it is an American Legion Band. They are parading to protest the concert.