Authors: Jennifer Weiner
“Come with me,” Sarah said, stubbing out her cigarette with a hard twist. “Excuse us, Iris.”
“Yessum,” said the strange lady. Jo followed her mother into the living room and and stuck out her lower lip as Sarah put her hands on Jo’s shoulders and pushed until Jo was sitting on the couch.
“You are making Iris feel unwelcome,” Sarah said.
“I’m sorry,” said Jo. “Only why did Mae leave? I miss her! I want to see her! I want to see her and I want to see Frieda!”
Sarah pressed her lips together until they were a skinny red line. “Birds of a feather must flock together,” she said. “Do you know what that means?”
Jo shook her head. Sarah made her God-give-me-patience face, and Jo heard her take a deep breath.
Birds of a feather
mean people who are like each other.
means they stay together. So people who are like one another stay with people like them.” Sarah looked into Jo’s eyes. “Mae and Frieda have their own people. People like them. Their own friends. And you have your own friends too.” Sarah looked right into Jo’s eyes. “Do you understand?”
Jo did not. “Frieda is like me. She likes to play kickball and marbles and cowboys.” Jo felt her eyes start to sting. “Frieda gave me my best present.”
Sarah gave an angry sigh and muttered, “I knew that was a mistake.”
“Why?” Jo wailed. She couldn’t stand the thought of never playing with Frieda again, or never hearing Mae’s music coming from the kitchen, or eating Mae’s corn bread. “Why?” Jo asked again. When her mother didn’t answer, Jo got to her feet. “I’m going to see them,” she announced.
“You’re staying right here, and you’re doing your homework,” said Sarah.
“No I’m not. I’m going to see them, and you can’t stop me.”
“I most certainly can.” Sarah’s neck was turning red, the flush
creeping up toward her chin. “Young lady, you are going to sit right here, and you are going to be in the worst trouble of your life if you . . .”
“You’re not the boss of me!” Jo shouted, turning to go. Her mother grabbed her shoulder and slapped her.
For a minute, the two of them stood, breathing hard, staring at each other. Sarah’s lips were trembling. Jo’s cheek throbbed and stung. She felt her eyes fill with tears, and instead of giving Sarah the satisfaction of seeing her cry, she raced down the hall and locked her bedroom door, and while Sarah pounded and Bethie stared, she’d filled her suitcase and slid out the window.
No matter what Jo did, her mother was angry at her. Jo was always doing something wrong, like leaving her clothes on the floor or pinching her sister, or talking too loudly, or making too much noise when she chewed or even when she walked. Jo lost her library books and broke her toys. She ripped her clothes, she got gum stuck in her hair, and once, she’d kept the money her mother had given her for tzedakah at Hebrew school and had bought candy with it instead, and tattletale Bethie had told on her.
Some rules she understood, but others were mysteries. “Do you have to sit like that?” Sarah would ask when Jo was sitting in a chair with her legs spread apart. “Why does it matter how I sit?” Jo would ask, and Sarah would press her hands to her head, groaning, and say, “Wait ’til your father gets home.” When Ken arrived, Sarah would take him into the living room, where she would communicate Jo’s latest misdeeds in a low whisper. Ken would sigh, and he’d take Jo to the kitchen. There, he would sit in a straight-backed wooden chair, with his tie pulled loose. Jo would stretch herself out across his lap and pull down her pants or her skirt, and her father would deal out ten measured strokes with the flat of his hand that would leave her bottom pink and stinging. Sarah would watch from the doorway with her arms folded across her chest. When the spanking was done, Ken would say, in his sternest voice, “Come with me, young lady,” and Jo,
hanging her head, would follow her father out of the house and into the car.
“You okay, Sport?” her dad would ask as soon as the door had shut behind them, and Jo would nod, and he’d sigh and say the same thing every time: “You know, it hurts me more than it hurts you.”
Sometimes they would just sit in the car, listening to WXYT broadcast the games: the Detroit Lions or the University of Michigan Wolverines in the fall, the Red Wings in the winter, the Detroit Tigers in the spring. Sometimes they would go for a ride in Ken’s new-smelling Ford sedan, which he could steer, to Jo’s delight and amazement, just by using his knees. Jo would sit up front on the long vinyl-covered seat as her father drove, sometimes just in circles around their neighborhood, sometimes all the way into downtown Detroit, where he seemed to know every secret place.
He would take her to the National Bank of Detroit, where, in the lobby, there was a glass slipper for the little girls to try on (a bank clerk would give you an Oh Henry! or 3 Musketeers candy bar when your foot proved too big for the dainty little shoe). Sometimes they’d go to the Dipsy Doodle Drive-In, on the corner of 9 Mile and Telegraph, for Double D burgers, or the Mayflower Coffee Shop, where the paper menus read, “As you travel through this life, Brother, Whatever be your goal / Keep your eye upon the doughnut, And not upon the hole,” or they would take the car to Jax Kar Wash, whose billboards advised,
A CLEAN CAR RIDES BETTER
. Jo loved to sit in the dark, feeling the car moving in jerks through the dark tunnel, listening to the brushes slapping and thudding against its roof and sides. Always, on their drives, there was music playing on the car radio. Ken would sing along in a deep and tuneful voice to “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” or “Paper Doll,” or “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.”
Those were her happiest times, in the car, with her father behind the wheel. On rainy days, the windshield wipers would swish back and forth, making her feel drowsy. In the winter, warm air
would blow out from the heater over her knees, and on hot summer days, she’d roll the window down to feel the wind on her face. Her father didn’t mind Jo’s short hair or her loud voice or her dungarees and her droopy socks, or how Jo’s feet were already almost as big as Sarah’s and that she’d outgrown her school shoes twice the year before. He didn’t care that she was messy or forgetful, or that she was costing them a fortune in late fees at the public library, or that she preferred
I Love Lucy
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet
, or that her favorite times were racing through the backyard with Frieda, playing Cowboys and Indians, taking turns shooting at each other with the air gun she’d borrowed from Don Lafferty at school.
When it got late, Ken would turn the car toward home, swing it expertly into the driveway, and he’d keep his hand on her shoulder as he walked Jo into the house. “Listen to your mother,” he would say in a deep, warning tone, loud enough for Sarah to hear. Sarah’s response was typically an eye-roll and a muttered
You spoil her
, but she wouldn’t say it too loud, because at least Ken had gotten Jo out of her hair for the afternoon.
She hates me
, Jo would think, but even that didn’t hurt so much, because her father loved her, and she could carry his love, like a glowing coal in the center of her chest, feeling its warmth even in the face of her mother’s fury.
In Briggs Stadium, her father put his hand on her shoulder. “Tell me what happened.”
“I came home and Mae wasn’t there,” Jo began. “Mom said she had to go clean for other families and that she was never coming back. I wanted to find her.”
“Ah,” said her father. “Well. Mae’s neighborhood’s about a ten-mile walk.”
“I don’t care.” Jo’s voice cracked. “She shouldn’t get to decide who my friends are.” Her eyes were stinging again. “I try,” she said. “I try so hard to do what she wants. To be how she wants. But I can’t.” Jo bent her head. “She hates me,” she whispered.
“Ah, Sport,” said her father, and gave her neck a reassuring squeeze. “Your mama loves you. And you know I think you’re swell.” Jo smiled, the way she did when her father tried to talk like the kids did, and blinked away her tears and looked down at the ball game.
In the fifth inning, her father bought a pair of hot dogs, putting just the right amount of ketchup on Jo’s. He drank a beer and gave Jo a Red Pop that left her lips and tongue stained crimson. When Joe Ginsberg, the catcher, a Detroit boy who’d graduated from Cooley High, stepped up to the plate, the crowd erupted into wild cheers, and when Ginsberg hit a home run to right field, Jo stretched out her arms and watched as a man just a few rows in front of them caught it.
“So close!” her father lamented, but Jo didn’t even care. It was enough, more than enough, to be there, at night, away from her mother, and her mother’s anger. Jo drank her Red Pop and let herself imagine what it would be like if, after the final inning, they got in the car and just drove. They could follow the Tigers around the country, going to all the road games until summer’s end; they could drive to the Grand Canyon, or to Florida or California, where it was warm the whole year round. They could sleep in motels, or buy a tent and sleep in campgrounds and cook their food over campfires, like Laura Ingalls’s family did in
Little House on the Prairie
. Jo could swim in the ocean and wear her buckskin vest with its sheriff’s badge every day, and invite whichever kids she liked to her parties, and no one would holler or make her feel like she was too big, or too loud, or just wrong, no matter what she did.
For the rest of her life, Jo would remember that night, when the Tigers had beaten the Yankees, 6–5 in extra innings. She’d remember Joe Ginsberg’s home run, and how he’d thrown out two of the Yankee batters. She’d remember the sour tang of the beer that her father let her sip, and feel the ticklish prickle of the foam drying on her lip. She would remember the smell of her father’s aftershave as he stood close to her, and the sound of
her father’s voice, singing along to Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” as they drove home.
When they pulled into the driveway, he turned off the car and sat behind the wheel as the engine ticked.
“Did your mom talk to you at all about Mae?” he asked.
“She said ‘Birds of a feather must flock together.’ ” Jo bent her head. “Should’ve told her I wasn’t a bird,” she muttered.
Her father looked like he was trying not to smile. “Your mother wants things to be easy for you and your sister,” he finally said. “Things weren’t so easy for her when she was a little girl.”
Jo nodded. She’d heard the stories of how Sarah spoke English while her parents didn’t, and how she’d had to speak for them, and how there weren’t many Jewish families in her neighborhood, and how some of the other kids had been mean, throwing dirt and chasing her home from the streetcar. “Is that why we moved here?” Jo asked. “Because almost everyone’s Jewish, like we are? Because that’s easy, when everyone’s the same?”
Her father looked startled, then thoughtful. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and finally said, “Being in a Jewish neighborhood was one of the reasons. The schools here are better. The old neighborhood was changing. It wasn’t as safe there. And that’s a parent’s job, to keep kids safe.” He sighed and drew Jo close to him, letting her nestle into his warmth and his good smell of clean cotton, hair tonic, and bay rum cologne. “Go inside and tell Mom you’re sorry,” he told her. “She loves you.”
, Jo thought.
You know she doesn’t.
Instead she said, “I will.” Part of her wanted to explain again, about how she did try to be good, that she wanted to follow all the rules, except sometimes she couldn’t understand them. And part of her—a bigger part—wanted him to turn the key, to back the car out of the driveway and onto the street, to drive and drive and never bring her home again.
y the time she was eleven, Bethie Kaufman knew that it was her destiny to be a star. She had shiny brown hair that her mother curled with rags at night. Her eyes were a pretty shade of blue-green, and her eyebrows were naturally arched, but it was her smile that everyone wanted to see. “Give us a smile!” the hair-netted ladies at Knudsen’s Danish Bakery would say when Bethie came in with her mother to buy an almond tea ring, and they’d give Bethie a sprinkle cookie when she obliged.
“Here comes a pretty little miss,” Stan Danovich, who owned Stan’s Meats on 11 Mile Road, would say, and he’d fold up a slice of turkey or bologna for Bethie to eat. Mr. Tartaglia at the five-and-dime would put extra peppermints in her bag, and Iris, who came to clean three times a week, called her Miss America and brought clip-on earrings for Bethie to wear until it was time for her to go home.
Bethie is a kind and conscientious student with many friends
, Miss Keyes wrote on her fourth-grade report card, in her beautiful, flowing blue script.
Bethie is a gifted musician who sings in
, Mrs. Lambert, her music teacher, said. By fifth grade, two boys had kissed her in the cloakroom, and a third had carried her books home for a week, and she’d gotten the solo in the winter concert, where she had sung a whole verse of “Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland” by herself.
Bethie loved being a girl. She loved skirts that flared out when she twirled; she loved the look of her clean white socks against her black and white saddle shoes. She loved the charm bracelet she’d gotten for her birthday. She only had two charms so far, a tiny Eiffel tower and a little Scottie dog, but she hoped to get more for Chanukah.
Bethie was pretty, Bethie was popular, and so it was only natural that when, at Hebrew school, the sign-up sheet for auditions for the spring Purimspiel was posted, Bethie put her name down for the role of Queen Esther, the biggest girl’s part in the production.
The Hebrew school students performed the play each year. Bethie knew the story by heart: Once upon a time in the kingdom of Shushan, a not-very-smart king put his disobedient wife aside and found himself in need of a replacement. He held a beauty pageant to find the prettiest girl in all the land, so that he could marry her. (“Isn’t that kind of superficial?” Jo had asked, and Sarah had said, “It was how they did things back then.”) The winner was a girl named Esther, and her big secret was that she was Jewish, only the king didn’t know. After Esther became the queen she overheard Haman, the king’s wicked advisor, telling the king that he should kill all the Jews. Only then did Esther reveal herself, and because the king loved her, he let the Jews live, and killed Haman instead.