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At Home in Salem
What the hell are we doing in Salem? The town famous for torching neighbors who seemed anything other than Puritan. We’re not just strangers, we’re Jews! Sure, we’re unobservant, noncomformist, freethinking New York Jews in paisley-patched dungarees—but still, we’re so very Other, and so very wandering. Nice to meet you, Salem, Massachusetts. We’ll be gone soon.
It’s our eighth move in twelve years, but none of the first seven were nearly as bleak. Everything about Salem is different than Manhattan, right from the break of day. No noise. No cars. No life until the Salem dads emerge from their front doors, suited up and shuffling to the train for the slow weekday ride to Boston. They are followed by the sockless, Docksider-wearing sea-captain wannabes, unshaven and still bleary from the rum scrum of the night before. They buy fresh bread and weak coffee at the Athens Bakery, drag on long brown cigarettes on their way to their boats or their private painting studios, avoiding the gaze of the dudes cruising rusty Camaros and booming Jethro Tull and Black Sabbath, gunning for their morning dog’s hair at the Pig’s Eye.
But on Sunday mornings these streets are empty. I ride alone.
I deliver papers, and not that well. At six thirty each Sunday my alarm buzzes and a fresh pile of North Shore Sundays, bound with wire and wrapped in plastic, waits for me on the front steps.
I grab a T-shirt, the striped jeans I wore yesterday, a Marblehead zip sweatshirt and my canvas paper bag. Atjeh, our dog, is still settled by the foot of my bed in the same Sunday rhythm reserved for the rest of the Cove family. Her black lids rise wearily when I open the door, ice-blue eyes indifferent.
The North Shore Sunday has just enough original content to merit being called a newspaper, but it’s otherwise filled with advertisements for the butcher sale at the A&P, marine supplies, and cordwood delivery. People don’t pay for it—the only person who seems to care if it shows up is Mr. Getchell, my route supervisor—but I still try to get tips for delivering it when I can.
Outside, it looks as if the cold mist might give way. I snip the rigid newspaper bindings with the wire-cutter crotch of my pliers. The news of the week is a mix of global import and local fluff. The Vatican denies foul play but refuses to conduct an autopsy on Pope John Paul I. The Marblehead Squirts hockey team made the cover after a visit to Quebec. Peter Frampton is still recovering from his car accident. I fill the stiff paperboy bag with my burden. I hate this. Every part of it. Waking up early, balancing as I ride, the sack cutting into my shoulder like a claw, rolling through the haunted streets alone, forced into neighborhoods that smell like damp ashtrays. I rarely finish the job, and now towers of undelivered papers teeter in my closet and sop up rabbit tinkle in Bunny Yabba’s wooden crate in the center of my room. The first few weeks, I threw maybe twenty or thirty copies in there. Just the last couple of streets’ worth. As the weather got colder I started quitting the route three-quarters of the way in. Then halfway.
I shamble out back, where my Apollo waits by a rosebush. It’s a Ross, five-speed, stout, rugged tires, whitewalls, chrome fenders, banana seat, and Easy Rider handlebars. The saving grace of any paper route morning.
This is the eighth time I’ve had to move. Eighth! Mama and Papa keep trying to convince us that moving to Salem is a great achievement, the realization of a long-held dream to return to the place of their youth, the North Shore of Massachusetts—and to do so in spectacular fashion. Mama—who grew up nearby in Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin, you never come out the way you went in—spent months shopping for a house in Marblehead. That’s the next town over from Salem, where Papa grew up and where his parents, Grandma Wini and Grandpa Sam, still live. We’ve ended up just a few miles away from them, and that’s really the only good thing I can say about leaving our apartment on West End Avenue in New York.
“It needs to be something historical. Something old,” Mama had said over the phone to the Realtor, who couldn’t produce anything close to my parents’ price range in the dense clapboard cluster of houses along Marblehead’s sparkling harbor.
“Would you consider living in Salem?” the Realtor had asked as Mama calculated mortgage rates on a piece of pink scrap paper.
“There’s only one street I would consider living on in Salem and that’s Chestnut Street,” she answered, believing this wasn’t an option.
“Well, then you better come and see this house.”
“It’s the most beautiful street in America,” Mama told us. “And I’m not the only one who feels that way.”
Apparently it was true because Papa had said the same thing over the phone to me when he heard that Mama was going to look at 31 Chestnut. “It’s the most beautiful street in America,” he said cheerily. “Magazine worthy. You’ll see.”
“Who says that?” I asked Mama, wondering what was so bad about the first street we lived on. Or the fourth. Or the seventh. “Who says it’s the most beautiful? And why do we need to live somewhere beautiful? Riverside Park is beautiful.” So was Washington, D.C. And Westport, Connecticut. And New York the first time around.
“It is,” said Mama, “and it smells like someone peed all over it. This is a better place to grow up. You’ll see.”
Our house is one of three brick homes pressed into one, side by side—a gift from a Salem sea merchant to his three daughters. Our part, the left third of the manor, has three sprawling floors, all of which show their age. “Seventy-three-hundred square feet!” Papa never tires of proclaiming, whatever that means. There are seven bedrooms, five bathrooms, a haunted attic, and an entire apartment hidden behind an unlocked swinging door in the disproportionately small galley kitchen.
My sister, Amanda, and I run the length of the house when we first arrive, through not one but two living rooms, craning to see the dust bunnies and dead flies caught in the cobwebs dangling from the impossibly high ceilings. There are fireplaces in nearly every room, and a gigantic basement, once the servants’ kitchen, with a wooden dumbwaiter at one end. It could still be used to transport toys and snacks (“but NO kids!”) to the little kitchen above by way of a thick, oily rope worn smooth by decades of calloused hands sending dishes and meals up and down. Every room shows its age, wallpaper drooping and bubbled, signs of water recently dribbled from under the crown moldings and ceiling medallions, and fractures in all the wood floors which promise legendary splinters.
The truth is, my father didn’t want to leave New York. He loved the hustle, distraction, and music of the streets. He delighted in discovering the next cheese, cigar, smoked-fish, or magic-trick shop. He lived for the museums, the movie theaters, and his work. His enthusiasm for life and that city was infectious.
My mother shared no such feelings. The only way he was able to convince her to move back to New York (the city of my birth) was to promise the eventual return to shtetl life in one of the seaside towns on the North Shore. “Two years in the city,” he told her. “That’s all I need to reach the next level.” It took three, but she prevailed.
From the outside our new home suggests a great triumph, but wealthy as we may appear to the tourists who goggle at the towering manors of Chestnut Street, they can’t see the leaky ceilings and exposed horsehair plaster from the outside. And they can’t see the apartment we need to rent to Frank, our spectacularly hairy and exultantly gay tenant, who was Papa’s fraternity brother in college. “This little bit of neglect is how we could afford to buy it,” Mama said. “And the rent is how we’ll afford to keep it.” Their relief was evident when Frank, a blast from Papa’s past, answered the ad in the Salem Evening News.
I sling the bag over my shoulder, roll the bike back along the brick walkway, and saddle up on an empty Chestnut Street. Rolling east, up Flint and across Essex, knocking off the scarier sections by Route 107 before the weirdos over there wake up.
“Grandpa Sam had a paper route when he was a boy,” Grandma Wini told me when I got mine. “He always tried to stay one step behind the milkman, who also made deliveries before dawn. My Sammy would get to the stoop and open up those fresh bottles of milk so he could sip the cream off the top. If it was too cold out, the cream would freeze and he was out of luck. If that happened, he would go to the homes that got their rolls delivered from the bakery. Can you imagine him? Poor, hungry faygele.”
“He’s not gay,” I say, confused.
“Oy! Faygele, silly! It’s Yiddish for little bird. Where do you hear such things?”
Gramps never told me about his paper route or the cream thing himself, but Gramps never tells me much besides what’s for supper and what’s in the TV Guide. “There’s a new show on next Sunday, Big Lou. It’s about a fellow with bionic arms and legs and eyes. Why don’t you come over and watch with me?”
I deliver most of the papers and start to close the loop of my route, led by my nose toward the yeasty smell of Athens Bakery’s bread wafting through the neighborhood. I stop pedaling at the corner of Botts and Essex, one house away from Gretchen’s. She’s the only girl in this new neighborhood who’s willing to talk to me. Willing, but not necessarily wanted. Gretchen: always showing up unexpectedly. Usually sitting too close for comfort. She’s twelve, too, but instead of attending my school, Oliver, she goes to some experimental place on the other side of town. “Fuh cool kids,” she boasted once. “They might let yuh in.”
I could turn home now and avoid her altogether, but before I can decide, I see her face flash in an upstairs window and I know she’s been waiting for me.
Gretchen motions frantically to stay put so I wait out front. She’s talking before the door even slams behind her.
“Didja finish yah route?”
I shake my head. “Just taking a break.”
It’s not warm enough for shorts today, but she’s wearing them anyway. She sits on the brick path to her little house and motions for me to join. When she crosses her legs I can see the top of her thigh, all milk, slipping away into a darker fold of her khakis.
“See the Love Boat last night?” she asks. I shake my head again and she flaps her legs like a bird, and there it is: the yellow cotton panel of her panties, revealing skin more ginger-pink than the flesh of her leg.
“Ahnold was on it.”
“From Happy Days?”
“Yup,” she nods knowingly, looks down between her legs, then back at me. “Get a good look?”
I feel a spring of panic, and quickly look away from her crotch to the Witch House in the distance. They call it that, as if it were the home of Tituba or Sarah Good, but Mama says it is actually the house of a wealthy Puritan judge who participated at their infamous trials. Papa says everyone in Salem has an angle.
I look back and Gretchen is smiling, dropping her knees a little farther so the cuff of her khaki short gives an additional, breathtaking quarter of an inch or more. And then she slides a finger to her panties and moves the yellow fabric aside.
Shame vies with thrill. I want to see. I don’t want to know. I stand up, certain a Puritan judge is rounding the corner with a thorny switch. “Gotta finish the route.”
“I don’t caih, yuh know. If yuh wanna look, I mean.”
“I know,” I nod, straddling the Apollo. “I just have to … Have to go.”
I make a few more deliveries, pop out the north side of the cemetery, and catch the smell of the ocean breeze, skipped like a stone off the wharf toward Gallows Hill, carrying all those damp Salem odors.
* * *
Papa’s asleep when I return. Mama’s tinkering in the basement. I enter quietly, softly walking the steps to my room. I stash the overflow in the closet, drop a few pellets of food in between the pellets of poop in Bunny Yabba’s crate, and return to the top bunk for a visit with Barbi Benton. If Gramps noticed the missing Barbi issues from his Playboy collection in his downstairs bathroom, he never hinted at it. Here, she’s looking over her shoulder at me. Looking up from her poolside sunbathing. Turning away from her stained glass window to meet my eyes. Rising up from her bed of furs. The brunette Breck girl, but naked. Barbara Gordon minus her shiny purple Batgirl cowl.
May ’72 is Barbi at her best, auburn hair and bangs taking up the entire cover, those incredible eyes, black but exploding with sparks of slate blue and white light, flawless Chiclet teeth that flash a smile, girl next door but more. Entertainment for Men. One dollar.
Barbi. So perfect. So flawless. Not like Gretchen. She’s too … real.
* * *
I pull Bunny Yabba out of his stinking crate and take him to breakfast with me, checking the closet once more to make sure the door is shut and latched and the papers aren’t spilling out. Atjeh scrambles ahead of me, flying down the stairs.
“Oh, don’t bring him down here, honey,” Mama says when she sees the rabbit tucked in the crook of my arm. “He’ll just poop everywhere.”
“He doesn’t poop anywhere but his crate,” says Papa, shuffling to the table, plaid nightshirt unbuttoned, chest bared. “He’s the world’s first house-trained rabbit.” Mama rolls her eyes.
Papa doesn’t eat breakfast anymore. “Stopped in 1962. Single most important thing I ever did for my health. That and running.” Hard to imagine, given how skinny he is now, but his brown-and-white wedding photos prove he was once a porky Peter. Between that and his asthma, the chubby 1950s Jewish kid who wanted to play basketball like Bob Cousy had to reinvent himself.
“But Cousy’s six-one!” Gramps told him. “You’re five-six.”
“But I feel like I’m seven-one. Swish!”
The brass knocker clacks from the end of the hall and Amanda bounces on her skinny legs from the table to answer it.
“Ugh! That’s not Nusselballs, is it?” Mr. Nusselblatt is my Hebrew teacher. I call him Nusselballs. He looks like one of those old, black-hat New York rabbis, and he has the whitefish, horseradish, half-sour breath to match, but he’s actually a twenty-two-year old student from Salem State.
“No, Hebrew lessons are Tuesday evenings. At the rate you’re going you should be doing them three times a week,” Mama warns. I collapse in my chair. First they move me to a city with no Jewish people, then they want me to do a bar mitzvah? Why don’t they just take a picture of my circumcised penis and post it all over town?
“If we’re so Jewish, why do we have a Christmas tree every year?” I protest.
“Because we’re Americans,” Papa says firmly from behind his newspaper. “Because we’re free. Because it makes the house smell good.”
Mama, daughter of the best kosher butcher on the North Shore, grimaces. For her, this is what you do. Tradition. For Papa, it’s as much about the nose-to-the-grindstone act of achieving something as it is about becoming a man. I don’t think he gives a crap if I bar mitzvah or I belly up to the bar. I’ll be a man when he says I’m a man.
Amanda returns with the uninvited guest. It’s Gretchen. She catches my eye, half smiles. I return the greeting halfheartedly, grateful to be the object of attention but wishing the subject were someone else.
“Bagel?” Mama offers, passing a basket of sesame, egg, and everything.
“These rolls?” Gretchen asks, which gets Papa’s attention. “Rolls? Bagels. Come here, Gretchen,” Papa says loudly, grabbing the basket and pulling out a sesame bagel. “We’ll show you how this is done.” He spreads a huge glob of chive cream cheese on a half, then piles red onions, tomato slices, lox, and capers.
“You’ll need a little mouthwash after this,” Mama says. “But you’ll love it.”
Papa finishes the project, slides a plate across the table to Gretchen, who sits down next to me, and everyone watches as she bites tentatively into the Sunday breakfast of choice in the Cove household.
“It tastes … a little … weeahd…” She pulls a thread of lox from under her tongue.
“Lox. Smoked salmon,” Mama says. Gretchen stares quizzically at her. “Fish, darling. Smoked fish.” Gretchen’s face goes queasy.
Papa scoops up the Arts section now that Mama has moved on to Op-Ed. Amanda and our younger brother David divide the Boston Globe funnies.
We all sit in silence for a bit, reading. David hums softly to himself. “Listen to this,” Papa says. “There’s a new album by a band called the Sex Pistols. Great name! And it’s called Never Mind the Bollocks. Hysterical.”
“What’s bollocks?” I ask.
“Testicles. It’s the British way of saying balls.”
Gretchen looks up, giggles, then blushes pink across her lily skin.
“Did someone say balls?” Frank sweeps into our dining room, a scruffy dumpling in a silk kimono. “And I thought I was just coming for a bagel!”
“God save the queen,” Papa murmurs.
“All the queens,” Frank chuckles, grabbing a bagel. He is the hairiest person I ever met. Like, Planet of the Apes hairy: short and round with black chest hair so thick you can’t see his nipples or make out whether he has a bellybutton.
“I was in a tree on the field in front of my high school kissing my first crush,” he told me one night when he was babysitting and Amanda and David had gone to bed. “Fell twenty-two feet. I was in a body cast for eight months and they shaved me from head to toe before they put me in. When I came out, I looked like this. Eat your heart out, Burt Reynolds! But those were the worst months of my life. I felt prickers and itches all over and I couldn’t move. My sister would sit by the side of my bed and slide a ruler under the cast to scratch but it didn’t help. My father said it was volontà di Dio—God’s wrath for kissing a boy. He didn’t say anything to me ever again after that.”
“Do you miss your dad?” I’d asked.
“Every day, ragazzino. Every day. Cherish that Papa of yours.”
“By the way, got a call last night,” Papa says as Frank heads back to his apartment. “Special guests coming to stay with us for a while. They’ll be here later today.”
“Ooh,” Frank says and stops at the door to inquire: “Boys or girls?”
“Who? You didn’t tell us that,” I say, ticked at Papa’s typical last-minute surprise.
“Well, I’m telling you now,” Papa says. “Remember our friends Howie and Carly? They just got married.”
“Married boys?” Frank skitters back over, wraps an arm around Papa.
“Not Carl, Carly. Sorry, Charlie. They’re on their honeymoon. Cross-country road trip, from Berkeley to Salem. They called from Philly. We’re the last stop before they go back again. They’ll stay for a week. Maybe two.”
“Salem would make anyone turn around and go home,” I grumble.
“Hey,” Papa says in his straighten-up tone. “You’ve got Grandma Wini and Grandpa Sam here. You never complained about coming for holidays or summer vacations in the past. Plus your Aunt Leslie, Uncle Rick, and Cousin Greg live in Marblehead, too…”
“And Grandma Charlotte and Uncle Morris,” Mama adds her side of the family.
“And them,” Papa admits, no fan of his mother-in-law but always happy for a bourbon and a cigar with old Mo. “You’ve got your whole family. And now you’ll have some very cool roommates for a couple of weeks.”
My father met Howie at Antioch College in 1969. Papa was ten years older, in from D.C. looking for interns to help fight the war on poverty. Howie was a junior assigned to tour him around campus. Instead of choosing any of the applicants, Papa asked Howie to come back with him. “He was smart, and he made me laugh, a real star. So I ended up hiring him. We had a hell of a time.”
“Is he the hippie?” I ask.
“He’s … a free spirit.”
The name conjures vague memories, positive ones, but another disruption in our lives? “I don’t want them to come,” I say petulantly. “I don’t want anyone to stay with us.” A glance from Gretchen confirms that I’m acting like a little kid. “I mean, because we’re still getting used to a new city. And now we have to get used to more strangers?”
“Friends are a part of life,” Papa says. “The best part. If you don’t spend real time with friends, you’re not living life.”
“Aren’t we living?” Amanda asks.
He shakes his head. “Only if we do certain things. How do you really know if you’re alive? Hm? How do you know?” he says to me.
“Your heart beats,” I say flatly.
“Mechanics.” Papa’s voice rises. “Did you wake up ready to go today?” he asks, looking me in the eye, making sure I’m listening. “Did you play music today? Did you have sex today? Did you sweat? See a friend? Cook something delicious? Did you help someone today? That’s how you know you had a good day. That’s when you know you’re alive.”
Papa’s enthusiasm for living is infectious. He has a way of rallying us like troops, a natural leadership that I envy.
Gretchen giggles again, squirms in her seat. Then she gives me a look that screams let’s go.
“What’s up?” I ask as we climb the stairs to my room.
“How come ya parents ah always talking about that kinda stuff?”
“What kind of stuff?” I reply, knowing full well it’s Papa’s plainspoken style that’s rattled her. But I don’t care. I like it, and I wish he’d speak that way with me all the time.
“Sex and stuff.”
“Well, he wasn’t really talking about sex, he just said the word.”
“My parents would kill me. Especially on a Sunday. And how come ya all read at the table?”
“That’s what we do on Sunday mornings.”
“Don’t ya go to chuhch?”
“Jews don’t go to church.”
“But they go to a temple or something, right?”
“I guess. But we don’t.” Which is a fair point, now that I think about it. Where would my bar mitzvah be, anyway? In the backyard?
“Then what’s so Jewish about you? And that weahd guy who lives out back. I think he might be a fag.”
“He’s gay, if that’s what you mean.”
Gretchen frowns. I don’t need her to tell me how different we are from everybody else in this stupid city. That was clear from the moment we sat on the front steps that first Saturday on Chestnut Street and got the stink eye from our neighbor Glovey Butler. The gray matriarch of Salem society is our most formidable neighbor, installed right next door with a houseful of familial ghosts and a very-much-alive grandson named Johnny. Our neighbors live in fear of crossing her path. Papa lives for winning her approval.
The Salemites don’t quite know what to do with a family like ours.
Mama is brilliant: a computer programmer taking a break to stay home with my baby brother but never not working. She’s comfortable around a jigsaw, handy with a slide rule. In other words, she’s not your average Chestnut Street lady.
My father is purposefully anti-average: sporting a dandy bow tie, a carefully waxed handlebar mustache, and hair almost to his shoulders, he turns heads. I have no idea what the welfare recipients or the physically and mentally disabled folks he gets jobs for think of him, but I know he spends the majority of his days thinking and working on their behalf.
As for me, I haven’t developed Papa’s social conscience or his taste for ties, but I do wear my hair long, in tribute. I still have a bit of a lisp, and I like the Mets, not the Red Sox, so I’m primed for pummeling by the townies.
I picked my room based on how far it is from everyone else: third floor, end of the hall, glossy green paint on old wood floorboards, deep closet to hide stuff, and a marble fireplace. Two windows face east, toward the metal peak of the neighbors’ widow’s walk. I can’t help but picture leagues of ashen old Glovey Butlers wearily looking out to sea for the husbands who will never return. How many of them have hopped the fencing meant to contain the grief-stricken and landed in these thorny piles of chestnuts below us?
I open the door and Gretchen’s hand flies to her face.
“Ugh! What is that stink?” she screeches.
“Bunny Yabba’s crate. I need to change it. Just follow me.” I open the back window, and lead Gretchen to my private hideout—a long flat roof, still wet under the late September morning sky.
“Aw, wicked!” she says as she takes in the view. I gaze up at the peaked roof where I sometimes climb to be alone. It’s my “Secure Position” and I consider showing Gretchen, then think better of it.
Maybe she senses my hackles rising. Or maybe she just wants to show me that different, like me, is good in her mind. Exotic. Sidling up next to me on the flat copper ledge, Gretchen Pelletier puts her face right up to mine and says, “Kiss me.”
We touch lips, mouths searching for the right angle, eyes open. It’s my first time with a girl who didn’t have the bottle spin her way. I reach for her forearms, pebbled into gooseflesh. Her white-blonde hair, pale lips, golden freckles, and the memory of those little blond wisps at the edge of those yellow panties collide in my mind. My lungs collapse around the crazy bong-bong, bong-bong of my heart.
The tip of her tongue tastes like smoked salmon, spearmint Dentyne, and … ash?
“Did you smoke something?” I ask, pulling away.
Gretchen frowns. “Yeah. I pinched some Salem Lights from my ma’s purse. So?” She pulls a crumpled pack from her back pocket and holds it out to me. “Want one?”
“I think I … Let’s try again, instead?” Gretchen nods and closes her eyes this time. I taste her again and move to put a hand on the soft new bump on her chest.
“Bring that filthy behavior indoors!” Glovey Butler caws from her third-floor rear window, bath mat still dripping dust and debris as she shakes it weakly. “This is a neighborhood, not a cowshed. And you, boy! Leave that poor girl alone. I’ll be sure to let her mother know just what kind of a gentleman you are not.”
We scramble back inside and fall on the bottom bunk, laughing. Her willowy throat rises and swells. Atjeh scrapes at the corner of my latched door and I let her in.
“Can’t kiss in front of a dog,” Gretchen smirks.
“I know. That’s why we came inside.” She guffaws, moves to me to kiss again but I pull back, reach for my comics pile by the bed. “You like Morbius?” Gretchen sits up on her elbows, looking confused. “Morbius. The Living Vampire?” I say.
“Is that … like … a movie or sumthin’?”
“Comic book character. You know. ‘Mystery. Mood. Menace. In the fearful tradition of Dracula’?”
We sit quietly for a minute or two. I can tell she wants to fool around some more but I can’t find my way back. She’s pretty enough. She’s funny. Annoying, but funny. And she keeps sitting closer to me until I can feel the warmth of her leg through my jeans.
“You want another bagel?” I ask. Gretchen twists up her face and holds her hands out, exasperated, like I just missed the easiest catch ever thrown.
Copyright © 2017 by Lou Cove