Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.
They stopped at 410 Stadler. Sy kept the gas guzzling, early eighties Plymouth idling, as Ruthie got her folder together and clamped her purse shut.
“Got everything?” Sy asked.
Ruthie had her lesson plan in hand. “Yep, all here.”
Ruthie thought about her student, Mrs. Frankel, a seventy-five-year old widow who had been forced to learn English since the recent death of her husband.
Only ten years younger than Mrs. Frankel, Ruthie had recently retired after a thirty-year career as secretary for the County Social Service department. She’d tried staying at home, but felt antsy and unproductive.
She’d wanted to help others, so she took classes on how to teach English and tutor people in their own homes. If she’d known her students could be as difficult as Mrs. Frankel, she might have stayed home and watched re-runs of Dick Van Dyke.
Ruthie considered herself to be in pretty good shape. She walked or swam daily, slept well and maintained a healthy diet. It gave her pause when she thought, “but by the grace of God” she could end up as bent and spiteful as Mrs. Frankel.
“She’s one of the rudest women I have ever met,” she told Sy. “Do you know what she said to me last week?” She didn’t wait for his answer. “She said, ‘Sit up! You’re not a teenager; this important class.’ She treated me like a little kid!”
Sy pecked his wife of thirty-four years on the cheek. “Come back for you in an hour?”
Ruthie closed the car door with a solid thud and blew Sy a kiss as he drove off in a cloud of white steam rising from the exhaust into the cold, fall-morning air. She tied her dark green scarf tightly around her neck, smoothed out her off-white, below-the-knee skirt and approached Mrs. Frankel’s aging home; a fortress of red brick and peeling, dirty paint that seemed to dare someone to approach or disturb its occupant. The porch had a metal grate topping off the brick base and an eight-foot, iron-bared gate. Using their secret code, Ruthie rang the doorbell three long blasts, then a short jolt, to seek permission to enter her student’s premises. She gave a start as Mrs. Frankel suddenly appeared and unlocked the rusting gate.
“Frau Ruth. You’re late!” Mrs. Frankel admonished; her small, upturned nose flaring as she turned towards the living room. Her short, curled, gray-haired wig bounced with each step, briefly revealing the dry skin on her bent neck.
“Good to see you,” Ruthie forced a smile and followed the neatly-attired, rickety old woman through the parlor, into a living room cluttered with antiquities. Mrs. Frankel plopped her spine-shrunken body into her polished maple chair of propriety, while Ruthie crossed the fraying, deep-red carpet to sit on her designated seat; an early twentieth century sofa with curled armrests and club feet.
Hilda, the fat, brown-stripped cat, lay on the rug, barely lifting an eyelid to acknowledge Ruthie’s presence. Hilda was nearly as old as the furniture and moved about as often.
The sitting arrangement was, to say the least, a bit awkward. It was quite a feat to explain the lesson from across the room to the hard-of-hearing learner. Inevitably, Ruthie would have to rise, cross the room and repeat her self several times, then return to her preordained position.
“You think I am a stupid, not?!” Mrs. Frankel shouted.
“What?” Ruthie replied meekly.
“You heard me! You think I stupid?!”
“Stupid, no, stubborn, yes!” replied Ruthie, surprising herself.
“Stewburn?” Mrs. Frankel said awkwardly. “Is stewburn good or bad?”
“I mean,” Ruthie shouted. “You are one hard nut to crack.”
“A cracked nut?”
Mrs. Frankel looked like a deer caught in headlights. Ruthie laughed, in spite of her best intention to the contrary. Obviously insulted, Mrs. Frankel’s pale blue eyes narrowed like two tiny laser beams on an enemy target.
Ruthie took a deep breath for reinforcement and put a lid on her natural reaction. “It’s an expression. It means you are hard to figure out,” she explained, “difficult to know.”
Mrs. Frankel looked down at her wrinkled, spotted hands, then sighed and said, “You think I like this?” She raised her head and looked directly at Ruthie. “I am proud woman. I never want to be in this crazy country. I come because I need to follow husband.” She looked at the cat and sighed. “Now, it just Hilda and me.”
“I’m sorry,” Ruthie said sincerely, not sure if her condolence would be received or accepted.
Mrs. Frankel suddenly sat up as straight as her crooked body would allow and turned to her present endeavor. Holding up the learning sheet and turning it slightly towards Ruthie, she pointed at the first line with renewed obstinacy and demanded, “Now . . . what this?!”
Ruthie started to rise and move closer, but was frowned at fiercely. She squinted in the dimly lit room and tried to decipher the line from where she sat.
“I say, What this?!” Mrs. Frankel held the page aloft, shaking it like some offending piece of evidence. “I not understand!”
Ruthie strained to see.
“Come here!” Exasperation clung to Mrs. Frankel’s command.