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Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes
PrologueHow do you lose a child?
It?s not like a small piece of baggage or a head scarf, thinks Esther. This is a child.
This is a small blond child in a long wool jacket with a patch sewn twice over the left elbow. This is a jacket passed on from the small boy?s older, decidedly less blond brothers who wore it before him. The jacket has four buttons on the front, and the boy in the jacket was securely attached to a hand not one minute before, Esther recalls as she is pushed from behind and trips over the suitcase that her oldest son Ben has left in her path.
She grabs onto Hersh?s elbow to prevent a fall, and he looks at her. He has vomited for sixteen straight days, but he is her husband. He looks at her as though nothing is out of the ordinary, as though they are not standing on a plank over water that encircles a land on which they have never stepped foot. Hersh looks at her like all four of their children are present and accounted for.
So it must be so.
Esther trusts Hersh, always has?he?s an honest man, if nothing else?and so for a moment his look reassures her that all is well on the plank of this ferry disgorging hundreds of tired people like herself onto this tiny island.
The line begins moving again, gently bouncing the plank, and all the people are milling about in front of a large brick building. Just to check again, Esther takes inventory of those related to her by blood: Tiny Miriam is coughing nonstop, wrapped around Esther?s hip tight as a nag?s saddle. Ben is ahead, next to his father, two bags slung over his shoulders, eyes wild every time he turns back, searching for his mother?s eyes. Shmuel?s wet hand squeezes Esther?s left thumb. He has scarcely let go of it since leaving Kishinev almost one month before, and Esther thinks, the boy is getting too old to be clinging to his mother?s hand in this manner. So, the two boys are present, as is the baby girl. But where is the blond boy Reuven?
Perhaps this is further proof of the fact that he was never hers in the first place, Esther thinks, as she considers when might be the right moment to tell Hersh that their youngest son is missing. But Esther does not want to ruin this moment, the moment they have debated for a very long time, the moment her brother Avi has described in his letters from Texas.
Now they are being funneled into another line in front of a building while a large country woman wails behind them, on and on in Polish, and her husband is trying to calm her, but she will not be quiet. The Polish woman?s children look afraid. There are four of them. There were four of mine, Esther thinks, but now just three.
With this, Esther is reminded that she must notify her husband that she has lost their youngest son, certainly the blondest, most blue-eyed Jew in all of Bessarabia?and of course now in America. A hot, soaked Miriam is clamped onto Esther?s neck and hips so tightly, Esther can scarcely breathe. Miriam has pulled out and untwined each of Esther?s braids from under her head scarf, which she had put together so carefully as they waited on the ship out in the bay, before the ferry finally came to take them to the island. They will surely not let me into this country now, not with this crazy hair and red-faced, feverish baby, Esther thinks, but takes the words back so as not to curse her family any more than it has already been cursed.
They are waiting in a long line underneath a canopy in front of the building. Windows in the roof make it so that you can see the sky, which is gray. Esther had somehow thought it would always be sunshine and warmth in this new country, but it is decidedly cold in America?though not as biting as home. There are men yelling at them in English from either side of the line. Esther can tell from the conversations around her in Yiddish and Russian that the men are offering train fares to other parts of the country, American money, rooms to stay cheap in New York City.
Her children will not stop with the questions, so how could Esther get a word in to tell her husband that their youngest son has disappeared?
Shmuel: ?Mama, what is that??
Ben: ?Papa, why are those men shouting??
Shmuel: ?Is this America??
Ben: ?Papa, will I be a partner with you and Uncle in the shop??
Shmuel: ?Is this Texas??
And the baby Miriam crying and crying so loud in her ear. There is simply nothing to be done about the baby.
And then Hersh must get in on the conversation: ?Esther??
And what does my husband want now? Esther wonders. What now? Why they didn?t go with Avi in the summer to Texas, Esther didn?t understand. If her husband was so frightened of the spirits and rioting, why didn?t they just leave with Avi then? Or before? If they had left before, they would be there now. In Texas, America, with all four Lipshitz children, including the blond one, and no screaming Polish lady behind her and the baby constantly crying wet and hot in her ear.
Esther is so angry now at Hersh for saying her name in that pleading way, like he is going to ask her a question she?s supposed to know the answer to without him asking the question in the first place. He does it all the time. And usually Hersh is Mr. Know-Everything, but not now. For once Esther is welcoming his pretending to have all the answers even if he doesn?t.
?Reuven is gone,? Esther blurts then.
?Yes,? Hersh replies. He has not heard her. He and Ben pick up the two heaviest suitcases and push them forward in line. A Jewish man is translating in Yiddish what the American man in the uniform is saying. The people are to leave their baggage and then go upstairs for inspection.
?Hersh, did you hear?? Esther says louder, over the heads of their three children between them.
?Yes,? Hersh says to his wife. ?We will be separate for medical inspection, but we will meet on the other side.?
?No,? Esther insists, ?Reuven.?
Hersh looks at her, then at the three remaining children. ?Reuven!? he exclaims in a voice so loud the people in line start looking at the Lipshitzes, and the Yiddish man momentarily stops translating what the American man is saying.
?Where is Reuven??
Esther looks behind her at the Polish woman, who is now sitting on two suitcases and being fanned by her husband. Her children still cling to her, and
Esther knows just what this Polish woman needs: no more hot hands and wet coughs and red faces all over her. Just a five-minute break maybe would help this woman.
Esther cannot stand to look at her husband?s confused face. Do something. But Hersh just stands there, lips cracked and parted. Esther scans the crowd behind them for a blond head among a sea of black. There is nothing, no blond hair except for one of the men in uniform. His hair is damp and slicked back over his head. Reuven will most likely wear his hair like that one day, Esther thinks, because he will be a handsome man, quite possibly one of the handsomest. The kind that draws attention, longing looks, maybe even love. She looks again at the Polish woman, who is panicking and presently gaining attention from the guards. Esther thinks she could do an impression of a hysterical woman like the Polish lady, though one who is even more hysterical because she has lost her youngest son. But Esther knows Reuven must be behind them somewhere, holding onto another woman?s hand, and soon this temporary mother will look down and see that Reuven?while perfectly beautiful and blond?is not her son, and then they will ask the little boy his name, and the name of his parents, and then they will call, ?Hersh and Esther Lipshitz?? and in this manner they will find the parents of the lost boy.
But, Esther thinks, Reuven is just a boy of five and does not understand any other language. Esther is sure Reuven does not know his last name, or the names Esther and Hersh, just Mama and Papa. And with all the blond hair, he certainly does not look like the son of Jews. Now the hysterical woman impression is coming to her, but slowly. Esther starts inhaling in short gasps. She says in Yiddish to the man who was speaking Yiddish and English with the guard, ?My son, my blond son is gone.?
?Esther,? Hersh interrupts, whispering. ?Do not make such a commotion.?
?Mister, sir,? she continues, ignoring her husband. ?We have lost one of our children. We just arrived, and now he?s lost.?
The interpreter comes over toward Hersh. ?Sir??
Hersh responds, because it is clear the man does not want to speak to a potentially hysterical woman like the one behind them, just to her husband. ?Uh, yes, sir,? Hersh begins, taking off his hat. ?We just disembarked from the New Amsterdam and after that this ferry, and the next thing I know, I?m looking back at my wife, and she tells me our child is gone. He is just five, a blond boy of five.? Of course, it is her fault.
?Okay sir, please wait here,? the man says, but he does not go anywhere, just talks to more people in the crowd around them.
?Hersh, tell him we are going to Texas, tell him we must find Reuven before we go,? Esther prods.
?We must be calm,? Hersh says. He seems to know what he is speaking of, and for a moment, it makes sense to Esther to be what Hersh says, calm. Miriam has fallen asleep around her neck, still heavy on her mother?s hip, but at least the girl has let go of Esther?s braids. Shmuel is still latched to Esther?s thumb. Ben stands looking between his parents? faces. Of the three remaining Lipshitz children, only he seems to understand what has happened with the youngest boy.
?You don?t want to make too much commotion with these people,? Hersh adds.
?And you know this because you have been here before,? Esther says. ?These people? Hersh, Reuven is gone.?
?Calm down,? Hersh says, forcefully. ?He is not gone, he is just missing.?
?Mama, I can go back and find him,? Ben says, and Esther looks at him, knowing he will never find Reuven in this mass of people and baggage and children and so many men and women looking so tired with traces of vomit all over their shirtsleeves and shoes. She does not want to lose Ben too.
?Go,? Esther says anyway.
?You stay right here,? Hersh demands.
?Papa, please, I can run back to the ferry very quickly and see if maybe Reuven has been found by somebody there.?
?No, you?ll do nothing like this,? Hersh says. Ben looks at his mother, but she doesn?t know any longer what the right thing is.
The man who speaks Yiddish is just ahead now, with an American in a too-small uniform who is walking backward down the line, looking at each of the cards pinned to the people?s coats, and staring closely at each person?s face and eyes. Esther checks that all the remaining members of her family still have their tags pinned to them, and they do. Miriam?s tag is so large it is jabbing into her cheek as she sleeps on her mother?s shoulder. Shmuel has his tag pinned to the top of his hat. The man is getting closer now. On some people he is writing something in white on their jackets, and when he does this, the person is sad. Esther can see this much. One woman with a baby in each arm is crying because she has the white writing on her coat.
The man stops in front of Hersh. ?This is my family, my wife and three children,? he says.
?Four children!? Esther yells. ?Hersh, tell the man about Reuven.? But Hersh does not say anything. The man looks at Hersh and Ben closely, and then Shmuel. He approaches Esther and Miriam.
?Ma?am, please wake your child so the inspector can look in her eyes,? the translator says. Esther is still stunned that Hersh has just said that there are just three Lipshitz children, not four. She shakes Miriam awake, and the little girl blinks several times, whining softly into her mother?s neck. The American man in the uniform has a very hard look on his face, and this clearly frightens Miriam when she first spots him. He touches her chin and then pulls it toward him forcefully. Miriam turns away just as he is satisfied with something in her eyes. Hersh steps forward.
?Sir, excuse me,? he begins, again taking off his hat and holding it to his chest. ?I have a minor problem here, and that is our fourth child, our son Reuven, is missing. He was on the ferry with us, but in the rush with all of the people into this line, he seems to have gotten lost.? Hersh chuckles nervously as the translator tells the American what Hersh just said.
The American says something back, and the translator says, ?Please go upstairs for your medical inspection, and when you are waiting for the legal inspection downstairs, you will be met by somebody from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.?
The American and the translator move on to the Polish family behind them. The smallest child receives a chalk mark on his lapel, and this starts the Polish woman?s wailing again. Esther wants this lady to shut up. She wants everyone to shut up. The nervousness around her, she can smell it stuck to the people?s bodies and scalps, sour like the stench of a cow?s teat. She looks back at her stupid husband, the usual blank look splashed across his face.
?This is what you are going to do for our son?? she asks him. ?This is what you do??
?Esther, we have to wait,? he says. ?You see how this is.?
Esther does not see how this is. She jerks her thumb out of Shmuel?s hand and peels Miriam off her neck and dangles the baby out in the air in front of her father. Hersh replaces his hat and takes Miriam, because if he doesn?t, Esther swears she will drop the baby. Esther steps out of line then and walks toward the American man in the uniform, and soon she is tugging at his elbow. ?Sir, please, please help us,? she says in Yiddish. The American is confused and certainly doesn?t recognize Esther. ?Sir, you just visited me and my family. We are from Russia and we are the ones who lost the son, the blond boy about five years old.?
The American looks at her and takes his elbow out from Esther?s grip. The translator tells the man something in English. He says back, ?No,? and this is one English word Esther recognizes.
?Ma?am, you must stay in line and take your other children through medical inspection before anything can be done,? the translator says.
Esther wants to cry, but she hasn?t in about four years, since her brother Avi stopped speaking. She had certainly cried many times before that, but not once since. Esther wants to be a hysterical woman who has just lost her child, but she cannot.
?And where are you from in Russia?? the translator asks while the American guard moves on to inspect another family.
?What?? Esther asks. ?What??
?You come from which city in Russia??
?Kishinev,? she says.
?Oh, yes,? he says, letting the sadness settle momentarily, and placing a hand on Esther?s shoulder to guide her back to where her family waits in line. ?I hail from Barafka, near Odessa. You know it??
?No,? Esther says. She does not want to go ahead in line. She wants to go back to the ferry to find Reuven. ?Please, I have a very blond son, sir. You would recognize him the moment you saw him.?
?Ma?am, you must go in the line upstairs,? he says. ?I give you my word, somebody will come with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and they will help you find the boy.?
?He does not look like a Jew,? Esther says. ?Surely someone will mistake him for something else.?
?Please, Mrs.?,? he says, searching the card on her coat, ?Lipshitz. You will be so much better here in New York than in Kishinev. Please just do as you are told.?
?But we are not going to New York,? Esther protests. ?We are going to Texas.?
?No ma?am. This is New York.?
We will get to Texas. Esther doesn?t know who this man thinks he is to suggest otherwise. Because Esther wants more than anything to be reunited with her brother Avi, who had somehow managed to find both his words and laughter again in Texas, maybe thanks to this lady, this American Jew named Hannah he writes of in his letters. Esther pictures Avi there with the American Jewish lady, and cowboys, and Indians, and jagged wire fences all around them. She wants to see her brother like this almost more than she wants to find Reuven at this very minute?though it is a horrible thing to admit. The translator takes his hand off of Esther?s shoulder then, and she steps back into line, silently taking Miriam from Hersh and hugging the child to her breast. Miriam had finally stopped crying while she was with her father.
?What did he say?? Hersh asks.
?Mama?? Ben adds, when Esther doesn?t immediately answer.
?We must wait in line, and then some people who help the Hebrews will come to find Reuven.? Esther pictures a tall American holding Reuven?s hand and taking him back to his parents. A nice, helpful American taking care of the little blond boy who is lost.
An American doctor in a mask is peeling Miriam from Esther?s arms. Miriam has started to cry again and she will not be quiet. She is worse than the Polish lady who, thank God, was taken to a different room. The doctor is having to pry each of the baby?s hot fingers from Esther?s braids and shirtwaist.
?I lost my son,? Esther says in Yiddish. ?My son.?
?Yes, ma?am, your daughter will be just fine.?
The translator says something to the doctor.
?This is your daughter, and she will be fine,? the doctor says. The translator relays this to Esther.
?My son,? she repeats. ?My son is missing, he is a blond boy, the only blond Jew from Bessarabia province.?
The doctor shakes his head and sticks a small piece of metal under the rim of Miriam?s eyelid and flips it up to look underneath. Miriam screams, but Esther can?t bring herself to care. At least she?s here. The doctor repeats the procedure in Miriam?s other eye, and then does the same to Shmuel. Ben and Hersh have gone into a different line where they are taking the men and older boys. There is a long line of women and their children behind Esther. Nobody has white writing on their clothes here, but there is crying, mostly muted, and peppered with sporadic, frighteningly loud gasps.
?The doctor wants to know how old your girl is,? the translator says to Esther.
?She is just two.?
?Has she been sick on the boat?? he asks.
?Yes, she and her father have been vomiting the whole time.?
The doctor looks into Miriam?s mouth and back into her throat. He squints and holds Miriam?s jaw in his big hands. He looks for a very long time, writes something on her card and then pins this card to Miriam?s jacket again.
Esther waits with her eyes closed as the doctor puts a cold metal disk to her chest and listens to her heart. He can listen as long as he wants, Esther knows, but he?s not going to hear anything.
?Ma?am, can you put the little girl down so the doctor can hear your heart?? the translator asks.
She puts Miriam on the ground and holds her hand. Now the doctor seems to be hearing Esther?s heart. Or at least pretends that he is. His hands are on her head, and she closes her eyes as he roughly rakes through her scalp. He then pulls Miriam?s head toward him, repeats the search, and finally moves on to Shmuel. He writes the same symbol on all of their cards, and pins Shmuel?s back on his hat. The translator helps out by pinning Esther?s card to her dress.
?Sir?? Esther asks the translator, ?the doctor understands there is one more boy he will have to look at??
?Yes, ma?am,? he says. ?We can take care of that later.?
?My boy is missing,? she says to the doctor, and he ignores her, waving his hand at the next woman in line, with her two children in tow. Esther hesitates at the doorway.
?You must go downstairs to join your husband now,? the translator says.
?Okay, but we can come back up when we find the boy??
?Yes, but you must go now.?
Hersh and Ben are waiting in the big hall downstairs, and Esther is led by two Americans in uniforms to the penned-in area where her husband and oldest son sit. There are hard wooden benches, with white metal, hip-level fences around them. There are maybe thirty other people in the closed-off area, all from the New Amsterdam, and Esther doesn?t know how she is supposed to fit in with her two children. But the guard stops in front of the pen, lifts up a bar and motions that Esther is to go in. There are mostly men, and maybe five other women with children. Everybody has a big card attached to a jacket or hat, and it is very cold and damp in this large room.
Esther places Miriam on her father?s lap and sits in a small space on a bench where two men have moved aside to make room for her. It is much closer than she wants to be to these strange men. They do not smell very good. There is a general odor of rotten herring and vomit, plus the faint greasy scent of the boat?s engines still clinging to the fibers of everybody?s clothing.
?We all passed,? Hersh sighs. ?Now the Hebrew Society man will come, and we will find Reuven.? Hersh says this to make it so, but Esther knows it is not true. The first part may be true, the Hebrew Society man may come, but he will not find Reuven, not after this.
There is a large American flag over their heads. It is very large, and the white stripes are yellowed in many places. The flag is snagged on some sort of hook, splitting it down the middle, and it hangs from the railing of the balcony overlooking this big room. There are guards looking at all the people from the upstairs balcony. They are leaning their elbows on the railing, bored.
All the people are talking softly, all the different languages, but mostly Russian, Polish, Yiddish, and German. The collective effect is a cold hum that fills the room. Sometimes a person?s name is called, and he or she jumps up, collects children if there are any, and the guard lets them out of the pen by lifting the metal bar.
This happens for maybe four or five hours before their pen is practically emptied out; it is just the Lipshitz family and four other people now on the hard benches. Miriam is asleep on a sweater beside Esther, and Shmuel is curled up against his father on the bench. Ben is sitting at the other end of the pen, looking toward the windows as though he is a young man who might be on this journey alone, without his family, eager to get into America and start his new life.
Esther has repeatedly checked each doorway that leads into this massive hall for Reuven?s blond head. She has twisted her head toward each door for all of these hours, over and over?a nervous pigeon. But she fears she will not see Reuven again, not in this hall, not in America.
Esther supposes that she has always treated Reuven as though he were a mistake. This must rub off on a child, she thinks. Though, was it any different from the way she treated all of the children? Reuven was supposed to be a girl, have hair as black as her other two boys?, as black as Hersh?s and hers. Her bulging belly was unexpected, as she and Hersh did not make love very much after Shmuel was born. This was shortly after they moved in with her brother Avi and his wife. Things were simply different after that. Hersh had, after seeing Reuven?s white head, half seriously accused Esther of infidelity. Esther, infidelity! Ha! Hersh had even let something slip about Esther and Avi, how this freakish boy is what can happen when a grown brother and sister, with husbands and wives of their own, live together in the same house.
Esther looks once more at each of the doors, and decides she will no longer strain her neck. She closes her eyes then, not for sleep, just to rest them like mothers do. But minutes later Esther?s eyes rip open when a guard slams shut the gate to an adjacent pen. It is a horrible metallic shriek that echoes throughout the cavernous hall. This is her punishment for thinking Reuven was a mistake. Esther?s lips are cracking, and she licks the corners, picking up a distant trace of blood on the tip of her tongue. Her three remaining children are within eyesight, and her husband is chatting on the bench across the pen, his less-than-broad back facing her. She thinks of Reuven again but wills herself not to look toward the doors. Maybe if she doesn?t look, that?s when he?ll come, and then they will be on their way to Texas like nothing?none of this?ever happened.
Hersh has struck up a conversation with a man from the adjacent pen. He is from a village outside Minsk. He knows of Texas, says his relatives are in a state nearby called Tennessee, and he will go there one day with his family. He wishes to work and make money in New York before he can send tickets for them to come from Minsk. He says the Lipshitzes will be happy in Texas, but Esther doesn?t see how the man can possibly know something like this.
?Hersh,? Esther calls.
?Excuse me,? he says to the man from Minsk politely, then turns to his wife.
?Why aren?t you worried??
?Is this what you wanted to say?? Hersh asks.
?I think we should speak to the man about the Hebrew Society people again. We are almost the last ones here.?
?Yes,? Hersh says, and turns to say one last thing to the man from outside Minsk before reluctantly attracting the attention of a guard strolling by. The guard doesn?t understand. Miraculously, a tired-looking man from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society arrives shortly after, opening the bar to the pen and sitting beside Hersh on the bench opposite Esther and the kids.
?You have lost your child?? the man asks in Yiddish.
?Yes, sometime on the ferry, right after we docked here on the island,? Hersh replies.
The man records some information in his notebook. ?And the boy?? he asks.
Esther bursts in, ?A blond boy of five. His name is Reuven, and he was wearing a black coat and a hat.?
?Much like every boy that has arrived here today,? the man says curtly. To Hersh he asks, ?Are there any other identifying characteristics on this boy??
?Like his mother said, he is just very blond, almost white hair,? Hersh explains, looking at Esther, confused. ?He does not look like a Jew.?
?Of course not,? the man says.
?Do you think you can find him?? Esther asks, but the man does not acknowledge her. So she adds, ?Or is there a special room where they put the blond boys who come to America??
Hersh interrupts: ?Sir, we are on our way to Texas, we have the tickets already.?
?Oh,? the man says.
?What is this, ëOh??? Esther asks, but it is as though her words are disappearing into an empty barrel.
Now a woman from the Hebrew Society arrives. The guard lifts the bar for her and she comes to sit next to Esther. She has very strange clothing, but a kind, almost familiar face. ?You have very beautiful children,? the woman says to Esther.
?Yes, thank you,? Esther replies, trying to listen to Hersh?s conversation with the man.
?We must get you through the inspection process first, and then you?ll stay here overnight,? the man begins. ?You cannot go to Texas until we find this boy, of course.?
?Of course,? echoes Hersh.
?Do you have any relatives in New York?? the woman asks.
Esther can?t think. Hersh says nothing.
?How much money do you have?? the man asks. ?You may stay with us at the HIAS building for a short time, but after that??
?We have enough money,? Hersh says. Esther knows her husband does not want to tell the man how much money they have, nor show him where it is hidden. This is how he is. She wants to tell them?if it will help get Reuven back?that there is some in each bag, her brassiere, inside a pouch sewn into Shmuel?s pants, tucked into Ben?s boots. There had been some sewn inside Reuven?s coat.
?Raina!? Esther remembers, blurting the name out loud. ?My cousin Raina lives here in New York.?
?Where does she live?? the woman asks.
?On a street with an S.?
?Suffolk? Stanton?? the woman asks.
?Could be Stanton,? Esther says, ?or maybe Suffolk.?
?This is very important,? the man says. ?If we can get them to come here to greet you, it will be much better for the immigration officer.?
?I don?t know her husband?s last name,? Esther adds, ?but his first is Isaac, and he?s a tailor.?
?Surely there are not many of these in New York,? the man says, cutting dark eyes toward Esther.
?Where are they from?? the woman asks, seemingly to interrupt the rude man from interacting with Esther any longer.
?She is from a small village east of Kishinev, but I don?t know about the husband. Raina went to America as a young girl,? Esther recalls. Only Hersh, she thinks, would let this strange, Jewish, American man treat his wife so meanly.
?We?ll find her and ask her to come meet you tomorrow,? the man says. ?Now, when we go into the interrogation room, I will do much of the talking. If I ask you a question, answer me and I will tell the man. You might need to show him your money, so please tell me it was the truth when you said you had enough.?
?I have what they say is the equivalent of maybe twenty dollars for each of us, plus a little more,? Hersh says.
?And please, tell your wife she is not to talk unless I ask her a question from the officer.?
?I am right here,? Esther says, ?you can tell me this yourself.?
?Ma?am,? the man says, turning to her. ?Please do not speak unless I ask you a question. I will apprise the officer of the special circumstance of the lost boy.?
?Okay, I understand,? Esther says. ?Thank you.?
?Mama, are we not going to Texas?? Ben asks.
?Not yet,? Hersh answers.
?We will call your name momentarily,? the man says, and then he and the woman from the Society get up to leave the pen. The woman smiles at Esther and visibly admires Miriam, who is still asleep at Esther?s side.
Two hours later they are called into the interrogation room. The floors are made of dirty white tile?small shapes with six sides each, cracked in every direction and very black in the spaces in between. A man in a tight uniform sits across from the Lipshitzes at a large wooden table. Another man in a suit stands by the door, some sort of soldier.
The same rude man from the Hebrew Society enters and sits next to Hersh. Esther studies the floor, with Miriam in her arms and Shmuel sitting by her side. Ben is in a chair by himself, closer to the guard by the door, again looking like he already belongs here. His shirt is neatly tucked into his trousers; there are very few wrinkles in his shirt and coat. His hat rests neatly in the center of his lap. Esther watches him brush some lint off of his lapel and straighten the card that is pinned there; Ben notices his mother watching him and he smiles, eyes wet under long lashes. What a pretty boy, Esther thinks.
Then she remembers Reuven, and hates herself for having forgotten him yet again. In just ten or eleven hours, she had forgotten him countless times. Esther thinks she must be the worst person in the world?Old or New. The men are talking?the inspector, Hersh, the man from the Hebrew Aid Society. What a difficult man, Esther thinks. She feels sorry for his wife. If this is what all the Jews are like in New York, I?m happy I came with my own.
Esther studies the grimy floor as Reuven slips from her mind once again. She is thinking of her brother Avi in Texas. She supposes that sitting here in this office and enduring the rude American Jew is just what she must do in order to bring about a reunion. Her beautiful brother, Avi. Then Hersh is asking her for something, holding out his hand. He is pointing to her bosom, and Esther realizes he wants the money. She looks around her and sees that nobody is looking at her because the inspector and the Hebrew Society man are talking loudly in English, and so she reaches in and pulls out the worn bills and puts them in Hersh?s hand. Ben is carefully rolling up his pant leg and doing the same. She sees Hersh stacking all of their rubles on the table in front of the inspector, and Esther thinks they will for certain be stolen like what happened on the train when the two young men came and took the money from the young German girl who was traveling alone to meet her brother in America.
Esther tries to meet Hersh?s eyes, but he will not look at her. He is sitting on the front of his chair, left knee almost touching the Hebrew Society man?s. Her husband the lapdog. Esther hears something about a building on a street called East Broadway. So many times the man says ?East Broadway? and so does the inspector. They repeat Raina?s and Isaac?s names too.
Esther wants to go to Texas now and send for Reuven later. She does not want to go to New York and go to this office on East Broadway each day to inquire about Reuven, as they are suggesting. She has accepted that she is the worst person in both the Old World and the New, so she feels no need to pretend to be otherwise. This is probably why the man from the Hebrew Society is so mean to Esther; he knows she has lost her child, and yet she is not hollering and crying and requiring to be fanned by her husband. The man can see that Esther just wants to get to Texas with or without Reuven, that she knows it is just one of many sacrifices a person makes to get here. Like the fine dresser Avi had built for Esther and Hersh on the occasion of their wedding. This dresser, like Reuven, is just one of many beautiful things that must be left behind.
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1907 DEC 17=* * *
In the women?s sleeping quarters, Esther is tucked into a tiny creaking cot with Shmuel and Miriam on either side of her, and the muffled cries of strangers all around. Wet, hacking coughs seem to be the only thing interrupting the sobbing, and Esther cannot believe that all these women and their children actually passed the doctor?s medical inspection as she and her own children had. It had been the most terrifying part of the day. Well, besides the obvious. Esther inhales deeply and feels the beginnings of a rattle deep in her own chest, and Miriam?s cheek sits in a puddle of thick mucus on the dirty canvas of the cot beneath them. Esther finally sleeps.
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