- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
The adventures of a sixth-grader growing up in Brooklyn during World War II.
The sirens went off just as I was coming to the best part of the book, the chapter where the heroine discovers that her new friend is really her long-lost sister. "Oh, for heaven's sake," I said, trying to read a few more lines.
But my father was putting his white helmet on, and that whistle around his neck that always reminded me of gym teachers. "Hurry up," he said. "Come on, children! Etta!" he called to my mother, who was very neat and couldn't go down to the air-raid shelter until she was sure the seams of her stockings were straight.
This all happened during World War II when my father was the air-raid warden for our street. If anyone left even a single twenty-five-watt bulb on during a blackout, when it was supposed to be completely dark, my father blew on his whistle until he was red in the face. He would mutter about enemy planes finding Brooklyn someday because of one little light and about how we all had to cooperate and stick together.
My little brother, Theodore, who didn't like loud noises, and especially sirens, was hiding under the kitchen table, and my older sister, Velma, couldn't be found anywhere.
"Velma!" my father shouted. "Where is that girl? The war will be over before we get downstairs."
I knocked on the bathroom door. "Velma? Are you in there? You better hurry up. Can't you hear the sirens?"
The door opened and someone with a green face was looking back at me.
"Well, don't just stare," Velma said.
"Wh—what happened to you?"
"Nothing happened, baby. It's just a beauty mask. A person can't have any peace or privacy in this place." She was rubbing her face with a towel all the time she was talking.
"The towel's getting green," I said.
"Nobody asked you," Velma said, turning red under the green.
Daddy blew two short blasts on his whistle. "Let's go, everybody." He reached his hand under the table to Theodore. "Come on, Ted, old sport. Nothing to be afraid of."
Finally we were all out in the hallway with our neighbors and Daddy led us to the air-raid shelter, which was really the basement of our apartment building, a place that scared the life out of me.
Of course I wasn't too scared then, when everyone in the building was there together. We all stayed very close to one another and the grownups made funny jokes and sang songs to keep the children cheerful, so we wouldn't think about enemy planes and bombs and things like that. Some of the women formed a little group and talked about their children and about recipes and food prices, just as if they were sitting on a park bench in the sunshine. Old Mr. Katz from apartment 4J told corny jokes and riddles. "What has four wheels and flies?" he asked.
"What does?" said Mrs. Katz, even though she had heard all his jokes a million times.
"A garbage truck!" Mr. Katz yelled, and he laughed so hard that he didn't notice everyone else was groaning.
I had to hold Theodore's hand and he held on so tight that my hand got all hot and sticky.
"I'll just die if anyone sees me," Velma whispered to Mother.
"You look fine," Mother said, "perfectly fine," even though there was still a little green around Velma's eyes and on her chin.
I looked around me at the gray walls and I shivered. That basement held in its shadows every horror it was possible to imagine. Never, never go down in the basement alone, we were warned. But I hardly needed a warning. I wouldn't go down there alone, even on a dare. What lurked, what waited with perfect patience for us? The Mummy waited, or perhaps just his hand, floating in space. Mr. Hyde waited, or worse still, Dr. Jekyll, who at the very moment he saw us would become Mr. Hyde. Heh, heh, heh. Janitors waited, nameless, faceless janitors famous for their torture of children stupid enough to wander into basements. Witches, bogeymen, murderers, Ali Baba's thieves, Heidi's wicked aunt, Captain Hook, vicious dogs, dead bodies ...
"Let go," Theodore whined, and I realized that I was holding his hand too tight.
"Sorry," I said, and to make up for it, I played spider fingers on his arm and sang his favorite song about eating worms.
Velma looked at us and sighed, shaking her head. Mr. Katz told a joke about a dentist. Then he told another one about two women in a butcher shop. All the grownups laughed and Mrs. Katz laughed the loudest and the longest.
Then the all-clear siren began to blow and we all stood and smiled at one another. Daddy began to lead us upstairs again. Velma was still grumbling about her beauty mask and about being interrupted.
Daddy tucked his arm in hers. "Be grateful," he said, "that it's only an air-raid drill, and not the real thing." Some of the grownups murmured in agreement as we climbed the stairs.
"What has forty eyes, green wings, and a bad disposition?" Mr. Katz called out.
"What has?" Mrs. Katz said, but then a door slammed shut and I never heard the answer.CHAPTER 2
The next day I came out of school and saw Theodore waiting, as usual, to walk home with me. His feet shuffled in my outgrown galoshes and his nose was running. My heart swelled with love for him, and I squeezed his mittened hand when we crossed the street until he shrieked with pain.
Poor Theodore, he had so many problems. Right from the beginning, people said terrible things about him. "I never saw such a sour baby," Aunt Lena said. "His face could stop an eight-day clock," the rich great-uncle added, rattling the change in his pockets.
It was true that Theodore was different from other kids. Everything he did seemed to be a little harder for him than for anyone else. When he cut his first tooth, he screamed all night. When he had the chicken pox, he was sicker than any other kid in the neighborhood. When he first learned to walk, his feet turned in and he fell all the time. Once he fell against a glass-topped coffee table and he had to have stitches in three different places. I remember best the sound of his crying, a sort of whoop, whoop, whoop, like the noise of the air-raid siren.
When Theodore began to speak, he stuttered, and when he was six years old he broke his first permanent tooth by falling off his chair during supper. Poor Theodore. He seemed to be visited by the meanest fairy in the kingdom, just like Sleeping Beauty. I decided to be Theodore's good witch. Somehow I would help him to change. I would help him with his schoolwork and he would become a real scholar. His name would be on the Honor Roll and he would be the teacher's pet. I made a secret vow that he would live at least until his Bar Mitzvah, and since he had already suffered two concussions and a case of double pneumonia, his chances didn't look that good. To protect him, I had to be his close companion. Being close, I fell in love with him.
I didn't even waste the time we spent walking home from school. Instead, I drilled him in spelling and arithmetic. "Two and two?" I asked. "How much is two and two?"
His fingers moved inside the mitten. "F-four?" he answered, and I kissed the sleeve of his plaid jacket.
"Four and four?"
Just then two nuns turned the corner and came toward us. The wind came gustily at the same moment and I think to Theodore they were the wind, or some terrible swooping black birds, their robes whipping out like wings.
Theodore pinched my finger. "D-do they like people?" he whispered.
"Of course," I told him. "Of course. Can't you see? They're people themselves!"
But when they passed us he shuddered, and when they reached the corner behind us he turned, dragging his feet to watch until they were out of sight. "D-do they l-like boys?"
"Oh, for heaven's sakes!" I cried. "Don't tell me you're going to be a little sissy!" As soon as I said it, I was sorry. Without thinking, I had joined the enemy. It was true that Theodore was scared of just about everything. But if I didn't pretend he was a strong brave boy, nobody else ever would. I was his last chance.
When we got home—after running past the basement entrance, of course—I tried to make it up to him. I unbuttoned his jacket and pulled off his mittens although he was certainly old enough to do all that himself. I rolled my eyes and sang crazy instant songs for him in a very high-pitched voice. "Oh Theodore, leave your galoshes on the floor, you are the one that I adore, forever mo-ore!" I tap-danced wildly on the little space of wooden floor at the edge of the living-room rug.
Velma kept turning around at the desk where she was doing her homework. She shook her head and gave us dirty looks, but I didn't pay any attention to her.
During supper I tickled his leg under the table and he choked on his mashed potatoes. Mother had to pound him on the back. "Enough!" she said. "Stop it right now!" as if he was choking on purpose.
"Infants," Velma said, sniffing. She's three years older than me and she was going to the big high school. It seemed that Velma and I hardly talked to one another except to say "Don't touch my things" or "Lower that radio," or something else that would start an argument.
Daddy just smiled at us, his eyeglasses all steamed up from the hot food. It was hard to make him angry, unless you did something to harm the war effort. He always tried to help Theodore too, by being very patient with him and by calling him Ted and Sport and other manly names. He called me Shirley-girl.
After dinner Velma and my mother washed the dishes and my father went inside to lie down on the sofa and read the evening paper. We could hear him clucking his tongue and sighing over the war news. Then he fell asleep and I took the opened newspaper right out of his hands without waking him up. My father worked in a factory where ladies' dresses were made. He was a cutter, which meant that he had to cut pieces of fabric with a very sharp-bladed machine, in exact sizes and shapes, following a paper pattern. Later, sewing-machine operators put the pieces together and they became dresses that were sold in big department stores. My father's trousers always had a rainbow of colored threads all over them. That night, while he slept on the sofa, Theodore and I pulled the threads off, very carefully one at a time, and rolled them into a beautiful thread ball. At eight o'clock Mother called, "Theodore! Bedtime!" and he followed me into the room the two of us shared. Velma had the other, very tiny bedroom all to herself, and our parents slept on a high-riser bed in the living room. Every night it had to be opened before they went to sleep, and every morning my father closed it again before he went to work. My mother said that someday Theodore would have the little bedroom and Velma and I would share the bigger one. As soon as Theodore was a little older. As soon as he was a little less afraid of everything.
Now he took his pajamas from the bureau drawer and went into the bathroom to brush his teeth, while I got the room ready for him. I plumped his pillow and turned down the covers. Then I took the rubber plant off the top of the bureau because at night its shadow looked exactly like an octopus. Of course I couldn't take away his memory of the octopus. He shivered under the quilt. I looked under his bed and in the closet. "Nobody here and nobody here," I said. "All clear. Safe and sound. Good night. Sweet dreams." I patted the nervous lump that was Theodore and tiptoed out of the room.CHAPTER 3
In the morning, when Theodore and I were leaving for school, we met Mrs. Golub, who lived by herself in apartment 3H. She was the only grownup I knew who kept scrapbooks of movie stars. My mother always said that Mrs. Golub was star-struck, and when she said it she shook her head to let us know that Mrs. Golub was someone to feel sorry for, like an orphan. Poor foolish Mrs. Golub. She lived all alone and it was said that she talked to herself when there was no one else to listen.
That morning Mrs. Golub was waiting for us just outside the building, her breath blowing out in little white clouds. "Hello, Shirley," she said, falling right into step with us. "And how is the little fellow doing this morning?" But she never waited for an answer. "I saw Clark in that new movie at the Loew's," she said. "What a man! So handsome! So debonair!"
Clark was Clark Gable, the famous actor. Actors and actresses were all Mrs. Golub ever talked about. And she talked about them as if she knew them personally, as if they were her very best friends, calling them Joan and Clark and Barbara. "No wonder all those Hollywood marriages end up in divorce," Mrs. Golub said, walking along beside us. "I'd like to see what Mrs. Average Housewife would do if she had to put up with all the pressures of the Silver Screen. All that kissing and hugging they have to do, for the cameras. They just want to be treated like ordinary human beings, but people don't give them a chance. Take Bette, for instance, or Joan. I just love Joan. She is really a sincere person."
"Mrs. Golub," I said, interrupting her. "Don't you think Theodore is handsome?"
She frowned as if she couldn't understand what I'd said, as if I had awakened her from a very deep sleep. I suppose she was dreaming of herself walking on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, wearing beautiful flowered beach pajamas. I had pulled her back to the slushy Brooklyn street. She touched her tight henna-red curls with one hand and tugged on the fox collar of her coat with the other. "What's that, sweetheart?" she asked.
It seemed useless but I went on anyway, for Theodore's sake. "I said, don't you think my brother is handsome?"
She bent down and pulled the cap back from Theodore's forehead. He was always very pale in the winter and his eyes and hair were pale as well. He looked back at her like a sleepy rabbit. He snuffled and blinked.
"Mmmmmm," she said, and then she put one gloved finger on Theodore's nose. "Do you see that?" she asked, and I wondered if something terrible had grown there since I'd looked at him last. Theodore wriggled. "Hold still, sweetie," Mrs. Golub ordered. "Look, hon, do you see that bridge there? It wouldn't make it. It just wouldn't photograph. God knows, a thing like that could make you or break you in Hollywood. Between you and me, I heard that John had to have his remade before they'd even touch him."
I sighed. I wasn't the least bit interested in turning Theodore into a movie star. I was just hoping that Mrs. Golub would say something nice about him to give him some self-confidence. But it was no use. If the subject wasn't movie stars and Hollywood, Mrs. Golub simply wasn't interested. I was glad when we got to school and she said goodbye to us. "Ta ta, kiddies," she said, waving her fingers, and turned and headed back toward home.
Theodore and I entered the schoolyard, where the lines were already forming for the different grades. Theodore shuffled over to the first-grade line and I joined my best friend, Mitzi Bloom, who was standing with the other sixth-graders.
Mitzi and I were opposites. She was tall and slender and she had fine blond hair, and I was short and a little plump and my head was a mess of dark curls. We had been best friends since the first grade. Sometimes we had terrible fights and wouldn't talk to each other for days, but we couldn't stay angry forever. For one thing, Mitzi told wonderful jokes and almost any time you looked at her she was smiling or making crazy faces or doing something goofy that made you laugh.
For another thing, I was always on the Honor Roll at school, ever since the first grade, and Mitzi didn't do too well in arithmetic and spelling, even though she was very smart. So we really needed each other.
"Knock knock," she said, as I approached the sixth-grade line.
"Ida wanna go to school!"
"Ha ha," I said. "Me too." Which wasn't really true. I liked school, even though I would never admit it to anyone. I even liked the school smells, the chalk, the musty smell of the clothes closet, the paper and ink smells of the books when I opened them on my desk. We had a sunny, cheerful room that year. Our teacher, Miss Cohen, had plants all over the place, and pictures hanging on every wall. There were signs about the war effort too. A SLIP OF THE LIPS SINKS SHIPS, said one, which meant you were not supposed to repeat any information about U.S. troops, in case an enemy spy was listening. Sometimes when Mitzi looked at the signs she would get a strange sad expression on her face and I knew she was thinking about her brother, Buddy, who was in the Army somewhere in Germany. He was only eighteen years old but he had joined the Army the day after his birthday. Sometimes they didn't get a letter from him for weeks, and the whole Bloom family would worry and wait downstairs in the hallway of their building for the mailman to come.
Mitzi's mother hung a little silk flag in the window, with a single blue star on it. That meant there was a serviceman in the family. A flag with two blue stars meant that there were two servicemen, but one with a gold star on it meant that the serviceman in that family had been killed in the war. There were none like that in the windows of our building, although there were about eight of them with blue stars.
Excerpted from Introducing Shirley Braverman by Hilma Wolitzer. Copyright © 1975 Hilma Wolitzer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.