The following is another darling I had to kill. I deleted it from my novel because it didn’t advance the story. In it a Yiddish boarder is talking to my young narrator, Brooklyn. The Boarder is a mischievous trickster who lives in a junk-filled room in the family’s house and claims to be immortal because she cheated the Angel of Death.
“So how’s about some five-card stud?” the Boarder said.
“No,” I said. “You haven’t told me about the jail break yet.”
“Oy, the jail break you want? Jail break this, jail break that. You think it’s so hard to break out of jail? Ever meet a jail guard?”
“For once can’t you just tell me?”
“Okay, I’ll tell you already. One day, still in Russia, I was trying to figure out the meaning of life. At that time my youngest boychik was printing communist newspapers. The czarists arrest him and throw him in a jail with a 30 foot fence all around and watchtowers with khazers pointing machine guns in case you even look at the jail wrong. But this, it didn’t worry me. I just rang for myself the front doorbell and asked to see the biggest khazer, so they direct me to his office. Sitting behind the desk is the meanest, ugliest, pig-faced khazer of them all, with his kishkes hanging out.
“Good, I thought. With him, I could do business. ‘So, Mr. Warden,’ I say, ‘you have here in your jail a boychik of mine. No offence, you can eat off the floor, but I’d like to break him out. I was thinking, a big man like yourself was maybe not being paid what he’s worth, and it wouldn’t hurt to give you a little something.’ So I greased him under the table.
“He says to me he’ll leave the cell unlocked and the back door open at a certain time. The problem is, he won’t tell my boychik about the escaping plan.
“‘Time’s up old lady.’ He laughs and pushes me out the door. So my poor boychik, he wouldn’t know to escape.”
“So what did you do?” I said.
“I thought you’d never ask. I went to the khazer in the jail yard and said, ‘How’s by you? Would you like some of my homemade rugelech? It’s out of this world. Also, would you mind if I sang a little song under the window of my poor boychik’s jail cell?’
“‘Go sing, crazy old lady,’ he said, and took the cookies.
“So I stand under my boychik’s window and sing in Yiddish so the guards can’t understand me.
A khazer I greased is opening the back door,
A khazer I greased is opening,
If you should happen to walk out of the back door,
Do it at five o’clock today,
At five o’clock the doors are opening,
At five o’clock they’re opening,
Give a listen for the work whistle to blow,
Then at five o’clock walk out of the door
Diddy diddy bum bum.
“The tune is from an old Yiddisheh song,” she told me.
“No it’s not,” I said. “It’s Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
“Noooo. It’s an old Yiddisheh song. You don’t know this song? It’s called, ‘Don’t Break Your Mama’s Heart or She’ll Cry for a Thousand Years in Romania.’”
“So nothing. My boychik ran away to Mexico where he saved the famous communist, Leon Trotsky’s life. But that’s another story.”
When I was a kid there really was a boarder who lived in our house, only not a trickster, but a sweet old woman. If anyone was the trickster it was me. I would like to pretend things like a chocolate cigarette was a real cigarette and try the story out on her. The thing that sticks in my memory the most was how tiny she was—an adult who was shorter than me and I was only, probably at the most, eight.
This story is based on one told to me by my ninety-three year old aunt Helene, who’s still tootling around Boca Raton with my ninety-seven year uncle, Moe. Really, she assures me it happened to one of her ancestors.