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Up the street, slowly, Ollie Swaggeked, his head cocked, his hands in pockets bulging with the immies he had won. Because he knew he would win again; he knew he could go on winning until there wasn't another immie left in the world. He selected a round beautiful red glassy, and tossed it away. That was the way Ollie felt.
The world was full of hot sunlight and red brick walls, and the world, stretching from avenue to avenue, was held in by the walls. Maybe that was why Ollie loomed so big, because the world was so small. Big and small, big and small; but, until something larger came, Ollie was king. He knew he was king, and he attempted to walk like a king, brushing back his long yellow hair from his eyes, throwing back his head. Still, it was an easy world to be king of now, dozing and hot, and all sort of vague. Ollie was conscious of that vagueness that came in the middle of the summer-time; it made him too lazy, even, to fight. It was easy to be king, and, if' nobody wanted to fight, you didn't want to fight yourself. What then?
He rattled his immies, and then he noticed a little Jew sitting on the curb. Dimly, as a king, he knew that the little Jew's name was Ishky.
"Hey, yuh stinkin' kikel" Ollie yelled good-naturedly.
"Wanna shoot immies? Aincha got none?"
"Yer a shark."
"G'wan, I ain'."
"Awright, den—gimme yer immies."
"Aw, Ollie," the little Jew began to beg.
"Yuh heard me."
"I'll play yuh."
"Gimme dem," Ollie commanded. Again he brushed back his yellow hair, weaving luxuriously. The sun was hot; it is never so hot as in July, and no matter how many times they wet the streets, it does no good. You can't cool streets when they become hot as the summer sun.
Then Ollie walked away with four more immies. He was eleven years and two months, Ollie was, with yellow hair and blue eyes. He was a king; his eyes twinkled like the blue sky, and he was beautiful.
I didn't hate Ollie, because he was beautiful—not like Ralph the Wop; I just sat there after he had taken my four immies, and after a little while the hot sun made me feel better inside of myself. There was a big hole in my shoe, and there was a hole in my stocking, too, so I could see my large toe, watch it as I moved it about from side to side and then up and down. There was the toe and the street and the sun, and anyway I would have lost the immies sooner or later.
Ollie was lazy and rich; otherwise he might have taken a sock out of the little Jew bastard. But when Ollie was lazy and rich, he became big; it wasn't hard for Ollie to become big.
Now it was the morning, only half-past nine in the morning, and all of the long hot summer day stretched ahead. For Ollie, there was adventure in any one of a thousand possibilities.
Now, almost at the avenue, Ollie could look down the block. It was long—or maybe Ollie was small and the block was not so long. But the block was his, and if he stayed on the block he would be king. He wouldn't be king anywhere else; anywhere else he would have to fight, his way, and when you fight, you take your chances on winning or losing. His pockets were full of round beautiful glass immies; the day was young and bright, and the spirit of adventure was hot inside of him.
He stopped to tease a cat. The cat was yellow and white; as soon as it saw Ollie, it arched its back, drew its four feet together, and began to yowl and spit. The cat knew Ollie; Ollie knew the cat.
"C'mere," Ollie said.
The cat lifted a foot, daintily, warningly.
The foot wavered, and then it wavered a moment too long, and Ollie had the cat. By the scruff of its neck he lifted it, swinging it back and forth.
"Dere, liddle yellaw basted—dere, whaddya goin' t'do now? Whaddya goin' tuh do now I got yuh? Whaddya goin' t'do?"
The cat whimpered pleadingly, clawing feebly with its feet. It was an old cat, without a great deal of spirit; and it knew Ollie. Vaguely, in its cat's way, it knew that Ollie was king. What are you to do with a king, if you are a cat? If you fight back, in the end it doesn't matter, because otherwise the king wouldn't be a king. So what are you to do?
Ollie swung the cat in a great circle, and then he sent it flying through the air. Catlike, it landed on its feet, and again it paid the penalty for being an old cat, for Ollie was upon it, kneeling next to it. Spreading its paws, he turned it over.
"Hey, Ishky!" he screamed.
Ishky looked at him. Ishky had admired the battle with the cat. When it came to cats, there wasn't anyone like Ollie.
"Hey, Ishky, c'mere."
Slowly, warily as the cat, Ishky approached. You could never tell about a king, or what new kind of devilishness he was up to. You had to always watch and watch. That was how life went on, otherwise it would not be endurable at all. Only if you watched, and even then you were caught plenty of times.
"C'mere, Ishky—lookit dis cat."
"Betcha it's a she cat, Ishky?"
"Betcha—betcha I c'n tell if it's a he cat or a she cat."
"Betcha you can't."
"G'wan an' putcha finger dere, Ishky. Feel aroun' an' see. G'wan an' do it, Ishky."
"Whatsa matter? Yuh yella? Whatsa matter witcha anyway? Geesus!"
"I ain' yella, Ollie. Hones', I ain'. Oney it's dirdy."
"Well, a liddle dirt ain' goin' tuh killya."
"You do it, Ollie. I'll hol' duh cat."
"Yuh ain' got guts tuh."
"Well, lemme showya, Ollie."
Ollie glanced up at him, hesitated, then nodded. How beautiful Ollie was, with his yellow hair and his blue eyes. Those two, the most beautiful things in the world, yellow hair and blue eyes. Yellow hair like silk or spun gold;—and Ishky was looking at the yellow hair, and that was why the cat sprang away, and for no other reason than that. The hair is beautiful and fine, and the eyes sparkle like the sky; if the sky is inside of the eyes, could you expect any less than that from Ollie? But the cat got away.
"Geesus Christ, yuh liddle Jew basted!"
"I swear I din' mean tuh do it, Ollie."
"I'm gonna beat duh ass offana yuh."
"I din' mean it, Ollie."
"Put up, or do yuh wan' me tuh giveya lumps?"
"I din' mean it, Ollie."
Ollie got tired of hitting him; after all, he was a king, and what was the use of fighting, when the person you fought with didn't fight back? What was the use? So Ollie left him and wandered around the corner. There was a garbage can there, full to the brim, and smelly. First, Ollie took the cover off. Then he ran at it and kicked it. The can went over, and the garbage spilled into the street. For a little while, Ollie kicked the garbage around, but he tired of that. He stood in the sun, in the garbage, hands in his pockets—
Alert, defiant, laughing inside of himself, Ollie was. Let the landlord come out, or the janitor. The janitor was a wop, and Ollie hoped he would come out himself. He split an overripe melon with his toe, scattering it onto the hot stoop. Laughing, he showed his white teeth. Let the whole world come out of the house, and it would make no difference to Ollie.
The janitor came out, raging. He was a small man, with long black mustaches, and part of a breakfast egg was still on his cheek.
"Dirdy Irish louse!" he screamed.
"G'wan, yuh dago bitch!"
"Piss on yer cheek."
Then Ollie fled, laughing and waving his arms.
I was hurt more because Ollie had hit me than from the pain of the blows. What are blows? Blows pass, and then the pain is gone. And the pain inside of you? Well, that passes, too, I guess. I guess that all things pass, because in the end I don't remember too much. I just remember what is nice.
My name is Ishky, and even that is contempt. But there isn't contempt inside of me. Could Ollie dream the way I do about things that might happen, but don't? It is early in the morning, and everything is clean and beautiful and warm, and I am happy to be alive. I am happy even after Ollie hits me, only—
Why didn't I hit back? I thought of doing it. No matter how much Ollie hurts me, if I hit back, it's not so bad. But instead I stand there and do nothing at all, and then I begin to cry. And why is that so?
But I don't know, and, anyway, how long should I think of that when the sun is so bright in the morning? And Ollie is gone. He's gone off the block, which is what I mean when I say that he is gone.
I sit down on the curb again, and I find a little piece of wood with which to disturb the water that runs in the gutter. There is always water running in the gutter, brown and black water, wonderful water. But any water is wonderful. Don't I know that?CHAPTER 2
On the block then, and it wasn't so long ago, there was a division in this way. At the top, or east end, there were Americans, real old Americans, and their fathers had been American, and their fathers—nobody knows how far back. They lived in the four houses at the top of the block.
Then there were the Jews, in two houses, two small red houses. They had a certain sense of apartness, because they lived so near to the Americans.
The Italians were all in one brown house, a little shabby brown house, yet there seemed to be more Italians than Americans and Jews together.
The Spaniards were scattered here and there, and the spick gang was nothing at all, because even the Jews could beat them up.
In the middle of the block, in wooden houses, the Irish lived and ruled. They could fight like hell. You were always very careful of the micks, because they could fight like hell. Even the little shanty bastards who had nothing at all, could at least fight like hell.
There were Negroes down the block, and everyone said that it ruined the block to have black folks there, but who could stop the Negroes from coming? You never knew what was what, and then all of a sudden there were a lot of little Negroes on the street. They simply came from nowhere at all, and of course everyone said that it would ruin the block in the end. But they did no harm; they weren't people to go around picking fights.
There was more to the block than that, fences and railings and dark halls, and cellars—ah, what cellars there were, deep ones, and strange ones, and silent ones.
Mostly life was battle, battle from morning to night; it was strange how you went about, just living. But wounds heal quickly, and it is easy to forget. Even when you are hard hurt, you heal quickly.
Sometimes, there is peace. That is how it was this morning, nearing ten o'clock, hot and beautiful as only a summer day could be. Low hanging, the sun made shadows with the houses. There were birds pecking their breakfast from the street.CHAPTER 3
If only I had a beautiful name, like Arthur or Daniel. But I'm Ishky—and that's all. I knew it then, when she came to the stoop and stood there.
She had a small white dress and a blue ribbon, and she was the most wonderful creature on the block. Her name was Marie, and she was an Italian with long yellow hair. You can only imagine how beautiful she was, because I can't tell you. But she had the kind of eyes that are like flowers.
She was looking for Ollie, not exactly looking for him, but looking at everything on the street, wondering whether, perhaps, Ollie would be some part of it She was afraid of Ollie—still.
There was nothing on the street now but Ishky and people who were grown. Ishky sat on the edge of the curb, his feet in the gutter, his head in the palm of one hand; with the other hand he stirred the murky water that ran beneath him. To Marie, he seemed aware of nothing at all—unless you would call the water that ran beneath him something. But why was he concentrating upon the water?
Marie looked at the water—plain murky water. And she tossed her head. There was nothing there to look at. Yet Ishky took on a new attraction, simply because he was looking at the water.
Marie stepped gingerly down to the sidewalk. Twice, she skipped; then she crossed the street. Then she walked in a circle about Ishky. Ishky's face burned, but he stirred the water with the same intense concentration.
"Whatcha got dere?" Marie demanded.
"Whaddya doin' wid it?"
Marie sat down next to him. She knew he was a Jew. When you were very close to a Jew, you felt kind of funny about it, if you remembered he was a Jew. Anyway, all the Jews were funny, funnier than the micks.
She looked at him. His shirt was dirty, and his shoes were full of holes. His toes stuck out. The Jews were very poor, but she knew they had money hidden away. Everybody said that they had money hidden away, only they never spent it. They kept it, and each night they counted their piles of gold. That was one of the queer things Jews did.
"It's dirdy," she said.
"I know. No good tuh drink."
"C'n I play?"
He turned around to look at her. He had brown eyes, curly hair, and a very thin face. But his face was flushed and red, and his mouth half open. And when she looked at his face, she thought of Ollie, though she didn't know just why.
"Jus' playin'. Y'wanna play?"
"Gimme yer stick."
He gave her the stick. She was so beautiful that he would have given her the world, had it been his; and he was happy. He was happy just to sit, lazy, in the sun, with her next to him.
That was all he wanted. He could see how the sunlight sparkled on her hair.
Then she threw the stick away—tossing it out into the gutter.
"Dat ain' no good."
"Yeah, I guess so."
She threw an arch sidewise glance at him. He wasn't so much, but anyway she wasn't afraid of him, like she was of Ollie. Only Ollie wouldn't sit on the curb and do nothing at all. They said that a Jew could just think of being a Jew, and that was enough.
"Whatsit like t'be a Jew?" she wanted to know.
"Like bein' Christian?"
"C'mon over duh stoop," she said.
They walked over to the stoop, sitting down there again. Shyly, he reached to her hand, hesitated, and then took it. Warm and small, it rested inside of his, and she glanced at him, raising her upper lip.
"Yuh mustn' do dat."
"I don' wanna be bad."
Calculatively, she looked at him, smiling just a little, her upper lip still raised over her gums. With a precise motion, she drew her dress down over her knees. She turned away; then she looked at him again.
"It's like lookin' at a nakid lady," she said.
"Dincha never see one?"
"A nakid lady."
Ishky stared at her, at her yellow hair and her wonderful blue eyes.
"Wanna see one?"
Ishky was running across the street. She stared at him, unbelievingly, and then she waved her arms over her head.
"G'wan run, yuh dirdy Jew!"
You see, A that, was Marie, whom I loved then. Maybe I love her now, since that was not too long ago.
But where is the summer day? Everything is gone—except that I am still Ishky; but everything else is gone.
The beautiful song inside of me went. I ran into the hall, where it was dark and comfortable, and I sat down against one wall. Nobody would think of looking for me there, but who would want to look for me? Through the darkness, I stared at my fingers, counting them. One to ten—they were all there. Why did my fingers make so much difference?
But Marie—If I only could tell her some of the things I know, she would not be the way she is; for Marie is beautiful and perfect and fine. If I could tell her of the secret garden....
I read about the secret garden somewhere, and then I began to look for it. A beautiful garden, where you simply have to be happy. I knew it was somewhere.
Behind our house, there is a yard, surrounded by a high wooden fence. To get into the yard, you go through the cellar, and then up a little flight of wooden steps with an iron railing. You open the cellar door, and you are outside in the sunshine, and in front of you is the fence. And just at the bottom of the fence, a little grass grows. I knew the secret garden was there, though I had never been there.
If I could tell that to Marie—
We could both come and stare at the fence. If you have a secret word, a door in the fence opens, and then you are in the garden. I saw myself walking in the garden with Marie. Of course, there is more sunlight there than anywhere else, and what a picture the sunlight would make of Marie's hair and face! There would be flowers as blue as her eyes and as red as her cheeks....
But that's dreaming—no more than dreaming, because I'm here alone in the hall, hiding from Marie. And what if Marie should come into the hall here, looking for me? What if she should?
Excerpted from The Children by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1947 Howard Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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