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by Marilyn Ogus Katz
from the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Currents
I DRAG the Victrola on to the porch, put the big black disk on the turntable and the needle into the first groove. When I hear “The Hesitation Waltz,” I run down the steps and lie on my side, with my arms stretched above my head. I press my legs close together, and roll down the grass slope until it gets flat at the road. I push hard against the ground until the hill takes over and I can give myself to the downward pull, eyes shut tight, tumbling on my back and tummy over and over. The trick is to keep rolling as long as possible, and when the slope levels out, to push through the slowing down and stop at the bottom by the stonewall. You have to finish lying opposite the big stone house and not crooked half way. That’s how I’m going to talk about rolling to any one who wants to know.
This time it goes perfectly; I get up and wait for the spinning to stop. The grass leaves bright red stripes on my arms. Lawns look like velvet but they’re prickly. You only find out by rolling.
We’re living here in the country, but just for the summer. Mr. Deanen, our “butter-and-egg man,” gave us his house and moved with his wife into the rooms above the barn. Roosters wake us up and the cows get milked at the same time every day. A black-and-white puppy even comes with the house. His legs are wobbly and his bark is like a soft cough. I put the puppy in a doll sweater and hat and pushed him in my doll carriage, but he jumped out and ran back to the barn. I went to the hen house and reached under the chickens. I pulled out the eggs, but the hens fluffed and clucked like they didn’t like it. The eggs felt warm from their bodies.
Daddy’s car crunches into the driveway. “Ping, ping” rap the stones against the tires. “So how are my pretty girls?” Daddy shouts. He pulls me and Mommy to his chest, tugs my braids and kisses Mommy on her cheek. His white cotton shirt is soaked with sweat like a handkerchief with tears. “Where does Abe get that energy?” people always ask. They want to find the place and grab some for themselves.
“There! Guess what’s in my pocket?”
“Oh, Abe. You’ll spoil dinner.”
“Spoil dinner? Impossible.”
You can spoil a child though. I’m spoiled. Because I’m an only child. People say Hitler is getting the spoils of war. Spoil. I say it over and over until it’s just a sound with oil in it. Spilled oil because of the sp. You can light it with a match.
Mommy and Daddy go inside. The screen door bangs so hard it shudders twice. There’s a deep line between Daddy’s bushy eyebrows. I know that face. He’s worrying about Uncle Sol who came to see us last summer but went back to Latvia. I sit on the porch steps, straighten out a long blade of grass between my thumbs and blow to make it whistle. I keep trying but I can’t get the sound Daddy makes. Daddy reads the paper every day. I do too. The black headlines stretch across the front page and smudge your fingers. What will the newspaper find to write about when the war is over? Hitler is committing atrocities all over Europe. I looked it up in Webster’s. My teacher puts pins in the world map to show us where this is happening. And Stalin marched into the Baltic States in June right before school ended. I’m the only one in class who knows where the Baltics are. No one has heard of Latvia.
SQUAWKING AND SCREECHING explode from the barn. I get out of the kitchen before Mommy can swipe at me with her napkin. Even on a sunny morning, the cold night air stays inside the dark barn. Mr. Deanen chases a chicken. Sawdust scatters under his big brown boots. The scared creature tries to get through the open door and into the yard. Mr. Deanen grabs the chicken by the neck and sits down at the chopping block. The bird wrenches its body away but its bright yellow legs and black toenails still dangle from his hand. Mr Deanen takes the cleaver and chops off the chicken’s head. Just like that. The head falls to one side, the beak stuck open in a loud kind of quiet. Blood spurts onto the block, splatters Mr. Deanen’s apron like paint, and drips down to the sawdust. With one swoop, Mr. Deanen puts the headless chicken on the barn floor. It runs two or three steps trying to escape being dead, not alive anymore, but thinking it is. The bird falls over, twitches its legs once, and shrivels into a pile of feathers. “You see, Alice. Chickens are as dumb dead as they are alive,” says Mr. Deanen, looking up at me, his black moustache shining over his yellow teeth, like he’s saying, “Ta da!” and expects me to clap for him.
I run back into the house. It’s like my being there got Mr. Deanen to kill the chicken, but even worse, made the thing he killed seem stupid. I know they need chickens for food. But Mr. Deanen enjoyed the killing. People in Europe are being killed every day, especially Jewish people, like me, mom and dad, Uncle Sol, Bubbe and Zeyde, and all my aunts, uncles and cousins. And those bad men in Europe — in Czechoslovakia and Poland — they enjoy the killing too. They make speeches and brag about it. Like they’re saying “Ta da!” I hear them on the radio and I see them in Movietone News. I won’t tell anyone what happened in the barn. But every night before I fall asleep, I keep seeing the poor headless chicken trying to run faster than its death.
Marilyn Ogus Katz taught in the equal opportunity program at SUNY Purchase and was dean of studies at Sarah Lawrence. She has written academic essays and came late and happily to fiction. This story, “Ta Da!” is in a collection of short stories, A Few Small Stones, about an extended family of Jewish immigrants in New York City in the 1940s. One of the stories appeared in Writer’s Digest Best Short Shorts of 2015 and has been published in Hadassah magazine. Her novel, The Old City, about Latvian Jews caught between Hitler and Stalin in 1941, will be making the rounds of publishers later this year.