My Bubbe came over from the other side packed in steerage like a sardine when she was eleven, then headed straight to a shirt factory. She had no choice. One of twelve children, she never learned to read or write, she spoke broken English and had to go through a lot of hardship in her lifetime. By the time I came along Bubbe needed a cane, she walked side to side and stopped to rest after every few steps, but she’d seen things other people hadn’t, and knew things they didn’t know.
Tucking me in one night, slipping me one of the sticky sesame candies from her bag, she leaned over, pressed a finger on my nose and whispered, “Miracles do happen, Stiveleh. Angels do appear, often in disguise. If you learn to recognize them. So it is said.” Then she described how she’d seen them constructing the Williamsburg Bridge.
She got sick and passed away when I turned eleven myself, but I never forgot.
Saturday night, eighth grade: why the girls keep inviting me I have no idea. If all you do is eat pretzels, flip through records and just hang back in the shadows, waiting for something to happen, cause you’re too scared to make conversation, sooner or later you get crossed off the list. And once you’re off, that’s it.
Ninth grade, tenth grade, nothing changed for the better.
“Why don’t you talk to the girls ever?” my downstairs neighbor Glassman asks one sticky July morning before junior year, right after I unbolt the door.
He starts picking stuff up, turning it over and putting it down in the wrong place. Leaving fingerprint smudges. “What’s the matter with you, Stevie? It’s easy.”
“Easy for you,” I tell him. “Everything is.”
“Ahh,” he goes, as I track his path from the foyer through the living room to make sure nothing gets broke or misplaced, “don’t be a chicken. You want to make out sometimes, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“So, you and me,” he says, jabbing my ribs with his elbow, “we’ll double tonight at the Fireworks. Come down at 7. After supper.”
“I don’t know,” I say, trailing him into me and my big brother’s room.
“What’s to know? This could be your lucky break, man.” He grabs the mitt off my dresser and starts pounding it. “Come on! Never tell what all might happen once the Fireworks start. It’s like catnip. Drives the maidlach crazy.”
“Nah, that’s not me. I don’t like Fireworks.”
“This girl you’ll like. Boy, does she got it,” he goes, cupping both hands over his chest. “Right where it counts.”
“What’s she like, is she nice?”
“Such a schoenheit, if I could go with her myself, I would do it in a second.” He bursts out laughing so hard he can’t catch his breath. “Cindy’s cousin. That’s what she’s like.”
“So? She’s cute?”
“Girl is terrific.” He sticks his thumb up. “She’s creatively inclined. An actress and a dancer. Plus, she’s got a real high average. I mean, like a super brain.”
“Oh, great. A weirdo. A bookworm.”
“No! She’s an all-around girl. She’s picky, she don’t like show-offs, which is the reason I’m giving you this chance of a lifetime. With your personality, so good natured and polite, and being so smart in school, you and her will get along great.”
“Barry, no offense, but on second thought, I don’t really want to.”
“You know,” he goes, poking his finger at me, “you are a rat fink! You’re supposed to be my best friend, I don’t ask you for spit, you could do this one thing. Especially since you gave in already and agreed to. But, don’t do this for me. Do it for yourself.”
“Stop pointing, will you?” I slap his hand away. “All right, just this once.”
“Going down so late?” my mother asks. She’s lying on the couch, gritting her teeth, with a cold compress, staring at the ceiling. “Out in the street?”
“Fireworks,” I whisper, kneeling. “What are you, Mom, nervous?”
“Uccch! Fireworks? With all those crowds? Why? Since when’re you going to Fireworks?”
I just rub her cheek, pat her on the head.
“All right,” she says, one eye fluttering, “go. But please. Be careful, Mister.”
“You know me,” I say, touching her cheek, “I’m careful as can be.”
“Wait,” Glassman says, ushering me in when I ring his bell, snapping gum like it’s going out of style. “I’m combing my hair still. Trying to get it, you know, just right.” He heads to the bathroom mirror, runs a wide-toothed steel comb under water, taps it, then rakes it through his long dark vaselined hair. A new set of parallel columns emerge. “Do me a favor, please. Don’t say nothing weird tonight,” he tells me, still glued to the mirror, smoothing the sides down. “Don’t act stupid, like the last time. I gave you some buildup, okay?”
“What’s stupid,” I tell him, “is what you just said.”
“Can you see this zit?” he asks, pointing to his cheek. “I’m all broken out.”
“Yeah,” I say, touching a few of my own pimples, “what can you do?”
“More Acnomel,” he says, squeezing the tube and applying a fresh dab.
“So what do I talk to her about?” I ask him, each step heading down our block to The Boardwalk shakier than the one before.
“What do I know? Ooh, ooh, Cindy says she goes crazy for the Mets. She’s a fanatic.”
“So, talk about the Mets? You sure?”
“Between you and me though, hey, look at this, will you?” He claps his hands. “Here come the girlies! You ready to mingle?”
Cindy’s bopping up and down, got her blue gray Tri-Delt’s sorority sweater and short flouncy skirt on, she’s bouncing around, with like springs in her feet. The one I’ve got though is dragging behind, head sagging, her lips moving, like she’s mumbling to herself. Terrific! Cindy spots us, breaks into a trot, throws her arms open, wraps them around Glassman, and that’s when I get a good look at this cousin: dark brownish hair, bangs, freckles, a bit chunky, with the most adorable twinkliest eyes though. Not bad, not bad at all!
“Hello,” I say when we’re introduced, and I hold out my hand. “How are you, Madeline?”
Instead of being friendly, though, she glances at the hand, rolls her eyes, says “Maddy, okay?” folds her arms, and turns away to The Ocean.
Glassman and Cindy start in goofing, elbowing each other, two chatterboxes; but us two, we’re just checking our sneaker laces, not saying boo, when all of a sudden my big friend’s like, “All right! Me and Cindy-Lou are going down by the Poker Roll for ices. You love birds stay put here and save this bench. We’ll be back once the Fireworks start. Have fun, but don’t move a muscle, ‘kay?” Then his voice turns deeper, he pokes me. “And you, Casanova: don’t you dare do nothing I wouldn’t do. Promise?” After which he keeps yukking it up, I start coughing, and the two of them get swallowed up in the shadows heading towards Coney Island, his arm slung around Cindy’s neck, joking about who knows what.
So, I’m jiggling coins in my pocket, scratching my head, she’s got her legs crossed on the bench, shaking her foot and craning around in the opposite direction, towards the golden lights of Manhattan Beach.
“Goo’bye,” she says, whipping back around, blowing a kiss at them with two fingers. “Goo’bye and good luck! Just a million laughs, that one, isn’t he?” Then she shakes her head, like a shiver, and sticks a bent curvy Pall Mall between her lips. “Got a light?”
“Actually,” I tell her, clearing my throat, “I don’t smoke.”
“Oh, what a shock,” she says, jamming it back in the pack. “Let’s get going, you mind? I need matches.”
“You didn’t hear Barry? ’Wait here,’ he said.”
“Oh, right,” she goes. “Like I actually give two shits. And you? You’re the type you do whatever a dumb ass like that tells you, right?”
“Dumb ass? No, I mean, of course not, I got a mind of my own. But how’re we supposed to all find each other? There’ll be a million people pretty soon. Milling around.”
“Well,” she says, “you won’t get in trouble, if that’s got you worried. I’ll take full responsibility. What are you staring at? Oh, forget it, do what you want, I’m heading that-a-way.”
Now what? What’ll happen once Glassman and Cindy get back? Can’t let this loony tune cousin go off by herself, disappearing, not with all these creeps and molesters traipsing around. “Wait up, hey,” I call out finally, sprinting to catch her.
“You don’t have to,” she says, trying to walk faster than me. “I know my way around.”
“Well, it’ll take them a while. It’s okay probably if we go for a short little stroll. I guess.”
“Course it is,” she says, slowing down. “Come here, you.” And just like that she reaches out and her sandpapery fingers grasp my hand. Way down the block an overhead train comes screeching into the BMT station, and she breaks into a song. Dragging me along towards The Avenue, half-humming, half-singing about someone called Doe-nuh. Then, one about the purple heather, whatever that is. But since she’s singing I don’t have to say something. Which is some relief, cause my mind’s gone blank.
The threes and fours coming towards us all of a sudden turn into eights and tens while she’s swinging my hand high, over our heads. Got some iron grip on her and with no word of warning she belts one out at the top of her lungs: “Matty told-uh Hatty, Bout a THANG she saw, Got two big horns, And a WOOLY jaw.” Bopping down the street, this big grin plastered on, shaking her shoulders, she could care less how many heads keep turning, the loud comments people start making.
“So, um, what do you think of Ed Kranepool?” I ask, the second she pauses to catch her breath. “You think he’s ready, think Casey should finally start him?”
“Scuse me?” She pulls me to a halt.
“You know, the first baseman outfielder.”
“Who? What do I know from first basemen?”
She cuts short my explanation.
“So, give me a guided tour,” she goes as we pass the courtyard of 3260. “Of your hoity-toity neighborhood. Where the rich people live.”
Some old bat in a kerchief seated on a folding chair by the front entrance mutters a curse, shoots me this real dirty look, spits, says “Fooey!” and I let Madeline’s hand drop like a burnt potato.
“All the hot spots,” she goes. “Maybe I’ll show you around mine one day. If you’re so lucky.”
“Okay, but nobody’s rich around here,” I tell her, pointing to our left. “That’s Seagate you’re thinking of. Or Manhattan Beach, down to the right.”
She shrugs, starts humming some other tune I can’t place as we weave and shoulder our way through the multitudes.
“So how’d you know Cindy?” I ask, because even though Glassman informed me they’re cousins, I can’t imagine what else to say.
“My mother and her mother,” she goes. “Blah-blah-blah, you know, the both of them, two naggy, nutty sisters. Tell you a secret: they had a grudge, didn’t talk for years. Just kissed and made up.” She smooches her hand out loud. “You believe it? Something back when they were little girls. In Hungary, or some hell hole over there.”
“So, you’re not from here anywhere’s, are you?”
“Around here?” she says, laughing, waving me off. “Got to be kidding.”
“So, where you from then?” I ask, sniffing both armpits, as we pass my building and I glance up to our window, to see if Mom’s watching. “What street?”
“Me? East New York,” she tells me, spinning around twice, closing her eyes and pointing over her shoulder, away from The Ocean. Then she holds out both hands like claws and says, in this scratchy birdlike old lady accent, “Peetkin Evinue, sonny! Ever hoid of it? Over by New Lots? So far in the distance, nisht gedaiget, you can’t seen it from here. Not even mit glasses.”
“Yeah?” I say. “What goes on around there?”
“Oy,” she says, taking my hand again, patting it, “East New York, it’s a magical place, tell you that much. A vonderland. Surprised you aint hoid of it. Supposedly being such a super-duper brain child. 90 point average. According to Cindy.”
“Um,” I say, “92 actually. And it does sound vaguely familiar.”
“Vaguely familiar, huh? You must not read the Daily News. Cause we’re famous, we’re in there all the time lately.”
“Never mind,” she says, right before the corner. “Hey, show me your hang out, okay?”
This makes me laugh. “I don’t hang out.”
“Come on!” She yanks my arm. “Even in summer?”
“Three nights a week I play basketball by 225 at The Center. Besides that I’m home upstairs, doing homework and stuff, reading, writing. Not in summer, I mean, but you know, over a friend’s house, or some get-together with cousins, we’ve got family all around here, or helping my mother out, something like that. I sure don’t stand around the corner looking for trouble, if that’s what you’re getting at. Why would I?”
“Okay.” She shrugs, rolls her eyes again. “You don’t hang out. Sue me.”
Crossing The Avenue we stop by the Forty Thieves. “Mister,” I ask the old guy in the grease-stained Daily Mirror sweatshirt who’s devouring a hot dog with sauerkraut, “can I please get a pack of matches?”
“Two cents,” he says chewing with his mouth open, eyeing me narrowly.
Instead of lighting up though, she just slips the matches in her shorts pocket.
“Thought you wanted to smoke?”
“Oh right, out here in the open?” she says, touching my forehead with the back of her hand. “Something wrong with you? Got some kind of mental condition?”
So, we re-cross The Avenue, heading back towards The Boardwalk, just as the Fireworks start. All around they’re scurrying, ooh-ing and aah-ing, but the two of us just meander along, quiet all the way. This time, when she takes my hand, she’s not holding as much as barely like tickling the palm, purring like a cat, which starts my heart jumping.
“Should we see if they’re back by that bench yet?” I suggest, pointing towards the mobs.
“Oh, listen to him! He’s afraid of getting in trouble! With Little Barry Glassman.”
“You don’t think we should?”
She skips ahead to the ramp under The Boardwalk, catching me by surprise, saying, “Who cares?” over her shoulder. “I’m going down by the water.”
Midway underneath she stops, back up against one of the big concrete pillars, near a couple making out in the sand and that’s where she lights it.
“What kind of cigarette is that one?” I whisper. “Smells like wood burning.”
“Oh, a special kind,” she says, squinting, holding it out to me. “Unfiltered. Want to try?”
“Told you, I don’t smoke.”
“No. Course you don’t.”
“Said that last time.”
When she inhales again the glow from the cigarette lights her dark eyes up, soft and glittery. All I could do is stare at her gorgeous profile in the shadows, leaning back up against the pillar.
“So, what school you go to? What year are you in?”
“Jefferson,” she says, exhaling slowly, coughing a little. “The year? Believe it’s still 19, um, 65.”
“Get out of here! That was my mother’s school! In the olden days. Thomas Jefferson?”
“You didn’t see my sneaker laces? Orange. Rah-rah-rah!”
“Come on. You go to Jefferson? Really?”
“Sometimes.” She claps her hand over her heart. “I swear.”
Fireworks are booming out over The Ocean, blasting the night sky in front of us. Mostly everyone’s up on The Boardwalk, hanging over the railing, although I also see throngs of kids roaming The Beach, dashing around, their punks lit on fire.
“Know what?” she says, as we slog through the sand, talking real slow. “Everything, all of a sudden, is charcoal grayish.”
“Yeah, well, it’s officially night time. I got some hot news, that’s what happens. When the sun goes down.”
“Dark gray though. Look,” she says in a dreamy little girl voice, staring up to a weeping willow-like explosion of purple pink rays drooping towards the water. Then, she sinks to her knees and starts laughing. “Wish I had a camera. Ooh, I really wish! Some special magical camera.”
“You want to take pictures? At night?”
“You’ve got one,” she says, her eyes fluttering, kicking her feet. “Right?”
“Oh, yeah, I carry two around at all times.” I kneel down beside her. “Case of emergency. But, I’m all out of flashbulbs. So, excuse me, Madeline, what is it you’re doing around here, how long you visiting for?”
“First of all, please, please, pretty please: do not call me Madeline. Ever.” Lying on her back in the sand now, hands clasped behind her head, she’s looking at the stars. “Hate that damn name. Call me Maddy, ‘kay? Or Hatty. So, mama dear’s packed me off to Brighton-by-the-sea here for two weeks, to stay with Auntie Rivka. She says the air is ever so much more wholesome than the big smelly Boulevard Projects. So you’ll see me again probably, don’t worry. Once more. Before I’m sent back.”
She gets up, I follow, then she runs barefoot, squealing into The Ocean, splashing around, up to her knees, while I hang by the shore guarding her sneakers.
“Burrrr! It’s always this windy around here?” she asks, a minute later, when she comes out, hooking her arm around my waist.
“Yeah.” I’m like, “It’s the ocean.”
Her teeth start chattering and I squeeze her shoulder.
“Yeah? I need chocolate. Right now!” she yells, over the next blast.
“You’re very demanding, you know? Matches, cameras, chocolate. Always something with you, huh?”
“Come on, you must have at least a little chocolate on you. Stop holding out or,” she says, raising her arms, making like Dracula, “I vill suck your blood. Geev me chawk-lit!”
She pokes me in the ribs, then tries wrestling me down, but I’m not going to fall, get all dirty and track sand in the house, no way, till she trips me up and we land in a heap, both of us gasping. After which I lean over to kiss her cheek, but she turns her head away and starts to crack up, laughing her head off at whatever embarrassed apology I mumble.
“Give me chocolate, or give me death!” she screams before the next blast, trying to dig her hands in my pocket till somehow, she ends up with her head in my lap.
“You know,” I tell her, brushing the sand off her legs, “you’re pretty cute actually. For a chocolate-eating female of the vampire persuasion.”
“Hmmm,” she purrs, batting her eye lashes, “flattery will get you everywhere, sir.”
“Really? In that case, you’re very cute.” I pat the top of her head, run my fingers through her fine silky hair, breathing in the clean shampoo smell.
“Yeah? So, I guess you’re not an actual L-7, after all. Stupid Cindy! So, if you don’t got no chocolate, you got some imagination? Huh?”
“I don’t know,” I tell her. “Not really.”
“See,” she says, sitting up, leaning in to whisper in my ear over the next blast, her breath warm as fresh baked bread, “I actually think you do. Have some.”
“Well, if you say so.”
Now we’re nose to nose, two inches apart, and she touches my eyelid.
“Close your eyes, tight. Close them. Tell Maddy what you’re imagining? Right now, okay?”
I can’t say a word. Too petrified.
“Keep them closed.” She takes my face in both hands, starts rubbing my cheeks. “Come on now, out with it.”
Nothing. I want to, but can’t utter a sound.
“You know,” she says, “I have this super power, I can read minds. Yes, I can. But unless you say it, little boy, nothing’ll come true.”
I take a breath, then a long exhale. “That one day, I don’t know. I guess that one day I won’t be so scared. Of girls.” Then I have to swallow hard.
“And, what else?”
“That you’d go to a movie with me.”
“Okay, and? What are we going to see?”
“Ooh,” she says. “Ooh-la-la.”
Then she opens my eyes. Hers are all melting. Her neck cranes slowly forward, she brushes her wet shiny lips on my cheek, then snuggles into this tingly crack between my neck and shoulder. “There,” she says, “now you can awaken. Your dream is over.”
“Are you an angel?”
“Am I? How would I know?”
We walk back in silence, her head on my shoulder, in a trance I wish never ends. We climb the steps to The Boardwalk slow motion into a buzz of people, then glimpse the bench where we’re supposed to all meet. Sure enough, Glassman and Cindy are behind it, pacing like caged animals, and we hang back for a few seconds to untwine our locked fingers.
“I knew you weren’t normal,” she whispers, sniffing my cheek, purring. “Right from the start. So watch this, okay? But don’t ever be normal. Promise?” She elbows me, kicks her leg straight up past her waist like a Rockette, then goes bounding ahead, over to Cindy, who gives out a loud shriek as they clasp each other around the shoulders and start dancing in a circle.
Glassman’s hair is messed up, shooting out at wild angles. “What is wrong with you two? Didn’t I say, please, stay by this bench and save our spot? Poor Cindy here’s been crying her eyes out. Thought something terrible might’ve happened.”
“Well,” Maddy says, pointing, and she’s crying now too, but real tears, shivering and shaking. “I couldn’t help it. He, he fuh-forced me. Forced me to go with him, under The Boardwalk. All the way down by The Beach. He over-powered me. The brute!”
“Are you crazy?” Cindy yells, stomping over to poke me in the chest. “That is repulsive! She’s my first cousin! You creep!”
“You did what?” Glassman goes. “What’d you do?”
I’m laughing, I’m like, “I don’t know what she’s talking about. She’s kidding you. I didn’t do anything.”
“Oh, don’t let him fool you,” Maddy says, winking so’s only I could see. “He’s not what he appears to be. At all!”
“Barry!” Cindy goes, ranting and raving. “This weirdo’s your friend! Do something! ”
“Hey, whatever I might’ve did,” I tell them, poking my thrust-out chest, “she was asking for it.”