Grand Union: Stories

They took a left and sat on two stone benches under the shade of a sycamore tree, in front of a game Donovan had never before played in his life. Cassie drew a ratty string bag from her satchel and emptied a small pile of chess pieces onto the concrete table. Donovan tried to concentrate on her instructions. All around them, the men the Kendals usually took the long route round the park to avoid gathered close. One of them was completely topless under his shearling jacket and had old newspapers wound tightly round both shoes. Another had only a handful of teeth and wore a broken gambler’s visor to keep the winter sun out of his eyes. He appeared to know Cassie.

“Hey, boy—you ready?” asked the visor man, of Donovan. He knelt down by both children and planted his rusty elbows on the table. “This girl ’bout to school you.”

Donovan’s plan was to watch each of Cassie’s moves intently, hoping to follow the logic of the game, and, from there, re-create this logic in his own woolly mind. But where she moved her pieces ruthlessly over the concrete table, with an eye only to their strategic use, to Donovan these were noble Kings and Queens, and those were the castles in which they lived; here were the advisers they trusted, and there the minions waiting in lines outside the castle wall—and no amount of explanation from Cassie about the rigid rules that were meant to dictate all their movements could stop the boy from instinctively arranging his pieces by rank or relationship.

“Can’t win anything, playing like that,” said Cassie, abducting Donovan’s Queen, who had rashly stepped out of her chamber to stroke a favored white steed. “Can’t even get started playing like that.”

By the time she had his King surrounded, not too long after they’d begun, she was sat up on her own heels, laughing and clapping her hands.

“Donovan Kendal,” she crowed, jabbing a finger into his sternum, “you got no place to turn.”

* * *​

“But couldn’t this Cassie whoever-she-is just learn the lines?” Polly wanted to know. She was holding a tube of glue unwisely between her teeth. Her son passed the paper doily of Grandmother’s cap and the cardboard face of the wolf, to be affixed to each other, a task that had to be redone almost every week. “I mean, we could certainly do with another pair of hands.”

“But turns out it’s got to be just two kids together. Just me and her. Teacher said so.”

“Well, all right, but I still don’t see why that should—”

“She’s a colored girl,” said Donovan, hardly knowing why, but in its way, the intervention worked; for reasons of consistency it was now impossible for Polly to speak ill of the project. Anyone who knew anything at all about Polly Kendal knew she held the idea of Racial Integration almost as close to her heart as she did The Power of Storytelling or The Innocence of Children. Once upon a time—on what was back then a rare trip downtown—she herself had been caught up in the drama of Racial Integration, in the form of a large, excitable crowd pushing through Washington Square toward Judson Church. Being, by temperament, “a lifelong seeker,” she’d joined this crowd, finding herself, a few minutes later, three pews back from the podium listening to the young Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. give a speech. A lively story for coffee mornings and parent-teacher conferences. “His eyes! The only word I can find for them is limpid. Limpid. I could see them looking straight at me: this kooky, sixteen-year-old scrap of a white girl from Brighton Beach. I mean, naturally I stood out. And I’ll tell you something else and I’m not the least bit ashamed of it: whatever he would have asked me to do, I would have done it! I would have done anything!” But as it happened the Reverend King had not asked the teenage Polly to do anything at all and her practical involvement with the civil rights movement ended with that sermon, leaving behind only a residuum of enthusiasm.

“Why shouldn’t the children of Harlem get the equal chance to hear our stories?” she asked Cassie two days later, as the child pulled a rattan chair to a circular table covered by a fringed, gypsy cloth, missing only a crystal ball. “Telling someone a story is a way of showing love. Don’t they deserve love?”

“I love everybody!” said Cassie happily, and accepted the breadstick that was passed to her. “But: if I am attacked, I will defend. You play chess, Mr. Kendal?”

“Me?” Irving lowered his newspaper. “Nope. Not my game.”

“I play.”

“You do?” Polly stopped stirring her spaghetti sauce and took a second, anthropological look at Cassie Kent. There were the girls in pigtails who skipped and sang by the fountain, and then there were the grubby old men hunched over the stone tables by the far west gate, but the two groups had always been quite separate in her mind. “At school, you mean?”

“In the park sometimes. Whenever, wherever. I’m pretty good, too.”

“I’ll bet you are!”

“I beat Donovan good.”

“Cassie, do you know Donny never brings any of his friends round to see his poor Maw and Paw,” said Polly, putting her hands on slender hips and delving into her small trove of accents. “So I’m real glad he thought to bring you round to see us.”

“I was gonna show-and-tell my chess . . . but when you think about it, there ain’t that much to show.”

“Of course, our show is up and ready to go, any time,” said Polly, slowly. The train was coming back down the line, and Donovan, tied to the track, did his best to divert it.

“But that’s not—you can’t teach a person to do that in just a few days. Puppets are a real craft,” he said, quoting Polly back to Polly, which seemed to calm her; she stopped biting the spoon and put it back in the pot.

“Well, that’s very true. It is a craft. Not everyone can pick it up just like that.”

“There’s a war on,” said Irving loudly, and flicked a finger at the front page. “Somebody should show-and-tell about that.”

Cassie examined the photograph: “They your people over there?”

“Hmm?” said Polly, with her back to them all. “Oh, no, not mine. Irving’s. Technically. I mean, he doesn’t have any relatives over there or anything.”

Technically?

The door caught on the usual tile and failed to slam; Polly did not flinch. Polly, Cassie and Donovan listened to Irving leave the cottage, and—such was the silence of the mews in those days—strike a match against an outside wall. Polly returned placidly to her sauce.

“Of course, in the end,” she said, with a contented look on her face, “we’re all one people.”

* * *​

“This is a scale model,” said Cassie, holding up, in front of the class, a circular, inverted ziggurat made of cardboard, and Donovan read the scale off a piece of paper, and then Cassie said the name of the architect, and Donovan somehow got through the phrase “gun-placed concrete,” and it all passed off without a hitch. But in the hallway, afterward, when they should have been simply congratulating each other, Cassie announced her intention to soon visit the Polly Kendal Puppet Theater.

“But—it’s two bucks.”

“I’m not in the poorhouse—we got two bucks!”

“It’s just for little kids,” tried Donovan, gripped by the horrible confirmation of a private fear—that all roads led back to his mother. “You’re too old. And it’s on a S-S-Sunday. You’ll go to church, won’t you?”

“I’m coming.”

“It’s not two bucks, that was a lie,” said Donovan, turning red. Having put his hand up inside Pinocchio every Saturday for the whole of the previous year, he had been unable to rid himself of a feeling of deep identification. “If you really want to know it’s only fifty c— fifty c—”

Most adults would keep looking into his face when he was in trouble, smiling kindly, until the word, whatever it happened to be, was completed. Cassie, like all children, only said, “What? What? What?” and groaned with impatience. She walked ahead. When he caught her up, she turned on him: “Man oh man, can’t you stop that?”

“Yes,” said Donovan, feebly, but perhaps that was just another lie. A man called Cory Wallace had assured the Kendals that their son could be easily “cured” of his trouble, but he did not seem to be a proper doctor—he had no certificates on his wall and his office was next to a Chinese restaurant down on Canal. Still Polly had “faith in his sincerity.”

“Donovan Kendal,” said Cassie, sighing and putting her hands on her hips like somebody’s mother, “you tire me out. Wanna see my titty?”
 
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