“A Real Ess-Oh-Bee"

Fiction by Rita Plush

We walked 86th Street. The trolley alongside us rode its tracks, sparks shooting off its long swaying rod, slotted into the wire strung above.

Paul, his hands sunk in his pants pockets, shirt collar open at the neck, the knot of his tie pulled down on that warm May evening, paused at a shop window, looking at the dummies inside. From cutter to pattern maker in women’s dresses, he was working himself up at The Place so he wouldn’t be a schnook all his life. My favorite was a red dress trimmed with black beads and a little jacket Mona said was a bolero. One arm raised, the other curved at her side, the dummy looked like she might start to dance.

“Be with you in a minute, Toots,” he said to Mona, after he got from her that we’d be late for the movie if he didn’t shake a leg. “Miss the newsreel is all.” He was staring into the display window, his finger moving in the air as if drawing the pattern for a new style. “Kid’s better off, if you ask me. What’s going on overseas . . . a 6-year-old needs to see that like I need a hole in the head.”

I didn’t like the war when it was on. Sirens screeching for the practice air raids, Paul in his white helmet and armband, his scary gas mask. Doing his part as an Air Raid Warden in our building . . . the least he could do. Four-F in the army — his feet were flat on the bottom. “Turn off the lights! Keep your black shades down!” he shouted to the neighbors. That was so the Germans couldn’t find us.

Mona tapped her wedgie on the ground. “Are you going to stay here all night?”

“Okay  . . . okay. . . . Who’s holding up the works? Not me,” and we hurried along.

The lion was first, raising its head and roaring from inside a circle that had ribbons trailing out of it. I grabbed Mona’s arm.

“It’s just on the screen, sweetie. It can’t hurt you.”

Next came the music. Dat-da-dummmm. . . . Dat-da-dumm. . . . Like at the circus, just before something important happened. And then it was Danny Kaye, so big on the movie screen, smiling and singing with waves in his hair, lined up one behind the other. And making funny faces even though bad men were after him. Switching places with his twin brother.

Before I knew it, like magic, my father was up on that screen — my father in heaven with my mother who I missed so much. Big and smiling, my father, in a tuxedo just like a movie star. I saw him! I heard him! Frances, Frances, my little Frances, spreading his arms out to me, taking me to his heart. And then he was gone, disappearing into Danny Kaye. I hunched forward, watching for him to come on again. Waiting, hoping for him to come back. Out of Danny Kaye. And sing to me. But he never did.

“That was fun,” Mona said when we were outside.  “Danny Kaye playing twins.”

“Otchi Tchornyaaa. . . .” Paul sang, right in front of the ticket booth like Danny Kaye in the movie, and a man threw him a penny. Paul went for the money, clamped it between his back teeth, a miner in a cowboy movie. “Thanks, pardner,” he said to the man. Mona laughed.

“Did you like the movie?” she said to me.

“Uh-huh,” I answered, the way Paul had answered Mona before, while fixed on the dummies in the store window.

“Just uh-huh? You were so far out of your seat, you were almost on the screen.”

To be with my father! I wanted to say, but I thought they would laugh at me.

“It was good,” I said.

Mona let me be. Taking hold of my hand she swung my arm back and forth as we walked along, stepping us aside to let an old woman pass. A babushka on her head, her stockings rolled down to her ankles and no teeth in her mouth. “Danke,” the woman said.

“Anyone feel like an ice cream soda?” Mona asked. She knew how I loved the ice cream parlor. The stools that spun around, the different ice creams in their big tubs. The soda jerk, pulling on the handle to let the seltzer spritz into the glass, licking off the chocolate syrup on the long-handled spoon — not the soda jerk. Me!

“I do!” I burst out. “Could I have my own soda instead of going halfies with you?”

“We’ll see,” she said, and once again we walked along.

“Could Danny Kaye be my father?” I said.

“Your father!” Mona said, and stopped our walk. “Why in the world do you want him to be your father?”

“He’s so happy and funny all the time,” I said, keeping to myself that my father was tangled up inside him, and that if Danny Kaye came out of the Oriental, my father would come out of him.   

“Don’t believe everything you see in the movies, kid,” Paul said. “It’s called play acting. Once the camera stops rolling, who knows? Your Danny Kaye could be a real S.O.B.”

“Thank you, Paul Sandler,” Mona said, and shot him one of her looks.

“What’s a real ess-oh-bee?” I said.

“It’s when someone is very mean and nasty,” Mona said.

“Worse than a ass-of-mine?”

“It’s asinine, sweetie, asinine. And S.O.B. is much worse. And you must never ever repeat it. Do you understand? Promise me, Frances, you will never use those words again.”

I looked up at Mona. “I promise,” I said. “I never will say them.”

Rosalie Goldfarb started it. During recess. Out in the playground, the little showoff in her blue cape with slits for her arms to go through. And Mary Janes — to school! —  and white anklets over her cotton stockings. Thought she was so great because her father was a dock-ter. That’s how she said it: My father is a dock-ter! I knew that! He was Mona’s doctor in the doorman building across the street, and if he was such a good doctor why didn’t he help Mona get a baby, she’d been trying for so long.

Always bragging about her father and making herself special. I wanted a father to brag about. I wanted special. So when Rosalie told me he was taking her to visit her grandma on a sleeper train with a regular bed in it, an idea began to curve around my brain.

“So what!” I said. “My father is Danny Kaye!”

“Is not!” she said. “You’re lying,” like she was a teacher and she knew things. 

“Is too! He’s in Hollywood, and he’s going to send for me, and I’m going to go to a nightclub and have my breakfast there.” Trying to remember everything I saw in the movie, I used my imagination for good measure. “And Virginia Mayo is going to take me to the zoo!”

“You don’t even have a father,” she said. “Or a mother. So there!” She stamped her patent leather foot on the playground floor.  

I knew I didn’t have them, but her words sent a shock through my whole body. As if someone had come up behind me and said Boo! She made me jump.

“That’s how much you know,” I said. But she did know, and now the children who had gathered around us, watching, listening, they also knew. 

“You’re an orphan,” she said, all nasty.

My eyes began to water. I blinked back the tears, thinking about Orphan Annie in the comics who had a dog named Sandy following her around like Sunshine followed me. Thinking about mean Mrs. Warbucks who kept sending her back to nasty Miss Asthma at The Home.

Mean and nasty, mean and nasty. I pressed my lips together and bit back the words I promised Mona I never would say. But they kept getting bigger and bigger till they were so big in my mouth they pushed it open.

“If I’m a orphan then you’re a real ess-oh-bee!” I said, at the same time Mrs. Helbund, the recess teacher nobody liked, walked over. Squeezing fingers yanked my arm; smelly breath was in my face. “What was that?” Yank.  “I’m talking to you, missy.” Yank. “What did I hear you say?” Her mouth a line stitched across her face.

“You’re hurting me,” I whined. She eased her grip.

“She called me an S.O.B.” Tattletale Rosalie. 

“I thought so!” Mrs. Helbund’s voice was high and tight, like Mrs. Warbucks would be: “Off to the principal’s office with you, young lady.” Back to the home with you, young lady!

The principal’s office? No girls went to the principal’s office. Only boys. Ass-of-mine boys, like Tony Mancuso who did bad things and used bad words.

“You come along too, dear,” she said to stuck-up Rosalie Goldfarb. Then she blew her whistle. “Phweeet. . . .” So close to my ear.  The playground lined up. Neat and tidy rows, shortest in front, tall ones behind, all set to return to their rooms, while I trundled along after Mrs. Helbund.

Huffing, chuffing, clearing her throat as if there was a fishbone stuck in it: “We’ll see what Mr. Langly has to say about this!” she said, and left me to worry on a hard wooden bench outside his office, my face hurting, my head ringing with the whistle noise still in it.

“Horace Langly, principal,” it said on the cloudy glass of his door, the bottom part wood.

“Frances, what’s the matter? What are you doing here?”

It was Marla Slotkin on an errand for her teacher. Her father was my lawyer trying to get Mona and Paul to adopt me instead of my Aunt Nettie, who Paul said had a face that could stop a clock.

“Waiting for the principal,” I answered. “I said bad words to Rosalie Goldfarb, and Mrs. Helbund heard me.”

“That old sourpuss. Huch-huch.” She made a sound like Mrs. Helbund. “What bad words?”

“I called Rosalie a real ess-oh-bee.”

Marla’s cheeks puffed up till I thought she was going to explode, then “Phuuh!” she said.  “Where did you hear that!”

“From Paul.”

“My father says it too. Do you know what it means?”

“Mona said very mean and nasty, and I promised her I never would say them.”

Marla looked to one side of her, then the other, leaned into me, and with her face bang up against mine said, “It means son-of-a-bitch.”

“What’s that?” 

“It’s a really bad curse word. But don’t worry. My father’s your lawyer, remember? Mr. Langly tries to punish you, he’ll sue the pants off him.”

TO BE CONTINUED



Rita Plush is the author of “Alterations,” a short story collection, and two novels, “Lily Steps Out,” and “Feminine Products,” which will be published this summer. “A Real Ess-Oh-Bee” is an excerpt from “I’m Frances,” an upcoming novel.