The Goniff


Barbara Juster Esbensen

[The following short story appeared in 1980 in "25 Minnesota Writers" and was the first piece of fiction that Barbara ever wrote for adults.]

"He's got a tootsie somewhere," my grandmother is saying. She fills her sister-in-law's glass with tea and puts the teapot back on the copper samovar. They are sitting at the round table in the front-room window, watching the house across the street.

"How do you know this?" Yenta leans expectantly toward my grandmother who is still peering out into the early spring morning. My grandmother lets the lace curtain drop back across the glass and faces Yenta. She flings her arm out in an extravagant gesture.

"He's too fine with her. He's too good with her. He is too full of presents. For nothing he gives her little gifts. What kind of a man does these things, I ask you? He's got a tootsie hidden away someplace and he's full with guilt." She wraps a napkin around the steam glass and pops a cube of sugar into her mouth. She sips the tea. Her grey eyes narrow against the steam.

Yenta is disappointed. She is ready to hear juicy facts, not opinion. She wants evidence. Names. The body. Or, in this case, bodies. The implied weapon, she already knows.

"Well," she explodes, banging her glass down on the white crocheted tablecloth. Tea splashes out and stains the petals of a lacy flower. Yenta moves her arm casually, and covers the stained place. "What do you mean, 'What kind of a man does these things?' My God, Golda, what's the matter with you? Your Albert is exactly this kind of a man! Your Albert is good to you, he gives you plenty of presents. More than I ever see, I can tell you. Everything you say about Minna's Sam we could say about your Albert." She is becoming agitated, and her head shakes from side to side, as if it is saying, no-no-no. "So tell me, dear sister-in-law-with-opinions, what are you talking about? Can't you make sense already this early in the morning?" Long strands from her thick pile of black hair have come loose. Impatiently, she jerks her head to one side and raises both arms to twist the stragglers into place, jabbing a big hairpin into the high coil on top of her head.

"My Albert? My Albert we don't mention in the same breath with the name of Sam Kaler, Yenta. Yenta! What have you done to my cloth? Oy! It's staining the whole thing!"

Yenta's face looks surprised. It is the face of a person seeing this stained flower for the first time. She is deciding whether or not she should look insulted and stalk out of the room. But there is this business about Sam Kaler. So, instead she says, calmly, "A little cold water and lemon juice will take it out. Here, I'll do it. Go on already, Golda. What were you saying about Sam?"

My grandmother is standing now, and the light glints off her reddish hair and the little gold-framed cameo pinned against the dark cloth at her throat. She is forty. Her fair skin is unwrinkled and firm and her wide cheekbones are tinged with color. She is big-boned and strong. When she is older, people will say she is 'heavy-set.'

"I am saying," she measures out each word, "I am simply saying Albert is good to me because he is a good man. He gives me presents because it is his nature to give me presents. He loves me. Not anybody else. Me. He wouldn't look at another woman. Not Albert." She stops for breath. The placid face is pink, her grey eyes look dark under their pale lashes. "That Sam Kaler over there," she gestures with her raised chin, "he don't love anybody but himself. He is so good, oh so sweet to Minna for a reason. Any man with eyes like that - they slide over a woman like a snake. Pftui!" She spits out the word. "When he tips his hat to me, I cross the street." She nods her head for emphasis. "I don't even like to go into the store alone when he's at the butcher block. That's how much I trust that goniff!"

Yenta has finished with the stain. "You don't know he has a tootsie, Golda. I sit here listening to you. I expect to hear the woman's name, her initials, at least. And you don't tell me nothing. You're just making it all up. Is it because he is such a good-looking fella?" She glances sideways at my grandmother. "One of these days poor Minna is going to hear what you say, and then what will you do?"

"One of these days, Minna is going to figure it out for herself. Then what will she do? That's the sad part. There are plenty men with women stuck away for fooling around with. And where are the wives? At home, suffering. What woman wants the shame of a divorce? Take Rose Mandlebaum for example, Yenta. You remember her?" My grandmother leans across the tablecloth.

Yenta certainly remembers Rose Mandlebaum. Everybody knew about the women her Abe fooled around with. One of them, he had tucked away for years and years and Rose knew, Rose knew! But hard as it was for her, humiliating as it was for her (they tell each other over and over), she stayed in that man's house as his wife. They remember what Rose kept saying.

"That's the last thing I would do," Rose told everybody. "Why should I give him exactly the thing he wants from me? I ask you! He stays married to me. Me! I make every minute of every day HELL for him!" It's true. A divorce . . . that shame is worse than death . . . .

My grandmother is standing, and has moved to the window again. She eases back the curtain. "My God! Look at that! He's at it again, the liar!" Yenta and my grandmother stare across the street at the tableau, framed like a valentine, in ecru lace.

When summer comes, the Kaler front porch will be nearly hidden by the spreading leaves of the wide-branching maple tree that stands alongside the frame house. But this is only the beginning of the Wisconsin April and the little green fists on the branches are barely open. The women can see the entire porch.

Sam has one arm around his wife. In his other hand, he holds a derby hat against his checked coat. Below the edge of the coat, his butcher-apron hangs down to his knees. He is saying goodbye. He has bent his whole body into hers, so that her back is curved like a dancer's, and her skein of shining hair nearly sweeps the porch floor. He is kissing her eyes. Her mouth. Her neck.

"My God! He don't care what he does, and she is like a lamb to slaughter. What did I tell you!"

Sam releases Minna now, and she leans weakly against a pillar as he clears the last two steps with one leap. He turns to wave at her, and then he swivels around on one heel to face my grandmother's house. He looks directly at the front-room window whose lace panels fall shut at the same moment. He tips his hat.

"Now that's love," Yenta sighs. "Oy! What a love they have. She loves him. He loves her. And you, Golda, you are crazy if you don't admit this - a real mishugeneh"

"That's guilt," says my grandmother, snapping the curtain into place. Her face is burning. She has seen Sam Kaler tip his hat.

Now the day settles into its routine. Yenta has gone and my grandmother moves to the kitchen. Albert is already at the scrap-iron yard, and all the other men in the neighborhood are off working someplace. Thank God in this country there is always some honest work a man can do, and no soldiers on horses to tell a man what he cannot do.

The hired girl trails into the yard, dreamily twirling a dandelion between her fingers. My grandmother sets her to work at the washtubs standing on the back porch, and goes inside to stir up the bread dough. A nice plump hen, newly killed, is already simmering in a big pot on the woodstove, and it makes a comfortable plopping sound as it turns itself into soup.

Yenta is next door in her yard. My grandmother can hear her singing offkey as she whacks the dusty rugs hanging over her clotheslines. It's much too early for spring cleaning, but Yenta has energy she doesn't know what to do with - doesn't know how to use in any other way.

Spring mornings are predictable. The vegetable man's little pony cart comes clop-clopping past, filled with early lettuces and greens. His name is Harry Tomato. That's what they have always called him, these Russian Jews of Mound Street. Harry Tomato. Nobody remembers his real name anymore. To them all, it sounds like a real American name. His wife they call Tomaychika. It means a lady tomato. Depending on the day of the week, Yankel the Milchiker will stop by, with his cans of cool fresh milk. The ragpicker appears on their street every once in a while calling out, in his torn voice, his plea for old clothes.

My grandmother saves for him the clothes she can no longer mend for her growing family. Once a month the scissors-grinder walks past, pushing his tinkling wagon before him. The grinding wheel turns as the wagon moves, getting itself ready to whirl up showers of sparks against the sharp-tongued blades of the neighborhood knives and scissors.

On Mound Street, at the beginning of the twentieth century, spring mornings are comfortably predictable.

Yenta in her back yard, and my grandmother in her kitchen, hear the sound at the same time: the heavy blowing and stamping of two big horses, stopping right in front of the Kaler house. This is not part of the ordinary predictable morning. My grandmother hurries to the front-room and shoves one lace panel aside with her elbow. Her hands are powdered with flour and she holds them stiffly in front of her as she peers out.

Two overstuffed chairs, two large men, Minna Kaler, and little Dollie all appear simultaneously on the porch. The two chairs and the men continue down the steps and disappear inside the big covered cart. Minna Kaler is running down the stairs and up again, crying and waving her arms. Dollie sits on the top step and sucks her thumb, her head turning from the men to her mother and back again.

The men enter the house once more. A moment later they emerge, balancing Minna's worn horsehair sofa between them. By this time, Minna has collapsed on the stairs, Dollie is crying, and my grandmother is whipping off her apron. She is across the street like something shot out of a cannon, and pulls poor Minna up by one shoulder, shaking her and yelling her name.

"Minna! Stop this bawling! What is happening? Who are these men? Tell them to put your things back in the house this minute! YOU!" She hooks her floury fingers in the suspenders of one of the men. "What do you think you are doing?"

The man, a gigantic Swede, with a good-natured bland face, ignores my grandmother's question, but she has wound her other arm around the porch pillar, and he finds that he cannot move. Yenta and a cloud of dust are flying toward them from the other side of the street. The man twists out of my grandmother's grasp. She lurches toward him again, trying to get a new hold on his shirttail.

"LIS-sen LA-dy," he shouts, holding her off with one huge paw. "MIS-ter KA-ler hees PAY-in' oss tew take owt hiss FUR-nichure. Ve are FUR-nichure MEW-vers. Ve are MEW-vin FUR-nichure. Now git OWT off are vay!" The sofa bumps against my grandmother, and she stumbles down the steps, colliding with the advancing Yenta, who has the big wire rug-beater clenched in both hands, brandishing it above her head.

"Minna! Stop crying and run to Sam down at the store. And YOU! Don't you touch another stick until she gets back!" She has changed the position of her arms as she launches herself up the porch steps toward the men. The rugbeater is now cocked over her right shoulder like a baseball bat, and its wire scrolls and arabesques vibrate with her fury.

"Don't worry!" she shouts to my grandmother as Minna staggers to her feet and runs, sobbing, to the little grocery store where Sam works as butcher for his cousin, Ben Kaler. "There is some kind of good answer. Sam Kaler has the answer to this thing with these men taking out from his house these chairs. Don't worry. It will be explained. I know Sam already seven, eight years!"

Sam has the answer. "It's all right!" gasps the returning Minna. She is trotting toward them, her long skirts held up off the street with one hand. She is waving with the other. Sam is at her heels, gesturing wildly at the waiting men.

Darling Sam wanted it to be a surprise, but now the secret is out, she tells them. These men are removing all the furniture because - OH! such a man is Sam - because Sam has gone and bought everything new! Imagine this! Little Dollie will not be sleeping in that shaky old crib tonight. NO! Her Papa has bought for her a lovely bed. Probably the very bed - the white iron one with the twisted hearts at the head and the foot - that she and her darling Sam have looked at so many times at Mr. Schwid's store.

Everything will be delivered later this afternoon. Minna is ecstatic. Yenta has lowered her arms and is holding the rugbeater directly in front of her face. She nods triumphantly at my grandmother through the tears that well up in her black-olive eyes, and turns to gaze at Sam Kaler, handsomest man in town.

He has brought the miracle of affluence to Mound Street. Who could suspect that the young kosher butcher should be able to save so much money already from the salary his cousin Ben pays him? And to do such a lavish and such a loving thing . . . no wonder Yenta is overcome. It's beautiful, beautiful!

Through all this, Sam has been directing the men, in a lowered voice, to continue their work. He saunters over to Minna, throws an arm over her shoulder. His little girl holds onto her mother's skirt. He looks at the women, who have moved out of the way, and are standing at the foot of the steps.

"Ladies," he salutes them with his free hand, "now you see what is happening here, you can go home. The secret is out. My Minna knows now what kind of a man she has." Minna blushes. The women turn to leave. What more is there to do here? Even my grandmother has to admit that a man who does such a thing for his wife is a real mensch. A human being. A gentleman, probably.

"Mrs. Dubrov," he calls after her. My grandmother turns around, and shades her eyes against the spring sunshine. The light twinkles along the row of tiny buttons that chase themselves down her dress from throat to waist. "You are looking very nice this morning." Sam's eyes slide up, down, across her body. She can feel the little buttons trying to unfasten themselves.

"Rasputin!" she breathes, fleeing down the path and across the street to her safe house. She can hear his mocking laughter, but when she and Yenta are inside looking out, there is only Minna on the porch with Dollie. They are watching the horses strain at the heavy load that moves slowly away under budding branches. A violet network of sun and shadow slips over the big dray-wagon as it drives out of sight around the corner. Minna takes Dollie inside. The porch and the street are empty.

In my grandmother's kitchen, the chicken soup gives off its perfume, and the bread dough breathes under a clean cloth near the stove. Yenta can't sit down, and strides around and around the table where my grandmother is laying out some strudel and glasses for their tea.

"You see, Golda, you see. All that talk about Sam. And for what? Now you see where your mind is wrong about him. You got to admit he don't have any tootsie at all."

My grandmother sits down, and pours out the tea. She motions to Yenta. "Sit, sit, sit. I suppose so. But this kind of man . . . I thought he had a woman somewhere. I felt he had a woman. But . . . ." Her voice trails off.

"But! Yes, but is right! There is no but . . . how could a man spend a fortune on brand new furniture for his wife - enough for a whole house - and have anything left over for a tootsie? We close now the case!"

It is three o'clock, and the smell of baking bread finds its way through the open front door, and the screenless front-room window. My grandmother is on the porch standing on a wicker armchair. She has washed the pane with ammonia water and seems to be focusing all her attention upon polishing it with a dry cloth. Actually, she is a little surprised to find herself beginning her spring cleaning so early. The weather is still apt to turn chilly - it could even snow, as everyone glumly tells one another at this time of year. There is a gentleness in the air this afternoon, though, and Golda has already scrubbed the wicker porch furniture that the hired girl lugged around to the front of the house from the shed out back. Might as well have it nice and clean and ready for summer's most popular pastime: front porch sitting.

My grandmother shifts her body a little, before the glass. A wavery reflection of the house across the street appears. She can see the steps of the Kaler porch and the two pillars supporting the roof. Standing on the top step, framed by the pillars, is Minna Kaler. My grandmother watches the blurred figure arrange itself against the lefthand pillar. Minna's face, reflected in the glass, looks greenish and out of focus.

It is "later in the afternoon" - the time of day Minna has been waiting for ever since Sam confessed his wonderful secret about the delivery of the new furniture. My grandmother nonchalantly lowers herself from the chair. Now, still with her back to the street, she lifts the screen from the floor and hooks it into place in front of the sparkling glass window. She turns the chair around, so that it is facing the street. She shifts the other two wicker chairs and the matching white table, and dumps the pailful of dirty water over the railing. She looks up, and as if just discovering Minna that very instant, waves.

Minna waves. She bends her head forward and pulls out a watch that hangs on a chain around her neck. My grandmother can see her shoulders raise and lower in a great blowing-out of breath. They both turn their heads to look down the street. The delivery wagon from Schwid's Fine Furniture will be coming from that direction. Despite her attitude toward Sam Kaler and anything connected with him, my grandmother is filled with nervous excitement at the prospect of seeing all this beautiful furniture arrive.

Minna looks across at my grandmother and spreads her empty hands apart in front of her. Her hands are saying, "Nu? So how long will we have to wait, already?"

"It takes time to get here from Schwid's over on the East side, Minna," my grandmother calls to her. "Here comes Yenta. Wait. I'll bring out a little lemonade and something to nosh - a piece of sponge cake, a little this, a little that. You'll come over here and have something to eat. The time will pass better."

It is pleasant on the porch. There is a little breeze and a loamy smell comes from the freshly-turned earth in my grandmother's flower beds. Minna chatters nervously at Yenta and my grandmother. She wonders, her voice shaking a little, what kind of dining room table Sam has bought for them. She hopes he remembers how much she has wanted to have a really comfortable rocking chair, so that she can rock Dollie when she wakes up at night. At the mention of the rocking chair, Minna begins to laugh uncontrollably. It seems to sum up for her just what riches she is about to enjoy, and she laughs and laughs, throwing her head back against the edge of the chair, tears streaming down her cheeks. She is laughing and crying and choking on the lemonade.

"My God, she's going to make herself sick," cries Yenta. "Golda, she's historical!"

"Come, Minna, come." My grandmother takes the glass of lemonade out of Minna's limp hand, and makes her stand up. "Be a little calm now, and take a deep breath. There! Are you all right?" Minna sits. She makes little gestures of apology and dabs at her eyes. The three women gaze toward the east end of the street again. Nothing moves.

"Oy! Such a suspense," Yenta sighs. Minna looks again at her watch. My grandmother stands up. "I hear the children out in the back yard," she says suddenly. "Belle and the boys are home now from school. They'll have some of my bread and a glass of milk in the kitchen. Relax. I'll be right back. In two shakes, I'll be back. By then, who knows . . . ."

Now the street rings with the calls of children returning from school. They saunter past, arm in arm, or whiz by on rollerskates, books flying out behind, caught in midflight by leather bookstraps held tightly in their hands. The spring sun has moved behind the tall synagogue at the west end of the street, and the air has turned chilly. Minna stands and pulls her arms tight against her chest. She shivers. She walks over to the front door and sticks her head inside.

"Thank you, Mrs. Dubrov, for the lemonade. I think I'll just go and sit on my porch for awhile and wait. It is still sunny on my top step. Maybe Belle would like to come and play with Dollie? She should be waking up any time now from her nap.

"I had to put her down to sleep on the parlor floor, on top of my heavy coat. You know how babies are - well, of course my Dollie is not still a baby, but she can sleep any place. And just think, tonight . . . !" She laughs and trots briskly down the steps and across the street, reveling in the anticipation of the glories to come - all the new things, and the little white iron bed for Dollie, most especially.

* * * * * * * *

It is twilight. Belle sits on the porch with Minna and Dollie and no one speaks. One by one, lights in the houses are beginning to go on. First in the kitchens, then in the living rooms, and soon all the dining room windows will light up. It is getting cold. My grandmother comes out into the front yard and calls across the street.

"Minna! Come over here, now with Belle and the baby, and Sam can find you here when he comes home. Come! It's too cold to be outside with the sun gone out of the sky. It's not summer yet! Belle, bring Minna and the little one, and come. Before you get good and sick already. Come! Sam will look for you over here, Minna. Something happened they didn't bring the furniture today. So you'll come now. Please."

Slowly, Minna stands up. Belle takes Dollie's hand and the three of them walk into my grandmother's house.

Darkness settles down. From the busy kitchen come the good smells of vegetables and chicken broth and fresh bread. The plates and bowls are brought out and set around the table in the dining room. My grandfather and the older boys and Belle and the younger children are all at home now, and there is a great deal of noise - laughter, crying, and general commotion - from every part of the house. Minna helps set the table and carry in the platters of chicken and the big tureen of hot soup. Her face is tired and white and her hands shake slightly. Sam has not put in an appearance yet. Sometimes his job as butcher keeps him at the store a little longer than usual, but he is never this late. And there is this matter of where they will all sleep tonight, since there is nothing to sit on or sleep in at their house . . . .

My grandmother seems to read Minna's thoughts. "You'll stay here, in that big front bedroom tonight, Minna," she says quietly. "There is plenty room up there, and we have a nice cot for Dollie and plenty blankets, don't worry." Minna protests weakly, but she is glad to have this much of her strange situation settled so easily.

Dinner is ready and although Minna at first wants to wait and have her supper when Sam arrives, the family loudly convinces her to eat with all of them. "Dollie will eat her food better if you are eating too," they tell her.

While Minna and Belle and one of the boys wash the dishes, my grandmother and grandfather are speaking in low tones in the back bedroom. My grandfather tugs on his bushy moustache while my grandmother speaks to him in fierce whispers. Then he puts on his coat and goes out the front door. He walks down Mound Street, lit by a pale rind of moon, and turns the corner.

There is no light in the front part of the little grocery store, so my grandfather walks around to the far side where he can look in a window. It is pitch dark inside.

At midnight, they are still sitting around the table in the warm kitchen. Yenta, for once, is silent. Her husband has gone next door again to get some sleep, but he was here for hours trying to help the others figure out what has happened. This is a situation which has no answers, only questions. What has happened to the old furniture? And, most baffling of all, where is Sam Kaler?

Minna sits staring at the tablecloth. Her tea is untouched. She seems unable to move. Even her eyes are unblinking. Her fine skin is bleached, ashen. Under the light cast upon her face by the lamp hanging over the table, are the wavering shadows of her bedraggled hair. No one has spoken for some minutes.

From upstairs comes the wail of a child. "S-h-h-h-h! The little one . . !" my grandmother whispers. She starts to get up but checks herself. "Minnaleh, go to her. She wants you. Go. Comfort her. She has a bad dream. She wants her mother. Go!" Like a puppet, Minna walks stiffly through the house. They can hear her trudge heavily up the stairs.

When my grandparents look in on them, sometime later, both Minna and Dollie are nestled down in the big bed, sound asleep. My grandfather turns down the lamp and my grandmother throws another blanket over the two of them, and opens the window. The cold spring breeze stirs the curtain.

The next morning, my grandfather doesn't go to the scrap yard. Instead, he storms down to the grocery store to confront Sam Kaler. But Sam is not there, and his cousin, Ben, doesn't seem to know anything - not about Sam's whereabouts or the furniture - nothing. He says he came to work as usual this morning, unlocked the store, and has been waiting for Sam ever since. My grandfather storms out again.

Days go by. My grandfather has spoken to the police captain, and they are keeping a half-hearted eye out for Sam, now listed as a missing person. The neighbors all have their own favorite theories about the disappearance of Sam Kaler. Maybe someone came in the night and killed him. Or stole him! There are bands of gypsy caravans traveling through town every now and then. The neighbors are still talking about the time, a couple of summers ago, when Mrs. Stein came out into her side yard in time to see her husband, Herman, streaking down the alley after a swarthy man wearing a bright bandana wrapped around his head. Herman made a grab for the small bundle the man had under his arm and wrenched it free of the man's shirt. At the same time, he stuck out his foot and the man went flying into the rose bushes that hang over all the back fences. The bundle turned out to be the Stein's 10-month-old baby girl, who had slept through the whole thing!

Of course it would be quite another thing to try to steal Sam Kaler, everybody agrees. But he is gone - without a trace, and one crazy explanation is as valuable as any other. The police stop by each evening to tell my grandfather there is no news. Minna's family in Milwaukee writes to tell her she should be brave - that Sam will come back. And even if it turns out that he is dead, she must be brave . . . .

Then, one hot, muggy June morning, Harry Tomato comes past in his little pony cart full of early garden produce. My grandmother comes out on the porch to see what he brings, and to chat with Tomaychika who has ridden along. Minna is giving Dollie a bath in the room off the kitchen. Their voices drift through the house, with the sounds of water splashing. There is an occasional protesting cry from Dollie.

"Beautiful tomatoes I have for you, Mrs. Dubrov," Harry calls to her. "And lettuce, and nice green onions." He holds them up. They glisten like jade in the sunlight. He apologizes for his rather long absence from Mound Street. For the past month he has been peddling his vegetables to the new neighborhoods out on the East Side. "Expanding mine clientele," he explains. "Selling to them Lutheran and Catholic gentile ladies." And he has found a few farm women with nice vegetable gardens out there, east of the city limits. He can get all the fresh vegetables he needs, and will have enough for his customers on both sides of town!

Tomaychika climbs out of the wagon to stretch her legs. "Oy! Mrs. Dubrov, we are awful sorry to hear about what happened to that nice little Minna Kaler and her Dollie," she says, under her breath. She looks over her shoulder at the house across the street. Her husband gives a sorrowful sigh.

"My, my, my! Such a terrible way for them to die - slipping through the ice like that . . . ." His voice trails off and Tomaychika brushes at her eyes with the corner of her skirt.

My grandmother, listening to the sounds of bathing and the clear voices of Minna and Dollie, is not sure she has heard what Harry Tomato is saying.

"What?" Now she is sure that she has heard him quite correctly indeed.

She advances toward the woman, here eyes narrowing, trying to keep from shouting. Every syllable is spoken deliberately.

"What are you talking about, Tomaychika? Who told you such a story?"

"Why, Sam Kaler, himself," Tomaychika replies. "Poor man. He told us with tears in his eyes. We met him in front of his gate, 'way out there east of town. He has that cattle place, of course you know that. Used to be it was the old man Svendson's? Maybe two, three weeks ago we saw him and the widow Svendson. A good-looking shiksa, and plenty smart, running that cattle business now all by herself. But I guess she will be the new Mrs. Kaler pretty soon. Such a ring she has on her hand. My Harry's tomatoes should only be big like that ring, I'm telling you!"

* * * * * * * *

Through all the days that follow, my grandmother tries, for Minna's sake, not to look triumphant. But when Minna and her child finally go back to the relatives in Milwaukee, there is no longer a need to be diplomatic.

"I told you! I knew she was hiding in the pickle barrel, this tootsie of his! You wanted a name, Yenta. That I didn't have. Now we all have her name. And Sam has her dead husband's cattle business. And She has Sam. And the money from the furniture," she adds bitterly. "And Minna? Minna has nothing!"

Yenta feels betrayed. Such a fine-looking hard-working man as Sam Kaler has no business being a - a - snake. That's what Golda calls him - daily. And this shiksa of his - how can a woman stoop to such a thing? To ruin a nice little family. And Minna? What will become of her now?

Yenta can only look sadly at Golda and shake her head. She feels like crying. Actually, no one doubts what Minna will do now. She will live in Milwaukee. Her crowded family will have to support her. She will have no husband, but she'll always be married to Sam. She'll be chained to Sam, and Sam will not even feel the shackles. He will live with the widow Svendson and people will forget, and neither one of them will ever give poor Minna another thought. On Mound Street, divorce is never an option. Nobody even considers it. People stay married. For better or worse, no matter what happens. A woman puts up with things. She is expected to suffer, if circumstances call for it. Not necessarily in silence, God knows, but . . . to suffer.

The news of the divorce action brought by Kaler, Minna G. against Kaler, Samuel, reaches Mound Street with the force of an earthquake. There is even a moment or two when the neighborhood seems to forget whose side they're on.

A divorce! Oy, such a mess it makes! What kind of woman would go through with such a thing? In a court she had to go! And little Dollie, too, thumb in her mouth, telling the judge, "My Papa took my crib . . . down . . . the . . . steps . . . ."

Who ever heard of such a thing, I ask you - a baby in front of a judge! But Minna, soft and pretty Minna, looking so helpless up there in the courtroom, everything she owns . . . gone . . . gone . . . . There is not a dry eye when she steps down. They remember whose side they're on.

Soft pretty Minna takes Sam for everything he's got. Guided by a relative who is a lawyer, she sues and sues and takes and takes.

* * * * * * * *

Milwaukee is such a cultural place. Minna moves away from her relatives and rents a pretty apartment near the Normal School. She takes English lessons, and elocution lessons, and has big plans for Dollie in music and dancing. Maybe a fine career on the stage - who knows? In this country, everything is possible. She loves to think about the money, growing bigger and bigger there in the red sandstone bank building downtown. She loves to think about the money and all the things she can do with such a glittering heap of it.

She buys her clothes at Chapman's, where the doctors' wives shop for their dresses and their coats, and their lacy underwear. She goes to the hairdresser and has her tawny hair fixed like the beautiful Lillie Langtry's. People tell her that she is even prettier than the English actress whose pictures are in all the store windows these days. She doesn't believe them, of course. Still, she is aware of her magnificent hair and fine figure. She knows that heads do turn to look at her when she walks down Wisconsin Avenue in the brisk autumn air, her arms loaded with packages.

Sam must borrow the money from his shiksa and people say that things are never quite the same there again.

It took a long time for Mound Street to settle down after the events that rocked it that spring and summer. After Minna and Dollie had left, my grandmother and Yenta, from force of habit, would sit by the front-room window, drinking their morning tea and gazing at the porch across the street.

The house was eventually rented to a Litvak family, who filled it with noisy red-headed children. But it took a long, long time before my grandmother stopped looking over there, expecting some morning to see once more the famous Sam Kaler kissing scene . . . .

* * * * * * * *

[This story is affectionately dedicated to my grandmother, and to her children and to all the people who lived on Mound Street when this century was newly turned.]

Barbara Juster Esbensen Memorial

Global INTOUCH Home Page