The Punky Wunkies, Part One
Books Available on Amazon by Aya Katz
“Talli got a little upset today,” Mrs. Truitt says when I come to pick her up from preschool. “She didn’t cry or anything, but her eyes got very big and she turned away from me and wouldn’t say anything. She was pretty upset.”
Talli is holding onto my hand, and I’ve got her back pack in the other. “What happened?” I ask.
“Well, I just asked her what Easter meant to her, and she wouldn’t say anything. Refused to answer. So then she couldn’t participate in our activity….”
“Oh! Oh, that’s my fault,” I say. “I forgot to tell her about Easter.”
Mrs. Truitt gives me an odd look, as if I had forgotten to teach my daughter about gravity and as a result she had just floated away.
“We don’t celebrate Easter,” I say. “And it just didn’t seem very important.”
“Well, we’re having an Easter party this Thursday,” Mrs. Truitt says. “There’ll be an egg hunt and treats and stuff.”
“Does Talli need to bring anything?” I ask.
“No, everything will be provided. I just thought you should know. You might want to prepare her.”
“Right. Yes. I will fill her in.”
On the way home, I ask Talli what she knows about Easter.
“Is it the holiday of love?” she asks, confused.
“No, that was Valentine’s Day. Easter is the Spring Holiday.”
“Oh, right. Because it’s spring now, and the grass is growing and there are even dandelions.”
Talli is happy. It all makes sense to her now.
We stop by at the local store to pick up a gallon of milk and a popsicle for Talli. My neighbor, Mrs. Morton, spots us and insists on introducing us to her friend. “Imogene, this is that nice young woman, I was telling you about, who moved into the old Dent house with her little girl, Mrs. Kiddem.”
“Qedem,” I say. I don’t bother to correct the Missus part.
“Right. And she’s come all the way from New York,” Mrs. Morton adds.
“Texas,” I say, trying to smile.
“Oh, dear, is that right? But I’m sure you told me something else…”
“Originally, I’m from Israel,” I say.
“Oh, that was it,” says Mrs. Morton. “I remember your telling me you were Jewish.”
“Actually, I didn’t say that at all,” I reply. But Mrs. Morton doesn’t seem to have noticed, and she goes on telling her friend Imogene all about me, and she’s still at it when we’ve paid for our groceries and are driving away.
It was always like that, right from the beginning. I remember standing in line in front of the list of students who were assigned to each of the fifth grade classes in my elementary school in Ann Arbor in the fall of 1970. And because I was new, I had to ask someone what the line was for. Behind me, I heard a girl say: “She talks funny.”
It seemed like an odd thing to say. I remember thinking: “Shouldn’t she have said ‘funnily’, since it would have to be an adverb?” But then I realized, they were talking about me. I had been to school in the U.S. before and my English was very good, but that was two years earlier, and my American accent was a little rusty.
“Ya’el comes from Israel,” Mrs. Bridges introduced me, once I arrived in the correct classroom. “Can you tell us a little about Israel, Ya’el?”
“What do you want to know?” I asked, confused.
“What do they wear in Israel?” a redheaded little girl at the front of the class asked.
“Pretty much the same things as here,” I said. They all looked a little disappointed, so I added: “But the hemlines are higher on dresses.”
“How could they possibly be any higher than this?” the redhead asked. I looked down at my dress and realized I was behind the times. The hemlines in Israel had been higher in 1968 when I was here before, because Tel Aviv is closer to Paris than New York is, but this was 1970, and the U.S. had caught up to the Parisian trend by then.
“What do they eat there?” A boy in the back of the room asked.
Again, I was confused. “Nothing special,” I said. “Mostly meat and potatoes.” They looked bored, so I added: “Israeli bread is much better than American, but American meat tastes better than Israeli.”
That was pretty much my moment of fame, and after that, none of my classmates asked me anything about Israel ever again. When I went back to my desk, a shy, plump girl said to me: “My name is Carol, and I’m Jewish, too.”
She stood there expectantly, as if she thought I was going to hug her like a long lost sister. “Well, bully for you,” I said, using a phrase I had picked up in a book I was reading. “I’m not,” I added, but she was so hurt that she may not have heard me as she hurried back to her seat.
“In the spring, the birds build their nests and lay eggs,” I tell Talli, as we drive down the long and winding dirt road that leads to our house.
“Yes,” she says. “And there are baby birds in the eggs, and the snakes want to eat them. But the snakes shouldn’t eat them, because eggs belong to birds and not to snakes.”
“Mmm, yes,” I say. “The snakes lay their own eggs, too, only their eggs are soft and leathery and on the ground.”
“Yes,” says Talli. “If the snakes want to eat eggs, they should eat their own eggs. They shouldn’t eat the birds’ eggs, because they don’t belong to them.”
“Mmm hmm.” I’m trying to go somewhere with this story, but Talli has her own agenda. She’s remembering the time we went to look at the nest above our front door, only to find the tail of a big, black rat snake hanging out of it, while the parent birds fluttered about hysterically. “Let’s go look at something else, now,” I had said.
That was last year, before preschool, and the whole issue of Easter had never come up. It was all just grass and dandelions and birds’ nests and snakes.
“Birds’ eggs have many different colors and sizes, depending on which bird it is,” I say. “Some are blue or pink or…”
“Girl birds like pink eggs,” Talli says.
“Hmm… Well, I don’t know about that. Anyway, a long time ago children used to go hunting for bird eggs every spring. It was a game that they liked to play, to see who would find the most eggs.”
“But the eggs belonged to the birds,” Talli says. “Were those bad children who took the eggs?”
I think about it. “Well, the birds probably thought so.”
We only had one car when we were living in Ann Arbor. It was a golden Ford Maverick, and my father needed it every day to drive to the University. So I had to walk to school. And because I had no friends, I had to walk to school alone.
“Hey, you, wait up!” A boy a head taller than me came up from behind and suddenly stood in my way. I blinked.
“What grade are you in?” he demanded.
“That can’t be right,” he said. “I’m in fourth grade and I’m much bigger than you. You can’t be in fifth grade.”
“There’s no height requirement,” I answered.
“For enrollment in fifth grade, the only requirement is age. You have to be ten years old by the first of September.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, how old are you?”
“You are not,” he challenged. “You’re too little to be ten.”
“Height and age are not the same thing,” I said. I didn’t know the word for “correlate”, so I said: “I mean, you can’t tell in advance how tall a person will be, just from knowing how old he is. And you can’t tell how old they must be, just from knowing how tall they are.”
The boy blinked uncomprehendingly. He called to a group of four younger children, three boys and a girl. “She says she’s ten. Hah!” The three boys pretended to be very amused, and the girl just rubbed her eyes. He turned back to me. “You’re not much taller’n Lizzie over here, and she’s only five.”
That was an exaggeration. I was at least three inches taller than the smallest of them. Anyway, I just shrugged and kept on walking. It didn’t seem very important what they thought.
“You’re weird!” the boy called after me.
I wasn’t sure at the time whether that was a compliment or not. In my class, on the first day of school, the children who knew one another kept pushing each other and saying “You’re weird!” and giggling, to which their friends would reply: “No, you’re weird!” They seemed to enjoy this ritual and kept repeating it over and over again. I did not know what weird meant, so I had to go home and look it up. I decided that despite the dictionary definition, it must be some sort of endearing epithet. I decided to use it on my friends, as soon as I had any.
However, at the moment, I had no friends. Nobody in my class said I was weird. They were all very polite and nice and friendly. They just didn’t want to spend any extra time with me, if they could help it.
I wasn’t shy. I went right up to the most popular girl in class – Margie Dixon – and invited her to come over and play. “I live at the Village Green Apartments,” I said. “You could just walk home with me tomorrow, if your mother says it’s okay.”
She looked at me kindly. “Um, I think I’m busy tomorrow.”
I tried several other times, but she was always busy.
“Where we come from, there was a goddess called Ashtoret,” I tell Talli, after I’ve tucked her in.
“What kind of goddess?” she asks.
“A beautiful goddess,” I say.
“Did she have a pretty dress?” she asks.
“Yes, I think so. If she wore anything at all. Sometimes she liked to dress in flowers. She liked to make things bloom and to help plants grow and to help women make new babies.”
“Did she look like Cinderella? Did she have a pink dress like my Cinderella doll?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Then I don’t want to talk about her. I want you to tell me a different story,” Talli insists. “A story about a beautiful girl in a pink dress.”
“But I want to tell you about Easter…”
“Tell me about Easter some other time.”
At the Village Green, we had a two bedroom apartment. I had to share a room with my mother and baby brother. My father was in grad school, so he needed a room to himself.
I had been disappointed when this arrangement had been finalized, because my mother had promised I could have my own room.
“But she said…”
“Ya’el, don’t you know by now that it’s what I say that counts?”
I didn’t look at him. It was my own fault, because I had believed my mother. Again. She had lied to me so many times, but it was so hard not to be taken in by her. “Well, I don’t see why she had to lie to me about this…”
“She may not have lied,” my father said. “It was probably wishful thinking.”
I went outside to play on the grass, while they yelled at each other. My mother said that all married people yelled like that. It was normal. I didn’t want to be normal, and I was never going to get married.
“Look, nobody will even know,” my mother tried to solace me later.
“How can they not know? How will I explain this extra bed?”
“We’ll tell them it’s for guests, like when your grandmother comes over. I’ll sew on a nice coverlet and it will be just like a sofa for guests.”
She was even more embarrassed than I was by this arrangement. I never had to clean my own room, because she was my secret roommate who did all the chores.
My mother made sure that the baby never cried, so that my father would sleep through the night and study in the daytime. She was wonderfully frugal, and fixed delicious meals on a meager stipend intended to support a single student, not a whole family. When she wasn’t serving as our maid, housekeeper, cook and nanny, she complained loudly about her lot in life and how nobody really appreciated her.
Anyway, I needn’t have worried what anybody would say, because nobody came over. I wasn’t making any headway with my classmates. The more I invited them, the better their excuses got. Nobody ever said “No.”
“Americans are afraid to say `no’,” my father explained when I told him about it. “They value politeness over the truth.”
“But how can it be polite to mislead someone like this?”
“They think they’re sparing you the pain of being rejected.”
“But, obviously, that’s not true. Eventually, I know I’ve been rejected. It just takes me longer to find out for sure. I waste a lot of time and energy on follow up invitations just in case the excuse they give is true.” I furrowed my brow. “Also, they make it harder for me to trust anybody. Someday, someone might tell me he can’t make it because he’s busy, and it will really be true, but I won’t believe him. It’s a terribly irresponsible thing they are doing, lying like that. Who knows how many innocent people are hurt because of it. Not just me.”
My father laughed at my righteous tone, but he didn’t contradict what I said. The fact is, we were all achingly lonely during that first year after we left Israel for good. I could feel a sharp pang somewhere near my heart almost all the time, as if I would burst into tears at any moment, because of what I had left behind. We listened to old records of Palmach songs together all three, and we wished we had someone to share them with.
We had been in the U.S. before, for two years at a time, but it had never felt like this. Then, we knew we would be coming back. Now it was for good. We could never return, and it filled us with a gnawing nostalgia and an incurable homesickness.
On the way to school that day, with the chill of autumn in the air and the leaves turning colors everywhere, I heard some chanting right behind me, and then laughter. I was busy thinking up a poem about loneliness, so it took me a long time to notice what was going on. It was that fourth grader and his four siblings, grades three to K, and they were chanting: “Punky-Wunky! Punky-Wunky!” and pointing at me. They found this extremely amusing and so every once in a while they would stop, overcome by laughter.
My ears reddened and I quickened my pace. What was their problem? Had I ever done anything to them? I walked faster and made it into the classroom long before the bell rang.
In my desk, I found some sheet music and a romanized version of Havah Nagillah. I was really furious now. “Who put this here?” I asked.
That Jewess, Carol, was stooped over her desk. She looked guilty. “Did you put that in my desk?” I yelled at her.
“I thought it would make you feel at home,” she mumbled.
“Do you think that’s what we sing?” I asked, full of derision. “Do you think we have nothing better to sing than that?” My favorite songs were about heroes dying in battle, not hedonists rejoicing in brotherly love.
Before dinner, I play a Yaffa Yarkoni CD of Palmach songs.
“What is this song about?” Talli asks.
“The woman is crying because she doesn’t want the man to leave.”
“Is that because she’s afraid that after he leaves a big monster will come and eat her up?”
I laugh. “No, it’s because he has to go to war, and she’s afraid he’ll be killed in battle and she’ll never see him again.”
“Oh.” Talli is frowning, obviously thinking this over. “And then, after he’s dead, she’s afraid the monster will come?”
“There’s no monster,” I say. Talli gives me a doubtful look.
When the leaves began to turn red and gold and orange and purple, I felt very young and very old at the same time. I felt much older than my ten years, but not like an old woman, more like a young one. Anything could happen. The world was a mysterious place.
I hardly noticed anything around me as I walked to and from school, because I was busy thinking up stories that I would write in my almost indecipherable hand and which would be read with interest by Mrs. Bridges, my homeroom teacher. The occasional chant of “Punky-Wunky” would break into my reveries, and I never seemed to notice where those children had come from. They just sort of materialized somewhere along my path.
Since they were only hurling epithets at me, not stones, I found it pretty easy to ignore them. However, in the back of my mind, a certain amount of apprehension was beginning to build up. It was too much like something I had seen before.
My father and I rode our bikes around the Village Green, and once we discovered a slightly damaged but mostly serviceable old armchair by the garbage bins. Like co-conspirators, we contrived to bring it up the stairs to our second floor apartment.
My mother was not very happy about it. There was a lot of yelling, during which my father’s family of origin and their uncouth ways were the apparent subject under the discussion.
By dinner time, my mother had accepted the new armchair and was making plans to reupholster it herself, using scrap material from the corduroy dresses she had been making for the two of us, a mother-daughter get up inspired by something she had seen in a magazine.
“Ya’el, did you use up all the toilet paper today?” my mother asked, over our meat and potato dinner.
“There was nearly a quarter of a roll left,” she said.
“Um… I don’t know…”
“She uses toilet paper as if it grew on trees,” she said, turning to my father. “Why back in Beit HaPo’el, we used the newspaper. We didn’t have any toilet paper. And we had to share our subscription with the family next door, and it wasn’t much of a newspaper, so there were only four sheets to last us a week, for eight people. How can you be so wasteful?”
“The people of Beit HaPo’el must have been constipated,” I said.
This brought on several more curses, implicating me and my father’s mother and her grandfather, the rabbi of an obscure village in Poland.
“Are we poor?” I asked.
“Poor?!” My mother was still angry, so she made it sound as if I had slighted her. “Why would you think that?”
“You’re always so worried about being wasteful…”
“So, you think that poor people worry about that? Don’t you know the poor are the most wasteful people in the world? Don’t you know that’s how people get to be poor, by being wasteful?”
I turned to my father. “Are we poor?”
“No,” he said. “We have no debt. We have twenty thousand dollars in the bank. And we are living within our current income. So, no, we are not poor.”
“But we have almost no furniture…”
“You can’t judge how rich someone is by how much furniture he has,” my father said. “Besides, we have this excellent new armchair…”
My mother groaned.
“The poor have no discretionary income,” my father explained. “They spend almost one hundred percent of their income on basic necessities like food and shelter.”
“And toilet paper?” I asked.
“And toilet paper,” he agreed. “So then, they have to work at any job they can get, because they can’t afford not to work. That makes them slaves to their employers. But we… If I don’t get a job as an engineer next year after I graduate, we can buy a farm and raise sheep.”
My mother was not impressed by this plan. She was frowning, and it was etching deep furrows between her brows. She came from an agricultural community, but she did not want us to return to the land.
“Don’t make wrinkles,” I told her. “Still, it feels a little as if we were poor. I feel much poorer this year than I did last year.”
“We’re refugees,” my father said. “That’s different. It will take time to get resettled. We have to get used to this new … country.”
“But we were in America two years ago,” I insisted, “and it didn’t feel like this.”
“We were guests then. Now we live here.”
“And we had friends then,” I added. “ And now… we don’t.”
“Those weren’t real friends.”
“Aren’t you making any friends?” my mother suddenly intervened.
“No… I’m afraid it’s quite the opposite.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are some children who call me names.”
“No. On the way to school.”
“What do they call you?” my father asked.
“What does it mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“What does it derive from?” he insisted. “What is the etymology?”
“I think ‘punk’ means a young, immature … hoodlum,” I said.
“And why do they call you that?”
I laughed. “As near as I can make out, they are upset that I’m in fifth grade even though I’m shorter than average.”
“Well,” my father said, “that’s nothing to worry about. Consider yourself lucky that this is what they think is wrong with you. Only in America can children feel free to torment each other over such a perfectly innocent, harmless thing.”
“But I can’t help being short…”
“Yes, which means they can’t possibly coerce you into growing any taller,” he said. “Now, isn’t that much better than religious persecution?”
“Did you know that Jehovah watches out for single mothers?”
The two women peer at me from the small crack in the front door. They are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and apparently someone has clued them into my marital status.
“No, I didn’t know that.”
“Look,” the younger, prettier woman says, offering me their monthly publication. “It says so right here…”
I glance at the verse, then look up at her. “The translation isn’t correct,” I say. “It’s widows and orphans, not women without men and fatherless children.”
“Yes, widows and orphans,” the older woman says. “That’s exactly it. Widows are women without men, don’t you agree? And orphans are fatherless children.”
“Widows may be women without men, but not all women without men are widows,” I say. “Some orphans are fatherless children, but not all fatherless children are orphans.”
The distinction is lost on the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They must have flunked fifth grade set theory.
When the snow was on ground, the Punky-Wunkies started throwing snow balls at me. My parents told me that throwing snow balls was a sign of affection. I should throw snow balls back at them, and then we would become fast friends. I wasn’t good at throwing, so mine never hit the intended target, but theirs were quite a nuisance for me. I wasn’t good at pretending to enjoy it. Sometimes it really hurt.
However, things at school were not going so badly for me. I was in the highest reading class; Mrs. Bridges let me write stories in my spare time after finishing regular assignments; and even math, a subject I really didn’t like that much, was interesting, because we were studying set theory. I was pretty good at that sort of thing.
My most difficult subject was spelling. I was in the lowest class for that. I simply couldn’t find any pattern to guide me in the spelling of English words. Memorizing seemed the only solution, but I wasn’t very good at memorizing things I didn’t understand.
“I think there’s something wrong with your spelling system,” I told Mrs. Bridges.
Yaffa Yarkoni -- "Believe a Day Will Come"
“Really?” She smiled. “Were you a good speller in Hebrew?”
I thought about that. “Much better than this. But not so good really. I missed first and second grade, because we were in the U.S. So then when I started third grade, my spelling was a lot worse than everybody else’s. Anyway, most things are pretty straightforward in Hebrew, except for some sounds that we don’t make anymore, so it wasn’t so bad. But I was just fine in fourth grade, because they had this boy sitting by me whose parents spoke Arabic.”
“How did that help?” Mrs. Bridges asked. “Did you copy off him? Was he a good student?”
“No, he was a bad student. That’s why they asked him to sit by me. Because I was considered a good student, and they thought I could help him. But all I had to do is get him to say a word, and I immediately knew how to spell it.”
Mrs. Bridges frowned. “How did that work?”
“He pronounced words the way they were written.” I laughed. “He was like a walking dictionary. Only he didn’t know it. That was just the way he talked.” I added: “His name was Sassy. That’s short for happiness or joy or something like that.”
Mrs. Bridges prodded: “And he was your friend?”
That question surprised me. “Well, no. I liked him, and he was very nice. But no, he wasn’t my friend.”
Mrs. Truitt is reading the children a story, before they are allowed to go on their Easter egg hunt. I’m sitting with Talli on the blue story-time rug. She keeps turning around and looking at me, and I keep motioning for her to turn around and attend to the story. It is about Clifford the Big Red Dog, and how he helped his friend T-Bone fill his Easter basket, despite T-Bone’s incompetence at egg hunting. Clifford and each of his friends tipped over the baskets of their human masters, removing one egg a piece from the horde accumulated by each child, so that T-Bone could then find the filched eggs and fill his own basket.
This story condones stealing, I marvel. Or maybe it’s taxation. I’m not sure which. None of the children are paying much attention to the story. In the end, Mrs. Truitt reads them a list of multiple choice questions.
“T-Bone is very lucky because,” goes the last of the questions, “(a) he has found many eggs… (b) he has lots of good things to eat … or (c) he has good friends?” Mrs. Truitt waits for the children to answer.
“He has lots of good things to eat,” the children chime in half-heartedly.
“No!” Mrs. Truitt says. “He has good friends.”
“Good friends,” the children chorus.
Talli has ignored the quizzing process and is looking at me again. She says in Hebrew: “I think we can go outside now.”
In fact, I had never had true friends. In my third and fourth grade classes in Israel, none of the children were my friends. It just didn’t bother me at the time, because I wasn’t lonely.
Oh, there had been Hedva, a frequent companion, one year my junior and the daughter of my mother’s friend. I liked her very much, but she was hardly a soul mate. If interacting with her was a breeze, it was because we demanded so little of each other. Why had I suddenly grown so desperate for true friendship?
It’s an odd moment in your life, when you first realize that it isn’t the absence of friends that makes you lonely, but rather loneliness that drives you to seek friends.
Mrs. Bridges’ question about Sassy had gotten me to thinking, and I suddenly realized that I didn’t miss having friends. I just missed being happy.
“How is it that I never needed friends before?” I asked my father. “I mean, I had people to play with, but they weren’t really friends. And I have people to play with here. The kids from downstairs play with me sometimes. Yet, I’m lonely.”
“Maybe you’re growing up,” my father said. “We don’t start needing real friends until we get to a certain age.”
“That’s nonsense,” my mother says. “I always had friends. Why, all the children of Beit HaPo’el were my friends. We went everywhere together, playing in the orchards, stealing pommellos. Whatever one of us was doing, we were all doing. And it’s safer that way. If you had friends, those children wouldn’t bother you on the way to school.”
It was true. My mother always had friends, but they didn’t really know each other. They didn’t know anybody. They took turns talking, but nobody listened. I needed so much for someone to listen to me.
“I wish I had a brother,” I said aloud, to no one in particular.
“You do have a brother,” my mother said, cramming his little mouth full of applesauce. “He’s right here.” My brother grunted, as if to prove it was true.
“No, I mean a big brother, who could walk to school with me,” I said. “A big brother who could play with me, and could decipher my secret messages.”
“It’s too late for that,” my father said. “No point in wishing for it. You can never have an older brother. You were the first.”
But Christmas was approaching and magic was in the air, and I felt that I ought to have at least one wish granted.
I am no athlete. I never will be. I did not enjoy games like tag or ball. I avoided them. I was a doll player.
I had brought with me from Israel two dolls. I had reluctantly left behind many more dolls. I gave my prettiest doll, Miri, to Hedva. Miri had long red hair and greenish blue eyes. She had a mysterious smile on her lips. It was charming during the day, when I knew myself to be safe, but it seemed utterly evil when beheld at night. It was a sorceress’ smile.
The dolls that I brought with me to America were Baal and Anat. Baal was a boy doll. He was a big doll with short cropped brown hair and big blue eyes. (He had been a girl doll named Babette before I changed him into a boy. My father had obliged me by fitting him with a fake wooden penis.) Anat was a small redhead, with green eyes. She was vaguely related to Miri, coming as she did from the same factory in Italy. I named them after my favorite gods, a brother and sister pair.
I found that playing dolls with the younger children of the Village Green was not enjoyable. Their games were childish. A game of theirs consisted of someone being the mother and telling everyone else what to do. They had no drama.
I missed Israel. I missed Hedva. Nobody knew how to play games properly here. No one understood me.
At night, I would lie awake and think about Israel and Hedva. Sometimes I would spend a day pretending that Hedva had come for a visit and I was showing her around. I tried to see everything as if it were brand new, from her perspective as a tourist.
Hedva, imperfect as she was, knew me better than anyone here possibly could. But it was all the things that I would never have to explain to her, the things we took for granted, that made playing with her so easy. It wasn’t that she was unique. She was just Israeli, that’s all.
“I want my dolls to come to life,” I told my mother matter-of-factly one day after school.
“Okay,” she said. “Just don’t use too much toilet paper.”
“I’m playing Mrs. Santa Claus at the class Christmas party,” I added.
My mother was changing the baby. She had a safety pin in her mouth. Most people around us used disposal diapers, but my brother was strictly in cloth. This kept my mother busy washing his diapers in the sink and airing them over the bathtub all day long. I couldn’t tell whether she had heard me and was humoring my childish game, or was too self-absorbed to realize that at least one of the things I had said was implausible.
Recently, my classmates had discovered that I had a decided talent for playing little old ladies. In the class play earlier in the semester, they wouldn’t cast me as a girl my own age, because I wasn’t convincing in the part, but I got really great reactions when I played a clumsy, grandmotherly type. When I tried out for Mrs. Santa Claus I was unanimously voted the part. Apparently, I was a born crone.
As I handed out treats at the Christmas party, I had them rolling in the aisles. It wasn’t that my jokes were all that clever, but I had the mannerisms down right. “And have you been a good little girl?” I said in a raspy voice, bending toward Carol the Jew as I handed her a goody bag.
Everybody else laughed, even Margie Dixon, but Carol just glowered at me. Accepting gifts from Mrs. Claus was against her religion or something. As I basked in the momentary popularity, I was vaguely aware of the hurt look she directed my way.
The popularity in class while playing a role quickly faded as soon as the costume was discarded, but I was oddly cheerful, nonetheless.
I had a plan. My plan was this: I would leave my dolls under the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, and the next morning I would find them transformed into flesh and blood. The thought of this plan kept me going throughout the month of December.
I wasn’t a complete fool. I knew dolls didn’t come to life. I knew that they were made of plastic and had no hearts or brains or insides. Deep down, I knew they would not be transformed. But I couldn’t think of anything else. Baal and Anat were my only hope.
I had it all planned. My parents would have to accept Baal and Anat when they came to life. What else could they do? Baal would walk with me to school. Just let the Punky-Wunkies approach! Baal would be in my class. Mrs. Bridges would like him. I would be proud of him and of his many accomplishments. Meanwhile, Anat would be at home with my mother. She was too small to go to school. My mother would find in Anat the kind of dutiful daughter that she had always wanted. (Anat would not use much toilet paper.) She would play with the baby and help my mother to clip coupons from the local paper so that my father’s stipend would somehow manage to feed two more mouths. When Baal and I would return from school, side by side, Anat would rush out to greet us. In the evening, we would all sit on the arms of the chair my father and I had rescued from the garbage, while he sat in the middle, reading to us from the Ugaritic texts.
On Christmas Eve, I put the dolls under the tree and covered them with a blanket. I said “good night.” I think I must have said more than just “good night,” but I can’t remember.
The next morning I rushed out of bed to the Christmas tree. I uncovered the dolls. They were not changed.
Mrs. Truitt is lining up the children, each with a plastic bucket for an Easter basket. “Now, remember, boys and girls, you can only get five. Once you have five eggs in your basket, you have to stop. Then just line up by the fence until everybody else has finished. Do we all know how many five is?”
“Yeah!” the children shout out holding up their hands.
Mrs. Truitt inspects the line-up. “No, Jordan, that’s ten. Five is just one hand.”
Jordan hides the other hand behind his back.
“And get that Easter basket off your head,” she adds. “It’s not a hat.”
Talli had been about to follow Jordan’s example by wearing her own bucket as a helmet, but she checks herself in the nick of time, before Mrs. Truitt has to reprimand her.
Then they march out single file, in search of their five eggs.
What fun is an egg hunt, if you know in advance precisely how many eggs you will get? I’m the only one who is bothered by this, however. Once past the playground gate, the children dash about madly gathering eggs which have hardly been hidden at all, as if it were a race where the real object is finishing first.
By the time Valentine’s Day rolled around, I had one friend. Sort of. Her name was Kerry Cassidy, and I didn’t ask her over. She asked me.
I was still reeling from the disappointment of Christmas, of having to live in a bleak and desolate reality, where dreams do not come true and there aren’t any miracles.
I was rather ashamed of this foray into wishful thinking and expressed regret that I might have disappointed my father by straying into the realm of superstition. But he said that as long as I set a firm deadline for the transformation, there was nothing wrong in trying.
“The difference between superstition and science,” my father said, “is that a scientific hypothesis is falsifiable. You wanted to see if you could bring your dolls to life by December 25 and you found that you could not. So now you know. The problem with religious mumbo-jumbo is not that it’s magical; it’s that it’s set up so that there’s no way to determine if the thing happened or not.” He made some reference to turning wine into blood, but I was thinking about something else.
When he said that, about the way I had set up the experiment, I realized, belatedly that if I had set the deadline a little further back, I might still be hopeful of success. But it was too late now. I no longer believed.
“Well, do you have some other, more realistic plans for making friends?” my father asked.
“Oh, yeah, right.” I mumbled. Actually, I had no plans. The whole turning plastic into flesh scenario was an act of complete desperation.
“Maybe if you organize your efforts more efficiently,” my father said, “you can achieve your objective faster.”
“How do you mean?”
“How many people have you asked so far?”
“To be my friend? Nobody. You can’t ask somebody that. It sounds stupid.”
“Well, how many children have you invited over?”
“Just Margie Dixon, and then when that didn’t work, Scott Seymour, and then Mary McGinnis, and I was going to ask Peter Morton, but then he was absent the day I had made up my mind to ask him.”
“So you mean to say that in five months, you’ve asked three people?”
“And how many people are in your class?”
“At this rate you will not get to more than six of them by the time the school year is over.”
“I guess not.”
“What’s the hold up?”
“Well, you ask them once, and they don’t say no. They say, I’m busy that day. Or I have to go to my grandparents’ house. Or I have piano lessons, or something like that. And even though you’re pretty sure they’re lying, you have to give them the benefit of the doubt. So you make up your mind to ask them again some other time, just in case it was a scheduling problem. So then you do ask again. And the same thing happens, only their excuse is different. So you think, they’re probably lying, but I’d better give them one more chance. So you wait again. And you try again. And by the time you get the third rejection from the same person, a whole month has gone by.”
My father laughed. “Couldn’t you ask more than one person at the same time?”
“I don’t want more than one person at the same time. It’s distracting. I only need one best friend.”
“Well, you won’t get more than one person,” my father said. “So far you’ve gotten nobody. Why don’t you make a list of all your classmates in order of you preference, and start asking five a week? Wouldn’t that be faster?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “I never thought of being scientific about this. I could try that.”
They gave us a list of all the students before Valentine’s Day, because we were required to prepare Valentine cards for each and every one of them. Not only was no one on the list to be excluded, but Mrs. Bridges said the cards had to be of the same size and value, so that no one would be left out or unduly favored.
“Isn’t the point of these cards to say that you really like someone?” I asked Mrs. Bridges privately, when I was handing in a problem set.
“Well, yes, Ya’el, but if we show favoritism, then somebody might get their feelings hurt.”
I almost laughed in her face. But I composed myself and said: “Yes, I see you have a point there.”
So I took the list, and I recopied it, in the order of my preference. And just as I was finishing, Kerry Cassidy came by my desk and looked over my shoulder and said: “Hey, that’s my name. Right by the number twenty-eight.”
I felt embarrassed, but she didn’t seem to understand the significance of the list. “Hey, I thought you were a great Mrs. Santa Claus,” she said. “Would you like to come over to my house sometime?”
Talli is one of the stragglers among the egg hunters. She takes a leisurely stroll in the playground, eventually finding four eggs. One of the teenaged girls who are helping Mrs. Truitt with the hunt discovers a sixth egg in somebody’s basket and redistributes it to Talli.
“Look,” Talli says to me, holding up her bucket. “I have five.”
Kerry Cassidy lived in one of the brick houses in the residential neighborhood in which the elementary school was centrally located. The Village Green lay well outside the circle of story book houses, on the other side of a two-lane feeder road. Kerry led me through the ice encrusted streets to her house the following day after school. I was a little afraid of another attack from the Punky-Wunkies, but they were nowhere in evidence. Perhaps they saw that I had an escort, and I was no longer fair game.
There wasn’t much to do at Kerry’s house. She poured me a soda and we sat for some time saying nothing, because there was nothing to say.
Finally, she cleared her throat and said: “We have to be quiet, so as not to wake the baby. He’s asleep.”
I cheered up. “Oh, you have a baby brother, too!”
“No, he’s not my brother,” she said. “He’s my nephew. My sister’s baby.”
“Oh.” I thought about this for a while. “Is your sister married?” I asked.
“Oh!” This was the happiest news I had heard in a long time. I could barely contain my excitement. Two years earlier I had given up on the idea of marriage, and decided that when I grew up, I would have a baby that was just mine and nobody else’s. When I told my mother of this plan, she was very discouraging. She said nobody could have a baby on their own without people thinking they were immoral or something. “Not even if they were raped?” I asked. “Well, I suppose if they were raped…” “Then I’ll get raped,” I said. And here was Kerry Cassidy’s sister, probably not even having to pretend she was raped, with an illegitimate baby and right out in the open! America was the land of opportunity.
“Could I see the baby?” I asked. “I promise I’ll be quiet.”
“Sure.” Kerry shrugged, finished off her soda and led me to the room, which was done all in blue and had a shepherd boy motif. Kerry’s nephew had a much more impressive set up than did my own brother.
I cut my visit short to the Cassidy household, and ran all the way home through the frozen streets to announce to my mother that dreams could come true. I arrived out of breath and panting and could barely get out the words: “Kerry’s sister was raped!”
“Well, okay, she probably wasn’t raped. But she had a baby without getting married. And her parents let her keep it. Isn’t that great!”
“Can we go to Wal-Mart?” Talli asks as we drive home from the pre-school Easter egg party.
“Why do you want to go to Wal-Mart?”
“I want you to buy me something.”
“Really? But look at all this loot you got at the party. Don’t you want to finish that first?”
“I don’t want a treat,” Talli says.
“I want you to buy me a friend.”
When the snow melted, the Punky-Wunkies started picking up stones and hurling them at me. Most of them missed, but there were always a few that hit the mark.
Kerry Cassidy occasionally appeared for unannounced visits at my apartment, usually accompanied by her neighbor Violet. Kerry’s favorite game was pretending that she was a mean and nasty cowboy who kidnapped two women, (Violet and me), making one of them his sex-slave and the other his maid. At first, I appreciated the dramatic elements in this set-up, but it soon turned out that Kerry was mostly interested in the sadomasochistic aspect of the game, and she ignored the opportunity to explore subtle social issues, like the relationship between the sex-slave and the maid.
I had someone to play with at last. But she wasn’t really a friend.
At school, all extracurricular activities focused on My Fair Lady. The music teacher’s husband, Mr. Crispin, was playing Freddy Einsford-Hill, and we were all invited to the dress rehearsal downtown. Not everybody came. You had to sign up for a ride, and all told, the only ones who went from our class were Margie Dixon, Scott Seymour, Peter Morton, Mary McGinnis and Carol the Jew. That’s not counting me, of course.
“Why did Eliza Doolittle have so much trouble shifting her vowels?” I asked Mrs. Bridges the next day. “I learned how to speak English with an American accent when I was six years old. And that was after speaking a completely different language all my life. How hard can it be for an English speaker to change a few vowels?”
Mrs. Bridges smiled. “Well, we can all accomplish marvelous things with the proper education. But without education, there’s a lot that’s out of reach.”
I wasn’t so sure that education had much to do with it, but instead I asked: “So you think Henry Higgins was a good teacher?”
Mrs. Bridges smiled. “Well, he was based on a real person. By the way, Ya’el, did you know that the author of this play, Mr. Bernard Shaw, was an advocate of spelling reform, just like you?”
“I thought the author was Jay Lerner,” I said, confused.
“No. That was the lyricist.”
The next day on the way home from school, I was injured in the line of fire when one of the Punky-Wunky stones hit its mark. Mrs. Bridges noticed the bleeding, and she sent me to the nurse’s office to have it looked to. When I returned to class with a bandage on my forehead, Mrs. Bridges pulled me aside and asked me what was going on.
“It’s just some kids on the way to school,” I said. “It’s been going on for a long time, and it’s mostly harmless. It’s just that the snow has melted, so they could find nothing else to throw but rocks.”
“Stones,” Mrs. Bridges corrected. “Rocks would be much bigger.”
“Oh, right. Stones. Like, in sticks and stones.” I was ready to go back to my seat.
Mrs. Bridges said: “Ya’el, I know this must seem like an unfair question, but have you ever thought what you might be doing to contribute to the situation?”
I stopped cold. “You think it’s my fault that they threw a stone at me?”
“Well, no, of course not. It’s not something that should happen to anybody. I just mean, have you considered why they chose you?”
I sat back down in the chair beside her desk, defeated. “Yes, of course, I’ve thought about it. And, no, I don’t think I was chosen … at random. I’m always walking alone and not in a group. Also, I’m shorter than average. They mentioned that before they started calling me names.”
“Can you think of anything else?”
“No, I can’t,” I said. “But… the strange thing about it is, this has happened to me before.”
Mrs. Bridges leaned forward, a frown of concentration on her face. “Where?”
“In Israel. But the reasons were exactly the opposite.”
“Define ‘exactly the opposite’.”
“It’s pretty clear I don’t belong here, and the reason they chose me is that I don’t belong. My contribution to the problem would have to be, at the most, that I don’t try harder to fit in. But in Israel, I did belong, and everything for me was perfectly fine… until my brother was born. They were mad at us because they thought we did belong to them…”
“What does your brother have to do with this?”
“My father wouldn’t let them…” I couldn’t think of the English word. “I don’t know what it’s called. But… have you read in the Bible about David and Saul?”
Mrs. Bridges nodded.
“Well, remember when David wanted to marry Saul’s daughter Michal?”
Mrs. Bridges nodded again, but she didn’t look quite so certain.
“Do you remember what Saul wanted as payment?”
“Payment for what?”
“You know, for letting him marry his daughter? What is that called in English?”
“Oh. The bride price, I suppose.”
“Well, do you remember what it was?”
Mrs. Bridges shook her head.
“It was one hundred of those things.”
“One hundred of what?”
“The thing… the thing I don’t know how to say in English.”
“Sorry,” Mrs. Bridges said. “You’ll have to be more specific.”
“Okay. So David killed a hundred men … Philistines, that is. No, wait, I think he killed two hundred, and he cut off their … whatever it’s called… so he could make the payment.”
Mrs. Bridges looked really confused. I thought maybe she was trying to do the math.
“I guess he must have paid him twice as much as he was asking for, or else it wouldn’t make much sense,” I said.
“Okay.” Mrs. Bridges said. “So what has this got to do with your brother?”
“The government wanted my father to let them cut my brother’s off, too. But my father wouldn’t let them. And then my father lost his job. And then the kids at school started spitting on me and throwing stones.”
The bell for first period rang. “You know what,” Mrs. Bridges said. “I guess I’d better brush up on my Bible.”
When I got home and my mother asked about the bandage, I got that big lecture about how if anybody hit me, I had to hit them back even harder. My mother had been pushing that line since preschool. “But I don’t want to hit anybody,” I would whine. “It’s not about what you want,” she would say. “It’s about what you have to do.” It was my civic duty to engage in arm to arm combat with all bad children. Otherwise, they wouldn’t only hurt me, they would hurt my weaker classmates who were counting on me to hold the line.
“Did you hit them back?” my mother asked, examining my wound.
“No. They didn’t hit me. They just threw stones.”
“Well, did you throw stones back at them?”
“No. I was too busy trying to stop the bleeding. Anyway, they just ran away as soon as they saw I was hurt. I think they were scared.”
“What were they scared of?” my mother asked. “Obviously not you. Next time it could be your eyes. And we don’t have money for any fancy eye doctor, I’ll have you know.”
“You have twenty thousand in the bank.”
“That’s our savings,” she said. “Do you want us to lose our savings, just because you can’t be bothered to throw stones?” She gave me a really dark look and started talking about how I was just like my wasteful grandmother who thought she was too grand to get her hands dirty just because her grandfather was the rabbi of some stinking town in Poland. “If throwing a few stones can keep us from losing all we’ve worked so hard for,” my mother said, “then you will throw stones.”
I turned to my father for support when he got home, but he backed my mother this time. “You can’t run away from a fight,” he said. “That’s how Jews behave. We’re Israelis. If you stand and fight, they will back down. If you run away, nobody will respect you.”
“But last month, when they were still throwing snowballs, you said it was all in fun.”
“Snowballs are one thing,” my father said. “Stones are a deadly weapon.”
“Then couldn’t I call the police? Isn’t what they did a crime?”
“Yes, it’s a crime. And if an adult did it, we would call the police. But these are children. The criminal law isn’t enforced against children in the same way. Children are expected to resolve their own problems.”
It didn’t seem fair, but I accepted it. The real problem was that I couldn’t throw very well. So the next time I was confronted by the stone wielding Punky-Wunkies, I gave it my best shot and hit… the little girl. She fell to the ground and screamed and held her knee and her big brother, their leader, the one I was really aiming for, shook his fist at me and said: “You’re gonna get it now!” But in fact they congregated around the little girl, and left me to make my way to school unmolested.
However, I was pretty shaken. All during first period, I kept expecting a police officer to show up and arrest me. Probably that thing about the criminal laws not applying to children only meant stupid children like the Punky-Wunkies. But I was practically an old lady already, even though I was just ten years old, and they would probably figure that out. Somebody who could play Mrs. Santa Claus convincingly would have to be tried as an adult. What if that girl died? What if she got gangrene and they had to amputate her leg, and she died of complications? Wouldn’t that be murder? And wasn’t there a death penalty?
Mrs. Bridges called me to her desk. At first, I was sure that it was about my crime against the littlest Punky-Wunky. But no, Mrs. Bridges wanted to resume yesterday’s discussion about foreskins.
“You know, what you told me the other day, I checked my Bible,” she said.
“Me, too,” I plunged in, eager to embrace this subject now. “I checked a King James version. The word I was looking for was ‘foreskin’.”
Mrs. Bridges laughed. “No, Ya’el, the word you were looking for was circumcision.”
“Oh. That would be the word for the cutting, not the thing that was cut?” I asked.
“That’s right,” she said.
“Circumcision,” I repeated. “That would mean cutting around.” I had been studying up on Latinate roots in an attempt to improve my spelling.
“Never mind. So what did you want to say about that?”
“Your father didn’t really lose his job just because he wouldn’t allow your brother to be circumcised, did he?”
“Yeah. He did. That’s why we’re here.”
“But couldn’t he complain about discrimination? Couldn’t he bring a lawsuit?”
“Israel doesn’t have separation of church and state, Mrs. Bridges. My father was a member of an organization that worked to end religious coercion, but even they wouldn’t help us when things got really bad. The whole not cutting up your kid thing was so unpopular, they didn’t want to have anything to do with it.”
“Couldn’t your father give a medical reason why it shouldn’t be done?”
“He tried that at first. He said that the baby was too weak. It wasn’t true. The baby was fine. It was just an excuse. That bought us some time, but not much time. My father was a science teacher. The Government Office of the Rabbis wrote a letter to the school. They said, you have a teacher there by the name of Qedem, who had a son born three months ago and he refuses to… well, you know…”
“To have him circumcised?”
“Yeah, only they didn’t say that. They used fancy religious language about failing to bring him into the agreement of Abraham with God or something like that.”
“So they said, get him to do this, or, we’ll have to do it by force. So the people at the school talked to my father, and when he refused, they forwarded a copy of the correspondence to the Education Department. Eventually, they had a hearing and fired him, because they said a teacher has to set a good moral example for his students.”
“And your classmates started throwing stones at you after your father lost his job?” Mrs. Bridges asked.
“No. They didn’t know anything about it. It wasn’t publicized. I gave a talk about it in school. On Friday afternoons, students could volunteer to give a talk before the class on any subject they wanted. I told them what was happening to us. I thought they would be as shocked about it as I was. That’s when they started throwing rocks and spitting on me. I was kind of glad that we left the country by the end of the school year.”
“You left because your father didn’t have a job?”
“No. We left, because they were getting a court order to cut up my brother…”
“Oh.” Mrs. Bridges looked confused. “Ya’el, when you couldn’t think of the word for circumcision, why did you mention that odd story about David and Saul, instead of Abraham and Isaac?”
I laughed. “It’s the first thing that came to mind. We were reading about that in fourth grade when all that was going on.”
That day after school, I raced outside and lurked behind the slide in the playground, trying to catch sight of the Punky Wunkies. I wanted to know what had happened to the little girl I had hit. I spotted them gathering by the bicycle rack, and I started trailing behind them. The little girl seemed uninjured. She walked normally. I followed them unnoticed till they all disappeared under a fence.
It had never occurred to me before that I could follow them. This seemed like a good technique to avoid being ambushed in the future.
When I told my parents what had happened on the way to school, they were both upset with me. “Ya’el, you can’t go around throwing stones at children who are younger than you are!” my mother exclaimed.
“But they’re all younger than I am!” I protested. “The reason they’re upset with me is that I’m older but shorter. And besides, I didn’t mean to get the little girl.”
“You have to hold to the moral high ground,” my father said. “You must attack the leaders, not the foot soldiers.”
“I know that. I was aiming for their leader. I just can’t throw very well, that’s all.”
“Then we’ll have to work on your aim,” my father said. “It’s no use firing a weapon unless you can aim properly.”
We spent the entire weekend throwing stones at tin cans.
- The Punky-Wunkies, Part Two
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