Teaser and still again Teaser: Margo Rabb

Posted by Lizzie on 03/20/07

hearbreak.jpgOne of the things we have always loved about other writers is that often when they write, we don’t have to. But that is only a small teeny reason we
are delighted to welcome our friend Margo Rabb and an excerpt from her new novel, Cures for Heartbreak, to Old Hag. But before we begin–things you should know about Margo:

1. Her stories have been published in The Atlantic Monthly, Zoetrope: All Story, Seventeen, Best New American Voices, New Stories from the South, New England Review, One Story, and elsewhere, and have been broadcast on National Public Radio (more here)

2. She is the author of a lovely series of mystery novels for young readers (more here)

3. She lives around the corner (more here)

4. She is, unlike some people, able to unselfishly share a freaking cupcake (more here)

Margo has generously offered three signed copies of her new book to three lucky winners. BUT THERE IS, OF COURSE, A CHALLENGE. Margo has posted her own cures for heartbreak on the Random House site. At Miss Rabb’s suggestion, we would like to now solicit yours. The Old Hag, for instance, leans towards sitting on the couch and whimpering, then getting momentarily distracted by the fact that her gmail’s adaptive filter is now filtering spam correctly. This probably shouldn’t fall under “cure”, but whatever.

Excerpt below, as well as Margo’s blog tour dates. Winners for Heartbreak and this will be posted Friday; feel free to strike anywhere in the meantime. Please enjoy!

World History

Four days after our mother’s funeral, my father decided that my sister Alex and I should go back to school. I was reading in bed when he knocked on my door, peered into my room and repeated, as he’d been doing at regular intervals, like a public service announcement, that we needed to go back to the way things were before. On Monday he’d re-open his shoe repair shop, I’d return to the ninth grade, and Alex to the twelfth. Things had to go back to normal.

I stared up at him from my Anne of Green Gables. I was entranced by every orphan book I could find—Heidi, Oliver Twist, The Secret Garden—like they were company. The stream of visitors had petered out to just a few neighbors and the occasional oddity, such as Melody Bly, a religious girl in my class who had come in bearing a card signed by our homeroom and History teacher, Mr. Flag, and thirty-one classmates. The card had a huge gold cross on the front; at first glance I thought it was a plus sign. I’d barely ever spoken to Melody; she gave me a book called The Five Stages of Grief filled with hazy photographs of silhouettes gazing out windows. I stuck it on the kitchen table on top of all the other cards we’d received, with their wispy watercolor flowers, sunrises, beach scenes, and vague quotes in curlicue scripts.

Like a leaf dropped onto a pool, the ripples of your loved one’s life spread on and on to touch the lives of others.

That which we lose we mourn, but must rejoice that we have ever had.

Tenderly…may time heal your sorrow,

Gently…may friends ease your pain,

Softly…may peace replace heartache,

And may warmest memories remain.

“I got peanut butter,” my father said. He hovered in the doorway, and gazed at me in my twin bed. “I’ll make your lunch for tomorrow.” He never made my lunch; I made it myself. And he rarely came into my room. Though I’d hardly changed anything since I was ten, he looked around it now like he was seeing it for the first time: the mobile of satiny stars above my door; my shelf of Barbies, scantily clad in bikinis made from old tights; a poster of Rob Lowe with lipstick marks on his bare chest; the menagerie of stuffed animals I’d loved all my life, fur-matted, faces flat as pancakes from years of being slept on. In a sudden wash of maturity two years ago I’d put them all in the closet, but in the last couple weeks I’d taken them out and stationed them around my bed, like a plush army.

My father’s eyes focused on a shelf by the window. A Yahrzeit candle stood beside the Barbies. When the funeral director had offered the candle to us my father had refused it, but as we were leaving I’d asked if I could have it. I hadn’t known what a Yahrzeit candle was but I’d wanted it. I’d taken everything the funeral director offered us—the Schwartz Memorial Chapels stationery, the gold-embossed guestbook, the Hebrew prayer cards—all of it tucked into the Schwartz Memorial Chapels bag, like party favors.

The candle was still burning. The instruction booklet it came with said not to blow it out, that it would last for seven days to represent the formal mourning period. I’d been blowing it out at night anyway because I was afraid of burning down the house. And secretly I wanted it to last longer.

My father kept staring at the candle. He’d never been exactly euphoric over the idea of religion. He’d repeat Religion Is the Cause of All the World’s Ills as often as Don’t Throw Out the Milk Without Letting Your Father Sniff it First. His idea of celebrating Yom Kippur was to eat smoked kippers. My mother wasn’t too fond of religion either—she and her best friend Fanny used to tell the story of how a Catholic friend in elementary school once suggested: “Let’s go to your church and then to mine!” The Catholic church had been filled with flowers, singing, smiling…and then they went on to my mother and Fanny’s orthodox synagogue, crowded with all the other German-Jewish refugee families in Washington Heights who’d narrowly escaped the Holocaust. My mother was a baby when she and her parents fled Berlin in 1939, on one of the last boats America let in; Fanny’s family had come from Amsterdam. That day in the synagogue, the girls had to sit upstairs in the cold darkness, enduring the musty smell, listening to the solemn Hebrew words—they giggled until they got asked to leave.

Because of my parents’ profound distaste for going to synagogue, and rarely taking me to one, my notion of the Jewish religion mainly revolved around food. Rosh Hashanah: apples and honeycake. Yom Kippur: instead of the customary fasting to atone for your sins, we atoned with smoked fish in all its glorious variations from the aforementioned kippers to sable to lox to whitefish to herring. Chanukah: latkes. Passover: flourless chocolate cake, matzo slathered with margarine, and what my father called canon-ball soup. According to Alex our Zabar’s version of Judaism meant we weren’t Jewish at all. I maintained we were, though I wondered privately if she was right.

My father adjusted his glasses and leaned against the door. “You’ll enjoy being back at school.”

I pictured my teachers, lined up like the cast of the Addams Family, their ghoulish faces cackling—Mrs. Petrosky, the sadistic Russian physicist; Mr. O’Grady, who sipped from a flask between classes and had a penchant for Korean girls; Mr. Tortolano, my English teacher, who, rumor had it, was an upstanding member of the North American Man-Boy Love Association; and Mr. Flag. Oh Mr. Flag. Joe Randazzo, who sat next to me in History, circulated a drawing of Mr. Flag, appropriately named, his stiff facial expressions explained by a large flagpole up his rear end.

I couldn’t imagine myself back in the classroom beside Melody and Joe and Petrosky and Flag. I hadn’t exactly found my crowd at the Bronx High School of Science yet. Just girls like Eva Friedman and Lana Hernandez, who I hung out with at lunch and rode the train home with. I was waiting for a real best friend, someone who’d come into my life and share all my secrets, someone I could tell everything to. After the funeral, Eva and Lana’s eyes had searched me with a horrified fascination, as if my mother’s death might show physically, like a huge wart or missing limb. “Uh, sorry,” Eva had said. Not that I knew what to say either. What could I say? I’m mourning, but trying to rejoice at what I had. Warm memories are remaining.

“You’ll feel better once things are normal again,” my father said in the doorway.

He stared at the puffy stars dangling above his head and pinched one, as if testing it was real. His glasses were thick as storm windows, his face expressionless. “Stoneface,” my mother used to call him, in a not-so-joking tone. “Talk back! Speak to me!” she’d scream at him, and he’d slump on the couch and not respond. No matter what my parents talked about—the telephone bill, cleaning the gerbil cage, who bought the scratchy brand of toilet paper—they’d fight. They’d even fought in the hospital: my father wanted to bring my mother’s parents to see her and she refused. She’d never gotten along with her parents and she didn’t want to see them now. One afternoon my father had pulled my sister and me into the hospital corridor and said, “I’m bringing Omi and Opa.”

“Why?” I’d asked—my mother had seemed miserable enough already.

“Mommy doesn’t understand Omi and Opa, that’s the problem. She’s never accepted all they’ve been through.” All they’ve been through hung in the air above us heavily, unexplained, like everything from my mother’s life: her swastika-stamped birth certificate shoved in her dresser drawer; the space on the family tree my sister once drew for class, with question marks where our mother’s aunts, uncles, and cousins should be. After several phone calls to my grandparents, Alex had found out a few facts to add—the places of death for our great-grandparents and two cousins. Bergen-Belsen, Thereisenstadt. My grandparents didn’t know the dates. Alex penciled the concentration camp names in on her strange and stunted drawing, a sickly tree with empty limbs.

Omi and Opa still lived in Washington Heights, but they didn’t get a chance to see my mother before she died. It had happened so surprisingly quickly—my father hadn’t arranged their visit in time. At the funeral I’d stared at Omi beside me on the pew in her heaping wig, and Opa steadying himself with his cane; I’d wanted to extract my mother from them, whatever part of her that they held. They spoke little except for a few exchanges in German to each other.

My father called them nightly, now. His own Polish-born parents were long dead, his aunts and uncles relocated to Yonkers; only my sister, father, and I remained in Queens, half a block down from where my father had grown up.

“I’ll wake you up at 6:15,” he said, and shut the door. I groaned. I’d been sleeping until noon every day, waking in a coma-like state. I dreaded getting up when it was still dark, to wait on the icy 7 train platform for the hour-and-fifteen-minute long subway ride to school. I hated being smushed in the train car with dozens of commuters sweating in their winter coats, grumbling in ten different languages, reaching desperately for the silver poles as the train squealed and tilted like it was about to topple off the tracks.

“I’m glad I’m going back,” Alex said during our nightly attack of the post-funeral food supply. She dug into a half-destroyed strudel; I ate the frosting off a cupcake. “It’s better than moping here.”

“I like moping.” I didn’t want to face the level buzz of the lunchroom and the day packaged neatly into its eight periods. But I wrapped up a cupcake and a piece of strudel to take to lunch the next day. My father made us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

That night I dreamed I was back at school, telling everyone that my mom had died. In the dream they all said, “So what?”

*

The Bronx High School of Science is a sprawling 1950s architectural monstrosity of glass and red brick, several long cold blocks from the Bedford Park Boulevard stop on the 4 train. It was early February; the wind whipped down the wide deserted streets. I walked past the railway yard and Harris Field, which looked less like a field and more like an abandoned lot.

My first period class was History. I settled into my assigned seat between Nagma Pawa and Joe Randazzo. We sat in welded-down rows, beside the barred windows (were they afraid we’d steal the desks, or jump out?) No one paid attention to me being back after the long absence. No one mentioned my mother. I felt partly relieved but partly disappointed. I didn’t know what I’d expected, but I had expected something. Alex would probably say, Did you think you deserved a parade?

“Pearlman. Long time no see,” Joe said.

“Yeah,” I said.

Melody clicked over in her patent-leather Mary Jane’s. She wore tiny silver cross earrings and a corduroy jumper. Her fashion taste lingered in the era of Health Tex and Geranimals. “How are you?” she asked, gazing at me like she wanted to shrink-wrap me and take me home as her own grief specimen.

“Fine.” I took out my notebook, turned away from her and started to doodle.

Mr. Flag took attendance. He looked like a businessman who’d wandered into the classroom on his way to the office. He wore suits with creased pants, pristine white shirts, and tasteful ties, unlike our other teachers. Their shirts seemed permanently untucked, the soles peeled off their ratty sneakers, and their ties, on the rare occasion they wore them, featured smiling squirrels or dancing pencils. Mr. Flag revered the meticulous Delaney card attendance-taking system—little pink and white cards, which he marked up with the four-colored pen he kept clipped to his inside pocket. I could see my card on his desk, scarred in red.

Mr. Flag was additionally unique in that he swore by the Study Skills Acquisition Program, color-coded packets that corresponded to our textbook, which required writing long, dull answers to longer, duller questions. In his thirty years of teaching in the New York City public school system, he told us, he’d found this system incomparably effective. They made SSA cards for nearly every subject, and he didn’t understand why more teachers didn’t use them. If they’d made them for lunch and gym he would’ve recommended those too.

Mr. Flag had Melody pass out the SSA cards and the school-owned History of the World textbook. I stared out the window, past the school yard, toward the subway. I wished I was back in bed reading Anne of the Island. Melody paused at my desk and told me we were still on Unit Five. I’d missed the second half of World War I, and now we were on World War II. She said I hadn’t missed much.

As the class set to work on the current SSA card, Mr. Flag called me to his desk and handed me the stack of cards I’d missed. On the subway that morning, I’d worried that some teacher might single me out and make an embarrassing show of sympathy. Mr. Flag’s distant, pained smile, and his lack of mentioning anything about my mother’s death, as if I’d been out with a cold, seemed worse. I sank back into my seat and stared blankly at the SSA cards in front of me.

I watched Melody return to her desk and dutifully scrawl out the answers to every dry question, like the rest of the class. I stared back out the window. Suddenly I heard Mr. Flag’s voice. “Are you having a problem with the assignment, Miss Pearlman?”

I shook my head.

“Then you should be writing.”

I opened the book. History of the World was color-coded to go with the SSA cards. World War I was canary yellow; World War II a sky blue. I glanced over the long, thick, dry passages on governments, battle sites, statistics of lives lost. I turned the pages to look at the pictures. Red and yellow maps of countries’ borders before and after the war. F.D.R. in his wheelchair. An army plane over the Pacific. Hitler at a podium, his moustache like a mistaken flick of a magic marker, a German banner waving behind him. Then, in the bottom-right corner of the next page, the last photograph of the section: a concentration camp. Bodies, bone-thin, huddled, half-alive, limbs strewn about so that you could not tell which belonged to whom. Then the chapter ended. The following page was electric orange, the beginning of Unit Six.

Everyone scribbled the assignment.

I stared at the page with its sky-blue border, the black-and-white photograph. I’d seen dozens of pictures and movies about the Holocaust and the camps before, of course. I read the diary of Anne Frank and watched Holocaust movies-of-the-week on TV despite my mother’s disdain. She never watched them. I was curious, and guilty for being curious. The books and movies never satisfied the curiosity; they never seemed real. Did Anne Frank mean it when she wrote that people were good at heart? Did she feel that after her family had been found, after she’d been taken to Bergen-Belsen?

My mother had met Anne’s father, Otto Frank. He’d been friends with the Gluckmans, Fanny’s parents, and my mother had been invited to dinner several times when Otto Frank was there. My mother was about ten years old. What was he like? I asked her, proud and envious. She shrugged. She said he seemed nice. It was before the diary had been published. She said he was thin and quiet, like everybody else.

I kept staring at the photograph. The silence of my mother’s life became even greater, right then, looking at the picture; she rarely spoke of what happened to her family during the war; she tried to shelter us from it; she wanted being Jewish just to be the songs for us, the food, but it couldn’t be—those couldn’t be separated from everything else. Her sheltering, her silence, had told us something darker just the same. My back prickled, my face grew hot—I stopped seeing the picture in the book, and instead saw my family: my grandparents’ eyes when they gazed at my sister and me playing, as if they’d never seen children do that before. My mother, digging her fingernails into my shoulder when she heard German spoken on the bus. Stashing her tote bag full of food and supplies, to be prepared “for anything.” Calling the police after hearing fireworks one August night, waking my sister and me, thinking New York was being bombed.

This tiny photograph in the book, with no names, no explanations, no descriptions of who the bodies were, how they got there, if their families survived—this one chapter with its color-coded sections and corresponding questions—it wasn’t what my family experienced. This book was about a one-event history, the kind of disaster that begins and ends, with no after-effects, no reverberations. Not the kind of history that seeps in slowly and colors everything, like a quiet, daily kind of war, the war that my mother and my family lived through, which lived through them, which never ended.

I thought about my mother in the hospital, telling me that she’d always known this would happen, that she would die like this; that all her life she’d been waiting. Even that night of the diagnosis, behind the surprised smile had been something else: a knowing, an expecting.

And the shock was that hints of this had been dropped all my life—hadn’t I read Anne of Green Gables and Oliver Twist for the first time, long before the diagnosis, with the same hunger with which I read them now? We’d only known my mom had cancer for nine days, but the doctors said it could’ve been growing in her, undetected, for over twenty years. I wondered if that was the cause behind her years of vaguely identified allergies, asthma, colds; her days in bed, the darkness of her room, of every room in our house; her face buried in her hands; the crook of her elbow shielding her eyes. She had kept piles and piles of lists, reminding herself to do everything in a frantic, uneven script. We had repeated “I love you” to each other daily, incessantly, because my worst fear had always been that I would come home one day and find out she’d died, and she wouldn’t know how much I loved her. We said it so often, I used to be afraid that someone outside of my family would catch my mother and me in these desperate “I love you’s”—or that I might accidentally, habitually say one to someone else. I’d even considered them superstitious—but it wasn’t, I could see now—it was that I sensed, even then, how fragile and uncertain my mother’s life was. That the hole her death left had begun forming a long, long time ago.

I stared out the barred windows to the cement schoolyard. I hadn’t answered one question, not only on this card but on any in the stack. I hadn’t even faked it, writing notes to friends like others did. My stark white notebook lay wide-open, my pencil across the blank page.

The classroom was quiet. Mr. Flag watched me with a starched smile. “Miss Pearlman, if you’re having problems with the Blue section you can go back and work on the Yellow.”

I couldn’t turn the page. I sat frozen in my seat, transfixed by the picture; I couldn’t look forward or backward or do anything but stay there, staring at the bodies, unknown, intertwined, tossing, their bodies, my mother’s body, me.

A bell rang, the end of the period; books slapped shut, assignments passed forward, notebook paper tore; I didn’t move. I kept looking at the picture, and it seemed to me that the worst thing that could happen in the world right then would be to send my book forward like everyone else, and pretend that it was just a photo in a book, in World History Unit Five, and nothing else. As if the war was the kind of thing you could print in a color-coded textbook, shut at the end of the lesson, and give back.

Melody stood at the front of each row to collect the assignments and textbooks. I heard them flapping around me, moving forward.

Mr. Flag stared at me, impatient. “Miss Pearlman, are you going to pass your book in?”

The books lay in a neat stack on the first desk of our row, which Melody moved into a pile on the windowsill. I couldn’t move.

“Miss Pearlman, pass your book in, please.”

He whispered something to Melody and her patent-leather Mary Janes clicked on the floor. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I picked the book up. It felt surprisingly light in my hands. As Melody walked towards me, with Mr. Flag’s stark face behind her, his fingers bent stiffly over his pink Delaney card system, each card filed into its neat compartment without a thought as to who existed in each one, his face with its expression of perpetual annoyance, like we were an incurable breed of disorder, disruption, and lost causes, the last thing I could do was place that book in Melody’s hand. She was smiling, the same smile she’d had when she handed me the grief book, the five distinct stages I hadn’t entered or passed and it seemed now, never would.

 

 

She was still smiling when I threw the book at the window. The window was open, and it hit the metal bars with a loud clang, and clapped on top of the sill as the pages flurried open. The class flinched all at once. Mr. Flag did too; and though his features reassumed their rigid position, and his face admitted hardly a change, the sound continued to ring in the silent classroom afterward.

Margo’s blog tour here.

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