Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Page 4

Betty Smith

  If I were King, Love,

  Ah, if I were King....

  The story of Francois Villon was more wonderful each time she read it. Sometimes she worried for fear the book would be lost in the library and she'd never be able to read it again. She had once started copying the book in a two-cent notebook. She wanted to own a book so badly and she had thought the copying would do it. But the penciled sheets did not seem like nor smell like the library book so she had given it up, consoling herself with the vow that when she grew up, she would work hard, save money and buy every single book that she liked.

  As she read, at peace with the world and happy as only a little girl could be with a fine book and a little bowl of candy, and all alone in the house, the leaf shadows shifted and the afternoon passed. About four o'clock, the flats in the tenements across from Francie's yard came to life. Through the leaves, she looked into the open uncurtained windows and saw growlers being rushed out and returned overflowing with cool foaming beer. Kids ran in and out, going to and returning from the butcher's, the grocer's and the baker's. Women came in with bulky hock-shop bundles. The man's Sunday suit was home again. On Monday, it would go back to the pawnbroker's for another week. The hock-shop prospered on the weekly interest money and the suit benefited by being brushed and hung away in camphor where the moths couldn't get at it. In on Monday, out on Saturday. Ten cents' interest paid to Uncle Timmy. That was the cycle.

  Francie saw young girls making preparations to go out with their fellers. Since none of the flats had bathrooms, the girls stood before the kitchen sinks in their camisoles and petticoats, and the line the arm made, curved over the head while they washed under the arm, was very beautiful. There were so many girls in so many windows washing this way that it seemed a kind of hushed and expectant ritual.

  She stopped reading when Fraber's horse and wagon came into the yard next door because watching the beautiful horse was almost as good as reading. The next-door yard was cobblestoned and had a good-looking stable at the end of it. A wrought-iron double gate separated the yard from the street. At the edge of the cobblestones was a bit of well-manured earth where a lovely rose bush grew and a row of bright red geraniums. The stable was finer than any house in the neighborhood and the yard was the prettiest in Williamsburg.

  Francie heard the gate click shut. The horse, a shining brown gelding with a black mane and tail, came into view first. He pulled a small maroon wagon that had Dr. Fraber, Dentist and the address painted on the sides in golden letters. This trim wagon delivered nothing and carried nothing. It was driven slowly through the streets all day as an advertisement. It was a dreamily moving billboard.

  Frank, a nice young man with rosy cheeks--like the fabulous youth in the children's song--took the wagon out every morning and brought it back every afternoon. He had a fine life and all the girls flirted with him. All he had to do was to drive the wagon around slowly so that people could read the name and address on it. When it came to a set of plates or the pulling of a tooth, the people would remember the address on the wagon and come to Dr. Fraber.

  Frank leisurely removed his coat and donned a leather apron while Bob, the horse, patiently shifted from one foot to the other. Frank then unharnessed him, wiped off the leather and hung the harness up in the stable. Next he washed the horse with a great wet yellow sponge. The horse enjoyed it. He stood there with the sunshine dappling him over and sometimes his hooves struck a spark from the stones as he pawed the ground. Frank squeezed water out on to the brown back and rubbed it down talking to the big horse all the while.

  "Steady now, Bob. That's a good boy. Back up there. Whoa now!"

  Bob was not the only horse in Francie's life. Her Aunt Evy's husband, Uncle Willie Flittman, also drove a horse. His horse was named Drummer and pulled a milk wagon. Willie and Drummer were not friends the way Frank and his horse were friends. Willie and Drummer lay in wait for each other figuring out injuries to do the other. Uncle Willie reviled Drummer by the hour. To hear him talk, you would think that the horse never slept at night but stood awake in the milk company stable figuring out new torments for his driver.

  Francie liked to play a game in which she imagined that people looked like their pets and vice versa. Little white poodles were favorite pets in Brooklyn. The woman who owned a poodle was usually small, plump, white, soiled and with rheumy eyes just like a poodle. Miss Tynmore, the tiny, bright chirping old maid who gave Mama music lessons, was just like the canary whose cage hung in her kitchen. If Frank could turn into a horse, he'd look like Bob. Francie had never seen Uncle Willie's horse but she knew what he looked like. Drummer, like Willie, would be small and thin and dark with nervous eyes which showed too much white. He'd be whimpery too, like Aunt Evy's husband. She let her thought go away from Uncle Flittman.

  Out on the street, a dozen small boys clung to the iron gate watching the neighborhood's only horse being washed. Francie couldn't see them but she heard them talking. They made up fearful stories about the gentle animal.

  "Don't he look still and easy," a boy said. "But that's only a fake. He's layin' his chance for when Frank ain't lookin' then he'll bite him and kick him to death."

  "Yeah," said another boy. "I seen him run over a little baby yesterday."

  A third boy had an inspiration. "I seen him do number one on a old lady sittin' by the gutter sellin' apples. All over the apples, too," he added as an afterthought.

  "They put them blinkers on him so's he can't see how little people is. If he could see how small they is, he would kill them all."

  "Them blinkers make him think people is little?"

  "Little like pee-wees."


  Each boy as he spoke knew that he was lying. Yet he believed what the other boys said about the horse. Eventually the boys tired of watching gentle Bob just stand there. One of them picked up a stone and threw it at the horse. Bob's skin rippled where it struck him and the boys shivered in anticipation of his going berserk. Frank looked up and spoke to them in a gentle Brooklyn voice.

  "You don't want to go and do that now. The horse didn't do nothin' to you."

  "Oh, no?" shouted a boy indignantly.

  "No," answered Frank.

  "Aw, go------yourself," came the inevitable coup de grace from the smallest boy.

  Still gently spoke Frank as he let a rill of water run over the horse's rump: "Do you want to go away from here or do I have to break a couple of your asses?"

  "You and who else?"

  "I'll show you who else!" Suddenly Frank swooped down and picked up a loose cobblestone and squared off as if to throw it. The boys backed away hollering out offended retorts.

  "I guess this is a free country."

  "Yeah. You don't own the streets."

  "I'm gonna tell my uncle, the cop, on you."

  "Beat it now," said Frank indifferently. He replaced the cobblestone carefully.

  The big boys drifted away, tired of the game. But the little boys seeped back. They wanted to see Frank give Bob his oats.

  Frank finished washing the horse and stood him under the tree where his head was in the shade. He hung a filled feed bag on his neck, then he went to work washing the wagon, whistling, "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." As if this was a signal, Flossie Gaddis who lived below the Nolans, stuck her head out of the window.

  "Hello, there," she called vivaciously.

  Frank knew who called. He waited a long time and then answered "Hello" without looking up. He walked around to the other side of the wagon where Floss couldn't see him but her persistent voice followed.

  "Done for the day?" she asked brightly.

  "Soon. Yeah."

  "I guess you're going out sporting, beings it's a Saturday night tonight." No answer. "Don't tell me a good-looking feller like you ain't got no girl." No answer. "They're running a racket tonight at the Shamrock Club."

  "Yeah?" He didn't sound interested.

  "Yeah. I got a ticket admitting lady and gent."

  "Sorry. I'm al
l tied up."

  "Staying home to keep your old lady company?"


  "Aw, go to hell!" She slammed the window down and Frank breathed a sigh of relief. That was over.

  Francie felt sorry for Flossie. She never gave up hope no matter how many times she lost out with Frank. Flossie was always running after men and they were always running away from her. Francie's Aunt Sissy ran after men, too. But somehow they ran to meet her halfway.

  The difference was that Flossie Gaddis was starved about men and Sissy was healthily hungry about them. And what a difference that made.


  PAPA CAME HOME AT FIVE O'CLOCK. BY THAT TIME, THE HORSE AND wagon had been locked up in Fraber's stable, Francie had finished her book and her candy and had noted how pale and thin the late afternoon sun was on the worn fence boards. She held the sun-warmed, wind-freshened pillow to her cheek a moment before she replaced it on her cot. Papa came in singing his favorite ballad, "Molly Malone." He always sang it coming up the stairs so that everyone would know he was home.

  In Dublin's fair city,

  The girls are so pretty,

  Twas there that I first met....

  Francie, smilingly happy, had the door open before he could sing the next line.

  "Where's your mother?" he asked. He always asked that when he came in.

  "She went to the show with Sissy."

  "Oh!" He sounded disappointed. He was always disappointed if Katie wasn't there. "I work at Klommer's tonight. Big wedding party." He brushed his derby with his coat sleeve before he hung it up.

  "Waiting or singing?" Francie asked.

  "Both. Have I got a clean waiter's apron, Francie?"

  "There's one clean but not ironed. I'll iron it for you."

  She set up the ironing board on two chairs and put the iron to heat. She got a square of thick wrinkled duck material with linen tape ties and sprinkled it. While she waited for the iron to get hot, she heated the coffee and poured him a cup. He drank it and ate the sugar bun that they had saved for him. He was very happy because he had a job that night and because it was a nice day.

  "A day like this is like somebody giving you a present," he said.

  "Yes, Papa."

  "Isn't hot coffee a wonderful thing? How did people get along before it was invented?"

  "I like the way it smells."

  "Where did you buy these buns?"

  "Winkler's. Why?"

  "They make them better every day."

  "There's some Jew bread left, a piece."

  "Fine!" He took the slice of bread and turned it over. The Union sticker was on that piece. "Good bread, well made by Union bakers." He pulled the sticker off. A thought struck him. "The Union label on my apron!"

  "It's right here, sewn in the seam. I'll iron it out."

  "That label is like an ornament," he explained, "like a rose that you wear. Look at my Waiters' Union button." The pale green-and-white button was fastened in his lapel. He polished it with his sleeve. "Before I joined the Union the bosses paid me what they felt like. Sometimes they paid me nothing. The tips, they said, would take care of me. Some places even charged me for the privilege of working. The tips were so big, they said, that they could sell the waiting concession. Then I joined the Union. Your mother shouldn't begrudge the dues. The Union gets me jobs where the boss has to pay me certain wages, regardless of tips. All trades should be unionized."

  "Yes, Papa." By now, Francie was ironing away. She loved to hear him talk.

  Francie thought of the Union Headquarters. One time she had gone there to bring him an apron and carfare to go to a job. She saw him sitting with some men. He wore his tuxedo all the time. It was the only suit he had. His black derby was cocked jauntily and he was smoking a cigar. He took his hat off and threw the cigar away when he saw Francie come in.

  "My daughter," he said proudly. The waiters looked at the thin child in her ragged dress and then exchanged glances. They were different from Johnny Nolan. They had regular waiter jobs during the week and picked up extra money on Saturday night jobs. Johnny had no regular job. He worked at one-night places here and there.

  "I want to tell you fellows," he said, "that I got a couple of fine children home and a pretty wife. And I want to tell you that I'm not good enough for them."

  "Take it easy," said a friend and patted him on the shoulder.

  Francie overheard two men outside the group talking about her father. The short man said,

  "I want you to hear this fellow talk about his wife and his kids. It's rich. He's a funny duck. He brings his wages home to his wife but keeps his tips for booze. He's got a funny arrangement at McGarrity's. He turns all his tips over to him and McGarrity supplies him with drinks. He don't know whether McGarrity owes him money or whether he owes McGarrity. The system must work out pretty good for him, though. He's always carrying a load." The men walked away.

  There was a pain around Francie's heart but when she saw how the men standing around her father liked him, how they smiled and laughed at what he said and how eagerly they listened to him, the pain lessened. Those two men were exceptions. She knew that everyone loved her father.

  Yes, everyone loved Johnny Nolan. He was a sweet singer of sweet songs. Since the beginning of time, everyone, especially the Irish, had loved and cared for the singer in their midst. His brother waiters really loved him. The men he worked for loved him. His wife and children loved him. He was still gay and young and handsome. His wife had not turned bitter against him and his children did not know that they were supposed to be ashamed of him.

  Francie pulled her thoughts away from that day when she had visited the Union Headquarters. She listened to her father again. He was reminiscing.

  "Take me. I'm nobody." Placidly, he lit up a nickel cigar. "My folks came over from Ireland the year the potatoes gave out. Fellow ran a steamship company said he'd take my father to America--had a job waiting for him. Said he'd take the boat fare from his wages. So my father and mother came over.

  "My father was like me--never held the one job long." He smoked in silence for a while.

  Francie ironed quietly. She knew that he was just thinking out loud. He did not expect her to understand. He just wanted someone to listen to him. He said practically the same things every Saturday. The rest of the week when he was drinking, he would come and go and say little. But today was Saturday. It was his day to talk.

  "My folks never knew how to read or write. I only got to the sixth grade myself--had to leave school when the old man died. You kids are lucky. I'm going to see to it that you get through school."

  "Yes, Papa."

  "I was a boy of twelve then. I sang in saloons for the drunks and they threw pennies at me. Then I started working around saloons and restaurants...waiting on people...." He was quiet a while with his thoughts.

  "I always wanted to be a real singer, the kind that comes out on the stage all dressed up. But I didn't have no education and I didn't know the first way about how to start in being a stage singer. Mind your job, my mother told me. You don't know how lucky you are to have work, she said. So I drifted into the singing-waiter business. It's not steady work. I'd be better off if I was just a plain waiter. That's why I drink," he finished up illogically.

  She looked up at him as though she were going to ask a question. But she said nothing.

  "I drink because I don't stand a chance and I know it. I couldn't drive a truck like other men and I couldn't get on the cops with my build. I got to sling beer and sing when I just want to sing. I drink because I got responsibilities that I can't handle." There was another long pause. Then he whispered, "I am not a happy man. I got a wife and children and I don't happen to be a hard-working man. I never wanted a family."

  Again that hurt around Francie's heart. He didn't want her or Neeley?

  "What does a man like me want a family for? But I fell in love with Katie Rommely. Oh, I'm not blaming your mother," he said quickly. "If it hadn't been her, it would have be
en Hildy O'Dair. You know, I think your mother is still jealous of her. But when I met Katie, I said to Hildy, 'You go your way and I'll go mine.' So I married your mother. We had children. Your mother is a good woman, Francie. Don't you ever forget that."

  Francie knew that Mama was a good woman. She knew. And Papa said so. Then why did she like her father better than her mother? Why did she? Papa was no good. He said so himself. But she liked Papa better.

  "Yes, your mother works hard. I love my wife and I love my children." Francie was happy again. "But shouldn't a man have a better life? Maybe someday it will be that the Unions will arrange for a man to work and to have time for himself too. But that won't be in my time. Now, it's work hard all the time or be a in-between. When I die, nobody will remember me for long. No one will say, 'He was a man who loved his family and believed in the Union.' All they will say is, 'Too bad. But he was nothing but a drunk no matter which way you look at it.' Yes, they'll say that."

  The room was very quiet. Johnny Nolan threw his half-smoked cigar out of the unscreened window with a bitter gesture. He had a premonition that he was running his life out too fast. He looked at the little girl ironing away so quietly with her head bent over the board and he was stabbed by the soft sadness on the child's thin face.

  "Listen!" He went to her and put an arm around her thin shoulders. "If I get a lot of tips tonight, I'll put the money on a good horse that I know is running Monday. I'll put a couple of dollars on him and win ten. Then I'll put the ten on another horse I know and win a hundred. If I use my head and have any kind of luck at all, I'll run it up to five hundred."

  Pipe dreams, he thought to himself, even while he was telling her about his dream winnings. But oh, how wonderful, he thought, if everything you talked about could come true! He went on talking.

  "Then do you know what I'm going to do, Prima Donna?" Francie smiled happily, pleased at his using the nickname he had given her when, as a baby, he swore that her crying was as varied and as tuneful as an opera singer's range.

  "No. What are you going to do?"

  "I'm going to take you on a trip. Just you and me, Prima Donna. We'll go way down south where the cotton blossoms blow." He was delighted with the sentence. He said it again. "Down where the cotton blossoms blow." Then he remembered that the sentence was a line in a song that he knew. He jammed his hands in his pockets, whistled, and started to do a waltz clog like Pat Rooney. Then he went into the song.