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The Collected Stories
By Grace Paley
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 1994 Grace Paley
All rights reserved.
Two Ears, Three Lucks
In 1954 or '55 I decided to write a story. I had written a few nice paragraphs with some first-class sentences in them, but I hadn't known how to let women and men into the language, nor could I find the story in those pieces of prose. I'd been writing poems since childhood. It was poetry that I read with the greatest pleasure.
But in 1954 or '55 I needed to speak in some inventive way about our female and male lives in those years. Some knowledge was creating a real physical pressure, probably in the middle of my chest — maybe just to the right of the heart. I was beginning to suffer the storyteller's pain: Listen! I have to tell you something! I simply hadn't known how to do it in poetry. Other writers have understood easily, but I seem to have been singing along on the gift of one ear, the ear in charge of literature.
Then the first of two small lucks happened. I became sick enough for the children to remain in Greenwich House After School until suppertime for several weeks, but not so sick that I couldn't sit at our living-room table to write or type all day. I began the story "Goodbye and Good Luck" and to my surprise carried it through to the end. So much prose. Then "The Contest." A couple of months later I finished "A Woman, Young and Old." Thinking about it some years later I understood I'd found my other ear. Writing the stories had allowed it — suddenly — to do its job, to remember the street language and the home language with its Russian and Yiddish accents, a language my early characters knew well, the only language I spoke. Two ears, one for literature, one for home, are useful for writers.
When I sent these three stories out into the world of periodicals, they did not do well.
I had been reading the current fiction, fifties fiction, a masculine fiction, whether traditional, avant-garde, or — later — Beat. As a former boy myself (in the sense that many little girls reading Tom Sawyer know they've found their true boy selves) I had been sold pretty early on the idea that I might not be writing the important serious stuff. As a grown-up woman, I had no choice. Everyday life, kitchen life, children life had been handed to me, my portion, the beginning of big luck, though I didn't know it.
One dark day in our dark basement apartment, a father slumped in our fat chair, waiting to retrieve his two kids, my children's friends. Just before leaving with them, he looked at me. He said that his former wife, the mother of his children, my friend Tibby, had asked him to read my stories. I probably said, Oh, you don't have to bother. But he did have to. A couple of weeks later he came for the children again. This time he sat down at our kitchen table (in the same room as our living-room table). He asked if I could write seven more stories like the three he'd read. He said he'd publish the book. Doubleday would publish them. He was Ken McCormick, an editor who could say that and it would happen. Of course, selling short stories was not a particularly hopeful business. He suggested that I write a novel next. (I tried for a couple of years. I failed.)
Well, that was luck, wasn't it? I don't say this to minimize the stories. I worked conscientiously to write them as truthfully and as beautifully as I could: but so do others, yet they are not usually visited with contracts.
I have called that meeting and that publication my little lucks. Not because they weren't overwhelming. They certainly changed my life. They are little only for their personal size and private pleasure.
As for the big luck: that has to do with political movements, history that happens to you while you're doing the dishes, wars that men plan for their sons, our sons.
I was a woman writing at the early moment when small drops of worried resentment and noble rage were secretly, slowly building into the second wave of the women's movement. I didn't know my small-drop presence or usefulness in this accumulation. Others like Ruth Herschberger, who wrote Adam's Rib in 1948, and Tillie Olsen, who was writing her stories through the forties and fifties, had more consciousness than I and suffered more. This great wave would crest half a generation later, leaving men sputtering and anxious, but somewhat improved for the crashing bath.
Every woman writing in these years has had to swim in that feminist wave. No matter what she thinks of it, even if she bravely swims against it, she has been supported by it — the buoyancy, the noise, the saltiness.
Since writing The Little Disturbances of Man, I have often left home. I have received great gifts from my political work as a pacifist and feminist, traveled on political tasks to Vietnam during that war, to Sweden, Russia, Central America, and seen China and Chile and reported on these meetings. Therefore, some of the people who work for me in Enormous Changes and Later the Same Day have had to share those journeys with me. Some, of course, are still quite young, having been born in the seventies or eighties.
But many of them are still the companions of my big luck. Starting from the neighborhoods of my childhood and my children's childhood, in demonstrations in children's parks or the grownups' Pentagon, in lively neighborhood walks against the Gulf War, in harsh confrontations with ourselves and others, we have remained interested and active in literature and the world and are now growing old together.
Goodbye and Good Luck
I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn't no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh. In time to come, Lillie, don't be surprised — change is a fact of God. From this no one is excused. Only a person like your mama stands on one foot, she don't notice how big her behind is getting and sings in the canary's ear for thirty years. Who's listening? Papa's in the shop. You and Seymour, thinking about yourself. So she waits in a spotless kitchen for a kind word and thinks — poor Rosie ...
Poor Rosie! If there was more life in my little sister, she would know my heart is a regular college of feelings and there is such information between my corset and me that her whole married life is a kindergarten.
Nowadays you could find me any time in a hotel, uptown or downtown. Who needs an apartment to live like a maid with a dustrag in the hand, sneezing? I'm in very good with the bus-boys, it's more interesting than home, all kinds of people, everybody with a reason ...
And my reason, Lillie, is a long time ago I said to the forelady, "Missus, if I can't sit by the window, I can't sit." "If you can't sit, girlie," she says politely, "go stand on the street corner." And that's how I got unemployed in novelty wear.
For my next job I answered an ad which said: "Refined young lady, medium salary, cultural organization." I went by trolley to the address, the Russian Art Theater of Second Avenue, where they played only the best Yiddish plays. They needed a ticket seller, someone like me, who likes the public but is very sharp on crooks. The man who interviewed me was the manager, a certain type.
Immediately he said: "Rosie Lieber, you surely got a build on you!"
"It takes all kinds, Mr. Krimberg."
"Don't misunderstand me, little girl," he said. "I appreciate, I appreciate. A young lady lacking fore and aft, her blood is so busy warming the toes and the fingertips, it don't have time to circulate where it's most required."
Everybody likes kindness. I said to him: "Only don't be fresh, Mr. Krimberg, and we'll make a good bargain."
We did: Nine dollars a week, a glass of tea every night, a free ticket once a week for Mama, and I could go watch rehearsals any time I want.
My first nine dollars was in the grocer's hands ready to move on already, when Krimberg said to me, "Rosie, here's a great gentleman, a member of this remarkable theater, wants to meet you, impressed no doubt by your big brown eyes."
And who was it, Lillie? Listen to me, before my very eyes was Volodya Vlashkin, called by the people of those days the Valentino of Second Avenue. I took one look, and I said to myself: Where did a Jewish boy grow up so big? "Just outside Kiev," he told me.
How? "My mama nursed me till I was six. I was the only boy in the village to have such health."
"My goodness, Vlashkin, six years old! She must have had shredded wheat there, not breasts, poor woman."
"My mother was beautiful," he said. "She had eyes like stars."
He had such a way of expressing himself, it brought tears.
To Krimberg, Vlashkin said after this introduction: "Who is responsible for hiding this wonderful young person in a cage?"
"That is where the ticket seller sells."
"So, David, go in there and sell tickets for a half hour. I have something in mind in regards to the future of this girl and this company. Go, David, be a good boy. And you, Miss Lieber, please, I suggest Feinberg's for a glass of tea. The rehearsals are long. I enjoy a quiet interlude with a friendly person."
So he took me there, Feinberg's, then around the corner, a place so full of Hungarians, it was deafening. In the back room was a table of honor for him. On the tablecloth embroidered by the lady of the house was Here Vlashkin Eats. We finished one glass of tea in quietness, out of thirst, when I finally made up my mind what to say.
"Mr. Vlashkin, I saw you a couple weeks ago, even before I started working here, in The Sea Gull. Believe me, if I was that girl, I wouldn't look even for a minute on the young bourgeois fellow. He could fall out of the play altogether. How Chekhov could put him in the same play as you, I can't understand."
"You liked me?" he asked, taking my hand and kindly patting it. "Well, well, young people still like me ... so, and you like the theater too? Good. And you. Rose, you know you have such a nice hand, so warm to the touch, such a fine skin, tell me, why do you wear a scarf around your neck? You only hide your young, young throat. These are not olden times, my child, to live in shame."
"Who's ashamed?" I said, taking off the kerchief, but my hand right away went to the kerchief's place, because the truth is, it really was olden times, and I was still of a nature to melt with shame.
"Have some more tea, my dear."
"No, thank you, I am a samovar already."
"Dorfmann!" he hollered like a king. "Bring this child a seltzer with fresh ice!"
In weeks to follow I had the privilege to know him better and better as a person — also the opportunity to see him in his profession. The time was autumn; the theater full of coming and going. Rehearsing without end. After The Sea Gull flopped, The Salesman from Istanbul played, a great success.
Here the ladies went crazy. On the opening night, in the middle of the first scene, one missus — a widow or her husband worked too long hours — began to clap and sing out, "Oi, oi, Vlashkin." Soon there was such a tumult, the actors had to stop acting. Vlashkin stepped forward. Only not Vlashkin to the eyes ... a younger man with pitch-black hair, lively on restless feet, his mouth clever. A half a century later at the end of the play he came out again, a gray philosopher, a student of life from only reading books, his hands as smooth as silk ... I cried to think who I was — nothing — and such a man could look at me with interest.
Then I got a small raise, due to he kindly put in a good word for me, and also for fifty cents a night I was given the pleasure together with cousins, in-laws, and plain stage-struck kids to be part of a crowd scene and to see like he saw every single night the hundreds of pale faces waiting for his feelings to make them laugh or bend down their heads in sorrow.
The sad day came, I kissed my mama goodbye. Vlashkin helped me to get a reasonable room near the theater to be more free. Also my outstanding friend would have a place to recline away from the noise of the dressing rooms. She cried and she cried. "This is a different way of living. Mama," I said. "Besides, I am driven by love."
"You! You, a nothing, a rotten hole in a piece of cheese, are you telling me what is life?" she screamed.
Very insulted, I went away from her. But I am good-natured — you know fat people are like that — kind, and I thought to myself, poor Mama ... it is true she got more of an idea of life than me. She married who she didn't like, a sick man, his spirit already swallowed up by God. He never washed. He had an unhappy smell. His teeth fell out, his hair disappeared, he got smaller, shriveled up little by little, till goodbye and good luck he was gone and only came to Mama's mind when she went to the mailbox under the stairs to get the electric bill. In memory of him and out of respect for mankind. I decided to live for love.
Don't laugh, you ignorant girl.
Do you think it was easy for me? I had to give Mama a little something. Ruthie was saving up together with your papa for linens, a couple knives and forks. In the morning I had to do piecework if I wanted to keep by myself. So I made flowers. Before lunch time every day a whole garden grew on my table.
This was my independence, Lillie dear, blooming, but it didn't have no roots and its face was paper.
Meanwhile Krimberg went after me too. No doubt observing the success of Vlashkin, he thought. Aha, open sesame ... Others in the company similar. After me in those years were the following: Krimberg I mentioned. Carl Zimmer, played innocent young fellows with a wig. Charlie Peel, a Christian who fell in the soup by accident, a creator of beautiful sets. "Color is his middle name," says Vlashkin, always to the point.
I put this in to show you your fat old aunt was not crazy out of loneliness. In those noisy years I had friends among interesting people who admired me for reasons of youth and that I was a first-class listener.
The actresses — Raisele, Marya, Esther Leopold — were only interested in tomorrow. After them was the rich men, producers, the whole garment center: their past is a pincushion, future the eye of a needle.
Finally the day came, I no longer could keep my tact in my mouth. I said: "Vlashkin, I hear by carrier pigeon you have a wife, children, the whole combination."
"True, I don't tell stories. I make no pretense."
"That isn't the question. What is this lady like? It hurts me to ask, but tell me, Vlashkin ... a man's life is something I don't clearly see."
"Little girl, I have told you a hundred times, this small room is the convent of my troubled spirit. Here I come to your innocent shelter to refresh myself in the midst of an agonized life."
"Ach, Vlashkin, serious, serious, who is this lady?" "Rosie, she is a fine woman of the middle classes, a good mother to my children, three in number, girls all, a good cook, in her youth handsome, now no longer young. You see, could I be more frank? I entrust you, dear, with my soul."
It was some few months later at the New Year's ball of the Russian Artists Club, I met Mrs. Vlashkin, a woman with black hair in a low bun, straight and too proud. She sat at a small table speaking in a deep voice to whoever stopped a moment to converse. Her Yiddish was perfect, each word cut like a special jewel. I looked at her. She noticed me like she noticed everybody, cold like Christmas morning. Then she got tired. Vlashkin called a taxi and I never saw her again. Poor woman, she did not know I was on the same stage with her. The poison I was to her role, she did not know.
Later on that night in front of my door I said to Vlashkin, "No more. This isn't for me. I am sick from it all. I am no home breaker."
"Girlie," he said, "don't be foolish."
"No, no, goodbye, good luck," I said. "I am sincere."
So I went and stayed with Mama for a week's vacation and cleaned up all the closets and scrubbed the walls till the paint came off. She was very grateful, all the same her hard life made her say, "Now we see the end. If you live like a bum, you are finally a lunatic."
After this few days I came back to my life. When we met, me and Vlashkin, we said only hello and goodbye, and then for a few sad years, with the head we nodded as if to say, "Yes, yes, I know who you are."
Meanwhile in the field was a whole new strategy. Your mama and your grandmama brought around — boys. Your own father had a brother, you never even seen him. Ruben. A serious fellow, his idealism was his hat and his coat. "Rosie, I offer you a big new free happy unusual life." How? "With me, we will raise up the sands of Palestine to make a nation. That is the land of tomorrow for us Jews." "Ha-ha, Ruben, I'll go tomorrow then." "Rosie!" says Ruben. "We need strong women like you, mothers and farmers." "You don't fool me, Ruben, what you need is dray horses. But for that you need more money." "I don't like your attitude, Rose." "In that case, go and multiply. Goodbye."
Another fellow: Yonkel Gurstein, a regular sport, dressed to kill, with such an excitable nature. In those days — it looks to me like yesterday — the youngest girls wore undergarments like Battle Creek, Michigan. To him it was a matter of seconds. Where did he practice, a Jewish boy? Nowadays I suppose it is easier, Lillie? My goodness, I ain't asking you nothing — touchy, touchy ...
Excerpted from The Collected Stories by Grace Paley. Copyright © 1994 Grace Paley. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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