Grand Union: Stories

JUST RIGHT

“And your father’s in it?”

“Yes, ma’am. He helps my mother and makes the s— the—”

“The scenery? Try to breathe, Donovan, there’s really no hurry. I’m sure you’ll catch the others in the square.”

Miss Steinhardt sat on the very edge of her desk, working her nails with a bobby pin for the subway grime underneath.

“Now, Annette Burnham told me she went to see the show last weekend, with her mother and baby brother. Liked it a lot. And she said your father does the puppets, too—and you, too, isn’t that right?”

“Oh. Yes, ma’am.”

“Don’t call me ma’am, Donovan, we’re not in the South. The things you kids get from television.”

“Yes, Miss St—” began Donovan, although he had neither an idea of the South, being Greenwich Village born and raised, nor much conception of television, which he was not allowed to watch. It was from his mother—whose father had been English—that he had received the strange idea that ma’am was a romantic form of British address, suitable for ladies you especially admired.

“Anyway, that’s fine,” said Miss Steinhardt and looked over at the door until the boy had stopped wrestling with her name and closed his big, wet mouth. “Well, I’d say it’s an unusual pastime for an eight-year-old. If I were you, I’d use it. Always best to use what you have.”

“Ma’am?”

“I’m sure the class would be interested to hear about it. You could bring in one of the puppets.”

“But—”

“Yes, Donovan?”

Miss Steinhardt moved one of her Mary Janes over the other and readjusted the long tartan skirt. She looked directly into the pale but not unbeautiful face: a long nose and bright green eyes; full, almost womanly lips; and a lot of dark hair, cut into a pair of slightly ludicrous curtains on either side of his narrow face. Really a boy who might have some hope of growing up into a Robert Taylor type—fine cheekbones, for a child—if it weren’t for this absolute lack of purpose that revealed itself in every pore of his being.

“I already—g-g-got the pictures from the paper. I was planning on doing—” Donovan looked pleadingly at his teacher.

“Breathe, Donovan. It’s not an interrogation. You’re always in such a panic.”

“The museum, uptown. The one they’ve been building. They just st-started.”

“The Guggenwhatsit?”

Donovan nodded.

“Oh, well, yes, that would be fine,” said Miss Steinhardt, and wondered at the child, for she knew both G and S were the letters of his particular difficulty. She returned to her nails. Donovan, finely attuned to the moment when people grew bored of him, picked up his book bag and made his way out onto Sullivan Street, into Washington Square.

Lit by a bright fall sun, the arch looked more like its Roman progenitor than ever, and the boy found that when he walked into the leaves they made a pleasing crunch, and some wild man in the fountain was talking of Christ, and another stood on a bench singing about marijuana. His mother must never hear of his class assignment. He swore this solemnly to himself on Fifth Avenue, before walking as slowly as could be managed back to the mews. At that charming row of cottages he stopped and clutched a replica Victorian lamppost.

“Donovan? What are you, cracked? Get in here!”

Irving Kendal stepped out of their little blue home and took up a spot in the middle of the street. He packed a wad of tobacco into a pipe and peered over at his only son.

“Get in here. Hanging off that thing.”

The boy stayed put. It had recently come to his attention that his father’s W came out like a V, that his H had too much water in it, and that everything he said came from another era.

“Who’re you meant to be? Gene Kelly?”

Worse were the clothes: a broad-check three-piece suit in yellows and browns, cut to create the illusion of height, with widely spaced buttons and trouser legs that kicked madly at the knee. In the cottage next door, Donovan could see Miss Clayton in her elegant black-and-red kimono, standing at the window with her Maltese, Pablo, in her arms. She examined the father and then the son and gave the son a warm look of sympathy. It would be a fine thing to walk straight past Irving to go drink from Miss Clayton’s soda-stream and listen to her bebop records, or sneak a look at the nude in her bathroom, or throw a beanbag around for Pablo to snap at with his harmless jaws. But such visits had to be rationed, out of loyalty. “Four bedrooms, is it?” said Polly, if Donovan happened to visit the apartment of a friend with means. “Well. I can see how you would have enjoyed that. Naturally. I know I would. Probably wouldn’t want to come home at all.” Or: “A soda-stream! Well, that’s what disposable income means, I guess—not having anybody but yourself to dispose it on. But was it deliciously fizzy?” These conversations, much dreaded, always left Donovan with a free-floating sensation of guilt, all the less manageable for the indeterminacy of its source.

Now Polly emerged, barefoot despite the autumn chill. Donovan waved; his mother mimed her incapacity. In her left hand, she gripped a long piece of green velvet attached to a stake, held high to keep it from dragging on the ground, and in her right, three colored feathers, each a foot long. Flying over to him, velvet streaming like the banner of a medieval princess, she moved with her toes pointed, so that what might simply be “running” in another woman looked like a series of darting pliés.

“Just when I need you, darling—the whole of the forest has come away from the blocks. It’ll need something better than glue this time—maybe tacks—and a whole new set of ferns from some very evergreen thing—it’s of the utmost importance that it look lovely for Tuesday. Oh, Eleanor Glugel came by just after school and told me all about it and I think it’s an excellent opportunity for the show, really excellent. I’ve been dying to talk to you about it—what took you so long? I had to listen to Glugel rattling on about her grandmother’s tattoo for half an hour—that’s what she’s bringing in, to show—or tell—if you can believe it—her own grandmother.” Polly shuddered, and indicated a spot on the underside of her own delicate wrist: “What an uplifting subject! Oh, but don’t we all already know the world is full of horror? Do we really need to hear about it all the livelong day? There’s no romance in that child whatsoever. No clue of the magic of storytelling. I’ll bet you a dollar she wears a girdle already.”

All of this poured right into his ear, as Polly’s lips were exactly level with it. She pressed his hand; he pressed back. She was perfect—an elf princess who had sworn allegiance only to him. Yet sometimes he wished that she could see, as he did, that theirs was a steely bond, not as easily broken as she seemed to imagine—one which he would never, ever give up, no matter how many four-bedroom apartments or soda fountains he came across in this life. Who else could make him agree to appear before his classmates in a pair of long johns, a nightshirt and a droopy hat with a bell on it? What larger sign of fealty could a knight offer a princess than his pride?

* * *​

But the next morning Miss Steinhardt made a further announcement: the children were to work in pairs, encouraging the values of compromise, shared responsibility and teamwork, so lacking in these difficult times. She gazed in a pained sort of a way out the far window. Thus would a small public school in the Village, in its own little way, act as a beacon for the world. It took a few minutes for Donovan to recognize in this new directive the last-minute reprieve for which he had not even dared to hope. “Me and you!” cried a child called Donna Ford, grabbing the hand of another child called Carla Woodbeck, who flushed happily and replied, “Yeah, us two!” and in another moment the room was filled with similar cries, requested and answered, all around Donovan, like a series of doors shutting in his face. Reduced to trying to catch the eye of Walter Ulbricht, he found even Walter Ulbricht avoiding him, apparently holding out for a better option.

“Part of my point,” said Miss Steinhardt, in a queer wobbly voice that silenced her class, “is we don’t always get to choose whom we work with.” Miss Steinhardt had spent yesterday at her grandparents’ home in Brooklyn Heights, watching tanks cross the Suez Canal. “Line up, please, as I call your names.”

The pairing was to be achieved alphabetically, as if a third of the class wasn’t colored and Walter Ulbricht didn’t have a port-wine stain eating half his face. A second flurry of anxious voices went up; Miss Steinhardt ignored them; the double line was achieved; the bell rang. In the hall, Cassandra Kent fell in step with Donovan Kendal. They walked out like this, onto Sullivan, neither holding hands nor talking, yet clearly walking together. Once again he passed through Washington Square Park, as he did daily, but the fact of Cassie Kent transformed it: the leaves were not merely crunchy but entirely golden, and the fountain threw up glorious columns of water, over and over, an engine of joy. Whatever it was that glistened in the wide skull-gaps between her tight plaits smelled of a vacation somewhere wonderful.

“Let’s do yours,” said Cassie. “The museum. Since you got it all figured already.”

“Oh. Well, all right.”

“Gu-Gu-Guggenheim,” she said, imitating him but somehow not unkindly. “Now, it’s gonna look like an ice cream, we know that.”

“A temple for the s-s-pirit. Hundred and ten feet tall,” said the boy, as they went under the arch. “And this is, how tall d’you think—”

“Seventy-seven. So thirty percent smaller,” said Cassie, without pausing. “I’m mathematical. Wanna play?”
 
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