Here, There and Everywhere

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A Good Book – Part 2

Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.

A GOOD BOOK – PART 2 (Conclusion)

As they drove home Ruthie went on and on about Alice’s novel, almost repeating her every word. Sy paid particularly close attention to his driving until Ruthie stopped her monologue long enough to ask, “What did you think? Did you like it?”

Sy cleared his throat and carefully replied, “She sure has a way with words.”

“But did you like it?” Ruthie reiterated. “Did her words touch you?”

“Oh, it touched me alright,” he said to himself, recalling an argument that he and Alice had once had that sounded remarkably close to her characters. “It was good,” he replied. “A little unrealistic, but good.”

“Unrealistic?” Ruthie questioned, sounding more surprised than she’d intended. “How so?”

“I don’t know,” he mumbled, wishing he’d left well enough alone. “Do you think men are that uncaring and unconscious?”

“Yes, most.” She rubbed his shoulder gently. “But not all.”

They gazed into the fog that had descended on the blacktop.

“Have I ever treated you like that?” He asked, almost imperceptibly.

“Like the guys in her story?”

Sy nodded, ever so slightly.

Ruthie looked out the side window at the fence posts appearing and disappearing in the thick soup along the edge of the highway. She didn’t reply until they rolled into their driveway and Sy turned off the key.

“Actually,” she said softly. “Yes. You have.”

Sy felt a chill up his spine as he got out and opened the door for Ruthie. “Not me,” he told himself. “That was the old Sy.”

They walked to the house. He held open the screen as she unlocked the front door and entered. Sy took their coats and hung them on the antique maple coat rack while Ruthie turned up the thermostat. “I’ll make us some tea,” she said and went into the kitchen.

Sy followed, sat down at the kitchen table he’d hand made from pine wood not long after they’d married and watched her move in her familiar surroundings. How many times had he’d seen her at that old gas stove, cooking something up for him or the kids; a thousand, ten thousand?

As she placed their large mugs of decaffeinated Earl Gray on the table, sat down and leaned back on the fading daisy print wallpaper, he asked, “When?”

“When what?” she smiled.

“When have I acted like the men in that woman’s book?”

“Only about every day for the last thirty-four years,” she said.

“Are you serious?” he gasped.

“No,” she said. You’re not as blatant or consistent, but you have your moments.”

She sipped her tea and watched him through the steam.

“For example?” he queried.

Ruthie looked at his lined face and sunken blue eyes, trying to surmise how much and how willing he was to hear. Disregarding her past experiences and the hundreds of times she’d brought the issue to his attention, she decided to grab her red cape of hope and enter the bullring.

“Remember last Friday, after I’d been tutoring English to that cranky old German woman half the day and then worked at the church office all afternoon?”

“Yes.”

“Remember that night?”

“What about it?” he asked, trying to gauge the forthcoming charge.

“Remember when we went to bed and I almost fell asleep before my head hit the pillow?”

“So?” He didn’t see any connection.

“Remember how you snuggled up behind me and were all hot and horny and I said, ‘Not tonight, just hold me?’”

Sy put down his cup, which made a louder thud on the table than he’d expected. “Yes and I totally understood and said so, remember?” His mouth was taut and his breath shallow.

Ruthie smiled. “Yes, you said as much, but I could feel otherwise.”

“How could you feel anything?!” he declared; his shoulders erect. “I went to the living room and read.”

Ruthie went to the stove and returned with more hot water. She filled his cup, then her own and sat back down. “It didn’t feel like you understood the next morning when you barely touched me and only replied in monosyllables. It felt like you had closed down shop and checked out.”

“What’s wrong with wanting a little love from the person who says she always loves me?” Sy declared, his face curling like sour milk.

“But I DO love you.” Ruthie leaned forward and placed her hand on Sy’s callused knuckles. “Why do I have to prove it with sex?”

“You don’t have to prove anything!” Sy exclaimed, sliding his hand away and tightly grasping his cup. “I know you love me, but what’s wrong with wanting to share a little sugar to show it?”

Ruthie sat back and stared at her now empty palm. “Nothing, if it’s at a time when I have the energy and my body is willing and able.”

“Well,” he snarled. “There you go.”

“Did you hear me?” She looked intently at the spot on his forehead where his wrinkles assembled to worry.

“Loud and clear.” Sy went to the sink without looking back. He rinsed out his cup, put it in the dishwasher and turned around. “I’ve heard it a thousand times. You love me, but you don’t want to make love with me.”

“Stop it!” Ruthie stood abruptly. “Just stop it!” She took two rapid steps, faced Sy eye to eye and said, “Are you implying that we never have sex, that I never kiss you, give you pleasure or want you inside of me!?”

Sy tried to move, but Ruthie put her arms on either side of his and pressed herself firmly against his pelvis. “No, you aren’t saying that, because you know that would be a lie.”

“But . . .”

“But, it’s never enough, is it?”

Sy hesitated. “Well . . .”

Ruthie shook her head side to side, her cape of hope torn to shreds. Her eyes watered. She tried to turn away from her predictable hard-headed husband, but Sy firmly and gently, grabbed her wrist and stopped her.

“Don’t you see,” Ruthie cried, “how that makes me feel? No matter what I do, it’s not enough. I am never enough.” She let herself be pulled closer. “Why can’t you just love me as I am?”

Sy took her arms and put them over his shoulders then encircled her waist with his own. “I do,” he said.

“It doesn’t feel like that when I don’t perform on demand or the way you want.”

“I’m sorry,” Sy said softly. He wiped the tears from under her eyes.

“I love you more than anyone I’ve ever known,” Ruthie cried, “but feeling forced to have sex, to not alienate you, isn’t love, it’s fear, just like Hooks says. That kind of love feels coerced, manipulated; manufactured to fit some imaginary image of how you think I’m supposed to be.”

Sy felt a lump rising in his throat, as his hold on Ruthie tightened. Her words seeped through his weathered walls. Something cracked open.

“Why now?” he wondered. “After all these years. Was it something Ruthie said or how she said it? Was it Alice Hawkins or Hooks, whatever she went by these days?” Whatever it was, his comfortable delusion of being different from other men was crumbling under the weight of a searing reality.

Ruthie felt the shift. She could feel his skin of fear peeling away. She could see him turning, painfully turning away from conditioning, expectation and judgment. She had never felt so completely and openly accepted by this man. His love was palpable. He saw her. He really saw her.

“I’ve always loved you,” she whispered.

“I know,” he cried. “I’ve kept you away for so long.”

She wiped his face and her own, then looked at her wet hands. “We should boil these tears instead of water for tea,” she grinned.

Sy felt like an anvil had been lifted from his chest. He could breathe freely. He sighed deeply. Each breath released another encrusted layer of tension, doubt and the fear of rejection.

***

When they went to bed that night they looked like they were teenagers who had just fallen in love for the first time. Their eyes were full of anticipation and unlike most teens, knew who they were and where they had been. Their lovemaking was slow, passionate, peaceful and fulfilling. Their history held them and freed them.

After turning out the light, Sy snuggled up to Ruthie’s behind and put his arm around her soft belly.

“You know that Ms. Hooks?”

“Yeah,” Ruthie said, on the verge of dozing off.

“I knew her back in college.”

“Really,” she sleepily replied.

“I mean I really knew her, like intimately.”

Ruthie raised Sy’s arm off her belly and turned to face him.

“Really.”

“Really,” he said, his hot breath caressing her cheek.

“Tell me,” she said, her eyes wide open in the dark. “Tell me all about it.”

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The English Lesson – Part 3

Conclusion of The English Lesson. An excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.

After several moments of silence, Mrs. Frankel closed her eyes and whispered, “That man save my life.” Her eyelids parted slightly. “After war, our town in ruin from bombs. Many months go here and there. Much poor, much, how say, puberty?”

“Poverty,” Ruthie nodded, choking down her urge to laugh.

“We have little to eat. Most people in country same. Our haus destroyed. No verk. Father dead.” A smile caressed her lips. “Then comes Claude. He intrepoter, inturp . . . you know, talk for. He verk with Americans because he speak Deutsche, English and French,” she blushed. “I just young girl. He came in night, after verk and ask my muter if he can take out me. She say, ‘Ask her, not me.’ Of course, I say yes. He is so nice and looking good.” She smiled so broadly that Ruthie could see her scrubbed white dentures.

“He bring our family extra bread and ration coupons. I not help but fall in love with man. He very gentle and true.” She stopped and caught her breath. “One day he tell me his story. Claude’s parents were arrest by Nazis, just as he home from school in afternoon. He been told what to do if something happen, so he go hiding and join sister, who already live in château in France, where brave owner save many refugee.”

Mrs. Frankel suddenly stopped, got up stiffly and moved down the hall. “I show something,” she mumbled, then disappeared into the back bedroom. Ruthie could hear her opening drawers and struggling to close them.

After several minutes she returned with a small, torn envelope and drew out its crumbling contents. She handed the paper to Ruthie who looked blankly at the German correspondence. “I found letter going through his thinks. It is to man who survive death camp and write Claude to tell him how his parents horrible finish. He know and see Claude’s parents go into gas death. Claude’s letter back to this man is scream of anger and how you say, griefing?” The handwriting was neat and precise up to the final shaky sentence. Mrs. Frankel read it to Ruthie. “His last words say, ‘I have to stop writing . . .’”

A shadow fell upon the room, as a limb outside the window blew in the gathering wind. Ruthie folded the letter with tenderness and handed it back to Mrs. Frankel.

“He end up verking as journal speaker for Radio Free Europe, then as soldier for underground,” she said proudly. “He speak languages good.” Ruthie’s smiled. “Not like me.”

Mrs. Frankel’s smile subsided as her story continued. “It hard to think my sweet Claude as soldier boy. He live in woods and mountain caves two years until allies, how you say, ‘parasite’ vepons from sky?”

“Parachute,” Ruthie gently supplied the word, not wishing to intrude.

“Yes, parashut,” Mrs. Frankel agreed. “Then they have guns and bullets to fight. He say he lost many friend . . . many French friend. He very brave. Not only he stood his place, but run back and forth during heavy fight to bring friends bullets. He grew above self and after war was honor the la Croix de Guerre by French guvermant.”

Mrs. Frankel took a blue and white embroidered handkerchief from the pocket of her plain, neatly ironed dress and blew her nose. “‘One of happiest day in life?’ he say, when he and thousand of French people greet American soldier boys and march down Champs de Elysees.”

“What was the other?”

“Other what?”

“Happiest day of his life.”

She gazed at her husband’s picture. “When he meet me.” Her tears flowed freely. “He always say I best thing in his life.” She resorted to her hanky once again, dabbed her eyes and apologized. “I sorry. Please . . . I just old, sad woman. Not your problem.”

“It’s OK.”

Mrs. Frankel blew her nose one last time and pocketed her handkerchief. “Enough.” She picked up the pages, pointed, and demanded, “What this say!?”

***

Sy was half-asleep, lounging in the car, when Ruthie left Mrs. Frankels. The wind had picked up, blowing a multi-colored curtain of autumn leaves around her. She stopped at the front gate to wave to Mrs. Frankel, who watched through the living room window. The shades had all been opened.

She went to the car. With the English lesson resting on her lap, she looked fondly down the maple and elm-lined street.

Sy sat up slowly and turned the ignition. The old Plymouth hummed to attention.

“How goes it?” He put the transmission into drive.

“Not bad.” Ruthie’s seditious smile lit her face. “Not bad at all.”

Sy put the gear back in park. “Not bad?” he said incredulously.

Ruthie buckled her seat belt and said, more to herself then to Sy, “Not bad, once you get to know her.” She leaned over and kissed Sy, who stared at her blankly. “I’m awfully lucky to have you,” she grinned.

“What brought that on?”

“Let’s go home,” she nodded towards the street. “I’ll tell you all about it.”

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The English Lesson – Part 2

Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.

Ruthie approached to a respectful distance. She bent over, looked briefly at the sentence and said with all the pleasantness she could muster, “Where is the bathroom?”

Mrs. Frankel frowned and pointed. “Down there. What wrong with you? You not remember?”

Inwardly Ruthie smiled like a kid at the carnival, but kept the amusement from her face. “No. No,” she pointed at the page. “The sentence says, ‘Where is the bathroom?’”

Mrs. Frankel let the paper collapse in her lap and turned her back. Red blotches arose on the back of her neck. Was she actually blushing?

Mrs. Frankel squared her shoulders, slowly turned around and held the lesson aloft. “Let us continue,” she said, as if they had just sat down to supper.

“Over there,” Ruthie read, after clearing the tickle from her throat. She went to the next line. “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” Mrs. Frankel repeated, with a strong guttural k on thank.

“You are welcome,” Ruthie read.

“You are welcome.”

“Very good!” Ruthie unconsciously touched the sleeve of Mrs. Frankel’s dress.

Mrs. Frankel stiffened, but perfectly copied her instructor’s speech. “Very good,” she repeated.

Ruthie giggled. “No. That’s not in the book. I mean, you are doing very well.”

Again Mrs. Frankel blushed, then rolled her eyes and nodded aggressively at the page. “Continue. No need for good good . . . how you say . . . flatternity?”

“Flattery.” Ruthie started back towards the sofa.

“No need to sit so far,” Mrs. Frankel said, “bring chair here.” She pointed at a small, round-bottomed, upholstered chair that stood nonchalantly in the corner, then wagged her finger at the adjacent space next to her own seat.

Ruthie cautiously moved the chair next to her unpredictable student.

“Now,” Mrs. Frankel almost whispered, “please help me read next sentence.”

Ruthie almost fell off her seat at hearing the word “please”.

“Would you like to go for a ride,” Ruthie read. “I can pick you up on Sunday morning.”

“Wud you like to go for a rhide? I can pike you up on Soonday morgan.”

“Sunday morning,” Ruthie corrected gently.

“Soonday mornen.”

“Better, much better.”

“Thank you.”

Ruthie glanced at the page. “No,” she said, it doesn’t say thank . . .”

“No,” Mrs. Frankel put her hand on Ruthies. “Thank you. Thank you for helping me.”

“You’re welcome.”

Mrs. Frankel turned back to read. Ruthie struggled to regain her emotional balance, after her student’s kind words. In spite of her steadfast and prudent policy to never mix personal and volunteer time, she asked, “Would you like to go for a ride with my husband and I next week?”

Mrs. Frankel looked astounded. “No. No,” she said nervously. “I not intrude on you and husband. No. No.”

“It’s no problem. We’d love to take you with us. We were thinking of going for a drive to a little winery outside town.”

Mrs. Frankel shook her head emphatically. “No. No. Too kind.”

“Please,” Ruthie insisted. “It would be my pleasure.”

The grandfather clock yawned and announced the half-hour with a raspy clang.

Mrs. Frankel glanced at the oval-framed photo on the yellowing wallpaper. “Maybe,” she said, turning back towards Ruthie. “I think of it.”

Ruthie looked at the black and white picture; a dashing young man in a three-piece suit and French beret. “Your husband?”

“Yes.” Mrs. Frankel gazed at the photo.

“What’s his name?”

Her pupil hesitated, blinked several times, then replied mournfully, “Claude.”

“French?”

“No. Born and raised Germany like me.”

“Tell me more.”

Mrs. Frankel hesitated. “You really want know?”

“Yes, I really want to know.” Ruthie took her elderly students hand to provide some solace. Mrs. Frankel turned her palm upward, squeezed back and cried quietly.

CONTINUED TOMORROW

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The English Lesson – Part I

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.

CONTINUED TOMORROW

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