‘And your father’s in it?’
‘Yes, ma’am. He helps my mother and makes the s– the –’
‘The scenery? Try to breathe, Donovan, there’s really no hurry. I’m sure you’ll catch the others in the square.’
Miss Steinhardt sat on the very edge of her desk, working her nails with a bobby pin for the subway grime underneath.
‘Now, Annette Burnham told me she went to see the show last weekend, with her mother and baby brother. Liked it a lot. But she said your father does the puppets, too – and you, too, isn’t that right?’
‘Oh. Yes, ma’am.’
‘Don’t call me ma’am, Donovan, we’re not in the South. The things you kids get from television.’
‘Yes, Miss St–’ began Donovan, although he had neither an idea of the South, being Greenwich Village born and raised, nor much conception of television, which he was not allowed to watch. It was from his mother – whose father had been English – that he had received the strange idea that ma’am was a romantic form of British address, suitable for ladies you especially admired.
‘Anyway, that’s fine,’ said Miss Steinhardt and looked over at the door until the boy had stopped wrestling with her name and closed his big wet mouth. ‘Well, I’d say it’s an unusual pastime for an eight-year-old. If I were you, I’d use it. Always best to use what you have.’
‘I’m sure the class would be interested to hear about it. You could bring in one of the puppets.’
Miss Steinhardt moved one of her stolid Mary Janes over the other and readjusted the long tartan skirt. She looked directly into the pale but not unbeautiful face: a long nose and bright green eyes, full, almost womanly lips and a lot of dark hair, cut into a pair of slightly ludicrous curtains on either side of his narrow face. A boy who might have some hope of growing up into a Robert Taylor type – fine cheekbones, for a child – if it weren’t for this absolute lack of purpose that revealed itself in every pore of his being.
‘I already got the pictures from the paper. I was planning on doing –’ Donovan looked pleadingly at his teacher.
‘Breathe, Donovan. It’s not an interrogation. You’re always in such a panic.’
‘The tower, in Chicago. The one they’ve been building. They just finished.’
‘Oh, well, yes, Sears would be fine,’ said Miss Steinhardt, and wondered at the child, for she knew S was the letter of his particular difficulty. She returned to her nails. Donovan, finely attuned to the moment when people grew bored of him, picked up his book bag and made his way out onto Sullivan Street, into Washington Square.
Lit by a bright full sun, the arch looked more than usually like its Roman progenitor, and the boy found the leaves made a pleasing crunch underfoot, and some wild man in the fountain was talking of Christ, and another stood on a bench singing about marijuana – for the great days of the Village were coming to an end. Another obvious thing was that his mother must never hear of his class assignment. He swore this solemnly to himself on Fifth Avenue, as boys will, before walking as slowly as could be managed back to the mews. At that charming row of cottages he stopped and clutched a replica Victorian lamp post.
‘Donovan? What are you, cracked? Get in here!’
Irving Kendal stepped out of their little blue home and took up a spot in the middle of the street. He packed a wad of tobacco into a pipe and peered over at his only son.
‘Get in here. Hanging off that thing.’
The boy stayed put. It had recently come to his attention that his father’s W came out like a V, that his H had too much water in it, and that everything he said came from another era.
‘Who’re you meant to be? Gene Kelly?’
Worse were the clothes: a broad-check three-piece suit in yellows and browns, cut to create the illusion of height, with widely spaced buttons and trouser legs that kicked madly at the knee. In the cottage next door, Donovan could see Miss Clayton in her elegant black-and-red kimono, standing at the window with her Maltese, Pablo, in her arms. She looked from the father to the son and gave the son a warm look of sympathy. It would be a fine thing to walk straight past Irving to go drink from Miss Clayton’s SodaStream and listen to her old bebop records, or sneak a look at the nude in her bathroom, or throw a beanbag around for Pablo to snap at with his harmless jaws. But such visits had to be rationed, out of loyalty. ‘Four bedrooms, is it?’ said Polly, if Donovan happened to visit the apartment of a friend with means. ‘Well, I can see how you would have enjoyed that. Naturally. I know I would. Probably wouldn’t want to come home at all.’ Or: ‘A SodaStream! Well, that’s what disposable income means, I guess – not having anybody but yourself to dispose it on. But was it deliciously fizzy?’ These conversations, much dreaded, always left Donovan with a free-floating sensation of guilt, all the less manageable for the indeterminacy of its source.
Now Polly emerged, barefoot, despite the autumn chill. Donovan waved; his mother mimed her incapacity. In her left hand, she gripped a long piece of green velvet attached to a stake, held high to keep it from dragging on the ground, and in her right, three coloured feathers, each a foot long. Flying over to him, velvet streaming like the banner of a medieval princess, she moved with her toes pointed, so that what might simply be ‘running’ in another woman looked like a series of darting pliés.
‘Just when I need you, darling – the whole of the forest has come away from the blocks. It’ll need something better than glue – maybe tacks – and a whole new set of ferns from some very evergreen thing – it’s of the utmost importance that it look lovely for Tuesday – Oh, Eleanor Glugel came by just after school and told me all about it and I think it’s an excellent opportunity for the show, really excellent. I’ve been dying to talk to you about it – what took you so long? I had to listen to Glugel rattling on about her grandmother’s tattoo for half an hour – that’s what she’s bringing in, to show – or tell – if you can believe it – her own grandmother.’ Polly shuddered, and indicated a spot on the underside of her own delicate wrist: ‘What an uplifting subject! Oh, but don’t we all already know the world is full of horror? Do we really need to hear about it all the livelong day? There’s no romance in that child whatsoever. No clue of the magic of storytelling. I’ll bet you a dollar she wears a girdle already.’
All of this poured right into his ear, as Polly’s lips happened to be exactly level with it. She pressed his hand; he pressed back. She was perfect – an elf princess who had sworn allegiance only to him. Yet sometimes he wished that she could see, as he did, that theirs was a steely bond, not as easily broken as she seemed to imagine – one which he would never, ever give up, no matter how many four-bedroom apartments or soda fountains he came across in his life. Who else could make him agree to appear before his classmates in a pair of long johns, a nightshirt and a droopy hat with a bell on it? What larger sign of fealty could a knight offer a princess than his pride?
But the next morning Miss Steinhardt made a further announcement: the children were to work in pairs, encouraging the values of compromise, shared responsibility and teamwork, so lacking in these difficult times. She gazed in a pained sort of a way out the far window, in the direction, the children could only assume, of the difficult times. Thus would a small public school in the Village, in its own little way, act as a beacon for the world. It took a few minutes for Donovan to recognize in this new directive the last-minute reprieve for which he had not even dared to hope. ‘Me and you!’ cried a child called Donna Ford, grabbing the hand of another child called Carla Woodbeck, who flushed happily and replied, ‘Yeah, us two!’ and in another moment the room was filled with similar, urgent cries of allegiance, requested and answered, all around Donovan, like a series of doors shutting in his face. Reduced to trying to catch the eye of? Walter Ulbricht, he found even Walter Ulbricht avoiding him, apparently holding out for a better option.
‘Part of my point,’ said Miss Steinhardt, in a queer wobbly voice that silenced her class, ‘is we don’t always get to choose whom we work with.’ Miss Steinhardt had spent yesterday at her grandparents’ home in Brooklyn Heights, watching tanks cross the Suez Canal. ‘Line up please as I call your names.’
The pairing was to be achieved alphabetically, as if a third of the class wasn’t coloured and Walter Ulbricht didn’t have a port wine stain eating half his face. A second flurry of anxious voices went up; Miss Steinhardt ignored them; the double line was achieved; the bell rang. In the hall, Cassandra Kent fell in step with Donovan Kendal. They walked out like this, onto Sullivan, neither holding hands nor talking, yet clearly walking together. Once again he passed through Washington Square Park, as he did daily, but the fact of Cassie Kent transformed it: the leaves were not merely crunchy but entirely golden, and the fountain threw up glorious columns of water, over and over, an engine of joy. Whatever it was that glistened in the wide skull-gaps between her tight plaits smelled of a vacation somewhere wonderful.
‘Let’s do yours,’ said Cassie. ‘The tower. Since you got it all figured already.’
‘Oh. Well, all right.’
‘S-S-Sears?’ she said, somehow not unkindly. ‘Now, how tall is it, anyway?’
‘A thousand four hundred and fifty-one feet high,’ said the boy, as they went under the arch. ‘And this is eighty feet, maybe. Then if you –’
‘Eighteen times taller,’ said Cassie, without pausing. ‘I’m mathematical. Wanna play?’
They took a left and sat on two stone benches under the shade of a sycamore tree, in front of a game Donovan had never before played in his life. Cassie drew a ratty plastic bag from her satchel and emptied a small pile of plastic chess pieces onto the concrete table. Donovan tried to concentrate on her instructions. All around them, the men the Kendals usually took the long route round the park to avoid gathered close. One of them was completely topless and had something like Saran Wrap wound tightly round both shoes. Another had only a handful of teeth and wore a broken gambler’s visor to keep the winter sun out of his eyes. He appeared to know Cassie.
‘Hey, boy – you ready?’ asked the visor man, of Donovan. He knelt down by both children and planted his rusty elbows on the table. ‘This girl ’bout to school you.’
Donovan’s plan was to watch each of Cassie’s moves intently, hoping to follow the logic of the game, and, from there, recreate this logic in his own woolly mind. But where she moved her pieces ruthlessly over the concrete table, with an eye only to their strategic use, to Donovan these were noble kings and queens, and those were the castles in which they lived; here were the advisers they trusted, and there the minions waiting in lines outside the castle wall – and no amount of explanation from Cassie about the rigid rules that were meant to dictate all their movements could stop the boy from instinctively arranging his pieces by rank or relationship.
‘Can’t win anything, playing like that,’ said Cassie, abducting Donovan’s queen, who had rashly stepped out of her chamber to stroke a favoured white steed. ‘Can’t even get started playing like that.’
By the time she had his king surrounded, not too long after they’d started, she was sat up on her own heels, laughing and clapping
‘Donovan Kendal,’ she crowed, jabbing a finger into his sternum, ‘you got no place to turn.’
‘But couldn’t this Cassie whoever-she-is just learn the lines?’ Polly wanted to know. She was holding a tube of glue unwisely between her teeth. Her son passed the paper doily of Grandmother’s cap and the cardboard face of the wolf, to be affixed to each other, a task that had to be redone almost every week. ‘I mean, we could certainly do with another pair of hands.’
‘But turns out it’s got to be just two kids together. Just me and her. Teacher said so.’
‘Well, all right, but I still don’t see why that should –’
‘She’s a coloured girl,’ said Donovan, hardly knowing why, but in its way, the intervention worked; for reasons of consistency it was now impossible for Polly to speak ill of the project. Anyone who knew anything at all about Polly Kendal knew she held the idea of ‘Racial Integration’ almost as close to her heart as she did ‘The Power of Storytelling’ or ‘The Innocence of Children’. Once upon a time – on what was back then a rare trip downtown – she herself had been caught up in the drama of ‘Racial Integration’, in the form of a large, excitable crowd pushing through Washington Square towards Judson Church. Being, by temperament, ‘a lifelong seeker’, she’d joined this crowd, finding herself, a few minutes later, three pews back from the podium listening to the young Reverend Martin Luther King Jr give a speech. A lively story for coffee mornings and parent–teacher conferences. ‘His eyes! The only word I can find for them is “limpid”. Limpid. I could see them looking straight at me: this kooky, sixteen-year-old scrap of a white girl from Brighton Beach. I mean, naturally I stood out. And I’ll tell you something else and I’m not the least bit ashamed of it: whatever he would have asked me to do, I would have done it! I would have done anything!’ But as it happened the Reverend King had not asked the teenage Polly to do anything. Her practical involvement with the civil rights movement ended with that sermon, leaving behind only a residue of enthusiasm.
‘Why shouldn’t the children of Harlem get the equal chance to hear our stories?’ she asked Cassie two days later, as the child pulled a rattan chair to a circular table covered by a fringed gypsy cloth, missing only a crystal ball. ‘Telling someone a story is a way of showing love. Don’t they deserve love?’
‘I love everybody!’ said Cassie happily, and accepted the breadstick that was passed to her. ‘But: if I am attacked, I will defend. You play chess, Mr Kendal?’
‘Me?’ Irving lowered his newspaper. ‘Nope. Not my game.’
‘You do?’ Polly stopped stirring her spaghetti sauce and took a second, anthropological look at Cassie Kent. There were the girls in pigtails who skipped and sang by the fountain, and then there were the grubby old men hunched over the stone tables by the far west gate, but the two groups had always been quite separate in her mind. ‘At school, you mean?’
‘In the park sometimes. Whenever, wherever. I’m pretty good, too.’
‘I’ll bet you are!’
‘I beat Donovan good.’
‘Cassie, do you know Donny never brings any of his friends round to see his poor maw and paw,’ said Polly, putting her hands on slender hips and delving into her small trove of theatrical accents. ‘So I’m real glad he thought to bring you round to see us.’
‘I was gonna show-and-tell my chess . . . but when you think about it, there ain’t that much to show.’
‘Of course, our show is up and ready to go, any time . . .’ began Polly slowly.
The train was coming back down the line, and Donovan, tied to the track, did his best to divert it: ‘But that’s not – you can’t teach a person to do that in just a few days. Puppets are a real craft,’ he said, quoting Polly back to Polly, which seemed to calm her; she stopped biting the spoon and put it back in the pot.
‘Well, that’s very true. It is a craft. Not everyone can pick it up just like that.’
‘There’s a war on,’ said Irving loudly, and flicked a finger at the front page. ‘Somebody should show-and-tell about that.’
Cassie examined the photograph: ‘They your people over there?’
‘Hmm?’ said Polly, with her back to them all. ‘Oh, no, not mine. Irving’s. Technically. I mean, he doesn’t have any relatives over there or anything.’
The door caught on the usual tile and failed to slam; Polly did not flinch. Polly, Cassie and Donovan listened to Irving leave the cottage, and – such was the silence of the mews in those days – strike a match against an outside wall. Polly returned placidly to her sauce.
‘Of course, in the end,’ she said, with a contented look on her face, ‘we’re all one people.’
‘This is a scale model,’ said Cassie, holding up a cardboard tower in front of the class, and Donovan read the scale off a piece of paper, and then Cassie said the name of the architect, and Donovan told them the population of Chicago, and it all passed off without a hitch. But in the hallway, afterwards, when they should have been simply congratulating each other, Cassie announced her intention to soon visit the Polly Kendal Puppet Theater.
‘But – it’s two bucks.’
‘I’m not in the poorhouse – we got two bucks!’
‘It’s just for little kids,’ tried Donovan, gripped by the horrible confirmation of a private fear – that all roads led back to his mother. ‘You’re too old. And it’s on a Sunday. You’ll go to church, won’t you?’
‘It’s not two bucks, that was a lie,’ said Donovan, turning red. Having put his hand up inside Pinocchio every Saturday for the whole of the previous year, he had been unable to rid himself of a feeling of deep identification. ‘If you really want to know it’s only fifty c–’
Most adults at least would keep looking into his face when he was in trouble, smiling kindly, until the word, whatever it happened to be, was completed. Cassie, like all children, only said, ‘What? What? What?’ and groaned with impatience. She walked ahead. When he caught her up, she turned on him: ‘Man oh man, can’t you stop that?’
‘Yes,’ said Donovan, feebly, but perhaps that was just another lie. A man called Cory Wallace had assured the Kendals that their son could be easily ‘cured’ of his peculiar trouble, but he did not seem to be a proper doctor – he had no certificates on his wall and his office was next to a Chinese restaurant down on Canal. Still Polly had ‘faith in his sincerity’.
‘Donovan Kendal,’ said Cassie, sighing and putting her hands on her hips like somebody’s mother, ‘you tire me out. Wanna see my titty?’
They were within spitting distance of their classroom; it did not seem a viable prospect. But in the turn of the stairwell, Cassie pressed herself against a wall and pulled her pinafore to one side. Donovan stared dumbly at a breast no different than his own except that the nipple was slightly larger and the skin a deep and lovely brown. He put his palm flat against its flatness. They stood there like that until a footstep was heard on the stair. ‘If I was a hooker,’ whispered Cassie, pulling the fabric back over and looking serious, ‘that would be ten bucks easy.’ After which they walked to the exit and parted without another word.
Matters developed, in spasmodic order. One morning before school, she conceded an utterly chaste kiss, two closed mouths pressed against each other while Cassie jerked her head violently back and forth, as perhaps she had seen people do in the movies. At an arbitrary moment, she pulled away and primly flattened her pinafore against her chest. ‘Don’t think I’ve forgotten,’ she said, ‘I’m coming to that show.’ That same afternoon, in a restroom cubicle, she showed him her ‘ding-a-ling’ – a confusion of black folds that parted to reveal a shockingly pink interior. He was permitted to put one finger in and then take it out again. After which it was hard to see how he could refuse her.
Black folds, green velvet. Donovan peering through. He could see Cassie sitting with the adults on the fold-up chairs, her feet up by her bottom, hugging herself. ‘Please remember,’ said Polly backstage, drawing the heads of her crouching husband and son towards her own, ‘I don’t want to see Goldilocks or the bowls until I’ve dismantled the woodshed. You were much too quick with that, last week, both of you – but you, Irving, in particular.’ Irving thrust his hand violently into Papa Bear: ‘Don’t tell me what to do. I know what I’m doing.’ Donovan rang the little bell, and the church warden dimmed the ‘house lights’ and Goldilocks’s hair got caught on a nail, and all this had happened before, many times. In a sort of dream, Donovan got off his knees and walked round the front to invite all the little believers to join him in the Land of Nod. He was sure enough that he said his lines (carefully written by Polly, free of the dangerous letters), and sang his song; he could hear the children yelling, and knew the brown smudge of the wolf must be behind him, appearing and disappearing, in rhythm with their cries. But all he could see was Cassie’s upper lip pulled tight into her mouth, and the deep crease of her brow. Somehow, he got through the half-hour. The house lights went up. Polly was by his side once more, all in black, a tiny piece of punctuation, and she was saying My Husband Irving and My Son Donovan and they were all three holding hands and bowing.
‘Cassie, you came!’
Polly reached both hands out to the girl. Cassie kept her own in the back pocket of her jeans.
‘I’ll tell you what: would you like to come backstage? There’s a box of tricks back there.’
She led the girl behind the velvet to where Irving sat on the floor, smoking a cigarette, placing props and puppets into open shoeboxes. He held up the wolf and placed it on Cassie’s hand.
‘You try – move it.’ Cassie moved it slightly to the right. Grandmother’s cap came unglued and fell away. She handed it back to Irving.
‘This goddamned –’
Polly rescued the wolf from her husband before it could be flung, and placed it back with its cap softly in a box marked ‘Bad Guys #2’.
‘Why all the puppets so raggedy?’ Cassie asked.
‘Well . . . if they look home-made, I suppose that’s because we make them ourselves.’
‘Thought you meant puppets like puppets,’ said Cassie, turning to Donovan. ‘Like Big Bird or somebody.’
Polly stepped in: ‘Well, that’s really not a puppet. That’s a grown man in a bird suit. Which is fine – if you like that sort of thing. But it’s really not puppetry.’
‘Puppets got arms and legs and bodies,’ Cassie persisted, pointing to Goldilocks at rest. ‘That’s just a cut-out cardboard face. It ain’t even got more than one side.’
Polly put an arm around Cassie and led her back out into the hall. ‘I hope we see you again,’ she said, speaking over Cassie’s head to the fleeing families. ‘We do a charity show in the Bronx, and in Harlem, once a month, paid for by your generous contributions. Do please leave what you can in the bottle by the door. We’ve been doing this show in this spot for almost six years! But not everyone’s as fortunate as our children of Greenwich Village.’ She put a hand on top of Cassie’s head. ‘It’s a wonderful opportunity for the children up there.’
‘I live on Tenth and 14th,’ protested Cassie, but Polly had moved on, and was now accosting her small audience as they tried to take their leave. And how did you come to hear of the Polly Kendal Puppet Theater? A friend? An advertisement? The unlucky few looked up rather desperately; more fortunate, dexterous women had already managed to wedge their children back into their coats and were halfway down Hudson by now. So which was it: ‘Word-of-mouth’ or ‘Publicity’? It took a moment to understand that the latter category referred to those little four-by-six cards, poorly illustrated and printed, that were to be seen in every cafe, dive bar, jazz den and restaurant beneath 14th Street.
‘On the first of the month, we go to the November cycle: The Musicians of Bremen, The Three Little Pigs and Cinderella. Tell your friends!’ Across the hall, Donovan lingered, half hidden by the stage curtain, trying to choose between a number of things to say. He was still preparing the sentence, checking it for what he thought of as ‘snakes’, when Cassie Kent simply ran past him, into the church, down the aisle – and was gone.
The Kendals were alone. Shoeboxes were numbered, sealed and placed in a suitcase in their correct order. The three-sided ‘stage’ was flattened and care taken to fold the green velvet into a clean square. Irving switched off all the lights and collected a handful of dollars from the jar. Polly sat lightly on the closed suitcase and pressed its brass clips down.
‘What happened to your little friend?’
Donovan pulled the nightcap off his own head and held it in both hands.
‘But, Donny . . . why would you even want to spend your time with a girl like that? Oh, I’m sure she’s nice enough – I don’t want to put you off her if you really like her, but she seemed to me to be so clearly – well, she has so little, oh, I don’t know: fancy. Imagination. Whimsy. Trust me: you don’t want that. Irving has no imagination whatsoever and look how hard that makes just about everything. A sense of imagination is so much more important to me than what colour someone happens to be or how much money they have or anything like that – if that’s what you think you’re standing there frowning about. The only thing I care about is what’s going on in here,’ she said, and thumped her narrow chest, but Donovan only looked at his shoes.
‘Listen to me. Why do you think she doesn’t like you? Because you have a little problem sometimes when you speak? Because you’re skinny? Don’t you see that if she had even a scrap of vision she’d see what a first-class kid you are? But she’s got no vision to speak of. I bet she’s going home right now to turn on that idiot box and just vegetate.’ Now his mother performed a funny mime – eyes crossed, tongue tucked in front of lower teeth – and Donovan found it impossible not to smile.
‘All she does is watch TV,’ he confided, and let the cap drop to the stone floor where he worried it with his foot a little. ‘All weekend. She told me one time. Her mom doesn’t care what she does, she really doesn’t care one bit,’ he added, employing a little imagination, ‘and they never read or anything. The whole family thinks reading’s a big waste of time. She’s never heard of? Thor or the Sirens or anybody!’
‘Well, there you are.’
Polly bent down, picked up Wee Willie Winkie’s nightcap and, with great tenderness, brushed the godly dust off it and placed it back on her son’s head.
‘People find their natural level, Donny. You’ll see when you’re older. It all works out.’
Photograph © Nadav Kander