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By Karen Hesse
Feiwel and Friends Copyright © 2008 Karen Hesse
All rights reserved.
THE GUYS SAY I'M LUCKY. That I got everything.
They're right. I am lucky.
I'm the luckiest kid in the world.
Not everyone's so lucky. I know this.
Take Dilly Lepkoff. Dilly pushes his cart past our store every day, rain or shine. Dilly, in his long apron, he calls, "Pickles! Pickles!" Just hearing his voice I'm drooling, tasting the garlic and vinegar across my tongue. Those pickles of Dilly's, they suck the inside of your cheeks together. They make the spit go crazy in your mouth.
So Dilly, he knows what he's doing with a pickle. But is he lucky? That all depends on what you call luck. He and his family, they been to Coney Island, which I have not. That makes him lucky in my book. But Dilly Lepkoff, he's still looking for a land of gold.
In the Michtom house we got golden land coming out our ears. Does that make me lucky? Ever since school let out I been asking Papa to go to Coney Island. And always the same answer. "We're too busy, Joseph. Maybe next month."
ON THE CORNER of Tompkins and Hancock, Mr. Kromer's clarinet cracks its crazy jokes. Mr. Kromer plays that clarinet all day. He stands under the grocer's awning in his gray checked vest and he plays good. Makes you smile. Makes your feet smile. I hear it, even when I'm playing stickball with the guys halfway down Hancock. Even when I'm planning how to sneak into Washington Park to watch the Superbas. I hear it. Mr. Kromer really knows how to stir up something with that clarinet.
But does that make him lucky? In Russia he played clarinet for important people. Now he plays on a street corner in Brooklyn and he keeps the clarinet case open for people to drop coins. I'm not sure, but if you asked Mr. Kromer I don't think he'd say he's so lucky.
Papa, he's lucky. He doesn't work for coins anymore. We're not greenies. Not anymore. Papa, he's been in America sixteen years.
"And I didn't have a penny when I got here."
"You had to have something, Papa. How could you live if you're dead broke."
"I lived, Joseph. I'm here, am I not?" Papa says. "And I had nothing." Only he says "nuh-tink."
You get used to it. Everybody got an accent in Brooklyn. Everybody talks a little different. Papa says he doesn't hear a difference but I do. Same as I hear Mr. Kromer's clarinet. You gotta listen.
I can't remember living anywhere but Brooklyn. Only here, above the store, in this crowded flat. Me, Mama, Papa. My kid sister, Emily. My little brother, Benjamin. I like coming home to this place. At least I used to like it. Back when we sold things like toys and cigars and paper, back before we turned the candy shop into a bear factory. Our novelty store with the big glass window, it's always been like an open book. The whole block, like a row of glass books on a long cement shelf. Even though lately we don't fix up the display window, I guess I still like coming home to it.
Some kids, they never want to go home. This time last year I didn't get it. How could anyone not want to go home? I get it now.
Still, I'm lucky. My life, it's better than most guys have it. I got plenty to eat. I got Mama and Papa both. And they don't hit. So even though I can't turn around without bumping into someone, even though I'm always tripping over the ladies who come in to sew, even though most of my time I spend inspecting, sorting, and packing bears, even though my parents don't have time anymore for me, my sister, my brother, even though the guys in the neighborhood act different with me now, I guess I'm still lucky.
But I miss the old times. Every Thursday night I would clean out the shop window. And every Friday morning Papa'd set up the new one. While Brooklyn slept Papa turned the window of Michtom's Novelty Store into a candy fantasy. That's Michtom, rhymes with "victim," which is what Papa was in Russia, where the political bear was always at the throat of the Jews, but is not what he is now. In the Old Country all Michtoms were victims but here in Brooklyn we found the land of gold. In Brooklyn we got everything. Well, nearly everything.
Papa, all he has left of his entire family is three sisters. The Queen, Aunt Beast, and Aunt Mouse. That's not their real names. It's just what my sister, Emily, and I call them. The oldest, Aunt Golda, The Queen, she's like a mother to Papa. He would like if she would come to Brooklyn to visit once in a while, but she never does. Papa's sisters, they live on the Lower East Side, in Manhattan, and they don't cross the river. Aunt Beast hates the river. Hates it. Well, I'm not crazy about it, either. No one in our family is. But at least we cross to visit them. The aunts, they never come to see us.
In my opinion Uncle Meyer more than makes up for our lack of visiting Michtom aunts. Uncle Meyer is Mama's brother. Mama pretty much raised Uncle Meyer on her own. Now he lives a seven-minute walk from here, down on Fulton. But he's over at our place all the time.
Uncle Meyer is a free thinker. He, Mama, Papa, they sit around the kitchen table. Yakita, yakita. The world twists its ankle in a pothole, Uncle Meyer calls a meeting. I stick around when Uncle Meyer comes. I keep my mouth shut and my ears open, packing stuffed bears, or cutting mohair, whatever needs doing. I don't even think about slipping away when Uncle Meyer comes. You can learn a lot from grown-ups sitting around a kitchen table. Used to be they spent hours there, but lately we can hardly find the kitchen table. Mama and Papa and their bear business. It's everywhere.
So these days, when Uncle Meyer tells me, "Pull up a chair, Joseph," you bet I do, even if the neighborhood guys are waiting a game for me, which they never used to do and which you'd think would make me happy. Except if they're waiting a game for me and I'm late or I don't show at all, they're angry. They used to just start playing as soon as enough guys showed up on the street. If I made it, great. If I didn't, well, that was okay, too. I liked it better that way. I don't like too much attention on me.
At home I work. I listen. I look. At breakfast, Uncle Meyer drinks Mama's tea, barely letting it cool. I don't know how he does it. He bolts down that scalding tea like a man dying of thirst, then drums his fingers on the empty china. His fingers are like bananas. Not the color. The shape. Long fingers. I look at my hands and hope they finish up like Uncle Meyer's. Papa's hands are okay. But they're small, like lady hands. And they smell like vanilla. I don't want little, sweet-smelling hands like Papa. I want hands that can wrap around a baseball and send it whistling over home plate. Strike-out hands. That's what I want. That's what Uncle Meyer's got.
Uncle Meyer, I don't know why, but he never married.
He's younger than Mama but at thirty, he's looking kind of old to me. I don't know. Maybe he's such a free thinker, he thinks marriage would get in his way.
He's not single due to lack of free-thinking females. There's no shortage of them in Brooklyn. In the Michtom house alone we got two, Mama and Emily. Mama. She's the freest thinker I know. She's Papa's princess. Has her way in everything. On the occasions when she and Papa disagree, Mama sends me and Emily out of the room with Benjamin. "Let me have a moment with your father," she'll say. She never yells, she never nags. As the door closes, I hear, "Now, Morris ..." and then her voice goes a little up, a little down, a little soft, a little warm, and then comes the laughter, "the laughter of Mama's victory," Emily calls it, and when we come back into the kitchen Mama is perched on Papa's lap, her head tucked into his neck, her skirt draped over his legs, and Papa, he is so bewitched by Mama he doesn't know even the day of the week anymore.
No one is immune to Mama. Her thick brown hair, when she lets it loose, curls down her back. Long, soft curls, the color of chocolate. All of us, we do whatever it takes to make Mama happy.
Papa was smart to marry her. That's just one way Papa's smart. In sixteen years he rose from the crowd of penniless greenhorns on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, to independent shop keeper of Brooklyn, to successful bear manufacturer, to correspondent of presidents. Well, one president. Theodore Roosevelt.
But that's all as much to do with Mama as with Papa. Mama, she's not much for cooking. She's not much by the house keeping, either, but Mama, most of the time she knows what people want. When the guys say I'm lucky, they can't imagine the half of it. Mama knows what people want and she knows what to do about it.
Sometimes Mama figures it out by accident. That's how it happened, our big break with the bears. Who knew? This past winter, when Mama and Papa sat around the kitchen table reading the paper and saw that cartoon, the one about President Roosevelt refusing to shoot the bear cub in Mississippi, who knew how that one picture would change our lives? Maybe if I'd known I might have hid the paper that day so they never saw it. But I didn't, I didn't know.
Five months ago we were just another family in Brooklyn. Papa sold cigars, candy, writing paper, occasionally a stuffed toy made by Mama. We weren't rich, but we managed. And then they saw the cartoon in the paper.
And that night Mama set the fabric down on the kitchen table. A couple yards of medium-length brown mohair. Papa sketched out roughly what he had in mind and Mama made the pattern: a wide head coming down to a pointed muzzle, round ears, tapered feet. Papa and I did the cutting. Mama did the sewing. Emily, the stuffing. Benjamin, the drooling. We finished two stuffed bears that night, jointed at the arms and legs. Mama stitched thread claws to make the bears look more real. The eyes she designed to resemble Benjamin's. Big and brown. The combination of those eyes and ears, those bears, I guess you could say they looked ... thoughtful. Who knew "thoughtful" could be so appealing in a stuffed bear?
We should have guessed we were on to something. Benjamin reached his pudgy hands out and did the gimme, gimme with his fingers as Mama sewed up the last stitches on the first bear. She snipped the thread and handed the toy over to Benjamin. That's why she had to make the second bear. Benjamin wouldn't let go of the first.
That was February, five months ago. The moon shone through the shop window. I remember how bright the moon shone as I cleaned out the old display.
And then it was Friday morning. Papa rose earlier than usual, reached into the crib, and slipped the bear out from under Benjamin's arm. Benny whimpered in his sleep but didn't wake. With a bear in each hand, Papa crept downstairs, slipped quietly outside, took the two steps to the shop, and unlocked the door.
It was Brooklyn winter, before dawn. Everything shivered, that's what Papa said. It reminded him of Russia. And thoughts of Russia stirred memories of the Russian bear, symbol of a country that hated its Jews. That Russian bear was so different from these innocent things Papa held now under each arm. He was thinking about how his sister Golda, the one Emily and I call The Queen, how Aunt Golda had saved his life by bringing him to America.
Papa leaned the toy bears up against the glass to watch as he prepared the window for them. They were good company, he said, as he arranged a small hill of candy. On top of that hill Papa balanced the first and then the second bear.
We didn't know.
Not even when Benjamin woke crying, sweaty in his crib from all the blankets, his flannel nightgown twisted around him. Benjamin, who never cried. We didn't know.
We ate breakfast together, Mama's usual lumpy oatmeal, before Mr. Kromer started with his clarinet. Before the guys dropped by to pick me up on their way to school and maybe get a free piece of candy. Before Dilly made his first pass with the pickle cart.
Uncle Meyer took the steps two at a time that morning. Banana feet on the end of banana legs, drumming up the stairs.
"We didn't have enough trouble with bears in Russia, Morris?" he asked as he came through the kitchen door in his buffalo coat. "You have to put bears in your shop window?"
Benjamin fussed at Uncle Meyer and Uncle Meyer took the baby from Mama and settled him on his lap. Benjamin patted Uncle Meyer's cold cheeks.
"He must be teething," Papa said.
"Maybe it's teeth," Mama said.
"What's the matter, Benny boy?" Uncle Meyer asked.
Benjamin wrapped his fists around Uncle Meyer's long fingers and cried. Big round tears rolling down his fat cheeks.
"He's not himself this morning," Papa said.
"Why would you make bears, Morris? You escaped the claws of Russia years ago."
"They're not Russian bears, Meyer," Papa said.
"No. Go back down," Papa said. "Have a look. They're good bears. They're nice bears. They're Theodore Roosevelt bears. Very American. One-hundred-percent-enlightened bears."
Mama, still in her robe, pushed the newspaper toward her brother with the cartoon that had inspired the stuffed toys in the shop window.
"See," Papa said. "Those bears in the window ... they're Teddy's bears."
"Teddy's bears, Morris?" Mama said, beaming at Papa. "That's good! Joseph, print what your papa said on a nice piece of card stock. We'll put it in the window with the display."
Benjamin lunged for the newspaper spread in front of Uncle Meyer, nearly tumbling out of Uncle Meyer's lap.
Mama lifted Benny into her arms and studied his face. A trolley rattled past under the window.
"Joseph, take the cartoon before Benjamin ruins it and put that in the window, too," she said. "Arrange everything nice so people can see."
Mama wet a cloth and wiped Benjamin's face. He grabbed the rag and stuck it in his mouth.
"He wants his bear back," Mama said and Emily, looking up from her latest library book, The Peterkin Papers, nodded.
"How can he want his bear back?" Papa asked. "How could he even remember he had a bear?"
"He wants the bear, Morris."
"Well, he can't have it," Papa said. "It'll ruin the window to take one out."
"He wants the bear," Mama said.
"He can play with spoons," Papa replied.
"Morris, a moment alone with you please, yes?" Mama asked.
Emily closed her book on her thumb and led the way to the living room. Uncle Meyer carried his scalding tea. I carried Benjamin. Emily, Benjamin, and I sat on the floor, our ears against the closed door.
Benny whimpered around the rag in his mouth while Mama's voice softly rose and fell on the other side of the door.
"Don't worry, Benny," Emily said. "Mama will take care of it. You'll get your bear back."
Uncle Meyer sat on the edge of the sofa, downing his tea. Emily rubbed Benny's back with her hand.
And then came the laughter. Emily nodded. "See," she said.
"Children, Meyer, come," Mama called.
But when we returned to the kitchen, Mama wasn't in Papa's lap. Papa was on his way down the steps. We followed him, a little train of Michtoms with an Uncle Meyer caboose. Mr. Kromer warmed up his clarinet and started a joyful song, a morning nod to the winter streets of Brooklyn.
The store wouldn't open for another ten minutes. It didn't matter. A thick crowd of children bundled in their woolen coats had already gathered in front of the plate glass. They pointed to the mountain of candy. They pointed to the two stuffed bears balanced at its peak.
Our entire family entered the shop. As Papa removed one of the bears from the candy mountain, outside a dozen earnest eyes under caps and hoods followed its path. A dozen disappointed lids blinked as the bear moved toward Benjamin's waiting arms.
Benny's eyes lit up like candles. He dropped the soggy rag and reached out his hands, moving his little fingers in a gimme, gimme.
THAT WAS FIVE months ago.
Now, it's Brooklyn summer.
The candy business has dropped off as the bear business has taken over. Every day inside girls fill our flat with bear making. Every day outside girls deliver boxes of finished bears. Papa pays fair and the girls come and go, happy.
Benjamin and his bear are never apart.
Dilly is paying for his kids' bears with pickles.
And Mr. Kromer, his clarinet sasses under the brassy July sun. As the trolleys clang past, a bear sits in the open clarinet case. By noon, most days, that stuffed bear sits on a small hill of coins.
UNDER THE BRIDGE
There are other children. The unwanted, the forgotten, the lost ones. They gather under the bridge each night to sit, to talk, to sleep. They know, they know, they know that to everyone beyond the bridge they are invisible. They pick one another's pockets. They suck on crumbs, hungry, always hungry. And always cold, even in summer with the smell of garbage gagging the air. The wind blows off the East River and the children wrap ragged jackets around knobby ribs and shiver. The luckier ones, the ones who can remember, they tell about a time before their home was under a bridge. Sometimes they even tell the truth. Or something very near it.
Excerpted from Brooklyn Bridge by Karen Hesse. Copyright © 2008 Karen Hesse. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
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