Cookie heard the rustle of taffeta, the snick of a zipper. Then Momma was clipping down the hall in high heels, Gertie right behind. Together they crowded into the bathroom.
“Look, I’m so nervous, I just put my dress on inside out!” Momma gasped.
“Take it easy, take it easy,” Gertie soothed; “we got time.”
The smell of Momma’s fresh permanent, tinged with peppery sweat, floated on a layer of “White Shoulders” into the kitchen. Cookie scowled down at The Herald News. She had been in her room with the door shut until the bustling and giggling had driven her out; she stomped into the kitchen and flung herself down at the table, where she had a good view of the doings in the hallway. Let them see her, she glowered; let them know she was there, watching. But Momma and her friend Gertie only continued their absorbed rushing and murmuring, from bedroom to bathroom, from mirror to mirror. Momma never looked her way, but from time to time Gertie caught her eye, held it as if to speak, then slid her glance away.
Twelve-year-old Cookie knew what was going on, although no one had officially told her. Today was her mother’s wedding day. Momma was dressing to go into New York to marry Gilbert; Gertie was her lady-in-waiting. When she came home, he would be with her.
Her throat thickened, and the knot in the center of her chest threatened to melt. She knitted her brows and crossed her arms. Daddy had only been dead eight months. She alone mourned him. Her mother began going to the Jewish dances, and whenever Cookie mentioned her father, she acted huffy. “What’re you making such a fuss for, all of a sudden, you never loved him that much anyway.” And, eyebrows quivering, “Ain’t I got a right to live?” Two months ago her mother had been introduced to Gilbert at a dance. Now she was getting married. She knew Cookie was upset, but she wouldn’t even look.
From the bedroom more swishing and laughing, the scrape of hangers in the closet, slamming, clicking, her mother’s high clear voice muffled by the abrupt closing of the door; a soft, final thunk. At the table Cookie frowned and blinked hard. Thelma, Gertie’s daughter, had called last night to invite her for the weekend. No one said anything, but everyone knew. Well, maybe she’d just stay right here and be alone; serve them all right. She stalked to her mother’s bedroom at the front of the apartment. Drawers hung open, slips swirled onto the floor, loose powder spun across the dresser top. Out the window Broadway bustled in the ordinary Friday afternoon sunshine. She stiffened her back, scowling down at the throngs of shoppers on the avenue. Their obliviousness irritated her, seemed part of the enormous injury she had to absorb. In the movies it was always such a big deal when there was a child: she had to be prepared, consulted; everyone worried how she was going to adjust; people talked gently to her, and it all took a long time. Eventually the man won her over, not with presents, but by being good and kind; the kid smiled up at him and accepted his outstretched hand, and the last scene was the wedding with everyone there and the kid right in the middle beaming. She’d heard that some real children actually were invited to their parent’s weddings, stood there holding flowers. She whirled from the window. Well, she was glad to miss that— her mother marrying that fat pig with his stupid monkey face. Gilbert! How could she! How could she like him! He looked like Khrushchev! And “Gilbert,” the name he was so proud of, that Momma thought was prettier than the one she and Cookie shared, Gilbert wasn’t even his real name; he was ashamed of his real name; it was too Jewish; he was one of those traitors who changed. And such a harsh, ugly, funny name—Jacob Gittlemacher! Jacob Gittlemacher! That’s who he really was!
She had met Gilbert just two weeks ago, on Thanksgiving. She didn’t know it but they were already planning to be married; that was why he had been invited—the official meeting with Cookie. When he arrived, he was ugly, with a short nose and long upper lip, grizzled gray hair in his nose and ears. His eyes were small, round; a gorilla’s face on a barrel body; how could she take him seriously as a suitor for her mother’s hand? He was old, with grownup children her mother’s age. But he seemed jovial, he came in smiling, with a box of candy for them. At the table Momma began to talk about Cookie, how she liked to read, her writing, but Gilbert preferred to talk about himself. His voice was thick and growly. Soon he had captured Momma’s attention. He told corny jokes, with each punch line throwing himself back in his chair, head cocked with an expectant grin, looking first at her mother and then at her, but only her mother laughed, polite little titters, that Gilbert couldn’t tell were false. After dinner Cookie left them at the table and went to her room. She was cold and couldn’t read; then, after awhile, she could; she slipped into the world of her novel until her mother called her back to the kitchen. Out of her room the air in the apartment seemed lighter, sharper, full of promise, as before a change in weather. Excitement and electricity hummed high along the walls. She came eagerly, resolved to make a good impression. They were still at the table, their faces pink and happy; Gilbert’s bald head was glazed with sweat. Momma began to worry over her supper.
“Are you hungry, you want a sandwich?”
“I’m still full from lunch; I’ll make something later.”
“Well, make a meal, don’t make a nosh. There’s more stuffing, there’s bread. What’re you gonna eat?”
“I’ll have a sandwich later,” Cookie began to whine.
“Is that gonna be enough for you—a sandwich?”
Gilbert cut in, startling them. “Well, just looking at her, I can tell one sandwich isn’t going to be enough.” Cookie and Momma met each other’s eyes, then glanced resentfully at him; annoyance flickered in Momma’s face; quickly it was replaced with a smile. After he left, Cookie cried and Momma got mad and told her she was getting married. “You can like it or lump it, but you better get used to it cause it’s gonna happen. I’m tired a being alone! I’m tired a working like a dog! What’s the matter, I got you, I ain’t got a right to live?” Much later she called out, as if placating her, “He promised me he’d give you piano lessons!”
And now it had happened; her mother had left to marry Gilbert, and Cookie was alone. She remembered, with a chill that began at her neck and worried down her spine, his small hard eyes. You could see in them he had no n’shuma, no soul—little monkey eyes; Daddy’s had been large and deep. Daddy was generous, he was kind, he understood people, her mother always said. It wasn’t his fault he was old and sick. For the past two years he had lain in bed with a bad heart while her mother went out to work as a waitress. Now he lay in his grave, unmourned, forgotten. As of this moment Momma had stopped being his wife. This ugly stranger was barging into their house, their bathroom, Daddy’s closet, his bed! He would sit at the table next to her mother; he would ride in the passenger seat; he would always be there. She hardened her mouth, her spine. She was of her father, his partisan, his representative, keeping him alive in the new marriage, carrying him forward. She would never surrender.
Something definite had been decided; she felt strengthened, the shakiness in her throat had disappeared. She glanced out the window, and in that very second the street lights popped on, and she felt a stir of anticipation. He was going to give her piano lessons. He was going to take care of them, her mother said. Momma wouldn’t have to work at all. Cookie lifted her eyebrows, considering. The rich girls from Passaic Park took lessons, all kinds; their mothers stayed home and drove them. They had cashmere sweaters, porch lights, little pearls on a chain; they spoke pleasantly to each other; no one threw big screaming fits, tore their clothes and their hair in fury. Now that her mother had a husband, Cookie might not have to be thinking about her all the time. Someone else would be on duty. Maybe Momma would be happy; wouldn’t yell how rotten Cookie was, how she had no consideration; wouldn’t faint and weep and get hysterical about how hard her life was. She could be just a kid, like everyone else, a normal kid, with piano lessons.
She saw again Gilbert’s large, shiny face. It seemed pale to her now, a blank page. What if he really turned out to be nice? What if he turned out to be a real father—told her what to do, didn’t let her get away with things; what if he wouldn’t let her and Momma fight; if he acted strong? What if Gilbert made her love him?
She jumped to her feet, rushed into the kitchen for a paper bag, back to her room to pack underwear and homework. As she slammed drawers and books she found her anger and hardened into it. She was mad at everyone, but she didn’t want to stay by herself in the dark house all weekend, breathing in that musty air. She would go on to Thelma’s. She frowned and threw back her shoulders, trying to ignore her hands, so cold they felt transparent, and the thrumming of her blood in her ears.
Gilbert had moved in. Behind every door but hers bloomed racks of his clothes: sweaters, raincoats, topcoats, spring coats, long- and short-sleeved shirts, suits—winter and summer weight, jackets of leather, wool, poplin. Sport coats, arms bent and creased as if inhabited by short fat ghosts, swayed on their hangers as she walked by, annoying her. It seemed immoral for one person to have so many clothes; not even a woman had a right to be that vain. Her father had owned two suits—one charcoal, one brown; a single brown topcoat. He was better than Gilbert, his values were deep, he wasn’t a clothes-horse; yet Gilbert’s astonishing wardrobe, ten times too large for Daddy’s closet, made her father seem a pauper; she felt sorry for him, and smoldered with resentment. In the top drawer of her father’s dresser, crammed among Gilbert’s handkerchiefs and belts, was a small cracked leather diary. Most of its pages were blank. “The Secret of the Universe is: INERTIA!” she read. When she read it aloud to them at the dinner table, he clucked his tongue, lifted his brows, and looked proud. He didn’t seem to mind that she had spied out his diary and rummaged through it; he was pleased that they were both looking at him.
“But what does it mean?” she insisted.
Gilbert looked mysterious. “It means what you think it means.” He glanced over her head to smile at her mother.
“But it doesn’t make any sense!” she cried crossly. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
He closed his eyes and smiled. “I know what I know,” he hummed. He was having fun; she glared down at the diary, slapped over several pages.
“Second marriage like warmed over stew,” she read. “Thank God Gilbert is out.” At this he flung himself back and laughed, rubbing both hands over the front of his sweater vest in quick caressing pats. Her mother smiled at him, but Cookie watched coldly. His first name was Jacob, but he referred to himself as “Gilbert” and so did her mother. Cookie tried not to call him anything at all.
But what Cookie really couldn’t stand when he first moved in was that he never flushed the toilet. “It’s not right,” she complained to her mother, her voice shaking. “You know it’s not right. Who doesn’t flush a toilet? Why do I have to see that?” Momma looked uncomfortable. Gilbert still didn’t flush. When Cookie complained again, fiercer and louder, Momma must have brought herself to speak to him because that problem disappeared. However, Gilbert had many other personal habits that disgusted her—snorting, hawking, spitting; her thoughts raced with all she hated about him.
And then, once, in the middle of the night, as she scuffed through their bedroom on the way to the toilet, she heard her mother’s sharp whisper: “She’s coming!” Beneath a quilt an enormous lump seemed to tense and listen. Her mother’s naked foot withdrew under the blanket. On her way back to bed, there were two lumps, both still. The air in their bedroom was hot and close with a strange odor at once thick and acrid. In the morning she realized that her mother and Gilbert had been making love!
On New Year’s Eve they had an early supper before her mother and Gilbert went out to celebrate. Momma allowed her a half glass of Manischewitz, and Cookie pretended to be tipsy. Her mother laughed; Gilbert watched impassively. On impulse, she snatched up a dishtowel and draped it on top of his head. He looked like a chimpanzee with a turban. She danced around the table, laughing at him. Amusement faded from her mother’s face.
“Cookie!” she warned.
“That’s all right,” Gilbert said. “I don’t mind.”
“You don’t mind she puts a dirty dishtowel on your head?”
“So long as she’s smiling when she does it,” he said. He seemed pleased with that and repeated it: “So long as she’s smiling when she does it, I don’t care.” He looked significantly at her mother as if instructing her. Her mother was happy. She sailed out of the kitchen to dress. Cookie slid down the wall to the floor, legs straight out before her, calling out toasts, still pretending to be drunk. It felt a little like it used to in the big kitchen, when she was small, playing on the floor, beneath the smiles of her mother and father. She remembered her father’s funny face, reserved for her alone, eyes closed, lips pursed, shaking his head and thrusting out his chin. But when she looked over at Gilbert he was glaring at her, a hot bright glance of dislike. Instantly she jerked her gaze above his head, and sang louder. Gilbert shoved away from the table and lumbered after her mother. Cookie remained on the floor, legs outstretched. Her spine prickled; the kitchen seemed shadowy and too small. He hated her—even though she was the child and he was the adult. He hated her back.
“So, Cookie,” Gilbert turned to her expansively, pushing the supper dishes out of his way. “The mother tells me you like to read. In Russia I read all the great ones—Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Gogol—you ever heard from Gogol?”
“You read them in Russian,” Momma marveled. “Isn’t that interesting!”
Gilbert smiled at her. “So, sure. My father brought home. I read Shakespeare, too, and then I came here and read in English. Romeo and Juliet—very good play.”
“Oh, yeah,” Cookie muttered. “I bet you read it.”
“King Lear, Hamlet, Othello,” he smiled reminiscently, now addressing only her mother. “Everybody suffers. Everybody dies. Very sad. Very tragic. A tragedy.”
“I bet you read it,” Cookie said clearly.
Now he looked at her, his face stiff with hurt, and Cookie smiled to herself. Momma grabbed her arm and pinched her. “Stop it!” she hissed, “you’re acting like a—like a I-Don’t-Know-What!” She shook Cookie’s arm roughly, and Cookie jumped up and stalked towards her room, Gilbert’s outraged bleats floating after her.
“Where did you ever hear to open up such a mouth!”
Lulling murmurs from her mother.
“Kid!” he choked. “That’s no kid! Don’t tell me that’s a kid!”
“Let her hear, the crazy loon!” But he obediently lowered his voice.
Cookie narrowed her eyes. Gilbert was mad, and she was glad. She had shown him up, the liar, the bag of wind, and her mother had been there to see. She had to know what a phoney he was. It was just a matter of time before Momma realized her colossal mistake. But later Momma came into her bedroom, closed the door, and shouted at Cookie.
“You’re not even trying! Put that goddamn book down and listen to me! You won’t give an inch! You won’t give him a chance! Nothing he says is right! He don’t bother you! What’s the matter—he beats you? He takes food out of your mouth? That man supports you! He pays for the roof over your head! A lotta men wouldn’t, somebody else’s kid. They’d throw you out on the street! What do you think, the world owes you? Listen, I know what’s wrong you—you’re jealous! You can’t stand to see me happy! You can’t stand to see me taking it easy and having a good time! What do you think, life was so wonderful with your father? I had to work my fingers to the bone, I had to worry where your next meal was coming from. You were there, you saw. He was an old man—don’t you think I deserve—”
“He’s not fit to kiss my father’s shoes,” Cookie cut in. “He’s not fit to walk on the same side of the street as my father.”
Momma looked surprised. “Why?” she asked, with real curiosity.
Cookie stared at her. Momma had forgotten everything she had ever told her about how good her father was, better than anyone else in the world. There was nothing she could say. “Oh, leave me alone,” she muttered. Her mother nodded in satisfaction, as if something had been settled, and strode to the door, back to her place on the couch beside Gilbert. Cookie could hear them laughing with the television.
Her room seemed small and airless. She wandered out into the kitchen, passing them without a word, and sank down at the table, leaning her cheek on her hand. Before her in a white paper bag was a small round loaf of black bread Gilbert brought home for himself from the Russian bakery near work. Saliva spurted onto her tongue. She pulled out a knife, sawed off the end piece, smeared it with margarine, and crammed it into her mouth, chewing fiercely. The bread was so coarse and dry her jaws ached; it settled in her stomach, a heavy lump. She cut slice after slice, stuffing it into her mouth, forcing it down, until the loaf was gone.
Momma made Cookie come along when they went to Philadelphia to be introduced to Gilbert’s family. Then his sister Lillian told a joke.
“Listen to this!” she brayed, and everyone leaned forward, ready to laugh. “A man was buttering his bread and he buttered it on both sides. So they asked him, “Why are you buttering your bread on both sides?” And he said, “What’s the matter with my lower teeth—they’re stepchildren?”“
Everyone laughed except Cookie and her mother. Cookie’s face stiffened and she waited for Momma to protest. Momma held her eyes, her glance begging Cookie to understand. Then she looked away. In the car she explained, “It’s just their way. She don’t mean nothing.” Cookie was silent with injury. But she didn’t have to go to Philadelphia any more.
Gilbert and Momma had begun fighting. As far as Cookie could tell, trying to do her homework behind her closed door, it was about Gilbert bringing work home and not paying Momma enough attention. Evenings and weekends he hunched over his retouching stand working on graduation pictures, while Momma wept and raged at his back. After a few hours he would begin yelling too. Once her mother screeched, “You and this goddamned marriage can go to hell!” Then there was a crash. Cookie raced into their bedroom; Momma and Gilbert stood facing each other, glaring; Cookie thrust herself between them.
“What did you do to my mother!”
Gilbert’s eyes glittered; he was so mad his voice went falsetto. “Take your goddamn mother! Crazy loons!” He lurched out of the apartment.
“What’re you mixing in? This ain’t your business!”
“I thought he hit you!”
“Nobody hit me! I threw my coat at him!” There it was, on the floor. She snatched it up. “What a life! God, can You make it any worse?” And then she ran out, too.
Later they returned, together, as if nothing had happened. The next day Gilbert brought home a mink stole that he bought for a hundred dollars from one of the showgirls who came into the studio to have her pictures taken. Momma wore the stole in bed while he retouched in his corner. Her eyes on his back were soft and full of wonder, like a princess in a fairy tale. She refused to listen when Cookie cried and reminded her how she had promised to wait for Cookie to buy her a fur when she became a rich and famous writer.
Cookie decided to teach herself Russian, because, after all, it wasn’t the language’s fault that Gilbert was born there; it was the tongue of Tolstoy, of Dostoeysky and Chekhov, writers deep as the sea who knew all there was to know about life. She bought a traveler’s phrase book in the Five and Ten, and set herself to learning the alphabet, loving the beautiful, exotically-shaped letters, the thrilling foreign sounds. Her mother peeked in; Cookie displayed her pages of scholarship; Momma laughed and carried them out to Gilbert at his retouching stand. He threw down his retouching pencil and bent eagerly to correct Cookie’s mistakes, explaining each to Momma, who admired him. Listening from her room, Cookie burned; his voice was thick with gloating; how he was enjoying himself! Still, she continued her studies, from the phrase book piecing together conversations and stories which she showed to her mother, who delivered them to Gilbert, who stopped working to correct them, expounding to her mother, who carried them back to Cookie. Momma trotted willingly between the rooms, looking amused, as if the three of them were playing a game.
One Saturday she handed Cookie a small slip of paper upon which Gilbert had rewritten one of her Russian sentences. Something was scrawled on the back; Cookie turned it over. “You’re crazy,” she read in her mother’s hand. “I love you!”
“What’s this? What’s this?” She thrust the paper at her mother. Momma snatched it back.
“Oh, that’s just something,” she mumbled, and scooted out to Gilbert.
Cookie sank onto her bed. Here was the truth in her mother’s own hand, and she had acted guilty about it, too, which clinched it. She loved him. How he treated Cookie, totally ignoring her, refusing even to say hello, that had nothing to do with her and him. Despite all Cookie had exposed about him; despite his monkey face and fuzzy ears and hanging belly, and all the fighting, Momma wasn’t just making the best of it. She didn’t think she had made a mistake. She loved him. A weight settled between her eyes. She knew Gilbert had passed her that note on purpose. She put aside the Russian phrase book, eventually threw it out; she had lost all desire to learn his language. The heaviness in her head descended to her chest, her limbs; she was turning into stone. She had trouble getting out of bed in the mornings and began to miss a lot of school.
She didn’t have a cold; nothing actually hurt, but lying in bed, groggy, trying to focus, she gave up and fell back into a heavy sleep that lasted all day. In school her body felt swollen and she couldn’t concentrate. “I don’t feel good,” she whined to her mother who, busy with her many errands, impatiently felt her forehead then left her alone to sleep. But after the school called, Momma took her to the doctor.
“It might be mononucleosis,” he said. Her mother’s face pinched with worry. Cookie’s heart lifted; she was really sick.
“She’ll have to rest in bed for a few weeks, and give her plenty to eat.”
Back home Momma helped her undress, then settled her in her own double bed before the television, piling up pillows behind her back, bringing her a glass of water with ice cubes in it. Cookie pulled one of her schoolbooks towards her, but the print blurred and she slid down the pile of pillows and fell asleep. When she awoke, she could smell mushroom-barley soup, homemade just for her, although Gilbert would get some. When it was time for him to come home, she moved back into her own bed. Momma brought her soup on a tray before she fed him.
After supper Momma came to sit on Cookie’s bed, chewing her lip, once even smoothing Cookie’s hair. They spoke to each other in murmurs; Cookie worried about missing school and all the weight she would gain just lying in bed eating. Momma tried to comfort her. From their bedroom Gilbert kept calling. “Just a minute,” she told him. He waited, then again called her out. She and Cookie exchanged annoyed glances. “Stop it,” she told him sharply. “I’ll be there, hold your horses. Can’t you do anything for yourself?”
In the days, with Gilbert gone, it was old times again, the two of them home alone, Momma being sweet, making special meals, bustling to the library to bring her books, to the school to speak to her teachers and collect her homework.
By the second week her mother still cooked hearty meals but she and Gilbert had resumed their evening jaunts, Gilbert eager to accompany her anywhere she wished, and it was Thelma who brought books and assignments. The third week her mother left meals on the stove for her to heat and was gone all day; Cookie felt bored and restless; and when on Friday the doctor said she could go back to school, she was glad. She missed the paper and all her friends, and wondered what everyone had been up to.
The cold bright spring sun glanced off plate glass windows and threw the stores in high relief, spotting Broadway with pools of glare and shadow. Cookie trudged home, part of the throng of late Saturday afternoon shoppers. At the top of the bright avenue Gilbert emerged from their doorway and began to scurry down the street. He clutched a small suitcase, his hat was jammed on his head, his unbuttoned gray topcoat flapped. He lurched past the storefronts, tipping from side to side in a fat man’s waddle, his small dapper feet paddling the pavement. His eyes jerked sideways to meet hers, then jerked away; they were wide and round; his mouth tightened; head down, he rushed on, scuttling through the crowds as if fleeing a fire. After him came her mother. She was barefoot, in a sheer, stretched out nylon nightgown, her hair in spiky tufts. She rushed after Gilbert, her breasts flopping as she stumbled down the avenue, weaving like a drunk among the shoppers who gaped at her, but she looked only at Gilbert’s fleeing back. She neared Cookie; her eyes were glazed and wild, her white face contorted. Her stare jumped over Cookie’s head. She reeled past, whimpering. By the middle of the block she had caught him, plucking at his sleeve, trying to grab the suitcase, scrabbling at the handle. He snatched his arm away, his feet still hurrying. She let go and fell back. He did not pause. Hiding his face, he clutched his suitcase and fled. Her mother watched after him, sobbing. He was quickly swallowed up in the crowds. She turned unsteadily and hobbled back up the street. People were staring at her with avid, horrified faces but she did not look at them. She wept without covering her face. She limped past Cookie, head down, making mewling noises in her throat. She lurched into their doorway, pulled open the door, reeled through, and disappeared. The avenue had gone absolutely silent; rushes of air beat against Cookie’s ears as if she held a seashell up to them. Shoppers jostled her, brushing her shoulders as she stood unmoving in the street. New waves of people who had not seen divided around her.
She roused herself, swallowing past her dry mouth, and followed her mother into the house. Her legs on the dark stairs felt heavy; her ears rang. Momma was sobbing face down on her bed. She approached warily, stopping several feet from the edge of the mattress.
“Ma, can I get you anything?”
Momma wept brokenly, squirming into the pillow. Cookie went into her room and sat down on her bed.
Her mother had run out onto Broadway in her nightgown; raced after Gilbert in bare feet, her private life spilling out like breasts for the world to see. Strangers on the avenue thought her mother was drunk or crazy, but Cookie had seen this before. The nightgown, the bare feet, were signs of how distraught her mother was, meant to make Gilbert soften, and take pity on her, put down his anger like a valise, shelter her with his arm, lead her tenderly upstairs, care for her all day. Her mother’s eyes were wide, glazed. This is what you have brought me to, they said; this is what you have made of me. Now do something. But Gilbert had been embarrassed, horrified; he had pulled away as if from a leper and escaped down the avenue.
She too had run from her mother’s day-long rages, but her mother had let her go, had never followed after onto the street. She knew her daughter would have to return. But Gilbert was a man; he was a grown-up; he could leave and not come back. She began to feel a grudging respect for him. He had run away. He had refused to take it, had said “no” to Momma’s tricks. She knew what Momma was like; now Gilbert, no longer exempt, was finding out. Now he was getting it, all the misery her mother could dish out. She had heard him in their bedroom, bellowing like a pierced bull. Now he had been goaded to flee. She saw again his lurch down Broadway. In his little monkey eyes had been outrage and anger, but also pain. His new life, his brand new marriage, had come to this. On his stunned face she could read the familiar anguish of hope blasted forever. He began to seem related to her: a second child, a brother. Pity stirred uneasily within her hollow chest.
Cookie took a deep breath. So this was marriage, she thought. This was what people did, husbands and wives. Like mothers and daughters, they fought. They fought over who was to blame and who was at fault; who was wrong and who was heartless; who was crazy and who was rotten. They fought all the time, with never a winner, never a clear, final victory. She rested her palms on her thighs, aware of the pulse beating steadily in her throat. Something had happened; now something would happen next. It had nothing to do with her. This was between the grownups, being played out above her head as if on a giant puppet stage. Frowning she focused on the region in the middle of her chest. No, she felt no guilt, no remorse. Her hating Gilbert and being angry at her mother had nothing to do with it. This was her mother’s life, her mother’s marriage; she was a bystander, as she had been on the street. There was trouble in the house. She respected it. She would take care of her own self, make her meals, bring her mother what she wanted, and go about her daily life, while whatever was going to happen, happened. It would happen to her mother and not to her.
The next day Gilbert’s grown daughter Miriam called from Philadelphia. Gilbert had taken the train to her. Passing through the hallway Cookie heard her mother say, “I’m old-fashioned, Miriam; I don’t believe in divorce.” Her voice was low, earnest; she was talking for her life, like Scheherazade; she struggled to find her high-falutin voice.
The two days Gilbert was gone, Momma cried often but quietly, as if she needed all her energy to keep her backbone straight and her wits about her during the long telephone negotiations between Philadelphia and Passaic. She staggered around the house in a housedress, coming alive only when the telephone shrilled. She strode eagerly towards it, one hand outstretched. Then she tightened herself, sitting straighter on the kitchen chair as if Miriam or Gilbert were there to see. Cookie could tell by her low impassioned voice when the caller was Gilbert.
On the third evening, Gilbert came back, carrying his suitcase. There were dark circles under his small round eyes, his fat cheeks were gray and sagging. He looked like a man who had had a heart attack. Her mother came up to him at the door, murmuring; she helped him off with his coat, hung it tenderly in the closet as if it, too, were exhausted. Her face was scrubbed of makeup, her hair combed but not curled. She looked very young, and happy in a chastened way. She asked Gilbert if he wanted a meal, but he wanted only to sleep. His eyes were wary, his voice low and thick. Cookie heard her mother helping him to bed, heard the bedsprings groan as he crawled under the covers her mother held up for him, a battered boxer climbing wearily back into the ring.