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The Good Reader

By Jennifer Dunning
ART TIMES May 2016 online

He was surprised that nothing had changed while he was away in New York City. He could tell from the sweet smell that filled the house that his grandparents were going to surprise him with a welcome-home compote -- his first meal back. Socks followed him around the house for awhile, his long bald tail waving. (What did the name mean? his grandmother had wondered. But Sherman did not know how to translate it into the Yiddish that was what she understood best. It is just something everyone likes to call their dogs, bubbe, he tried to explain, watching her shrug the talk away and bend back to her sewing.)

The white curtains -- well, really more ivory-colored -- still fluttered in the slight breeze. Sherman looked out at the road that ran by his grandparents' small house. Park Street. A sense of adventure drove him into the baked-dry yard. He buckled on his roller skates -- if only he could have a bike, he thought again -- and set off to see how everything looked now.

He recognized the pavement cracks. One looked like a lightning bolt, another like a smiling face. You had to hop over grass that had burst through the broken concrete. But now a small purple flower poked up, too. It had not been there when he left to join his father for a week in New York City.

The empty chair was still rocking a little on the porch of the long-deserted old house. A ghost? He had heard the stories told by his grandmother's friends, old women who came from the next town over to drink tea with her. (He and his grandparents were the only Jews in Porterville.)

A bad woman had been murdered long ago in that house. He skated by a little faster. And far ahead, at the intersection of Park and Bridge Streets, he could see the Dairy Queen where he had once bought a forbidden cone with money slipped from his grandfather's overalls. It was a Curly Top. He had not forgotten its cool, chocolaty taste and the way it melted over itself.

A crowd of boys and girls his age, some he knew, laughed and jostled one another, out into the parking lot. Sherman skated left and kept on going, aiming for the open, flat horizon. He would be free of them and safe for a few more summer days, until school began again. His stomach knotted in dull pain at the thought of school.

He looked forward to peering into the Dunlaps' dining room when it got dark, watching Mrs. Dunlap dish out tuna casserole and encourage Helen and Myra to eat the peas, too, while Mr. Dunlap tried to get the radio going. Mrs. Dunlap had seen Sherman once at her window and ran out to shoo him off, her apron flapping angrily. But he went back sometimes, just to see.

The scene was strangely like something in a book. Real, but not completely. The thought of the town library cheered him. He had discovered a place far at the back of the shelves where he could curl into himself and read whatever he had found that day. Usually he could finish a whole book. Perhaps tomorrow he would read about New York City and find pictures of what he himself had seen firsthand.

The women sitting on the back steps of the Red Rose Burlesque Theater were more friendly than the librarian, though Sherman had figured out how to avoid her. He loved the drowse of the burlesque stars' conversation as they smoked between shows, laughing softly, their loose housecoats hiding very little. They didn't really fit into their small, sparkly costumes. He tried not to stare at the two worst places. Or allow himself to look too hard at the cracks in their makeup or their tattered outdoor shoes.

It was worth it to be careful, though. The smiles he got from Miss Adela, his favorite, were reward enough. Her eyes glowed with kindness. Her smile was soft and sweet. Once she had called him over and asked his name, wrapping her arm around him so gently he felt dizzy inside. "Sherman?" she said. "That's a great name. Can I call you Shermy?"

He nodded yes, numb with fear and longing, hungry to stay forever inside the warm, strong arm that held him tight. From then on, he visited with her and her friends just about every day or hurried by with a wave and a smile. He knew exactly what time they'd be there. And they waved back, calling out "Hi there, Sherm" as he passed the dusty little theater on his way home from school or the library. It was his secret. Only they knew.

He had noticed women like them on signs in New York City. But not so beautiful. And anyway his father kept pulling him away, a little impatiently at times, to point out the sights. They both loved the city's flashing colored lights.

Every day they ate hamburgers or hot dogs and malts and shakes in restaurants that had slices of cherry, apple and lemon meringue pies under glass domes on the counters. He and his father went to a movie in a big red and gold theater with hundreds of seats. They watched as the explorer and his girlfriend tiptoed into a jungle cave where they discovered a wooden chest that was filled with gleaming jewels that Sherman thought looked just like jujubes.

He looked away from the skeleton lying beside the chest, preferring to admire his father's thick dark hair and curving nose and lips in the screen's reflected light. He settled into his seat, returning to the memory of the way his father took his hand when they crossed streets full of rushing cars and people.

There wasn't much to talk about back at the motel. His father opened up his newspaper, looking up every now and then to stare at Sherman in a puzzled way. Sherman took out the Sherlock Holmes book he'd brought along. They read in silence. Maybe his father enjoyed not having to drive all over selling things, which was why, he knew, he was living with his grandparents. No one had talked to him of his dimly remembered mother, who he had figured out must be sick somewhere far away.

The days flew by. They went to an aquarium and a place called Coney Island, where you were tied into little baskets to fly through the air, with people below as small as ants if you weren't too afraid to look down. Sherman hated it but was careful to pretend he didn't. He didn't want his father to think he was a coward. They went to a big gloomy museum filled with the bodies of animals and birds, and a Chinese place where a rooster pecked a little white card from a dirty pile, presenting Sherman's fortune when his father put a coin into a slot.

If only it would never end. But it did, of course. Sherman went home to his quietly welcoming grandparents. Now he had something else to do beside the library, the burlesque house and roller-skating for hours around the neighborhood. He dreamed of New York City and tried to imagine what it would be like to live there with his father. He rehearsed the speech in which he would reassure him that he was old and smart enough to take care of himself when his father had to travel.

The letter arrived a week later. When would he be leaving, Sherman wondered, to join his father in New York City and live with him always? He studied the handwriting on the envelope, addressed to his grandparents, willing himself to prolong the excitement. What books would he bring? Would his father buy him a bicycle? He forced himself to walk slowly and quietly into the parlor, where his grandmother dozed over her sewing. Once or twice he had frightened her awake by running too noisily to her.

She looked up. Slowly he opened the envelope, enjoying the pleasure of yet another delaying tactic. His grandparents could not read. He started, as always, to read silently through the letter before sharing it with his grandmother, his eyes traveling from one sentence to the next. The thick slanted letters, the words, rushed darkly across the yellow lined paper. He felt hot with shame and confusion. Sherman must never visit again, his father wrote. He was ashamed of his son. He had behaved like a little girl in New York. What had they turned him into? A feygele? A sissy? Had he inherited his mother's craziness?

Slowly, obediently, Sherman read the letter aloud. He didn't stumble. Everyone told him he was a good reader. His grandmother made no comment, content to work away at her mending. The room was quiet. The curtains hung perfectly still. He could hear Socks barking outside. Soon it would be time for supper. He had almost forgotten to set the table.

Jennifer Dunning lives in NYC and often contributes Dance Essays

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