POP'S LEG WAS ACROSS THE ROOM when I came downstairs. I didn't ask him how it got there. Its location made it clear that the prosthetic had been hurled at some point, with enough force to bring down the photo of Mama that used to sit on the Philco radio.
"Morning, Pop," I said as I came into the room just off the parlor that he used as an office. He flashed me an index finger and pointed at the telephone receiver cradled against his ear. I got it; he was busy. He was always busy. This was how it was with him and me; he tried to be a private detective, I tried to pretend like I no longer existed. So far, I was the more successful of the two of us.
The minute passed and it was clear he wasn't going to be getting off the phone anytime soon. He covered the mouthpiece with his hand. "If you're going out, you might want to see if Mrs. Mrozenski needs anything at the grocer's."
He returned to his call before I could correct him. I wasn't going out, I was going to school, my first day of public school, which he would've known if he ever listened to anything I said. I trudged across the parlor and out the front door. Mrs. Mrozenski was sitting on the stoop drinking coffee from a dented tin cup. Beside her head hung a small sign that read AA INVESTIGATIONS.
"Good morning, Mrs. Mrozenski," I said.
"Good morning, Iris. Don't you look nice today?"
I smiled halfheartedly. I'd worried half the night about what to wear to school. Gone was my private school uniform. In its place was a uniform of my own making: my mother's pearls, a Peter Pan blouse, a plaid skirt, bobby socks, and saddle shoes.
"You have breakfast?" she asked. Mrs. Mrozenski was technically our landlady. She owned the whole house, but usually limited herself to two rooms: the kitchen and her bedroom. The rest she had given over to Pop and me, only interfering when one of us committed the unforgivable sin of moving one of her knickknacks from a table to a bookshelf or entering the house from the kitchen door.
"You cannot start school on an empty stomach." She got up like she was going back into the house. I could see what was coming: pots and pans, eggs and toast, a feast that on any other day I might've welcomed. But this was my first day at a new school. I would be lucky if I could stomach water.
"I'm all right," I told her.
She gave me a look that told me she knew what I was going through even if she was kind enough not to say it aloud. "What about lunch? You pack food?"
It hadn't occurred to me to do so. I never carried a lunch at Chapin. "I'll get something there."
"With what money?" She didn't wait for me to answer. She dug into her pocket and produced a handful of change. "You get something at the cafeteria. Promise?"
I slipped the money into my pocketbook. "I promise." "Your father, he is good?"
I shrugged in response. Who knew how Pop was?
"He's trying to do the right thing by you, Iris. It is hard." Again, I didn't respond. What was the point? "I make pierogi tonight. Maybe some pork, too."
"Thank you. That sounds delicious."
Mrs. Mrozenski cooked dinner for us every night, asking nothing in return except for clean plates and our ration tickets. Pop was always reminding me to say thank you to her, as though Mama hadn't drilled common decency into me. But then how was he to know what I did and didn't learn in those years he was gone?
"Maybe I invite my daughter," she said.
"I don't know if Pop's going to be home tonight," I said. She was always trying to pair her daughter, Betty, with Pop. In her mind, my mother was nine months dead and it was time for Pop to move on. It was funny how nine months could seem like an eternity to one person and the blink of an eye to another. I don't need to tell you which one was my experience.
"Another time maybe. Have a good day, Iris," she said.
"You, too." As I started down the walk, I turned and waved at her. Mrs. Mrozenski waved back, and from the front window a flag with a single star waved along with her. It commemorated her son, a marine who'd been at sea since February.
It was drizzling as I trudged down the street from our house to Public School 110. The scenery matched the dull gray sky: garbage cans awaiting pickup lined the road, filling the air with the sweet scent of rotting vegetables. A pile of steaming manure lay in the cobblestone street where one of the horse-drawn delivery trucks that still operated in this area had paused in its mission.
Pop had tried to sell our move to Orchard Street as an adventure. With everything else that had happened, a fresh start would be good for us. At first I tried to be cheerful about the whole thing, but as weeks turned to months, I could no longer see the move as a change for the better. To my eyes the Lower East Side wasn't just a different neighborhood from the one we'd come from. Its name and its surroundings made it clear that we had experienced a downfall, slipping from the good end of town to the bad, descending from the top of the mountain to somewhere near its bottom. Not the bottom. After all, we were on the Lower East Side, not the last of the East Side. That, I thought, was yet to come.
FROM THE MOMENT I entered the doors of P.S. 110, I was dodging, ducking, and holding my breath, hoping that whatever I just saw would pass by without doing me harm. The kids were rough in the way that feral cats were rough; it was like they were fighting to survive and didn't give a damn what it took to make that happen. Public school was exactly what I imagined trench warfare was like. More than once one of them locked eyes with me and I got the feeling that if I didn't move NOW they would pounce on me and eat me for lunch. I stayed close to the tan-colored walls, my hand always on the plaster, like a mouse looking for a hole I could disappear into.
"Outta the way, meat." A girl in a too-tight cardigan cut across my path, sending me toward a row of lockers. Two boys holding each other in a headlock forced me in the other direction, until I bumped into a box set aside to collect tin cans. I pictured myself tumbling headfirst into the metal scraps, but I was lucky. Not only did I stay on my feet, but the box was empty. Apparently, nobody here had time to collect aluminum and tin for the war.
I backed away from the box and checked to see who had witnessed my stumble. Only the poster above the empty collection bin acknowledged my presence. WANTED FOR VICTORY, it announced in bold type. WASTE PAPER, OLD RAGS, SCRAP METAL, OLD RUBBER. GET IN THE SCRAP! Only someone had altered the last line with a pencil, so that the wanted items now included bloody rags. Conveniently, they'd also drawn a picture indicating what part of the female anatomy those rags might come from, just in case you were confused.
I tried to hide my shock and ducked into the girls' bathroom, hoping to catch my breath in the privacy of a stall. The doors were missing, though. A blonde in a sloppy joe sweater sat on the radiator by the window, smoking a cigarette. She didn't even shift her position when I came in. If anything, she seemed annoyed that I had interrupted her.
"What?" she said as I stared dumbly at the sight of someone smoking--smoking--on school property.
"Nothing," I said. "I have to ... use the facilities."
"The facilities? You in the wrong place, meat?"
At first I misunderstood her--was she saying that the bathroom was not in fact the place where one relieved herself? But then I realized that her question had a different purpose: why was I in this school to begin with?
"No," I said. "I'm new."
Her eyes tracked me from the top of my pin-curled head to the toes of my scuffed saddle shoes. They lingered at my gored plaid skirt, the one I'd made after seeing the pattern in McCall's (years of wearing uniforms and a sudden summertime growth spurt hadn't left me with much of a wardrobe). She condemned my homemade sense of fashion with a shake of her head.
"Why did you call me meat?" I asked.
She crossed her legs and pointed a spectator pump toward the ceiling. "It's meat as in fresh. Fresh meat."
Oh. "But I'm a sophomore."
"Doesn't matter. Fresh is fresh."
"I'm Iris, by the way."
"And I'm busy. You're here to pee? So pee," she said.
Her gaze didn't leave me. I wanted to turn around and go, but those brown eyes issued a challenge that I knew in my heart I had to take. So I entered a stall, hiked up my skirt, and sat on the toilet even though it was the last thing I wanted to do.
She kept watching me. I offered the toilet a trickle and then continued sitting there, hoping to die.
"I'm Suze," she said.
"Nice to meet you," I said from my perch.
"You want a gasper?"
It must've been clear that I didn't know what she was offering me, because she produced a pack of Lucky Strikes and wiggled them my way.
Her Indian bracelets rattled as she returned the pack to her purse. "Why you want to leave the Upper East Side and come here?"
"How do you know where I'm from?"
"You got your glasses on." What was she talking about? I didn't wear glasses. "Those pearls real?"
They were, but I wasn't sure I'd win any favors by telling her so. "I don't know."
She huffed at my answer. "So what's your story, morning glory?"
"Why you want to come here?"
I almost laughed at the question. Did she honestly think I was here by choice?
She seemed to recognize that she'd made an error. "Your pop overseas?"
"Something like that." I wiped, flushed, reassembled myself. I was going to be late for my first class. Not that I knew where it was.
"Navy," I said.
"Bet he's an officer."
"My man's in the Air Corps."
Did she mean her father? I didn't think so. With the paint and the clothes, Suze could pass for eighteen easy. It wasn't hard to imagine that she had a boyfriend who'd joined up.
I went to the sink and washed my hands. What should I say now? Usually, I had a gift for gab, but in this new place, with all these new people, my former self didn't have enough air to breathe.
"You think he's going to make it home safe?" she asked.
"Sure." And he had. Pop, who had never expected to fight in a war but got caught in the beginnings of one anyway, had made it home safe and sound. Except for the leg.
"Your mama must be scared."
"She's dead," I said.
"Ouch, baby," said Suze. "How?"
I answered without thinking. "She killed herself." I'd never said the words out loud before. You didn't talk about suicide. Not in a normal voice, anyway. You whispered euphemisms for it, trying to pretty-up an awful thing by calling it something else. She took her own life. She died by her own hand. She couldn't bear to carry on. Even the newspaper obituary had taken the stark awfulness out of what she'd done by reducing the act to a single adverb: suddenly.
Ingrid Anderson, suddenly, December 31, 1941.
And now here I was talking about it like it was no big deal. All my fear about P.S. 110 suddenly disappeared. A new school was nothing compared to what I'd already been through.
Suze stared at me for a long, silent moment. It wasn't the kind of story that she thought a girl like me was going to tell. "They shouldn't take a man with kids when there's no woman at home," she said.
That was funny. She thought I was an orphan, or just about one. "He'll be back soon," I said.
"And so will my Bill. He's young. He's strong." Suze tipped her head back and exhaled a stream of smoke that seemed to draw her name in cursive letters. As quickly as it appeared, it was gone.
Now that I was standing close to her, I could make out the sweetheart wings pinned to her sweater.
"Roosevelt says it will be over soon," I said.
In just three months the war would celebrate its first anniversary. None of us wanted to believe it would linger long enough to mark a second.
She leaned her head against the window, her cheek against the pane. Her breath fogged up the glass. "That's good," she said. "I don't think I can take much more. I'm beat to the socks." She tossed her butt into the sink, fluffed her hair in the mirror, and made sure the victory rolls in her hair were pinned firmly in place. Once she was sure her appearance was up to snuff, she turned back to me. "You better make tracks, baby girl. You don't want to be tardy on your first day."
"Want a tip?" she said.
"Sure," I said, trying to be casual.
She pointed at the lower half of my body. "Burn the skirt."
I assured her I would.
FIVE MINUTES LATER it was me I wanted to destroy, not the skirt.
A bell rang its warning that we had two minutes to get into our seats. I stashed my pocketbook in my locker and tried to read the room numbers on the schedule card I'd been given in the front office. Unfortunately, the ink had smeared after I washed my hands--pretty ironic, given that my first class of the day was something called Personal Hygiene. I searched the halls for someone to help me, but in an instant the bustling crowd had vanished.
Or so I thought. At the end of the hall stood a cluster of five boys and girls, chatting like all they had was time. Like Suze, the girls were tall and broad-shouldered, their busts jutting out in a way that showed they enhanced their bosoms with handkerchiefs. They wore heavy makeup and such elaborate hairstyles that I had to imagine they'd been up since the crack of dawn rolling and pinning them in place. As teacher after teacher closed their doors and implored their classes to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, they said their farewells and started toward their destinations. At least most of them did. One of the boys remained behind.
"You lost?" he said. I looked over my shoulder for whoever it was he was talking to. There was no one in the hallway but us.
"Yes," I said. "I'm supposed to be in a class called Personal Hygiene, but I don't know where the room is."
"Who's the teacher?"
I looked at the card but found my eyes unwilling to focus on the print that hadn't been smeared. I'd talked to boys before--friends' brothers and fathers--but to be around them in school was just ... weird. Especially a boy like this one. His hair was greased back with pomade, and he had a smell about him that seemed to be a combination of his morning shower, a cigarette he'd smoked before entering the building, and something else I couldn't identify. His eyes were sleepy and at half-mast, as though there was nothing on this earth that could ruffle him. Not girls. Not teachers barking for everyone to sit down and be quiet. Not even the war. How on earth were we supposed to be able to learn with people like him around?
"Hello?" he said. Plenty of time had passed for me to read the name off my schedule card, but I still stood there, silent.
"It's smeared," I finally said. "But I think it says Mr. Pinsky."
"Right. Pinsky's down that way." He pointed toward one of the hallways that branched off to the left of us. "Last door on the left. Don't sit up front if you can avoid it. He's a spitter."
"Thanks." So that was two people who'd been kind to me, and first period had barely begun. Maybe public school wouldn't be so awful after all. "I'm Iris Anderson. I'm new."
"So I guessed. Pleasure to meet you, Iris Anderson." He had a slow smile, the kind that took so long to appear that you knew that when he offered it to you, he meant it. "I'm Tom Barney."
"Shouldn't you be in class?" I said.
I blushed. I couldn't help myself. There was something about the way he talked that made me think I was doing something forbidden. Or maybe he just made me wish I was.
One of the girls who'd been with him earlier reappeared at the top of the hall. She frowned when she saw me, and then cleared her throat to get Tom's attention. "Look who got a hall pass," she said when he turned and acknowledged her.
"Lucky you," he replied.
"Want a smoke?"
"Absolutely. I'll meet you out back in five," he said. "I'm helping Iris here find her class."
"I'm sure she can find it herself," said the girl.
"Cool it, Rhona. I said I'll see you in five ticks."
"I'm giving you four." She turned tail and disappeared.
"I can find it on my own," I said. "Really. It's just down that hall, right?"
"Right," he said.
"Thanks again for your help."
"Any time, Iris Anderson."
WHEN I ARRIVED in Mr. Pinsky's class, one of his students was reading the morning announcements off of a mimeographed page. Rather than letting me take my seat, Mr. Pinsky gestured for me to remain near the door until the recitation ended, putting me on display for the entire room. I spent an eternity staring at my shoes while the pug-nosed girl ended her morning spiel by reminding the students that the principal wished them to "remain vigilant about their personal possessions until such time as the person or persons responsible for the locker thefts has been apprehended."
So public school not only welcomed fights in the hallway and smoking in the girls' room, it attracted thieves, too. I made a note to retrieve my purse from my locker as soon as possible.
By the time the announcements concluded, every eye in the class was watching me. Somebody faked a cough and muttered "Fresh meat" under their breath. I took a seat as the class buzzed with two topics: the new girl and who was behind the locker robberies.
I tuned out the comments about my clothes and focused on the more interesting topic.
"I heard they actually cut the padlocks open," said one girl.
"It's one of the guys in the Rainbows," said a girl with a pinched face and a husky voice.
"Sure, but which one?" asked her red-faced friend.
"Probably one of the Eye-talians."
My eavesdropping wasn't as subtle as I hoped. The girl with the pinched face turned my way and offered me a sneer. "What are you staring at?"
"Nothing," I said. I could feel color bleed into my face. I looked away, hoping they wouldn't see my embarrassment. It was too late.
"Hold your tongue, Myrtle," the pinch-faced girl said to her friend. "You don't want to make the square from Delaware clutch her pearls."
Sadly, that was the kindest welcome I got for the rest of the morning.
Every class I went to I was stared at. I was asked to introduce myself before the students assembled in Home Economics by announcing my favorite meal to cook. When I told them toast, I was laughed at. I didn't know how to cook. There'd never been a need for me to do it before.
My walk was mimicked, my voice was aped, and I was reminded at every turn that I didn't belong. What had Pop been thinking, sending me into the jaws of public school without any kind of warning? He hadn't been thinking: that was the point. How could he know who I was when he hadn't known who I'd been?
Finally, lunchtime arrived. I went to my locker to retrieve my lunch money, anxious the whole time that the combination I thought I remembered was incorrect. I needn't have worried; the lock was gone and the locker was empty. My purse and everything in it was missing.
That did it. For the first time that day, I let myself cry. I was beyond caring who saw me.
I didn't have the heart to report the crime--aside from my house key and the money Mrs. Mrozenski had given me, there wasn't much of value in my purse. And I certainly didn't have the strength to go to the cafeteria with nothing to eat and no one to sit with. Instead, I retreated to a girls' bathroom stall and waited out the hour.
THE AFTERNOON was more of the same, just one embarrassment after another. I longed for a friendly face to make it all go away, but Suze never reappeared. Tom did, though. Just as I left my last class of the day, I saw him in handcuffs, being led out of school by two police officers.
What on earth was going on?
A boy with a camera dangling around his neck stopped to watch the action. As Tom was guided into a squad car, the boy took a photo. That task complete, he produced a notepad and pencil and jotted something down.
"What's happening?" I asked him.
"They arrested Tom Barney for the locker thefts."
He half snorted, half laughed. "Because he confessed. I knew it had to be one of the Rainbows, I just didn't know which one."
My heart broke: not only had I been robbed, but one of the only two people who'd been nice to me that day was the thief.