A Wonderful Place
I put the pages down. "And you were one of the children sleeping in that bed?"
"But what did this do to you?"
"It gave me a good night's sleep," Penelope said, feigning ignorance.
"All right, Miss Smart Aleck!"
She grew serious. "I know what you're asking. But if you expect me to feel sorry for myself, you've come to the wrong person."
"I didn't mean that. I meant, it must have left . . ." I didn't know what to say. Wounds? Scars? Depression? Anger? What? A very deep and negative impression, to say the least, I would think.
"Actually," she said, "we were very lucky. Millions of people slept on the floor. Or dug out some kind of shelter in the rubble of bombed houses or office buildings. And we had furniture, even if we dug most of it out of the bombed house next door. And the cot came from the relief center. So." She shrugged. "It wasn't all bad. At least not then. I mean, what does a child want? To be loved and to feel safe. I felt loved and I felt safe."
"I suppose," I said, hesitating. I didn't believe her.
Painfully slow, as if it were an object that could break just by touching it, she took a cigarette out of the pack on the table.
"The wonderful thing about kids is that they are quite happy if they don't know any better. And, I didn't know any better. I thought that's the way people all over the world lived. Of course! This was my world. I didn't know any other. I mean, if you're born into a bombed world, that's your world. And if you're born into a world with little food and few clothes and shoes, you take that for granted. Going to the relief center was a way of life. I didn't know that there were stores where you could buy clothes. I mean, there weren't any. They were bombed. I won't ever forget the day when lollipops first appeared in the grocery store across the street. Of course, lollipops had existed before the war. But I did not know that, or I was too small and had forgotten. I didn't know what they were, but they looked so cheerful and yummy, I admired them for weeks. Once, when my mother sent me to the store for our weekly ration of milk--a quart, I think--I bought one of these delicacies, and then I lied about the amount of change I returned to her. Of course, she knew I was lying. And she was relentless and I had to confess, finally. She let me keep the lollipop. But that was after she spanked me, for lying and stealing."
The small, dull pain in my chest was my heart that ripped just a little. In my mind's eye I saw the pint-size girl in the picture with her hummingbird size bird's nest on top of her head, the dimples in her cheeks and the desire in her eyes for something so ordinary as a lollipop. They used to hand them out free in the drugstore where I shopped with my mother. Strange thing is that I used to think that I didn't have a heart. Good, ol' Alex whose eyes would glide so casually over the homeless sitting on the benches or piling up their boxes in the alleys. But that's not true. It wasn't even casual. I did not see them. And when I did, I gave them no thought at all. Theirs was a way of life. Something one could not change. Pointless, even, to try.
I could not look at her after she told me the story of the lollipop. I pretended to be in dire need of some coffee. Was I going to look at her and have her read what I felt that moment? Not on your life.
But she didn't look at me anyway. She smiled out the window at the memory of that delicious lollipop.
"And you mustn't forget," she said, turning to me, "that everyone I knew lived just that way."
I looked up then, and she must have read the misery in my eyes.
"Hey," she said. "I've had a hundred lollipops since."
I couldn't help but shake my head.
Copyright Ursula Mandel 2001. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this excerpt please contact http://www.ursulamandel.com
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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