The Free Thinkers: Two Novellas

The Free Thinkers: Two Novellas

by Layle Silbert

Hardcover(A SEVEN ST)

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Layle Silbert's stories trace struggles and joys of lives overlooked. In The Free Thinkers: Two Novellas, she gives these lost lives a new voice, recovering in exacting detail the world of newly arrived Eastern European Jews in turn-of-the-century-America. Silbert's stories chronicle their arrival in Chicago and New York, and follow them as they trade Yiddish and Russian for English, find work in factories and Jewish newspapers, attend Zionist meetings, and struggle toward the promise of freedom and happiness.
The Free Thinkers tells two tales. The first novella focuses on Ida, an independent woman, a "freethinker" devoted to finding her own way in America. A factory forelady, a patron of the theater, and an instinctive feminist, she is determined to find total freedom in a man's world-no matter where it leads her.
The collection's other novella chronicles the lives of three sisters from the Ukraine as they find husbands and start their own families in America. Two masterful chapters at the heart of the novella describe their mother's arrival, after the great war and the revolution, to a small Indiana town. She is "a vision, in her clothes, her posture, the very air around her, a vision of a sight on a street in the village they'd all come from, suddenly seamlessly transported into this pleasant spring morning to the very middle of America."
In Layle Silbert's tender Stories of the New World, as in the best stories of Chekov, the slightest gesture carries with it the weight of the world. Nothing happens, everything happens. Silbert's writing is delicate, as if dusted by the wings of a visiting angel, here to present for posterity the way things were.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781583220252
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
Publication date: 05/02/2000
Edition description: A SEVEN ST
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.25(w) x 9.31(h) x 1.14(d)

About the Author

Born in 1913 in a Yiddish-speaking household in Chicago, LAYLE SILBERT attended the University of Chicago and pursued a career in social work before before turning, later in life, to photography and fiction. By the 1960s Silbert had moved to New York City, where she was involved in both literary and radical feminist circles. Her acclaimed photographs, primarily of contemporary writers such as Nelson Algren, James Baldwin, and Elizabeth Bishop, were exhibited more than thirty times in the United States and internationally. All the while Silbert was writing in a variety of forms, including poems and a handful of personal essay, but she primarily considered herself a writer of short fiction. Her stories were published in the New York Quarterly, Literary Review, and Salmagundi, among others. The collection of stories included in Yudl, published by Seven Stories, was selected by the author for publication in the last days before her death. Silbert died in 2003.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


    Papa was sitting, absorbed, at the dining room table going over his papers. He read and hummed, then began to draw up ads on the newsprint so plentiful in our house. He brought it in rolls from the office; most of it fell into my mother's hands. She used it to line the pantry shelves. As Papa wrote his copy in Yiddish, the ink spread a little so that it seemed the normal way for writing to look.

    Here on the second floor of our Chicago apartment house, the three dining room windows looked out on the side of the next building, which was exactly the same as ours except that it was of yellow brick. Ours was red brick. I thought red brick far more distinguished. As a result of this mutual aping, really a universal plan for all five-room apartment buildings in our neighborhood, we saw only the bathroom window over there. If we still gave it a thought, we knew when the bathroom was occupied as we sat and ate our evening dinner.

    None of this was on my mind now. The bathroom window across the way was dark. It was late. Mama was in bed and so was Baby. In this blessed silence, Papa and I were pursuing our own demons. Mine was homework. I was supposed to be doing my lessons as a diligent, successful student at John Marshall High School.

    What was I doing? I was doing homework. I was not doing homework. With my elbows propping up my head, leaning into my right hand, fighting off sleep, I was reading a book. It was Hard Times by Charles Dickens. It put me in analtogether different world, one that belonged to the goyim, and made Papa all wrong, not belonging or fitting into the life schemes my school drew me into.

    Whenever I raised my head and let my surroundings assert themselves, I was shocked at how disagreeable it all was. There Papa sat, a few feet away, halfway around the dining room table and as usual he was working. It had never occurred to anybody in the family to ask why he didn't finish his work when he was at work and spend his evenings playing cards, reading the newspaper, fighting with Mama, all the natural occupations I had observed for fathers in other households.

    He was sitting in his undershirt, his bare feet looking oddly small below his pant legs. He was writing copy for advertisements, making changes natural to writing something the first time, lines savagely crossed out, insertions ballooning in the margins. Then he read what he had written, made a few more changes, sat back, contemplated the whole, and without further ado put it to one side. The next step was to copy it carefully with the same scratchy pen that blotted on newsprint. There was a typewriter that typed Yiddish, but it was in the office of the Paole Zion organization.

    Papa spoke. It couldn't be to me. But I was the only person present. The rest of us were sleeping. He said, "Oh, these women. How to make them satisfied? How to make them buy Pillsbury flour?"

    The subject was extremely uninteresting to me. Cooking was the work of slaves. I had seen Mama doing it. This included baking.

    I looked up blankly and went back to the satisfactions of life in Dickens's England.

    Suddenly he snapped at me. "Do your homework."

    "I did it," I said. "I'm reading."

    "Then go to bed."

    "No," I said, surprising my meek self. "I want to read."

    "Read in bed."

    "No," I said again.

    "All right," he said. "I was just trying to satisfy the Mama." As if I didn't know. "To tell you the truth, do you know what I am doing?"

    I knew he was writing in Yiddish, which I couldn't read. "No, what?"

    "I am writing recipes—with Pillsbury flour, for the ladies," he added, smirking with gallantry. "Recipes," he said again contemplatively. It wasn't advertising copy at all.

    Then he sat away from the table, his writing, memories of meals, with me across the way facing Dickens, and laughed. "For this I came to America, left my mother. I never saw her again. I never even saw her tears when I left."

    Family life was becoming more interesting.

    "Listen," he went on. "Angel food cake. To make a good angel food cake for your family," he intoned, then translated into Yiddish. Angel food cake became angel food cake in Yiddish; it was hilarious. He was speaking of the little angels he had taken such pains to acquaint me with during my early life by slyly slipping pieces of silver-wrapped chocolates into the pockets of my pajamas and then putting the blame on them.

    He laughed. I giggled. Then we both laughed. "The molochl is busy," he said. His eyes were brimming. He remembered the chocolate too.

    I waited for more revelations, more misapplications of the pursuits of angels. Wasn't it natural at this time of night for our conversation to be concerned with angels? The air seemed faintly filled with the slurring sounds of wings of small birds, something like hummingbirds.

    "Oh," said Papa, "if only an angel would come and give me a hand, maybe write a few lines for me."

    "In school we learned that these angels are called muses."

    Papa wasn't paying attention to my wisdom. He didn't need a muse, let alone know what a muse was. His school had been in another country. He wrote from his own inspiration. At that very moment he picked up his inspiration. It was a recipe, printed on a piece of paper in classic format; first the list of ingredients, then how to mix them up and meld them with heat into something that could be eaten. One of these ingredients was two cups of Pillsbury flour.

    "See," he said, "this is how I am the cooking editor of the Jewish Daily Forward. I even have a name. I am Aunt Molly." He grinned. "You mustn't tell anybody. What a scandal if they found out. The women would come after me with brooms." He put his hands up to his head to protect himself from brooms, from women.

    I wondered, did Mama know? Did she use the recipes in the newspaper to bake cakes? Mama thought she was too smart to use recipes. She knows how to bake, how to do everything without outside assistance.

    More important to me, I also wondered, why was he explaining all this to me? Was he putting me in training to become a ghostwriter too, for Pillsbury, for Ivory soap, or that famous salami factory whose odors impregnated the entire West Side? For some time now at school, I had been explaining at every opportunity that my father was a writer. This was so since the day I said to Teresa that my father worked on a newspaper. "Where is his stand?" she asked. I was horrified that such a low-class occupation could be attributed to my family. It also told me about the world Teresa lived in. Not for me. Teresa was poor. I despised her. After that, Papa was a writer.

    When I become a writer, I was thinking as I recoiled from Papa's revelations, I will write from my heart, like Dickens. I will reconstitute entire worlds. I closed the book to think about what I'd been reading. A terrible fright hit me. How? I had no idea how one goes about writing long novels. Never could I do it. Was this why Papa wrote recipes in the person of Aunt Molly? Because it's too hard to do anything else?

    But recipes I would never write. I was ignorant and wanted to stay that way. I had already promised myself never to cook, wash, scold, or live in the kitchen—with a stove, sink, and vacuum cleaner for company. I would be a real writer. My finger was inside the book marking my place so I would be ready to plunge back once Papa stopped talking. This was the kind of book I would write. Instead I was learning how to write recipes. How to write recipes was to copy them and pretend you invented them yourself.

    I fixed a searching stare on Papa, trying to fathom why he wrote recipes. He simply sat there looking at me, satisfied, smiling at what he had told me about himself. Were the angels he'd called on to come and help already forgotten? Maybe all he wanted was to finish and go to bed. Not so.

    "Angels, devils," he said. "I'm going." He stopped over to search for his socks. They lay on the floor next to his shoes, where he'd put them after Mama had gone to bed. She would not tolerate such sloppiness. She would have transported them to the laundry basket. He tugged on his socks, then his shoes, and as he was tying the laces, his face to the floor, said, "Do you want to come?"

    Me come? The end of the world, all order gone. According to what I knew, I should have been chased to bed quite a while ago. I'd only been been released from this necessity by another, the necessity to do homework.

    I took my finger out of the book, memorized the page number, and leaving it on the dining room table, went for my coat.

    "In a minute," said Papa, rising. He stretched to get into shape and gathered up his papers. "I don't like the way this looks." He shook the batch of papers to straighten them out. "We'll go and get it typed."

    If Mama heard, she would say, Now? You can't wait until tomorrow? And you take her with you? She should be in bed. Good that Mama wasn't here.

    "I like a little company. So come on."

    Like thieves we crept out of the house, opening the door and closing it with care, saying nothing to one another, trying to keep the door from squeaking, and shut it softly. It did squeak and made closing noises. But nothing happened. The household could have been under a spell.

    Now we were free and walked down the stairs, Papa first, in our usual way. We had the right to jump and leap. Papa owned the building, including a gigantic mortgage hanging invisibly over it, making lots of trouble. Down in the foyer, we let the downstairs door go in a slam and stepped outside.

    On the street it was deep night with nobody around. Into the car we went. Papa from one side, me from the other. I knew where we were going. Not far at all. To the old apartment house on Douglas Boulevard made of white limestone, where Papa's organization had its headquarters and held meetings. In the office on the second floor, intended as a dining room, stood a crumbling old desk with one broken drawer and, on top, a telephone and an ancient typewriter, a Remington, looking much too high to work at comfortably. The desk was golden oak, just like our dining room table.

    "It'll just take a few minutes," Papa explained as he drove on the nearly empty boulevard. "I'll type it out, and then the typesetters won't make mistakes like they always make mistakes. Such mistakes."

    I knew about these famous typesetters, men who had an ironbound labor contract, worked two hours a day because that was all the work there was, behaved like aristocrats, and nevertheless made mistakes. They were impossible to fire. Who would come to work in their place? How many other people could set type in Yiddish? Nobody.

    A few bedroom lights blinked along the boulevard as we drove. If I weren't with Papa, I would have been scared. Only a few people were around, hurrying to get home, and not much else. A parking place manifested itself in just the right spot, directly in front of the building, maybe the work of our friends the angels. We each jumped out and stood by ourselves on the solitary sleepy boulevard.

    Suddenly Papa clapped his hand to his chest. "I forgot the key." He groaned. "We'll have to go back. It's finished. I'll just have to give it to those scoundrels"—he used a Russian word—"the way I wrote it."

    "There's a light," I said, pointing up. There indeed was a light on the second floor in the front where the living room should be. A ghost in the headquarters of the Paole Zion organization?

    "Thieves," said Papa. "They came to steal the typewriter." I had never heard him talk this way. Mama was the one who suspected the whole world of robbery: handkerchiefs, socks, towels missing from the laundry, her silver, Eversharp pencils.

    The adventure was fading. I wished I were in bed with my book under the pillow. For a moment we were quiet. We stood staring at the light in the uncurtained window. In that room a heap of folding chairs against the wall waited to be unfolded and set out for the next meeting. Empty or full, the room never stopped smelling of cigarettes.

    "If somebody's there," I said, "you can get in."

    "Smart little girl," said Papa.

    I was offended. I knew I was smart, but I wasn't a little girl. Maybe we should go home right now.

    Papa looked up again. "Who is it? Who could it be?"

    An old man in a large black coat and a fedora tipped deep over one eye approached on the sidewalk. Was he on his way upstairs too? No, he walked by, giving Papa and me a bored glance. Papa returned the glance. He must know him. The man continued on his way, the skirts of his coat moving behind him.

    "Do you know who that was?" Papa said in a stage whisper, causing me embarrassment. He knew everybody and he knew this man too. He knew him from seeing him on the stage. It was Jacob Ben-Ami. The whole world knew who he was, and no doubt he identified Papa as a member of his audience, which was to him, of course, everywhere.

    I was getting tired. My feet hurt, I was bored. I wanted to go home and read some more. Papa was trying to make up his mind. What to do?

    "Who can it be after all?" he said, and went up the short flight of carved limestone stairs, with me following, to the stone veranda, an outdoor foyer. He put his ear to the glass in the top part of the door. The prisms at the borders reflected the streetlight.

    "Nothing," he said. "I hear nothing. All right, let's try," he said with an air of doom as though the doorbell were wired to an explosive. He pressed the button at the side of the door. Nothing. No sound. No ring.

    "Funny. Maybe it's broken. I'll try again." He pressed and then pressed harder. Still nothing. The doorbell was out of order. Usually this door was open all day like a store so people could come in on their business. Had there been a meeting tonight, it would be open now too. People would be coming in and out, splaying Yiddish conversation into the air with heat and verve, walking right past me. The men in the Paole Zion had no use for girls. If I were a boy, it would be different.

    He knocked sharply on the glass, which was the next thing to do. "Now the thief will come down and open the door. Get ready to run."

    He was joking again. What if it were a real thief? What could a thief be taking? The typewriter, of course. There were no other valuables. We would rescue the typewriter. Papa's writings, on a roll of paper, stuck up out of his coat pocket. He touched it now. If I wanted to, I could steal it, just take it out of his pocket.

    I didn't have the time to steal anything. The door was torn open unexpectedly and a shadowy person was revealed, standing with arms akimbo. "What do you want? It's late."

    "What I want?" said Papa. "I want to type something. Let me in. By the way, who are you, if I may ask?"

    "You don't remember me? Yudl, what's the matter with you?"

    "It's dark. To tell you the truth, Minnie, I didn't recognize you. How should I know it's you up there making the light?"

    "I'm not making the light. I'm sleeping here."

    By now we both were in, the door somehow was closed behind us, and Minnie was slowly climbing up the stairs with Papa behind her and me after them. Papa was arguing with Minnie. She was explaining, explaining.

    At the landing on the second floor, the light was burning fiercely. Through the front room which used to be a living room, where meetings were held, this hall light had shown faint and mysterious in the front windows. Like the night light Mama used to leave on when I was a baby, it was a night light for Minnie.

    No wonder. She must have been scared all by herself in the big, empty, smoke-stained building that hadn't been used for real living for who knows how long.

    "What are you doing here, Minnie?" Papa asked her one more time. He had been asking all the way up the stairs.

    "I told you," she said. "I left him. Tomorrow I'll find a regular place."

    "What do you mean, you left him?" said Papa. "What did he do? He's not good enough for you? Or maybe you make this a habit? Maybe you come here once a week?"

    "No, no," said Minnie, almost screaming. "He threw the supper I made for him in the garbage. That's what's once a week. Always insulting me. I'm not a watch, you wind it up and it goes. Not me. No more, no more, no more."

    "I heard you. No more."

    She cried and gulped, then bent her head. "It's the only place I know I could go in a hurry. It's the first time."

    "We'll see," said Papa.

    They were standing under the hall light. Minnie looked exactly like somebody who had just gotten out of bed in the middle of the night. She was wearing her bathrobe and, under it, her nightgown hung wrinkled from sleep.

    Suddenly Papa clasped his hands and said, "What a foolish woman. By yourself in this dirty place. What should we do?"

    "It's not dirty," said Minnie. "You don't have to do anything. Go home and leave me alone." Her hair was tousled, and she was wearing her oxfords on bare feet with the laces untied. Any minute she could step on them and break her neck.

    I listened. This was better than making up recipes. Papa would never think of writing for the newspaper about how we found Minnie here. Why didn't he show me how to write that instead of explaining how to be an Aunt Molly?

    "I have to type my copy," was all he said.

    "Go home," said Minnie. She pulled her bathrobe more closely around herself and blew her nose. She brushed her hair off her face over and over and looked right at Papa.

    He didn't seem to know what to do with himself, his hands, his copy, or me. He shook his head and stood there for a while. Then he took my hand and said, "Come on, you have to go to bed. I changed my mind. It's late."

    Perversely I said, "Aren't you going to type it?" I wanted to see Papa type. I didn't think he knew how.

    "Oh, all right," he said. "We'll make it quick. Then we'll go home and leave this fine lady to herself in this big dirty place."

    "It's not dirty," Minnie said again, nearly crying again. "I cleaned it up myself. Back there." She pointed down the hall where an ex-back bedroom gave off the ex-kitchen, which people still used to make tea and tea and more tea. The refrigerator was broken, the shelves in the cupboards held only a box of Domino sugar cubes and a couple of cracked cups with saucers that didn't match. Some were from our set at home. The sink was green and rusty, and sometimes, I remembered from previous visits, nothing came from the hot-water tap.

    Minnie was getting mad. She looked pretty wide awake by now. Without another word she went into the room off the hallway where we'd been standing and pulled the chain to turn the light on in the ceiling. This was another former bedroom; a window looking out on a brick wall, gloomy during the day, and with the dingy light, more gloomy at night. "Here, this is what you want," she said.

    There the typewriter stood on top of the old desk with the missing drawer. "I don't understand," Papa muttered, "what some people do to themselves."

    "Stop it," said Minnie in a stronger voice. "I know what I'm doing."

    "You know. I know. But you can't stay here by yourself like this."

    "Oh, shut up," said Minnie.

    Papa pulled back. "Don't say shut up to me, not to me."

    "I'm not your little girl," said Minnie. "I can say what I want to say." She put her arm around my shoulders. I knew what she meant; she meant a parent could say what he wanted to say to his own children. But she was wrong. In our family it was not Papa who did the scolding but Mama. It was her job.

    I wriggled away from her. I knew who she was now. She was the wife of Pugach the watchmaker. I should have known when she said she wasn't a watch. "I'm not a watch," she'd said, "you wind it up and it goes."

    Once in a while, on Saturdays, Mama would go to see Pugach in his shop downtown to fix her wristwatch. With a frown, like a scientist, he examined the insides of Mama's watch with a magnifying glass, then turned his smile back on as he told her how much it would cost to fix it.

    "You're a bloodsucker," Mama once said to him after he told her the price. "I can't afford it. My husband is a working man."

    Pugach smiled without stop. "We're all working men." Then he reduced the price and Mama was satisfied. He was a very refined man and wore a tie all the time, even though he waited on his customers in his shirt sleeves, the cuffs closed with cufflinks. His bald head would shine under the light in his tiny shop. Hard to think Pugach had a home, a wife; now he had troubles.

    "He always looked at me like a broken watch," Minnie said.

    "He knows watches. He's an expert, my friend Pugach."

    "Some expert. He doesn't know me."

    "Who can be an expert on women?" said Papa. "We are plagued with our women. Always complaining."

    "Shhh," said Minnie, looking at me and then back to him. "You shouldn't talk like that. A young girl. She has her whole life in front of her."

    Slowly, arguing, they moved into the gloomy room, closer to the typewriter, lofty, like a construction on top of the desk. The conversation was beginning to bore me, but I couldn't stop listening. I also was waiting to see Papa sit down to type his copy for the typesetters. If I knew how, I would have taken the roll of paper out of his pocket and sat down and typed it myself. I imagined the typesetter in his office wailing for Papa the next morning and finding himself with empty hands.

    "Excuse me," said Papa, taking off his coat. "It's cold here, but I work better this way." He threw his coat over the back of a chair. I came near and leaned against the desk. Papa sat down, still talking to Minnie, who showed no sign of going back to sleep. What did she sleep on? I had never seen a bed in this place.

    I went to look. I went through the hallway in the back, lit only by the light we had seen from the street, to the other little ex-bedroom giving off the kitchen. Here it smelled of cigarettes too. For a minute I stood in the doorway. Not knowing how to turn on the light, I waited. Soon I could see shapes. Not much. A suitcase lay opened full of clothes on the floor. A blanket was spread out as if Minnie really had been sleeping there. It was true. She wasn't faking.

    I went back. Papa, at the desk, had unrolled his copy next to the typewriter, but it kept rolling up again. "Here, where are you?" he said to me. "Come and hold this for me."

    Minnie was still there. Maybe she wanted to see Papa type, too. She was wiping her nose on her bathrobe sleeve, pretending nobody saw.

    "A real audience," said Papa. "I'm going to charge you."

    "How much?" I said.

    "Ten cents." He began to type, looking for the keys. It was very slow. He typed, one letter; looked, another letter; looked. After a while, I got tired and let go of the paper. It rolled up into a diploma. "Watch it," Papa said.

    "Oh, Yudl, it will take you all night. Let me," said Minnie.

    "A matter of honor." He typed, now a little faster. But he was still on the first page. "Turn," he said. "See, I'm like a musician." He made a grand gesture of throwing his head back with an imaginary mane of hair.

    "You always were a clown," said Minnie.

    Papa is not a clown, I thought. What made her say that? What would happen now?

    Nothing happened. Papa turned and gave her a look. Then he started to type faster. Pretty soon he finished the page and pulled it out of the big clanking typewriter. "This is a valuable machine. Not many like this in the world. In the old days we all had to be our own scribes."

    "Wouldn't hurt you," said Minnie. "You wouldn't have waked me up."

    "So, go to sleep. You don't have to wait."

    Minnie didn't say anything. She looked cold.

    "Maybe I was a clown. You always were stubborn."

    We both watched, me from the side of the desk, holding the paper down to keep it from rolling up, and Minnie leaning against the wall, holding her bathrobe tight.

    Papa was reading his copy to himself. "Put in the oven. Close the door." He read in Yiddish.

    "The oven!" Minnie shrieked. "What are you writing?" said Minnie. "What kind of story are you making up?"

    "I'm the cooking editor. You didn't know?" He smiled as for a big joke.

    "Now he's a cooking editor." She looked up to the ceiling; old broken paint blisters were peeling paint.

    "Go to bed, Minnie," said Papa again.

    She closed her mouth tight and just stared.

    He started to type once more. Pretty soon he finished. "It didn't take so long after all. You can let it roll up now."

    I did and he put the roll back in his pocket with the pages he had typed. He got up. "Time to go. It's late," he said. Then to Minnie he said, "So, Minnie. Let me drive you home."

    "Not on your life. I'm not going back to him."

    More arguing. I wished they would stop.

    "You can't stay here. Not that it's cold, not that it's lonesome or that it's dirty. Maybe even it's not so safe. Somebody could break in and steal the typewriter."

    "I'm not a typewriter. Nobody is going to steal me."

    "I'll steal you and take you home."

    Minnie giggled. "OK." She suddenly let the bathrobe go, opened her arms out to show it was all right to steal her, and there she was in her old nightgown, her hair hanging all around her shoulders. "Ugh," she said and fumbled at her bathrobe.

    "No." Papa rushed to her, closed her bathrobe for her, and put her hands to the closing. "Be careful." It reminded me of the way he'd button my coat on cold days right up to the neck and give me a pat on the cheek, saying, "Now, stay warm."

    Now he stepped back to contemplate what he had done. The next thing, he slapped her, not hard, and stepped back again. "Excuse me, Minnie. You understand."

    She didn't seem to understand. She just put her hand to the place she had been slapped and looked at Papa with big eyes.

    "Time to go," he said. "Go get your things. I'm taking you home. I was telling you before, the real reason you should go home to Pugach. You belong with Pugach."

    Without a word she went fast clop-clopping in her untied oxfords to the back bedroom. In the doorway, she looked back and said, "It will only take me a few minutes."

    Papa sat down and kept talking to her as she disappeared down the dark back hall. "I forgot. We're not alone." A minute later, he started to talk again. "We're not babies, Minnie. I'm married now, with children."

    Minnie, there in the back, didn't say anything we could hear. Papa looked as though he'd forgotten about me. He clasped his hands again, said to himself, "What am I doing? But what can I do? I can't leave her here. Do you hear, Minnie?" He talked louder. "Do you hear? How can I leave you here? Still, maybe it's a mistake. No, no mistake. Before, that time, it wasn't a mistake either?"

    Did she hear? And what mistake, I wondered. Papa shook his head and then, as though he suddenly saw me, he smiled. "Finish. I'll take her home and finish." He pulled me to him, kissed me on the forehead, then pushed me away. "You see, I used to know Pugach's wife. That was a long time ago. Before the mother. When you grow up, you'll understand. I think you understand now."

    Everything had become intensely interesting. Papa didn't wait for me to answer. He sat looking at the floor, sighed a couple of times.

    After about ten minutes, she came back all dressed, wearing stockings with her oxfords and carrying her suitcase. She bent over to tie her shoes, stood up and said, "OK," in a sad voice.

    Papa took the suitcase and started to go down the stairs. He said, "Should we leave the light?"

    "That's how I found it." Minnie tugged her hat down on her head. All her hair was under the hat. I recognized her better now.

    They went down, Papa first, Minnie after him, and then me. In the car, she sat in front where Mama usually sat and where I had sat on the way over.

    She sighed too and said, "I don't know. I shouldn't let you talk me into this."

    Nobody said anything. Papa started the car. "All right?" he asked me, turning to me in the back. I was cold, tired, and wished we were home. I didn't know where Pugach lived or how long it would take.

    "You know I could go back up there again," she said. "After you drop me off, I'll go back."

    "You won't go back," said Papa.

    It wasn't very far, just a few blocks out of the way. Minnie got out. Papa carried her suitcase to her downstairs door and then we started for home. "It's late," he said one more time. "That Minnie, that Minnie. Maybe I did her another wrong. Who knows what's right, what's wrong?"

    He didn't say anything more as we drove toward our house. I was sitting in the front again. The drive wouldn't last much longer. Riding in the dark in the empty streets, with no homework, no home, no Minnie, no Mama, no school, just next to Papa in the dark night in the city asleep. I didn't want to grow up. I didn't want anything to change.

    When the car stopped, I remembered my book face down on the dining room table. I had forgotten all about it.

Table of Contents

What's Right What's Wrong11
The Free Thinkers
The Free Thinkers35
Free Union59
The Center of the World89
Letters from Prison115
The Idealists
The Departure of Borodin147
The Reunion169
The Arrival189
The Death of Little Jackie204
I Pledge213
The Idealists226
The Supplicants243
In a Chicago Department Store252
The Warning256
Not a Time for Jokes274
The Last Husband287
Potemkin Village301

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