Since Purim begins this Saturday night, I thought I’d feature a Purim-themed excerpt. Chapter 3, “Happy Purim,” of the book formerly known as The Very Next, takes place on 4 March 1939 (also a Saturday). It’s interspersed with public domain photos of illuminated Megillot (scrolls of the Book of Esther) and a few vintage photographs. Sadly, it’s very hard to find vintage greeting cards for any Jewish holiday except Rosh Hashanah.
That evening, Sparky reached into Cinni’s closet for her Purim costume, a Gypsy outfit she’d put together with Cinni’s help. The dress was peacock-green, with long, flowing sleeves, a floor-length skirt, and a modest neckline. To transform it from just an ordinary but fancy dress into a real costume, Sparky wrapped herself in a deep blue silk scarf, wrapped her hair in a dark orange velvet scarf, and exchanged her French hook ruby earrings for huge gold hoops she’d picked up at an indoor flea market last month.
“Now why are you perfectly okay with wearing a costume for this holiday, but you felt wrong for wearing a Halloween costume?” Cinni asked. “It’s exactly the same, just for a different holiday.”
“They’re completely different holidays,” Sparky said. “Purim is a Jewish holiday, and Halloween is a pagan holiday. They’re celebrated for totally different reasons, and have completely different origins. There are no Purim costumes with stuff like pumpkins, bats, spiders, and witches. Even the treats we give out are different.”
“So you’re going trick-or-treating after you do your thing at synagogue?”
“We don’t trick-or-treat. We exchange gift baskets with stuff like money and hamentaschen. None of the gift baskets have stuff like chocolate bars, caramels, and whatever else you got on Halloween.”
“You get treats for doing nothing?”
“It ain’t nothing. You wouldn’t get treats unless you were a member of the synagogue, or we knew you. It ain’t a mitzvah to give Gentiles mishloach manot, but we’ll give you one ‘cause we love you so much.”
Sparky finished changing into her costume and headed downstairs to join her family. Cinni sat at the top of the stairs and watched them heading off to synagogue. Mr. and Mrs. Small were dressed rather boringly, as an Army officer and flapper. Cinni wondered where Mr. Small had found the vintage military uniform with all the medals and insignia. He’d been too young to serve in the Great War, and since it was an American uniform, it obviously hadn’t belonged to any of his ancestors or older relatives. Gary, just turned fifteen, was dressed just as boringly, as a sailor.
Of all their costumes, Cinni liked best Sparky’s Gypsy costume and Barry’s toreador costume. It reminded her of Rudolph Valentino’s suit of lights in Blood and Sand, in one of the vintage movie advertisements of her namesake which she’d collected over the years. If Barry were this beautiful from a distance, she could only imagine how much more dashing he’d look when he came back later tonight and she’d be able to see him up-close and from the front.
Cinni spent the next few hours listening to the radio and reading movie magazines, ignoring her small pile of homework. She almost always saved homework for the very last moment, as many times as her mother begged her to do it immediately instead of the night or morning before. Only the Nobodies liked homework and did it right away.
Cinni didn’t have particularly hard homework, nothing more than a few worksheets with math problems or vocabulary lists in English, French, Italian, and Portuguese. This was nothing that needed lots of time to complete, like a twenty-page research paper or complicated trigonometry problems. Life should be about having fun, particularly now that the wolf had been chased away from the door. She’d had enough hard times in the first few years of the decade, hardships enough to last for the rest of her life.
Near the time the Smalls were expected to come home, Cinni left her amusements and went downstairs to wait on the davenport. Lucinda was on one of the other cushions, bent over the spring dresses she’d begun making for her nieces and daughter several weeks ago. Every year, Lucinda made the girls special spring dresses from repurposed materials found around the house. Last year, they’d been made from quilts, and this year, they were being fashioned from curtains.
The materials in prior years had included pillowcases, lightweight blankets, bedsheets, silk shawls from London, scarves from Los Angeles, pillow shams, satin bonnets from Amsterdam, and cloth shower curtains. Before the Stock Market Crash, the family’s spring wardrobe had come from expensive catalogues and upscale department stores. It amazed Cinni how Lucinda could be frugal and ingenious in this way, but otherwise waste so much money on fancy house embellishments and overpriced clothes for herself.
“You want a change of scenery from that boring little sewing room?” Cinni asked. “It musta been hard to lug that big old sewing machine here.”
Lucinda sighed. “How can I concentrate in there anymore, now that I have a roommate? Samantha shows no signs of moving out, though I don’t know how she can bear to sleep on that little cot. Your father told her she could share the attic with you and Sparky, but she likes my sewing room more. Maybe she thinks she’s being some holy Christian martyr by depriving herself of a real bed.”
“Martyr, nothing!” Urma shouted from across the room. “My girl ain’t gonna share her sleeping quarters with some Yid! Bad enough we have to share living quarters with five of ‘em indefinitely. If she were younger, I’d insist she sleep in the bed Mortez and I got. But a sewing room cot is still a bed, however pathetic.”
“I’m going to need my sewing room back eventually. I can handle a few days of being displaced, but I can’t keep sewing in other rooms, without any privacy. Perhaps you and your daughter don’t understand that room is my castle, my special place all my own in this house. I’ve always been happy to live with my dear sister’s family, but it’s nice to have a small room all my own, where I can go to be alone with my thoughts and not be bothered or distracted by anyone or anything else.”
“It’s true,” Cinni says. “Aunt Lucinda is constantly holed up in that precious sewing room of hers. It’s her special place, and not very nice to intrude upon it. I hope Sam ain’t gonna steal nothing from it, though it ain’t like Aunt Lucinda generally sews with fancy stuff like golden thread and silk cloth.”
“Stealing is against the Bible!” Urma thundered “My girl would never steal anything! And why do you have such awful grammar? I don’t want words like ‘ain’t’ and double negatives to rub off on my girl. That’s not how proper, civilized people speak.”
“It’s how my niece talks,” Lucinda said protectively, putting her arm around Cinni. “Most of the people in this neighborhood talk like that, even the rich people. We live in a very strange neighborhood. It’s hardly a crime to not speak the King’s English. Cinni’s not hurting anyone by saying ‘ain’t’ or using double negatives most of the time. She does use proper English sometimes, so it’s not like she’s ignorant of the existence of more refined grammar. It’s the same way with how she speaks Russian with her father’s mother, and how my sister and I speak Polish with our parents. You speak differently depending upon your audience.”
Urma screamed and made a hex sign. “You mean to say I’m not only sharing living space with five Yids, but also with sub-human Slavs? I had no idea Mortez’s friend had a Pollack wife and was part Russian.”
“Yes, my sister and I are almost entirely of Polish blood, and damn proud of it. Our maiden name is Radulski, and our birth names are Łucja and Katarzyna. We’ve been in this country for a very long time, since the early days of Polish immigration. H.G.’s mother is Russian, and he was born in St. Petersburg. Since he came to America when he was only twelve, he doesn’t have a Russian accent anymore.”
Urma was weeping. “I don’t want to live in this house anymore. This is such a nightmare Mortez sprung on me. I want to go back to D.C. My sister Ursula would take us in, even if she’s got seven kids. There’d only be eleven people in her home, as compared to seventeen here.”
“Well, it’s too late to move now,” Mortez spoke up softly. “I’m already looking for jobs here, and I’ve gotten attached to this city in the last few days. It’s much less crowded and fast-paced than Washington. Don’t make me move when I’ve barely started to get settled into a new place. I’m happy here so far, and I wasn’t very happy in Washington. This is one issue you can’t push me around regarding. We’re staying in Atlantic City.”
Urma growled and stalked out of the room.
“Why do you let your wife railroad over you so much?” Cinni asked after she was positive Urma was well out of earshot. “She’s even worse than the wives in Laurel and Hardy’s movies. That’s just make-believe, and those wives ain’t really bullies or mean. Your wife is a whole different type of henpecker.”
“She is who she is. I can’t change that. Sometimes we fall in love with a person with a really bad character flaw, and we have to ignore it because we love the person so much otherwise.”
“That’s more than just a character flaw like always being late or being a bad cook. She’s outright mean, and a religious fanatic.”
“I agree, but I can’t do anything about it. She wasn’t a fanatic when we were growing up. That only happened after Samantha was born. An intolerant fanatic wouldn’t have had a child out of wedlock, let alone gotten in the family way at just fifteen.”
“You can say ‘pregnant’ around me, Mr. Smart. I ain’t some little glass flower who’s never heard that word before. No matter what my mom thinks, I don’t consider words like ‘pregnant’ and ‘uterus’ dirty. There are some words I refuse to say or write, but I don’t mind the milder, more basic words for adult things.”
Mortez stared at her. “Aren’t you a young spitfire. You remind me a bit of what Urma was like before that damned Minister Hodges corrupted her mind against reality and normalcy. By the way, you don’t have to call me Mr. Smart. My wife and I prefer to be called by our first names, even if it’s not considered proper etiquette. It just feels so strange to go by titles when we’re not even thirty yet. My father is Mr. Smart, but I’m just Mortez.”
“So, can I ask where your first name came from? I’ve never heard that name before. It sounds a little Spanish, but you can’t be Spanish with a last name like Smart.”
“My parents are of German descent, but not completely knowledgeable about the language. They wanted to call me Moritz, but misremembered the name. It was too late by the time they realized they’d made an embarrassing mistake.”
“That’s kinda like my name. I know my name isn’t spelt properly, but I’m so used to the way my mom spelt it, the so-called real spelling looks odd to me. The pronunciation is a lot more obvious with my so-called misspelling. I’m glad my daddy’s mom didn’t get her way and name me Alexa, ‘cause that’d be too confusing in my circle of friends. We already have an Alexandria Kate, and we couldn’t both have the same nicknames.” Cinni leapt up at the sound of the doorbell.
To Cinni’s great delight, Barry was the first person behind the door. He looked just as beautiful in the suit of lights as she suspected he would. Best of all, he had a big smile for her, and what she almost thought were a special look in his eyes.
“This is yours,” Barry said, extending a large basket. “I’ve never given mishloach manot to Gentiles before, but everyone in your family deserves one for being so good to us. Without your father, we’d still be in Europe, with God knows what kind of future.”
Cinni returned the smile and eagerly took the basket. She headed back to the davenport with it, and delightedly discovered oranges, hamentaschen, saltwater taffy, gumdrops, chocolate-covered peanuts, a bottle of grape pop, and five silver dollars.
“I packed that one just for you,” Barry said, smiling at her again. “I know what a sweet tooth you have. You’d never be happy with the mishloach manot we made for your parents and siblings.”
“Thank you very much. You’re really swell to be so nice to someone your kid sister’s age. I still can’t believe you let me be a guest of honor at your bar mitzvah.”
“I don’t care how young you are. You’re a nice girl, and that’s all that matters.”
Cinni looked through the contents of the basket over and over again, daydreaming about being old enough for a boyfriend in a few years and doing boy-girl things with Barry. Forget about her fantasy crush on John. Almost every girl in town had a crush on John, and at eighteen, he was far too old for her. Even if Cinni were eighteen herself, she’d still think the age difference were too large, never mind that her belovèd father had been twenty-five to her mother’s eighteen at their wedding. That was different and special, and had happened in another generation besides. But Barry wasn’t that much older than she was. Their age difference was large enough to be exciting, but not so large it would be inappropriate once their ages leveled out a bit more. Only time could tell if her dream would come true someday.
“Happy Purim, Barry,” she said with a smile.