Chapter 2 of The Art of Folding Wax Paper by David Castlewitz
Mrs. Delmarco usually gave Mickey a quarter when he delivered her groceries from Herlickmann’s. One Christmas, she gave him a dollar because he’d trudged through the snow to get to her house. Every once in a while she was angry about something and on those occasions she gave him nothing. This Saturday was not one of her angry days, nor was it a generous one. Mickey got his quarter, though he had two bags of groceries and had to make two trips instead of one. He didn’t mind, though, because Saturday was when Marsha Herlickmann’s round face beamed from behind the counter.
With long black hair and sparkling eyes, Marsha was a woman, unlike the girls in his fifth grade class. She had breasts, which Mickey saw firmly outlined behind her blouse when she stretched her short, stocky body to reach something on a high shelf. Weekdays, she worked in the office of Applebaum’s Furniture Store on Kensington Avenue. At night, she attended business school. When she worked in her father’s grocery on weekends, she always had a book handy so she could study. Uncle Tony said he admired her ambition.
Once, Mickey overheard her arguing with her mother, as did everyone in the store. A door with square glass frames separated the living room from the grocery and when Marsha and her mother shouted at one another the door did nothing to muffle their shrill voices.
“That’s right, Mother,” Marsha said. “I’m going to be someone. I want more than living behind a store!”
The argument’s screams and cries crashed and thundered. Finally, Mr. Herlickmann stomped to the back of the store and into the living room, his squat body filling the door frame, his thin white hair reflecting an overhead light. Moments passed, and then a slap resonated through the air. No words followed. When Mr. Herlickmann returned to the cash register the customers in the store shook their heads in sympathy. Mickey wondered if it was for Mr. Herlickmann who had been embarrassed by his daughter’s behavior or for Marsha who’d been slapped like a child. A few minutes passed before she returned to work behind the counter, her left cheek bearing a splotch of red mottled with purple.
Outside the store, off to one side, away from the crates and baskets of vegetables where shoppers filled their paper bags before taking them inside to be weighed, Mr. Herlickmann’s father-in-law sat at a small table and played chess alone. Mickey once asked him why and he said he was studying the works of the masters. He kept a small book on his lap and consulted it now and then.
“Hi, Mr. Tanasdof,” Mickey said to the old man. “Where’s Mr. Jacobs?”
“It’s too early for him. You want to learn to play?”
“I’ve got Mrs. Delmarco’s groceries to deliver.”
“Come back. I’ll teach you.”
“I’m going to the movies.” Mickey always managed to spend his quarter almost immediately by going to the Kent Theatre after Mrs. Delmarco paid him. For a quarter, he could see 25 cartoons and a double feature. From 11 AM until 4 in the afternoon, he could sit in the dark and cheer and scream and never get yelled at for being too loud.
“Go then.” Mr. Tanasdof waved Mickey away. “Enjoy yourself.” He bent over his chess pieces and studied the board. He mumbled to himself. Mr. Jacobs would be along soon, Mickey knew. It was their usual routine. The old Russian’s chess partner always went to the Jewish temple on Saturday mornings, but stopped by to play at least one game with Mr. Tanasdof before going home. Mickey had heard that the two men had known each other back in Russia. Mr. Tanasdof was a policeman in their village and had saved Mr. Jacobs when the Cossacks raided the Jewish Quarter. Somehow, they’d found each other years after both had emigrated.
“Maybe that’s why the old man let his daughter marry the Jew,” a neighborhood gossip once said.
“I think the old man’s half-Jewish himself. That’s why he doesn’t go to Church.”
It started Mickey thinking. He never went to Church, either. Mom never went. Uncle Tony went only once a year. When people asked him what religion he was he always said, “I believe in God.” That’s what Mom said he should say. But which god? Mickey wondered. Were they Jewish and he didn’t know it? Soon after hearing the story of Mr. Tanasdof and Mr. Jacobs, Mickey decided to ask Uncle Tony. He couldn’t ask Mom anything. She just got mad when he asked her questions.
“Are we Jewish, Uncle Tony?”
“With a name like Ardenni?” Uncle Tony asked.
“Arden,” Mickey corrected. “Our name’s Arden.
“That’s because your mother changed it. I’m still an Ardenni.”
“What am I?”
Uncle Tony went back to work on the table lamp he was rewiring.
“Uncle Tony?” Mickey coaxed for an answer.
“You’re Mickey. Okay?”
“I mean, what religion?”
“I don’t think your mother believes in religion anymore.”
“Don’t ask so many questions. Go sweep the floor and I’ll give you a nickel.”
Now, as he left Mr. Tanasdof to his chess game, Mickey lifted the bag of groceries high against his shoulder and walked quickly to Mrs. Delmarco’s. This was his second trip this morning to her corner row house at Hancock Street. Mickey had never been inside the house. She always made him leave the grocery bag just inside the door.
A whiff of perfume filled the air when Mrs. Delmarco came to the door. Scents of cabbage and disinfectant clashed in competition. Mickey smiled up at her thin face, still pleasant despite the many deep wrinkles and sagging yellowish skin under her small chin.
“Here’s your quarter, Mickey,” she said. “Now you go home and be a good boy for your poor mother.”
He backed away as she shut the door. He had long ago stopped offering to carry the bags back to the kitchen. She always said no. Several times she’d gotten angry because he offered. She yelled at him that he would still get only a quarter and it didn’t matter where he put her groceries. Now, quarter in hand, he thanked her as usual and scurried away. As he passed Herlickmann’s on the way home, he saw Uncle Tony at the counter.
“Want me to help you?” Mickey asked. “Carry anything?”
Uncle Tony had his hands in his pockets. He looked up at the top shelves and Mickey hoped he’d want something so Marsha would have to get it. Uncle Tony pointed when the girl finally came to wait on him. “If it’s too high up, I can come around and get it,” Tony offered.
Marsha smiled. Her teeth were white and straight and beautiful. “The red box?”
“It’s not old, is it?” Tony asked. Mickey peered at the boxes on the top shelf. Some contained powdered milk. Others had different types of macaroni.
“No. We keep it up there because if it falls there’s nothing to get broken.” Marsha got the step-ladder from the corner, climbed to the top step, and used a long pole with a claw that she worked with a lever to retrieve the box. Mickey was disappointed that he didn’t get to see her stretch.
Marsha smiled as she walked to the cash register. “Is that all, Mr. Ardenni?”
“I just need the elbow noodles,” he said. “My sister usually does the shopping.”
“How is Joanne? I haven’t seen her in months.”
“She’s okay,” Tony mumbled. He counted out 32 cents and gave it to Marsha. Outside, he stopped to chat with Mr. Tanasdof. While they talked, Mr. Jacobs came along. He wore a dark suit, had on a gray felt hat, and carried a small velvet bag under his arm. Mickey noticed the Hebrew lettering on the bag, which Mr. Jacobs rested in his lap when he sat down to play.
“Marsha’s a pretty girl, huh?” Mickey said to his uncle as they walked up the street. When Uncle Tony didn’t respond, Mickey said, “What’re you going to make?”
“I just wanted some macaroni.” He tossed the box in the air and caught it. “She is pretty.” Tony grinned. “Sort of reminds me of a girl I knew in Salerno when I was in the hospital.”
“A nurse?” Mickey asked, hoping to hear one of his uncle’s stories.
“No. She worked in a café.”
“What was her name?”
They walked into the junk store. Mom sat in the back by the table where they kept a cigar box for making change. “I don’t remember,” Uncle Tony mumbled. “Too many years ago.”
“I would’ve gotten it for you,” Mom said.
“I have to get out once in a while, Joanne. I want to go out and do something besides drive around looking at trash.”
“I know you don’t like going to the store.”
“I don’t mind.” He sat at the table. He gave the box of macaroni to his sister.
“Can I go to the movies?” Mickey asked.
“Here’s a quarter,” Uncle Tony said.
“I’ve got money. Mrs. Delmarco paid me.”
“The old bitch! She better.” Mom spun on her heel and strode to the doorway leading to the stairs. She stomped up the wooden steps.
Uncle Tony pressed a quarter into Mickey’s hand. “Buy some candy and popcorn.”
Mickey wondered why his uncle was being so generous, but he didn’t ask. He said, “Thanks!”, and then ran off to enjoy his fortune.
Mickey made a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich to take on the field trip and when he sat at the kitchen table to wrap it his mom said, “Put your name on the bag so it don’t get stolen like last time.” She grabbed the sandwich and went to the counter by the sink. She was dressed for work, a bead-and-teardrop necklace loose around her neck, her wavy hair pinned in place. Taking a sheet of wax paper from the roll in the cupboard, she wrapped the sandwich and deftly – like an artist applying a finishing touch -- folded the edges to fashion a seal. Mickey printed his name in large block letters on the side of a paper bag. He was tempted to use Ardenni as his last name, but decided not to get Mom angry. “What’re you looking at?” Mom asked. Mickey shrugged, took the wrapped sandwich from her and put it into the paper bag. “I have to catch my trolley,” Mom said. “I’ll walk downstairs with you,” Mickey offered. Many times, walking down the stairs, out the door, to the trolley stop, Mom would put her arm across his shoulder and whisper to him, her voice soft and soothing, comforting. He liked that voice, not the one her work day made hoarse and grating. “I don’t want you to be late,” she snapped, and Mickey took that as his cue to retrieve his schoolbag from the kitchen chair and run downstairs. Any kid who missed the bus had to spend the day sitting in the office. And this was one field trip Mickey had looked forward to since last year, when he heard that the fifth graders always went to The Franklin Institute the week before Thanksgiving. Mickey didn’t care if they merely visited the Fels Planetarium, or just walked from one science exhibit to another. He wanted to get inside the museum and see it for himself. Uncle Tony was always promising to take him, but never did. Mom wasn’t interested, except once when one of her boyfriends long before the current Earl said that a visit to the museum was a good idea for a Sunday family outing. Sadly, he and mom broke up. According to Mrs. Gills, they would attend a lecture in the morning, see a star show at the planetarium, and then visit a few of the science exhibits after lunch. Most of the day would be spent at the museum, but she promised everyone that there would still be homework given out and probably enough time for their daily arithmetic lesson when they returned. The bus was waiting across the street from the schoolyard and the fifth graders were already lined up at the gate and Mrs. Gills was taking attendance. Mickey hurried into the boys’ line. He put down his school bag and adjusted his jacket. The zipper was broken, but Mom had put safety pins in place so he could close it properly. Soon, more kids arrived and Mickey wasn’t the last in line. He was in the middle, amid the jostling and the joking and the elbow-poking, which Mrs. Gills kept trying to stop, using her clipboard to slap the tops of a few heads as she patrolled the line. Some of the pushing knocked a few boys out of line and soon that became part of the game. Like everyone else, Mickey joined in, pushing, getting pushed. Suddenly, he lost his footing and tripped sideways and stumbled into some passing sixth graders, and he and a sixth grader fell down together. Mickey got up, laughing. The other boy, John Perry, wasn’t even smiling. “You better watch yourself, Junk Store,” Perry said, spittle spilling from his thick mouth, his wide set eyes glowing. He straightened his leatherette jacket and checked his black boots for scuff marks. “I’m sorry,” Mickey said. “Whatcha laughing for?” “Sorry.” Mickey bowed his head and returned to his place in line. The boys didn’t part for him. They pushed him away and he had to walk to the end. Perry followed. His two younger brothers, who were in the third and second grades, went with him. His sister and his cousins huddled nearby. “I’m sorry,” Mickey said, uncomfortable being under the eye of the Perry clan. The family owned a candy store at the corner of Water and Huntington and the brothers sometimes made kids go in and buy something. John Perry called it the, “Water Street Tax.” “You’ll be real sorry later. You wait ‘til after school.” “I didn’t bump you on purpose, John. Honest.” “You ain’t getting away with knocking me down, Junk Store.” “Mr. Perry!” Mr. Holbert stormed over. “You! Get inside. You wanna be suspended again? You want me calling your Pa?” John Perry threw a sideways sneer at Mickey as he turned and walked into the school building, with Mr. Holbert walking directly behind him. The two lines of fifth graders advanced just then. Mickey picked up his school bag and followed the boy ahead of him to the bus. Since he was last in line, he had to take a seat up front, next to one of the chaperone moms, on the inside, at the window, where he couldn’t have any fun during the ride downtown. He didn’t enjoy the outing, either. First, there was a presentation in the vast auditorium. His busload of fifth graders, along with fifth and sixth graders from other schools around the city, converged on the museum’s parking lot, thronged the entrance, and filled the seats in the lecture hall. The subject was telescopes. How they’re built. How the first one was invented. All illustrated by drawings shown on a screen from an overhead projector. The speaker was an astronomer from an observatory in Arizona. Normally, Mickey would have been enraptured, but he kept thinking about John Perry and what was going to happen. When he returned to school, there’d be no escape. When the field trip was over and they returned to school, and after 20 minutes of the arithmetic Mrs. Gills had promised them, the main thing on Mickey’s mind was the route he’d take to get home safely. He couldn’t avoid passing Water Street, but he had an idea how to bypass where John Perry and his clan would be waiting. His schoolbag slung over his shoulder, Mickey raced down the steps and out into the schoolyard, turned left and ran around to the back of the school instead of using the front gate. He hurried to the far side where the kids who lived east of the school normally left the school yard. He mixed with them, hiding from Perry who would be watching the west side of the building. Then, by checking at each corner, Mickey headed westward, to Kensington Avenue, going a little south, though it was out of the way, and reached Front Street near where the kids who went to Dauphin Elementary usually passed. There were a lot of adults out shopping, or returning home on the elevated train, or waiting for trolleys, so it was safe to be in this neighborhood. Another block north and Mickey was closer to home. Perry would never guess he had come this way. Or, maybe Perry had forgotten about the incident. Brightened by that thought, Mickey skipped the rest of the way home. The next day, during recess, a small sixth grader came up to Mickey while he played dodge ball. He brought a message from John Perry. “He says he ain’t forgetting you and you better look out, Junk Store,” the small boy said. Freckled, like Perry and his brothers, with the same silky blonde hair, he was obviously one of the cousins.
The boy had an odd timbre to his voice and Mickey guessed he was one of those “Hillbilly Perrys” Uncle Tony had told him about. According to his uncle, these Perry relatives had taken over the corner bar where the neighborhood men liked to go. Uncle Tony complained that the Hillbilly Perrys started too many arguments with the regulars, monopolized the pool table, and crowded everybody else out.
“Get outa here, ya Johnny Reb,” one of the dodge ball players yelled at the messenger boy. Someone else threw a rubber ball at the kid, but he ducked and the ball bounced away.
“My cousin’ll get you for that, Junk Store,” the boy said as he ran off. The other kids laughed, but Mickey was too scared. John Perry was the toughest kid in school and had never lost a fight.
That afternoon, a Friday, Mickey took his round-about route home again. If he stayed in for the weekend, avoided Perry for the next two days, chances were that Perry would set his sights on some other victim by Monday. Just to be sure he didn’t run into him by accident, Mickey ran the last three blocks home. He arrived at the store panting and bent over with a pain in his side.
“What’re you running for?” Uncle Tony asked.
“Who’s after ya?”
Mickey straightened. “John Perry. Him and his hillbilly cousins.” He forced a smile.
“And he’s got you running?”
Mickey nodded. He walked to the back of the store and sat near his uncle’s table. The cigar box was open. Uncle Tony was counting out singles and five-dollar bills, and then banding them with rubber bands. He usually took all the cash to the bank on Friday night, dropping it in the night deposit box.
“We make enough this week?” Mickey asked.
Uncle Tony shot him a hard look. “That’s for me to worry about. Your mom tell you to ask me that?”
“No. I’m just wondering.”
“We make enough to keep the store going,” Uncle Tony said in a more congenial tone. “What if we didn’t? Your mom thinks we oughta turn this into a living room. What good’s that gonna do? We still have the kitchen upstairs. We can’t afford to put a kitchen down here.” Uncle Tony continued his complaints, but in a voice that was too low for Mickey to hear and understand.
Earl came for dinner. Since it was a Friday night, he’d be staying over. That was never any fun. Earl took over the TV and watched the Friday Night Fights. Mickey and his uncle had to miss the shows they liked. Mom didn’t care. She lamented the lost of the radio as their evening entertainment. With a radio, she often explained, you could sew or knit or do other things while you listened. With TV, you had to watch and not do anything else.
“Uncle Tony said you’re in trouble with some boy at school,” Mom said. She sat at one end of the kitchen table, while Earl sat at the other and Tony and Mickey sat side-by-side. The table was pushed against the wall because Mom thought it looked nicer for company.
“Please don’t call the school,” Mickey said, his heart dropping. He put down his fork. He stared at his plate. As usual, the Friday night fare was fish. Mom had made salmon loaf.
“Don’t fight the boy’s battles for him, Joanne,” Earl said. Mickey looked up. For the first time he actually liked something Earl said.
“He’ll get beat up and I can’t afford to take him to the hospital.” Mom dug into her slice of fish. Uncle Tony poured more ketchup over his. Earl ate slowly, back straight, one hand on his thigh and the other holding his fork. He always wore a coat and tie when he came for dinner. He dressed like that for work because he owned his own store, but Mickey would have expected him to tear off the tie and toss the suit jacket onto a chair the minute he came in the door. None of his mother’s old boyfriends were this formal.
“There’s no shame in getting beat up,” Earl said. “But there is in having your mother interfere.” He pointed his fork at Joanne. “Or running away.”
“Then you pay the hospital bill,” Mom said.
“What he needs,” Earl continued, “is some lessons in how to fight.”
Mom laughed. Uncle Tony glanced at Earl and asked, “You a boxer, too?”
Earl grinned. His wide face looked boyish for a moment. “Did some boxing in the Navy. Placed fifth in the Fleet Tournament back in ’44.” Earl forked some corn into his mouth. “Mediteranean Fleet. Gave you boys a lift more than once.” He cocked his head to one side. “Remember which troop ship you were on?”
Tony didn’t answer. Mickey had witnessed Earl trying to draw his uncle out on his wartime experiences several times, but Uncle Tony never obliged with stories of his own. No tales of boxing or baseball or other sports. No recounting of his deeds when he stormed onto Anzio. About all Mickey had ever overheard his uncle say was that he’d been the company interpreter because he spoke Italian. It helped him and his buddies find girlfriends in town.
“Let’s watch TV,” Mom said when the conversation suddenly died. “Mickey, you clear the table and take care of the dishes and we’ll see about you getting a little extra in your allowance.” She stood, along with Earl, and the two walked into the living room. Uncle Tony pushed himself away from the table and went downstairs to the store. He usually liked to be alone when Earl came to visit. Sometimes he stayed downstairs until well past midnight.
The next morning, after breakfast, Mickey hurried to Mrs. Delmarco’s and got her grocery list. When he returned home, richer by a quarter, Mom made a show of giving him a dollar bill for his allowance. It was the good side of having Earl stay overnight. Mickey never got his allowance, which was usual fifty cents, except when there was someone Mom wanted to impress. The extra money was for doing the dishes almost every day that week.
Mickey didn’t comment, didn’t remind her or Earl or Uncle Tony that he did the dishes every night anyway, or that he hadn’t gotten his allowance for the past three weeks. Instead, he beamed and said thank you and went to his room.
“Aren’t you going to the movies?” Mom asked.
“Afraid that boy is looking for you?”
Mickey didn’t answer. He opened the door to his room. He had comics to read, puzzles he could work on, and dozens of other things he could do if they’d just leave him alone.
“Come here,” Earl said. He was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt. He hadn’t shaved that morning, so his cheeks were covered with a light brown stubble. It gave him a mean look. “You need to learn to fight,” Earl said when Mickey came near.
“He needs to learn not to get other kids mad at him,” Mom insisted. She stood at the sink and poured coffee from the percolator, a weekend treat she always gave herself. She hated instant coffee, but she didn’t have time during the week to make anything else.
Mickey felt himself guided downstairs. They walked through the shed at the back of the house, where Mom kept the wringer-washer and had a large sink for scrubbing dirty clothes.
In the backyard, on the bricked path leading to the fence that bordered the alley, Earl made Mickey stop and face him. “Now,” Earl began, and struck a boxing pose. “Let’s see you try it.”
Mickey held his hands the same way as Earl’s. He had his left out in front, about even with his chin. His right was back a little and lower than the left. Earl adjusted his elbow, moving it close to his body. The two then stood facing one another, their hands partially open, not clenched into fists.
“Now we box.” Earl gently tapped Mickey on the cheek. “Box,” Earl said when Mickey didn’t do anything. He tapped him again. “Try to block it with your left.” The next tap was more of a slap.
Mickey grimaced from the sting. He blocked the next attempt, but Earl was taller and even though the man had bent down to be at Mickey’s height, his arms were still longer and he was quicker and Mickey couldn’t block the flurry of slaps and soon his head was reeling as the man’s hand connected with his cheek again and again, hard a few times, soft a few, hard again.
“Let’s try these,” Uncle Tony said. He tossed a cardboard box onto the paving. In it were several old boxing gloves, the leather torn in places, the laces frayed. They were of different sizes. Stooping at the box, Uncle Tony pulled out two pairs of small gloves. He tossed one pair to Earl.
“If you never boxed before,” Earl said, “I’m not the one to give you lessons.”
“You’re not,” Uncle Tony said. “We’re showing the kid how to fight. Right?”
Mickey stepped back, red in the face and panting. He was hot, too, even though there was a chill in the damp, autumn air. Earl’s thick sweatshirt was wet under the arms. Uncle Tony had on a heavy work shirt. His Saturday morning beard bristled in the cold.
“You two,” Mom said from the closed screen door. “You better not get into anything.” She blew a stream of smoke from her mouth and held her cigarette out in front of her face, her elbow in the palm of her hand.
Earl grinned and struck his boxing pose. Uncle Tony looked back at Mickey and said, “Ain’t no rules in street fighting.” He lashed out at Earl with his right fist and connected at an ear. Earl staggered backwards. Tony took up his stance and easily warded off Earl’s counter-punches.
“He’s not learning nothing if you don’t explain things,” Mom said. She smiled, but her eyes betrayed her worry. Earl lunged at Tony. Padded fists flailed in the air. Tony staggered backwards, but Earl lost his footing when he followed up his singular success and Tony lashed out and struck him on the nose. Blood burst from Earl’s face. Tony didn’t stop. He maneuvered Earl to the fence and kept him there and kept hitting him until Mom lunged at his back and dragged him off.
“Hold him, Joanne!” Earl pushed himself away from the fence. “Hold him!”
“Stop it, Earl.” Mom let Tony go and the two men stood facing one another with their hands at their sides.
“Been a long time since ’44,” Tony said.
“You’re a bastard,” Mom said to Tony. “Come on, Earl, I’ll fix ya up.”
“Don’t bother.” Earl pulled off his gloves and flung them at Tony. “I’m going home.”
Mickey pressed himself into the corner where the shed’s wooden wall met the brick of the house. He watched Uncle Tony put the gloves back in the cardboard box. He looked into the store, past everything and out through the large front window. Earl and Mom stood on the pavement, close to Earl’s car parked at the curb.
“What the hell’s wrong with you, Tony?” Mom shouted when she came back into the store. “You have to fight with him?”
“He was smacking Mickey around.”
“Mickey needs a good smack. Where is he? I’ll smack him myself. You gonna come after me with the boxing gloves?”
“Go to hell,” Tony said. He raided the cigar box for a few dollar bills and walked out of the store.
“Go drink. You’re good at that. Go drink and forget what an asshole you are,” Mom shouted. Mickey heard her go upstairs. Realizing it wasn’t safe to follow, he snuck back into the store. He intended to go down into the cellar, where he could listen to the radio. If he didn’t play it too loudly, Mom wouldn’t know where he was. Unfortunately, someone came into the store just then. It was a man. Maybe he was just browsing, but there was no one to wait on him, so Mickey decided he’d do it, help his uncle, much like his uncle had helped him.
“Hi,” Mickey said. “Looking for anything in particular?” he asked, imitating what Uncle Tony said to his customers.