Chapter One: Geller’s
George Washington, the revered first president of the United States of America, stares at me through lowered eyelids, his lips a thin worried line. After smoothing out his wrinkles, I cover his likeness with my second silver-dollar certificate, fold both Washingtons in half, and tuck my first week’s wages into my skirt pocket. I am rich.
It’s Friday. Once the Sabbath begins at sundown, no money can change hands. Mr. Geller will close the grocery at four-thirty instead of six, his usual time. That means I will get home before Mama lights the candles. I love the way she cups her hands just above the flames as she recites the blessing, her voice tender and warm. I want to give her one of my dollars for the secret tin she hides far away from Papa’s greedy fingers. If he is in the kitchen, though, I’ll have to wait until the sun goes down tomorrow and the Sabbath is over. He prides himself on counting every penny that comes into the house and takes what he wants. Sometimes, I wish he would leave and never come back.
Propping my elbows on the counter, I glance out the window, through the arch of thick black letters. They spell out “Geller’s Grocery, Kosher Food,” but from this side of the glass, they’re backwards. Mr. Geller told me he painted the letters himself, and there’s not a smudge or splotch anywhere.
Eight days ago, on my way home from South High School, I spotted a “Help Wanted” sign taped to the grocery door. It was raining. I ducked under the awning, wondering if I was old enough—I’m a freshman and just fourteen—and whether I should ask Mama’s permission before talking to Mr. Geller. When my older sister, Mina, was fifteen, she came home one day and announced that she had taken a job at Long’s Drugstore. She’s nineteen and still works there. My brother, Sam, has been selling newspapers since he started high school two years ago.
I stood there for a moment, unsure what to do. I’d never been inside Geller’s before. We always shop at Unger’s. Mr. Unger is old enough to be my great-grandfather and comes from Hungary, like we do. Mama can order food from him without having to struggle with her English. But Mr. Unger didn’t have a job for me. Mr. Geller did. Besides, my family never seems to have enough money, so this was my chance to help. I pushed the door open, and a bell tinkled loudly. The store smelled like garlic, which made me feel right at home.
When the bell rings this afternoon, I look up with a smile, only to be greeted by Mrs. Schett, a short woman with a pinched face. I haven’t been here long, but I already know who she is.
“Good afternoon, Missus,” I say, as politely as I can. “What—”
“Humph,” she says, slamming her shopping list onto the counter. “I am in hurry. Sister and children come from Toledo, Ohio, by five o’clock. In little more than half hour.”
Mr. Geller appears from the back room. He is a tall man with a kind but wrinkly face. I used to see him at synagogue, though I never spoke to him until last week. Mina knows everything about everyone in our congregation. At services one Saturday morning, while the rabbi was reading from the Torah in Hebrew, she whispered Mr. Geller’s story in my ear. Apparently, he came to Columbus from Berlin two years before the Great War, leaving behind a wife and a daughter about my age. Why they never joined him here is a mystery, despite the fact that he talks about them whenever he has a chance. I whispered back that there might be something wrong with one or both of them—they might be missing an arm or a leg or an eye. Mina laughed. That earned us a sharp look from Mama.
“Here!” Mrs. Schett says, shoving the list toward Mr. Geller. “I need!”
“Of course, Missus,” he says with a slight bow.
I look over his shoulder at the list. I am good with numbers. All my teachers tell me so. I figure the prices and add them in my head. That way, there will be no delay when Mrs. Schett pays her bill, and she can go home to her family as fast as possible.
One loaf of bread ten cents
One can of navy beans four cents
One bunch of bananas nineteen cents
A dozen eggs fifty-three cents
Two stewing hens eighty-eight cents
A pound of oleomargarine forty cents
She owes us exactly two dollars and fourteen cents. I search for the items that are on the shelves behind the counter, while Mr. Geller returns to the storeroom to take the eggs and hens out of the icebox. Soon there is a large stack of food next to the cash register.
“Two and fourteen, if you please, Mrs. Schett,” I say.
“You must ring up first!” she shouts. “Vey. You Americans. Always easy way. No paper. No pencil.”
Americans! What is she talking about? My accent is thicker than hers. Only my younger sister, Kati, who was six when we came over, speaks like someone born in Ohio. As for the rest of us, Mama says our jaws were already too deeply rooted in our homeland. Whenever we open our mouths, we are bound to give ourselves away.
“Tsk, tsk,” Mrs. Schett says. “Mr. Geller! This girl asks for payment with no proof. She is gonif.”
“I am no thief!” I cry.
I am about to give her a piece of my mind when Mr. Geller steps in front of me. “She is fast with dollars and cents,” he says. “She adds in head before I can write on paper. This is why I hire her.”
Mrs. Schett crosses her arms over her chest and scowls at me. I resist the urge to stick my tongue out at her, knowing that Mr. Geller wouldn’t like it.
“You see, Missus, Sarah is girl in love with numbers,” he says. “Not like my Annalisa. Every letter from Berlin is full of how much she hates arithmetic.”
At the mention of his daughter, Mrs. Schett’s face softens a little.
“You want we add on register?” Mr. Geller asks her.
“Indeed,” she says.
He turns toward me. “Sarah?”
I punch in her purchases, one by one, daring the cash register to disagree with me, and smile in satisfaction when it proves me correct. Mrs. Schett owes us $2.14. Mr. Geller gives her a receipt, while I put the hens and eggs in one paper bag and the rest of her groceries in another. She tosses two dollars, two nickels, and four pennies on the counter and stomps out the door without another word. I make a mean face at her retreating back.
“There, there,” Mr. Geller says. “You must not take her so to heart. Woman is regular customer. We do not wish to lose. Great Atlantic and Pacific is six blocks away. They gladly steal her from us.”
They can have her, I think, and bite my lip.
“This is business,” he says. “She argues with husband. Children. Comes to store. Fights with us because she cannot fight with family.”
“She is a bully,” I say.
“Ja. But bully who pays cash.”
“Well, I do not like her. Mama would say she was weaned on a pickle.”
“Perhaps.” He laughs.
It’s four-thirty, and she is our last customer of the day. Mr. Geller turns the “Open” sign that hangs on the door to “Closed” and tells me to count the money in the register, while he heads to the storeroom. When I am done, I put the coins in one cloth bag and the paper bills in another and carry both of them to the back room. I write today’s total on a tablet on his desk.
He puts the money in a small safe in the corner, and I walk up and down the rows of shelves, eyeing red and white cans of Campbell’s vegetable soup and boxes of Sullivan’s Tea. All the items are grouped separately, according to whether they are milk, meat, or pareve—neither milk nor meat. The store is strictly Kosher. We are located in the middle of a large Jewish neighborhood, and almost all of our customers belong to our synagogue. They are Orthodox, so if we didn’t keep Kosher, we would quickly go out of business. I stop to admire a shelf containing boxes of dried beans and white rice. I remember what it was like when I was a small child in my village in Hungary and always, always hungry. In those days, I could never have imaged such a palace of plenty.
Mr. Geller startles me back into the present by tapping my shoulder. “Your mutter,” he says. “She cooks what for dinner?”
“Roast chicken, I hope.”
My mouth begins to water. Nowadays, we can afford to eat poultry and beef, though Mama stretches them over as many meals as possible.
Mr. Geller grabs a head of lettuce, two tomatoes, and three apples. He takes a box filled with Postum corn flakes from a shelf. “These are extras,” he says. “For you.”
“Thank you,” I say. My voice catches in my throat. “You are… Mama will be so happy.”
There’s an empty sack with a string handle lying on a pile of paper goods in a corner. I pick it up, put the apples and carrots in the bottom, the tomatoes and lettuce in next, and the cereal on top. Then I lug the heavy bag to the front room and follow Mr. Geller out onto the sidewalk.
He locks the door behind us and pushes against it for good measure. It doesn’t budge.
“Gut Shabbos,” he says.
“The same to you,” I say.
“You come on Monday, then?”
“Right after school.”
“Gut.” He looks up and down Main Street. “Be careful when you cross.”
He hurries down the block and is soon out of sight. I dash across the street just in time to dodge a Ford coupe that nips at my heels and burps out inky clouds of smoke. The air stinks of oil.
A young man in an open vehicle with huge white wheels honks at me. “Hey, pretty girl!” he shouts as I hop onto the curb. “Want a ride in my new roundabout?”
“No, thank you,” I cry. “Fresh!”
He tips his hat and weaves around an electric trolley that rumbles on its tracks. The ground shakes, and hot sparks fly off the overhead wire.
I stop in front of Feinberg’s Finery, directly across from Geller’s. I long for the beautiful blue chemise on the mannequin in the window. The dress has a wide satin sash and makes my gingham skirt feel uglier than ever. The skirt belonged to Mina years ago, but the checkered print has faded from bright red to deathly pink. Mama did her best to save it from the rag pile. She stitched up the waistband and added two big buttons, but I still look worse than poor Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm. My friend Irene Garten and I cut Lillian’s photograph out of one of our favorite movie magazines last Sunday and taped it to the wall above Irene’s bed. I sigh hopelessly. Lillian is petite and has rows of shiny dark curls. I, on the other hand, am tall and have frizzy blonde hair that I can’t tame, no matter how hard I try.
I pull myself away from the window and turn toward home, thinking about Mrs. Schett and the cash register. Mr. Unger does everything by hand, so at first I didn’t know what to make of the black contraption on Mr. Geller’s counter. The keys were stiff and slippery, and I had to pound on them to make them move at all. But it didn’t take long before I was ringing up numbers as if that cash register and I had been best friends for years.
I walk down the alley to our gate. It opens onto a narrow yard that Mama has magically turned into a lush garden. Her paprika peppers are finished, their leaves yellowing in the mild autumn afternoon, but her strawberry plants are still healthy, although they bear no fruit this late in the season. Her lanky oregano and parsley strain toward the sun.
I cross the porch, go into the kitchen, and put my bag on the table. The room is empty, thank goodness, but not for long.
I hear heavy footsteps on the stairs. Not Mama’s, which are softer and gentler. Not my older brother’s, which are quick and playful. Not Mina’s, which are firmer on the left than the right. Not Kati’s, which are almost like a bird’s.
Papa enters the kitchen. His black hair is flecked with gray, and his eyes are nearly hidden behind his round steel spectacles. The sleeves of his worn, patched shirt are rolled up to his elbows. His forearms ripple with muscles from the work he does at the Jefferson Mining and Manufacturing Company, where he welds metal into different shapes to build the pulleys that extract coal from deep within the earth.
He notices immediately when, without thinking, I reach into my pocket to check for my George Washingtons. “You got gelt?” he asks.
He steps closer. I almost choke on his musty smell. He grabs my wrist, so roughly that I cry out in pain. He yanks my hand out of my pocket and my money along with it.
“Stop!” I shout. “You’re hurting me!”
His fingers dig into my skin. I try to pull away, but he is stronger than I am. I let go of my precious dollars and watch them float onto the table. He scoops them up, his clenched fist swallowing them forever.
“I wish you weren’t my father,” I hiss in English.
“Hungarian only here at home!” he says. “None of this foreign talk. Now, what did you say?”
“Semmi.” I glare at him. “Nothing.”
Chapter Two: Services
The bruise on my wrist still throbs the next morning, as Mama, Mina, Kati, and I sit with the women on one side of the aisle that divides the Beth Jacob sanctuary. The men sit on the other side.
An eternal flame shines on the dense curtains of the ark at the back of the bema, a stage where Rabbi Schuman, large and hairy, looms over Cantor Levine, a small blond man with a deep booming voice. Services began an hour ago, when the rabbi hustled three men from the congregation up to the bema to remove the Torah from the ark and place the scroll on a table.
I’m a girl, and we don’t have bar mitzvahs. I never learned Hebrew, unlike Sam, who is becoming an expert, so whatever the rabbi has to say goes right over my head. I have memorized the prayers that we recite in services, but I don’t know what they mean.
The sanctuary is hot. I am tired, and soon my lids droop. My head bobs forward and bumps against my chest, startling me awake. My eyes wander across the aisle and settle on the back of Papa’s head. Wait! There are two Papas. I blink hard, then realize that the second head belongs to Uncle Josef, Papa’s older brother. People often mistake them for twins, since they are both about as tall as I am, without an ounce of extra flesh on their bodies. Their hair is thick and straight, and that’s where the similarity ends. Papa is angry all the time and thinks only of himself. Uncle Josef is patient and generous. He often slips me licorice, which turns my tongue black and makes me look as if I have the plague whenever I open my mouth. That’s what Sam says anyway, and he should know—he’s planning to become a doctor.
I offer a prayer of thanks to God for sparing me from yet another Papa. I wait in vain for an answer. Mina says talking to God is childish, but it makes me feel better. I slide the soles of my shoes along the smooth, waxed tiles under my feet. I miss the battered floor of our synagogue in Hungary, where the walls were scarred and no one seemed to care whether you prayed or slept or perched on the edge of your seat, waiting to make your escape. Beth Jacob is too clean and polished, as if the building expects all the people inside to behave themselves.
Mina nudges my elbow.
“What?” I say, more loudly than I should.
“Be quiet, you two,” Mama whispers. “The Kaddish is about to begin.”
The men who are in mourning—but not the women—rise to join the cantor in reciting the Jewish prayer for the dead. I’ve often wondered if this means our grief doesn’t count, which wouldn’t be fair. When the Kaddish is over, everyone stands for the closing prayer, the Alienu.
“That took forever,” Mina says out of the side of her mouth.
“The Alienu?” I ask.
“The whole thing.”
“Girls!” Mama says.
The men are always the first to leave the sanctuary. It takes Mama, Mina, Kati, and me sevearl minutes to make our way outside. We find Papa, Sam, and Uncle Josef gathered around Rabbi Schuman, who stands next to the carved door. His thick beard and long curls smother his face. Papa shakes his hand and compliments him for speaking about the importance of families celebrating the Sabbath together.
“Mr. Spirer, you are a mensch for ensuring that your children come to synagogue each week,” the rabbi says warmly.
Papa pats his breast pocket, as if he keeps the secret to our attendance hidden there. What he doesn’t say is that earlier he and Mina had yet another argument about whether she should go to services or not.
Five years ago, when Mina was my age, a young rabbi in Hungary threw her over for the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Ever since, my sister has had no use for religion or religious men. That doesn’t stop Papa from calling her a “stubborn mule of a girl” nearly every Saturday morning, or her from asking him, “And where do you think that came from?” They are often nose to nose, and every few weeks, when Papa gets so angry that he slams his fists onto the kitchen table, she gives in. Maybe she wants to keep the peace. But that doesn’t mean her heart has mended or that she has forgotten the slight.
She rolls her eyes at the rabbi this morning. If he sees her, he doesn’t let on. Instead he politely excuses himself and joins a group of people talking to the cantor on the steep concrete steps in front of the building.
The crowd begins to scatter, and we set off for home. Papa, Uncle Josef, and Sam take the lead. Mama and Kati hook arms and fall several steps behind them. Mina and I hang back even farther.
“Why are you walking so slow?” she asks. “Is something the matter?”
“Don’t you think Beth Jacob is too clean? Too perfect?”
“Compared to what?”
“Our synagogue in Hungary.”
“That old place! At least Beth Jacob doesn’t let cows inside.”
“There were no cows inside.”
“So you say.”
I look down at her stylish pumps. The tips are so sharp they could cut through paper.
“We’d better get going,” she says. “At this rate we’ll never make it home to lunch.”
“I’m in no rush,” I say. “Besides, I had a big breakfast. I’m not that hungry.”
“That’s a first. Are you sick?”
“Suit yourself.” She hurries to catch up with Mama.
Soon everyone else is at least a half block ahead of me. Only Uncle Josef slows down and waits for me to catch up with him. He holds out his hand, and I take it gratefully and lean into him. He smells like tobacco.
“How is that job of yours?” he asks.
“Fine,” I say. “But”—I show him the bruise on my wrist—“Papa did this to me. He took both of my George Washingtons too. Now I have nothing.”
Uncle Josef shook his head. “My brother—he forgets himself and goes too far. He was always hot-tempered, even when we were children.”
“I worked hard for that money.”
“I know you did. Listen—tonight, after the Sabbath is over, I will slip you one dollar. It will be between the two of us.”
“I can’t take your money. You need it.”
“Not as much as you do.”
“But, Uncle Josef—”
“No more. It’s settled. We’d better get going.”
We walk quickly down the alley to our back gate and join the rest of the family just as Papa starts to do battle with the swollen door. He kicks it, but the latch is stuck and won’t open.
“Even this doesn’t do what it’s told!” he shouts. “This American piece of junk!”
“Shumi,” Uncle Josef says. “Control yourself. Your children are here.”
Ignoring him, Papa slams his foot into the old, dented wood. Like a young boy slapped for bad behavior, the gate cries out before giving way.
It’s 1923 in Columbus, Ohio. Fourteen-year-old Sarah Spirer, the narrator of my historical novel Almost American, yearns to be truly American, despite her powerful memories of a traumatic childhood in war-torn Europe. A Hungarian immigrant and typical high-school freshman, she’s also the faithful daughter in an Orthodox Jewish family being pulled apart by the temptations of its adopted land.
Sarah’s life is an adventure. She catches a thief at the grocery store where she works, rides a rollercoaster for the first time, watches a much-loved uncle die in a horrifying automobile accident, talks to him at a séance with a Ouija board, finds her voice when she acts in a school play, and helps her mother obtain a Jewish divorce from her domineering bootlegger of a father. When she sneaks out to a speakeasy, she encounters fierce racial prejudice that nearly costs her her life. Finally, she must choose whether to use her gift for numbers to forge a new path toward adulthood or stay safely put where she is. Her decision upends her life and costs her a friend she can never replace.
Almost American is a follow-up to my first novel, Glass Hearts (Academy Chicago, 1999), which was awarded an Individual Artist’s Fellowship by the Ohio Arts Council and won the Ohioana Book Award in Fiction and the Friends of American Writers Award. Both books are inspired by the written and recorded recollections of my late maternal aunt and my own memories of growing up in a Jewish immigrant family. I am currently working on the third novel in the series. I’m proud of my heritage and of the people who came before me, who sacrificed so much in order to call themselves American.
Terri Paul lives in Columbus, Ohio. She has published numerous short stories and an award-winning novel, Glass Hearts. One of her poems placed fourth in the 2017 Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Contest.
Embark, Issue 11, January 2020