Not Our Kind (excerpt)

From Not Our Kind

The yellow-and-black Checker cab nosed its way down Second Avenue in the rain.  A newsboy in a sodden cap wove in and out through the slow-moving cars, hawking copies of The New York Sun; a man in a Plymouth exchanged coins for a newspaper as the drivers behind him honked.

Eleanor Moskowitz perched on the edge of the back seat. She didn’t bother looking at her watch because she had just looked at her watch. It had been 9: 29 then.  It would be 9: 30 now.  In fifteen minutes, Eleanor had to be at a job interview at the Markham School on West 71st and West End Avenue. That was thirteen city blocks down plus the width of Central Park away. It was unlikely that she was going to be on time. “Why is there so much traffic?” she asked the driver.

“Water main break somewhere near here.  And President Truman is in town,” the driver said.  “I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that traffic’s backed up all over the East Side.”

So the president was making her late.  Eleanor had nothing against Truman though she’d never felt for him the fervent admiration that she had for his predecessor, FDR.  But right now she wished the president had chosen to be somewhere, anywhere else in the world.

Needing something to distract her, Eleanor slid over toward the window and rolled it down. Immediately, a fine mist entered the cab, but the moist air was preferable to being cooped up with nothing to do but fret.  To her left, directly alongside the cab, there was a horse hitched to a dark red wagon. She was almost parallel to the animal and could see the sag of his belly, the matte black of his coat. He shook his head and snorted, as if in sympathetic frustration at the delay.

“Hey, do you mind closing the window?” said the driver, his irritation apparent. “It’s getting all wet back there.”

“Sorry.” Eleanor rolled the window up again.

The driver had a thick neck and his graying hair had been shorn by a razor, like all the soldiers demobilized from the army a couple of years back. The war was a memory now but certain images, like all those gawky boys with their fresh cropped heads, stuck. 

Sweat started to pool under Eleanor’s arms and she took off the jacket of her navy crepe suit and laid it carefully across her lap so it would not crease. She’d put it back on before the interview.  Her pocketbook and her umbrella—black silk with a bone handle—sat beside her. A navy hat with a modest brim and navy grosgrain ribbon around the crown fit snugly on her head. Although the hat was fashioned from finely woven straw, it was still making her perspire, but she wouldn’t take it off for fear it might get crushed.

Eleanor looked down and discreetly straightened the seams of her new nylons. Not that the driver was paying attention; he was hunkered over the wheel, muttering about the traffic.

It was not like Eleanor to be late, especially not for something so important as a job interview.  And especially this job interview. She’d turned in her resignation at the Brandon-Wythe School at the end of the term, a week ago. It was a decision she felt was wrested out of her—thanks to Lucinda Meriwether.

Lucinda had been an excellent student, one of the very best in Eleanor’s recollection. Yet Eleanor didn’t like her.  Lucinda would raise her hand in class and when called on she always had something of value to say.  But her insights were delivered in a slightly mocking tone, as if the class—and Eleanor—were somehow beneath her.  She had also been the ringleader of a small group that had ganged up on Mary Watson, a shy, plump girl with a painful stutter.  Lucinda tormented Mary until Eleanor had stepped in. So when Eleanor discovered Lucinda had plagiarized a paper on Edna St. Vincent Millay, she hadn’t been entirely surprised.  The girl was intellectually gifted but morally compromised.

Eleanor brought the whole matter to Mrs. Holcombe, the headmistress of the school, confident of her support.  She was wrong. And the result was the loss of her job and subsequent scramble to find another.  It was a bold, even reckless move, one that and caused her mother to set down her tea cup carefully in its saucer and say, “You couldn’t have worked out it some other way?” Eleanor had said nothing. 

Odious as the whole business with Lucinda Meriwether was, its outcome had a silver lining, though not one she could ever share with her mother, who did not, and could never, know that she had allowed Ira Greenfeld, who taught biology and physics, to slip his hands not only under the cups of her cotton brassiere, causing her small, startled nipples to jump to attention at the unfamiliar caress, but also under the scalloped hem of her slip, beyond the tops of her stockings, the metal clasps of her garter belt and right inside her underpants. The gentle pressure of his thumb against that strange, nameless bit of flesh at her very core had been so intoxicating and addictive that she allowed these liberties to continue, despite the fact that they took place without the reassuring benefit of a ring—gold, or even one capped with the merest chip of a diamond—on her finger.   

For months Ira had brought her bouquets of tea roses, escorted her to dinner, movies and the occasional concert or play, all as an elaborate prelude to the other, the thing which they both craved but did not discuss.  Then, quite abruptly, Ira stopped calling or coming by.   He also began to avoid her looks—at first wondering, then wounded—as they passed in the hallways at school.

Soon it was clear why.  Ira had turned his attention to the new young teacher in the science department, the effervescent and diminutive Miss Kligerman, with her dense blonde curls like an electrified halo around her head, and breasts so enormous Eleanor wondered that she didn’t topple over from the sheer heft of them. 

Of course everyone knew she’d been jilted.   Brandon-Wythe on East End Avenue, was a small community.  When Eleanor saw the way her colleagues looked at her—cast-off, spurned for another—the shame she felt was like an actual substance coating her skin, something slick, oily and vile. This had been at the beginning of March. The term did not end until June. She had endured the humiliation, the pity, as well as her own resentment, stoically, and did not confide in her mother who said, quite pointedly, “I haven’t seen Ira lately. How is he?”

“He’s been busy,” Eleanor said. Please don’t ask me any more, she thought. She and her mother had always been close but Eleanor could not reveal the extent of her intimacy with Ira; to do so would mortify them both.

“He must be very busy,” said Irina.

Oh, Eleanor had wanted to tell her about Ira’s dropping her, but was afraid that once she began her confession, she would feel compelled to reveal everything.  As much as Eleanor longed to leave her job as soon as Ira’s defection was complete and final, she did not have that luxury. She needed the income, and even if she were to forfeit it, she needed the recommendation from her employer, a recommendation that might not be forthcoming if she were impetuous enough to leave in the middle of the term.  Then Lucinda had turned in her paper and in between its cadged lines—The girl called Vincent wrote verse like she was belting out tunes at a honky tonk club—raucous, impassioned and more than slightly inebriated—Eleanor had found a way out.

The taxi had been stalled for several minutes and a chorus of horns blared behind it.   It was now 9: 35 and the interview was at 9:45 They had gotten as far as 79th Street and Lexington Avenue, but still had a good distance to go. Finally the driver was able to move ahead. Eleanor used her fist to rub the surface of the window.  A diaper service truck was slightly ahead of them, its pink and white siding enlivened by a large painting of a baby blue stork. “Why did the president have to pick today to come into town?” she said, really to herself but the driver caught her eye in the rearview mirror.

“You have a beef with him?” he asked.

“No,” she said.  “It’s just that I’m going to be late for an appointment.”

She checked her watch again and tapped lightly on the crystal as if in so doing, she could halt the passage of the seconds.  They had come to Park Avenue, and outside the window, Eleanor regarded the solid, stately apartment buildings, one set down squarely next to another, like a row of grand old dowagers at the opera.  In front of one doorway stood a pair of massive urns densely filled with flowers, bright bursts of color in a gray day.  A uniformed maid held two black standard poodles on a leash beneath an awning, presumably waiting for a lull in the rain.

As the cab crept along, Eleanor thought of the last conversation she’d had with the Brandon-Wythe headmistress.  “This incident with Lucinda is certainly unfortunate,” Mrs. Holcombe had said.  She was an imposing woman who stood nearly six feet tall, and even seated she seemed to command the small, tasteful office with its polished mahogany desk, grandfather clock and glass-fronted bookshelves.

“Unfortunate?” Eleanor flared.  “I’d call it reprehensible.”

“We’re talking about a girl of seventeen. That’s strong language.”

“It may be strong,” said Eleanor.  “It’s also accurate.”

“We don’t have to parse the semantics any further,” said Mrs. Holcombe. “Because the incident is not going beyond this office.”

“Mrs. Holcombe, you do understand that she lifted whole sentences from Thompson’s Voices in American Poetry. Maybe even a paragraph. There’s just no excuse for what she did.  I’ve given the paper an F.  She gave me no choice.”

To Eleanor’s surprise, Mrs. Holcombe leaned back in her chair, a tolerant and wry expression on her face.  “Eleanor, you are a fine, principled young woman. And an excellent teacher. But when it comes to how the world works, I’m afraid you’re as innocent as one of our girls.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” said Eleanor. She was angry but did not want to antagonize Mrs. Holcombe. As one of the three Jewish teachers on staff—Ira and the despised Miss Kligerman were the others—Eleanor knew her position was not rock solid.

“Lucinda’s mother and aunt were students here. The Meriwethers donate a substantial amount of money to the school and Lucinda’s father is on the board.  And as surprising as it may seem to you, we need their support. Lucinda has applied to Radcliffe, Smith, Wellesley and Bryn Mawr and it’s likely she’ll be accepted by all of them.  We don’t want to do anything that would…endanger her chances because you see, Eleanor, we can’t afford to.”

Eleanor was quiet. Could this really be the case? To her, the school had seemed replete with privilege, with resources.  Still, Lucinda’s behavior was wrong and Eleanor had to say so.  “But what she did—”

“Is a regrettable lapse.  If it would help, I would allow you to speak to her privately.  I’ll call her into my office and you can join us.  We’ll explain that you are aware of what she’s done and that you’re not going to do anything about it.  Others may not be so lenient though.  We could think of this as a kind of warning.”

“With all due respect, Mrs. Holcombe, that makes us as culpable as she is.”

Again there was that tolerant, almost bemused smile.  “As impractical and unworldly as your position is, I respect it, I really do.  And I respect you.  But that’s not the way it’s going to be, Eleanor.  Do you understand?”

She looked down at her lap and then up at Mrs. Holcombe. “I don’t know where it leaves me, though.”

“You’ll have to work that out for yourself.  I’ve spelled out my position.  If you can’t accept it, then I’m afraid…”

“That I’ll have to resign.” The words were out, a challenge between them. “But I don’t have another job and I’m not sure I could get one for the fall.”

“I’ll write you a letter,” Mrs. Holcombe offered.

Eleanor was frightened.  What had she set in motion?  Was she really going to go through with it?

“Why not sleep on it and let me know in the morning.  You could talk it over with your family—”

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“No!” said Eleanor, a little too loudly. “It’s just that, I mean…” She simply could not discuss this with her mother.

“I understand,” said Mrs. Holcombe.  “Of course I’ll accept whatever decision you make.  But I’d hate to lose you, Eleanor.”

“And I’d be sorry to go.”  That was true; there was so much about the job that Eleanor loved.  Then she thought of Lucinda’s smug, supercilious expression; she doubted that the girl would be the least bit abashed by the meeting Mrs. Holcombe was proposing.  And she thought too of Ira, turning away when they passed in the hallways or on the stairs.  Out of courtesy, she would not tell Mrs. Holcombe what she realized she had just decided; she would pretend to think it over for a night.  But in her heart she knew: it was time to go.

And so here she was, in this yellow whale of a taxi laboriously making its way toward the Markham School on the West Side.  Eleanor had resigned, and begged off a farewell party. In exchange for her silence about Lucinda, Mrs. Holcombe had given her a month’s severance and a glowing letter of reference, a letter that Eleanor had to refrain from reading too many times, lest it become ragged and soiled from constant handling. 

It was late in the year to be applying for the Markham job and she had only gotten the interview because her college friend Annabelle Wertheimer—the only other Jew in her dorm at Vassar—had managed to arrange it at the last minute.  “The headmistress owes me a favor,” Annabelle, who was a teacher there, had said.

Eleanor knew her chances of landing this position were slim. But she had to try because she so badly needed a job, both for the income it provided and the sense of dignity too.  She could have gone to work in her mother’s hat shop on Second Avenue.  As a little girl she had loved being in the shop, with its gold-painted script spelling out Hats by Irina in a graceful arc across the window, loved the ribbons and bows, the veils, bunches of silk flowers and faux fruit that were the raw materials of her mother’s craft. 

But her mother had adamantly refused her daughter’s offer to join her. “Hats are good,” her mother had said.  “Teaching is better.”  This might have been the eleventh commandant as far as she was concerned.  Irina had been nine when she came from Russia with her mother and two younger brothers; her father had been killed and her mother was fleeing pogroms and the Revolution.  She’d never gone to school past the fifth grade, and was determined to see her daughter surpass her.  And Eleanor had.  She’d gone to the prestigious Hunter College High School for Intellectually Gifted Young Ladies where she had had been the editor-in-chief of the literary magazine and the class valedictorian.  After graduation, she had attended Vassar on scholarship.

Eleanor had been so nervous about today’s interview that she’d been unable to sleep the night before.  She finally drifted off around five, and then sat up with a horrified start when she realized she slept right through the alarm and it was almost eight thirty.  Her mother had an early morning appointment and so no one had been there to rouse her. She dressed in a rush, cursed the rain that splattered against the apartment’s windows, and once she was out in the street, decided to splurge on a taxi. Amazingly, the Checker cab had pulled up right to the corner of Second Avenue and 84th Street just as she stepped out of her building.   She sprinted up to claim it and hurriedly climbed in.

That had been over thirty minutes ago, thirty minutes during which she sat rigidly, watching the meter tick and the fare rise; it was now more than two dollars and the taxi had again hit a vexing snarl of stalled cars, unable to move at all. “Maybe you could try going down Fifth,” she ventured.

“Fifth Avenue might be even worse,” the driver said. He continued on Park Avenue for a few feet then stopped—again!—for yet another red light.  Eleanor was awash in a helpless rage.

When the light changed to  green she turned again toward the window and leaned back just the slightest bit, allowing some of her tension to dissipate. But then there was a sudden jolt from behind. Instantly, she was thrust forward and her face was slammed against the unyielding surface of the driver’s seat. Her hands flew to her lip, which the impact had split; she tasted blood. Then an ache radiated from her mouth outward, until it seemed to engulf her whole body.  She began to shake.

“He rammed right into me!” The driver opened his door.  “Son of a bitch rammed right into me!” 

Eleanor said nothing. She was trembling and kept her hands pressed over her mouth.  The blood was dripping now, bright, round drops, onto her ivory silk blouse. The interview, she thought. I’ve got to get to the interview.

“Are you hurt?” the driver said, finally turning to Eleanor.  “Hey, you’re bleeding!”

“I’m all right,” she said, removing a hand from her face to root around in her purse for a handkerchief.  “It’s just my lip.”   

“Here, take this,” he said, offering his own rumpled and rather grimy white square.  Eleanor had no wish to offend him, but she didn’t want to press the dirty cloth to her mouth either.  She continued to hold her fingers against the wound.   The driver’s attention was elsewhere in any case, shouting at the other driver—also a cabbie—that had inflicted the damage. Eleanor cranked down the window.

“You hit me!” the driver of Eleanor’s taxi said. “Just smacked right into me.”

“You dumb jackass! You didn’t signal you—”

“Didn’t signal?  What are you—blind?  Or just a moron?”

Still trembling, Eleanor remained where she sat.  Outside, a crowd had gathered. She heard someone say they were going to get the police, and that there was a station down the street. More shouting from the drivers, shouting that intensified when the police officer showed up several minutes later. The sight of him galvanized her; she clambered out of the cab, clutching her jacket, purse and umbrella. Maybe he could help her, even drive her to the interview.  She envisioned a wild ride through the wet streets, siren wailing and lights flashing.

“What’s all the trouble?” The officer—young, with a round, pink face—looked back and forth at the two cabbies.

“This guy rammed—”

“He forgot to signal—”

“All right, all right,” said the officer.  He pulled out a thick notebook from his pocket; its edges were bent and its cover creased.  “One at a time.”

Eleanor stood there, the rain quickly wetting her thin—and now blood stained—blouse, so that it adhered to her skin.  She was still clutching her jacket and umbrella but was too stunned to put on the first or open the second. The officer was busy with the cabbies.  She was not going to be late to the interview; she was going to miss it entirely.  Her eyes anxiously scanned the streets, looking for a telephone booth.  If she could call now, she might be able to explain what had happened and reschedule.

“Officer, this woman has been hurt.”

Eleanor turned to see that the passenger in the other cab had emerged. Although she was shaken, bleeding, and sick with anxiety over the missed interview, she was still struck by the woman who now stood facing her.  She looked to be in her thirties, and despite the rain, was flawless in her gray, polished cotton suit, with the kind of trim, fitted jacket and full, gathered skirt that Christian Dior had introduced just months before.  The New Look as they called it in Vogue; Eleanor’s mother had a subscription and when the issue arrived, the two of them had a cherished ritual of looking at it together over cups of tea, drawn in by the lavish photographic spreads, the glamour that permeated each of the pages. 

“Are you okay, Miss?” the officer said, looking away from the two cabbies.  “Do you need an ambulance?”

“No ambulance,” Eleanor said.  “Just a telephone, please. I’m late for an appointment.”

“I’ll take you down to the station; you can use the phone there.  But I have to finish up with these two guys first.  And then I’ll have to take your statement too.” 

Eleanor just nodded, her eyes beginning to fill. The interview.

“You’re getting soaked,” the woman said. Her gray mermaid hat, fitted close to her head and adorned with narrow white piping, was also a style endorsed by Mr. Dior. Eleanor’s mother would have loved it. “Why don’t you open your umbrella?”

Eleanor looked dumbly at the umbrella she held.  The woman regarded her indulgently.  “Or, why don’t you come and stand with me?” Her hand in its net glove gestured for Eleanor to join her.

Eleanor walked over and stood beside her as the two men continued to offer their conflicting versions of the story while the officer, who had clearly heard it all before, grunted softly, his pencil moving rapidly across the pad. Cars, backed up and idling, honked furiously at the delay.

“Are you sure you don’t want an ambulance?” the woman said. “It couldn’t hurt to have a doctor look you over.”  The hair that showed from beneath the hat was blonde, and her brows were unexpectedly dark, giving her a severe though admittedly dramatic look.

“I just want a telephone,” Eleanor said.

“You’re crying,” the woman observed.

Was she? Eleanor touched her face as if it belonged to someone else; she had not even been aware of the tears. Her injured lip felt puffy and strange. “A telephone,” she repeated.  “Please!”  So the woman went over to the officer; he nodded and the woman returned. 

“There’s a phone booth on the next corner,” she said. “I told the officer you needed to make an urgent call and that we would be back as soon as you had finished.”    

And she took Eleanor’s arm and propelled her along Park Avenue, where doormen stood like sentries, gold buttons gleaming on their dark jackets.  Close up, the woman smelled of Chanel Number 5, a heady scent Eleanor could not afford to buy but had sniffed, often, when she and her mother “did” the ground floor at Lord and Taylor on Fifth Avenue.

“I’ll wait here,” the woman said when they reached the phone booth.  And she stood outside while Eleanor stepped in, dialed the number for the Markham School and waited anxiously while the phone on the other end rang and rang.  Finally someone picked up.  No, the headmistress was not available now; she was in a meeting. Yes, the message would be delivered. The woman on the other end of the lines seemed to doubt Eleanor’s story.  It was no wonder, since Eleanor knew she sounded slightly hysterical.

She hung up and looked at her watch. The crystal covering its brave little face was cracked and the hands were frozen in place.   The watch had been a gift from her father, given to her a year or so before he died.  Its loss, heaped on top of the other losses of the day, seemed too much.  She began to cry in earnest now. Her lip started bleeding again. It hurt even more now, an awful, heat-laced throbbing.  She pushed the door open, desperate for the air.

There stood the woman in the Dior suit. She had been waiting patiently all this time. “Oh you poor, dear girl,” she said. “We’ll finish up with the police and then you’ll come straight home with me.”