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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Page 3

Betty Smith

  She didn't try to get her bread right away. She sat on a bench and watched. A dozen kids pushed and shouted at the counter. Four old men dozed on the opposite bench. The old men, pensioners on their families, were made to run errands and mind babies, the only work left for old worn-out men in Williamsburg. They waited as long as they could before buying because Losher's smelled kindly of baking bread, and the sun coming in the windows felt good on their old backs. They sat and dozed while the hours passed and felt that they were filling up time. The waiting gave them a purpose in life for a little while and, almost, they felt necessary again.

  Francie stared at the oldest man. She played her favorite game, figuring out about people. His thin tangled hair was the same dirty gray as the stubble standing on his sunken cheeks. Dried spittle caked the corners of his mouth. He yawned. He had no teeth. She watched, fascinated and revolted, as he closed his mouth, drew his lips inward until there was no mouth, and made his chin come up to almost meet his nose. She studied his old coat with the padding hanging out of the torn sleeve seam. His legs were sprawled wide in helpless relaxation and one of the buttons was missing from his grease-caked pants opening. She saw that his shoes were battered and broken open at the toes. One shoe was laced with a much-knotted shoe string, and the other with a bit of dirty twine. She saw two thick dirty toes with creased gray toenails. Her thoughts ran....

  "He is old. He must be past seventy. He was born about the time Abraham Lincoln was living and getting himself ready to be president. Williamsburg must have been a little country place then and maybe Indians were still living in Flatbush. That was so long ago." She kept staring at his feet. "He was a baby once. He must have been sweet and clean and his mother kissed his little pink toes. Maybe when it thundered at night she came to his crib and fixed his blanket better and whispered that he mustn't be afraid, that mother was there. Then she picked him up and put her cheek on his head and said that he was her own sweet baby. He might have been a boy like my brother, running in and out of the house and slamming the door. And while his mother scolded him she was thinking that maybe he'll be president some day. Then he was a young man, strong and happy. When he walked down the street, the girls smiled and turned to watch him. He smiled back and maybe he winked at the prettiest one. I guess he must have married and had children and they thought he was the most wonderful papa in the world the way he worked hard and bought them toys for Christmas. Now his children are getting old too, like him, and they have children and nobody wants the old man any more and they are waiting for him to die. But he don't want to die. He wants to keep on living even though he's so old and there's nothing to be happy about anymore."

  The place was quiet. The summer sun streamed in and made dusty, down-slanting roads from the window to the floor. A big green fly buzzed in and out of the sunny dust. Excepting for herself and the dozing old men, the place was empty. The children who waited for bread had gone to play outside. Their high screaming voices seemed to come from far away.

  Suddenly Francie jumped up. Her heart was beating fast. She was frightened. For no reason at all, she thought of an accordion pulled out full for a rich note. Then she had an idea that the accordion was closing...closing...closing.... A terrible panic that had no name came over her as she realized that many of the sweet babies in the world were born to come to something like this old man some day. She had to get out of that place or it would happen to her. Suddenly she would be an old woman with toothless gums and feet that disgusted people.

  At that moment, the double doors behind the counter were banged open as a bread truck backed up. A man came to stand behind the counter. The truck driver started throwing bread to him which he piled up on the counter. The kids in the street who had heard the doors thrown open piled in and milled around Francie who had already reached the counter.

  "I want bread!" Francie called out. A big girl gave her a strong shove and wanted to know who she thought she was. "Never mind! Never mind!" Francie told her. "I want six loaves and a pie not too crushed," she screamed out.

  Impressed by her intensity, the counter man shoved six loaves and the least battered of the rejected pies at her and took her two dimes. She pushed her way out of the crowd dropping a loaf which she had trouble picking up as there was no room to stoop over in.

  Outside, she sat at the curb fitting the bread and the pie into the paper bag. A woman passed, wheeling a baby in a buggy. The baby was waving his feet in the air. Francie looked and saw, not the baby's foot, but a grotesque thing in a big, worn-out shoe. The panic came on her again and she ran all the way home.

  The flat was empty. Mama had dressed and gone off with Aunt Sissy to see a matinee from a tencent gallery seat. Francie put the bread and pie away and folded the bag neatly to be used the next time. She went into the tiny, windowless bedroom that she shared with Neeley and sat on her own cot in the dark waiting for the waves of panic to stop passing over her.

  After a while Neeley came in, crawled under his cot and pulled out a ragged catcher's mitt.

  "Where you going?" she asked.

  "Play ball in the lots."

  "Can I come along?"


  She followed him down to the street. Three of his gang were waiting for him. One had a bat, another a baseball and the third had nothing but wore a pair of baseball pants. They started out for an empty lot over towards Greenpoint. Neeley saw Francie following but said nothing. One of the boys nudged him and said,

  "Hey! Your sister's followin' us."

  "Yeah," agreed Neeley. The boy turned around and yelled at Francie:

  "Go chase yourself!"

  "It's a free country," Francie stated.

  "It's a free country," Neeley repeated to the boy. They took no notice of Francie after that. She continued to follow them. She had nothing to do until two o'clock when the neighborhood library opened up again.

  It was a slow, horseplaying walk. The boys stopped to look for tin foil in the gutter and to pick up cigarette butts which they would save and smoke in the cellar on the next rainy afternoon. They took time out to bedevil a little Jew boy on his way to the temple. They detained him while they debated what to do with him. The boy waited, smiling humbly. The Christians released him finally with detailed instructions as to his course of conduct for the coming week.

  "Don't show your puss on Devoe Street," he was ordered.

  "I won't," he promised. The boys were disappointed. They had expected more fight. One of them took out a bit of chalk from his pocket and drew a wavy line on the sidewalk. He commanded,

  "Don't you even step over that line."

  The little boy, knowing that he had offended them by giving in too easily, decided to play their way.

  "Can't I even put one foot in the gutter, fellers?"

  "You can't even spit in the gutter," he was told.

  "All right." He sighed in pretended resignation.

  One of the bigger boys had an inspiration. "And keep away from Christian girls. Get me?" They walked away leaving him staring after them.

  "Gol-lee!" he whispered rolling his big brown Jewish eyes. The idea that those Goyem thought him man enough to be capable of thinking about any girl, Gentile or Jew, staggered him and he went his way saying gol-lee over and over.

  The boys walked on slowly, looking slyly at the big boy who had made the remark about the girls, and wondering whether he would lead off into a dirty talk session. But before this could start, Francie heard her brother say,

  "I know that kid. He's a white Jew." Neeley had heard papa speak so of a Jewish bartender that he liked.

  "They ain't no such thing as a white Jew," said the big boy.

  "Well, if there was such a thing as a white Jew," said Neeley with that combination of agreeing with others, and still sticking to his own opinions, which made him so amiable, "he would be it."

  "There never could be a white Jew," said the big boy, "even in supposing."

  "Our Lord was a Jew." Neeley was quoting Mama.

nbsp; "And other Jews turned right around and killed him," clinched the big boy.

  Before they could go deeper in theology, they saw another little boy turn on to Ainslie Street from Humboldt Street carrying a basket on his arm. The basket was covered with a clean ragged cloth. A stick stuck up from one corner of the basket, and, on it, like a sluggish flag stood six pretzels. The big boy of Neeley's gang gave a command and they made a tightly-packed run on the pretzel seller. He stood his ground, opened his mouth and bawled, "Mama!"

  A second-story window flew open and a woman clutching a crepe-paperish kimono around her sprawling breasts, yelled out,

  "Leave him alone and get off this block, you lousy bastards."

  Francie's hands flew to cover her ears so that at confession she would not have to tell the priest that she had stood and listened to a bad word.

  "We ain't doing nothing, lady," said Neeley with that ingratiating smile which always won over his mother.

  "You bet your life, you ain't. Not while I'm around." Then without changing her tone she called to her son, "And get upstairs here, you. I'll learn you to bother me when I'm taking a nap." The pretzel boy went upstairs and the gang ambled on.

  "That lady's tough." The big boy jerked his head back at the window.

  "Yeah," the others agreed.

  "My old man's tough," offered a smaller boy.

  "Who the hell cares?" inquired the big boy languidly.

  "I was just saying," apologized the smaller boy.

  "My old man ain't tough," said Neeley. The boys laughed.

  They ambled along, stopping now and then to breathe deeply of the smell of Newtown Creek which flowed its narrow tormented way a few blocks up Grand Street.

  "God, she stinks," commented the big boy.

  "Yeah!" Neeley sounded deeply satisfied.

  "I bet that's the worst stink in the world," bragged another boy.


  And Francie whispered yeah in agreement. She was proud of that smell. It let her know that nearby was a waterway, which, dirty though it was, joined a river that flowed out to the sea. To her, the stupendous stench suggested far-sailing ships and adventure and she was pleased with the smell.

  Just as the boys reached the lot in which there was a ragged diamond tramped out, a little yellow butterfly flew across the weeds. With man's instinct to capture anything running, flying, swimming or crawling, they gave chase, throwing their ragged caps at it in advance of their coming. Neeley caught it. The boys looked at it briefly, quickly lost interest in it and started up a four-man baseball game of their own devising.

  They played furiously, cursing, sweating and punching each other. Every time a stumble bum passed and loitered for a moment, they clowned and showed off. There was a rumor that the Brooklyn's had a hundred scouts roaming the streets of a Saturday afternoon watching lot games and spotting promising players. And there wasn't a Brooklyn boy who wouldn't rather play on the Brooklyn's team than be president of the United States.

  After a while, Francie got tired of watching them. She knew that they would play and fight and show off until it was time to drift home for supper. It was two o'clock. The librarian should be back from lunch by now. With pleasant anticipation, Francie walked back towards the library.


  THE LIBRARY WAS A LITTLE OLD SHABBY PLACE. FRANCIE THOUGHT it was beautiful. The feeling she had about it was as good as the feeling she had about church. She pushed open the door and went in. She liked the combined smell of worn leather bindings, library paste and freshly inked stamping pads better than she liked the smell of burning incense at high mass.

  Francie thought that all the books in the world were in that library and she had a plan about reading all the books in the world. She was reading a book a day in alphabetical order and not skipping the dry ones. She remembered that the first author had been Abbott. She had been reading a book a day for a long time now and she was still in the B's. Already she had read about bees and buffaloes, Bermuda vacations and Byzantine architecture. For all of her enthusiasm, she had to admit that some of the B's had been hard going. But Francie was a reader. She read everything she could find: trash, classics, time tables and the grocer's price list. Some of the reading had been wonderful; the Louisa Alcott books for example. She planned to read all the books over again when she had finished with the Z's.

  Saturdays were different. She treated herself by reading a book not in the alphabetical sequence. On that day she asked the librarian to recommend a book.

  After Francie had come in and closed the door quietly behind her--the way you were supposed to do in the library--she looked quickly at the little golden-brown pottery jug which stood at the end of the librarian's desk. It was a season indicator. In the fall it held a few sprigs of bittersweet and at Christmas time it held holly. She knew spring was coming, even if there was snow on the ground, when she saw pussy willow in the bowl. And today, on this summer Saturday of 1912, what was the bowl holding? She moved her eyes slowly up the jug past the thin green stems and little round leaves and saw...nasturtiums! Red, yellow, gold and ivory-white. A head pain caught her between the eyes at the taking in of such a wonderful sight. It was something to be remembered all her life.

  "When I get big," she thought, "I will have such a brown bowl and in hot August there will be nasturtiums in it."

  She put her hand on the edge of the polished desk liking the way it felt. She looked at the neat row of freshly sharpened pencils, the clean green square of blotter, the fat white jar of creamy paste, the precise stack of cards and the returned books waiting to be put back on the shelves. The remarkable pencil with the date slug above its point was by itself near the blotter's edge.

  "Yes, when I get big and have my own home, no plush chairs and lace curtains for me. And no rubber plants. I'll have a desk like this in my parlor and white walls and a clean green blotter every Saturday night and a row of shining yellow pencils always sharpened for writing and a golden-brown bowl with a flower or some leaves or berries always in it and books...books...books...."

  She chose her book for Sunday; something by an author named Brown. Francie figured she had been reading on the Browns for months. When she thought she was nearly finished, she noticed that the next shelf started up again with Browne. After that came Browning. She groaned, anxious to get into the C's where there was a book by Marie Corelli that she had peeped into and found thrilling. Would she ever get to that? Maybe she ought to read two books a day. Maybe....

  She stood at the desk a long time before the librarian deigned to attend to her.

  "Yes?" inquired that lady pettishly.

  "This book. I want it." Francie pushed the book forward opened at the back with the little card pushed out of the envelope. The librarians had trained the children to present the books that way. It saved them the trouble of opening several hundred books a day and pulling several hundred cards from as many envelopes.

  She took the card, stamped it, pushed it down a slot in the desk. She stamped Francie's card and pushed it at her. Francie picked it up but she did not go away.

  "Yes?" The librarian did not bother to look up.

  "Could you recommend a good book for a girl?"

  "How old?"

  "She is eleven."

  Each week Francie made the same request and each week the librarian asked the same question. A name on a card meant nothing to her and since she never looked up into a child's face, she never did get to know the little girl who took a book out every day and two on Saturday. A smile would have meant a lot to Francie and a friendly comment would have made her so happy. She loved the library and was anxious to worship the lady in charge. But the librarian had other things on her mind. She hated children anyhow.

  Francie trembled in anticipation as the woman reached under the desk. She saw the title as the book came up: If I Were King by McCarthy. Wonderful! Last week it had been Beverly of Graustark and the same two weeks before that. She had had the McCarthy book only twice. The librarian re
commended these two books over and over again. Maybe they were the only ones she herself had read; maybe they were on a recommended list; maybe she had discovered that they were sure fire as far as eleven-year-old girls were concerned.

  Francie held the books close and hurried home, resisting the temptation to sit on the first stoop she came to, to start reading.

  Home at last and now it was the time she had been looking forward to all week: fire-escape-sitting time. She put a small rug on the fire-escape and got the pillow from her bed and propped it against the bars. Luckily there was ice in the icebox. She chipped off a small piece and put it in a glass of water. The pink-and-white peppermint wafers bought that morning were arranged in a little bowl, cracked, but of a pretty blue color. She arranged glass, bowl and book on the window sill and climbed out on the fire-escape. Once out there, she was living in a tree. No one upstairs, downstairs or across the way could see her. But she could look out through the leaves and see everything.

  It was a sunny afternoon. A lazy warm wind carried a warm sea smell. The leaves of the tree made fugitive patterns on the white pillow-case. Nobody was in the yard and that was nice. Usually it was pre-empted by the boy whose father rented the store on the ground floor. The boy played an interminable game of graveyard. He dug miniature graves, put live captured caterpillars into little match boxes, buried them with informal ceremony and erected little pebble headstones over the tiny earth mounds. The whole game was accompanied by fake sobbings and heavings of his chest. But today the dismal boy was away visiting an aunt in Bensonhurst. To know that he was away was almost as good as getting a birthday present.

  Francie breathed the warm air, watched the dancing leaf shadows, ate the candy and took sips of the cooled water in-between reading the book.