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The Bonfire by Perle Besserman

The Bonfire by Perle Besserman

Fiction, Vol. 2.4, Dec. 2008

Cora Rubin arrived at Fishgold’s Bungalow Colony with three trunkloads of cruise wear and accessories, her twelve-year-old daughter Hazel, and her dog in tow, causing a stir among the old folks who were sitting on the porch of the Main House watching her drag her possessions up the stairs.  Mrs. Kaplowitz, a retired Yiddish theater actress and program director of Wednesday night entertainments on the lawn, was the first to comment on the newcomer’s appearance.  “You tell me; how can a bunch of  oydideedoydoy–singing old ladies hope to compete with such a tsatskele?” she asked, as soon as the carrot-haired, thirty-two-year-old ex-chorus girl had swept past, leading her black poodle on a braided gold chain attached to a rhinestone-studded collar.  The old folks on the porch responded to Mrs. Kaplowitz’s observation with a collective sigh of agreement.  It was later rumored that, to protest Cora’s arrival, the reclusive ultra Orthodox Belkins had packed up and left the colony, but Mrs. Fishgold said they’d done no such thing.  I knew they hadn’t gone, because I saw Mr. Belkin hurrying to pray in the fields at sunset with his tzitzith flapping in the breeze behind him.

Ada Rubin had been estranged from her daughter since her divorce from Henry Bruderman—a jeweler twice her age—and subsequent elopement with music producer Tony Fiorentino.  Within a week, the whole colony was buzzing with news of Cora R’s separation from the abusive Italian husband who’d literally “kicked her out of the house.”  Accompanied by the nightly chorus of cicadas under the floorboards, the old folks on the porch lamented poor Ada’s affliction, her umglick, the daughter who’d broken her mother’s heart and killed her silent-suffering father by marrying a goy and having a child with him, never sending her parents so much as a photograph.  It was common knowledge that Ada Rubin (reputed as much for her generosity as her naïveté) had inherited a comfortable sum from her late husband’s pension fund, and the colony gamblers were betting that “the tsatskele” would soon be tapping into it.  Maternal instinct prevailed nonetheless, and Ada tearfully rejoiced in her wayward daughter’s return.

Cora and Hazel and the poodle and the three trunkloads of cruise wear and accessories moved into the bungalow next to ours, which a distraught but perfectly respectable mother and her three-year-old boy had vacated two weeks before.  My mother disliked the Rubins from the minute she laid eyes on them.  I, on the other hand, immediately fell in love with the whole entourage.  Once welcomed into their inner sanctum, I’d spend hours sitting on the bed watching them roll their hair in steel curlers and polish their toenails fire engine red.  They both wore “ankle bracelets,” fine gold chains bearing matching hearts engraved with their names.  Once in a while, Cora would scold Hazel for having a fresh mouth.  But Hazel didn’t care.  “Stop nagging, Cora,” she’d say, and Cora would laugh.  They treated each other more like sisters than mother and daughter. Unable to turn away, I’d gape at Cora as she dressed and undressed in front of me, revealing her black lace, red-fringed panties without giving it a thought.  I was equally in awe of Hazel, who, though only half a year older than me, wore bright red lipstick, penciled her eyebrows black, coated her face with beige liquid makeup from a square bottle, and had pierced ears that sprouted a pair of enormous gold hoop earrings.  She also wore a bra, which was unthinkable in my situation, but made me try one on and stuffed it with tissue paper to give me what she called a “bust.”

For me, Hazel had nothing but scorn.  “What a hole this place is!  How can you stand it here all summer with these old farts?” she’d ask at least once a week, her mouth twitching with contempt.  I’d hang my head and not answer.  It was obviously a rhetorical question, uttered for effect, and Hazel didn’t expect a reply.  When I was alone, I mimicked Hazel’s every mannerism, her cliché -filled patter and her scornful rabbit mouth twitch.  “How can you stand it here all summer with these old farts?” I’d stand on the back porch practicing Hazel’s contemptuous nasal drawl—until my mother overheard me one morning and asked why I was making strange noises rather than rehearsing for my Wednesday night Hebrew song recital on the lawn.  To divert her, I pretended to be chasing Hazel’s dog away from our clothesline. “Bootsie, you get out of there!” I yelled in my newly acquired “Hazel voice.”

Cora and Hazel eventually settled in, and the old folks in the Main House resumed their routine.  Occasionally Bootsie’s “accidents” on the front lawn would set them buzzing again about Ada Rubin’s umglick, but not with the same enthusiasm they’d shown on Cora’s arrival.  Yes, she wore a backless halter and tight shorts that stopped at the buttocks line; yes, she clattered down the cement walk from the Main House to the laundry shed in platform spiked-heels and flirted with the Dugan’s Bakery truck man, but in time even her diehard critics got used to it.  Granted a few of the men did start acting strangely: Mr. Rifkind trembled on his way to the mailbox, and Mr. Cohen was seen talking to himself.  And some of the ladies grew edgy and fought over pennies during bridge games.  But, on the surface, at least, everything seemed to have returned to normal.  The Belkins, of course, were nowhere in sight during the hours of the day when Cora might be walking around in her halter and shorts and platform spiked-heels, yet for the most part, life at Fishgold’s went on as usual.

“It’s Cora’s nature to attract stares and gossip wherever she goes,” Hazel said one afternoon as we were taking turns swinging in the hammock strung between the two pin oaks shading our bungalows.  The day was overcast, but a milky sun kept thrusting through the clouds.  Because of what happened next, I will never forget the look of that milky sun or the rough, ropey feel of that green hammock or the damp, leafy smell of that hazy Tuesday afternoon.

“Don’t tell her I told you, but she has a boyfriend,” Hazel added.

“Really?” I wasn’t too interested in hearing about Cora just then, because I was hoping Hazel would invite me into her bungalow and reveal some of the finer points of stuffing a bra with tissue paper.  Her one display had encouraged me to dump my undershirts, and I was determined to start the fall term at the Beth Shalom Hebrew School for Girls with a “bust.”  Hazel, it turned out, had other things in mind.

“That’s one of the reasons Tony divorced her.”

“Your father?”

“Yeah, Tony was real stupid.”  Hazel’s mouth twitched, meaning something important was coming next.  “You can stop swinging me now. I’m getting nauseous.  Come and sit down here next to me and I’ll tell you some things.”

I did as I was bid, squeezing all the way up to the skinny part of the hammock so as not to crowd her.

“As I said, Tony was stupid.  Even the neighbors knew that Cora was seeing a musician named Danny.  He plays the clarinet.  She still meets him here in town sometimes when his band passes through on their way to the Catskills.  They play at the Concord.  Anyway, Danny lives in Bay Ridge near us, so she has to meet him here because Tony would beat her up if he found out.”

“How can you have a boyfriend and a husband at the same time?”  I dared to ask, hoping to skirt the issue of Tony’s beatings, which I’d heard enough about not to want to hear more.

Hazel cocked an eyebrow.  I had tried cocking one eyebrow after seeing her do it the first time, but no matter how hard I tried, both eyebrows would cock at once.  Hazel demonstrated it for me twice after that but gave up when I failed the third time.  Patience was definitely not one of her virtues.

“There was a girl like you in Charm School with me,” she said dismissively, “Susan Pergaman, and she couldn’t do anything, so they dropped her.”

Not wanting to be dropped, I stopped bothering Hazel about cocking my eyebrow and tried to imagine a place where people taught “charm”; all I could conjure up was the back pages of magazines where they advertised Before and After pictures of women who’d been “made over by the experts.”  I pictured myself as one of the “Before” fatties in a long, hideous taffeta dress with an enormous sash—hairy-faced, beak-nosed, and flat-chested—being miraculously “charmed” by Hazel into one of the long-legged, svelte but busty bathing beauty “Afters.”

“You must be kidding me,” said Hazel.

“No I’m not. How can you have a boyfriend and a husband at the same time?” I repeated.

“Wow.  You’re really something, dearie, do you know?  I mean, what school do you go to?”  Hazel never called me by my name, only “dearie.”

“The Beth Shalom Hebrew School for Girls.”

“What’s that?” Hazel’s voice went up an octave.

“It’s a . . . a religious school.”

“Ohmygod.”  She slapped her forehead, rolled her eyes, and fell backward into the hammock, pretending to faint.

I pulled in my stomach, held my breath, and waited.

“You can have a hundred boyfriends at a time, if you want to, dearie,” Hazel said when her mock fit was over.

I dug my heels into the dust under the hammock and stopped it from swaying.

“Hookers sometimes take on ten men in one night,” she turned to look me straight in the eye.

“What are hookers?” I asked picturing a group of charm school girls standing on the street with long fishing hooks reeling in male passersby.

“You know, girls who get paid for it.”

“Get paid for what?” My palms were sweating in anticipation of something not very nice.

“For sex, stupid.  Don’t tell me you don’t know what men and women do in bed?” Hazel sneered.

“Oh, that. Of course,” I said, my heart thumping and my mind racing back to Rebbitzen Asher’s lesson on Leviticus and the stoning punishment for “immodest women.”

“What do you think they’re doing out there in the woods?”

“Who?” I had drifted off and lost an important part of Hazel’s question.

“The Belkins, dummy! Why do I always have to repeat myself?”

“Oh, the Belkins . . .”

“So?” Hazel said, waiting for me to answer.

“He prays and she picks flowers for the Friday night service.”

“Ha!  Okay, then what do they do when they’re in bed?” she persisted.

“Maybe they kiss . . .” I drifted off again.

“Do you know what a French kiss is?” Hazel’s interrogation wouldn’t stop.

“No.”

“For Chrissake, dearie, don’t you know anything?”  Hazel twitched her mouth again.  She was getting very impatient with me. “It’s when a boy puts his tongue in your mouth and sort of wriggles it around.  It’s a signal that he wants you to go all the way.”

By now my hands were shaking, so to give them something to do I started braiding the fringes of the hammock.

“You don’t know anything, do you?” Hazel mocked. “It’s like you’re some kind of greenhorn from Europe.”

I looked down at our shoes.  Hazel wore maroon loafers with bobbing tassels.  Mine were gray oxfords, greenhorn shoes.  I hated myself.  I wanted to jump out of the hammock, but I couldn’t move.  It was awful, and I was fascinated.  Hazel had me baited.

“Your parents do it.”

“No they don’t,” I said, almost choking at her suggestion that my father wriggled his tongue around in my mother’s mouth.

“Oh, yes they do.  How do you think you were born?  They do it like this!” she said, instantly whipping two of my missing paper cutout dolls out of her pocket and plastering the man in his underwear on top of the woman in her petticoat.

The hammock came to a full stop.  I couldn’t believe it: Hazel had stolen my cutouts. I’d been looking for them for three days, turning the bungalow upside down, accusing my mother of throwing them in the garbage, and Hazel had stolen them.  I couldn’t look at her.  I stared down at our heel marks in the brown earth under our feet, at the dusty white cuffs of my socks, at the crossed gold hearts of Hazel’s ankle bracelet.  She was breathing in short, excited puffs against my cheek.  She was sitting so close to me that our shoulders were touching.

“Your mother and father do it like this,” she said, rubbing the dolls together so that I’d hear the swoosh of the paper.  “They fuck just like everyone else.”

I stood up.  “I don’t want to hear anymore,” I said.

Hazel didn’t care.  Still rubbing the cutouts together, she sang “They fuck, they fuck, they fuck!” over and over again.

I pulled my cutout dolls out of her hands.  Then I gave her a push and she fell out of the hammock.  Before she could get up, I ran away.

Through my bathroom window later that day, I saw Hazel sitting on her bed rolling her hair up in curlers.  I resisted the urge to knock on her door and apologize and beg her to be my friend again, but I was still so angry at her for stealing my cutouts that I couldn’t get myself to do it.

The next day, I happened to be walking by the Main House when I saw Hazel sitting on the front steps polishing her dog’s toenails.  Bootsie lay unmoving in her lap, panting in the August heat.  Do dogs really perspire from their tongues?  I wondered.  Does my father wriggle his tongue around in my mother’s mouth?  Do my parents f–k?

“Some people think it’s mean to polish your dog’s nails.  They say it gives them blood poisoning,” Hazel said without looking up at me.

“I don’t think so,” I said, hesitating to move any closer.  I actually hated the idea of polishing a dog’s toenails; I also hated it when people tied little bowties around their dogs’ necks or stuck booties on their paws, but I didn’t dare tell her that.

Hazel waved the nail polish wand at me. “Well, I suppose you’ve come to say you’re sorry or something like that.”

“Mmm.”

“Forget the whole thing.  You didn’t hurt me, dearie, I’m made of iron.”  She laughed, stretching her bottom lip over her upper teeth.

“I didn’t mean to . . .”

She popped the wand into the nail polish jar and screwed the top back on.  Then she pushed Bootsie out of her lap.  The dog jumped down the steps and ambled across the gravel driveway to a shady patch on the front lawn.  A full five minutes passed as we silently watched him paw flies until he got bored and fell asleep.

“So what do you feel like doing today?” Hazel asked.

“Anything you say.”

“There’s nothing going on in this dump, and Cora docked me ’cause I stole a lipstick from Seligman’s drug store, and some plainclothes cop just happened to see me . . .”

I was impaled. Only a hair’s breadth from me sat a human being of my own age who was a thief, a person who had not only stolen my cutouts but walked into a store, thinking, “I want that, I’ll take it,” and then pocketed a lipstick without paying for it.  How did she sleep nights?  Worse yet, how could she look at herself in the mirror after robbing Haskell Seligman, a man of seventy-five who walked with a cane and closed his store on the Sabbath out of respect for his observant customers, though he wasn’t Orthodox himself?  How did she do it?  Did she wait until the store got crowded?  What did she ask for when the old man turned away from another customer and pointed his cane at her?

Baby oil? Just a minute, please.  Yes, can I help you, Miss?”

No, thanks . . . just looking.”

Did she do it when he went to the shelf behind the cash register to fetch the baby oil for the mother who’d just wheeled her toddler’s stroller into the store?  Did she snatch it from the Revlon sample display?  Did she run?  Or did she walk out the door casually to make it look as if she had nothing to hide?  Once out in the street, did she hurry to the corner?  Did the sun blind her?  Did she run then . . . past the firehouse, the Methodist Church on the corner, the lumberyard?  God, how did she keep herself from running back to the drugstore and falling on her knees and begging the old man to forgive her?

“So what do you say we go over to Clarkson’s Lake?  They have a bonfire tonight, and there are boys our age.” Hazel pinched my arm, leaving her fingerprints on the flesh above my elbow.

I feared her deeply at that moment, even more than the punishment I knew I’d face if my mother found out I’d gone to a bonfire instead of performing Hebrew songs for the old folks on the lawn.  But I was so used to knuckling under to Hazel by then that I didn’t dare refuse her.

“Will I need a sweater?”

“Nah.  Anyway, if you tell your mother you’re going she won’t let you . . . she’s too strict.”

“Okay.  When do we go?”

“It’s about five now.  We’ll have to wait till it gets darker so we can sneak off without anyone seeing us.  The bonfire starts at seven.”

“How old are the boys?” I asked, wondering if they were the kind who wriggled their tongues around in your mouth.

“You can’t be under thirteen to go to the bonfire . . . and since you’re only eleven and a half, and you look like ten, we’ll have to dress older.”

“You’re not thirteen,” I ventured.

“Yeah, but I look older.” Hazel flashed me a spiteful smile, again making me feel like a “Before” in desperate need of a makeover by the experts.  To add to my troubles, I’d been suffering for a week from a combination of hay fever and a summer cold.  My mother hadn’t let me wash my hair, so it was limp and greasy-looking, my eyelids were puffy and practically pasted shut, and I had a red clown nose.

“You do look older,” I mumbled.

“Are you gonna cry?” Hazel asked.

“No, it’s my hay fever.”

Hazel shrugged. “I’ve never been sick a day in my life,” she knocked on the wooden step behind her.  “I have an idea. We can put some makeup on you.  Ever wear mascara?”

“No.”

“Come on, then.  We’ll use the downstairs Ladies’ Room in the Main House.  I have a makeup bag stored in the medicine cabinet there.  If one of the old ladies comes in to pee, we can hide in the shower and watch her.”  Hazel jumped up from the steps and whirled around in circles with her arms crossed on her chest.

“We can’t. . . I can’t . . .” Accosted by a short-lived surge of shame, I stumbled after her.

“What’s wrong, you chicken, dearie?”

I wasn’t chicken; I wanted to put mascara on my eyelashes and look thirteen, and I wasn’t even against watching someone like Mrs. Kaplowitz pull down her bloomers and sit on the toilet to pee.  I didn’t want to be caught hanging around with a thief, was all.

“You coming, or not?”

“I haven’t washed my hair and it looks greasy.  Maybe I can wear one of your mother’s scarves,” I relented.

“Let’s see what we can do to fix you up,” Hazel said, leading the way up the steps into the Main House.

*

Night was falling gently.  Except for the lowing of car horns on the distant highway, it was deathly quiet.  One or two stars pricked the horizon on either side of the bulbous harvest moon lighting the hedgerows dividing Fishgold’s property from Clarkson’s Lake.  Hazel insisted we crawl under the hedgerows so as not be caught trespassing.  As soon as I got down into the grass my eyes started tearing under their heavy fringe of black mascara, blurring the path.  My hair, slicked down with water, and scarf-less because Hazel did not want to call attention to our absence by filching one from Cora’s chiffoniere, was still wet, my nose was running, and I felt an increasingly strong urge to sneeze.  Hazel heard me sniffling and ordered me to shut up, we were almost there.  To my relief, once we’d crawled under the hedgerows into the open field bordering the lake and were able to stand up and walk, my eyes had stopped tearing and I no longer felt like sneezing.  To get back at Hazel for telling me to shut up, I told her I only planned to stay at the bonfire for a half hour and would be returning to Fishgold’s in time for the entertainment on the lawn.  As an extra precaution, I asked her not to tell anyone my real name; I would be “Rebecca Brill” for that night.

“Whatever you say, dearie,” Hazel shrugged.

There were four boys and one girl gathered around the bonfire when we arrived: Kenny, Eddie, Saul, Jay, and Saul’s cousin, Roberta.  She was an extremely fidgety thing, skinny as a stick, with a wizened face like an old Chinese lady, and she sat apart from everyone as if she had some disease and didn’t want to pass it on.  The boys didn’t act too happy about having any kind of female company, even “fast” types like Hazel and me, with our makeup and padded bras.  They squirmed as Hazel made the introductions all around, and boasted about having a real party once we girls had gone home.  Roberta sat there staring at her brown and white saddle shoes, barely looking up at me when we were introduced.  I felt sorry for her, but, since the boys were making such a strong point of ignoring her, I only gave her a quick nod.  Before long, Roberta piped up in her old Chinese lady’s voice that she was going back over by the recreation building to see what her parents were having to eat.  She’d heard there was going to be roasted corn tonight.  Then, with no one paying any attention, she got up and walked away.

 Kenny had a mean foul mouth and the beginnings of a mustache that looked like dirt around his top lip.  Eddie was sandy-haired and good looking in an athletic sort of way, Jay had a boxer’s crooked nose, and Saul had reddish hair and freckles.  He was the shy one; even when he tried acting like a smart aleck, he would look around to see if anyone had noticed.  I liked him for that.  We were both a pair of “Befores,” I decided, changing seats with Hazel so I could sit near him.  Five minutes into the party, I was already remodeling Saul into an innocent farm boy, the kind of hick nobody paid attention to because he liked to sleep in the barn with the animals and serenade the moon.  Then he grew up and went to New York and became a famous composer, playing his tunes back-to-back at a huge white grand piano in a montage with lots of strings in the background, and wearing a white tuxedo and black bow tie.  I was so busy making up his life that I didn’t say a word to Saul the whole time I was sitting next to him.

Hazel flirted like crazy with every boy at least once—and Kenny most of all.  Eddie pulled out a bottle of J&B scotch and gave her a sip.  Then he poured the rest of the whiskey into a canteen and passed it around.  Even “Rebecca Brill” drank some.  By the fourth round, everything was cozy; we were all friends and nobody was talking about having a “real” party when the girls went home.  The flames leapt up, warming us outside as the liquor warmed our insides.  For what felt like a long time I sat staring at the freckles on Saul’s nose and hardly noticed it when he very casually draped his arm over my shoulder.  Kenny told a dirty joke about a cow and a bull that I didn’t fully understand.  Jay took an unsteady walk out into the fields, saying he was “going to see a man about a horse.”  When he returned, his face was white and he smelled like he’d just vomited.  Hazel removed her pullover, rolled it into a ball and sat there in her elasticized halter, baring her midriff and shoulders.  Kenny grabbed Hazel’s pullover and put it under Jay’s head, making a pillow of it and murmuring “Poor baby Jay.”  That made Jay mad.  He pushed Kenny’s hand away, and the two of them started to get rough with Hazel’s pullover, pretending it was a ball and tossing it around until Saul caught it and gave it back to Hazel.  Eddie took a mouthful of liquor and sprayed it at Hazel.  She thought that was really funny, and she took some and started spitting it around at everyone.  Wanting to be sociable, I did it, too.  Saul stopped the spitting game by reminding us that we were wasting the liquor.  Jay fell asleep and snored.  Suddenly everyone fell silent.  I was feeling dizzy and a little sick to my stomach, so to take my mind off it I started humming Adon Olam, the opening song I’d soon be performing for the old folks on the lawn.  But humming only made me feel worse, so I stopped and lay down on my back to look at the moon, which was still bulbous, though no longer smooth but pock-marked and smirking.

Closing my eyes and shutting out the high-pitched drunken voices around me, I willed myself to concentrate on something pleasant—like rowing on Clarkson’s Lake with my father last Sunday.  I keyed my breaths to the steady stroke of the oars and the comforting creak they made in their locks as he rowed, forming a pattern of ripples in the water lapping against the wooden boat, which was green, and had a name painted in red on one side: TROUBADOUR.  My father guided the boat far out into the lake, stopping alongside one of the floating lily pad islands.  Pulling in the oars and letting us coast a little, he looked down at the lily pads and said, “Isn’t nature wonderful?”  As he spoke, a dragonfly landed on the prow, stationing itself like a quivering masthead of blue and spun gold.  My father studied it silently until it flew off.  Then, as if thinking aloud, he said, “Nature is wonderful, but human beings . . . I have my doubts about human beings.”

“You once told me that the most precious thing God ever created was human life,” I said.

“I know, but we humans don’t seem to appreciate that precious gift. . .” he sighed then quickly changed the subject. “Did you know there’s a place called the Sargasso Sea, a totally still lagoon in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean?”

I was trailing my fingers in the black velvet water, picturing the Sargasso Sea, when I was suddenly interrupted by someone pulling at the front of my blouse.

“Goddamn it, you were out like a light!”

I opened my eyes.  Hazel was standing over me and sparks from the bonfire were leaping dangerously close to her face.  “Don’t leave me alone here!” she yelled, sounding scared for the first time ever.

Saul’s arm was still draped over one of my shoulders; unable to tell left from right, I didn’t know which.  Eddie was sitting next to him pulling a bunch of picture postcards from a waxed paper packet.  Sucking in a chest full of air, he passed them on to Kenny, who took one look at them and snorted, startling Jay out of his sleep.  Hazel sat down and tried reaching past me, but I got the card next from Kenny.  Instead of “Scenic Spring Valley,” which was what I expected to see, the card showed a naked man and woman contorted like circus performers on a brass bed with an old-fashioned crank-up telephone on the wall behind it.  Oddly, they were both wearing shoes—the woman, high black platform pumps and the man, sneakers and argyle socks.  The woman’s legs were raised, so I could see the triangle of hair just below her belly and the crack where her rear end began.  The man’s testicles hung down like double pouches between her thighs, and his thing was deep inside her, though about an inch still showed outside.  The woman had big white teeth, and she was laughing.

As always when I was on the verge of a hay fever attack, my throat started itching something awful.  The first sneeze was so violent it caused the card to drop out of my hands.  I sneezed again. And then again . . . and again . . . and again.

“Can’t you shut her up?” Eddie yelled at Hazel.

Now coming like continuous blasts of machine gun fire, my sneezes almost drowned him out.

Hazel didn’t move; she just sat there glassy-eyed and helpless.

Eddie lifted himself drunkenly to his feet waving the empty bottle of J&B over his head screaming for me to shut up.  Afraid he was about to bash my face in with the bottle I rolled away from him.  Now Eddie was being quickly blocked from view by Kenny and Saul, who were throwing themselves on top of me and trying to gag me with their hands.  When Jay joined them I thought I heard him yell something like “Murder!” but couldn’t be sure I wasn’t yelling it myself inside my head.  Kenny groped around under my bra, and I had the satisfaction of seeing him pull back in disgust when he got a fistful of tissue paper instead of a “bust.”  He poked me in the eye with his finger as he moved aside to make room for Saul, who—poor “Before” that he was—had at last found an opportunity to prove himself to the “Afters”.

I lay there without even trying to fight back because a little voice inside was telling me I was getting the punishment I deserved.  If the Torah said that just wearing pants could get a woman stoned to death in the marketplace, her body fed to the dogs, how much more hideous a fate awaited those who looked at picture postcards featuring “hookers” who posed naked and  f—-d for money?  Rebbitzen Asher had once told our class that our bodies were holy.  What would she say about the naked couple on the postcard, their flabby arms and legs locked into a headless torso?  The woman, her back arching, her fingers clawing at the air, struggling, pushing against the man, arching her back in the throes of a spasm.  The man, wearing those stupid argyle socks and sneakers, clenching his big white buttocks and hovering over her like a threat, would the Rebbitzen think their bodies were “holy”?  What would the Rebbitzen say if she’d seen me hiding with Hazel in the shower stall of the Main House toilet waiting for one of the old ladies to come in and let down her bloomers and pee?  And when no one showed up . . . and we started touching each other, measuring and matching the hairs under our arms and between our legs?  What would she say then?  That no one—not even nonbelievers like Hazel Rubin—could escape God’s lidless, never-sleeping eye?

Resigned to smothering in my own snot, I waited to die.  Then, a miracle: the sneezing stopped and the mob on top of me started rolling off one by one.  God obviously had something other than death in store for me.  Why?  Because, in six months I would turn twelve and be responsible for my own sins and could no longer count on my parents to take the blame for my evil acts.  I’d been given a reprieve because I wasn’t yet old enough to be punished.  God was sparing me for more exquisite forms of punishment in the future.  With nobody watching, I pulled myself up from the ground and started running across the open field toward Fishgold’s.  This time as I crawled back under the hedgerows I noticed that the path was much colder and wetter than before and that it smelled of fungus.  I had just crossed the property line and stood up when a bat fluttered past and brushed my cheek with its leathery wing.  Taking that as my cue to resume playing the good little frumehmadele, I hurried toward the old ladies singing on the front lawn.

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