Pattern Markings, a short story by Hanna Perlstein Marcus

Pattern Markings

A short story by Hanna Perlstein Marcus

Winner of the 2010-2011 Jerry Labriola / Brian Jud Short Story Contest
Connecticut Authors & Publishers Association

One of my first short stories, based on a true event, was this one reprinted here, adapted from Chapter 10, “Marking” in my first book, Sidonia’s Thread. 

I was seven and had been attending the Lubavitcher Yeshiva School for almost three years when the accident happened. Many of us children of Jewish immigrants who had arrived in Springfield, Massachusetts after World War II were students at the Yeshiva, our parents hoping to retain our Jewish identity lest we assimilate too quickly into a Christian America. It was February 17, 1955, just a few months after my mother received her Certificate of Naturalized Citizenship, the culmination of five years of study in Adult Civic Education at the Chestnut Street School. I remember the time as one of great pride for my mother, a single parent who was born in Hungary, but had experienced the horrors of war, and relieved to finally call herself a real American.

We used to take the school bus every day from the corner of Osgood and Dwight Streets in the north end of the city to the Sumner Avenue mansion across the street from Forest Park that was occupied by the private Jewish elementary day school. The bus rides were typical of the time: the boys were pulling braids, hurling spitballs, making wisecracks, talking loudly, and the girls were rolling their eyes, pretending to ignore the boys, playing cat’s cradle, chatting, and giggling, .

Some of the boys on the bus, like Simon and Joseph, were rhyming my name as they pulled hard on my braids. I pretended not to notice them, and continued talking to some of the other girls on the bus, who had started to giggle as they were also teased, but on the inside I was saying to myself, Don’t these boys have anything better to do than to bother me?

“We’re gonna have some fun when we get off the bus. Look out for some snowballs!” I heard one of the boys yell, as all the girls cringed.

It was the kind of February winter day children dream about. Light snow flurries earlier in the day added to the snow pack that was already on the ground, yet the temperature in the afternoon was slightly above freezing, so it was comfortable to be outside playing. I had already decided, though, while I was still sitting in my seat, that when I got off the bus, I would go directly home to avoid being the victim of any snowball attack.

It was close to 4:30 in the afternoon by the time our bus pulled up to the curb near our corner, still a good half hour of daylight left for outdoor activity. When the bus door swung open, I tried to be one of the first to disembark, but too many boys pushed ahead of me. I looked up as I stepped off the bus stairs, and quickly glimpsed at the billboard of Miss Rheingold, as I always did, her smile beckoning, My beer is Rheingold, the dry beer. Think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer. I loved looking at Miss Rheingold, the epitome of American beauty.

As I moved my gaze past the Esso station toward our apartment building and took two or three steps forward, I heard a loud, piercing scream behind me. Quickly wheeling around, I saw the bus driver, his face contorted in a tortured wail. In his arms was the body of a small boy, his snowsuit, hat, and crushed face covered with blood in the pattern of tire tracks, his eyes closed and arms hanging lifelessly by his side. I immediately recognized the child as little Benny.

I don’t know why, but I must have been the first to run back to the Osgood Street apartment building, where many of the refugee families lived, to spread the news about Benny. It didn’t stop with telling my mother. With my adrenaline flowing, I might have been the one to tell his stunned parents what had happened to their son, and I kept right on going until I had told the news to everyone in the building.

It’s a blur to me as to what happened during that period of a few minutes, but I must have sounded as if I had actually seen the accident. Maybe I thought I did, but the fact of the matter was that I only saw what happened in the split second after it was over. I had already started running toward the apartments when the driver ran back into the bus with Benny, some children still on the bus clinging to their seats in disbelief, and sped south toward Carew Street to Mercy Hospital. Four year-old Benny died an hour and a half later of a fractured skull.

Nevertheless, I was identified as the key eyewitness to the accident, so when the police came to do their investigation, I was offered up to describe what had happened. I guess I told a convincing story because for the next several years, as the case wound its way through the legal system, I was constantly drawn out of school to go over my hapless account with attorneys and other representatives of the court. I was never sure on whose side I was, or who the defendants or plaintiffs were, but I continued to tell the story I had heard from other children who actually saw the accident.

“Yes, Benny got out of the bus and went around back to pick up some snow for a snowball, and fell. He just fell under the bus and the driver ran over him.”
“Did you actually see him bend down and pick up some snow?” asked an attorney in a sleek gray suit.
“Yes, I did.”
“Did you see him fall?”
“Yes, I did.”
“What happened then?”
“All of a sudden, he was under the bus.”
“And then what happened?”
“The driver started to pull the bus away and then someone screamed.”
“What did the bus driver do then?”
“He stopped and ran out to the back of the bus. He picked Benny up in his arms. Then he brought him back into the bus and drove away.”

Finally, after years of telling this story countless times, an attorney crafted his line of questioning so that I blurted out the truth. I hadn’t seen the accident at all. I had only been doing what I thought was expected of me once I was identified as an eyewitness. I was excused from the case, and it never came to the point of my testifying in court. My story may have been the truth, but I never saw it with my own eyes.

During those years, my mother and I avoided discussing the case; just another secret that we never dared to share. We tended to keep our feelings inside, from the world and from each other. Our bond stemmed from my mother’s talent as a fashion designer and seamstress and my role as her model. That was our pattern as sure as the markings she made with her marking chalk to assure transfer of the pattern to the fabric.

I never revealed to her my guilt and fear about lying. She may have thought that her daughter was doing the right thing, cooperating with the authorities. Maybe she was proud of me for being such a young witness in such an important matter. One of the children of our community had died, and her daughter was a key figure in the case.

She never questioned me about my actual involvement, never stood up to the officials in charge to ask that her daughter not be tangled up in a legal case, nor did I ask her to relieve me of that burden. As I think back about the chronology of things, I realize that the accident occurred just three months after my mother earned her citizenship, the most important thing that had happened to her since arriving in America. Perhaps she felt she was being a good new citizen, a good American. And I was being a good daughter.

Many years later, my mother and I attended the funeral of one of the members of our immigrant community with whom I had grown up on Osgood Street. We were still sitting in our folding chairs at the end of the service, talking to other attendees we hadn’t seen for a while, when a short heavy-set woman with auburn hair and melancholy eyes approached us. She looked at me, closely studying my face, and quizzically said my name. I stood up and nodded, “Yes.” With tears in her eyes, she hugged me very tightly, and then walked away without saying another word.

As I fought to collect myself, my mother leaned over, and asked softly in her melodic Hungarian accent, “Do you know who dat vas?”

“Yes, I do, ma,” I responded, almost unable to speak. “That was Benny’s mother.”

As I gazed back into my mother’s sympathetic eyes, I felt a measure of warmth and tenderness between us – finally, a shared understanding of our feelings about a horrifying event that had happened a long time ago.

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