Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Girl in the Bachrach Portrait ©



‘That’s pretty steep, isn’t it?’ he asked.

She shrugged, ‘I never have problems filling the rooms. You get clean sheets and towels. You’ve got hot water always and it’s quiet on this street,’ she said, looking at him. ‘I rent only to graduate students, older boys, so it’s quiet here, no rumpus, no women allowed in the rooms.’ She pulled up the blind and the window and bright fall sunshine flooded the room. ‘You want to take it?’

He looked around and sighed, ‘Yes, I suppose so. It’s more than I planned to pay, but, well, I’ll take it for a month, say. Is that alright with you?’

’Sure, I understand,‘ she replied. ‘You want to look around, that’s alright. You can look all you want but you won’t find anything better. I know.’

She closed the door and left him alone in his new room. He unpacked his one suitcase, putting his things into the big closet with the peeling mirror. He looked around. It was a student’s room, pleasant and adequate enough and typical of what was available in the many mansard-roofed former mansions of this once fashionable neighborhood which were now almost all boarding houses. Nondescript floral wall-paper, a kitchen table and two mismatched chairs, the closet and a bookshelf. A spartan single bed with a reading light fixed to the wall above. A small hooked rug on the floor next to the radiator and several pictures on the walls. There was the one window which looked out onto a street lined with, even now so late in the year, rows of still leafy horse-chestnut trees and up the street, towards the massed buildings of the University. He felt a bit chilly and pulled the window down.

He was new to this city but he had lived in rooms like this in other cities, other universities. He knew the routine. He hadn’t succeeded before and in fact his scholarly career was a shambles. Never able to finish his doctoral thesis, he had given up and turned several times into different directions of studies. Now he was a university bum; one of the many older perpetual students, working part-time as teaching assistants or private tutors. They were always to be found around on campus. But he had hopes this time although he knew that it would be difficult. His wages as a teaching assistant would barely cover his own tuition and expenses. He turned and checked around before going off for his first classes at the University. Everything was in place; bathrobe and towel on hooks near the sink, razor, toothbrush and stuff on the glass shelf above the yellowed sink. His few books were neatly arranged on the bookshelf, awaiting the others he would have to buy for his studies. He’d have to be careful about that; he hadn’t much money. His bedroom slippers were under the bed and on the small table next to the bed was his cheap clock-radio, a trashy novel he was reading and a small framed photograph of the woman he had loved and had treated so shabbily.


It rained heavily that evening. He had thought to check out one of the many student eateries in the area but instead, because of the rain, he made do with a tasteless, plastic-wrapped sandwich and muddy coffee from a pair of automatic machines he found just outside the entrance to the student’s lounge. He made a mental note not to repeat that mistake again. Now he was in his room lying on the bed and listening to the rain on the slate roof overhead. There wasn’t much on the radio and he was restless. He picked up the novel and glanced through a few lines. Shit. He put it down. It really was raining heavily, he thought. He looked around the room. There was nothing to see, nothing to do. He got up and looked at the few pictures on the walls, put there, he supposed, because it was expected. On one side of the mirror was a landscape, a fake Constable or Turner, of some impossible English vista in the kind of bright pastel sunshine that that island almost never sees. On the other side was a print of a Norman Rockwell painting, probably cut off the cover of a long ago “Saturday Evening Post.“ Now, under glass, it was just a meaningless blob. On the other side of the room, above his bed was a reproduction of a large Winslow Homer water-color of a black man on a wrecked small boat adrift, in a shark-infested choppy sea. It was the sort of picture one often sees in doctor’s offices, decorated by culture-conscious wives. It didn’t go with the others. In fact the whole tableau was depressing. There was one more picture on the wall near the door. It was quite small and at first he just barely glanced at it. Now he frowned. What’s it doing here, he wondered. He got his reading glasses and examined the picture carefully. He scratched his head and then he went downstairs.

’Mrs. Carstairs,’ he asked. ‘Do you know anything about that print in my room?’

’Which one? The pretty young girl?’ she smiled. ‘The boy who was here before you asked about that too. I don’t know anything about it at all; I just found it in the attic one day. It’s a pretty picture, don’t you think? That’s why I put it up. It’s probably belonged to one of the original owners.’

In his room he looked out the rain-streaked window. It really was coming down now. The wind was shrieking and it had begun to hail. The clatter on the slate roof was deafening. Under the street light in front of the house leaves torn from the horse-chestnuts were clogging the drains and big puddles were forming.

He blew the light patina of dust off the glass and looked at the picture again. It was indeed pretty, as Mrs. Carstairs had pointed out: A small professionally made, sepia-toned photograph of a young girl sitting on a studio prop built to resemble a bench and behind her was an obviously painted false backdrop of a pastoral landscape. The photograph, in a plain walnut frame, was signed and dated at the bottom of the cream colored pas-partout surrounding it. Bachrach, 1917, it said in a fading copperplate. He lifted the picture off the hook and looked at the back. No hints there. He hung the picture carefully back onto the wall and sat back on the bed looking at it.

The girl was maybe fifteen years old, perhaps older, perhaps younger, it was hard to say. She was dressed in the strange and to his eyes, slightly ludicrous clothes of the period; a white organdy dress consisting of rows and rows of meticulously pressed pleats and fringes, knee-high white stockings and white oxfords. Her clothes effectively hid her and he couldn’t tell if her figure had developed. Her dark blonde hair was long and arranged in a multitude of soft flowing sausage curls and she wore a dreamy expression. Her hands were gracefully folded in her lap but there was a certain tension in them, perhaps the posing made her uncomfortable. Her skin was clear and her eyes were light brown. Her gaze was directed off a bit to one side, not at the camera and the viewer. It could be that Bachrach had decided that that was proper for a young girl.

He went to the closet and got out the bottle of whisky under his socks. He poured himself a drink and went back to the picture.

There was something very innocent in the girl’s stance. Was to be expected, he thought, a young girl so long ago, in an innocent time, just after the Great War, they called it then. Her eyes, though modestly turned aside, perhaps by her own choice or maybe it was the photographer’s decision, held a clear certainty of her place and of herself. I wonder what kind of a life she had, he thought, or has. She could still be alive now, he suddenly realized in awe, almost ninety years old. She must have lived through some great years and maybe through the worst. He lifted the glass of whiskey in a mock salute to the young girl. He sipped the whiskey and sat back on the bed, trying to conjure up what her life had possibly been like. Obviously her family had money, or her mother had social pretensions. Her stance and her clothes and, above all the fact that the photograph was made by Bachrach showed all that. She attended a prestigious ivy-league college or a finishing school, he surmised, as would have been proper for a young lady then. Eventually she met an eligible young man and in due course was engaged and married to him. She bore two or possibly three, well-behaved children whom she, in the fullness of time, took to be photographed by the firm of Bachrach Studios. Beyond that was pure speculation, so many other things could have happened to her. He shrugged. Horsefeathers! he said to himself, grinning, she could have been run over by a car the day after the photograph was taken. He looked at her warm steady gaze and the firmness of her chin. I don’t think that anything bad ever happened to her, he thought, she wouldn’t have allowed it! He grinned, finished his drink and went to sleep.


The next morning was clear and sparkling. The rain had stopped sometime during the night and in the gutters were damp piles of leaves. He opened the window and breathed in the intoxicatingly fresh air. He dressed quickly and went off jauntily for breakfast and to the University. He hadn’t felt this kind of enthusiasm, for his studies and for teaching, in a long time. in fact ever since his own years as an undergraduate.

‘What do we know about the Holbeins?’ he asked, looking over the rows of sullen undergraduate faces and sighed inwardly. ‘Your name, sir?’ he asked, nodding at a spectacled and thin student, hoping that the facade of intellect he thought he saw was real.

’Uh, I’m uh, Rathers. Ed Rathers.’

’Well, Mr. Rathers. Tell us about Holbein. Hans Holbein. I believe that you were assigned work on Holbein during your last term.’

‘Yes sir. Uhhhm, Hans Holbein was an important German painter during the Sixteenth Century—’

’Which Holbein, Mr. Rathers?’ Here he was confronted by a blank expression, not only on Rathers’ face, but all over the room. ‘There were, as I‘m sure you learned last semester, two Holbeins, the elder and the younger, father and son. To whom are you referring?’ Silence. It was like talking in a void. He sighed again.


‘How was your class?’ she asked.

He shook his head slowly and decisively. ‘Incredible,’ he said, ‘they come here for some reason, I suppose. It surely can’t be to study.’

’You’ll get used to it,’ she smiled. ‘This isn’t your typical East Coast intellectual oasis,‘ she said mockingly. ‘This is a Land-Grant state university dedicated to producing agronomists and engineers and such-like.’ She nudged the coffee cake towards him, ‘Try some of my cake. I baked it yesterday.’ Martha was another teaching assistant in his department, a warm and smiling woman whom he had met when they both came up that Spring for a series of interviews with the head of department. Martha was divorced with two young sons and was quickly finishing her doctorate. She had apparently, enormous energy and little time or money to waste. She was very pleasant to be with. They had slept together once and they both looked forward to more. He found her to be enthusiastic and skillful about sex without being particularly erotic. They had a logistic problem; Her kids lived at her place with her and she was reluctant about exposing them to yet another man. His place? He sighed, Mrs. Carstairs was a tough and knowing college landlady. If she said no women, she meant no women. He looked at Martha and she at him, and he saw a slow flush rising up out of her lime-colored blouse. She reached out impulsively, covering his hand with her own on the cafeteria table. He decided to just try to sneak her in some time.


It rained that night and off and on again until the weekend. By Friday evening he was beginning to feel claustrophobic, cooped up in his room or in musty classrooms. Except for coffee breaks, Martha and he hadn’t seen each other and he was feeling that way too. The weekend began gloriously however, and he decided to get out and take a walk through the neighborhood. Outside the air was winy and brisk and a lot of neighborhood people were outside, it seemed, cleaning their bay windows and polishing the brasses of these, once upon a time, stately  mansions. As he strolled up the street leading to the university he imagined the young girl in the picture playing here, on these streets, when she was a child. He could see her, a tom-boy all flushed from skipping rope with her friends and being shooed back into the family mansion by her nanny.

’Missie! That’s no way for a young lady to behave! All sweating!’

’Yes, ma’am,’ she answered, giggling, her eyes make-believe contrite while a thin sheen of perspiration made her glow in the sunshine. It was all so vivid, he felt. He caught a whiff of horses in the light breeze and he thought of long ago buggies or whatever on these streets. They had kept, her family that is, when she was a little girl, a fine matched pair which pulled a polished Phaeton or Surrey or Brougham, or whatever they were called then, for most of the year, and a buffalo-robed sleigh by winter. Later automobiles began to appear, and that was the end of the horses, and the silent and graceful sleighs.

There was a garage sale held in the backyard of a house down the street. They were selling a lot of stuff, mostly of flea-market quality. He pored over the merchandise, finally picking a goose-necked light for his table. In the back of the yard was a small shed and he idly glanced in once through the dusty window. The shed itself was a little too small to be a stable but just right for what it held and he smiled, for there stood in forlorn cob-webby glory, a beautifully curved horse-drawn sleigh. But where did they keep the horses?


’What’s the matter?’ Martha asked looking up at his eyes. ‘You seem, I don’t know, preoccupied. Is something the matter? Did I do anything wrong?’

’No, no. It’s nothing, it’s not your fault,’ he said and turned over in the bed. He felt suddenly depressed. ‘It’s OK. Don’t worry,’ he said and bent to kiss her nipple. He smiled, feeling her shiver. ‘Cold?’ he asked and then he raised his eyes to look at the picture near the door and his smile faded.

She looked at him, ‘Hey,’ she whispered, ‘I’m afraid.’

’Yes,’ he said, ‘I guess I was just worried about my landlady,’ he grinned. ‘I thought I was finished with that sort of problem when I graduated.’

She smiled too, ‘Who’s the girl in the picture?‘

’I don’t know,’ he sighed, ‘It was here in the room when I moved in. The landlady doesn’t know either.’

Martha looked at the photograph, ‘She was very pretty.’


’I must go, I have to be home soon,‘ she said and got out of bed. He watched her dress. She had a large and useful body, somehow diminished by her clothes, as if she felt that it needed a deliberate disguise. ’You’ll come later on to dinner?‘ she asked, looking at him while brushing her thick tightly ringed hair, ‘about sevenish?’

’Sure,’ he yawned and stretched and she closed the door very gently and he heard her quietly tip-toeing down the stairs and then it was very quiet in the late afternoon in the room. He closed his eyes.


’Why? Why here in my room?’

He distinctly heard the low expressive voice, a girl’s voice, and then he opened his eyes. It was almost dark now and grey shadows grew in the corners of the room. Of course there was no one in the room with him. He looked at the clock-radio near the bed. Almost six thirty, got to run, he thought and got up. He showered, dressed and walked to Martha’s house, all the while bemused and disturbed by the dream, so short and vivid, only a short sentence long, yet so real. What did it mean? What do dreams mean?


At the faculty meeting the next morning he sat opposite Martha and tried to concentrate on the program Doctor Lawrence, the acting head, was laying out. He had a bad head-ache and Martha’s almost unblinking stare wasn’t helping. Luckily the program hadn’t reached the point where an active discussion was needed. He didn’t think that in his present state he could add anything worthwhile. Martha kept looking at him with concern and he kept thinking about the dream. It wasn’t fading away the way dreams were supposed to. He had heard an angry girl’s voice and she, whoever she was in his dream, had been, I don’t know, he thought, like violated. As if I had touched her privacy. All in a few seconds. He sighed deeply, trying to dispel the feelings of guilt and apprehension. Across the room Martha looked at him.

That afternoon he got out his running shoes and a sweat suit and went for a run. He hadn’t run for a week or more. Maybe it would restore his equilibrium. He stretched and then trotted out huffing and puffing, along the street and then, when he reached the running path in the large urban park, he suddenly got his second wind and he began to sweat and loosen up. He ran along the path under the trees, passing students flipping Frisbees on the lawns, past tennis courts and across a manure strewn bridle path. That’s where that whiff of horses came from, he thought. He ran on and on, feeling better than he had in days.

’Why did you bring her?’

He almost stumbled. Where did that voice come from? Inside my head? He stopped running, he was in a shady grove and there was a jungle gym alongside the path. He stretched and pulled on the bars and then went on running.

’That’s my room,’ the voice said in his ears and the clear words rang between his grunts. He was slowing up; he was way out of shape and had run a bit too much. He went on, just walking now, breathing deeply.

’I know it is, or was,’ he thought, ‘But it’s mine now. Who are you?’

’You know.’

’I mean your name.’ But she didn’t answer.


That evening in his room he took down the picture, determined to try to get to the root of this mystery. He looked at it carefully. A simple enough portrait, nothing special about it. A girl sitting on a prop, looking demurely to one side, the name, Bachrach 1917, that’s all. He turned the picture over and looked at the back. Nothing, no marks, not even a stamp or identifying number. The backing was sealed around by old blotched masking tape. He looked at it carefully, it had been opened and resealed not long ago—The old masking tape was augmented by a strip of new Scotch Tape. He pulled gently at one corner and it came off easily, the old tape almost disintegrating into dry dust. He carefully pulled the backing away and pulled out the photograph. It had been most carefully developed and fixed and there were few signs of age. Now, without the glass muffling the light the picture was truly visible, vibrant in its rich tones of cream and sepia. He looked at the girl carefully, every pore was visible and there was a faint and charming blush on her cheeks. He sat down at the table and turned on his new goose-necked reading light and held the photograph under its direct beam. It was so alive! There she sat, on the edge of life. Her fingernails were polished but there were signs that she bit them sometimes. It made her real. A vein showed in the creamy alabaster of her neck and it seemed to throb. He wanted to bend and kiss her right there.

He sat up and stretched. He put down the photograph and poured himself a drink. Then he turned the photograph over. There was an old purple colored rubber stamp mark on the back; the logo of Bachrach Studies and underneath someone had written the name Selma Warburg in a fading crabbed handwriting. Well! He thought, now I’ll find out! He went out to the hall phone and looked up Bachrach in the Yellow Pages. Yes, there was a branch in this city.


’I’m sorry,’ the receptionist said, ‘Our active records don’t go back that far.’

’But what about your archives? You must have archives somewhere?’

She looked again at the photograph and again shook her head. ‘You see, there’s no identification beyond the name. I can’t even be sure in which city this was done.’ She handed back the photograph and said, ‘But if you like I can make enquiries in our head office.’

’Would you? Please.’


’Listen,’ Martha said in the corridor outside the faculty lounge. ‘Come stay at my place tonight. My kids are with their father for a week or so.’

He smiled and nodded, but he wasn’t sure. He was beginning to feel crowded.

’Don’t worry,’ she said, smiling ruefully. ‘I know you’ve got problems, we both do. I’m as leery as you. I’m certainly not asking you for any, well, commitments. I know that’s a dirty word. No, don’t interrupt. I like you, so just relax, enjoy. We’ll both enjoy. OK?’

He nodded; it sounded too good to be true.


’How could you? How could you do that then, there in my room?’

’Who are you?’ he asked, outside the dream.

’You know who I am,’ she said.

’Yes. I suppose I do, your name is Selma.’

’Hey, What’s the matter?’ Martha asked, stirring, warm in his arms, ‘Can’t sleep? I thought I heard you say something.’

’It’s alright,’ he said, holding her close, ‘Just a bad dream. Go back to sleep.’

’Umm, Sweetie,’ she murmured and curled back into sleep. He lay in the darkness staring into the blackness, rigid with apprehension. What was happening to him?


’I’m sorry, Sir. We haven’t yet found out anything. Is there really any urgency in trying to trace that photograph?’

’No, I suppose not,’ he felt silly, now in the bright sunshine, hysterically calling the Bachrach studios about a photograph more than seventy years old. ‘But when you do find out, could you please call me at the number I gave you?’

’Certainly, Sir.’

She must think I’m crazy, maybe I am. Maybe I should get some professional help, he thought as he walked through the halls on the way to his first class of the day. He really didn’t feel up to Ed Rathers this morning. As he stood his briefcase up next to his desk and faced the class of undergraduates he realized, with a sinking heart, that the lecture notes for this morning were still on his table at home. Shit, he thought, a quiz is the answer.

’But Sir! We weren’t told about this!’

’That’s quite alright, Miss, uhh-’

’Linstrom, Sir.’

’Of course, Miss Linstrom,’ I can’t ever remember names, he thought, except Selma’s. The invasive image shook him. That’s all I need now. ‘Uh, Miss Linstrom. This quiz has no effect on your ratings in this class. It’ll simply be a way for me to judge how you are all doing and so I’ll be able to adjust the curriculum accordingly.‘ I hope they don’t realize what a crock that is but all he saw in the class was that sea of blank stares.

’But, Sir. We had no inkling—’ Miss Linstrom was a statuesque blonde with long shapely legs in invariably short skirts. He had noticed her the first day of course, vowing to himself to steer clear of such obvious dangers. Luckily she turned out to have a dull pedestrian mind and so he no longer had anything to fear along those lines.

’Please don’t worry about it. I want you all now to write a short essay, using examples from our studies of portrait artists in France and England, and perhaps Spain too, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that bear out the credo of the Bachrach Studios, today’s counterpart, if you will, of those painters: “People do not want a likeness, they want an idealization that will fill in their inadequacies.”’ My God, he thought as he looked at the despairing faces in front of him, what the hell is happening to me?


’I wouldn’t worry about it,’ the doctor said. ‘You’re obviously under a strain, carrying a big load, aren’t you?‘

He nodded. He had gone to an off-campus doctor. No need for the knowledge that he was losing his marbles to get around.

’I’m going to prescribe for you a mild relaxant, something that’ll–’

’I don’t want any tranquilizers. I’ve had bad experiences with them.’

’That’s alright. This is just a mild sedative, try it out. If it helps, then that’s that. If not, well, we’ll see. But if these hallucinations persist… Well, ah,‘ the doctor smiled, he was a rotund bald man with an unctuous and unpleasant manner, ‘I’m sure that it’s just caused by pressures of the beginning of the academic year.’

Outside, walking back to Martha’s place, the word echoed in his head. Hallucinations, hallucinations. Oh, Boy, he groaned.


’Oh, Man!’ Martha sighed. They lay entwined like puppies. Two days had passed and the fears seemed to be fading. He had begun to relax, maybe it was over. The pills helped. He could concentrate on his life and work and on Martha. He rolled her over towards him.

’What again?’ she murmured in mock annoyance and she smiled happily.

‘I wish you didn’t have to go,’ she said. ‘It’s so nice waking up again with a man’s behind against my belly!’ They both laughed. ‘But, you know. My kids are coming home tomorrow and, well, it’s too early. I don’t want to confuse them. Right?’

’Sure,’ he said, but his feelings were mixed about the whole thing.


His room was as he had left it the week before. The only changes were clean towels and sheets neatly folded on the bed-cover and a note from Mrs. Carstairs about the laundry. He opened the shades and the window to let in some fresh air. The room filled with a fresh smell of pseudo-Spring and the sense of apprehension he had felt was gone. The photograph of Selma was a bit awry and he straightened it. He had put it back onto the wall after his visit to the local Bachrach studio. He looked at it again, but it was just a picture. He shrugged and went about his business.

The next few days went swimmingly. Classes in the morning, his own work in the afternoon, then a run and evenings spent with Martha. One evening after her kids went to sleep they even went a bit crazy and made love half on her rumpled living-room couch and half in her bed. She had to stifle the noises he made. Obviously, he felt good.

The next night Martha had to go to an out of town conference and he stayed home to mark papers. He hated that chore but it was unavoidable. The sheer, tepidity, was a good word for, if that was a word, the boring unimaginative ideas his students came up with. And even worse than that was the sheer uniformity of thought. Paper after paper with the same ideas, expressions, images. But he gritted his teeth, his fingers smudged from the ball-point ink and his eyes teared trying to decipher the childish handwriting and bad spelling on so many of the sheets of paper before him. Finally he stretched and yawned loudly.

’Enough!’ he sighed.

’Yes,’ she said.

He froze, goose pimples formed all along his arms and he felt, he literally felt the hairs on his neck prickling to attention. He sat not moving and then, without turning, said, ‘Who’s there?’



’Yes, you know my voice.’

He turned around. There was no one in the room with him. Selma’s picture hung in its usual place, all the pictures did. The clock-radio softly played popular tunes from movies. The reflections of street lights came up onto his ceiling and flickering party sounds came in through his open window from the fraternity house down the block. A gurgling sound came from the showers down the hall. He shivered and tried to take his own pulse. It seemed normal, everything was perfectly normal, and yet a dead girl was having a conversation with him. I’m not asleep, he noted.

’I’m not asleep, am I?’ he asked.

’No, you aren’t,’ she seemed amused. Where was her voice coming from? He decided that it wasn‘t coming from any particular direction but was simply inside his head. I’m possessed, he thought, flabbergasted.

’Am I possessed? Are you a, what’s the word, a Dybbuk?’

’No. I’m real. My name is Selma Warburg and I’m sixteen and a half and I attend Miss Spence’s.’ The voice was young and prim yet pleasant. I can’t believe this is happening, he thought. But it was, he could see it was.

’Tell me about yourself,’ he said. He wasn’t completely relaxed yet, but he was beginning to accept this, and even enjoy it. ‘How come you’re talking with me?’

’Because you’re living in my room, Smartie. That’s why.’

’I guessed as much,’ he said, he didn’t know where to look. ‘Where are you now, exactly?’

’I’m dead.’

’Oh, yes. I see,’ This is an absolutely crazy conversation, he thought. ‘But where do you, uh, stay? Here in this room?’


’Always in this room?’ he asked. He had a sudden misgiving, ‘ Where you here when Martha and I…’

At first there was silence and he began to think she had gone away but then he heard her voice, ‘Yes, I was,’ she said in a low and troubled voice.

He looked down, ‘I’m very sorry,’ he murmured. ‘That wasn’t very nice of us,‘ My God! He thought, the things we did! He recalled some of the ways they had made love; Martha had, oh Damn– ‘Forgive me, we didn’t know you were here,’ Jesus Christ, he thought, I’m apologizing to a ghost!

’Not your fault,’ she said, ‘How could you know? Besides, it’s your room now.’ She sounded unutterably sad.

’It’ll always be your room,’ he said, wanting to comfort her. I must be out of my mind. ‘Why,’ he coughed, ‘Excuse me,’ he said, inanely. ‘What makes you talk to me? Why me?’

’I told you, you live in my room. You looked at my picture. The boy who was here before you, I talked to him too.’


’I think he was frightened, of me!’ she unmistakably giggled. She really was a young girl, ‘He wouldn’t talk to me and soon one day he was gone, moved away,’ There was silence for a moment and he poured himself a drink. ‘You’re not frightened of me, are you?’

He thought for a moment and then, to his surprise, answered, ‘No.’

’Thank you,’ she said, quietly.

’You’re welcome,’ he said and laughed loudly. ‘Excuse me, I’m not laughing at you. Tell me about yourself.’

’What do you want to know?’

’Anything, everything. Boy friends, did you have a beau?’

’I liked my second cousin, Francis, we used to go to dancing school together. He kissed me once.’


’And nothing. We didn’t do anything! Not like you and her!’ she said angrily. It was almost a pout.

’I told you I was sorry. But you should realize that Martha–’

’I don’t want to hear her name!’

’Martha and I,’ he persisted, ‘are adults, and we live in a different time, with different ways.’

Again there was a silence, ‘I’m sorry too,’ she said in a faint whisper. ‘You’re right, please forgive me,’ she seemed close to tears.

’That’s alright,’ he hastened to reassure her. ‘I won’t bring her here anymore.’

’Thank you,’ she said. ‘After all, this is our room.’

She said no more that night and soon he went to sleep. He undressed in the bathroom, this time, and put on a pair of pyjamas which he normally never wore.


’Who’s Selma?’ Martha asked.

He froze, then pulled her close, ‘That’s the name of the girl in the picture,’ he said. ‘I found her name written on the back of the print.’

She ruffled his hair and kissed him, ‘Did you know that you whispered her name while you were coming?‘

’Wow!’ he said, shocked for a moment.

’Yeah, you had me worried for a minute. I thought you had someone else,’ she hugged him closely and whispered into his ear, ‘I don’t mind if my rival is an old picture!’ She touched him and soon they were both ready again.

’Yeah,‘ he said mock-sarcastically, ‘I like both of you.’


’Mrs. Carstairs,’ he said, standing at the foot of the banisters, ‘you mentioned that there was a tenant who was here before me who asked about the picture. Could you tell me anything about him?’

’Why?’ she asked, her eyes narrowed with suspicion, ‘Why do you want to know?’

’No particular reason,’ he lied, shrugging, ‘just curious.’

’Well,’ she sniffed, ‘He was very strange. He moved in, paid me for a month and moved right out without a by your leave before the week was over! Very very strange! I didn’t care, I told you I never have any problems renting my rooms!’


’I was engaged to be married when I died,’ The voice appeared just as he sank into the hot tub.

‘Hey!’ he protested, ‘Let me take my bath!’

’That’s alright,’ she giggled, ‘after all I’ve seen you before like this!’ Then there was silence again and he stretched out in the tub and turned on the hot water tap slightly by thumbing it with his prehensile big toe. ‘No one ever saw me, like that I mean.’

‘Not even your fiancé?’

’No!’ she said, angrily. ‘We wouldn’t do such a thing!’

’Tell me about him,’ he said.

’It was a secret engagement, no one knew about it. My parents and Miss Spence would never have allowed it.’

’Who was he?’

’He was in my father’s firm. We kept it a secret, otherwise my father might have fired him. He was nice, he had dark hair and was so very manly. He was a lot older than me, everybody would have said too old. But I didn’t think so.‘

’Where did you meet? I’m sure you were chaperoned.‘

’Wasn’t I though! No, we barely could meet. Once or twice outside Miss Spence’s, he took me once for ice-cream. Once he came to my house when the whole family were out.’


’It was lovely. We sat in the parlor, there was a big fire and we held hands. That’s when he asked me to marry him.‘

’Did you love him?’

‘Oh yes, I think so. He was so strong, but when he kissed me I could feel him shake. He–’

’Yes?’ he asked. Again that soft silence. There was no sign of her presence but he could feel her there.

’ He touched me,’ she said softly as a feather.

’Where?’ he asked, his throat dry.

’He touched me, here on my, my breast. I held his hands tightly, but he could feel my heart, Oh my, how it was beating, I’m sure.’

’What else happened?’

’Nothing, we were both scared. But,’ he could barely hear her voice, ‘I wanted…’ Now she was gone, and the water in the tub was tepid. He got up and shaved and went to bed.

’Are you here?’ he asked in the darkness.


‘Tell me,’ he persisted, ‘what happened.’

’I wanted so,’ her voice was low and very sad, ‘but it wasn’t to be.‘

’Didn’t you marry?’

’No, we kept it a secret and no one had an inkling. But the very next year, when soon I’d be old enough so that we could be open about it and announce our engagement, I caught the Spanish Influenza. There was a big epidemic, and, well, that’s when I died.’

’So you’ve never…?’

’No,’ she said, Her voice was on the threshold of sound and barely audible. He had to strain to hear her, ‘I wish–’

’What? What do you wish?’

’For us, for you and I—’ she seemed to say but the sound of her voice faded away completely and then she was gone too. He wasn’t sure that that was what he heard. He lay there for a while staring off into the darkness and then he fell asleep.


’There’s a phone call for you,’ Mrs. Carstairs shouted up the stairs. ‘Take it on the hall phone.’

’Yes? Hello?’

’I’m calling from Bachrach, Portraits of Quality. Is this the party inquiring about a very old portrait done by one of our studios?’

’Yes, yes. Did you find anything?’

’No sir. I’m very sorry, there are no records of the name you supplied us anywhere. We think, however, that it most probably was done here at our local studio. There was a serious fire, it seems, at our studio sometime in the early twenties and a lot of the records were destroyed. We assume that the party you asked about, her records might have been destroyed then.’

’I see,’ he said, ‘Yes, that sounds reasonable. Hm, thank you very much.’

’Quite alright, sir. There was, it seems, another request for that same information some months ago.’

’Really? Who was that?’

’We don’t know. A party asked for the information. We told him that we’d try to find out what he wanted, but he never returned for the answer. Tell me, what is so special about the portrait? A relative of yours?’

’No,‘ he said, ‘Just a friend, I think.’


‘Oh, Come on now!’

’I’m telling you, she spoke to me!’

’Yeah, sure!’ She said sighing deeply. ‘Listen, that’s the most far-fetched thing I ever heard. So you couldn’t so what? Big deal! You know as well as I that there’s nothing so terrible about that. It happens, you’re human. That’s no reason to come up with such a cock and bull story,’ she smiled and kissed his cheek. ‘You’ll see, Sweetie, just a few minutes of Mamma’s Special Care and you’ll be the old tiger again!’

’But it’s true!’

’Don’t insult my intelligence!’ she shouted and sprang out of the bed. ‘You don’t want me anymore, Fine! Great! I’ll get along fine without you! Just stop the bullshit!’ He looked at her with a sinking heart. She stood there shouting at him and she was one angry beautiful woman.


’Could you possibly drop by my office after your last class, what time’ll that be?’

’I finish at three.’

’Three it is,’ Doctor Lawrence, the permanent head of the department, said cheerily.

’Yes, what’s it about?’

’I want to have a chat with you about your progress here.’


’We like to try to keep a tight ship here in the department. I have the feeling that you’ve been preoccupied with, ah, personal problems the last few weeks, and as a result, the quality of your work is not entirely up to par. Now I know that there is a lot of pressure on all you teaching assistants. And if you feel that you’d like to talk things over with me, or even if you need some help, we—’

’No, I’ll work things out myself,’ he said a bit brusquely.

’Alright, that’s fine with me. However, if you feel that you aren’t entirely happy here with us, you might—’

’No, no. It’s not that big a problem, I’ll work it out.’

Doctor Lawrence’s eyes, magnified by his thick shiny glasses settled on him. ‘OK,’ he said decisively, ‘I’m a firm believer in using one’s own bootstraps.’ He took out his pipe, signifying that the interview was over and they shook hands.


‘Let’s cool it a bit, shall we?’ Martha said. ‘I‘m having some serious thoughts about us. Don’t you agree it might be better for us to take a break from each other now?’

’Can’t we talk this over?’

’I’d rather not. Why don’t you maybe, take a bit of vacation for a while.’

’You know that that’s impossible.’

’I suppose,’ she said and her voice sounded remote even though this was a local call. ‘I have to hang up now, I’m sorry.’

He hung up too and wandered aimlessly over the campus and through the neighborhood streets. He had the feeling that he was slowly being cut off from everything apart from what awaited him in his room.


’I’m sorry that you’re unhappy,’ she said.

’I’m not unhappy exactly, just disappointed. Things aren’t working out for me here.’

’Is it my fault?’

He thought a bit, ‘No,’ he said, ‘ no, I don’t think so, it‘s not your fault. It’s just plain weird, falling in love with you–’

’You love me?’ she asked softly.

’Yes, I do,’ he said sadly. ‘I didn’t choose to. There’s nothing in this for me. Nor for you I suppose. How do you feel about me?’

’I don’t know. I don’t know much about love, I think, maybe.’

He nodded and then he told her that he was going to leave.

’I’ll be alone again,’ she said quietly.

’I can’t stay here, I’m afraid of what might happen. I might just go crazy,’ he shrugged. ‘Who know? I may already be nuts. I wish–’


’I wish we could really meet, I wish I could …touch you.’

There was no answer, not then, never again, but as he drifted off into sleep he thought that he felt the light touch of gentle lips on his.


He packed his clothes and books into the one suitcase, adding to it the goose-necked lamp. He looked around the room and now there was nothing in it to show that he had ever occupied it. He picked up the suitcase, glanced once at the photograph of the young girl on the wall and left the room, closing the door gently behind him for the last time. He tip-toed down the stairs and slipped an envelope containing the rent money and the house keys into Mrs. Carstairs’ mailbox and then he stepped out of the boarding house into the cool early morning air.



The End




December 1991 – January 1992


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Snippets for future short stories

* Somewhere in what was once Congo Brazzaville an enormous Diesel-powered snow plow lies rusting in the tropical rain forests near Kinshasa. In the early years after the Belgians left, the Soviets tried to shore up Patrice Lumumba’s régime by massive shipments of military and industrial aid. They favored highly visible items, obviously for their propaganda value. One pet project of this sort was to build super-highways and for that they donated a complete road building unit which, of course, included what was the first essential machine for building roads in the Soviet Union—a snow plow. Lumumba is dead and so is his régime and even the Soviet Union is gone. Only that foolish snow plow remains, buried and decaying in the hot noisy jungle.

* During the Battle of the Marne, 8 September 1914, Ferdinand Foch, Maréchal de France, commanding the Ninth Army, which was being attacked and beaten back by the Germans under Von Hausen, said, "My centre is giving way. My right is in retreat. Situation excellent. I attack!"
Previously he had said, "It takes 15.000 casualties to train a major general."

* In 1940 The LRDG found tracks in the Lybian Desert made by Fords of the Light Car Patrols of 1916.
Oil exploration teams in the Great Sand Sea regularly find tracks today made by 2nd World War armies.

* Long ago the little park just outside the Casino at Monte Carlo was where compulsive gamblers having lost all, would kill themselves. The concierge at the Casino knew that whenever he heard a shot coming from the park, he was to run there and stuff banknotes into the suicide's pockets, so that no one could blame the Casino for the death. All this ended when two enterprising American sailors fired two shots into the air, spilled ketchup on their clothes and waited lying on the grass until the concierge came running. After he loaded their pockets with money, they jumped up and fled the scene just before the police arrived.

* My neighbor, Stanley, was born totally blind. He remained so until several weeks past his fiftieth birthday when he underwent an experimental surgical procedure, which for the first time gave him sight. At first he was in heaven; the views, the people, the colors, the landscapes. On my way home from school one freezing winter day I spotted him in the little seaside park near our apartment house, standing motionless in the cold damp snow, just looking entranced at the stark bare trees. For the first time he was able to see his own wife’s beauty and it quite obviously kindled his love for her anew—one morning she came to the grocery store where I worked part-time before school and she was radiant...
But soon he changed. He became depressed by the poverty and the dirt he could now see. No one had ever told him about that; the reality of shabby and boring drabness all around us. They had only described to him the rare fleeting beauty, never the ubiquitous ugliness. Understandable.
He died not long after. On his way home from work in the Post Office, where he had worked all his life ever since graduating from the special school for the blind, he somehow slipped and fell under the “A” train coming into the subway station. Nobody could figure it out. When he was blind he never had had any trouble getting around safely.

The Mauser Pistol

In those years we lived in a small apartment on the third floor of an old brick apartment building overlooking Surf Avenue. By bending out our kitchen window I could make out not only my school, P. S. 100, but also, in the distance, the Boardwalk and a thin blue sliver of the sea. On summer evenings, sitting out on the fire escape, I could see over the rooftops all the way to the magical lights of Steeplechase and Luna Park out on the Island. In the apartment right below us lived the Berkowitz’s. Larry and his twin sister Annabelle were classmates of mine. Larry was alright but Annabelle was a pain in the ass—always insisting on hanging around with us even when we made it clear we didn’t want her. Larry and I spent a lot of time together up on the roof. He kept a couple of pigeons up there in Tony’s pigeon cote. Tony, the janitor’s son would come up sometimes, whenever he had time and futz around with us, cleaning up the birds’ pen and all. He had to help his father after school. Sometimes, when his father was on one of his benders, he had to do all the work and he’d have to cut school. The school principal knew all about it and tried to make things easier for Tony. The three of us were a team and we didn’t need fat Annabelle trailing around after us. One day Tony even punched her one in the nose, giving her a black eye for following us up there. Larry and I maybe would just have just yelled at her but Tony, well Tony had a temper.
Tony’s family, he said, was from Italy, Calabria. I looked it up once on the rolled-up and peeling world map hanging from above the blackboard in our geography class. It was all the way at the bottom of Italy; I never heard of it. Our families were all from Russia and Poland. My father said he’d come from Poland, but his old passport, which he kept in the back of his desk drawer, was Russian. I couldn’t figure it out. Everybody in the apartment building, it seemed, was originally from Europe except Mr. Fogarty, the old soldier who lived in 1D and Miss Cassidy who lived in the back of her store next to Mr. Savarese’s barber shop. They were Americans.

Miss Cassidy had a dry goods store filled with all kinds of ancient crazy stuff; merchandise that I couldn’t imagine anyone ever wanting to buy. It was like a museum; full of dusty, old-fashioned, absolutely obsolete artifacts. She had butter churns and razor strops, tins of moustache wax and men’s high button shoes, even racks of buggy whips—Can you imagine that? There were whole shelves filled with bottles of liniment and horse collars, neat’s foot oil, dusty bits and harness-ware. Anti-Macassars all around. I loved that word, the way it sounded, Anti-Macassars. After Miss Cassidy explained what it meant, I kept on repeating it over and over under my breath, wondering how they got the oil out of the bears. Lots and lots of women’s clothes, summery dresses and big feathery hats. Crazy corsets and stuff. Annabelle said it was all junk that nobody’d wear even to costume parties, but they looked alright to me—what did I know about women’s clothes? There were piles of yellowing sheet music and brittle rolls of music for player pianos and there was the prize of her collection: a big and elaborate music box. I loved looking at it and she even allowed me once to wind it up and turn it on. It was built into a large mahogany box with a cover richly and delicately inlaid with strips of ivory, mother of pearl and ebony in a multi-colored floral design. Smack-dab in the center of the cover was a small brass plate engraved in fancy Old English letters: “Sublime Harmony,” and underneath in smaller letters: Made in Switzerland.The mechanism was complicated; it was wound up by a large brass key and you could choose any one of the twenty tunes, popular melodies from long before the Great War, which were listed on a sheet of paper pasted into the inner cover, by moving a bronze lever on the side. Then you’d push a button and a big brass drum studded with tiny spikes would begin to revolve slowly, the spikes ticking one after the other against the many teeth of a long metal comb, making sweet tinny sounds while a little china figure of a ballerina would spring up and spin slowly back and forth to the music. It wasn’t very loud and you’d have to be very quiet to be able to hear the sounds. One or two of the songs couldn’t be heard anymore. Miss Cassidy said that her mother had liked those songs especially and had simply wore them out. The music box wasn’t for sale of course; Miss Cassidy said that her mother had brought it with her when she came across the Atlantic from Dublin, to work in Service and to marry at the beginning of the century.
The store was fairly big, half as big again as Mr. Savarese’s barber shop. It was dusty and lighted only by two old hanging lamps. There were two big bay windows, but they were blocked by piles of old magazines and newspapers. Miss Cassidy saved them, saying that they’d be worth good money someday.
She wasn’t a nut, Miss Cassidy, not at all. I’m sorry if I may be giving that impression, though I don’t know how she lived or how she made her living—nobody ever bought anything at her store! Today of course, the stuff she had would attract a lot of attention, that’s for sure. She seemed to be always busy helping the neighbors, making soup, taking care of sick kids, visiting, helping out in her very energetic manner. Why, she was the one who managed to teach Mrs. Fusilio’s daughter crippled from the Polio to walk again when the doctors had given up. People certainly needed help in those days. Kids in another neighborhood might have had a lot of fun, making her out to be a delicious witch. She looked the part, thin and erect, always wearing a hat, a big cameo brooch on her shirt front, right next to her buttoned-on watch, always dressed in black, bombazine I suppose it was called. But here on Surf Avenue we knew her too well and respected her too much, for that to happen.

Mr. Fogarty was very very different. He was tall, over six feet tall, and scrawny, almost emaciated with pronounced furrows running down his cheeks. He was bald with only a thin and obviously dyed fringe of hair above his ears. To make up for that he sported a well brushed pepper and salt moustache, which was turning yellow white at the lower edges from the strong tobacco he smoked. He was a retired thirty-year Army man, a lifer; that’s what he called himself and the kids on the block made fun of him, imitating his erect thirty inch pace, following him every afternoon to the bar on the corner. He was always well-dressed, almost dandified by the standards of our neighborhood. He wore an old and well worn but always freshly pressed brown suit and a white shirt anchored by a tight, black leather bow tie under his prominent Adam’s apple, spit-polished high shoes, a grey fedora in winter or a straw boater in summer. He wore a tiny Legion badge in his suit lapel. You could practically set your clock by him; breakfast at eight, lunch at twelve every day at the diner down the block near the service station. We’d see him sitting there every day on our way to school, and then on our lunch break. When I got a bit older and started work there as a part time bus-boy I saw what he ate, the same thing every day. Three hard sunny-side up eggs with fried onions and sausage for breakfast and the big hamburger that Gus, the owner, called a Salisbury steak with peas and mashed potatoes floating on the side in a pool of dark gravy for lunch. Lots of strong black coffee, always. Every afternoon around five, he’d step smartly down to the Four Roses Bar where he’d sit drinking big schooners of beer and gabbing with the other regulars until long past our bed time. Once a month he’d go to the Post Office to pick up his retirement check. Once every two weeks a short trim at Mr. Savarese’s. The rest of the time he’d sit on a bench in Seaside Park watching the chess players or playing pinochle with some of his cronies. That’s where I got to know him.
I knew him before, but of course I never paid much attention; he was just one of the old men. There were a lot of them around. Larry and I played on the stairs sometimes and Mr. Fogarty often passed us on his way to the Four Roses. He nodded and we’d say hello; politeness to our elders had been drummed into us. I don’t think he knew our names. We were all of us just “Sonny” to him.
One hot summer afternoon I was in Seaside Park waiting for Larry, who had his piano lesson, and for Tony who had to help his father unload a truck of coal for the big furnace. We were going to play stick ball and I had brought a tennis ball and an old broom stick which we used as a bat. The vacation was already more than half over. I was over on the edge of the big lawn, if you could call it that—it was mostly just a sand lot with some grass still growing here and there. I flipped the ball up in the air and when it fell I’d try to clip it lightly. I only succeeded once in a while; I never was much of a ball player. Most of the time I just swung—and missed. After a while I got bored and I saw Mr. Fogarty sitting on one of the benches, reading the Daily News so I walked over and sat down on the end of the bench.
‘Hi, Mr. Fogarty,’ I said. On the first page of the Daily News were some big black headlines about China, Shanghai or Nanking; there was a lot in the papers then about China, the war and all, and underneath was a big photograph. I frowned. ‘Wow!’ I said. ‘That’s sumpin’ Huh?’
Mr. Fogarty folded the newspaper and looked at me and then at the front page and the photograph. ‘Yes, Sonny. It sure is,’ he said softly.
I looked at it carefully. It was taken hurriedly, I guess; a mass of stark black and white streaks and blurred, I suppose, from the wire-service transmission. It depicted what looked like a bombed-out railway station. There was the wreckage of a shed in the background with a smashed roof, and burned cars and twisted railway tracks all around. There were no bodies in the picture but right in the center was a half naked Chinese baby sitting upright all alone, deserted and screaming.
‘Jeez,’ I said. ‘D’ya think he’s OK?’ Stupid question.
Mr. Fogarty looked at me and shook his head decisively. ‘I guess not, Sonny,’ he said, getting out his pipe. He smoked a small, curved-stem pipe a lot, always some kind of harsh tobacco. Often the smell lingered in the stairwell of our house all day long. ‘That’s in Shanghai,’ he said, ‘the railway station in Shanghai. I sailed home from there.’
I looked at him.
‘Yep, I was a lot of years in China,’ he said, nodding. ‘In the Army with the Fifteenth Infantry in Tientsin, all through the Twenties. “Can Do”, that was our motto. Yesiree, Can Do.’ He sat looking quietly at the picture, then he folded up the newspaper and got up. ‘See you around, Sonny,’ he said and started walking stiffly towards the men’s room just by the park exit.
‘Will you tell me sometime about it?’ I called out to him, ‘About China?’ But he just waved the newspaper; I guess it was close to five and he was about ready to go to the Four Roses.

The long summer vacation was drawing to a close. Shit! If you asked us we wouldn’t call it long. We had so much to do and never enough time to do it in. Yet now, most of what I recall of those days was sitting on the stoop of the Four Roses watching some of the older kids playing stoop ball and listening to big league games broadcast from the bar’s big console radio. We were all baseball fans, and the Dodgers was our team but they never seemed to live up to our expectations. Sometimes, once in a blue moon, they’d win a game. You could always tell on game days if the Dodgers were losing; John, the bartender would switch off the game and all you’d hear from that big old radio speaker’d be the news coming from WOR.
One afternoon, it must have been after five because I could see Mr. Fogarty sitting at the bar with a big half-empty schooner in front of him, the Dodgers had lost and the news broadcast was on. This time I listened to the news; couldn’t help it. The bartender had turned up the volume and the radio announcer’s excited voice kept on talking about the Panay, whatever that was, and the Japs and the Chinks. The men in the bar just sat and listened. That’s what they did all the time anyway, but this time they really seemed to be paying attention.Then finally the news broadcast ended. It was late already, getting on towards suppertime, but I waited for a while longer; I wanted to ask Mr. Fogarty about the Panay, he’d told me he’d been in China.
Finally he stepped out back, to where there was a still an old-fashioned one hole privy near the Bocce court. I waited and when he came out and while he washed his hands at the old horse trough I asked him about the Panay.
He looked at me. ‘How old are you, Sonny?’ he asked.
I was mystified. ‘I’m seven, gonna be eight in a few days,’ I said. ‘I’m big for my age.’
‘Well then, you’ve got nothin’ to worry about. You won’t be goin’ to war,’ he said, smiling sourly it seemed, ‘not this time anyway!’
‘There’s gonna be a war?’ I asked. Wow!
‘Looks like it, Sonny. Damn well oughta be, firing on our ship, a US naval gunboat, fuh Chrissake!’ he shook his head. ‘Jesus, fuckin’ slopeheads.’
‘Uh, why’d they do it, Mr. Fogarty?’
‘Maybe tomorrow,’ he said, shaking the drops of water from his hands as he went back into the bar. We kids weren’t ever allowed in there. ‘Come around to the park, I’ll tell you kids all about it.’
The next afternoon Tony was busy loading coal so I got Larry to go with me to the park. I told him all about how Mr. Fogarty had been in China. Larry was a bit sceptical and I must have embroidered it somewhat.
‘C’mon,’ he said. ‘You believe that old fart?’
‘Don’t talk that way about him,’ I protested. ‘You saw he’s got the Legion badge.’
‘Big deal, so what? My uncle Louie’s got one too, ‘n he faked a hernia. Never even got overseas!’
‘Hi, boys!’ Mr. Fogarty was sitting on the first bench in the park. The famous one, the one where Luigi Fantino was shot, so they said, years ago during Prohibition. Nobody knew if it was true or not, the story about the shooting, but he’d been an actual famous gangster and he had grown up on our block. Everybody in the neighborhood knew the story and nobody from the neighborhood ever sat on that bench, out of respect. As a result the bench looked comparatively new. I wondered why Mr. Fogarty was sitting there, usually he sat further on in the park, near the concrete chess tables that were put up by the WPA a couple of years before, during the worst part of the depression. Maybe he was waiting for us.
‘Hello, Mr. Fogarty,’ we both said. As I mentioned before, we’d been taught to be polite to older people.
‘So, you boys want to hear something about China, huh? The Fifteenth Infantry?’
We nodded.
‘Well,’ he said, nodding his head. ‘I wasn’t too much older than you boys when I joined up.’
‘Aw, C’mon now!’ Larry protested.
‘Yep,’ he said, not paying any attention. ‘When I was sixteen I faked my way in, right out of South Dakota. That’s all I wanted to be, a sojer. I sure wasn’t cut out for the wheat fields. Even Boot Camp was fun. I remember our First Sarn’t, what a card he was! One day he made us all…’ He went into a long drawn-out story about his training camp.
Jeez, I thought, my heart sinking, he’s just a long-winded old fart.
‘…After boot I was posted to Fort Riley. Shit, I wanted to get outa the Plains! Then I got lucky—transferred right to Shofield Barracks outside Honolulu. Did my whole first tour there, company clerk in a rifle battalion. But I was a twitchy kid, as soon as my time was up I signed up again, this time right into the Fifteenth. I’d heard all about them then, ‘n you could do that then. Sweated it out there at Shofield just waitin’ around ‘til finally the troop ship for the short timers came across from the Presidio, and I sailed off, to China.’ He fell silent, squinting out towards a couple of big sycamores overlooking the lawn. It was quiet then and we could hear the sound of the beach. Today it’d be called something like White Noise: the sound of the waves mixing and merging with the noises made by the many many thousands of people on the beach into a sort of audio-mousse. Mr. Fogarty sighed and got out his old battered pipe, twisting it apart. He seemed to have forgotten we were sitting there, waiting impatiently. The pipe had a thick pewter band between the curved stem and the bowl and we watched him as he blew through the stem and carefully scraped out the bowl, finally filling it with some kind of black tobacco he cut from a roll with his pocket knife. His hands were gnarled with prominent veins. I wanted to have hands like that when I grew up. ‘This here’s a Peterson,’ he suddenly said. ‘Good pipe, had it for years. Used to smoke a couple of Comoys, from the arcade off the Bund in Shanghai.’ He lit up the pipe using a big kitchen match and our eyes teared from the acrid smoke. He grinned, ‘Don’t like the smell, huh? Bad habit, smoking. Wouldn’t want to be without it.’
‘Tell us about China,’ Larry said.
‘All in good time, Sonny. You’re in a hurry?’
‘Sorry, Mr. Fogarty, but you were gonna—’
‘Sure, kid. About China…’ Mr. Fogarty sighed deeply and shook his head slowly. ‘That’s a whole world out there! Yuh know, whenever I think about it, I recall the smell. It all smelled like shit, always, shit and wood smoke.’ he said, and we giggled. He looked at us. ‘Alright, well…The Fifteenth wasn’t like any other regiment I ever saw. We all had our own servants. You’d be woken by your servant bringing you yer tea. You’d be shaved right afterwards then and there, by another, a barber and then someone else’d collect yer laundry,’ he laughed. ‘They’d clean ‘n oil yer Springfield, they’d holystone down the barrack floor, they’d launder yer webbing, spit-polish yer boots, anything…You couldn’t do any of that for yerself—they’d get inna uproar, you’d be breaking their rice bowl. That’s what they called it.’
‘So what did you have to do there?’ I asked.
‘What did we have to do? Well, I’ll tell you, Sonny. We had legation duty, protecting US and foreign interests and nationals. We were there to show the flag. We had to deal with all sorts, warlords and such…’
‘Yeah?’ I asked. Larry and I looked at each other.
‘There was one son of a bitch I remember. He was one of Yuan Shih-kai’s underlings. A real prick he was. I…you kids come on over sometime to my place, I got a picture of him I’ll show you, if you want.’
I hesitated, we’d all been warned about going anywhere with strangers. Whenever nothing much else was going on, the Daily News would print a lot of scare stories about kidnappers and molesters. Besides, who could forget the Lindbergh kidnapping? Shit, I thought, I’ll take Tony with me. Tony’s a bruiser, he can take old Mr. Fogarty apart, he gives us any trouble.
‘Sure!’ I said. ‘Swell! Uh, when can we come over?’ I asked, though I wasn’t that sure.
‘Any time, Sonny, anytime at all,’ he said, looking at his pocket watch. ‘I’m got to go somewhere now. I’ve got an appointment. You kids come around sometime, anytime.’ As if we didn’t know he’d be going to the Four Roses now, this time of day.

One day I hadn’t had anything to do so I just stood outside the bar looking in through the big window and I saw Mr. Fogarty sitting there. There wasn’t anybody else there except John, the bartender. He was always there, always polishing shot glasses. Mr. Fogarty sat at the bar and there was an empty schooner in front of him. He just sat there, looking down at the bar, all alone and he was just like a department store dummy; not a move out of him. I shuddered, looking in at him, I don’t know why.

Once a queer thing happened. The Four Roses didn’t open in the afternoon. This never happened before; everyday, even on Sundays I think, it opened promptly at five. I don’t know anything about liquor laws then, or why it wasn’t open earlier. I suppose that, since it was a workingman’s bar, there wasn’t much point in opening it during working hours. Tony and I came home from the beach and we saw Mr. Fogarty peering in through the window. It was dark in the bar and Mr. Fogarty looked lost. He spotted us and asked, ‘You know anything about this?’
We looked at each other and shrugged. For us the Four Roses was just a bar for the old geezers in the neighborhood, a place for us to hang out near. Sometimes Tony’s father sent him over there for what he called a bucket of suds. The bar was always there, we never paid much attention to it. I had a sudden idea.
‘Hey, Mr. Fogarty,’ I said. ‘Maybe you can show us that picture now.’
‘What picture?’ he frowned, still hopefully peering through the bar window. ‘What picture was that?’
‘Y’know, the one from China, the, the warlord you was tellin’ us about.’
‘Uh, oh yeah. Well…,’ he said, giving up, ‘sure. C’mon over.’
‘What’s all this about?’ Tony whispered. I gestured to him to shut up. ‘Thanks a lot, Mr. Fogarty,’ I said. Tony kept looking at me. ‘Later,’ I whispered back.
All the apartments in our building were the same. You’d come through a small vestibule right into the linoleum-floored kitchen, then there was either a living room or a dining room depending on how it was furnished, then the bathroom and finally the bedroom. The apartments were really small—I slept on a fold-up army cot in the dining room, which I had to fold up and stow in the closet every morning. Larry’s family and mine had furnished the apartments more or less the same way; full of heavily carved, dark mahogany furniture, always smelling of furniture polish. The apartments, in the morning hours were always alive with the noise of vacuum cleaners. Every couple of years they’d paint the apartments and I’d have a headache for days on end from the stink of the fresh paint. There were pictures on the walls of flowers and stuff like that. There was a big mirror on one wall surrounded by an elaborately carved plaster frame painted to resemble wood. There was a big but never used dining table in our apartment, completely covered with a lace table cloth. The legs of the table peeping out were in the shape of fanciful lions’ heads complete with carved eyes. Those eyes used to scare the shit out of me. In Larry’s family’s place there was an upright piano squashed between a pair of matched overstuffed sofas. Larry’s mother had made a huge fuss over the upholstery for those sofas, looking for the right shades and pattern and eventually finally having them upholstered at a shop in Manhattan. Then when she got them home, she promptly hid them under slip-covers. Go figure. In both our apartments between the two windows overlooking Surf Avenue was a big console radio with a large round green dial listing the names of radio stations coming from far-off exotic places; Monte Carlo, Vienna, London, Bucharest. Nobody could really dial those places and mostly what we listened to were radio dramas and serials in the late afternoons and early evenings: The Shadow, Jack Armstrong, The FBI in Peace and War, The Lone Ranger.
Mr. Fogarty’s place was very different. First of all it was a mess; heaps of laundry everywhere, the kitchen sink full of dishes, the kitchen table piled high with cans, both opened and still sealed. The living room, if that’s what you’d call it, was full of mismatched casual furniture; a couple of kitchen chairs, a folding card table, a standing lamp and lots and lots of books. Larry and I gaped; it was great! It was all so comfortable looking and messy.
‘You boys want a soda? I’ll see if I have any,’ Mr. Fogarty said, opening his window ice box. ‘Nope, Sorry about that, just beer. You boys want a beer?’
We grinned at each other. ‘No, thank you, Mr Fogarty,’ Tony said. I jabbed him with my elbow. ‘C’mon,’ I whispered, ‘Let’s try a beer!’
‘Na, fergit that. You kids are a bit young for beer.’ He looked around, scratching his ear and said, ‘What was I lookin’ for? Oh yeah, the pictures. OK, you kids clear off that card table, I’ll get my album.’
He came back from his bedroom carrying a big leather bound album and put it down on the table. He brushed off the dusty cover. ‘Had this bound in pigskin in one of the treaty ports, don’t remember which one, in nineteen…, Jesus, I can’t remember that either,’ he sighed, opening the two leather snaps fastening the cover. ‘Ah well, let’s see what we have here.’
There were an awful lot of snapshots glued onto the thick black pages of the album. All the pictures were sepia toned and still quite clear. We looked at them avidly. There were pictures of soldiers staring at the camera, wearing old-style knee high woolen putties and the same kind of funny khaki cowboy hat that my uncle Abe wore in the snapshots he had from the Great War. We turned the pages, looking at the funny pictures of Chinamen, and funny houses and junks and river boats and lots of soldiers—
‘Jeez!’ I almost shouted.
Mr. Fogarty grinned showing his yellowed horse teeth. ‘That’s sumpin’ huh?’ he said, pointing to the big photograph all by itself in the center of the page. In it was a Chinaman, arms bound behind his back, kneeling on what looked like sand. There was a uniformed Chinaman standing right behind him with a big curved axe or sword in his hand. There were other Chinamen and soldiers around looking on.
‘What’s goin’ on here?’ Tony asked, in a hushed tone. ‘Is he gonna chop off his head?’
‘Just turn the page,’ Mr. Fogarty said.
I turned the page and I gasped, ‘Wow!’ I breathed, ‘Is that his head?’ I asked. ‘Really?’ There was another picture all by itself on the page, like the previous one. It must have been taken a few seconds after the first. But it was blurred a bit. In this one only the man with the sword seemed to have moved. The sword no longer pointed to the sky. The other men, soldiers and Chinese still looked on and the kneeling man still kneeled—but now he seemed to be headless and a blurred round object lay at his feet.
‘Yep, Sonny,’ Mr. Fogarty said, quietly. ‘That’s the way they did it in those days.’
Now I could see what must have been blood spurting from the neck. Hard to tell, the photograph was indistinct. Tony and I looked at that picture silently for a few minutes and then I turned the page. Here were three snap-shots in a diagonal row. All showed a group of young soldiers seated around a table in what looked like a dark Chinese bar. But the table was well lighted and suddenly I made out Mr. Fogarty as a young soldier, beaming, saluting the camera with an uplifted beer bottle. He didn’t have a mustache yet and he looked just like a kid.
I looked up and he nodded his head. ‘That’s me, alright,’ he said, a bit sadly. ‘Long time ago.’ I looked at the pictures and then I turned the page again. There were pictures of Chinese men playing cards and smoking funny looking long pipes and there were some pictures of Chinese girls too, wearing all kinds of costumes. Tony nudged me, there was a picture of two girls all naked and we grinned at each other. Then I turned the page and on one side we caught a glimpse of—
‘Never mind them pitchers,’ Mr. Fogarty said, hurriedly turning the pages. ‘You wouldn’t be interested in that, not yet. Yeah, here we are; this is the Chink I was talking about,’ he said, tapping a grubby finger on a photograph of a tall and imposing Chinaman standing in the center of what looked like a bunch of bodyguards. These men were all barefooted, wore visored caps, quilted grey uniforms and stood at attention facing him bearing bayonetted rifles in their hands. The two body guards nearest to the tall man brandished short guns with long wooden stocks against their chests. The tall Chinaman wore a big fur cap, a long leather trench-coat over highly polished riding boots and what I guessed to be an enormous holstered pistol on a broad leather belt. His chest was criss-crossed by two filled cartridge belts.
‘Wow!’ I breathed.
‘Yep,’ Mr. Fogarty said, ‘that’s him alright. Cruel son of a bitch. Used that pistol a lot on people.’
‘What kind is it?’ I asked. In the photograph it looked big and clumsy. I wasn’t sure but the holster seemed to be made of wood.
‘That’s a Mauser pistol. That’s top-notch, you can’t get anything better.’
‘It looks funny,’ I said. It did; a large squarish brown box in a leather cradle, which strapped it to the man’s belt. The butt protruded from the side of the box near the the top and at the bottom the box ended in a panhandle holding the barrel, I suppose. There was a braided lanyard reaching from the gun butt up around the man’s neck.
‘Yes, it does,’ he said. ‘Doesn’t matter. Take that outa the holster, it’s wood, see? Snap the broom handle onto the holster, and you’ve got a carbine. See the way these two greasers are holding their Mausers? Not only that, it’s so accurate you can knock off a slope head at a thousand yards!’
‘Wow!’ I said, though I wasn’t altogether sure what he meant, but his enthusiasm was catching. He looked at me, then at Tony and said, ‘Wanna see one?’
I looked at him, and at the gun belt in the photograph. ‘Sure!’ I exclaimed, ‘You got one? You mean you gotta Mouse gun right here?’
‘Mauser, not mouse,’ he laughed, correcting me. ‘Yes, I do. Bought it once off a White Russian officer in Harbin. Those sons of bitches’d sell you anything, but it sure cost me a pretty penny. Brought it home with me, all the way, wrapped up in an old shirt down at the bottom of my ditty bag. No customs inspection in those days. Wait here,’ he said, getting up and going to his closet. We looked at each other and shook our heads, grinning at each other. Wait’ll the other kids hear about this!
‘Lookit this,’ Mr. Fogarty said, coming back, carrying a towel-wrapped package. He carefully put it down in the center of the card table and slowly unwrapped the package. First the towel, then cord-tied brown paper wrapping, finally some old newspapers and then…there it was.

I had seen real guns before. My Uncle Abe had a battered Thirty-Thirty with a cracked and reglued stock which he kept in the back of his closet. Sometimes he tried to hunt with it during the season. But he never succeeded in hitting anything. And once Tony’s cousin Paulie, brought his brand new Colt revolver home when he finished the Police Academy. Tony pestered him into showing it to us. We gaped at that potent shiny black weapon which he allowed us to touch only with one clean finger, after he had very carefully unloaded it. But it was only for a second or so. Paulie was full of Gun Safety from the academy and he immediately put the gun away, leaving us hungrier than ever.

Now in front of us on the table was a hefty and clumsy-looking pistol with a long thin tapering barrel. It was old and the blueing on the barrel was worn away, but it glistened cleanly with oil. The wooden stocks were deeply embossed with the number “9” and there was a lanyard ring with a long braided cord. Engraved onto the side of the gun were some Chinese ideograms.
Tony cleared his throat and said, ‘What’s that?’ pointing to a box-like extension in front of the trigger.
‘That’s the magazine,’ Mr. Fogarty said. We just looked at him questioningly. ‘The bullets are in there. Holds ten rounds.’ He pressed on one of the buttons on the gun and the magazine jumped out. We could see the shiny brass cartridges before he stored the thing in his pocket. ‘Now I’ll check the receiver before you kids can hold it,’ he said.
‘We can hold it?’ I asked, my heart jumping.
‘Hold yer horses,’ Mr. Fogarty said, laughing. ‘Wait’ll I make sure it’s empty.’ He picked up the pistol with practised hands, pulled back on something or other and a bullet flipped up and out of the gun onto the floor. ‘Shit,’ Mr. Fogarty muttered under his breath, ‘didn’t think that thing was still loaded.’ Both Tony and I scampered to find it and I managed to get to it first. The bullet felt cool in my hand.
‘Give it here,’ Mr. Fogarty said, taking it from me. ‘That’s dangerous.’ He lifted the pistol, extending his arm and aimed it out the window. We watched as he pulled the trigger and heard the satisfying snap as the hammer fell. But of course there wasn’t any shot.
‘OK, Sonny,’ Mr. Fogarty said, handing me the gun. ‘Your turn now.’
Boy! Was it ever heavy! I looked it over carefully and, after pulling back on the thing Mr. Fogarty called the receiver I peered through the barrel, seeing all the shining rings, then I let the receiver snap back. Tony was itching for his turn but I took my time; I certainly wasn’t in any rush. I lifted the gun, using both hands, it was so heavy, extending my arm just the way Mr. Fogarty had. I turned, closed one eye and aimed that big pistol at Tony.
‘No!’ Mr. Fogarty shouted and grabbed the gun right out of my hand. ‘Never, ever, ever aim a weapon at anyone you don’t want to kill!’ He still shouted and he was turkey-red. ‘You hear!’
‘I’m sorry, Mr. Fogarty,’ I was close to tears. ‘I didn’t mean it. I’ll never do that again.’
‘Damn right you won’t,’ he said, no longer shouting but obviously still angry. He wrapped and tied the gun up again with shaking fingers.
‘But Mr. Fogarty!’ Tony protested.
Mr. Fogarty shook his head emphatically. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I made a mistake. You kids aren’t ready yet for lethal weapons.’
I wanted to say something, but I could see that he was still upset.
‘Now you kids get the fuck outa here,’ he growled and slammed the door on us.
‘Jeez, Jackie,’ Tony said angrily as we went down the stairs. ‘ Why’dja do that. I didn’t even get a chance to hold it!’
Outside, on Surf Avenue I sniffed my hand. There was a faint odor of machine oil and an even fainter stink of gunpowder, just like Fourth of July firecrackers.

Time passed, summer vacations and school years. Winter snows and summer at the beach. We were beginning to grow up. The war came along and went on and on and we began to dream about getting old enough to get into it. Annabelle got slimmer and I got interested. Larry, Tony and I were still buddies but we were growing apart now that we all had part-time jobs and less time to futz around. We didn’t see much of Mr. Fogarty anymore, though we did sometimes smell his tobacco on the stairs. Sometimes I caught glimpses of him through the window of the Four Roses or playing Pinochle in the park. I worked part-time at the diner during the lunch hour and of course promptly at twelve Mr. Fogarty ate his meal there. We’d nod to each other, that’d be all.
Our graduation was to be late in June and we were all busy rehearsing. The school band practised playing “Oh Victorious People” until it was coming out of our ears. We practised marching to the music, into and out of the school auditorium. We marched in, two by two and Annabelle, who was only an inch or so shorter than me, was my partner. I liked that. I looked forward to the evening after graduation when, we’d all invite our partners out, for an ice cream or something. School tradition, and it’d be my first date. I hoped she’d like me.
It looked like everybody in the neighborhood knew all about the graduation, and my date. I was getting snide comments left and right all over. It annoyed me, but not too much; next year I’d be a freshman in high school and I could tease some other kids. Finally we graduated and I won the Science medal. No big deal; there wasn’t much competition. And then the big evening. I wore my suit. It was a dark blue suit and my father made me pin the science medal on the lapel. I took the corsage, we all had corsages we bought together, and I went to pick up my date. All the way to apartment 2C, one flight down. But Annabelle was beautiful! I hadn’t noticed during the ceremony but now, yeah, she was. She wore some kind of pale flowery dress. She said that Miss Cassidy had sown it for her. She pinned my corsage on her dress, at the waist. It looked good to me, what do I know about girl’s clothes?
It was a warm almost sultry night and there was a pale crescent moon. The three of us, Larry, Tony, me and our dates got together on the Boardwalk and we walked along. I held hands with Annabelle.Tony and Larry were talking about what they were going to do during this, our last vacation. Larry was careful not to talk about high school since Tony was quitting school now. He already had working papers even if he was still too young. His father had arranged it for him. Their dates were whispering to each other. Funny to think of them as dates, Joannie and Martha, classmates of ours. Now they were dates. Annabelle and I walked along behind them and neither of us spoke. I couldn’t. I listened to the talk and to the sounds coming from the Island but mostly I listened to Annabelle. Not that she had anything to say either. Both of us never let out a peep. But we were so aware of each other. Our hands were sweating but I didn’t let go, I was afraid to. I guess she was too.
We left the Boardwalk and went down the long wooden ramp to Seaside Park. There we split up and Annabelle and I sat, by ourselves on one of the park benches. The other couples sat on benches along the path and I could see the girls’ white dresses in the darkness. I put my arm around Annabelle and then I kissed her.

It takes only a few seconds to write that sentence—but to do it, to get up the courage to put my arm around her shoulder and to bend and reach her lips, to actually kiss Annabelle, took a long long time and all my resolve. I sat there on the bench next to her in the dark and I kept counting to ten, over and over again, resolving to do it, at the count of ten. Neither of us said anything and it seemed like hours passing; it must have been many minutes. I heard Joannie giggling and then yelling: “Hey! Stop that!” Then she giggled again. But I just sat there, despairing. My arm on the bench behind Annabelle was getting numb and then, finally I gulped, licked my dry lips, grabbed her warm shoulder, bent and bumped, pressed my lips against hers. There. At first I was afraid that I had offended her. I kept my arm around her and my hand on her shoulder and I bent and kissed her again.
Annabelle was in my arms and her lips were soft against mine. Suddenly I was no longer tense. I relaxed and Annabelle and I smiled, in the dark and we kissed again and again until our lips were numb. I sighed. Annabelle looked at her watch and nodded, so we got up and walked slowly home, holding hands.

It didn’t last, of course. One day we argued about something, something stupid, I can’t imagine what. We were in the Berkowitz’s apartment, just the two of us and Annabelle was at the piano, playing scales. I sat next to her, on the piano bench, shaking, angry at her, wanting to punch on the nose or to kiss her. I know she was angry at me too. Suddenly I remembered the pictures in Mr Fogarty’s album, the ones of the naked girls and I put my hand on Annabelle’s breast. Only for a second. She burst into tears, slapping my face clumsily. I was close to tears myself; I had never done anything like that before. I held her tight, in my arms, she kept crying and slapping me and I cried too, but I didn’t, I couldn’t let go.
I was angry with Mr. Fogarty too. After all it was because of his album that I did what I did. Yeah sure. That didn’t last long. I soon enough realized that I was the one who did it, and I hadn’t needed Mr. Fogarty’s album to give me ideas. I had them all along. But I was upset and ashamed of what I had done. I really liked Annabelle, but she didn’t want to have anything more to do with me. Worse, she told the other girls in our class about it and I was aware of the looks I was getting in the school corridors. Unfortunately for me, I was too young still to be able to discern any speculative looks aimed at me among all those disdainful ones.

‘What’cha tryin’ wid my sister?’ Larry shouted at me.
‘Nothin,’ I said, denying it automatically. ‘She’s my girl-friend, I like her, you know that.’
‘Don’t gimme that,’ he said, grabbing my shirt front. He was angry, I’d never seen him that angry before. ‘She tole me what you did. You fuckin’ shit!’ He punched me in the nose and I instinctively punched back, hitting him in the solar plexus, hard. That was the end of the fight; I was bleeding all over my shirt. Larry’s punch had broken my nose, it turned out, and the swelling blocked my view for a week. My lucky punch in the solar plexus had knocked the wind out of him and he had, then and there, another of his famous asthma attacks. Luckily Mr. Fogarty came out of the building on his way to the Four Roses just then and he helped Larry to get up to his apartment. Everybody in the building, all the tenants knew of Larry’s asthma. I sat on the stoop, my head back, my bloody handkerchief pressed to my swollen nose. It took a long time for the bleeding to stop.
‘Whatter you kids fightin’ about?’ I opened my eyes and saw Mr. Fogarty. He’d gotten down here again fast, I thought, he must have been anxious to get to the bar. I just shrugged.
‘Fightin’ over wimmen?’ he asked, grinning. ‘You got fresh with his sister, huh?’ I smiled weakly. How’d he know about that? ‘C’mon upstairs with me,’ he said, sighing. ‘ I’ll put some ice on that.’
He sat me down on one of his kitchen chairs and cracked some ice cubes into a dish cloth. He handed it to me and it felt good on my swollen face.
‘She put out?’ he asked.
‘C’mon, Mr. Fogarty!’ I protested. ‘She’s a nice girl, she ain’t like that!’
‘No, huh? Mebbe not,’ he said, shrugging, and poured himself a shot of Old Overholt. ‘Want some?’ he asked, holding out the pint bottle. I shook my head. It was a cheap rye whiskey, my father drank it and in fact it was a standard refreshment at all the Bar-Mitzvahs at the synagogue, that and sponge cake. Once I sneaked a taste of it, at my cousin Julia’s wedding when no one was looking. Ugh, bitter, ugh.
‘Fightin’ over wimmen is a big waste of time,’ Mr. Fogarty said, and sipped his whiskey. ‘How’s yer nose?’
I sniffed. ‘Much better,’ I said. ‘Thanks.’ It was better, the pain was almost gone but it was like trying to see around a red brick wall.
‘Yeah, sure is a waste. Can’t say though that I didn’t do my share of fightin’ over wimmen,’ he chuckled then he looked at me as if gauging what to tell me. ‘You know,’ he said, somehow hesitantly, ‘I once bought a woman.’
I just looked at Mr. Fogarty. Several of his stories sounded reasonable, but some of the others? I was really beginning to realize that a lot of his stories were just plain fabrications. But which ones?
‘Yep,’ he said. ‘It’s hard to believe now, here. But they was different times then. Different, that’s fer sure.’
‘Who was she?’
‘Little village girl. It was a drought year, see?’ Mr. Fogarty shook his head slowly back and forth. ‘Can’t imagine, can’t begin to imagine what that was like then, no. There was, If I recall right, a storm of locusts come down from Manchuria, et all the wheat around. they grew a lot of wheat there, up north. Then the rains stopped, just terrible dust storms, blew everything off the land. So there was a drought. Jesus, people starving right and left, dying off in the streets.’ He stopped talking for a minute, just staring. I felt uneasy.
‘We had a couple of horses, small cavalry detachment for legation duty. Well, during that drought they’d follow us through the streets, just waiting and then fighting over the horse droppings!’
‘So? I don’t get it,’ I said.
‘What don’t you get?’ he asked angrily. ‘What’s so hard to get? Them horses was well fed and sometimes there were still barley grains in the shit.’
‘Jeez!’ I whispered.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘It was my third year in Tientsin. Never saw nothin’ like it. But I was still a kid and I did a stupid thing, buying that girl. Otherwise she’d have starved, like all the rest. Whole lines of people comin’ down from the villages, spread out stinking dead on the roads. Caught hell from my company commander, court-martialed me, sent me to the Stockade.’
‘What happened?’
’We used to go to a house, y’know?’
I nodded. The Island was filled now, during the season with girls and servicemen on leave, with money to burn. There was a hotel off Surf Avenue they’d use. We knew all about it. Hotel Doris, we used to snigger, calling it Hot Doris.
‘Village girls, young. just like your buddy’s sister,’ he said and I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t like that. ‘This place was only for the Fifteenth, and the Italians, Bersagliari they was, good soldiers, see? Nobody else. The Japs and the Limies had their own places. Then we got a new battalion commander, straight from the Point, together with his missus. She didn’t like the idea of American boys goin’ to a house,’ Mr. Fogarty grinned. ‘So suddenly the place was off limits.’
‘Well, that meant that we sort of broke their rice bowl. They hadda close up, the girls went out on the streets. Jesus!’ he shuddered, ‘you know what that meant? There was one little girl, real tiny, big eyes. Cryin’…I don’t know. Two, three of us chipped in, we bought her from the whoremaster.’
‘What’d you do? Where’d you keep her?’
‘Huh?’ Mr. Fogarty seemed lost in memories. ‘Well, we got us a small place, set her up there, not far from the barracks. It didn’t matter, didn’t last. The Missus found out about it and we caught all hell. Right into the stockade for two months, all of us. From there,’ he said softly, and shrugged, ‘to an outpost near the Manchurian border, then to Shanghai for the rest of my tour. Took my discharge there, shipped home finally. Didn’t ever get back to Tientsin.’

‘You believe him?’ Tony asked, scoffing.
‘Yeah, I do. Why not?’
‘Because he’s a class-A bullshit artist, that’s why!’
I didn’t want to argue with Tony. I did want to believe Mr. Fogarty’s stories. He had an awful lot of them and I guess it looked funny, friendship with an old geezer like that. But I liked him and his stories. I’d drop by his apartment sometimes in the afternoon after school and he’d tell me stories about China and the army until it was time for him to go to the Four Roses. I never knew why he went there; he had bottles of beer stacked up in his ice box and always an opened fifth of Old Overholt standing on the card table among all the books. He’d talk and drink and I’d gobble peanuts until finally he’d look at his pocket watch, an old battered gold Elgin on a leather fob, and then I’d walk him to the bar.

‘Look, I said I’m sorry.’ I was begging, I know. but I had to make up with her. I really didn’t want to be the bad guy.
‘I can’t trust you,’ she said. ‘How can I trust you? It’s not only what you did, but that you did it that way, without asking me. If you’d had asked me, if …well, maybe I’d have liked you to, to touch me, I don’t know. But I don’t like being grabbed, not like that! You wanted to hurt me!’ She was almost in tears again.
‘Please,’ I begged. Jesus, how come she was so smart? ‘I didn’t,’ I said, but I suppose maybe I really had wanted to hurt her. My God, she made me so angry.
Yeah, we finally made up. But it never was the same anymore.

One afternoon coming home from school during a snowstorm the week before Christmas I suddenly saw Miss Cassidy coming out of Mr. Fogarty’s place. I was surprised; they never had had anything to do with each other and in fact Mr. Fogarty always snickered at her and her good works.
‘ He’s sick?’ I asked.
‘Sprained back,’ Miss Cassidy said. She had her big canister of beef broth with her. She was famous in the neighborhood, anybody sick would be sure to be visited and fed her beef broth. It wasn’t bad; strong and just a bit too salty. ‘He slipped on the icy pavement just outside the Four Roses,’ she sniffed. ‘He was drunk.’
‘He’s old enough to decide that for himself,’ I said. I wondered why I was defending him.
‘Don’t get fresh with me, young man,’ she said, waving her finger at me. ‘I know about him.’
I was puzzled by the animosity between them. I’d have expected them to be friends at least. After all, they were the only real Goyim in the neighborhood. That’s what Mrs. Berkowitz always said, laughing. Somehow our Italian neighbors weren’t Goyim.

Mr. Fogarty never seemed to get over the sprained back. He was laid up for a long time, all winter long, it seemed. In early spring he finally did get up, and I saw him once or twice hobbling crab-like to the Four Roses. He got thinner and thinner and his skin was almost translucent. One day Mrs. Savarese stopped me in the stairwell.
‘You’re friends with Mist’ Fogarty, yes?’ she asked.
‘Yeah, you could say so.’
‘Go to him. You take him this, make him wear it,’ she said furtively and handed me something.
‘What’s this,’ I asked, mystified. It was a small leather pouch on a long shoe string.
‘Don’ worry about that,’ she said and sighed. I looked at her and I was surprised. There were tears in her eyes. ‘He’s got the bad sickness, the Cancer. This will ease it for him.’
I watched her going down the stairs and I tried to see what was in the pouch but it was tightly sealed. I shrugged and knocked on Mr. Fogarty’s door. There was no answer so I knocked again a bit louder and finally I pushed the door open. I guessed that he was probably drunk.
I looked around and I was astounded. All the comfortable mess was gone; books back in the bookshelves, newspapers and magazines neatly stacked, the dishes out of the sink and off the card table and there was a pervasive carbolic odor of cleanliness in the air. It was just depressing. Mr. Fogarty sat in his arm chair, he seemed asleep. I turned to go but then he opened his eyes. Jesus, he looked bad.
‘Hello sonny, Come to visit me?’
I nodded.
‘Good, get that pack of cards outa the desk drawer. We’ll play some pinochle,’ he said and smiled. It wasn’t his usual smile. ‘I had to hide them from her.’
‘She did all this?’ I asked looking around.
‘Yep,’ he said. ‘Old bitch just landed on me soon’s she heard I was laid up.’
‘What’s with Miss Cassidy,’ I asked. ‘What’s she got against you?’
‘Old harpy,’ he said, grinning sourly and then he belched, from the beef broth. ‘Got fresh with her once, a long time ago, before you were born. Shoulda known better.’
I didn’t ask him about that, it sounded just impossible. We played a few games until he fell asleep. I left the amulet on the card table for him.

One hot spring day an ambulance came and took Mr. Fogarty away to the veteran’s hospital. All the neighbors said that that was that, he’d never be back, not from the veteran’s hospital. I didn’t believe them, but I kept my mouth shut. I knew he was a tough nut. It turned out that I was right; two weeks later a taxi pulled up at our door. Taxis came rarely into our neighborhood then, the only time I had ever ridden in one was when I came back from the hospital when I had the pneumonia. We were playing stickball when the taxi came and I guess I immediately knew it was Mr. Fogarty coming home again. There were two negro men in white with him, hospital attendants I suppose, and they helped him up the stairs to his apartment. I mumbled some kind of a welcome as he passed me and he raised his head, and smiled, if you could call that a smile.
I went to visit him the next afternoon. I knocked on the door and then opened it. He was sitting in his armchair. I guess it was hard for him to lie in bed.
‘Wanna play some pinochle?’ he asked and I nodded. I got out the cards and we played a game or two but he was distracted. ‘Kid,’ he said. ‘Go down to the Four Roses and bring me up a pint. There’s some change around here somewhere.’
‘You allowed that?’ I asked. I had heard that drinking was bad for you.
He looked at me. ‘What difference does that make now?’ he asked. I did as he asked and then when I got back upstairs I poured him a shot. He drank it down and sighed but then he broke out in a paroxysm of coughing. He leaned back, closed his eyes and seemed to go to sleep. He was yellowish grey. I was about to leave when he opened his eyes again and said: ‘Sonny, help me to get to the can.’
It was shocking. He weighed nothing at all and I practically had to carry him. I didn’t want to touch him. I got him in there and closed the door. I waited outside and wondered what I had gotten myself into. Finally he rattled the door knob and I brought him back to the armchair. He breathed slowly in and out, his eyes closed, his pale skin glistening with globules of sweat. I was revolted. Finally he tried to smile and said, ‘Not much of a life, huh kid?’

‘Listen sonny,’ he said to me the next afternoon. ‘There’s sumpin’ I want you to do for me,’
‘Sure thing,’ I said. Maybe he wanted me to bring him something from the Four Roses. Jesus, I hoped he didn’t have to go to the bathroom again.
‘Get a chair,’ he said. ‘Go to the back of my closet, up on the top shelf, there’s my pistol. Bring it here.’
‘OK,’ I said. I couldn’t figure what he wanted it for. I picked up one of the kitchen chairs, went into the closet and turned on the light. I looked up at the top shelf, at the wrapped gun up there. I got up onto the kitchen chair and it suddenly struck me what he wanted it for.
‘Hey!’ I said, getting down off the chair. ‘Jesus,’ I whispered, ‘You’re not gonna…?’
‘It’s not worth waitin’ anymore,’ he said slowly. ‘I don’t wanna have to beg. Just bring me the fuckin’ thing, you hear!’
What could I do? I was just a kid and he was a grown man. Maybe he was right, I don’t know. How could I know? On the way down the stairs I heard the shot. It wasn’t as loud or dramatic as the shots you’d hear in the movies. But this one I heard alright.

The Fourth of July came around again. There was a parade; ever since the war started they held a parade on the Fourth. It started at Seaside Park and went down along Surf Avenue, through all the concessions and rides, passing Luna Park and Steeplechase, ending up somewhere, pretty near Sea Gate. There were American Legion bands with polished shiny instruments and chromed-plated Springfield rifles. There were Ladies Auxiliary contingents and small detachments from the naval training station at Plum Island. The Legionnaires marched along playing Souza marches, wearing helmets so mirror-bright that their reflections made you squint in the sunlight. Later on, in the evening, there were fireworks ending the festivities. The next morning I found the burnt-out shell of one of the Roman Candles on my way to work at the diner. I picked it up and on an impulse I sniffed it. I wrinkled my nose and sighed; the stink reminded me of Mr. Fogarty’s Mauser pistol.

Early one morning, long before dawn, on my way out to pasture some wolves attacked the flock. It was pitch black and with the dust scattered by the stampeding sheep I couldn’t see anything. The kibbutz armorer had outfitted me with an old Mauser pistol because there had been some border incidents. I hadn’t liked it; too clumsy, I thought, but the armorer said that that was all he had. I drew that big pistol and fired two shots into the air. Things quieted down, I got the flock together again and went on to the hill pastures. When I came home later in the day I found several dead sheep and the partly eaten carcass of a young ram on the way, and one or two wounded sheep in the pen. Two weeks later at the end of a day in pasture on the hay stubble fields, the wolves returned. I killed one with my pistol. I attached the wooden holster-stock, lay down, aimed carefully and squeezed off a shot at a wolf stalking the flock. It was pretty far off, but I was afraid to wait any longer; the sheep might stampede. I couldn’t believe that I could hit it, but at least maybe I could scare it off. But I hit it alright, through the chest and the wolf dropped instantly. The others ran off, never ever returning. That was some gun, that old Mauser.

The End

About Me

Eventually I may add a few words about my short story writing, and about myself, personally - Here, in the meanwhile, is my resumé as an art photographer Born and educated in New York, living in Israel from 1950 and since 1952 a member of Kibbutz Gal-On. Basically I‘m self-taught in Photography, except for participation in workshops with Yosaif Cohain, Hanan Laskin, Eyal Onne and Mark Sheps. My works are in private collections and in the permanent collection of the Eretz Israel Museum. I won the Nikon world photography competition in 1970. I was Secretary of the Art Photographer’s Organization of the Kibbutz movement between 1983-1991. Selected shows: ’Works’ - Gallery of the Kibbutz Artzi, Tel Aviv, 1977. ‘Urban Gypsies’ - Kibbutz Art Gallery, Tel Aviv, 1984. ‘A Dialog with Families’ - Kibbutz Art Gallery, Tel Aviv, 1987. ‘A Dialog with Myself’ - Sixth Annual International Film Festival, Haifa, 1990. I’ve also exhibited in several One Artist shows in galleries and universities in the United States during the 1980s.