fiction by Suzanne (Frank) Ruta
That year there were the four of them. They called themselves the Lovelies. Each was famous for something. Carole had insight. She was going to be a psychiatrist. Ruth was smart as a whip and already using the spectroscope in her father’s lab to study the properties of chemical compounds. Mado was going to be a foreign correspondent. Gina was engaged to a boy in the Navy and planning to marry as soon as she graduated high school. None of them had dates on Saturday nights, Gina because her fiance was stationed in Japan; the rest because they were undesireable. They hoped that would change. Wait till college, their mothers told them. Meanwhile, although they loved parsing neuroses and chemistry and foreign languages, they were nervous about their prospects.
Gina could have been patronizing. She had told Carole, who was closest to her, that the rest of them were a bunch of babies. But she said it in a nice way, Carole assured the others. Mado envied their association. Dark eyed, curly haired Gina was not beautiful; she had a shiny skin and acne scars. She also had the grace and composure of a grown woman. Their mothers were grown women too, but they had long since lost their composure, and recovered their grace only on rare occasions. Gina’s mother died when she was five. She was raised by her father and two older sisters. That explained a lot, Carole. said, without going into Freudian details.
One Sunday morning each month, the four of them met at Miss Cole’s apartment in Greenwich Village, to lay out the high school paper, the Beaver. They were five in the group to begin with but Sidney, the editor in chief, decided it was beneath his male dignity to hang around all day with a bunch of women. The women unquote would have taken offense, if they hadn’t known that what really irked him was Miss Cole’s neighbor, a tall, stout, red faced painter named Owens, who showed up to offer his artistic input.
Mado knew how Sidney felt. Owens made no effort to hide his disdain or his preferences. He liked to banter with Gina, and made up limericks where her name rhymed with farina. He praised Carole’s almond eyes and high cheek bones and showed them a copy of a famous Flemish portrait she must have sat for in a previous life. He called Ruth Rapunzel because of her heavy braids, but once he saw he couldn’t persuade her to let down her mass of auburn hair, he turned cool and distant.. He addressed Mado only on points of information, such as
“What mythological entity comes in threes?”
“The Fates,” she said. “The Graces.”
“I knew you’d know. You know too much for someone your age.”
And once, when she was bent over the table, he snuck up behind her.
“Hold still, Medusa.” He extracted a small twig from the tangles of her hair.
“Owen, go home,” Miss Cole ordered him that day. “We have work to do.” Mado didn’t want him shooed off for her sake, as if she were too childlike and vulnerable to tolerate the company of a grown man, although she found him daunting.
“Madeleine-Medusa knows I would never call her that, if I really took her for a Gorgon. And she knows all about the Gorgon, am I right?”
“Quit it, Perseus,” Miss Cole commanded. Owen bowed and retreated. Mado was both relieved and disappointed when he left.
She was as kind as could be, their Miss Cole. And if they were determined never to wind up like her, whose immaculate apartment on Sunday mornings at nine they took as evidence she spent her Saturday nights alone, with books and records and two cats named Pyramus and Thisbe, they still loved her for her generosity and tact and for living in Greenwich Village, on a quiet tree lined street next door to an Italian social club. And for the exotic lunches she fed them, lasagna with raisins and pignoli nuts gathered on sunny slopes facing the Mediterranean sea.
She and Owens came from the same small town in West Virginia. They had that in common with their Italian neighbors, who were all from the same small town south of Genoa, and sat now in low chairs in the doorway of their apartments, to survey comings and goings in the building. A poor substitute, Miss Cole said, for the sunlit streets of Ca’Mogli, where everyone knew everyone’s business.
“I was going to Verona next summer,” she told them one Sunday, picking up the silver pie-server she’d brought from home. Her tablecloth was damask, with an intricate curlicued monogram. West Virginia, Genoa, Verona, Greenwich Village, all swirled together in Mado’s mind, like the exotic sauce, tomato, basil, clove and cinammon. Raisins and pignolis — a precious foretaste of exotic destiny.
“I was going to Verona, this summer. Owen had it all arranged.”
“Owen is my first name and my last, Medusa,” he caught her puzzled look. “My parents were such stingy bastards they stuck me with the same name twice.”
“Watch your Shakespeare, Owen,” Miss Cole reprimanded him. He gave her such a look; it wasn’t love or sex. “We were sprung out of the same trap,” was how she’d put it, introducing him. Mado thought of them as brother and sister, a relation she could romanticize, lacking a brother of her own.
“Let’s leave Verona for some other time, Elida,” he said gently. “Maybe it was just a nightmare and I’ll wake up and find things as they were before.”
“After that lead-in, you have to tell us the whole story,” braided Ruth said, in her odd twang, as flat and democratic as an Indian head penny; the same denomination everywhere she went. As unselfconscious, as tactless as a sheltered child. But Owen went along at once.
“You’re right. I’ve got to face reality. Only not at this precise moment. Excuse me, ladies. I’m going to take a turn around the piazza. See you later.” He went out, leaving the door well ajar, because Miss Cole respected her neighbors’ customs.
“You girls have heard of Senator McCarthy?” Miss Cole asked. Carole and Ruth said yes. Gina nodded slightly. Mado froze. Her father worked for McCarthy’s successor. She had doped that out by now.
“Well, don’t go blabbing it about, but Owen is a communist. Or was. Either way, it doesn’t seem to matter, if they want to make trouble for you. His father was a coal miner. The communists were in the miner’s union. Owen never set foot in a mine, can’t you tell? But when he came to New York, he joined the communists, because they’d helped his family, a lot of families in our town.”
“You don’t have to make excuses for him,” Carole said, eyes flashing. “We believe in freedom of opinion.”
“Well of course you do,” Miss Cole said. “I wouldn’t be letting you mess up my carpet with little bits of gluey paper, if you didn’t. But not everyone is as enlightened, shall we say?” She hesitated. “I’ll tell you something else you mustn’t tell a soul. And don’t ask me how I know, I just do, because he told me.” After that build up, she seemed to have trouble continuing. The girls waited while she struggled against some inner prohibition. Finally she said,
“Owen sleeps naked.”
Gina smiled knowingly. Miss Cole called her to order.
“Now it’s not what you think. We lead very separate lives. We just happen to be sprung from the same trap. But there’s a reason I’m telling you this. Just wait, just wait.” She was so flustered she had to stop talking, and look around for something to do. She refilled their glasses with ginger ale and swallowed some herself.
“It’s at times like this I wish we lived in a truly civilized country where young people were accustomed to drink wine.”
“Shall I pour you a drink, Miss Cole?” Gina asked. They knew the location of the Bourbon bottle, under the kitchen sink, with the bleach and the cleanser.
“I’ll manage, thank you. I want to tell you the whole story, but it distresses me so. One night, last month, at about two in the morning, two men rang the bell at Owen’s apartment. We don’t know how they got into the building. We didn’t like to ask the neighbors, and they haven’t volunteered the information. But Owen answered the door and there they were. Are you Owen Owens, they said. He didn’t deny it. Only at that moment, he realized he didn’t have a stitch on. So he left them standing there and fled, and they shouted after him to hand over his passport, and he went back and pulled on his pants, and took his passport from its hiding place, inside his Tintoretto, and just handed it right over.”
“He didn’t ask who they were?” Mado demanded.
“Gosh,” said Ruth.
“Outrageous,” said Carole.
“Poor guy,” Gina commiserated.
“He’s a very heavy sleeper. He just went back to sleep; it was as if he had dreamed the whole episode. Then he woke up with his trousers on and remembered and by golly it was real.”
“The FBI in peace and war,” said Carole.
“Or the State Department, or who knows. All we know is that they have his passport and they won’t give it back to him.”
“What are they afraid of?” Mado asked, a hypocrite. She’d heard all the arguments, from Paul.
“The Communists are very strong in Italy. I guess they think he’ll help them overthrow the government….”
“By force or violence,” Mado murmured.
“Can you imagine Owen using force or violence?” Miss Cole scoffed.
“He must be so upset,” Gina said.
“He feels so isolated here,” Miss Cole said. “The abstract artists get together on Friday nights to discuss the future of American painting. They shout you down, they blow cigar smoke in your face, they have no sympathy, no tolerance. Owen needs Italy, his public is there, his spiritual ancestry. Come, let me show you,” she jumped up. They followed her out the door and across the hall, a distance of about three feet, to Owen’s apartment. His door, too, was ajar, but he was not around. They had never been inside his apartment before. Or any man’s apartment, come to think of it. It was smaller than Miss Cole’s, just one long room, with a covered sink and stove against one wall, and dozens of canvasses stacked against the other. The smell was probably paint, turpentine, tobacco, unmade bed in the far corner, under the window facing a courtyard with its frail ailanthus. They saw the bed; even Gina stared at the greasy gray dent left by Owen’s large head.
“Look at this,” Miss Cole turned over a large painting where
two long rows of men were climbing a pair of ladders that traversed the canvas from bottom to top. Some of them had their backs to the viewer; others were twisted half way round, the muscles of their torsos clearly outlined under thin cloth, their faces hidden in shadow.
“He sure knows his anatomy,” Ruth said. “Are those stairways to heaven?”
“Sailors embarking from New Orleans in l944. Owen was in the Navy in the war. Look at that chiaroscuro,” Miss Cole lined up the paintings along the wall. Ditch diggers, house painters on a scaffolding, two men astride a giant clock in a medieval looking tower. There was a murkiness, as if everything were seen through centuries of brown cobwebs, with here and there a flash of blue sky or a red bandana. Then she showed them Owen’s Tintoretto book. They saw the link at once.
The only difference was that Tintoretto also painted women.
Mado listened for Owen’s tread on the stair. She felt like an intruder here, the way she did with Paul’s collection. It was like being inside someone’s head. Yet weren’t paintings made to be exhibited? She was glad when they returned next door.
“He was supposed to have a show in Venice this summer.” Miss Cole said. “I was going to go over for the opening. It’s such a disappointment.”
“And there’s nothing you can do? It’s so unfair,” Mado said.
“We live in trying times. But it’s bound to get better in a few years.”
“Why?” Mado asked.
“Because —how does it go? You can fool all of the people some of the time; you can fool some of the people all of the time. But you can’t,” they chimed in with her, like a bunch of cheerleaders, “fool all of the people all of the time.” Owen returned at that moment.
“Choral recitation, too? Polyfaceted Pollyannas!”
“Welcome to the chowder and marching society,” Ruth called out. He didn’t get it.
“Pogo,” Mado said.
“What’s that, the sister of Gorgo?”
“You don’t know Pogo, in the comic strip of the same name?” Ruth was truly amazed.
“I never look at that page of the paper, “Owen said with exagerrated distaste.
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” Ruth said.
“We have met the enemy and he is us,” Carole recited. “It’s all about the swamp of American politics. Pogo is a sweet young opossum. Senator McCarthy was a weasel in a string tie. There’s a poet who’s a porcupine, an alligator with a heart of gold…”
“Too down home for my taste,”Owen dismissed us. “But I can see you identify. I thought you taught English lit’rature.” he teased Miss Cole. “Have you ever evoked such enthusiasm for Thomas Hardy?”
Mado feared Ruth would go ahead and tell the whole story, how each of the girls was a Pogo personage. Ruth, fresh and candid, was the opossum. Mado was the prickly porcupine. Carole was Albert, the sagacious alligator. Gina was too grown up to join the game but listened without smirking.
“Pogo is running for President this year,” Ruth said. “When he gets in, things will improve. Wait and see.”
“I go Pogo, I go Pogo,” she and Carole began the chant. Mado joined in, braving Owen’s mockery.
“Ah, youth, optimism, silliness. What happened to ours?” he asked Miss Cole. At that the girls promptly shut up, and listened, eager to add to their small store of information. They had drawn up a list one day, in columns, the way they used to do when telling fortunes with chalk on the sidewalk. First name: Elida, date of birth, 1912, marital status: single. They did the cruel arithmetic: too young to have lost a boyfriend or a husband in the war. But there must have been a time when her Saturday nights were bespoken, and her Sundays too. There was nothing old maidish about her. She dressed beautifully, in well cut suits and blouses with a ruffle at the neck. Her gray hair was cut short but curled gracefully about her pale face. She never talked about herself, except in the most general terms. She was southern; that made a difference. Her effusive manner was a form of reserve; she hid behind an elaborate offhand politeness, connected in Mado’s mind with the European furniture wing at the Met, Louis XV scrollwork and fine inlay. Courtliness was the word that escaped her.
Owen’s screen was wit and observation. He saw through everyone. That shameless stare might be a painter’s prerogative. They were too timid to object. That afternoon, before they left, he offered to tell their fortunes.
“What method do you use?” Ruth asked. Her mind was like a clean sheet of graph paper, ready to organize the data for maximum clarity. Or maybe she just meant to forestall him. He made her uneasy too. But he would not be put off.
“Watch and see. I believe in logic it’s called inductive reasoning.”
“And in science,” Ruth said. “But can your hypotheses be verified?”
“Of course. By you, in time,” he brushed her off. “Who’d like to go first?”
Carole volunteered. He told her right off, no cards, tea leaves or crystal ball required, that she was a blue eyed romantic and risked postponing till too late in life, the inevitable compromise. Then, seeing her crestfallen look he exclaimed, “Can’t you see I’m saying, there’s no one out there good enough for you?”
“That’s a fine thing to tell a fifteen year old,” Miss Cole objected. “Take it as a compliment,” she told Carole.
Gina was told she would be the joy of a large family; but later many others would depend on her as well. More than she could possibly imagine. She might even run for Mayor one day. Or Governor. She smiled modestly and said “Why not?”
When it came to Ruth, Owen hesitated. “I could be wrong, you understand,” he prefaced his remarks. “But I think you’ve made too large a first assumption, set too straight a course too early on. You may need to take time out; it may be taken for you. In the end all may be well; but I see a gap, a blank space, an abeyance. Obey the abeyance. Does that make sense?”
Ruth cocked her head and said “Well, I can live with it, I guess.”
“Of course you’ll live,” Owen meant to reassure her, but his words disturbed them all.
“My turn,” Mado shouted, to rescue Ruth from sudden gloom. For whose sake was Owen giving this performance? The Lovelies sat around an oval table littered with paper scraps. Their soothsayer stood before them, a large, bulky man with a florid face, radiating fear. Theirs or his? He’s getting back at us for something, Mado thought. Was that it? Or were they a meager substitute for some other audience, his true public, Miss Cole called it. He was too large a figure, too gifted and expansive, to be cooped up in Little Italy. He needed the real thing.
“Maddalena,” he italicized her name, an improvement over Medusa anyway, “has a secret sorrow. She keeps it secret from the rest of us and from herself as well. But it’s scarcely invisible. How shall I put it; it’s wrapped around her bones.”
“Well if it isn’t Dr Millmoss ,” Carole stopped him in his tracks. They’d had enough of Owen’s parlor game.
“Who he?,” Owen asked, like Paul at his most evasive.
“We thought for sure the rhinoceros got you,” Ruth teased him.
“Rhinoceros, eh?” He thought they were calling him names and smiled to show there were no hard feelings.
“It’s a Thurber cartoon,” Mado said. She couldn’t bear to see Owen befuddled, almost at bay. “The man asks the rhinoceros, What have you done with Dr Millmoss?”
“Another cartoon. Is that all you girls read, the funnies?”
“Thurber is a great cartoonist,” Carole maintained.
“As good as Goya, or Constantin Guys?” Owen demanded. “Hah! That shut you up,” he couldn’t forgive them for being silly girls, when they should have been Roman countesses.
“Thanks anyway for telling our fortunes,” Ruth said. “We won’t forget.” The others murmured polite agreement. The afternoon was over. Mado was halfway out the door when she heard Miss Cole ask Owen, “What itch were you scratching this afternoon?”
“Maddalena knows,” he said. “There she is, the little spy. Look at her. She’s got us all figured out.”
The editorial was her idea to begin with. What were you thinking of, people would ask later? In fact, she didn’t stop to think. To champion free speech, freedom of movement, free exchange of ideas, seemed only right and natural, an exercise in civics right out of their American history textbook, the fulfillment of those songs they’d been taught right after the war, What makes a good American what do you have to be? Mm mm mm, I’m for equality.
Of course no one expected an editorial in the Beaver to win Owen his passport back. A high school paper full of basketball scores and ads for donut shops? It would be, at best, a show of support. Gina and Carole were his favorites, but Mado was on his side. She was the one — he’d admitted it — who understood him. She would prove him right, show him she forgave his cruel teasing. Something tangled between them would be set straight in black and white.
Mistrusting her motives, she raised the idea only hesitantly. Sidney took it over at once; it became his project. She couldn’t have stopped him if she’d wanted to. That was fine too. Her ideas always sounded better when they came from someone else. All she had to do was go along with this confident young man.
“We won’t mention any names, but we will refer to cases. Passports withheld, speakers cancelled.” Just that month, a Daily Worker editor had been denied the right to speak at Brooklyn College. “I’ve got the perfect heading. Silent Generation? Silenced is More like it.”
Carole protested. Her father was a pharmacist, in business for himself, but he had friends in city government, even in the post office, who’d lost their jobs. “Discretion is the better part of valor.”
Sidney turned on her. ”If all the Jews in eastern Europe were like you…” he stopped. He was always bringing up the Jews in eastern Europe.
“The result would have been the same,” Carole said, deep into her psychiatric mode. Sidney had a raging character disorder. He couldn’t bully her.
“Let’s put it to a vote,” he rushed them. Gina was absent that day. Ruth raised a quizzical eyebrow but voted with the rest. Carole was a minority of one.
“No one reads the Beaver anyway,” Mado said.
“That’s a great reason to take a controversial stand,” Carole pointed out. “And what about Miss Cole?” Sidney said he’d clear it with her. Again, Mado was relieved to shelter behind him. He was twice her size, a senior, and their editor in chief. You could call him a loud mouth, or you could say that nothing fazed him. His friends were sure he would go far in life.
Miss Cole said it was their decision as long as they didn’t mention Owen by name. She doubted he’d want that. She also wondered if they ought to poll the rest of the paper’s staff. There wasn’t time. Mado suggested those present sign the editorial and take full responsibility. At this point Carole came on board.
“My parents will have a fit, but they’ll get over it.”
Only then did Mado think of Paul. He was in D.C. Who knew when he’d be back. If any paper was headed for tomorrow’s wastebaskets, it was the Beaver.
Sidney drafted the text. “As editor in chief.” He started counting column inches, to see what space was left beneath the scheduled editorial about the new multiple choice Regents exams. (He was against.)
“This is great,” he scratched away with a number one pencil on a yellow legal pad. His handwriting was as ungainly as he was, spikey and irregular, a sure sign, Carole once whispered to Mado, of sexual tension. But that couldn’t be right. How then, to explain Ruth’s neatly looping cursive? Unless her sexual tensions hadn’t surfaced yet. Mado’s had, alas. She watched Sidney’ fingers bent around the pencil, and imagined them stroking her neck, her hair. She had seen him in the gym, without his glasses, looking vague and vulnerable. If they’d been alone, instead of in the tumult of a hundred boys and girls in shorts and sweaty T-shirts, she could have kissed him. Such thoughts made the day go faster, but left her feeling stranded. In high school, she was already a foreign correspondent, from a country called the future. Her secret sorrow, as Owen called it, was a longing to be somewhere else, which was another way of saying, someone else. Clever Owen, right on all counts. Mado understood, body and soul, the cruelty that had been done to him. Not even an editorial in the NY Times could make it right.
Late that afternoon, Sidney read his text aloud to Mado and Miss Cole. His voice quacked on. Mado was too embarassed to listen. His words, but her suggestion to begin with. Did she want the public exposure? What if there was an uproar and they had to defend themselves. Whatever made her think she had the courage of her convictions? What convictions? When all she wanted really, was to influence Owen in her favor, force his unironic respect.
“Your friend ought to see a civil liberties lawyer,” Sidney told Miss Cole, as they were leaving. He didn’t care for Owen, but he liked a good fight. He had made the cause his own, lock stock and barrel. There was no reason to worry.
“He has a lawyer,” Miss Cole said. “It’s more complicated than you’d think.”
“Well, he shouldn’t take it lying down. How do you mean, complicated?” Sidney asked.
“I won’t go into details now. But I shall certainly inform him of your gallant gesture.”
“Gesture,” Sidney fumed, after they left Miss Cole at the subway station. “I hope it’s more than that. Do you realize what I just wrote could cost me my scholarship at Columbia next year?”
“I seriously doubt that.”
“On the other hand, it might just get me a job with the Post this summer. I’ve applied for copy boy. The competition is rough . You need some way to stand out.”
“Lots of luck,” Mado said, doubtful. What came out of Manhattan high schools might be newsworthy. Queens was the great anonymous backside of the city. No one at the Post would ever so much as glance at the Beaver. It never occurred to her that Sidney might force their attention. For all her dreams of foreign correspondenthood, she had no notion how people actually got places in the world. She was without ambition, because her dictionary dreams were complete and satisfying in themselves and because ambition was useless to her. No one was hiring copy girls that year.
None of them had ever set foot in the principal's office. You only got called down if your parents dropped dead during school hours, or you won a major scholarship, or were caught flicking paperclips from your zip gun at the bare calves of the girl in the next row. They didn't know what to expect.
“Welcome to the circus,” Sidney was first to arrive. He was enjoying the fuss he’d instigated, he confessed, by sending copies of the Beaver to all the daily papers.
“I knew it was you,” Carole said. “You could at least have asked our permission.”
“You publish a newspaper, you expect it to circulate.”
“There might have been a fuss anyway,” Ruth said quietly. “But we’ll never know. You messed up the experiment, Sidney. You introduced a whole new set of variables.”
“Did you tell Miss Cole what you were up to?” Gina asked.
“There wasn’t time,” Sidney said. “What are you so worried about? They can’t expel us. Too bad. I wish they’d try. We could get the ADA to slap a lawsuit on them…”
“Who, them?” Ruth asked.
“Whoever gives the order to have us suspended. We’ll know soon enough. I wonder what’s going on in there.” He got up and bent over at right angles, trying to put his ear to the keyhole. Carole gestured with her foot in the direction of his protruding backside. The rest of them giggled. This was just the rehearsal, Mado thought, for what she’d catch at home. If only she could take her friends home with her for a few weeks. Sidney would have been a useful ally. When he sat down again, she asked,
“What do your parents say?” Carole and Gina pulled closer, to hear his reply.
“They know better than to say anything. I have them well trained by now.”
“How did you manage that?” But Mado was never to learn, because at that moment the door to the principal’s office opened. Miss Cole came out, looking both stricken and furious.
“I’m late for class, children, we’ll talk later,” she said and waved with just the tips of the fingers on her right hand before hurrying away. That ‘children’ worried them. It sounded like a line of defense — “But they’re just a bunch of children” — adopted in order to draw full blame upon herself. How could anyone blame Miss Cole for anything? She with her perfect poise, her perfect moral pitch, and that underlying sadness that came from living among the tone deaf. Mado grabbed Ruth’s hand and gave a squeeze. Before now she’d been frightened; now she was also angry, which only added to her fear, because it meant at some point she would make a speech, shaky voiced, knees aquiver, and then replay it in her head for weeks afterwards, cringing with every repetition.
It was their turn on the carpet. There was no carpet, only a brown scuffed linoleum floor.If I vomit, Mado thought, it will be easier to clean than the standard wood floor of our classrooms, that yellowish shellacky color that had been part of her life for too many years now. Shiny yellow floors, pink and aquamarine and grey walls, and those aluminum staircases enclosed in wire cages. The architecture of low grade terror.
It’s not the Lubyanka, she told herself. The advantages of Paul’s training: no matter what happened, she knew where things were worse.
The principal stood by the window of his office. A small portly person, Jewish, like a good third of his students. With a ruddy face in all moods and all weather, and the trim dark moustache of a man called to exercise authority against his secret bent; author of a much used biology text. He probably wished he was still in the classroom, droning on about phyla, genus and pseudopods.
“So this is the gang of five,” he greeted them with strained affability. “I won’t ask you to sit down. We don’t have enough chairs, and anyway, this won’t take long. Why wasn’t I consulted?,” he shouted suddenly. “Don’t you know what’s going on out there?”
“Of course we …,”Sidney’ voice squeaked. He cleared his throat and began again in the male register. “Of course we do. That’s why we had to take a stand.”
“Even if it costs me my job? Are you so sure you’d be happier with my replacement?”
“If someone told all the Jews in New York City to jump off the Empire State Building, you’d get on line?” Sidney asked. At least he’d left the Jews of Eastern Europe out of it, for once.
“Probably not,” Mr Roth said, after a longish pause. He wasn’t reflecting as to whether he’d jump off the Empire State Building, but looking for an argument that would convince both his students and himself. There was none. Mado had steeled herself to attack. Now she longed to succor this anguished victim of her heedlessness. She would have apologized, if she dared.
“What exactly is the complaint?” Ruth asked, in her plausible way.
“Against me, that I have allowed Communists to impose their viewpoint on tender, vulnerable minds. Against Miss Cole, that she is either a Communist or a sympathizer, the charge being made by people little qualified or inclined to see the difference, or admit there even is one.”
“They won’t just fire her ?” Carole asked, tears welling in her almond eyes.
“Of course not,” Mr. Roth said. “More likely, they’ll summon her to an administrative hearing downtown and ask her with questions she’ll decline to answer. Then they’ll point out that under current law, her refusal to reply constitutes sufficient ground for termination of employment. It could all take up to a year.”
“By then we may have a new President,” Mado said.
“Yeah, Pogo might just make it this time around,” Sidney said. She could have killed him. Mr Roth shot him a cool glance.
“Or the whole case could just die a long, slow administrative death. Who has read Bleak House? No one. Well, read it, you’ll see what I mean. Doesn’t anyone read Dickens anymore? Meanwhile, Miss Cole has agreed the Beaver needs a new advisor. Miss Buchanan has kindly offered to replace her.” The gym teacher: they groaned in unison.
“Under the circumstances, I think you’re being most ungracious. If Miss Buchanan hadn’t volunteered, we might have had to put the Beaver on furlough till next fall. I didn’t think you’d want that.”
“Let me get this straight,” Sidney pulled himself up, almost on tip toes. “When you were our age, you marched around town with the Young People’s Socialist League. There was a chapter in every high school, every branch of the City University. Now we write one little paragraph and they want to lock us in a play pen. What has happened to this country in the space of twenty years?”
“I’ll let you answer that for yourselves,” Mr Roth said. “It might make the subject of a good editorial. But not in the Buchanan Beaver” His tone of voice called for an accompanying wink. He was not a winking man.
“What a nerve, taking that conspiratorial tone with us, when he didn’t have the guts to stand up for us in the first place. This is exactly how the Nazis started,” Sidney grumbled back in the hallway. “We owe it to the Jews of Eastern Europe…”
“To let them rest in peace,” said Carole, whose mother was born in Prague.
“Is this the end of our Sundays in the Village?” Gina asked sadly.
“I hope not,” Ruth said. “Gosh, what about Owen?”
“Guilt by association,” Mado said, although she wasn’t sure whose guilt she meant. “He’s not going anywhere anytime soon.”
“At least Big Brother didn’t remind us to be grateful this isn’t the Soviet Union,” Sidney said, clearly disappointed. He’d hoped for a rougher fight.
“And nobody told us to go back to Moscow” Carole said, referring to the day, years before, when she and Mado were twelve years old and didn’t know the facts of life, but had strong opinions on the Rosenberg case, that provoked the wrath of an old woman on the bus into Manhattan. Go back to Moscow, she spat them, as they clung hand over hand to a single leather strap. Mado flared up and quoted the Bill of Rights to everyone within earshot, while Carole hid in the very back of the bus.
“What were you so afraid of?” Mado asked when they scrambled off at the next stop.
“ Did you see the look of hate in her eyes?” Carole. asked.
“I wasn’t looking at her,” Mado admitted. “I was talking.”
“I hate scenes. You never know where it could lead.” She was still trembling. Mado had felt brave on the bus, but afterward she felt stupid and clumsy, with her bravado principles. It was the same now: she had injured those she meant to help, including Miss Cole, whose silence, since the flap, made everything worse. Ignoring her advice to let well enough alone, her proteges resigned en masse from the Beaver. Except for Sidney, who was still waiting to hear from Columbia about the scholarship and the Post about the copy boy position. He now felt fairly sure of both.
“You need something to talk about at your interview,” he explained to Mado in the lunchroom later that week. “Something that will fix you in their minds. And boy, do I ever have it. Look at this,” He read her the letter to the editor he had been instructed to run, without comment, in the next issue of the Beaver. “We do not engage murderers to teach our young people about crime. Why permit communists to speak about world communism? The American passport is the most prized document known to man. Millions around the globe would give anything to possess one. The privilege of carrying this document should be restricted to those who have proved themselves worthy of blah blah blah….”
“Who sent it?”
“The new advisor?”
“The same. She’s coming in with a bang and a bunch of blue pencils. Don’t tell anyone, but she’s not very clear on the use of apostrophe s. She asked me to submit a list of non-controversial subjects for next month’s editorials.”
“You could write about the proper amount of starch in our gym shorts. If they can’t stand up on their own, she won’t let you wear them”
“Why do we put up with this madness?” Sidney demanded, a rhetorical question if ever there was one.
“We don’t put up with it. You do,” Mado pointed out.
“When you’re a senior, you’ll understand,” he said blandly. He couldn’t very well say, when you’re a man…
A tiny old woman with a face pale as pignolis and wrinkled as raisins, sat now in Owen’s doorway. The open door cast a shadow that half hid her, squinting at hallway traffic, another spy from the Ligurian coast. As the girls passed, her eyes took note of them, but she did not return their greeting.
“It’s an ill wind they say,” Miss Cole explained. “Nonna Pia is my upstairs neighbor’s grandmother. He’s been waiting to bring her over from Camogli.”
“Where’s Owen?” the girls demanded. “Where are his paintings?” How could someone so solidly encumbered just pick up and vanish?
“Owen’s great aunt Bessie died last fall. She left him her house. It has beautiful moldings in the Palladian style. As close as you’ll get to Venice in West Virginia. He decided to make a strategic retreat. He’s painting the moldings a wonderful creamy beige.”
“Was that what he called it, strategic retreat?” Mado asked. What she meant was, why didn’t we hear about it from him? Miss Cole had seemed to withdraw into herself after the fiasco; in class she was pleasant as ever, but she put off their questions and commiserations with a firm hand. They almost came to accuse her of cowardice. Then she invited them down on a Sunday morning as before, and they were ashamed of their suspicious impatience. But they had to know all about Owen.
“When did he decide to move?” Carole asked.
“He would have had to go down sometime, and once his trip abroad was cancelled…”
“Can we write to him?” Ruth asked. She had been gathering courage to show him her sketches of running water.
“Are you planning to visit him any time soon?” Gina asked.
“Certainly not before the end of the school year. And then I may have to stay put to wait for my hearing…You know what I’m talking about?”
“Is it definite?” Mado asked.
“Perhaps not. Anyway, it’s not the Spanish Inquisition. It’s just a bunch of bureaucrats afraid for their jobs.”
“Can you forgive us?” forthright Ruth asked.
“I can’t forgive myself,” Miss Cole said. “It makes a mockery of what we teach you. Civics and patriotic songs. “
“Why make such a fuss about the Beaver? Basketball scores and ads for donut shops.” Mado still couldn’t get it through her head.
“No one cares. But they’re afraid that someone else might, and then the others, in their uncaring, would seem lax, negligent, conniving. We teach you history the wrong way. The founding fathers, give me liberty or give me death, the Declaration. You’d think mankind was nothing but a string of heroes. We should teach you about the court of Nero, or Louis XIV, or Queen Elizabeth the First. Even Alice through the Looking Glass would be more like it. Off with their heads. A few unscrupulous intriguers and a large number of timid followers, and lots of whispering and plotting and currying favor… It’s called politics…..On the other hand, and I know this is selfish of me, I’m glad it’s not in your textbooks or in your hearts. It does me good to see you. You’re sweet kids. People in general are not nice. That’s the shame.”
“Even Sidney?” Carole asked.
“Sidney is a crusader. Such people are often self serving. Ego powers the crusade, in whatever direction. I think, I hope, it is too soon to pass judgment on Sidney.”
“What will you do if…” Ruth couldn’t finish her sentence for once.
“If I can’t teach in New York? I’ve thought of it. I’d teach somewhere else. In my home town? It would take some getting used to…”
She had cooked a Genoese fish stew with a vegetable that tasted like licorice and was sold only within a four block radius in lower Manhattan. It had a beautiful Italian name, finocchio. On the way to the bathroom, Mado opened a wrong door and found herself in Miss Cole’s closet, a row of silky dresses, faintly perfumed. She leaned contentedly into the soft curtain of polka dots and stripes and something purely blue and yellow and red and luminous, like a stained glass window, and gathered it in her arms. She had never hugged Miss Cole in public. This was as close as she would get.
Miss Cole’s departure came as a shock. One Monday morning a substitute appeared in her place, an attractive woman young enough to be her students’ big sister, and just back from a year in France on a Fulbright. By the end of a week they were saying, fickle of them, that it was perhaps all for the best. Miss Ramos rushed through Thomas Hardy to get to Camus and Sartre in the last hot weeks of June. She had seen them both in Paris. Everyone knew them by sight. Camus was ill. Mado worried he might die before she got to Paris….
Miss Cole sent a note to Gina, who passed on the message. Mado never saw the actual letter. She suspected Gina of making it up, or dumbing it down. Either way, she felt excluded, resentful, and guilty for the way things happened, although no one reproached her. Except Paul, who reproached her for something else. If she had it to do over, she would let Owen tease her to death, without answering back.
“He's drying out,” Gina told them.
“They had some heavy spring rains down there," Ruth agreed.
“A bleeding ulcer, from drinking too much. It can be fatal,” Carole said. She already had the whole story from Gina. “He had two transfusions last week.”
“We should have stolen a passport from somewhere,” Mado said.
“Or forged one. My Dad has a couple of expired passports lying around,” Ruth volunteered. “And I can imitate just about any handwriting…I practiced one whole summer. I know the formula for invisible ink, too.”
“How about a flying carpet?” Gina suggested, acidly. Their solid foursome had split into rival factions. The Unlovelies, Owen would have called them now, if he'd had the energy to care. What if we killed him? Mado didn't dare say it.
“Is Miss Cole coming back any time soon?” she asked.
“Who knows," Gina replied She said you can sail for Italy right from the Virginia coast. You never have to set foot in New York."
Suzanne Ruta is an author, translator and literary critic. Her story collection, "Stalin in the Bronx and Other Stories," published in 1987 was a New York Times notable book of the year. Her novel "To Algeria, with Love," was published in 2011 by Virago Press.