Alice, a Short Jewish Story


         

Alice, a Short Jewish Story

 
 
 
 

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Going Home With Alice

By Michele F. Cooper

When Alice came home with me to play Clue, she was my best friend from third grade at P.S. 53 in the Bronx. It wasn't as though we hung out in the street or even sat next to each other and shared secrets. Something very simple had happened during social studies group, maybe a minute or two of talking about something more than Indians or Africa, and suddenly there was Trust. It's almost a lifetime later, and I can practically feel the eye contact and shy smiles that followed the first recognition.

Alice and I were both short, both smart, and both looking for a new friend. When she said hi, I heard her and said hi back. And she always returned my hi and said my name, too. Not like Yetta Chernow, who only grunted hello whenever she felt like it - which means when she wasn't with her favorite friends - which didn't include me or Alice. And why they didn't include me, I never understood. Unlike Alice, I was white and Jewish - just like Yetta - and lived sort of near her block. And wasn't I the only one willing to touch her when she had ringworm and you could see the ugly thing through the skin near her right shoulder? Didn't I defend her? Tell everyone she wasn't catching? Get her back in with everyone?

Well, the hi's alone turned me and Alice into friends - that's pretty much how it is in third grade - but the important thing, the real cement, is going over someone's house. I knew we'd have a good time, and it probably wouldn't matter that my apartment didn't have a lot of sunshine or nice furniture and I didn't have my own room. There'd be milk and cookies, and I had Clue, if my brother would just stay out the way, which he usually did (generally wanting me out of the way).

Alice and I talked about it a few times, and then one Thursday morning she just brought it up straight out.

"Are we really going to play at your house some time?" she asked.

"Sure," I said. "Want to come today?"

"Sure. "

She said she lived only a few blocks from school, and so did I, but in the other direction. We thought it would be easy.

"Don't you have to tell your mother?" I asked.

"Yeah, I do." She'd have to go home first, drop her things, and tell her mom not to worry.

"Can you come with me?" she asked. "It'll take two minutes. It's only a block from the bottom of the steps."

"O.K.," I said, not wanting to seem chicken since she was brave enough to come to my house in a new neighborhood.

But I'd never been through the marble arch and down the five long flights of stone steps leading down the cliff. I had gone to the arch with my class to draw the marble designs and look over the vast Bronx at the bottom with its endless grid of streets and roofs and hundreds of stores, lots, dumps, and apartments. The archway and steps were magical with their carved grapes and dragons. Little did I know what a true gateway it was for the kids who lived at the bottom. Or what a passage it would be for me when I walked on through.

The sun was shining on the wet streets and we were right on time when Alice led me down, down to her street. I remember her asking me over and over if it was O.K. and wasn't my mother going to worry if I didn't show up at the usual time.

"You said it would only take a few minutes," I said. "A few minutes won't even count." Didn't I sometimes stop to talk on the way home or go visit Grandma? "But we have to go as soon as you drop your things, OK? "

"Sure," she said. "Don't worry." And off we went.

But Alice's street was amazing! The whole area was shocking! The gutters were full of trash and muddy newspapers, and next to the buildings were open garbage barrels with smelly food wrappers overflowing the sides so the flies and pigeons could get right in. The apartment buildings were sooty and old, even the windows, and I could see in to broken shades and bare lightbulbs.

We didn't even get to her apartment by going up a stoop and into a hall. First we had to pass through a trashy alley into an open lot and then through a hall like a tunnel that led to her place. I think I froze even before we walked through the alley, but by the time we were at her front door, which was practically suffocating in the darkness, I was a block of ice. When her mother let us in with a "Hi, Alice" for her and a "Why, who do we have here?" for me, I couldn't even talk. Everyone else was fine and I wasn't. Somewhere in that alley I had lost my mind. Alice's mother was black as coal with dark clothes and some kind of huge flower apron. The living room had no lights on. I was in a foreign land - and in a panic.

But I must have muttered something because Alice said we were going to my house and she'd be back on time, and her mother let her go with the usual "Be careful" and "Make sure you leave before 5 so you make it home for supper."

When I started to recover, I don't even remember. I have no recollection of saying good-bye, leaving the place or the alley, climbing back up the steps, or walking the three blocks down the hill. I assume we talked like normal people, or Alice would have run home - unless she also was too scared to leave. Definitely a possibility.

And I could laugh or cry when I wonder what Alice would have to say now, maybe fifty years later, about coming to my house that day. Some of it has faded, but two things stick out vividly, and one of them was our arrival. The other happened fifteen minutes after our departure.

I knocked on the door in the usual way, and my mother let us in without really noticing Alice at first.

"Shelley! What took you so long? I was starting to worry about you!"

"It was nothing, Mom. I just went to Alice's house" - I pointed to Alice - "so she cold tell her mother she was coming over."

"Oh. " Mom looks at Alice. Did Alice smile back, trying to look agreeable to the stone-faced white lady? I didn't see. "So that's it. Well, it's not that late. I just wondered."

We stood in the doorway. Was it for hours?

"This is Alice."

Neutrally: "Hi, Alice."

"We're going to play now. OK?"

"Come on in."

She wasn't happy. The house was filled with her silent surprise. As a sheyne maidel who never wanted to make Mom unhappy, I had a new layer of misery on top of my earlier paralysis. I think we had milk and oreos in the kitchen and then went to my room. Actually, I don't remember seeing my mother or my brother or anyone else. Were we alone?

Alice left a little early, for some reason, and I remember walking her almost back to school before we split up. I rushed home as fast as I could, feeling an unnamed guilt and sorrow that needed being home even if home was the problem.

"You can set the table," Mom said when I got back, and I obediently followed her into the kitchen and reached for the napkins and silverware. But instead of getting busy at the stove, she turned to me, looked down, and said the truth in simple terms, except it was a day too late.

"Is Alice your good friend at school?"

"She's my best friend in the whole class."

"Well, it's O.K. to play with her at school, but it's not O.K. to bring her home."

"Oh," I choked, looking away, and got a stomach ache before supper.

"Too many cookies, " Mom said.


Michele F. Cooper has published poetry and poetic prose in many journals including Poetry Now, Visions (Ariga), nycpoetry.com, Poetry Motel, poetrymagazine.com Fiction International, Nedge, CQ (California Quarterly), Faultline, Black Buzzard Review, Atom Mind, Sea Change, The Frontier, Arachne, World Order, Online Poetry and Story, the Jewish Spectator, and in a chapbook, Women on Women. She is the second-place winner in the 1999 Galway Kinnell Poetry Competition and won honorable mention in the 1999 Sacramento Poetry Competition. She is also the author of two books, founding editor of the Newport Review and Crone's Nest literary magazines, and of a chapbook series, Premier Poets. She lives on a horse farm in Portsmouth, R.I.

~~~~~~~

from the August 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

 

 

 

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