Authors: Sigal Samuel
For my family
he first time I noticed my sister acting funny was also the first day of May. I remember it perfectly because it was the third funny thing that had happened that day. I don't mean funny like hilarious, jokey, a real shtick. I mean it as in
The first thing happened at Normal School. Ms. Davidson said a new month meant a new beginning and that's why we'd be starting a new unit that day. The unit would be that every kid in grade five had to keep a journal from now until the end of the year, since it would improve our writing skills and also we would be happy we had this to look back on when we were fifty. She ran around the class giving out skinny blue notebooks with skinny blue lines on all the pages. Ms. Davidson was always running around giving things out, which made you wonder why she didn't just say
Take one and pass it on
like all the other teachers, but which made you also kind of like her.
Then Gabe Kramer raised his hand and said, “But a journal's only fun to look back on if you had cool things to write about,” so she said, “And?” so he said, “And we don't,” so she said, “You can just write in it like you're talking to a friend,” so he said, “Whatever.” He didn't really have a choice because at the end of the year Ms. Davidson was going to look in everyone's journal to make sure we wrote in them. She promised she wouldn't actually read them because a journal is a Very Private Thing, she would just sort of
take a peek, which was good because it meant I could write about all of Dad's qualities and not just the ones that would make him seem like someone she might someday want to marry.
That was another thing Ms. Davidson was always doing, she was always talking about Very Private Things. She had a long list of them, which included but was not limited to: did she have a boyfriend, was red her real hair color or did she dye it, was she older or younger than thirty-two, why did she ride her bicycle to school instead of drive, how much money did she make in a year, and who did she think should run the government, the English or the French.
We spent most of the period decorating the covers of our journals with photos that we cut out of magazines. Then Ms. Davidson said we had until the bell rang to write the first entry, but I had to go to the bathroom. On my way there I passed Gabe Kramer's desk, so I peeked over his shoulder and saw the words
this is dumb this is dumb this is dumb this is dumb
written out about five thousand times. I guess I stood there for a second too long because suddenly he twisted around in his seat and stared at me. He looked so mad his face was the same shiny orange as the plastic chair he was sitting on.
But the real funny thing happened when I came back from the bathroom. I passed Alex Caufin's desk, and he was leaning over his journal and smiling, so I peeked over his shoulder, too. I thought maybe he was doing the same thing as Gabe Kramer, cheating. What he was writing was this:
Line after line after line of numbers. There must've been at least eight thousand! I stood there staring, but Alex didn't notice me. His tongue was sticking out from between his teeth, he was so concentrated. The secret theory that this put into my head was that maybe Alex was not cheating after all. Maybe he was writing a real journal, and maybe he was writing it in code.
The second funny thing happened on my way home from school. I was walking past Mr. Katz's house. Mr. Katz lived down the block and the reason why his name was Mr. Katz was not because he had lots of cats, it was because he was a Hasidic Jew. There were lots of Hasidic Jews in Mile End. You could usually see them walking around in long black coats and fur hats, even in summer. When it rained they wore funny-looking plastic bags over their hats that looked like shower caps, probably so the fur didn't get wet and start smelling. Mr. Katz was religious like them but he didn't really act or dress like them. Even though he had the same black pants, his were always wrinkled. Instead of a stiff white button-down shirt, he had a dirty white T-shirt. On top of that he wore the long white fringes that were supposed to be worn as an undershirt. Long dark curls dangled from the sides of his face, but instead of letting them bounce around, he tucked them away behind his ears like pencils.
When I turned the corner, I saw him sitting near the old oak tree on his front lawn surrounded by toilet paper rolls. He had a paintbrush in his hand and he was painting the rolls brown. I said, “Hello, Mr. Katz,” and he said, “Hello, Lev,” and I said, “What are you making?” and he said, “It's a secret,” so I said, “Okay.” I watched him paint for a while. His clothes were all covered in brown splotches, but he didn't care. His round face was smiling. It was really sunny and I didn't feel like going home right away, so after a minute I said, “Can I help?”
I felt bad for Mr. Katz because other people in the neighborhood sometimes made fun of him. Even now, I could see out of the cor
ners of my eyes that the Hasidic women pushing strollers were crossing to the other side of the street to avoid him. When their curious five- and six-year-olds tried to run toward him, the mothers pulled them back with a tug on their sleeves. Hipsters crinkled up their noses as they passed, like they couldn't stand the smell of someone so uncool, even though they were the ones leaving trails of cigarette smoke and loud music leaking out of their big headphones. Luckily, Mr. Katz didn't seem to notice the wide circles all of his neighbors were making around him when they passed.
Mr. Katz looked at me and said, “Sure you can help, if you want to be a good boy and do a
grab that roll and start painting.” So I sat down on the grass next to him and started painting. It was not because I wanted to do a good deed, like they were always teaching us to do in Hebrew School. It was just because I liked Mr. Katz. I wondered what he was making.
The third funny thing happened at dinner. Sammy looked nervous and was acting weird. For one thing, she was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, even though it was a boiling hot day. Then when Dad asked her to pass the potatoes, her hand shook a little bit. She passed the bowl and he said, “Samara, is everything okay?” and she said, “Yes.” But there was something else she wanted to say, a tiny word, I could see it in the corner of her mouth.
“So,” Dad said between bites. “What did you learn in Hebrew School this week?”
All of a sudden, Sammy's face turned red. She opened her mouth like she was about to say something, and her eyes got really bright, which made me think it was going to be something important. But then she just poked her peas with her fork and said, “Nothing.”
Dad raised his eyebrows, then asked what she was learning in Normal School. But she didn't answer right away, so even though I know it's rude to interrupt when someone else is speaking, I said as fast as I could, “We started a new unit in Language Arts today
and the new unit is we all have to write in journals!” Then, because I knew this was a fact Dad would like, I added, “Ms. Davidson said she's going to check to make sure we wrote in them but she won't actually read them because a journal is a Very Private Thing!” Then, because no one else was speaking, I took the opportunity to say, “Ms. Davidson is highly intelligent and very funny and also she smells super nice,” since one time I saw Dad sniffing an old perfume bottle of Mom's, which made me think that smelling nice was something he thought was an important quality.
“Well, good,” Dad said into his water glass.
Sammy looked at me like I was crazy.
Then he asked her again what she was learning in Normal School.
“We just finished
. I got an A on the essay. Now we're doing
! That's great. So, maybe this weekend you and I can start going over the text together? Give you a little head start? Why settle for an A when you can get an A-plus, right?”
“Right,” she said.
“Fantastic,” he said. “You're sure everything's okay?”
“Yes,” she said, and the corner of her mouth drooped under the weight. I took a closer look at my sister. The tiny word that she wanted to say but didn't say was
very Thursday in Hebrew School we had to do a quiz. Mr. Glassman, our teacher, who was also my next-door neighbor, asked us ten questions about the Torah. Instead of grades, he gave us comments like
or, if you scored a perfect ten out of ten,
One day in May, my quiz came back to me with the word
scribbled across the top. After class, Mr. Glassman invited me over for tea and rugelach. He always did that when I got a
really good mark in his class. I had been to his house four times that year.
I liked Mr. Glassman a lot but I didn't really like going over because one, whenever I went Mrs. Glassman opened the door and pinched my cheeks and said, “Look at that
!” and then spent about nine gazillion hours quizzing me on math while her husband waited on the welcome mat, and two, the air in that place had a weird feeling. I don't mean a weird smell, I mean a weird feeling. Like it was heavier than normal air. Like if you wanted to get from the front door to the kitchen, or from the bathroom to the living room, you practically had to go scuba diving. It made you wish you had a really small oxygen tank you could carry around in your pocket at all times, which is something I definitely would have bought if I had the money and if it existed but it didn't, I checked. The one good thing about going to the Glassmans' was that when Mrs. Glassman was finally done talking in the doorway, she'd say, “Now if my husband would just move his
into the kitchen, I could bring you boys what to nosh on,” and then she'd give you a big bowl of rugelach, which was my favorite dessert.
While I was squishing the warm chocolate out of my fourth piece of rugelach, Mr. Glassman looked up from his tea and said, “Lev, soon you will be thirteen. Bar mitzvah age.”
“That's not for one and a half more years!” I said, licking my fingers.
“Still, for a smart boy like you, it is never too early to start preparing. Or too late. Take your sister, for example.”
“What do you mean?”
“She has been working very hard on her Torah portion.”
“What Torah portion?”
“For the bat mitzvah.”
I stopped licking my hand and put it down on the table. For a few seconds, I just stared at Mr. Glassman, his wrinkled face
and straight gray hair and clear gray eyes. I knew that a bunch of girls from Hebrew School were having a group bat mitzvah in a month, but I didn't think Sammy was going to be in it because one, a bat mitzvah was something girls did when they turned twelve and Sammy was already thirteen, and two, when she was twelve Dad told her she wasn't going to do it since she was too young to tie herself to a religious tradition since she didn't really know how to think about religion yet. Did she understand how ahistorical it was? How antifeminist? No? No, see, she was too young to understand. He wanted his kids to have a grasp on their culture, to know where they came from, that was why he was still sending us to Hebrew School, but that was it. Until we were old enough to think critically we were not in a position to be making any lifelong religious commitments. Even now, I wasn't really sure if that was true, because I was only eleven and a half but I was proud of being Jewish and I liked being in Mr. Glassman's Torah class. But I didn't want to tell Dad he was wrong because Mr. Glassman said the Talmud says a word is worth one coin but silence is worth two.
That night, after dinner, Sammy rinsed the dishes and I loaded them into the dishwasher while Dad put away food in the fridge. I started to tell Sammy how much I liked Mr. Glassman. Then I said, “And boy does he like you, he keeps telling me I should follow in your footâ” but all of a sudden she shot me a sharp look full of fear or maybe anger or possibly surprise or then again it could have been a warning and the sentence hung unfinished in the air.
he next morning was warm and sunny. At recess I saw Sammy laughing with her best friend, Jenny, in the lot outside Normal School. Then I looked into the nearby park and spotted Mr. Katz. He was wearing his usual wrinkled black pants and white T-shirt and singing a happy tune to himself while he picked leaves off the
trees and stuffed them into a big green garbage bag. I wanted to ask him what he was doing with all those leaves, but then I noticed that Gabe Kramer and Dean Toren were getting ready to corner Alex again.
Alex was one of those kids who got made fun of a lot, I guess because he was short and skinny and always reading a book about brown dwarfs and red giants and stuff like that. His habit of keeping a book in front of his face at all times, even during recess, even when he was walking around outside, didn't help much. That was what he was doing right now, pacing back and forth with his glasses buried deep in the pages, like all the kids playing basketball and dodgeball and hopscotch didn't even exist. Even though Alex's behavior was a little weird, I knew he didn't have any friends and none of the teachers were watching and I didn't want him to get beat up, so I went and stood next to him on the patch of grass where he was reading.
When Gabe saw me, he nudged Dean and whispered into his ear and the two of them left Alex alone. Gabe probably thought I was going to tell on him for cheating with the journal, which I wasn't, but he didn't need to know that yet. I stood next to Alex until recess was over, and it must've been a good book because as far as I could tell he never even noticed I was there.