TODAY we are going to learn how to light the oven,” Miss Botchford announced. She was a large, jolly-looking woman with a heart of stone and she stood like a queen in the center of her gleaming white enamel stronghold, her pots and pans in neat array, her subjects (14 young maidens in white aprons) open-mouthed before her, agog at the prospect. We had already learned toast. We had even learned applesauce. But once we had mastered oven-lighting we could proceed to some really complicated things, like melted cheese sandwiches. We could hardly wait.
How I had balked!
“Mr. Kelleher,” I had said to our principal, “I came to school to improve my mind, not to learn toast and applesauce. Besides, I already know toast.”
“Sometimes, Allegra, in the course of human affairs and for the common good, it is required of us that we do something that we might not choose to do. Ours not always to reason why.”
“With all due respect, Mr. Kelleher, sir,” I said, “P. S. 193 is not my nation,”
“It is our purpose, as well as our hope, to prepare you children to the best of our ability to meet the demands of the world that lies ahead of you.” He was a wordy man.
“How come the boys don’t have to take cooking?” I said, “Name me one great chef who was a woman.”
“We are not teaching you to become great chefs,” Mr. Kelleher said. “You girls will grow up to be housewives and mothers, and we are preparing you for the duties and obligations you will, happily, encounter when you arrive at that exalted state.”
“All the boys around here are planning to be general practioners or gynecologists. How come you’re preparing them to be carpenters?”
“You are trying my patience, Allegra.”
“I am trying it, sir, but I am finding it wanting.”
“I may have to give you a demerit for that remark, Allegra.”
“No, no, Mr. Kelleher. Not that, I beg you.”
So there I was in my white apron. I had reported all this to my brand new best friend, Melanie Traphagen. She was new in the neighborhood, new in the school and the first person I had ever found I could really talk to, even about the most serious things.
“If they’re preparing us to be housewives and mothers,” Melanie had said when I’d turned in my report, “why don’t they teach us something really useful like sexual intercourse?”
That’s the kind of girl she was. Brainy.
“Now I’m going to show you how to light an oven and I want you to watch every move carefully,” Miss Botchford said and she lit the oven.
We stood there waiting for what would come next. Revelation hung in the air.
“Allegra, would you kindly come forward.”
Miss Botchford, sensing mutiny from the opening gun, hadn’t left me alone for a single minute from the very first class. I stepped forward.
“Allegra, would you kindly light the oven now in the manner I just demonstrated.”
I struck a match.
“No, no, Allegra! Start again.”
I had failed to open the oven door first. I did this and struck another match.
“No, no, Allegra!”
I had struck the match towards me instead of away. Da capo. This time, I got as far as actually turning on the gas and holding the match to the little hole without committing a single gaffe. Triumphant, I shook out the match.
“No, no, Allegra. We blow out the match. You’ll have to do it all over again from the beginning.”
I looked at Melanie. Her face showed that she was sharing my feelings. These were mixed.
I did it all again flawlessly and chucked the match into the wastepaper basket.
“Oh, no, Allegra! That’s the worst śin of all.” Had I been less unlucky, you see, I might have burned the school down. So I did it again. And again. And again.
“I didn’t know there was such an art to this,” I said to Miss Botchford. “I want to thank you for opening my eyes,”
“She was picking on you again,” Melanie said later that day when, released, we were sitting on the front stoop, reviewing life. “She really likes you.”
“Likes me!” I shrieked.
“In a strange way.”
“You can say that again.”
“Don’t you know what sadism is? To say nothing of masochism?”
Melanie sighed. It meant another book she was going to have to lend me. She was always lending me books so that I could catch up with her in her fields of special knowledge, which were many. Not that she minded lending books; it was the wasted time she minded. She liked me to be ready to discuss things with her the moment they popped into her mind. We had begun to solve this problem by reading the same books at the same time. Whichever one of us went to the library took out two of everything.
“Skip it,” she said. “It’s not important. What is important is that the whole system has to be overhauled.”
We had already overhauled the entire political system, after a fashion, as Melanie was a Communist. She itched to join the Abe Lincoln Brigade so she could go to Spain to fight the fascist threat. I was not really terribly interested in politics. Melanie said this was because I was too neurotic to give myself to the larger issues. I didn’t even know what neurotic meant. Melanie said that I of all people should have known the meaning of neurotic as I had already had one nervous breakdown. This came as a complete surprise to me and so I looked at her askance. She explained that beyond a doubt that whole summer of fear and trembling and vomiting I had described to her had been nothing more nor less than a nervous breakdown and what did I think a nervous breakdown was, anyway. I hadn’t thought anything about nervous breakdowns so was not prepared to say. But I was grateful to Melanie for giving a name to that bad time. Labeling it changed it by making it less amorphous and part of the common experience. It was comforting.
I really loved Melanie. I had never had trouble making friends but always before a friend had been someone to play with. Melanie was the first friend who was someone to be with.
When she first came into the class, I hadn’t paid much attention to her. Most of our class had been together from the time I had skipped into it. We were not a fluid neighborhood, most of our parents being owners rather than renters. A newcomer in the class was an event, but also an intrusion, and Melanie hadn’t looked particularly promising to me at the beginning, being solemn and deceptively bland. But on the third morning I began to suspect that she was someone to be reckoned with,
“Melanie, dear,” Miss Roach said (she was a kind teacher), “I notice you aren’t saying the pledge of allegiance along with the rest of us. Don’t you know it?”
“I know it,” Melanie said, stiffening her back.
“Aren’t you a citizen of this country, dear?”
“Yes I am, Miss Roach. I was born right here in Brooklyn.”
“Then don’t you feel you owe this country your allegiance?”
“Some,” Melanie said. “But not that much. Not under God.”
There was a shocked silence as this sort of thing was practically unheard of back then, at least in our neighborhood.
“Why is that, Melanie?” Miss Roach said after a while.
“If there is a God,” Melanie said, “and I’m not prepared to say there isn’t, I don’t believe He cares whether we’re a nation or not. I mean, I don’t think He would bother to recognize national boundaries. And furthermore I don’t think we should use Him that way, as though we had some special right to Him, being the United States of America.”
It was a long speech, and Melanie delivered it with fervor.
“That’s a valid point of view,” Miss Roach said generously, though she was obviously under a strain, “but perhaps you are overlooking the spirit of the pledge which, after all, is what’s important, isn’t it, dear? However, if you would prefer just to say that part of the pledge you agree with and be silent during the under God part, I will overlook it.”
Miss Roach had handled the crisis nicely, I thought, but I was mainly impressed with Melanie’s stand. The more I thought about what she’d said, the more I was sorry I hadn’t thought of it first. But in the next few days it became apparent that she had many ideas and opinions I hadn’t yet thought of. She wasn’t aggressive about it, but if called on there wasn’t a subject she didn’t argue with except geography and spelling. She was a real find.
“Do you want to be friends?” was my opening gambit. It was along about Melanie’s fifth day and I had purposely sat next to her in the lunchroom.
“What a lousy sandwich,” she said, looking sadly at what she had just bitten into. It was a cucumber sandwich on raisin bread.
“You want half of mine?” I said. “It’s tuna fish.”
“What’s your name?”
“Allegra Maud Goldman.”
“Wow,” she said. “That’s a real potpourri of a name.”
“What’s a potpourri?” I said,
“What I wish I were having for lunch.”
“Why don’t you tell your mother you don’t like cucumber sandwiches?”
“I make my own sandwiches,” she said, giving me a strange, hostile look. “My mother hasn’t got time. It’s hard for me to think about sandwiches in the morning because I’m never hungry then. I thought this would be a good idea.”
“I never heard of cucumber sandwiches.”
“The English a re always having them for tea,” she said, so I knew she was a reader. I forced half my tuna fish sandwich on her and struggled with half her cucumber sandwich and we were friends.
She was the first person I knew who lived in an apartment house. She was also the first product I knew of a broken home. Her parents had been divorced for three years, and she hardly ever saw her father. I told her I had sometimes tried to talk my mother into divorcing my father, but she’d never paid any attention.
“What’s the matter with your father?” Melanie said.
“He has a terrible temper,” I said. “He is ill-natured.”
It was another week before Melanie invited me to come home after school with her, and, although she had refused my invitations, I accepted hers at once. On the way, she warned me about her sister, who was called Sister. She was two years younger than Melanie and a pest. Also, as I would discover for myself, she was crazy. Not really crazy, just impossible.
“Is Sister her real name?” I said.
“No. Her real name is Sophronia. That, laughably, means sensible in Greek.”
“Melanie and Sophronia,” I said. “Your mother must be very romantic.”
“My father named us.”
“Why did they get divorced?”
“They fought all the time,” Melanie said. “My father is a highly educated and sensitive man, but he can’t seem to earn a living. He’s always failing at things. And my mother, who wasn’t even born in this country, is a hard-headed business-woman. She has a dry-cleaning store.”
She was the first friend I had whose mother worked. There was no end to her firsts. By the time we got to her apartment house I even found it glamorous. It was a six-story gray stone building, and the lobby had a marble floor and yellow stucco walls and big dark Spanish furniture with red velvet upholstery.
“Oh, this is gorgeous,” I said while we waited for the elevator. Melanie snorted.
“Gorgeous!” she said. “It’s awful.”
“Why?” I said. “It’s almost as grand as the Loew’s Kings.”
“It’s tacky,” she snapped. “You don’t have to be polite.”
As we rode slowly up to the fourth floor, I wondered about why what looked gorgeous to me looked tacky to Melanie, never doubting that Melanie’s view was the correct one since she was so emphatic about it.
“I guess that’s what they mean by “a question of taste,” “I said. “I guess maybe we just have different tastes.”
Melanie was getting more and more sullen as the elevator rose.
“Maybe you just don’t have any taste,” she said severely. She was probably right so I vowed, as the elevator bumped to a halt and the door slid open, to begin then and there to try to have taste. It would mean really looking at things and penetrating what was, to me, a total mystery. I knew from my father’s business that what was fashionable and considered to be in good taste one year was no longer fashionable the next; that if you wore last year’s style this year people might even laugh at you. It seemed to be true of furniture, too. Even colors could go out of style. And combinations of colors. In those days you wouldn’t dream of combining anything blue with green, or black with brown. It was considered revolting.
Melanie opened her apartment door with a key and I followed her inside. It was going to be a lot of trouble having taste, but I began right away by carefully examining everything in the living room, assuming that since it was Melanie’s home and she was so knowledgeable, everything in it must be all right. There was a scarred old upright piano with some of the ivories missing and a small sofa with jade green upholstery and a potbellied commode also painted jade green with red and gold dragons and blue peacocks and red and gold pagodas painted on it, and on top of this was the Brooklyn telephone directory and on top of that was the telephone and next to all this was a white china lamp with rosebuds painted on it and a fluted green shade. There were also two over-stuffed chairs with round arms, one gold, one another shade of green, and a Philco console radio. It was a small room and all of the furniture touched. There was one picture on the wall. It was a picture of a windmill and a Dutch boy.
I was trying to decide how I felt about the room and what comment I should make, or if it would be wiser just not to say anything, when Melanie said, “My mother has rotten taste, too. I can’t wait to get out of here and have my own place.”
It was then that I noticed the ashtray with the pipe in it, and, while Melanie was putting our coats in the closet, I saw a man’s overcoat hanging there and a gray fedora on the shelf.
“Are those still your father’s things?” I said.
“Good heavens, no,” Melanie said in an unnaturally nonchalant voice. “They’re Alfred’s. He’s my mother’s paramour.”
I began to say “what’s a paramour” when my instincts intervened and I didn’t. I could always look it up when I got home. I followed Melanie into the kitchen, a tiny room with a lot happening in it.
“That pest didn’t do the dishes,” Melanie said in a rage, looking into the sink.
“Your mother?” I said, shocked.
“Sister. It’s her turn today. She never does what she’s supposed to do and I always get the blame.” She filled a kettle with water and put it on the stove. “We’ll have tea,” she said.
Tea was something I had only when I was sick and therefore I didn’t much care for it, but in that moment it became the absolutely most delightfully correct thing to have.
“That will be lovely,” I said, sitting down at the kitchen table which Melanie was clearing of the rest of the breakfast things. The front door banged and someone called, “Mell? You home?”
“You didn’t do the dishes, you turd,” Melanie shouted. Sister appeared in the doorway. She was taller than Melanie and generally constructed on a much larger scale, and she had round red cheeks and small green eyes. She was still carrying her briefcase, a really sloppy one with gashes in it and bandaids around the handles and pieces of ink-smudged paper sticking out of the top.
“It’s your turn today,” she said. “Who’s that?”
“It’s not my turn, you slob, I did them yesterday and if you don’t do them right away I’ll kill you and this time I mean it, you crud.”
Sister put down her briefcase and took off her hat and coat and muffler, dropping everything in a heap on the kitchen floor. She came over to the kitchen table and sat down opposite me.
“How do you do?” she said sweetly. “I’m Sister, Who are you?”
“Allegra Maud Goldman,” I said.
“You a friend of hers?” she said unnecessarily, as why else would I have been there. “You’re too good for her.”
“Melanie is my best friend,” I said.
“That doesn’t say much for your other friends.”
“I mean it, Sister, if you don’t do the dishes I’ll push you out of the window into the airshaft and they’ll never be able to get your body out and it will just lie there forever stinking and stinking with the rest of the garbage down there.”
“If you lay a hand on me I’ll call Mom. I think I’ll call her anyhow,”
“Don’t you dare call her, you horse’s ass, don’t you dare bother her. She has enough to worry about in that lousy store with customers yelling at her all day without your dumb telephone calls.”
The kettle began to scream too, then. Melanie turned the light off under it and brought two cups and saucers and teabags to the table. She put one set in front of me and the other as far from Sister as she could.
“Where’s mine?” Sister said.
“You can get it yourself. I’m not your servant.” And then in an entirely different voice, Melanie said to me, “Lemon or cream, Allegra?”
“I always have it with lemon,” I said.
“Well, have it with cream. It’s much better that way.”
“Okay,” I said. “Do the customers really yell at your mother?”
“It’s disgusting,” Melanie said. “They bring in this absolute dreck and then they threaten to sue because there’s a button off or they say it shrank or the color ran or there’s a hole somewhere, and how can you prove that’s the way it was when they brought it in? My mother’s a wreck by the time she gets home at night.”
“She used to have a hat store,” Sister said. “That was much better. But it failed.”
“It was a poor location,” Melanie explained, putting a box of cookies down in front of me. “Would you care for a Nabisco wafer?”
“Thank you,” I said and took one.
“Me too,” Sister said, reaching for the box and grabbing a fistful. “I’m starved. I lost my lunch again.”
“Liar. I bet you didn’t even go to school. She never goes to school. As if she hasn’t enough to worry about, my mother’s always having to see the principal.”
“I had to go to school today,” Sister said, pulling a long face. “It rained.”
“Last year when we were still living in Borough Park she was suspended twice.”
“You don’t have to tell her everything, ” Sister said. She reached for her briefcase and rummaged around in it, coming out with a fountain pen and a dog’s leash. She carefully fastened the end of the leash to the penclip, then got up and put her hat and coat and muffler back on.
“I have to take my fountain pen out for a walk now,” she said to me. “You want to come along?”
“No thanks,” I said. She exited, holding one end of the leash, the pen trailing along the floor at the other. We heard the front door slam.
“Is she really taking her fountain pen for a walk?” I asked.
“Yes. And when she comes to a tree she stops and lets some ink out of the pen.”
“What does she do that for?”
“She thinks it’s funny. She’s disgusting. We had dinner at Garfield’s Cafeteria the other night and she had a long conversation with a coat tree. Then she said, “Oh, I beg your pardon, I thought you were my Uncle Herbert. ” She’ll do anything for attention. We haven’t even got an Uncle Herbert.”
Melanie sipped some tea and then burst into tears.
“And you’ll notice,” she sobbed, “that she didn’t do the dishes.”
“Calm down,” I said. “Don’t cry.”
“I wish she were dead.”
“No you don’t,” I said. “She’s only a child.”
“What would you know? I wish she were dead with all my heart. I even have to sleep in the same bed with her!”
The telephone rang and Melanie stopped crying and blew her nose and answered it.
“Hello, Mom,” she said. “Yes, fine. Yeah she came home but she’s gone out for a walk. How do I know if she actually went, she said she did. Yes, I have the list, I’ll take care of it. He didn’t? But I have a friend . . . Oh shit, all right. In about 20 minutes.” She hung up and turned to me with a look of utter despair. “The delivery boy didn’t show up. I have to go make six deliveries for her.”
“Do you want me to go with you?”
“Christ no,” she said and burst into tears again. After a while, she said, “I’m sorry. I’m at my worst with my family.”
“We all are,” I said.
That night before dinner, after I had looked up paramour and then had to look up illicit, I went into the living room where my mother was reading The New York Sun. She looked snug and comfortable sitting there in our deepest armchair with her shoes off and her feet up on the ottoman. I could smell the roast beef and apple pie Olga had cooking in the oven.
“Which did you play today, bridge or mah-jongg?” I asked.
“Neither,” my mother said, not looking up. “I went to a luncheon at the Waldorf for the Kadesh Barnea Society for the Helpless Hebrew Aged and then I went to Bloomingdale’s.”
“What did they have for lunch?”
“What they always have,” my mother said. “Broiled chicken with grapes and cocoanut ice cream balls. And they had a fashion show.”
“What did you buy at Bloomingdale’s?”
My mother looked up from the paper. “You’re full of questions today. There was a linen sale so I bought some sheets and pillow cases. And I bought myself a couple of girdles.”
“You’re a lucky woman,” I said.
“You think so? Wait till your father gets the bill.”
“We all have our problems,” I said.