As if she’d only just thought of it, Katy Greb said, “You could stay with me, Rebecca. Sleep in my bed, there’s room.”
Always Katy spoke with the impulsiveness of one for whom there is no hesitation between a wish and its immediate expression.
Rebecca stammered she didn’t know.
“Sure! Momma won’t mind, Momma likes you real well.”
Momma likes you real well.
So touched, Rebecca couldn’t speak at first. Wasn’t watching where she was walking, stubbed her toe on a rock at the side of the Quarry Road.
Katy Greb was the only girl to whom Rebecca had said certain private things.
Katy was the only girl who knew how frightened Rebecca was of her father.
“Not what he’d do to me. But to Ma. Some night when he’s drunk.”
Katy grunted as if such a revelation, daring for Rebecca to make, was no surprise to her.
“My pa, he’s the same way. Except he ain’t around right now, so Ma misses him.”
The girls laughed together. You had to laugh at older people, they were so ridiculous.
Of course there was no room for Rebecca in the Grebs’ ramshackle wood-frame house. No room for a twelve-year-old girl, almost thirteen, tall for her age, awkward and brooding.
Somehow it had happened, in seventh grade, that Katy Greb was Rebecca’s closest (secret) friend. Katy was a big-boned girl with straw-hair and teeth that smelled like brackish ditch water and a face big and florid as a sunflower. Her laughter was high-pitched and contagious. Her breasts were jiggly nubs in her chest like fists bunched up inside her hand-me-down sweaters.
Katy was a year older than Rebecca, but in Rebecca’s seventh grade homeroom at the Milburn junior high. She was Rebecca’s (secret) friend because neither Rebecca’s father nor Rebecca’s mother approved of her having friends. Those others who could not be trusted.
Rebecca wished that Katy was her sister. Or she was Katy’s sister. Living then with the Grebs, and only just neighbors of the Schwarts who lived a half-mile away.
Katy was always saying how her momma believed that Rebecca was a “good influence” on her because Rebecca took her school studies seriously and didn’t “horse around” like the other kids.
Rebecca laughed as if she’d been tickled. It wasn’t true but she loved to hear that Mrs. Greb spoke of her in such a flattering way. It was like Leora Greb to say extravagant things based on not much evidence. “Horse around” was a common expression of hers, almost you could see young horses galloping and frolicking in a field.
The Grebs were the Schwarts’ closest neighbors on the Quarry Road. Leora Greb had five children of whom the two youngest appeared to be retarded. A seven-year-old boy still in diapers, not yet potty-trained. A six-year-old girl whimpering and jabbering in frustration at being unable to speak as others did. The Grebs’ house was partly covered in asphalt siding, close by the dump. Worse than where the Schwarts live, Rebecca thought. When the wind blew from the direction of the dump there was a sickish stink of garbage and smoldering tires in the Grebs’ house.
Katy’s father Bud Greb, whom Rebecca had never seen, was said to be away at Plattsburgh, at the Canadian border. Incarcerated at the men’s maximum security prison there.
In-car-cer-ated. An unexpected dignity accrued to these syllables, when Bud Greb was spoken of.
What a surprise for Rebecca, to learn that Leora Greb wasn’t any younger than Anna Schwart! Rebecca did the calculations, both women were in their early forties. And yet, how different they were: Leora’s hair was an eye-catching blond, she wore makeup that gave her a youthful, glamorous look, her eyes were alert, laughing. Even with Mr. Greb away at Plattsburgh (his sentence was seven-to-ten, for armed robbery) Leora was likely to be in a good mood most days.
Leora was a part-time chambermaid at the General Washington Hotel in Milburn, which called itself the “premiere” hotel in this part of the Chautauqua Valley. The General Washington was a large boxy building with a granite facade, white-shuttered windows, and a painted sign at the front meant to depict General Washington’s head, his tight-curled hair like a sheep’s and his big-jawed face, in some long-ago improbable year 1776. Leora was always bringing back from the General Washington cellophane packages of peanuts, pretzels, potato chips that had been opened by patrons in the tavern but not depleted.
Leora was one to utter wise sayings. A favorite was a variant of Jacob Schwart’s: “Waste not, want not.”
Another, spoken with a downturn smirk of her mouth: “You made your bed, now lie in it.”
Leora drove a 1945 Dodge sedan left in her care by the incarcerated Bud Greb and sometimes, in one of her good moods, she could be prevailed upon to drive Katy and Rebecca into town, or along the Chautauqua River to Drottstown and back.
What was puzzling about Leora Greb, that Rebecca had yet to fully comprehend, was: she seemed to like her family, crowded together in that house. Leora seemed to like her life!
Katy acknowledged they did miss their pa, sometimes. But it was a whole lot easier without him. Not so much fighting, and friends of his hanging out at the house, and the cops showing up in the middle of the damn night shining their lights through the windows scaring the shit out of everybody.
“What they do, they yell through a bullhorn. Y’ever heard one of them?”
Rebecca shook her head, no. She wasn’t planning on hearing one if she could help it.
Katy told Rebecca, with the air of one confiding a secret, that Leora had boyfriends, guys she met at the hotel. “We ain’t supposed to know but hell, we do.”
These men gave Leora things, or left things in their hotel rooms for her, Leora passed on to her daughters. Or they’d give her actual money which was, in Leora’s voice, that was lyric and teasing as a radio voice, “Always wel-come.”
It was true, Leora drank sometimes and could be a real bitch picking and nagging her kids. But mostly she was so nice.
Asking Rebecca one day, out of the blue it seemed, “There ain’t anything wrong over at your place, hon, is there?”
Five of them were playing cards at the Grebs’ kitchen table covered in sticky oilcloth. At first, just Katy and Rebecca were playing double solitaire which was a fad at school. Then Leora came home, and got the younger kids, for a game of gin rummy. Rebecca was new to the game but picked it up quickly.
Basking in Leora’s casual praise she had a natural ap’tude for cards.
Rebecca had to adjust, what to expect of a family. What to expect of a mother. At first it shocked her how the Grebs crowded together at the table, jostling one another and laughing over the silliest things. Leora could get in a mood, she wasn’t much different from Katy and Rebecca. Except she smoked, one cigarette after the other; and drank Black Horse ale straight from the bottle. (Yet her mannerisms were fussy, ladylike. Sticking out her little finger as she lifted the bottle to her mouth.) Rebecca squirmed to think what Anna Schwart would say of such a woman.
And the way Leora snorted with laughter when the cards turned against her, as if bad luck was some kind of joke.
Leora dealt first. Next, Katy. Then Conroy, Katy’s eleven-year-old brother. Then Molly who was only ten. Then Rebecca who was self-conscious at first, fumbling the cards in her excitement at being included in the game.
She was surprised by Leora’s casual question. She mumbled something vague meant to convey no.
Leora said, briskly dealing out cards, “Well, O.K. I’m real glad to hear that, Rebecca.”
It was an awkward time. Rebecca was close to crying. But Rebecca would not cry. Katy said, that whiny edge to her voice, “I told Rebecca, Momma, she could stay with us. If she didn’t, y’know, want to go home. Some night.”
There was a buzzing in Rebecca’s head. Must’ve told Katy some things she had not meant to tell. How she was afraid of her father, sometimes. How she missed her brothers and wished they’d taken her with them.
Rebecca’s exact words had been reckless, extravagant. Like somebody in a comic strip she’d said Wished they’d taken me with them to Hell if that’s where they went.
Leora said, exhaling smoke through her nostrils, “That Herschel! He was a real character, I always favored Herschel. Is a real character, I mean. He’s alive, ain’t he?”
Rebecca was stunned by the question. For a moment she could not respond.
“I mean to ask, did you people hear from him? That you know?”
Rebecca mumbled no. Not that she knew.
“‘Course if your pa heard from Herschel, he might not tell you. Might not want word to get out. Account of, y’know, Herschel’s fugitive status.”
This was a term, both alarming and thrilling, Rebecca had never heard before: fugitive status.
Leora went on in her rambling way, to speak of Herschel. Katy said of her mother if you listened to her she’d tell you plenty, a lot of it maybe not intended. It was a revelation to Rebecca, Leora seemed to know Herschel so well. Even Bud Greb had known Herschel, before being sent away to prison. And Herschel had even played gin rummy and poker, right here at this table!
Rebecca was moved, to see how her brother was known to people in ways not-known to his family. It was a strange thing, you could live close to somebody and not know as much about him as others did. It made Rebecca miss him all the more, though his way of teasing had not been nice. Leora was saying, with girlish vehemence, “What Herschel did, hon, those bastards deserved. Taking the damn law in your own hands sometimes you got to do.”
Katy agreed. So did Conroy.
Rebecca wiped at her eyes. It made her want to cry, Leora saying such things about her brother.
Like shifting a mirror, just a little. You see an edge to something, an angle of vision you had not known. Such a surprise!
At school, nobody ever said a nice thing about Herschel. Only he was a fugitive from justice, wanted by the police and he’d be sent to Attica for sure where Ne-gro prisoners from Buffalo would cut him up good, himself. Get what he deserved.
The game continued. Slap-slap-slap of sticky cards. Leora offered Rebecca a sip of her ale and Rebecca declined at first then said O.K. and choked a little swallowing the strong liquid and the others laughed, but not meanly. Then Rebecca heard herself say, as if to surprise, “My pa’s some damn old drunk, I hate him.”
Rebecca expected Katy to burst into giggles as Katy always did when a girlfriend complained in harsh comic tones of her family. It was what you did! But here in the Grebs’ kitchen something was wrong, Leora stared hard at her holding an uplifted card and Rebecca knew to her shame that she’d misspoken.
Leora shifted her Chesterfield from one hand to the other, scattering ashes. Must’ve been the Black Horse ale that had provoked Rebecca to utter such words, making her want to choke and laugh at the same time.
“Your pa,” Leora said thoughtfully, “is a man hard to fathom. People say. I would not claim to fathom Joseph Schwart.”
Joseph! Leora didn’t even know Rebecca’s father’s name.
Rebecca shrank, in shame. The harsh monosyllable Schwart was stinging to hear. To know that others might utter it, might speak of her father in a way both impersonal and familiar, was shocking to her.
Yet Rebecca heard herself say, half in defiance, “You don’t have to ”fathom‘ him, I’m the one. And Ma.“
Carefully Leora said, not looking at Rebecca now, “What about your ma, Rebecca? She keeps to herself, eh?”
Rebecca laughed, a harsh mirthless sound.
Katy said, to Leora, in a whiny triumphant voice as if the two had been arguing, and this was the crushing point, “Momma, see? I told R’becca she can stay with us. If she needs to.”
Too slowly, Leora sucked on what remained of her cigarette.
Rebecca had been smiling. All this while, smiling. The hot sour liquid she’d swallowed was a gaseous bubble in her gut, she could feel it and worried she might vomit it back up. Her cheeks were burning as if they’d been slapped.
All this while, Conroy and Molly were fiddling with their cards, oblivious of this exchange. They had not the slightest awareness that Rebecca Schwart had betrayed her parents, nor that Katy had put it to Leora, with Rebecca as a witness, that Rebecca might come live with them, and Leora was hesitant, unwilling to agree. Not the slightest awareness! Conroy was a large-boned child with sniffles and a nasty habit of wiping his nose every few minutes on the back of his hand and the mean thought came to Rebecca If he was mine, I’d strangle him and the wish to tell this to Leora was so strong, Rebecca had to grip her cards tight.
Hearts, diamonds, clubs…Trying to make sense of what she’d been dealt.
Can a king of hearts save you? Ten of clubs? Queen-and-jack pair? Wished she had seven cards in the same suit, she’d lay them down on the table with a flourish. The Grebs would be goggle-eyed!
Wanting nothing more than to keep playing rummy forever with Katy’s family. Laughing, making wisecracks, sipping ale and when Leora invited her to stay for supper Rebecca would say with true regret Thanks but I can’t, I guess, they want me back home but instead there was Rebecca tossing down her cards suddenly, some of them falling onto the floor, Rebecca pushed her chair away from the table skidding and noisy, God damn if she was going to cry! Fuck the Grebs if they expected that.
“I hate you, too! You can all go to hell!”
Before anyone could say a word, Rebecca slammed out the screen door. Running, stumbling out to the road. Inside, the Grebs must have stared after her, astonished.
There came Katy’s voice, almost too faint to be heard, “Rebecca? Hey c’mon back, what’s wrong?”
Never. She would not.
In April, this was. The week after Gus left.
My pa’s some damn old drunk, I hate him.
She could not believe she had uttered those words. For all the Grebs to hear!
Of course they would tell everyone. Even Katy who liked Rebecca would tell everyone with ears.
At school, forever afterward Rebecca ignored Katy Greb. Would not look at Katy Greb. In the morning, her strategy was to wait until Katy and the others were out of sight walking along the road, before she followed behind them; or, she took one of her secret routes through fields and pine woods and, her favorite, along the railroad embankment that was elevated by five feet. So happy! She was a young horse galloping, her legs so springy and strong, she laughed aloud out of very happiness, she could run-run-run forever arriving reluctantly at school, nerved-up, sweaty, itching for a fight, bad as Herschel wanting somebody to look at her cross-eyed or mouth Gravedigger! or some bullshit like that, Christ she was too restless to calm down to fit into a desk! Herschel had said he’d have liked to break the damn desk, squeezing his knees under and lifting, exerting his muscles, and Rebecca felt the same way, exactly.
Go to hell. Leave me alone.
Hatred for Katy Greb and for Leora Greb and all of the Grebs and many others became a strange, potent consolation, like sucking something bitter.
Hardening her heart against dopey Katy Greb. Friendly good-natured not-too-bright girl who’d been Rebecca Schwart’s closest friend from third grade on, till Katy stared at Rebecca in hurt, in bewilderment, and finally in resentment and dislike. “Fuck you too, Schwart. Fuck you.”
A group of girls, Katy at the center. Smiling in scorn speaking of Rebecca Schwart.
Well, Rebecca had wanted this, didn’t she? Wanted them to hate her and leave her alone.
All that spring, their enmity wafted after her like the stink of smoldering rubber Gravedigger’s daughter she can go fuck herself.