It’s the middle of the twentieth century, World War II is finally over, and Claire Wagner is on the brink of an exciting new life. With a well-deserved scholarship in hand, and much to her immigrant mother’s dismay, Claire flees the Chicago tenements for a prestigious graduate school program in California.
At first Claire keeps her nose tucked firmly into her books, but when her brother asks for a favor, she reluctantly agrees to a blind date. Greg turns out to be handsome, successful, and rich—and he’s definitely smitten with Claire. He introduces her to a sophisticated world she thought only existed in the movies, and before she knows it she’s trading her bobby socks and German home cooking for black silk and caviar.
When Greg starts to show signs that he’s not as perfect as he appeared, Claire’s friends urge her to overlook his occasional short temper and controlling behavior. But the warning signs pile up, building to a crisis that will test even Claire’s power to persevere.
Inspired by true events and steeped in the details of the 1950s, when vulnerable women weren’t protected by the law or society, The Other Side of Him is a provocative look at how darkness can lie under the most polished exteriors.
|Publisher:||California Country Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.67(d)|
Read an Excerpt
I wrapped my hand around the switchblade in my pocket as I stepped onto the sidewalk at the bus stop near the housing project where my family lived. I looked up and down the street, then began the four-block walk to our apartment. The leaden Chicago sky whistled with mean wind. Kids kicked a soccer ball, or maybe one another, on the other side of a fence — their screams a familiar sound in my neighborhood. Pieces of white paint flaked off the fence's boards, but you could still read the graffiti. Crossbones, skulls, lover's names, fuck this or that or whatever.
Looking down to avoid broken beer bottles or used condoms, I was startled by a whistle from a jalopy that had suddenly pulled up next to me. I looked straight ahead and walked faster.
"Hey cutie, want a ride?"
Inside the car, this witticism was met with whoops of laughter. Were they just kids having a bit of fun? Or were they trouble? I clenched my jaw and hurried on.
"Keep going, Smokey. That's Tom's sister."
The car roared off.
Thank god most of the hoodlums in the neighborhood remembered the licking Tom gave the kid who'd tried to rape me the night I came home late from school. I'd never have survived the projects without my big brother.
At the bottom of our five-story unit's staircase, I passed a couple of girls in circle skirts and saddle shoes.
"Hey, Claire," the taller one said, blowing cigarette smoke while she talked. "You going to the mixer at the Y tonight?"
"Can't — too busy," I said. "Have fun."
I took the stairs two at a time to the third floor, then hesitated at the door.
I couldn't put it off any longer. I had to tell Mama. Today. She'd fly off the handle big time for sure, the thought of which made my skin crawl. She'd taught me well, though. In a fight I could give back as good as I got. With the key in our front door I drew a deep breath, clicked the lock open, and went in.
I walked to the kitchen through our living room, past a gray couch whose frayed arms were covered with crocheted doilies Mama had brought from Germany. Etched glass globes topped the two lamps that lit the room. Mama, wrapped in a full-body butcher's apron, stirred a pot of something on the stove that smelled wonderful. Next to her, Tom diced onions on a wooden board.
"Hi, sis." He sounded like he had a cold. "I don't know why you're never home when Mama needs onions chopped."
"I do the dishes, don't I?" I stood on tiptoes to kiss Tom, then bent to reach Mama's cheek; she barely came up to my shoulders. With her thin straw-colored hair and solid stocky build she looked like the product of long-standing Bavarian peasantry. At five foot seven with a slim body and thick auburn hair, I must have taken after the father I never knew.
"What's for dinner, Mama?" I couldn't tell from looking inside the pot.
"Rind Suppe mit Nudl." She stirred the pot, tasted with a wooden spoon, then turned to face me.
"You're through with school now — nicht? You got the diploma?"
Tom and I exchanged looks. He rolled his eyes behind Mama's back.
"No, Mama, one more week," I said. "Then I'll get it." It took her less than two seconds.
"Ah-ha, then you can talk to Gisela's uncle, the accountant. He needs somebody to answer the phone for him. You better do it before he hires somebody else."
Tom stopped dicing onions. He knew what I'd say next.
"Mama, I'm not going to get a job. I'm going to college. I got a — "
"COLLEGE? You don't do that! We need every Pfennig you can earn right now!"
"I know. I know. But —"
"This I do not expect from you, Klara! Any month that I am late mit the rent, I fear they throw us out of this dump, and you ...
"Mama stood with her feet planted wide apart, her fists at her waist. "You want to go to college?"
"Mama, let me tell you what's hap —"
"Don't you care anything for your family?" She marched up to me and lifted her face as close to mine as she could. "And what about Kurt? Do you think he will wait for you forever? There are plenty of girls who would snatch him up in a minute while you go to your 'college.' Gott sei dank Tom brings in a few dollars from his warehouse job."
"Mama, I got a scholarship. Listen, will you? Just listen."
She picked up a wet dishtowel, lifted it over her head then threw it on the counter with all her might. The towel toppled a glass, which rolled off the counter and splintered on the floor with a crash.
"Scheisse!" Mama shouted.
Tom and I stood like mannequins.
"You think I worked at the Singer late every night for years supporting meine Kinder only to have you turn on me like this?"
Tom put his hand on her arm.
"Claire's not turning on you. She —"
Tom. Dear Tom. Always on my side.
But Mama had reached up and raised a finger in front of his face like she'd done when he was a little boy.
"You have nothing to say about this." Her voice was loud; her finger wagged back and forth in front of his eyes. "You keep your mouth shut." She swung back to me. "And who will pay for this college while we live without knowing where the next dollar comes from?"
"That's what a scholarship does, Mama. I've been trying to tell you — I won a scholarship."
She frowned. "Skollershiff?"
"That's when poor kids who make good grades get money to pay for an education. I won enough to pay for college and have a little left over to help support myself."
"You get money, Klara?" I'd said the magic word. "How much?"
"A thousand dollars."
"A tousand dollar?" Her expression was priceless. I didn't dare look at Tom — we'd never keep a straight face.
"That's right, Mama! I figured with the scholarship money plus a part-time job I could pay for college and have enough money left over to help you with the rent."
"Ach so. That is ... real ... gut." Mama folded her arms at her waist. "Why didn't you say so from the beginning?"
"You didn't give me a chance."
Mama nodded with her arms still folded.
"But what about Kurt? A boy with such a good job does not come along every day. Maybe you should marry him and forget about college."
"And lose my scholarship?" I smiled. "I'd rather lose Kurt." Tom put his arm around my shoulders.
"Don't worry, Mama. Any girl with Claire's looks can get a guy later on after she finishes college. Maybe a better guy than Kurt."
"So what did you do there at your college today?" Mama said when I came home after my first day.
I sighed and dropped a bag of books on the couch. I took a moment to calm myself so I could give her a civil answer.
"Well, I enrolled in a social studies class, a history class, a German language class —"
"Why you take a German class?" There went the fists to her hips. "You already know German."
"For an easy A so I'll have more time for chemistry." I sat down next to my books.
"Chemisty? What's that?"
I laughed. "It's a science that deals with the composition and properties of various forms of matter."
"You can get a job if you know chemisty? What kind of job?"
"I could teach chemistry someday, but I'll need it if I want to do any kind of medical work."
"Medical work? You want to be a nurse?"
"I don't know yet. But ever since Herr Doctor Kruger took such good care of me when I had rheumatic fever, I've wanted to work in a hospital." I hesitated. "Maybe as a nurse. Or even a doctor."
"You want to be a doctor?"
"I just started college, Mama. I don't know what I want to be. I'll decide later on." I headed for the kitchen. "Right now all I know is that I need a cup of strong coffee."
Mama followed me. "I don't think it's such a good idea for a woman to be a doctor. People don't like to go to a woman doctor. Better you should get a good husband." The water for my coffee started to boil.
"Well, Mama, good husbands are hard to find. You of all people should know that."
"Ya, but a Laus like your Papa doesn't happen every day of the week."
I poured the hot water into the top of our hourglass-shaped Chemex coffeemaker and watched it filter down to the bottom.
"Want some coffee, Mama?"
The three of us ate the dinner Mama cooked in the afternoon between sessions at her Singer sewing machine. It could've been schnitzel or gulash or knackwurst with sauerkraut. Tonight it was meatballs. After dinner Tom and I were at the sink washing up when the phone rang.
"Hi Kurt ... I'm sorry but a movie is out for me tomorrow night ... Right, I have to study ... Bye." I sat down at the kitchen table and opened my book.
"Why don't you go out with him once in a while?" Mama said.
"I went to see The King and I with him last Saturday night. Remember?"
"Okay, but how many times did you turn him down before that? You know, you're going to lose him if you don't pay more attention to him."
"Then I'll lose him. Now let me study." I went back to my book.
"Ach!" Mama walked away from me mumbling hartnackig under her breath. I smiled. I probably was hardheaded — just like her.
Two years passed in a flash and I transferred to a four-year college to get a bachelor's degree. But the routine at home stayed the same: classes all day, then the three of us around the small kitchen table for dinner every night. Until the one when Tom barely said a word throughout the meal until we all finished. He wiped his mouth and took a deep breath. What in the world? He looked like he was about to explode.
"I have something to tell you," he said. "My boss at the warehouse called me into his office and told me his brother in the insurance business needs an assistant. He thought I might be just the right guy for that job."
"That sounds like a real opportunity, Tom," I said.
"Aber what do you know von the insurance business?" Mama's speaking partly in German was a sure sign she was upset.
"Nothing, really. But what he needs sounds pretty simple: you know, someone to keep track of his accounts, research claims, collect payments, that sort of thing. He won't pay me a lot more than what I make as a shipping clerk, but I could learn the insurance business and work my way up."
Tom was all smiles. So was Mama, until he told us the catch.
"The only thing is ... the job's in San Francisco."
"San Francisco!" Mama and I said at the same time.
"I know. I don't feel good about leaving you two in Chicago, but this is a chance to get out of the projects and learn a profession. Better myself."
I jumped to my feet, hugged Tom, then looked him in the eye at arm's length.
"What a great opportunity — I'm so happy for you. Can't say I won't miss having you around, though." I kissed his cheek.
"I told my boss I'd love to work for his brother. I'm moving in two weeks."
Mama waited her turn at Tom, her hands held together below her waist, her face glum.
"I knew this day would come — aber not so soon. If you get a chance for a besseres life, you better take it." She wound her strong arms around Tom's shoulders and kissed him. I batted the water out of my eyes.
Mama's standard questions: "You met a nice young man at your college yet?" Or, "Aren't there some nice girls there at school you can go out with?" Or, "Why don't we go to the movies sometime?"
My standard answers: "I have to study, Mama." Or, "My economics paper is due in two days." Or, "Test in math — and you already know how bad I am at math."
Dates with boys. Fun with girlfriends. A movie with Mama. They could all wait. The harder I worked, the faster the time went by. The day finally came that I brought home my diploma.
"Klara, Klara, Klara. A college graduate!" Mama's grin was as wide as it could go. "So, we make a party now. I will invite Fritzi and Gretel, and Elke." She marched up and down with her eyes on the floor. "And I should ask Marta and her husband Dieter and ..."
The date and guest list settled, she went into high gear. She bought salami and cheeses for delicatessen trays, pickles, potato salad, and coleslaw. She baked so much pastry our place smelled like the local Deutsche Backerei.
"Ach, you must be so proud," said Fritzi, the first to show up on the day of the party. At three o'clock on the dot.
One by one all the other ladies arrived with their permed hairdos like poodles' coats and their belted patterned dresses like Mama's.
"Herzliche Gluckwunsche." Fritzi's husband pumped Mama's hand up and down. Mama's German friends spoke what they called Emigranto, their private language of half German and half English.
After feasting on countless sweets and coffee the color of cocoa with too much cream, Mama clasped her hands at her waist and got everybody's attention.
"So, everybody ... What you think about my Klara? A college graduate! How about that?"
"You must be so proud," Fritzi said again. "If only my Helga would have gone to college like Klara instead of running off with that good-for-nothing Rolf."
After everyone left, Mama almost danced around the apartment as we put the folding chairs away and the leftover delicacies in the fridge, and tackled loads of dishes.
"So, Klara." Her widest smile. "Now that you have a college degree, what kind of job will you do?"
"Well ... actually I'll be going to graduate school in September. I've gotten more scholarship money." My head bent forward, eyes on my soapy hands in the sink. "I'm moving to Berkeley. That's not too far from where Tom lives."
"More school?" I'd expected fury. Instead she looked like I'd poured a bucket of ice water on her head.
"I'm going to get a master's degree in social welfare. At least you don't have to worry that I'll become a doctor, which takes years. This degree won't take as long as college and I need it to get the kind of job I want. I've decided to be a medical social worker, Mama. They make good money, and I think I'd be good at it."
Mama didn't say a word for a minute. She turned her back to me, stuffed her dishtowel into a wet cup, and kept drying it as if she'd forgotten what she was doing.
"First Tom. Now you. One by one mein Kinder leave. What did I do wrong?"
"You did nothing wrong, Mama. Nothing! Tom had a chance to make something of himself. Did you expect him to turn down that offer?"
Mama shook her head.
"It's the same for me. I have a chance to make something of myself — only I have to get more education to do it. I don't want to count on a husband to take care of me for the rest of my life. You should be able to understand that."
Mama said nothing at first, and when she spoke it was almost a whisper.
"I know. Of course neither one of you should stay in this dump if you have a chance to get out." Her eyes looked glassy.
She picked up a wet saucer and swirled her towel around its rim over and over, her eyes fixed. I felt a heavy weight on my chest when I thought of her in Chicago all by herself.
"Mama, come with us. You could live with Tom. I know he wouldn't mind — and his apartment is big enough for both of you. Then you wouldn't be far from me in Berkeley. Please come. You could get out of the projects at long last. It's what we all wanted for so many years."
Only the kitchen clock's ticking filled the silence.
"No, I stay here," Mama said finally. "What would I do there in San Francisco all by myself with you and Tom away all day? I would not know anybody. I would not have my sewing business. No. I stay here with my German friends and my customers."
I looked at her for a long moment, my eyes filling.
"Mama, I understand." I put my arms around her and kissed her forehead. "But I'm going to miss you so much."CHAPTER 2
In a dorm room at International House in Berkeley, my Austrian roommate Inga walked around the narrow floor space at the end of our beds to the closet. A minute later she wore a sheer belted dress that showed off a fashion-model figure.
"I won't be home tonight. I'm spending the night with a friend." She looked in the round mirror above our chest of drawers, moved a lock of stringy blond hair off her forehead, then gave me a knowing look. "He's really cute."
"Have fun," I said.
The minute she was out the door I opened the window as far as it would go to get rid of the body odor she'd left behind. Austrian aristocracy? What a bunch of baloney. Why would I believe anything from a girl who bathed once a week, never cracked a book, and ran around with any guy who gave her a second look?
On the other hand, there was Barb. We'd met in one of my classes and although she'd never win any beauty contests, I was drawn to her permanent smile.
"Want to have dinner with me at Larry Blake's tonight?" she'd asked me one day.
"I've been wanting to go there," I said. I hear the pizza's good and the prices are low."
"And the jukebox is loaded with Hit Parade songs," she said. Then, as soon as we sat down at a table, "So, do you like school so far?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Other Side of Him"
Copyright © 2015 Alice Rene.
Excerpted by permission of California Country Press.
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.