Sample Chapters

from: Czar Nicholas, The Toad, and Duck Soup

 

Chapter 1. You Want to WHAT?

People move all the time, for many reasons. When Orlando first discussed moving from the city, the reason was mime. You think that’s hard to believe? You should have seen me, way back in 1967, smack in the middle of the Summer of Love. We were walking down Second Avenue with our son, Nicholas, ten months old. He was already walking, but that day I was carrying him in a pale-blue fringed sling that sat on my right hip. It was a beautiful day, and I didn’t have a care in the world. We passed ‘our’ elderly Ukrainian woman sitting on a wooden folding chair, a faded babushka covering much of her gray hair. This was her spot, outside a tiny storefront between East Sixth and Seventh Streets, and whenever she saw us walk by with Nicholas she would smile her almost toothless smile and wave us over. That day he was sound asleep, yet she silently clasped her hands in joy, her sweet, wrinkled face beaming. “Bubala,” she whispered and then looked at us with large, heavily lidded pale-blue eyes. What stories she must have. The strong sun accentuated the many long, thick white hairs on her chin, and I felt a responsibility to find tweezers and pluck them out, the way I might need someone to do for me one day.

            We continued our walk. “I love living here. It’s perfect,” I said, feeling happy and right with my world.

            “It’s dirty,” Orlando said, and then he turned to me. “Elisabeth …”

            Uh oh, I thought and kept walking.

            “I think we should move up to Boston for a while.”

            “Yeah, right,” I said.

            “Just for a few months,” he said. “So I can study with those mimes I worked with last year.”

            I stopped and stared at him before responding. The realization that he was serious stunned me. “Leave the East Village? So you can practice mime? That’s crazy.”

            “It’s not,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity. And we’ll have fun. We always do. Besides, it’s getting edgy around here. The vibes are changing. Let’s do it for Nicholas, for three months. If we don’t like it, we can always come back.”

            For Nicholas? As if Boston could possibly be better for a baby than the melting pot we lived in. I’d have to be nuts to leave, because nothing could be better than living on the corner of East Tenth Street and Second Avenue. Well, maybe an apartment in Paris or a houseboat in Sausalito but not much else. Certainly not Boston. What Orlando was asking me to leave was a two-bedroom rent-controlled apartment over the 2nd Avenue Deli that cost us one hundred thirty-five dollars a month. He was asking me to leave the Deli with the best chicken soup in the city; Kiev and Veselka, two local restaurants that sustained us with their pierogi; Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Restaurant (I still have the cookbook); Veniero’s Pastry Shop; and Pete’s Spice and Everything Nice. And what would I get in exchange? Scrod, baked beans, and freezing winters. Not a chance!

            “How can you even think of asking me to leave all this?” I spread my free arm wide, encompassing the overflowing garbage cans on the sidewalks, the tenements, the uninspiring Mom-and-Pop stores, head shops, St. Mark’s Place, and Gem Spa, home of the best egg creams in the city. We were kids with a baby, living in the throbbing heart of the East-Coast counterculture, surrounded by artists, writers, poets, hippies, Ukrainians, Puerto Ricans, and Hell’s Angels. Life could not get richer than this!

            “All what, Elisabeth? The creepy guy who keeps following you and Nicky into our lobby saying ‘Ay, mami’? The bullet hole in our bedroom window? The filth? It’s changing down here. The whole mood is changing. It’s getting ugly.”

            He was right. The vibe was changing, from love and peace to something else, and I couldn’t wait to see what that something else was going to be. I wanted to be part of it. At the same time, I wanted to be reasonable.

            “Okay. Three months,” I said. “I’ll give Boston three months, but that’s all. Not a day more. We can leave in November, after my birthday.” I started walking again.

            “That’s months away,” he said.

            “That’s the deal,” I said.

 

Chapter 2. “He Wants to WHAT?”

            “You’re leaving Second Avenue?” my mother asked. Even over the phone she sounded both incredulous and disappointed. She loved her weekly visits into the city from South Orange, New Jersey. She drove in and we took walks, pushing Nicholas in the elegant navy-blue pram she had bought for him. A pram, in a neighborhood of tenements.

            On our walks, my mother often found an opportunity to speak Yiddish, either with the pickle man or with the discount bra and girdle store owner down on Orchard Street, or with the server while seated at the counter in tiny, always crowded B&H Dairy on Second Avenue. She invariably ordered borscht, while I preferred mushroom-barley soup, but she always urged me to taste hers. “The color, Lizzie! It’s gorgeous.”

            “For a dress, Mom.”

            I was trying to untangle the twisted phone cord as I continued our conversation. “We’re only going for a few months,” I said, “so Orlando can study mime. In Boston.” My elegant, eloquent mother gasped.

            “What?” she said. “You’re leaving New York so he can study pantomime? Karel!” She called out to my father. “Lizzie’s moving to Boston so Orlando can do mime.”

            There was a pause, and then I heard my father’s voice in the background. “Mime? Why, I’ve never heard of such a thing.” And I smiled as I pictured him, sitting in his chair in the den, a history or adventure book open on his lap.

 

Chapter 3. Trying to Graduate

            Orlando and I met two years earlier, in July1965, after I barely graduated from New York University. I was an indifferent student, spending more time in Washington Square Park than in class, and two courses in particular gave me trouble. I had to pass them to graduate and couldn’t wrap my head around either Statistical Analysis of Something or Introduction to Math, which I had already failed once. I plotted to seduce my handsome, married math teacher sometime during the last week of school in hopes that he would give me a passing grade, but the days sped by, and I was unable to summon the nerve to approach him.

            On the final day I gathered my courage, waited until all the other students left, and approached his desk. “Thank you for the course,” I said, flustered by his deep-blue eyes, his thick dark hair that I wanted to run my fingers through. I had such a crush on him, and I forced myself to act naturally, to stop staring at his strong, square, almost-handsome face. “I’m wondering if you could do me a favor. I need someone to help me move a few things from an apartment, and it has to be today.”

            “Where’s the apartment?” he asked. “And what has to be moved?” He barely looked at me as he continued to pack books and papers into a worn leather briefcase.

            “Midtown,” I said. I was referring to my father’s business apartment, and aside from the few pots and pans in the kitchen and sheets and towels in the linen closet, the cupboards were bare. There was nothing to pack. “Winter coats,” I blurted out. “Lots of them, and they’re heavy.”

            “Really?” he asked absently.

            “Really,” I said. “So many coats. I’m donating them to poor people. I could use your help.”

            He finally looked at me. “You have to move winter coats. On an eighty-degree day.”

            “Yes,” I said. “And I have no one else to help me.” I felt like slinking under his desk in shame for my dishonesty. I felt like gliding into his arms. He reluctantly agreed, and I hoped that once we arrived at the apartment he wouldn’t think to look in the closets. We took a cab to the white brick postwar building off Second Avenue in the low forties. I paid the driver, and we entered the bland lobby, riding the elevator in awkward silence. At the door to the apartment I was so nervous that I fumbled with the single key, dropping it twice.

            As we entered the living room, he noticed a flute sitting in an open case on a side table. “Yours?” he asked. I shook my head. I had no idea to whom it belonged, but when he casually picked it up and began to play a familiar Mozart piece, I practically swooned. After a short time, he stopped. “That’s all I remember,” he said, and he placed the flute back in its case. Then he walked over to me and led me by the hand to the bedroom. I was nervous, but I was ready—for him, for love, for graduation. For the rest of my life.

            We sat on the edge of the bed and held hands, my heart thumping. Our knees touched, and after a while we kissed. It was a sweet kiss, much better than how I imagined kissing a math teacher would be, and then it became different. Deeper. I felt desire. Confusion. I’d never been this kind of close with a mature man before, an experienced man with a wife and children, a Brooklyn Heights apartment, and a summer rental on the Jersey shore that he’d mentioned in class earlier that week. He pulled me closer to him, his arm around my waist. I was about to have a dream come true and also, hopefully, pass Math. My thumping heart felt as though it would burst from my chest as I turned toward him, and as I did, my legs rubbed against each other. With horror I realized how stubbly they were, and I knew I couldn’t go through with my seduction. How could I, with hairy legs? I wrenched myself away and stood up. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m truly sorry.” I started to cry. I was sorry—also disappointed and embarrassed. My back was to him, and soon I felt him standing behind me, close. So close.

            “It’s all right,” he said and turned me gently so that I faced him. He tilted my tear-stained face up so that I was looking at him. I felt completely shattered but also relieved, because I had been incredibly close to being an adulteress, and that is not at all how I had been raised. He kissed the top of my head, my moist eyes, my lips. Then he picked up his briefcase in the living room and left, closing the front door gently behind him. I knew I would never see him again. I wallowed in self-pity until it became boring; then I stood and smoothed my yellow-and-navy drip-dry skirt and blouse before I left. I spent the rest of the day at the Bleecker Street Cinema and watched Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II.