Authors: Gail Carson Levine
To my father, the real Dave, and to my mother. You speak through me always
My deep thanks to Irving Aschheim for sharing the bounty of his encyclopedic memory; to Michael Stall and Hyman Bogen for helping me understand asylum life; to Jim Van Duyne for explaining the mysteries of classic luxury cars; to Steve Long of the Tenement House Museum for answering my questions about the Lower East Side and for directing my research into productive channels; to Kenny Kasowitz of the New York Transit Museum for telling me about travel by trolley and train in a younger New York City; to Nedda Sindin for her help with Yiddish and for her memories of New York City in the twenties; and to my friend and longtime colleague William Eller for his careful reading and insightful comments.
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ROM THE START
, I've always made trouble. My mama died of complications from having me. I once joked about it to my older brother, Gideon. I said I could make trouble even before I was born. Gideon thought I was serious because he said, “You didn't do it on purpose, Dave. You were too young. You weren't even yourself yet.”
No, I didn't do it on purpose, but probably I was fooling around in her belly, having a fine time, and I kicked or punched too hard, and one thing led to another, and she died.
I had nothing to do with Papa dying, though. He died on Tuesday, October 26, 1926, when he fell off the roof of a house he was helping to build.
About four years before he died, when I was seven, I got in trouble for smearing glue on the chair of Izzy, the class bully. My stepmother, Ida, had to go to P.S. 42 and promise the principal that I'd never smear glue on anybody's chair ever again. I never did, but Ida had to visit P.S. 42 often anyway. I batted a ball into our fourth-grade teacher's rear end (by accidentâmy aim wasn't
good). I fought with Izzy on the stairs. I let a mouse loose in our classroom. And more. Some things I didn't do but got blamed for because I'd done everything else.
Papa tried to be mad when I got into trouble. “You have to behave,” he'd say.
I'd say, “Yes, Papa.”
“Ida can't do her work if she has to go to school because of you.”
“I know.” Ida made ladies' blouses on the sewing machine next to her and Papa's bed.
“This is the end of it, then. Yes?”
“Good.” Then he always asked, “What happened?”
At the beginning of my story, he'd listen and frown, but then the frown would disappear and his shoulders would start to shake. A little while later he'd be laughing and wiping tears from his eyes.
Papa was a woodworker. Before he came to the United States, he made a cabinet for the sultan of Turkey. The sultan was so pleased with the three hidden drawers Papa put into it that he gave Papa a gold medal.
Whenever he told about the medal, Papa would laugh. “We had to come to this country because of the sultan,” he'd say. “I didn't want any more work from him. If he liked what you did, he gave you a medal. If he didn't like it . . .” Papa would drag a finger across his throat. “. . . Too bad for you.” He'd laugh some more and add, “When we came to New York City, I sold the medal and bought your mama a dress.”
But this wasn't the real reason Papa came to the United States. The real reason was too serious for him to talk about, so he'd joke about his medal instead. The truth was that there had been a war, and Greece had taken over the city where he lived. Papa and his family, the Caros family, had sided with Turkey, and so they all moved here when Greece won.
The day Papa died, I was late getting home after school. Detention and then stickball. When I got there, Gideon was sitting on the steps outside our building. As soon as I saw him, I knew something was wrong. He was never out here. He was always upstairs or at the library, studying. When I got close enough, I saw he had been crying.
“Papa . . .”
I ran into the building. Gideon followed me.
Papa was in the front room, lying on the couch where Gideon and I slept at night. He wasn't bleeding, but he didn't look right. He looked like Papa in a photograph, not like Papa. His face was too white, with gray shadows under his eyes and on his cheeks.
He didn't move. Ida stood at the window, looking out. She didn't turn when I came in. Mrs. Stern from across the hall stood next to her, patting her back.
“I hit a home run, Papa. We won the game.” I nudged his shoulder. His arm swung off the edge of the couch. His fingers dangled a few inches above the floor.
I knew he was dead then, but I said to Gideon, “Did Papa break his arm?” And then I said to Papa, “I'll make you laugh so it won't hurt.” But I couldn't think of anything funny. Then I remembered an old joke. “What did the caterpillar say to the boa constrictor?”
“Dave . . .” Gideon said.
Mrs. Stern left Ida and started toward me. She was going to hug me and I didn't want her to.
“No. Listen. Papa wants to hear it. The caterpillar said, âI don't want to be around when
turn into a butterfly.'” I laughed. “Do you get it, Papa?” I leaned down and said right into his ear, “Isn't it funny? Don't you get it?”
From where she stood, Ida said, “Don't
get it? He's dead.”
Mrs. Stern turned me away from Papa and held me. I stood stiffly against her.
Ida went on talking. “In six months we would have moved out of here. We almost had enough saved up.”
I pulled away from Mrs. Stern and ran out of the house.
Gideon caught up with me after I'd gone a block. “Where are you going, Dave?”
I didn't answer him. I was heading for Seward Park to see if anyone was still playing stickball. When I got there, my friends were gone, but our stick was still lying on the ground. I found a ball under the Nash that was parked on Essex Street.
“I'll show you how I got the homer.” I threw the ball in the air and swung at it. I missed. I swung again and missed. And again. And again. Once Gideon told me to stop, but I wouldn't. I kept swinging and missing. I started to cry.
“Why can't I hit it?” I said. “What's wrong with me?”
“You'll get it if you keep trying.” Gideon was crying too.
crying? You're not even trying to hit it.” I laughed in the middle of crying. Then I connected. Crack.
Papa was dead.
The ball didn't go far. The stick, when I threw it with all my might, went farther and crashed into the brick wall outside the boys' toilet.
I crouched down and cried, really cried. I pictured Papa at breakfast, dipping bread into his coffee, the bread making his cheek bulge while he chewed. I pictured him before he left the house, trying to kiss Ida good-bye and her pushing him away. I pictured him tossing his hat in the air and positioning himself under it, so it landed square on his head. I pictured him saying good-bye to me and Gideon the way he always did. “Good-bye, genius” to Gideon. “Good-bye, rascal” to me.
And then he went out, back straight, looking taller than he really was. Looking happy, because Papa was always happy. And now he was dead. He wouldn't be happy about being dead.
I stopped thinking. I just kept yelling in my brain, “Papa,” over and over. And crying.
FTER A LONG
time I noticed that my calves were aching and I was cold. I stood up. Gideon was looking at the sky.
“It should be raining,” he said.
“Yeah.” I knew what he meant.
“Let's go home,” Gideon said. “Ida will worry.”
She wouldn't, and Gideon knew it. Mrs. Stern from across the hall would be more likely to worry about us than Ida. President Coolidge would be more likely to worry about us than Ida.
When we got home, the apartment was empty. Ida wasn't there, and Papa was gone too.
“Gideon!” I said. “Maybe he wasn't dead. Maybe he woke up.”
I pictured it. Papa sits up. He groans, “What happened? I feel like a sack of potatoes.” He looks around for us. “Where are Dave and Gideon?” Ida says, “How should I know? We thought you were dead.” And Papa says, “Dead? I'm not dead.” He laughs. “I'd feel better if I was dead.”
Gideon said, “He's dead. He broke his neck.”
Ida came in. “They took him to the funeral home. We'll bury him tomorrow.” She went to the icebox and took out a bowl covered with a dishrag. “And then what? After the funeral, then what?”
Then what? Papa would stay dead and be dead forever.
I didn't pay attention to the rabbi during the funeral. I counted thirty-four peopleâour neighbors, my aunts and uncles, and some people I didn't know who were probably older cousins. The cousins who were around my age weren't there. I guess they were in school.
The rabbi's eyebrows were so bushy they stuck out an inch in front of his face. I was sitting next to Ida. Her bony hands were folded in her lap. She stared at the rabbi and never moved.
Papa must hate being up there in the coffin, I thought, not even able to wink at the relatives who came to stare at him.
The cemetery was in Queens. We followed the hearse in a Packard limousine. It was the first time I'd ever been in an automobile. I'd never been to Queens before either. It was the first time for a lot of thingsâmy first time in a cemetery, and the first time for burying my father.
I wished I could see how fast we were going, but the driver was hunched over the speedometer.
“Do you think we're doing forty?” I whispered to Gideon as streets and houses whooshed past us.
He just stared out the window. Ida sat looking into her lap. Unless she did it while I was asleep, she hadn't cried for Papa.
I looked around the inside of the car. The floor was covered with a dark green carpet, and the walls were covered with dark green cloth. I reached across to the back of the chauffeur's seat and folded out the jump seat. Ida ignored me. Gideon watched, then turned back to the window. I crossed over and sat down. I figured I might never have another chance. I liked the way Second Avenue looked, flying backwards away from me. I wondered if hearses came this way often. Up Coffin Avenue. Right turn on Corpse Street. Continue down Goner Row. Left turn to Dead Man Boulevard.
At Twenty-third Street we went under the el, and we stayed under it all the way across the Queensboro Bridge. A train thundered above us as we crossed. It shook the bridge and rattled my teeth.
Queens didn't look like part of New York City. It had lots of empty fields and wooden houses. Hey, look at thatâa yard full of tombstones. The Riley Bros. tombstone factory. Dead people were big business in Queens. I turned around to look out the front window. Ahead of us, the hearse rolled on, feeling right at home.
A few minutes later we turned and drove into the cemetery. The car stopped next to a freshly dug hole, and we got out. I stamped my feet to stay warm while the rabbi said a prayer.
After they lowered the coffin into the hole, we all had to throw dirt on it. I wouldn't have been able to do it, except I pretended Papa wasn't in there. The coffin held a pair of huge, long shoes. It didn't matter, throwing dirt on shoes.
When we got home, we heard voices as we climbed the stairs. Ida opened our door, and I saw that almost everybody who'd come to the funeral was crowded into our front room. The noise was so loudâtalking, laughingâthat no one noticed us till Ida started pushing through the crowd.
Aunt Sarah, who was standing near the doorway, hugged Gideon and then me. She kept an arm around my shoulders while she said, “I can't believe Abe's dead. He should be here.”
Uncle Jack, who was visiting from Chicago where he lived, said, “He had such a brain. He could add a column of figures in his head and come out right every time.” Uncle Jack put his hand on Gideon's head. “This genius can probably add two columns.” Uncle Jack was Gideon's favorite relative. Gideon had been heartbroken when he had moved away last year.
I left Aunt Sarah and wandered between the clumps of people, listening. I heard about a banana-eating contest Papa had once won. I heard what an artist he was, how perfect everything he made was. They told the story about the sultan and the medal again.
Aunt Lily was telling about the time Papa had brought a goat to school. She was my mama's sister. She and Aunt Sarah, Papa's sister, boarded with a family a few blocks from us.
I heard a bang. Everybody stopped talking. Across the room, Ida was pounding her fist against the wall. Plaster trickled down from the ceiling onto the sofa.
“Abe's dead,” she yelled. “Who cares what happened twenty-five years ago?” She banged the wall again. “I can't keep these boys.” Bang. “I can't feed them.” She stopped pounding. “Who wants them?”
She was giving us away. As if she owned us. I don't want my hat anymore. Who's interested? I don't want Gideon and Dave anymore. Who's interested?
Where was Gideon? I looked for Uncle Jack. There he was, pressing a chunk of ice to his temple for the headache he always had. Gideon stood next to him. We stared at each other.
“Don't talk that way,” Aunt Sarah said. “You and Abe had savings. You'll manage.”
Uncle Milt said, “Gideon and Dave will help, and you'll find more boarders soon.”
Till last month, three brothersâSy, Al, and Max Rubinoâhad slept on mats in the front room with Gideon and me. But then they had moved to their own apartment in the Bronx.
“How many boarders can I take?” Ida shouted. “The savings won't last. You try feeding two boys on what I earn. Who wants them?”
Nobody said anything. Then Aunt Sarah said there wasn't any room where she and Aunt Lily lived.
Cousin Melvin said he was out of work and out of money.
Uncle Milt said Aunt Fanny was too sick.
Great-Aunt Rae was too old.
Uncle Irving had seven children already.
Then Uncle Jack said, “Gideon can come home with me.”
Gideon! What about me?
“Who'll take Dave?” Ida said.
Gideon whispered something to Uncle Jack. He shook his head.
It was quiet again. Then Aunt Lily began to whisper to Aunt Sarah. I knew it was about me, but I didn't want to live with them and the whole Cohen family. I wanted to go with Gideon.
Aunt Lily stopped whispering and didn't say they'd take me. Nobody wanted me. Well, I didn't want them either. Or Ida. I walked across the room toward the kitchen. I didn't want to stay in here with everybody.
As I left, I heard Aunt Sarah say, “If you give him up, Ida, he'll have a hard time.”
What did she mean, give me up? If nobody wanted me, who would she give me to?