Dark Lady from Belorusse: A Memoir

Dark Lady from Belorusse: A Memoir

by Jerome Charyn


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312168087
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 09/28/1997
Pages: 106
Product dimensions: 8.53(w) x 5.81(h) x 0.58(d)

About the Author

Jerome Charyn's stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Paris Review, American Scholar, Epoch, Narrative, Ellery Queen, and other magazines. His most recent novel is I Am Abraham. He lived for many years in Paris and currently resides in Manhattan.

Read an Excerpt


Letter from Mogilev

We would walk the streets, a prodigy in short pants and his mother, so defiantly beautiful that all transactions stopped, and we'd enter a slow-motion world where women, men, children, dogs, cats, and firemen in their trucks would look at her with such longing in their eyes, that I felt like some usurper who was carrying her off to another hill. I was only five in '42, a nervous boy who couldn't spell his own name. My mother wore her silver fox coat, designed and cut for her by my father, Sam, who was a foreman in a Manhattan fur shop. The coat was contraband, and should have gone to the Navy. My father's shop had a contract with the War Department to supply the Navy with fur-lined vests so its admirals and ordinary sailors wouldn't freeze to death aboard some battleship.

It was a darkly romantic time. The Bronx sat near the Atlantic Ocean without a proper seawall, and there was talk of attack squads arriving in little rubber boats off some tricky submarine, getting into the sewer system, and gobbling up my native ground. But I never saw a Nazi on our walks. And what power would any of them have had against the shimmering outline of my mother in her silver fox coat? She was born in 1911, like Ginger Rogers and Jean Harlow, but she didn't have their platinum look: she was the dark lady from Belorusse.

We weren't on a pleasure stroll. It was our daily trip to the post office, where my mother was expecting a letter from Mogilev, in White Russia, where her brother lived, a schoolteacher who'd raised her after their own mother had died. I'm not sure why this letter couldn't have been delivered to the mailbox in our building. Had the Germans seized Mogilev, and my uncle could only write via some secret system in the Soviet underground?

The postmaster would always come out from behind his window when my mother appeared. He was a cranky little man who wore slippers and liked to shout at his clerks. But he was kind to the dark lady's little boy. He would take me through his side of the wall and show me the "graveyard," a gigantic sack where all the dead letters lay, sad undeliverable things, with postmarks from all over the planet. I would sift through the pile, look at the pictures on the stamps, smell the glue, while the postmaster squeezed my mother's hand. But not even this wizard of the mail could produce a letter from Mogilev.

She would tremble on the journey home as we climbed hill after hill. She walked like a drunken lady. It was from my mother that I learned how memory could kill. She could survive as long as she had word from Mogilev. But there was no word in the middle of a war, only mountains of dead-letter boxes between Belorusse and the Bronx.

She started smoking cigarettes. And I had to smother a fallen match and slap at the little fires that seemed to collect in her wake. I would dust the walls with a dry mop and attend to my mother's goose, opening the oven door to stab at the bird with a fork, until it was the way my father liked it, dark and crisp and unchewable.

I would put his whisky on the table, pour him a shot, and jabber endlessly, ask him whatever nonsense came into my head, to camouflage my mother's silences. But as soon as he left the house, she would pretend that her brother was calling from Mogilev (we didn't even have a telephone), and she'd laugh and cry in a Russian that was so melodious, I would get confused until I believed that all language was born on a phantom phone.

Her English had no music; it was halting and cruel, like a twisted tongue. But I was a clever little bastard. I would clutch at her phrases like building blocks and sing my own backward sentence-songs. "In the sea, mama, drowns many broken ships." I'd never been to the sea. But I could imagine the great Atlantic where those German subs prowled like crocodiles. My mother had promised to take me across the bridge into Manhattan and watch the ocean liners that lay hobbled in the Hudson and couldn't get into the war. But there was always that letter from Mogilev on her mind, and she didn't seem able to plot the simple logic of our trip.

And so we were marooned in the Bronx. My mother got more morose. She would stand in front of the mirror for an hour with a pot of rouge and a canister of lipstick and paint her face. Then she'd start to cry and ruin all the work she did, enormous teardrops eating into the paint with their own salty acid. I'd follow her into the street and head for the post office, people staring at this flaw in the dark lady, the tracks in her face. It couldn't have made her less appealing, because the postmaster was twice as attentive.

"Some coffee, Mrs. Charyn?" he said, and coffee was hard to find. He'd have pieces of candy for me, and cups of cocoa, which marked my own lips. But my mother was deeply discouraged. The pain had eaten into her ritual.

"No letter Mogilev?"

"It will come, Mrs. Charyn. Russian letters are notorious. They ride very slow, but they never fail."

He'd dance around her in his slippers, scowl at his clerks, pirouette with his coffeepot, but my mother hardly noticed. She hadn't risked disappointment day after day to become part of his coffee club. He couldn't have charmed her with all the candy in the world.

And I was lost at sea. I had to pilot my mother from place to place, undress her, cook my father's goose. But I was getting lucky. I didn't have to go to school. Kindergarten had been canceled in the Bronx. There was a terrible shortage of teachers, and someone must have figured that five-year-olds like me could sit at home with wooden blocks and a pound of clay. I didn't have time for clay. I had to groom my mother, coax her into shape, fool my father into believing she was perfectly fine. I fed him Scotch and gin. He was wall-eyed when he left the dinner table. He would ask my mother questions, and I would answer, once, twice, until I got slapped.

"Mind your business, Baby."

Baby, that's what he would call his own kid to make him suffer. I couldn't read or write, but I could listen to the radio. I heard the battle reports, how the British commandos were making amphibious landings in the middle of the desert, and knocking the hell out of Hitler's Africa Corps. I asked my father to call me Soldier or Little Sergeant, but he never did.

Dad was the sergeant, not me. Cutting fur-lined vests for a lot of admirals had kept him out of the war, but he still had his own uniform: a white helmet that looked like a shallow pot and a white armband with a complicated insignia (a blue circle with a triangle of red and white stripes sitting inside). My father was an air-raid warden with the rank of sergeant. He would patrol the streets after dark with a silver whistle around his neck and make sure that every single window in his assigned radius of blocks had a blackout curtain. If a light blazed from a window, he'd warn you with his whistle and shout, "Lights out, smarty." And if that didn't work, he could call the cops or summon you before the Civilian Defense Board. He was an impeccable warden, my dad, heartless within his own small hegemony, willing to risk the wrath of friends, neighbors, anyone who misbehaved. He'd herd you into a cellar if he ever caught you in the street during an air-raid drill. Some people wouldn't listen to Sergeant Sam, some rebelled, beat him into the ground until other wardens arrived, or a cop rescued him. Even in '42, his first year as a warden, he had a medal from Mayor LaGuardia, chief of Civilian Defense. I caught LaGuardia on the radio. "We have our soldiers in Brooklyn and the Bronx, brave men who go forth without a gun, who guard the home front against saboteurs and unpatriotic people. What would I do without my wardens?"

And if dad came home with a bruised eye and a broken whistle, his armband torn, a big dent in his white hat, it was the Baby who had to search for Mercurochrome, while my mother sat forlorn in the living room, dreaming of Russian mail. He was much more solicitous in moments of sorrow, almost endearing with dirt on his face. He'd clutch my hand, look at FDR's picture on the wall, while I swabbed his eye with a cotton stick.

"Baby, shouldn't we write to the President?"

"He's busy, dad, he's drowning in mail. A warden can't complain. How would it look if you snitch? You'll give the Bronx a bad name."

Of course I couldn't speak in full flowing sentences. My melody went something like this: "Drownin', dad, the prez. Eatin' vanilla envelopes. And you better be quiet. The Bronx will kill a tattytale."

Dad got my drift.

"Who's a tattytale?"

But he wouldn't have slapped me with Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the wall. Even in her distraction, my mother blessed FDR whenever she lit a candle. The blood that flowed in him was our blood too.

Anyway, dad couldn't have written to Roosevelt. He was as unlettered as I was, as feeble with the pen. He could barely scratch a few words in his Civilian Defense reports. And so he suffered quietly, licked his wounds, and we went to church on the high holidays, with his face still black and blue. I had to dress my mother, make sure her mascara didn't run. We didn't belong to that temple on the Grand Concourse, Adath Israel, with its white stone pillars and big brass door. Adath Israel was where all the millionaire doctors and lawyers went. The services were held in English. The assistant rabbi at Adath Israel was also a painter and a poet. He gave classes at night for kids in the neighborhood. We called him Len. He was in love with the dark lady. That's why he encouraged me, let me into his class. He wanted us to join the temple, but my father wouldn't go near any place that didn't have a cantor. That was the disadvantage of English. A cantor would have had nothing to sing.

We went to the old synagogue at the bottom of the hill. It was made of crumbling brick; portions of the steeple would rain down from the roof. There had been three fires at the synagogue since the war began, and the "incendiary bomb," as we called it, was always about to close. But we had Gilbert Rogovin, who'd been a choirboy here and had studied at the cantors' college in Cincinnati, Ohio. Our cantor could have made a fortune singing holy songs on Fifth Avenue, but he always returned to the Bronx. He was a bigwig at the Cincinnati Opera House. He played Spanish barbers and mad Moroccan kings when he wasn't with us.

He was married to the diva Marilyn Kraus, and he would always bring her to our crumbling synagogue. She was a Herculean beauty, six feet tall, with the hands of a football player and a full, floating figure. When she trod up to the balcony, where all the women sat, the stairs shivered under her feet. The balcony was full of opera fans who worshiped Marilyn, called her Desdemona, and I wondered if this Desdemona was another dark lady from Belorusse.

I had the privilege of sitting with my mother and all the other women, because I was only five. Desdemona hunkered down next to us on our narrow bench, her enormous hands cradled in her lap, like a despotic queen of the balcony. She waved to the cantor, who wore a white robe and was about to wave back when he discovered the woman near his wife. The breath seemed to go out of his body. He was just like those firemen who had seen my mother for the first time. Lost in her world of letter boxes, she didn't even smile at him. The cantor was all alone; he couldn't pierce the devotion in her dark eyes. He stood among his choirboys, started to sing. But he wasn't like a postmaster dancing in slippers. He was the custodian of songs. He brought my mother out of her dream with his opening syllables. A woman swooned. I had to run and find her smelling salts...

He leaned against the gate with a cigarette in his mouth. A cantor wasn't allowed to smoke on the high holidays. But Rogovin could do no wrong. Desdemona wasn't with him. She must have gone back to their suite at the Concourse Plaza. My mother and I had ventured out of the synagogue with Sergeant Sam, who'd become a local hero because of his little calvaries as an air-raid warden. He was like a special policeman with a wounded face. The cantor saluted him. "Sergeant, I'd like to borrow your boy."

None of us had ever been that close to the cantor, who had little white hairs in his nose. He wore a strange perfume, smelled like a certain red flower at the Bronx Zoo.

"It's an honor," my father said. "But how can I help you? The boy is five. He doesn't have working papers. He can't spell."

"It's a sad story. My old mother has been pestering me to have a child. I had to invent one."

"You lied to her, Cantor?"

"It's scandalous. But mom's half blind, lives at a nursing home in the Bronx. Have to make mom happy before she dies."

Rogovin sobbed into his handkerchief. I'd never seen a cantor cry. His tears were the size of my mother's crystal earrings. Dad took pity on him.

"Cantor, please . . . we'll lend you the boy." He turned to my mother in bewildered fury. "Do something. We can't let the cantor choke on his tears."

I'm not sure if my mother was dreaming of Mogilev at that moment. But she came out of her trance long enough to slap Rogovin in the face. Dad was even more perplexed. The wives of air-raid wardens weren't supposed to perform criminal acts, and assaulting cantors in a public place was worse than criminal; it was a sin against God, because God favored a cantor above all other beings. God loved a good song.

My mother slapped him again. Rogovin wasn't surprised. I saw him smile under the hand he used to cover his mouth.

My father made a fist. "I'll kill you," he said to the dark lady.

"Sergeant," the cantor said, "you shouldn't provoke Madame. She'll just go on hitting me."

"I don't understand," dad said.

"It's simple. My missus was in the balcony with Madame. They got to talking about me . . ."

"Balconies. Missus. I don't understand."

I was just as baffled. I hadn't been able to hear Desdemona whisper a word.

"Foolish," my mother said to dad. "Is no nursing home, is no blind ladies. His mother eats, drinks like a horse."

"I don't understand."

My mother seized Rogovin's thumb and placed it near her breast. "Is clear now? The cantor is lust and lecher."

Rogovin bowed to me, kissed my hand like some kind of Continental, and ran to his hotel.

My father had been so diligent in producing fur-lined vests, his boss was sending him to Florida for a week. Most wartime vacations had to be canceled, because the Army and Navy were running munitions and men on the railroads. But dad had a special pass, signed by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. I didn't learn about Florida until a little later-Miami Beach was a furrier's paradise, where manufacturers and their prize workers would have a yearly fling with local prostitutes and dark ladies from Havana and New Orleans. And when I grew aware of the word prostitute, around the age of six or seven, I understood the arguments my mother had with Sergeant Sam about his sojourns at the Flagler Hotel. She would hurl a shoe at his head, empty the perfume bottles he'd brought back from Florida, set fire to the photographs he'd hidden in some secret pocket of his valise. He'd always return terrifically tanned, looking like Clark Gable with a guilty grin.

But Gable could have been a ghost in '42. My mother didn't even watch him pack. He left in a hurry, without his air-raid warden's hat, gave me five single-dollar bills to spend in his absence, a small fortune from one of the Navy's favorite sons. I was glad to see him go. I wouldn't have to groom my mother, make her presentable to dad, hide her sorrow from him, cook his goose, load him down with whisky so he wouldn't discover her long silences.

The day he was gone her suitor arrived. I don't know what else to call him. He advertised himself as my uncle, but he didn't have our famous cheekbones and Tatar eyes. He couldn't have belonged to that tribe of Mongolian Jews who terrorized the Caucasus until they were conquered by Tamerlane the Great. Chick Eisenstadt was a big ruddy fellow who'd once worked with my mother in a Manhattan dress shop. She'd been a seamstress before she got married. The whole shop had been in love with her, according to Chick, but he was the one who linked his own history with hers long after the dress shop disappeared. He'd floundered until the war. Chick was the only one of my "relatives" who'd ever been to Sing Sing. It was convenient to have a convict in the family. He could tell you stories of the biggest outlaws. And he knew my father's timetable. He would appear whenever Sergeant Sam wasn't around.

He took us for a ride in his Cadillac. Chick wasn't supposed to have a car. Gasoline had been rationed, and there was a ban on nonessential driving. But Chick was a black marketeer who gave generals and war administrators silk stockings for their wives. He had a card that authorized him to chauffeur "essential people," like doctors and tycoons from war plants. Cops would peek into the Cadillac, glance at my mother, smile, call me "Roosevelt's little pioneer."

We crossed into Manhattan with Chick, who took me to the ocean liners that lay tilted in the harbor, like sleeping beauties with smokestacks, and I was seized with an anxiety I'd never had before. An ocean liner was larger than my imagination. It was like the imprint of a world I couldn't fathom from the Bronx. The one bridge I had was Chick.

He never bribed me, never offered expensive gifts that would have made me despise my own dad. But he took us to the only White Russian restaurant on the Grand Concourse, Bitter Eagles, where his cronies would ogle us; he'd sweat in the middle of a meal, sitting with his secret family. Sing Sing had ruined his health. He had a chronic cough, and his hands still shook from the beatings his fellow prisoners had delivered to him. Chick was thirty-five, three years older than my mother, but his hair had gone white in Sing Sing, and he looked like a wartorn cavalier.

He stared at my mother, helpless before her plate of pirogi, and said, "Faigele, what's wrong?" My mother's name was Fannie, but her admirers and friends called her Faigele, which was supposed to mean little bird in my Tatar dictionary.

"Mogilev," my mother said. One word. And Chick could intuit the entire tale.

"Your brother, the schoolteacher. His letters are no longer coming. And you're worried to death."

"The Nazis are sitting in Mogilev," I said. "Chickie, I heard it on the radio."

Chick watched my mother's grief."Radios can lie. It's called propaganda."

"The Germans are paying the radio to tell lies?"

"I didn't say Germans. It could be the White House. And the President doesn't have to pay. Don't you get it? The President talks about a defeat that never took place. Hitler relaxes and starts to get sloppy. And we turn the tables on him."

I wouldn't argue with Chick. A black marketeer ought to know. But I didn't believe that Roosevelt would ever lie about Mogilev.

"Faigele, if there's a letter, I'll find it."

We went to the post office after lunch. The postmaster stood in his slippers, eying my mother and her black marketeer, who eyed him back.

"Mister, could one of your own men have been tampering with the mail?"

"Impossible," the postmaster said as Chick stuffed his pockets with silk stockings.

"Come on, I'll help you look for the letter. It has to be here."

They searched the back room, inspected every pouch, but there were no letters from Mogilev. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Charyn," the postmaster said. "Russian mail has been trickling in, but not a scratch from Belorusse."

Faigele took to her bed. "My two bitter eagles," she mumbled, blinking at me and Chick. It was a complete collapse. Chick's own doctor came, examined her, said he couldn't cure heartbreak and withered emotions. He recommended a rest home in the Catskills where he sent all his worst cases.

"Doc," Chick said, "she's not a case. She's a glorious woman, Faigele. She's expecting a letter from Mogilev."

"You're the wizard. You can produce silk stockings. Why not one lousy letter? But what's it all about? Did she leave a boyfriend behind?"

"A brother," Chickie said.

The doctor rolled his eyes. "Isn't it unnatural to miss a brother so much?"

Chick grabbed him by the collar, and I didn't know it then, but it was a very brave act. This doctor was Meyer Lansky's personal physician. He'd poisoned people for the mob. He was the highest-paid internist in the Bronx.

I brought Chick and him a glass of my father's best schnapps. And then Chick explained to him the story of Faigele and Mordecai, who'd come from a family of small landowners in the Tatar town of Grodno, where Meyer Lansky was born. Mordecai was the oldest at ten, with a couple of kid sisters--Anna, five, and Faigele, two--when their mother died (their dad had run to America and made his own life). A ten-year-old boy couldn't hold on to the family fortune. He had to lease himself, become a little slave to protect his sisters. He was sold into the tzar's army at fifteen, escaped, "kidnapped" Anna and Faigele, hid out with them in the marshes, landed in Mogilev in the middle of the Russian Revolution without papers or a crust of bread. The boy was sixteen and he learned to steal. In a time of shadowlands, he became a shadow until he could reinvent himself as a schoolteacher. He had forged documents from a commissar of education who'd been killed. He had pupils in his first classes who were older than himself. He had to bribe an inspector from Minsk: it was like the tzar's government without a tzar, but the Cossacks had been told by some Soviet prince to love all the Tatar Jews. Mordecai saved his money and was able to send Anna out of Belorusse in 1923. But Faigele wouldn't go. He pleaded with her. The inspectors would catch him soon--an illiterate teacher. He couldn't breathe until his little sister was safe.

"But I am safe," she said, "here with you."

He'd start to cry, this gaunt man who was always on the verge of getting TB. She left for America in 1927. He promised to join her in six months but never did.

She became a Manhattan refugee, lived with her father and a stepmother who begrudged every bit of food she swallowed. She went to night school, worked in a dress shop, dreaming of Mordecai. She had to get out of her father's house. Enter Sam, the furrier who never lost a day's work during the Depression.

Faigele married him, but nothing could sustain her--not children, not God, not romance--nothing except those letters that would arrive religiously from Mogilev.

The doctor licked his schnapps. "Chickie, a glorious woman, righto, but where do you fit in? You're not the husband, you're not the brother, you're not the father of this little boy."

"None your stinking business," said Chick, already drunk. "I fill the empty spaces. I'm satisfied."

"If you want to revive her, friend, you'll just have to forge that letter . . . pretend you're with the tzar's police."

"I don't have to pretend. But how will I get Russian stamps?"

The doctor tapped my skull. "Baby, where's your mother's stash of mail?"

I steered them right to the little wooden chest my mother had brought from Belorusse; the letters were inside. Chick was mainly interested in the stamps and the quality of paper and Mordecai's penmanship, but the doctor began to read the letters in whatever Russian he still had at his command (he was born in Kiev).

"The man's a poet, Chick."

He recited from the letters, but Chick cut him off. "Keep it to yourself, doc."

"Are you insane? Poetry belongs to the world."

"But the letters belong to Faigele."

Every stamp had a different face. I saw the brown eagle of Belorusse; Tatar princes and kings; Stalin, the little father of his people, looking like a walrus. The doctor pulled a pair of scissors out of his medical bag. He wanted to cut off a few of the stamps; Chick told him to put the scissors back. He wouldn't mutilate my mother's property.

"I give up," the doctor said, while Chick and I went down to the stationery store, where I helped him pick out a blue envelope and a pad that could have passed for Russian paper. Then we walked to Bitter Eagles, found a man who was willing to trade Russian stamps in his family album for the promise of butter, eggs, and Colombian coffee.

Chick went to work practicing Mordecai's pen strokes. Time seemed to clot around him and the letter he was going to write. The doctor abandoned wife, children, mistresses, all his other patients, including Meyer Lansky, to mastermind a letter from Mogilev made in the Bronx. I brewed cups of black tea and fed them coffee cake from Bitter Eagles.

It took Chick an hour to do "Dear Faigele" in Mordecai's Russian hand and get the first paragraph going. They had to tiptoe around the war because Chick wouldn't load the letter with lurid details. "I am only starving a little bit," he wrote in schoolteacher Russian and signed Mordecai's name. He addressed the envelope, I glued on the stamps, and we all fell asleep in the living room on different chairs.

A knocking sound came right through my dreams. I got up, stumbled to the door. The postmaster stood in his slippers with a letter in his hand. He was very excited. "Gentlemen, it arrived, right out of the blue." Chick offered him some of our fabulous coffee cake, speckled with dark chocolate. "Delicious," he said. No one thanked him for the letter, which had come in a crumpled white envelope, all the stamps missing. The postmaster left. Chick tore up our letter and we went in to wake up my mother and give her the other letter from Mogilev.

She danced out of bed like a mermaid with a nightgown on (I'd never seen a mermaid, so I had to imagine one). She savored the letter, but she wouldn't read it until she prepared our tea. The doctor was startled by her metamorphosis. Faigele's coloring had come back. She disappeared into the bedroom and closed the door.

"The angels would be envious of such a creature," the doctor said.

We waited like orphans until my mother came out. She wouldn't share Mordecai's language with us. "Is still schoolteacher," she said, summarizing the plot. "But without school. Was bombed."

The doctor returned to his practice. Chickie had to go out of town. My father got back from Miami with his movie-star tan, but Faigele was the one who had all the flush. He put on his air-raid helmet and patrolled the streets. I imagined him in the blackout, looking for renegade cubes of light. Poor Sergeant Sam, who could never really capture the dark lady, or her radiance.

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