Children’s Stories

We didn’t have many books in the house when I was growing up, besides Grandma East’s King James Bible and a set of Funk & Wagnalls from 1960, although there were a few remnants from my father’s childhood. My brother Trilby’s favorite of these was The Little House, a story about a small pink house built in the country that was gradually squeezed in on all sides by a sprawling monster of a city filled with skyscrapers. The little house was rescued in the end by the granddaughter of the original owners, who arranged to have it moved out of the city and into a more pastoral setting, where it was lovingly restored to its former state of Hummel figurine adorability.

This little house shall never be sold for gold or silver and she will live to see our great-great grandchildren’s great-great grandchildren living in her,” said Grandma as she read the story to Trilby for the wazillionth time. She turned to my father, who was watching TV with me. “Can you imagine having a pink house? I’d feel like I was living in a cathouse.”

“Can we get a pink house for our cats?” I asked.

“No,” my father said. He laughed hard, surprising me.

“Grandma, the little house was very happy as she sat on the hill,” Trilby prompted impatiently.

“Keep your britches on, junior. The little house was very happy as she sat on the hill and watched the countryside around her . . .”

Grandma knew a lot of stories. She told fables to me and Trilby about why the sea had salt in it, a fisherman catching a magic fish that gave him three wishes, and a sad little pine tree that wished for leaves instead of needles. There were also some nonfiction gems—like Grandma, at the age of nine, taunting her best friend Junie Applegate with a captured garter snake as they picked green beans for Junie’s mother. And Junie consequently screaming, peeing her drawers, and chasing Grandma all over Mount Olive with a hoe, in that order. Our favorite was the pig story: Grandma, aged five, standing outside her uncle’s barn one day when her fifteen-year-old cousin Josiah grabbed her and plopped her onto the back of a small pig that was in the vicinity.

“I don’t know who was scareder, me or that pig,” Grandma always said. The animal took off in a nervous sprint, running around in circles and squealing like a tornado siren while Josiah ran alongside of them and held on to her. Grandma’s brothers and sisters called her Demon for a while.

There were eight children in Grandma East’s family and six in Grandpa East’s—Trilby and I always forgot his name was Reuben—but together they had only one child survive to voting age. Besides four miscarriages, there were two daughters named Alice and Henrietta who died from diphtheria in the spring of 1941. Grandpa East was drafted in 1942 since his father was still alive and able to run the farm with his daughter, and some of the younger local women replaced the male hired hands who were serving in the Army. My father didn’t have a chance to arrive until the post-war boom of 1948.

Owing to their ability to speak German, Grandpa East and some of the other young men from the county were sent to the European theater of the war instead of the Pacific. His best war story took place one night in the French countryside after a shellacking from the Luftwaffe. A young private in his unit opened fire without warning and killed a soldier wearing an American uniform who was approaching them on foot from a forest.

“Private, what the Sam Hill did you do that for?” the sergeant demanded. He probably said “hell” instead of “Sam Hill,” but Grandma East wouldn’t have repeated that.

“I couldn’t make out his uniform,” the trigger-happy private allegedly said. “I just saw him walking stick-legged like my pap so I figured he was a Kraut.”

A search of the dead man revealed that he was a German spy, and it was noted for the record that American soldiers did tend to slouch and saunter in random patterns when they walked, a perfect display of the slapdash individualism that da Furor saw as evidence of genetic inferiority. The private was complimented on his observation skills, for which he received a commendation and a bottle of good cognac that he and his best friend drank at once and immediately regurgitated. All this for shooting someone who reminded him of his father.


Pikuach Nefesh

Zach and I became friends at the relay center for the deaf, where we both worked as telephone operators. Zach was blind and used a braille computer screen to read what the deaf callers were saying, and his typing speed was an average of ninety words a minute while I was lucky to hit seventy-five. Zach was orthodox Jewish and spent most of his time between calls studying his braille Torah. He wasn’t allowed to eat non-kosher food or go out after sundown on Friday nights. Zach was also expected to avoid music for a year when his father died, although his rabbi amended this to live music only. Since running around town to bars and restaurants with his lesbian shiksa pal from work was completely outside the pale, Zach employed a don’t-tell-if-not-asked policy with the rabbi.

“If the rabbi gets on your case, you need to claim pikuach nefesh,” I told Zach, using the Hebrew term that literally meant “saving a life” and could theoretically be invoked whenever a medical exemption to kosher laws or keeping the Sabbath was needed by someone. “You need to be able to go out and do regular things for your own mental health, and when was the last time he invited you to dinner?”

“It’s really weird that you know that expression,” Zach said.

“I told you I read Chaim Potok novels in high school.”

One March evening, Zach surprised me by agreeing to join a group of us from work at Up the Street, a lesbian bar just north of the downtown hub. He needed something to cover his yarmulke for when we were inside the bar and I fished a Harley Davison bandana out of my purse that our friend Malcolm tied on for him, making Zach look like a Hell’s Angel from the neck up and an Amish man at church from the shoulders down. Malcolm made him pose for a picture wearing sunglasses but Zach didn’t want to keep them on—he said they gave him a headache.

Up the Street was having a Mardi Gras party that night, even though it was more than a week past Ash Wednesday and the building was splitting at the seams with partying women of all ages, along with a sprinkling of younger gay men like Malcolm. Strobe lights went off periodically for the ritual flashing and bead-tossing. “Take it off, take it off, M.J.,” Malcolm chanted as he whipped off my loose-fitting striped T-shirt and made me shriek. “Hey, Zach, Mary Jo’s flashing you right this minute.”

Zach laughed and twirled a string of beads that one of the waitresses had put in his hand. “Is there any beer?” he asked.

Eight of us shared five pitchers of beer and I danced with Samantha, another friend from work who kept sending me mixed messages. We did an R-rated waltz to “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and Samantha kept murmuring that I should relax as she squeezed me tighter and tighter. I was relaxed enough to try kissing her at the end of the song but she backed away and raised her eyebrows at my impropriety. I walked off the dance floor in a humiliated huff and got even madder when I saw Zach sitting by himself at our table, even though I’d told everyone to be sure he wasn’t left alone.

But if Zach felt jilted, he gave no sign of it. “Get the Party Started” by Pink had just come on the jukebox and he was humming and swinging his growing collection of beads, oblivious to the drunk and outraged young girl who was standing in front of him and yelling in his face. She seemed unable to comprehend why he was drinking beer in her personal universe and apparently wanted an explanation for it. But the music and the human volume were too loud for Zach to hear a word she said.

“What’s the problem?” I asked the girl, which required cupping my hand over her ear.

“Who the fuck is this guy? He looks like he’s from fucking outer space.” She weaved and grabbed a chair top, an angry baby dyke who didn’t know her limit. “I ask him where he’s from and he just fucking ignores me. That’s rude.”

It took me a few minutes and some firm assistance from Malcolm and Samantha to make the girl understand that Zach was blind. Once the message sank in, she immediately went from belligerent drunk to remorseful drunk. One was as much fun as the other.

“Oh God, I’m so fucking sorry,” the girl wailed. “I didn’t know he was blind, oh that poor man, I’m so sorry, I feel like a fucking idiot. Here, I’ll buy you guys a pitcher.”

The girl stumbled to the bar and returned with a two-quart pitcher that was placed in front of Zach. The shower of apologies and F-bombs continued until she abruptly collapsed like a felled tree and her friends came over to gather her up. Zach wouldn’t know any of this until I told him about it the next day. For the moment, he only noticed that there was another pitcher of beer within reach, so he picked it up by the handle and raised in the air for what I assumed was a toast to pikuach nefesh. Then he held the pitcher to his mouth and drank out of it as nonchalantly as a frat boy.

I proceeded to get drunk myself and asked Zach on the way home—Malcolm took my car keys—if the Torah had anything to say about Samantha not wanting to kiss me after being such an octopus on the dance floor, but he only laughed.