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.
“Better, much better.”
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.”
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.”
“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.