Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

White Lies

 

 

In my senior year of high school, I worked at the Cleaners on Western Avenue in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. Each day I left there around 4:30, hot and sticky, no matter what the outside weather, and walked south on Western with my jacket open, inhaling bus fumes. That thick smell of steam and hot plastic clung to my clothes and hair like volcanic ash.

Home was one block west of Western, between Albion and North Shore, a brick two-flat, the color of a roasted beet. We had a matching red garage that opened onto the alley across from the Ford dealer. The dealership was new to the community in 1970, having replaced an open gravel yard, our former baseball field. Ford brought black men into our neighborhood.

There had been black cleaning women in the community for as long as I can remember, but they were quiet, older women, who carried home shopping bags of leftover food and second-hand clothes. My mother didn’t have a maid; she had me.

Before Ford, the only black men in our area worked in the back of shops on Devon Avenue, out of sight of the customers. I knew this because my uncle owned the kosher butcher shop and he hid his man, Robert, in the back cutting room. Robert delivered wrapped packages but the women couldn’t know that he’d chopped their chickens and briskets with his own brown hands.

These new men on Western Avenue couldn’t be hidden. They were young and boisterous, hanging around outside, drinking pop and smoking cigarettes, singing and shouting while they hosed down cars. Each time I passed them on my way home from work, they whistled at me or called out, “Hey, honey pie.” I ignored them and kept walking. It became intolerable in late spring, after I’d shed my winter coat. The sun drew them out, like hardy, young sprouts.

I never saw the men’s faces up close until that day I turned my back to drop letters into the mailbox on the corner. I heard laughter and feared it might be the view of my backside. When I turned around, I stepped on somebody’s foot. He was right there, so close that I felt his breath on my face, although he stepped back as soon as I released him from beneath my loafer. I stared at his grease and paint splattered safety shoes.

“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

His voice was smooth and light, with no trace of sarcasm, and little of the urbanized Southern drawl I would have expected if I had expected anything at all. To ignore him at that point seemed pointless.

With a laugh, he said, “You don’t have to be afraid to look at me. I ain’t so ugly.”

My cheeks flamed. I lifted my eyes to his smeared black pants, then his blue work shirt, rolled up at the sleeves. It said Jimmy in red letters above the left chest pocket. I progressed to his neck, swallowed, and met his eyes. A smile of childlike delight broke over his face, a face unlike my expectation. It was the color of an almond. Like me, he had a spray of freckles across his nose and cheeks, and his eyes, a soft cinnamon brown, were lighter than my own black brown.

“There now, that ain’t so bad, is it?’

No, it wasn’t.

“My name’s Jimmy, Jimmy Mack they call me, James Calhoun McMutary III. I’d shake your hand, but you can see mine’s dirty.” He held out his hands for my inspection. “Mechanic’s hands.”

“You’re a mechanic?”

“So, you can talk, girl.” He burst out with a laugh that shook his shoulders and arms, all the way down to his long, calloused fingers. “Thought you had me fooled, did you?”

He was right; he was far from ugly, and his soft-spoken voice, the way dimples blossomed when he smiled, even the easy, confident way he stood beside me, defying me to fear him, felt like an invitation.

“Now, what’s your name?”

What harm was there in telling only my first name?

“Eliana.” His brows lifted. “It’s Hebrew.”

“That right? What’s it mean in English?”

His curiosity surprised me. Ford guys called out to him. They were heading inside. He cast them a glance over his shoulder and turned back to me, waiting.

“It means God has answered.”

“My, that’s nice. So you’re one of the chosen people, are you?”

“Yeah, I guess.” I knew he couldn’t understand about that, so I clarified. “Chosen doesn’t mean better than others. It only meant that we were chosen to receive the Torah, the Law of Moses. Moses was an ancient leader.”

“Who led you all out of Egypt.”

“Yes, that’s right.” Of course he’d know that.

He smiled, showing his dimples. “I’ve got to go on back, but it was sure nice meeting you, Eliana.” He put the accent on the correct syllable, the AH. Cocking his head, he pointed back over his shoulder with his thumb. “You see, those guys said, ‘She won’t talk to nobody. Walks by every day with her eyes straight ahead.’ They dared me, but I don’t care ’bout the dare. I done it to show ’em that howling is no way to meet a lady.” He laughed, one more body-shaking chuckle. “Just got to treat you right, that’s all. Don’t blame you.”As I walked away, I stole a glimpse back at him. Slim hips and arms swaying, he looked like a man pleased with life. He turned his head and saw me watching. I was embarrassed, but when he lifted his hand to wave, I waved back.

At home I set the oven to preheat, washed chicken, peeled potatoes and carrots, placed them in the roaster and sprinkled chopped onions, kosher salt, paprika, and dots of margarine. James Calhoun McMutary III—the third part surprised me. I’d been told that they didn’t know their fathers. Everything about him surprised me. Maybe that’s why he lingered in my thoughts. I was slicing cucumbers when Manny Lowenstein barged through the back door, tracking footprints across the kitchen floor.

The Lowensteins lived two doors down in a brown brick bungalow. Manny had started working for my parents three years before, a kind of apprenticeship, to learn the carpenter’s trade. My father was the carpenter; my mother kept the books, appointments, billings and such. Although Manny was what everybody called not college material, my parents liked him well enough since he’d taken to the trade. They didn’t know the things about him that I knew.

“Wipe your feet,” I said.

“Is that the welcome home I get after a hard day’s work?”

“You don’t live here.”

Manny’s pink cheeks in his full face would have made him look boyish if not for the heavy stubble and churlish grin. Like my father, he’d developed his arms, chest, and shoulders from heavy labor, but his stomach already bulged over his belt. Unlike my father, he consumed a lot of beer. There were nights when he had too much and sat out on the Lowenstein’s porch yelling up to the stars about the unfairness of life and swearing at anybody who told him to pipe down. My parents said that was none of our business since he never drank on the job.

Manny ate dinner with us, three, four nights a week. Why he wouldn’t go home, I didn’t know. Mrs. Lowenstein was a good cook, the best sweet and sour meatballs.

He opened the oven door. “Chicken again?”

“Don’t like it, you don’t have to stay.”

“I’ll stay. Could you get me a beer?”

My father kept the beer in the basement refrigerator. He didn’t like having it where the family ate, thought it improper I guess. He never drank himself, but when my uncles came over, they liked a beer with their poker, sometimes a cigar, which my father detested more than beer.

“Get it yourself.”

“Oh, oh, the little woman doesn’t want to please her man.” He smirked. I flashed him a look of annoyance. It gave him pleasure to irritate me. “Be nice, Eliana, or I’ll take my affections elsewhere.” He had no affections that I knew of for anybody.

My parents arrived next, my father smelling of Lava soap, my mother of mimeograph ink. They expected their dinner ready, and for me to serve it.  

Manny mumbled, his mouth full. “Chicken sure would taste good with a nice cold beer. You think you got any left in the basement, Mr. Aaronoff?”

“You drink too much,” my father said, pushing his glasses up on his nose.

“One won’t hurt him,” my mother said. “Only one, Manny.”

“Only one,” Manny echoed.

“Eliana, get Manny a beer,” my mother said.

“He knows where it is.”

“He’s worked hard all day and he’s our guest. Don’t make him run the stairs.”

Manny grinned. “Pretty please, Eliana.”

My father scowled. “You’re not a princess, young lady. Your mother asked you to do something.”

Downstairs, I shook the can hard before returning to the table and offering it to Manny. He waited for the moment both of my parents looked away and puckered his lips into a kiss. When he punctured the top, white foam spurted into his face, saturated his tee shirt, and dripped onto the floor.

“Fucking thing!”

“Manny!” my father shouted. “Watch your language.”

I had to mop the floor after that.

The next day was Friday so I didn’t work after school. Relatives were expected for Shabbat dinner. While a brisket braised, I simmered chicken soup and set the dining room table. I wondered if Jimmy noticed that I didn’t walk by the dealership. I wondered what he did on Friday nights, where he lived, and how he dressed when he wasn’t wearing his Jimmy work shirt.

Manny and his mother joined us for Shabbat. Mrs. Lowenstein brought a noodle kugel. Manny’s hair, damp from a shower, stuck straight up on top. He’d changed into slacks and a short sleeve collar shirt. He looked normal with his mouth shut.

The sun hadn’t set and low beams of light floated in across the chandelier, casting little rainbows in our wineglasses. Uncle Milton said the blessings for the wine and challah. I served the soup, cautious for spills on the dining room carpet, one of my mother’s peeves.

Uncle Harry cleared his throat. “You hear Jack Greenberg is selling the rest of his buildings on the west side?”

“It’s about time,” Aunt Sadie said, in her high-pitched, yenta voice.

My father stopped slurping to ask, “Why’s he selling?”

“Can’t collect the rents,” Uncle Harry continued. Harry was my mother’s youngest brother, the successful one, an accountant. “West Side has gotten so bad, every time he goes in the shvartzehs meet him at gunpoint. It’s giving him an ulcer.”

Aunt Stella helped me clear the soup bowls. Uncle Milton, the observant one, carved the brisket on the kitchen table.

Manny said, “It’s the niggers. They tear places apart, kill each other. Even the cops won’t go into the projects anymore.”

I peeked into the dining room.

“Don’t use that language,” my father insisted.

Manny raised his eyebrows. His hair was dry, but still sticking up. “What language?”

My father cleared his throat. “That derogatory term.”

“Niggers?” Manny stared stupidly. “It’s no different than shvartzehs.”

My father got that look, his nostrils twitching and the veins in his neck prominent blue. “Calling someone dark is a fact; calling them that other word is derogatory.”

“I don’t see the difference.”

“Manny!” Mrs. Lowenstein interrupted, “respect Mr. Aaronoff’s wishes in his house on Shabbos.”

“Sorry,” Manny muttered, but I could tell he wasn’t. He tore into his brisket like a Neanderthal. I fled back to the kitchen to rinse soup bowls.

I couldn’t imagine Jimmy’s mechanic’s hands holding a gun. That sweet smile, the freckles, the dimples, treat you like a lady, all contradicted any image of violence. Besides, why would he live in the projects? He had a job, a trade. A good mechanic made as much as a carpenter did, but would a black mechanic make less? I didn’t know. Regardless, I couldn’t connect Jimmy with guns and gangs, and I couldn’t connect a mechanic, a man who fixes, with destruction.

Aunt Stella nudged me. “Sweetheart, you haven’t eaten a thing.”

“I’ve been nibbling.” In truth I’d lost my appetite.

On Saturdays, I stayed at the cleaner until 5:00, closing time. I didn’t have to cook that night. My parents went to one of their siblings for dinner and I was left on my own. As I walked down Western Avenue, I wondered how late Jimmy worked and if he’d come out to see me. The sun was a shiny gold medallion, and I tied my sweatshirt around my waist. Anticipation quickened my pace. Silly girl, wanting a man’s attention, a grown man, and not my own kind, even though he had freckles like mine, and a name like the AM radio song.

They were hosing down the Fords. I doubted those cars needed so much cleaning, but May was new and energizing. Their greetings changed to Evening, How’re you? and simple head nods. I nodded back. I didn’t see Jimmy. If he was there, he must have been inside. Disappointed, I rounded the corner toward home. Just as well, I’d been crazy to think about talking to him again. Then from behind me, I heard, “There she goes!” and I turned to see him coming toward me.

“How you doing today, Eliana?”

“I’m fine, thank you,” I said, unable to still the butterflies tickling my insides. How did he forge such nervousness, such excitement? “How are you, Jimmy?” Saying his name aloud for the first time, I felt self conscious and a bit audacious.

“Where you coming from, work?”

He stood close to me and I had to look up into his eyes. He was about my father’s height, 6 feet, lean and wiry, with a relaxed posture that gave the impression he never hurried. Muscled forearms peeked out from his sleeves, rolled up above his elbows. A pale crescent of a scar curved above his wristwatch. The top button of his shirt was open. I tried not to look there.

“I work at a cleaner after school and Saturdays.”

“You in school?”

“I graduate in three weeks. I’ll start college in the fall. That’s why I’m working as many hours as I can now, money for school.”

I thought that maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned college, but he said, “Money for college. That’s good. College is good. My sister got her degree. She’s teaching now, third graders.”

“Really?” Teachers didn’t live in the projects, mechanics either. “That’s what I’m hoping, to teach, except high school.”

“Ah, older kids more trouble. You got to be strong to handle it. Now, a car’s easy. A car just got an engine, accelerator, brakes, body. I know how to fix her up. A kid got a head and a heart and a gut. You don’t know what he ate for supper last night, if he ate. You don’t know how much his daddy had to drink last night. You can’t know who his mama brought home last night. No, that’s tough, working with kids. You got to be tough, Eliana.”

My teachers had told me how teaching was a great career for women. My father said it was lucky to get your summers and holidays off. Uncle Harry said teachers got a decent, though modest paycheck, a pension. Only Jimmy had mentioned the challenges.

“I hope I’ll be strong enough.”

He smiled. “Nobody born strong. You got to grow into it.”

That sounded true to me, something you might read in a book.

Manny was waiting for me by the back door, legs spread and arms folded across his chest. He looked angry and I wondered if he’d been drinking. I got nervous when he came around if my parents weren’t home.

“What the hell you think you’re doing?” he said.

“What are you talking about?”

“You know damn well. I saw you talking to that nigger!”

Our back door faced the alley between our street and the Ford dealer, but our backyard, especially the maple, interrupted the view of their lot. Manny must have been standing near the alley, either by our garage, or the garbage pail.

“He asked me where the nearest Walgreen’s was.”

“Don’t you know any better than to answer a nigger! You know what he’d do to a young white girl like you? You’re damn lucky he didn’t shove you into a trunk and make off for the forest preserves. Don’t you read the papers? How could you be so stupid?”

I wanted to slap his fat cheek, but I also didn’t want him to tell my parents.

“He only wanted directions. And how could he shove me into a trunk in broad daylight on Western Avenue?”

“You were already on Albion, out of view of most of the traffic. Look, I’m only watching out for you, Eliana. If anything happened to you—”

He stopped talking, cleared his throat; something my father did whenever he felt any tinge of emotion. Had Manny really been frightened for me? Couldn’t he see that Jimmy was no gun-carrying, project-dwelling poverty case? He was smart and kind and no, Manny couldn’t understand.

“Look, just don’t do it again. Keep away from them. You want me to meet you at the corner after work?”

“No, I’m not in kindergarten.”

“Let’s go inside,” Manny said, but I wasn’t going inside alone with him. Each time he came by when my parents were gone, he’d tried to get his hands on me. Even as kids, he wanted to play doctor in the garage. When I turned thirteen, he started putting his hand on my shoulder, and when nobody was looking, sliding it down my chest. The older I got, the more persistent he became, slapping my butt, pulling me onto his lap, whispering dirty jokes. He freaked me out. I walked around to the front of the house with Manny on my heels, and sat on the porch until my friends drove up around 7:00 to go for pizza. Lucky for me, Manny at twenty-two didn’t ask to tag along with a bunch of high school kids.

When I walked past the dealership in the following weeks, there was no more yelling and name-calling, just polite hellos that evolved into teasing about “Jimmy’s little friend.” I learned some of the guys’ names and that Jimmy lived on the south side and drove a second-hand Pontiac that he’d fixed up. We never talked long as I had to get home and start dinner and he had to get back to work. Then one Saturday he told me, “Boss man’s gone,” and invited me in to visit.

I wasn’t interested in cars and motors and grease, but I was interested in Jimmy and it was Saturday and I didn’t have to rush home. The front of the dealership was all bright lights, Mustang convertibles and Galaxies with leather interiors, middle-aged, white salesmen in vests and ties, but the garage in the back was dark, with a concrete floor and cars in various states of disarray, wheels off, hoods up. Jimmy hooked a bulb under a hood and pointed, naming parts for me. I watched his face in the semi-darkness, his eyes intent, hands active.

“You know how to jump a car?” he asked. I shook my head and he gave me a lesson. He showed me how to check the oil too, and had me pour wiper fluid while he watched with a satisfied grin. “A good student makes a good teacher,” he said, and I flushed with pleasure.

Just before 6:00 he took me to clean up in another room that looked like a small laundromat. There were washers and dryers tumbling rags and two large basins where we scrubbed our hands. For the first time we were alone, out of view of traffic and his coworkers. He put his hands under the tap first, testing the temperature. “Okay,” he said, and I placed mine under the faucet, beneath his. He lathered the antiseptic smelling bar and massaged soap over my hands and arms. “Got to get you clean.” It felt like a bubble bath, lingering, lazy, his hands gently kneading my palms, fingers, forearms. “There now.” With a clean rag, he blotted us both dry. “One more thing.” He had a jar of Noxzema and massaged me a second time, the cooling cream melting into my heated flesh. “Mechanics is hard on the skin. Don’t want you gettin’ all chapped.”

He led me out through the garage that opened onto the alley, across from our back gate. Damn if Manny wasn’t standing there like a sentry, eying us. I sucked in my breath.

“Who’s that?” Jimmy asked.

“My neighbor. He works for my father, learning the trade.”

“What trade is that?”

“Carpenter.”

“Oh, like Jesus.”

“No, they’re not like him.”

Manny was gaping at us, his mouth wide enough to swallow a rabbit, and I feared he’d come over and pull me away like a child, but he stood where he was, looking stunned and furious.

“And he don’t like you talking to me, is that right?”

My first impulse was to lie, yet, when I looked into Jimmy’s eyes, I said, “No, he doesn’t like me talking to you, but he’s a fool and I despise him.”

“I don’t like how he’s looking at you. Wants to own you. Ain’t no man should own you.”

“I’d rather be alone the rest of my life than belong to someone like Manny Lowenstein.” It was the first time I’d expressed the sentiment aloud.

“You watch yourself then. Jimmy Mack got a bad feeling ’bout him.”

“Me too,” I admitted, “but my parents like him, so he’s always coming around.”

Jimmy shook his head. “No good.”

Manny was waiting for me, looking like a bulldog, puffed up and ornery. I was nervous although I had my excuse ready.

He grabbed my arm so hard it hurt. “What the fuck, Eliana?”

“Let me go. You’re hurting me.”

“I oughta give you a spanking for acting like a child. Didn’t I warn you about him? You want to get yourself raped for acting like a slut.”

I yanked myself free, rubbed my bicep where he’d squeezed. “I can’t be a child and a slut. You’ll have to choose one or the other.”

He slapped my face, as my mother would have. Holding my hand to my cheek, I walked away without offering my excuse. I didn’t plan on forgiving him.

Sunday morning my mother shook me awake. “Your father wants to talk to you.”

They sat at the kitchen table, my mother in her terry robe, my father in a tee shirt, their faces grim, as if there’d been a death. I smelled her instant coffee and his orange pekoe tea, burnt toast and overripe bananas.

My mother began. “Manny said you’ve been talking to a colored man.”

Beads of sweat dotted my chest. I took a deep breath before I offered them the excuse I’d planned on using with Manny.

“There was a sign up about a job at the Ford dealer. I went in to inquire. Thought maybe I could make more money than working at the cleaner.”

“What kind of job?” my father asked.

“An office job, answering the phone and stuff.”

“What’s that got to do with a colored man?” My mother’s face, wrinkled and pale without makeup, twisted in disgust. Her cold, black eyes scoured me, as if they could peel my skin away layer by layer until I vanished.

“The lady I talked to asked him to show me out, that’s all. Manny got all wound up over nothing.”

“Manny said you talked to him quite a while,” my mother snapped, “and on more than one occasion.”

“One of those guys asked me where Walgreen’s was, a few weeks ago. That’s probably what Manny’s talking about. It would be nice if he stopped spying on me.”

“Spying? Manny’s like a member of the family. He’s looking out for your own good. You’ve got to watch out for colored men.”

I looked down at the linoleum. Jimmy didn’t live in the ghetto or carry a gun. He wasn’t stupid or cruel. He had a good job, a kind, handsome face, and touched me the way I had imagined a man might one day touch me, with gentleness.

“They’re not all the same,” I said in a low voice.

“They who?” my father asked.

“Black people are not all the same.”

“True, but you can’t tell who’s who, so you’re better off keeping away, like your mother says. You should keep your mouth shut around men you don’t know, black or white.” That was his profound wisdom; women should keep their mouths shut. He hadn’t convinced my mother to do it yet, and he wouldn’t convince me.

“Did you get the job?” she asked.

“Not sure. She’ll call me in a week or so.”

Turned out that the Boss Man left early every Saturday. I’d sneak in and help Jimmy with little things like the wiper fluid or the tire gauge. Other times we just talked. I told him about my family, my mother’s disregard, my father’s rigidity, how I learned to cook from Aunt Stella. I told him about the girls I knew, how they only cared about their clothes and boys, and the boys cared about their grades and being successful.

“And what’d you care most about, Eliana?”

I’d never been asked before. “I want to get away from my parents. I want to learn important things, like civil rights and feminism and cleaning our planet, the things that can make the world better, peace.”

Jimmy smiled. “You’re a flower child.”

“Maybe. But I’ve never done drugs.”

His color faded and his ever steady hands jerked. For the first time I saw his face crease into sadness. “That’s good. Don’t you ever do drugs. Promise me.”

He’d never asked anything of me before.

“What’s wrong, Jimmy?”

He took me to wash up, making quick work of it this time, then pulling up two paint-spattered chairs, he gestured for me to sit down. He sat facing me, his elbows on his knees, hands folded in front of him. The room was quiet except for spinning rags, the week’s last load, and a drip, drip, scooping the soap bubbles down the drain.

“Jimmy?” I felt a wanting so strong that at first I confused it with pain.

He stared at the floor. “I had a younger brother. He used to follow me around. Called him my shadow.” He looked at me with pensive eyes and a smile that begged patience. “Around when I started learning my trade, he started smoking reefer, maybe before then. I figured reefer not so bad, but he was skipping school and hanging around, not doing anything. So I try getting him into mechanics, teaching him like I been teaching you.” This time his smile brightened, but only for an instant. “He’d have no part of it. ‘Why you gotta work, Jimmy?’ he asked. ‘I gettin’ more money sellin’ you know.’ Then I knew I had big trouble. Not only he started selling, but he moved on to other stuff too. Stuff that kills. And nothing I was saying or doing made no difference to him. When you deal and do smack, you ain’t gonna end up no place good. Sure enough, he made some bad deal, or couldn’t pay somebody, only know he got caught up in something real bad, and whoever it was didn’t take no shit. They shot him dead in the street. My daddy already dead or it’d killed him to see. Made my mama an old woman overnight.”

Tears slid down my cheeks, not so much for his poor dead brother I’d never known, but for the sadness in Jimmy, the deep, honest suffering, the part of him that had witnessed a world alien to me.

He touched my cheeks, smoothed away my tears with his scarred fingers. “There now,” he whispered. I was not the one deserving comfort. I should have been giving, not receiving, yet I was afraid to touch him the way I wanted to. I had not yet in my life reached for a man.

“I just want you to promise me you won’t do drugs. Promise me, Eliana.”

“I promise.”

He held my face in his hands. My promise did nothing to alter his pain, but it was what I could offer and I gave it without reservation.

The dealership was deserted now except for Benny, mopping up, and Henry, the assistant manager, locking up in front. Not wanting Henry to see us, Jimmy led me out through the garage. Still feeling coddled by the memory of his hands cradling my face, I forgot caution. When he placed a hand on my shoulder, no warning flashed, no misgiving arose. I felt only the pleasure of intimacy, the excitement of contact. When he suggested that maybe next Saturday we could go for a ride, I was elated.

I was glad that my parents wouldn’t be home; I wanted to be alone. Entering our yard through the back gate, I noticed the garage side door ajar and absentmindedly kicked it shut. It sprang back at me, snarling on its hinges. Then Manny grabbed my wrist. Startled, I screamed. He yanked me inside and locked the door.

“Scream! Scream when I touch you, huh? But you don’t scream when the nigger touches you, do you?” He twisted my arm, sending searing pain up through my shoulder. “You never let me touch you, but that nigger, oh, you’ll put out for the nigger!”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I yelled, failing to free myself from his grip. His cold eyes regarded me with disgust.

“The hell I don’t! Think I can’t see what’s right in front of me? You little sneak!” He shoved my back against the wall and pinned me there. Something hard and pointed pressed into my shoulder blades. Manny’s face was close to mine, puffy, purplish.

“I never did anything like you’re thinking, never.”

He slapped my face, his hand wide and quick, as impersonal as a fly swatter.

“Liar! You let him touch you. Nigger’s slut!”

He held me pressed to the wall with one hand while the other yanked the buttons off the front of my blouse. They tumbled to the ground like scattered seeds. I kicked and he laughed.

“You want to fight? That’s okay by me.”

“Stop it! You stupid fat pig!”

“Fat pig huh? You’d rather fuck a goddamn coon.”

He groaned low in his throat. He was so heavy, brute strength, with no conscience. My squirming only amused him, so I screamed as if my guts would burst through my throat. He clapped a hand over my mouth and shoved me to the floor. My leg scraped against something sharp. It ripped and burned. I clawed his cheek. He grabbed my wrists and held them together.

“I’ll tie you up if I have to,” he panted, and pulled a piece of rope from his back pocket. He held it over my face, rocking it back and forth, like a pendulum. The realization of how well he’d prepared shocked me, sickened me. I screamed. He dropped the rope to cover my mouth.

“Damn you, Eliana. You’re going to make me hurt you.”

I tried to knee him, but he caught my leg and started to pull at my waistband. He held me fastened to the concrete with his forearm across my chest, while he yanked at his zipper. The first adult penis I’d ever seen emerged, bulging red and raw. I had the fleeting thought to plead with him, but I couldn’t. I don’t know why. I could scream and kick and scratch, but I couldn’t beg. Then somebody was pounding on the garage door. Manny froze, head up, listening. His nostrils twitched, as if sniffing the air.

“Daddy!” I screamed.

“Eliana!”

Recognizing Jimmy’s voice, I yelled, “Help!”

Manny shouted, “Get the hell out of here, nigger!”

The pounding resumed, kicking too. I sobbed. Manny’s slaps turned to punches. Through my tears and blood, I saw that his organ flopped loose, shriveling like a cooked kishke. Then the garage door burst apart and splinters cascaded across Manny’s head and shoulders.

His weight was lifted from me. Manny roared curses, gulping air. Why was Benny here too? Smashing, banging, tripping over boxes, blood. I just wanted it over. They weren’t watching me now, so I pulled the shovel down from its nail and when Manny got close enough, I swung it like a baseball bat, hitting him between the shoulder blades. He dropped to his knees and fell forward. His face hit the ground, cracking like an egg, staining the concrete underneath. I threw up.

Jimmy carried me away, back to Ford. He whispered soothing words that I don’t remember, but I recall their lullaby rhythm. His hands, bruised blue, cleaned and sprayed me with disinfectant.

“Leg looks bad,” he said to Benny, rather than to me. “Got to get her to a doctor.”

“Can’t Jimmy. They’ll pin it on you. You know that, don’t you?”

“Got no choice.”

We went to the hospital, Benny driving and Jimmy holding my leg which he’d wrapped tight in bloody rags. In the emergency room, I asked for him over and over, but they didn’t let him in. A female doctor examined me inside. When my parents arrived, they asked her questions, but looked away from me, as if embarrassed.

The newspaper account read: Adolescent girl was assaulted Saturday evening in the 6600 block of North Artesian Avenue. She was taken to Bethesda Hospital where she was treated for bruises and lacerations and was released to her parents.

Police questioned two Negro men found loitering in the area, both former employees of the Ford dealership on Western Avenue. The men were released without charges. Police are now searching for a white male, twenty-two years old, husky built.

I doubted they searched far, or very long. At any rate, they never found Manny.

Mrs. Lowenstein put her house up for sale and moved out before I started college that September. When I graduated, with a degree in secondary education, I took a job at Englewood High School on Chicago’s south side, population ninety-nine percent black, high drop out rate, and armed police officers stalking the hallways.

My mother still says, “I don’t know how you can work there with those tough kids, but you were always tough yourself, Eliana, even as a little girl.”

No, I wasn’t. I grew into it.

 

 

 

Liz Trager Mendel’s short stories have appeared in literary journals such as The North American Review and have been finalists for the Kurt Vonnegut Fiction Prize and the Arthur Edelstein Prize for Short Fiction. Her story “Ivory,” excerpted from her novel-in-progress, was published in Mobius, The Journal of Social Change. A native Chicagoan and former high school teacher, she has studied fiction writing at Northwestern’s School for Continuing Studies. Currently, she is the editor for a Chicago not-for-profit organization while working on her first novel.