Grand Union: Stories

They were within spitting distance of their classroom; it did not seem a viable prospect. But in the turn of the stairwell, Cassie pressed herself against a wall and pulled her pinafore to one side. Donovan stared dumbly at a breast no different than his own except that the nipple was slightly larger and the skin a deep and lovely brown. He put his palm flat against its flatness. They stood there like that until a footstep was heard on the stair. “If I was a hooker,” whispered Cassie, pulling the fabric back over and looking serious, “that would be ten bucks easy.” After which they walked to the exit and parted without another word.

Matters developed. One morning before school, Donovan lunged at her and was rewarded with a long, chaste, beautiful kiss: two closed mouths pressed against each other while Cassie jerked her head violently back and forth, as perhaps she had seen people do in the movies. At an arbitrary moment, she pulled away and primly flattened her pinafore against her chest.

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten,” she said. “I’m coming to that show.”

That same afternoon, in a restroom cubicle, he asked to see her “ding-a-ling” and she obliged—a confusion of black folds that parted to reveal a shockingly pink interior. He was permitted to put one finger in and then take it out again. After which it was hard to see how he could refuse her.

* * *​

Black folds, green velvet. Donovan peering through. He could see Cassie sitting with the adults on the chairs, her feet up by her bottom, hugging herself. “Please remember,” said Polly backstage, drawing the heads of her crouching husband and son toward her own, “I don’t want to see Goldilocks or the bowls until I’ve dismantled the woodshed. You were much too quick with that, last week, both of you—but you, Irving, in particular.” Irving thrust his hand violently into Papa Bear: “Don’t tell me what to do. I know what I’m doing.” Donovan rang the little bell, and the churchwarden dimmed the “house lights” and Goldilocks’s hair got caught on a nail, and all this had happened before, many times. In a sort of dream, Donovan got off his knees and walked round the front to invite all the little believers to join him in the Land of Nod. He was sure enough that he said his lines (carefully written by Polly, free of the dangerous letters) and sang his song; he could hear the children yelling, and knew the brown smudge of the wolf must be behind him, appearing and disappearing, in rhythm with their cries. But all he could see was Cassie’s upper lip pulled tight into her mouth, and the deep crease of her brow. Somehow, he got through the half hour. The house lights went up. Polly was by his side once more, all in black, a tiny piece of punctuation, and she was saying My Husband Irving and My Son Donovan and they were all three holding hands and bowing.

* * *​

“Cassie, you came!”

Polly reached both hands out to the girl. Cassie kept her own in the back pockets of her jeans.

“I’ll tell you what: would you like to come backstage? There’s a box of tricks back there.”

She led the girl behind the velvet to where Irving sat on the floor, smoking a cigarette, placing props and puppets into open shoeboxes. He held up the wolf and put it over Cassie’s hand.

“You try—move it.”

Cassie moved it slightly to the right. Its Grandmother’s cap came unglued and fell away. She handed it back to Irving.

“This goddamned—”

Polly rescued the wolf from her husband before it could be flung, and placed it back with its cap softly in a box marked BAD GUYS #2.

“Why all the puppets so raggedy?” Cassie asked.

“Well . . . if they look homemade, I suppose that’s because we make them ourselves.”

“Thought you meant puppets like puppets,” said Cassie, turning to Donovan. “Like Howdy Doody or somebody.”

Polly stepped in: “Well, that’s really not a hand puppet. That’s a marionette. Which is fine—if you like that sort of thing. But it’s really not puppetry.”

“Puppets got arms and legs and bodies,” Cassie persisted, pointing to Goldilocks at rest. “That’s just a cut-out cardboard face. It ain’t even got more than one side.”

Polly put an arm around Cassie and led her back out into the hall. “I hope we see you again,” she said, speaking over Cassie’s head to the fleeing families. “We do a charity show in the Bronx, and in Harlem, once a month, paid for by your generous contributions. Do please leave what you can in the bottle by the door. We’ve been doing this show in this spot for almost six years! But not everyone’s as fortunate as our children of Greenwich Village.” She put a hand on top of Cassie’s head. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for the children up there.”

“I live on Tenth and Fourteenth,” protested Cassie, but Polly had moved on, and was now accosting her small audience as they tried to take their leave. And how did you come to hear of the Polly Kendal Puppet Theater? A friend? An advertisement? The unlucky few looked up rather desperately; more fortunate, dexterous women had already managed to wedge their children back into their coats and were halfway down Hudson by now. So which was it: “Word-of-mouth” or “Publicity”? It took a moment to understand that the latter category referred to those little four-by-six cards, poorly illustrated and printed, that were to be seen in practically every café, dive bar, jazz den and restaurant beneath Union Square.

“On the first of the month, we go to the November cycle: The Musicians of Bremen, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Cinderella. Tell your friends!” Across the hall, Donovan lingered, half-hidden by the stage curtain, trying to choose between a number of things to say. He was still preparing the sentence, checking it for what he thought of as “snakes” and “goblins,” when Cassie Kent simply ran past him, into the church, down the aisle—and was gone.

The Kendals were alone. Shoeboxes were numbered, closed and placed in a suitcase in their correct order. The three-sided “stage” was flattened, and care taken to fold the green velvet into a clean square. Irving switched off all the lights and collected a handful of dollars from the jar. Polly sat lightly on the closed suitcase and pressed its brass clips down.

“What happened to your little friend?”

Donovan pulled the nightcap off his own head and held it in both hands.

“But Donny . . . why would you even want to spend your time with a girl like that? Oh, I’m sure she’s nice enough—I don’t want to put you off her if you really like her, but she seemed to me to be so clearly—well, she has so little, oh, I don’t know: fancy. Imagination. Whimsy. Trust me: you don’t want that. Irving has no imagination whatsoever and look how hard that makes just about everything. A sense of imagination is so much more important to me than what color someone happens to be or how much money they have or anything like that—if that’s what you think you’re standing there frowning about. The only thing I care about is what’s going on in here,” she said, and thumped her narrow chest, but Donovan only looked at his shoes.

“Listen to me. Why do you think she doesn’t like you? Because you have a little trouble sometimes when you speak? Because you’re skinny? Don’t you see that if she had even a scrap of vision she’d see what a first-class kid you are? But she’s got no vision to speak of. I bet she’s going home right now to turn on that idiot box and just vegetate.” Now his mother performed a funny mime—eyes crossed, tongue tucked in front of lower teeth—and Donovan found it impossible not to smile.

“All she does is watch TV,” he confided, and let the cap drop to the stone floor where he worried it with his foot a little. “All weekend. She told me one time. Her mom doesn’t care what she does, she really doesn’t care one bit,” he added, employing a little imagination, “and they never read or anything. The whole family thinks reading’s a big waste of time. She’s never heard of Thor or the Sirens or anybody!”

“Well, there you are.”

Polly bent down, picked up Wee Willie Winkie’s nightcap and, with great tenderness, brushed the dust off it and placed it back on her son’s head.

“People find their natural level, Donny. You’ll see when you’re older. It all works out.”