Copyright © 2012. Adrien Leduc. Smashwords Edition. All rights reserved.
(Leduc, Adrien 1987- )
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the author, nor be otherwise circulated in any form than that in which it is published.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Dedication: For Robert Hinitt (1926 - 2011). A good man and a good friend. A fellow romantic who set a fine example of meshing the real with the fantastical.
Synopsis: Ottawa. 1949. Moshe Silverstein doesn't quite fit in. A Type 1 diabetic and one of the only Jewish students at school, the diminutive eleven year old has few friends and is tormented on a daily basis. With the help of a classmate and Lenny Katzman, an aged boxer and owner of Lenny's Gym, Moshe learns to fight and gains self confidence in himself. The story comes to a head when Moshe has a final showdown with his tormentors.
A note to the reader: In the early days of diabetes treatment, Type 1 diabetics (“juvenile diabetes” or diabetes mellitus) had to test their sugars by peeing into a test tube and then adding a chemical mixture. The blood sugar level was determined by the resulting colour of the mixture. Blood sugar metres became available only in the nineteen-eighties. (I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in ninety-eight.)
- 1 -
"How was school today, bärchen?"
Moshe sat down at the table as his mother poured him a tall glass of milk.
"How are you feeling? Should we check your sugar, honigbienchen?" she asked, setting the glass on the table in front of him.
While the Silverstein’s tended to speak German at home, as Moshe grew older, English was being used more often.
"I don't know."
"Well, you look pale. And I don't care if Doctor Kazcynski says that you’re not to eat fruit. You're going to have a banana. It'll put the colour back in your face."
She thrust one at him and he took it.
"Father will be home late tonight. Herr Stockton is making him stay late again.
That man works your father too hard. Much too hard," she commented, returning to pressing dough into a pie pan. "Those English. They have no concept of family.
The importance of eating supper together - Moshe?"
"Are you listening to me?"
Moshe looked at his mother. There was flour on her apron and her hair was tied back with a strip of purple fabric.
"Yes, mamma. Father is working late. You don't like Herr Stockton. I know, mamma."
Missus Silverstein nodded affirmatively. "Good. A boy your age should always listen to his mother."
"How many times have I told Moshe, class? How many times have I told Moshe that three is only divisible by itself? What's this one-and-a-half nonsense?"
he asked to laughter.
Red-faced, the boy lowered his eyes and stared at the scribbles on his desk.
Go back to Germany, Jew boy!
The Nazis missed you!
"Mister Silverstein? Are you listening?"
The boy looked up at Mr. Elliott, his math teacher.
"Good. Boys like you need to listen. Now then class, turn to page fifty four.
We're doing long division for the remainder of the period. Moshe, I want you to lead us in the reading."
"Run home to your mama, Jew boy!" Peter Carlson yelled after him. "We'll get you tomorrow!"
Panting and out of breath, Moshe pounded up the alleyway until he reached the Everton Arms. He fumbled for the key around his neck and once inside, raced upstairs to the Silverstein's third floor apartment.
"Moshe?" Marthe Silverstein asked, a look of concern etched on her face.
"What's the matter? Why are you running like there's a herd of elephants behind you?"
"It's nothing, mamma," the boy replied, closing the door quietly behind him and letting his bag drop to the floor.
"Are the boys at school bothering you again?"
"Are you sure? You don't look very happy."
"I'm fine, mamma."
"Jew boy! Jew boy!"
Peter Carlson's fist slammed into Moshe's face and Moshe felt his nose shatter.
"Jew boy! Jew boy!" the crowd continued to taunt.
"Come on! Fight me, Jew boy! What? Too afraid?"
Moshe picked himself slowly up off the ground.
He hit the ground again.
"Come on! Get up! Fight me!"
Moshe figured it best to lie still as he watched the throng of students assembled in the courtyard point, laugh, and spit.
"Friedrich - "
"No, Marthe. That's it. I'm going down to that school first thing in the morning and demanding that no-good, WASP principal answer for this."
"No, Friedrich. Have you forgotten what happened last time?"
"When? What last time?"
Friedrich Silverstein was still dressed in his janitor's uniform, his brown eyes angry and tired looking.
"Last time I spoke to the school. When those boys sprayed our Moshe with ketchup."
"You spoke to Herr Davidson?"
"No. I spoke to the vice principal. Frau Andrews."
Friedrich's face was crimson now and beads of sweat dotted his forehead.
"Did she punish the boys that did it?"
Moshe, listening to his parents' conversation from his bedroom, knew the answer. He'd been called into Mrs. Andrew's office. Made to admit to being "a liar". Told that if he became a "habitual tattle-tale", he'd be suspended, or worse, expelled. Moshe hadn't breathed a word about his tormentors to his teachers from that day on.
"I understand that you're upset, Mister Silverstein, but we at Saint Mark’s pride ourselves on being a caring and generous - "
"Oh, cut the nonsense, Mister Davidson."
It was the following morning and Moshe sat uncomfortably between his
mother and father in the principal's office.
"Explain to me then why my son's face is all bruised and bloody?" Friedrich Silverstein said, clutching Moshe's face and pushing it forwards.
The blonde, blue-eyed Mr. Davidson merely shrugged. "I honestly couldn't tell you, Mister Silverstein. Perhaps he had an accident on the way home from school?"
Marthe Silverstein shook her head in exasperation. "No. He did not have any accident on the way home from school. The boys in his class did this."
Her voice was shaking now, her face wild and fierce. "Now you put an end to this now or I'm going to the superintendent."
The principal's eyes narrowed momentarily, but then his face softened.
"Alright, Missus Silverstein. I'll deal with it personally."
"And you will sit here and do your homework here in my office, until four o'clock, for the rest of the school year. Every day. Are we understood?"
"Yes, Sir," Moshe answered quietly, looking up at his principal.
"Good. Now start your homework. I'll let you know when it's time to leave."
With that, Mr. Davidson turned and strode out of his office. A minute later Moshe could hear him chatting and laughing with one of the secretaries.
Tears stinging his eyes, Moshe opened his math book and got to work.
"Moshe? You're so late! More than an hour! I was worried sick about you! I nearly called your father at work! And you know how he hates that!"
Marthe Silverstein studied her son's face as he stood in the entranceway to their small apartment.
"Mister Davidson kept me after school. To do my homework."
"Why? Did you misbehave?"
"Mister Davidson is keeping me after school everyday, for the rest of the year, so that I don't have to see Peter Carlson outside."
Marthe Silverstein shook her head in disbelief.
" This is his solution!? He's going to keep you after school? So that you won't run into the boys in the school yard?"
Moshe shrugged and sat down at the table where his mother had evidently been writing Passover cards; paper cardboard, ribbon and calligraphy pens strewn all around.
"Well, that's it. You are finished at that school. I'm taking you to enroll at Fourth Avenue Middle School in the morning."
"What does father say?" the boy protested.
"He agrees. We already discussed it last night. We decided that if Herr Davidson didn't fix the problem, that I will take you to enroll in a different school.
The Braunfman girls go there. So you'll at least know someone. Frau Braunfman says it's a great school. More ethnicities. It's not so WASPish."
"It means Jews aren't wanted."
As it turned out, it was too late in the school year for a transfer. So explained the receptionist to Mrs. Silverstein as she and Moshe sat in the office of Fourth Avenue Middle School the following morning.
"It's nearly the end of April, Missus Silverstein. There's barely two months left.
Come back in August and you can register your son for next year."
The bus ride home was jittery and uncomfortable. Moshe watched his mother, her face set tight in anger. Finally, just before they arrived at Somerset Street, Marthe Silverstein sighed and her shoulders slumped.
"You'll have to stay late after school for two more months, bärchen."
The next eight weeks passed without incident and on the final day of school, Mrs. Silverstein herself came to pick up her son from Mr. Davidson's office.
"And my Moshe won't be returning next year," she said defiantly as they were about to leave.
Mr. Davidson glanced up from the papers on his desk. "And why is that?"
"Because you and this school are incompetent. You know, my husband and I left Germany in thirty-six. What happened to our families and our people just a few years later is proof for me that you leave when there is injustice. As soon as possible. And so we are leaving. I am enrolling Moshe at Fourth Avenue next year."
"Suit yourself," was all the principal said before slamming the door in her face.
Fuming, Marthe Silverstein took her son by the hand. "Come on, bärchen, we're leaving."
- 2 -
Summer came early to Ottawa that year and by mid-July the thermometer in the Silverstein's small apartment had already hit ninety-six degrees. With little to do, Moshe divided his time between the balcony where he would play with his collection of army men and the living room where he would listen to his favourite radio programs.
Needless to say, Marthe Silverstein worried about her son.
"You spend too much time inside for an eleven year old boy," she complained one afternoon. "Go outside. Have fun."
"But I don't have any friends, mamma."
"Well, make some."
"The kids don't like me."
"Which kids don't like you?"
"The kids in the neighbourhood."
"What about Grigor down the hall?"
"He's a child, mamma."
Frustrated by her son’s retorts, Marthe Silverstein sighed. "Well, I'm scrubbing the floors this afternoon so I need you out of the house for a couple of hours."
She went to her purse and rummaged through it until she found what she was looking for.
"Here," she said, thrusting a piece of paper at him. "Take this to the drycleaners - you know the one we always go to?"
Moshe gave a nod. "Yes, mamma."
"Take this to the drycleaners and pick up your father's pants. And here," she added, reaching once more into her purse and withdrawing two one-dollar notes,
"stop by the store and get yourself some sweets."
Moshe grinned and eagerly accepted the money.
"AND DON'T COME BACK BEFORE THREE O'CLOCK!" she yelled as he dashed out the door.
Hong's Drycleaning was ten blocks east on Somerset, in the heart of
Centretown. Moshe enjoyed gazing in the windows of the sundry shops that lined the strip. There were fancy watches. Cured sausage. Umbrellas. Art supplies. A bit of everything. Still, as with all the other kids in the neighbourhood, there were only two stores that really interested him: Ianno's and Wing's. One Italian, the other Chinese. Both stores sold a wide variety of candies, sweets, and treats. However, while most of the kids in his building - the Braunfman sisters included - patronized Ianno's, Moshe liked the imported candies offered at Wing's. There were suckers that tasted like lemons. Buns made from almond and coconut. Gum with funny writing on the packaging (the comics never made sense but Moshe could blow fist-sized bubbles with it).
As he neared the drycleaners - it's green and yellow pastel sign beckoning in the distance - Moshe decided that if his mother wanted him to stay away for two whole hours, then he had best get his sweets beforehand. After all, how could he enjoy a sweet and potentially messy treat like candied apples or strudels if he had his father's pants with him? His mother would give him a couple wallops with her soup ladle if he were to dirty his father’s clean pants.
The bells tinkled as he stepped inside Wing's and, easing through the throng of people crowded around the register, Moshe eventually made it to the candy aisle.
Faced with the impossible task of choosing which candy to buy, the boy spent more than a quarter of an hour deliberating between Taiwanese toffee, Liu's Licorice and Dragon Gumballs.
When he'd finally made a decision, Moshe carried his purchase to the counter.
Seeing him approach, Mrs. Wing looked at him and smiled.
"Mooshee (this was how she pronounced his name), long time, no see. How you been?"
"Very well, thank you, Missus Wing."
"You only get the gumball today? Here, take some licorice too. No pay for the licorice. You a good boy."
The boy's eyes lit up as he graciously accepted a package of Liu's Licorice.
"You come again soon, eh?" she said, taking the one dollar bill Moshe held out and giving him two quarters for change. "We miss you."
Moshe nodded and returned her smile. "I only get my allowance once a month.
And sometimes I spend it at the pictures."
Mrs. Wing smiled knowingly. "You boys. Always going to the pictures. Our son do the same. But you shouldn't watch too much. You know, it make you blind one day."
Moshe's face took on a concerned expression as he wondered whether what Mrs. Wing had just told him might actually be true. But there was no chance to ask as a young woman with a baby strapped to her chest, and clearly in a hurry, rushed up behind him and placed a quart of milk on the counter.
"Bye, bye Moshe, see you next time," said Mrs. Wing, giving the young mother a reproving glance.
"See you next time, Missus Wing."
Further along Somerset were a variety of shops and eating establishments.
There was Arnold's Music, June's Pottery, Mrs. Abigail's Odds and Ends Shoppe.
Of particular interest to Moshe was Lenny's Gym. The place had opened less than a year ago and Moshe liked to kneel on the bench at the window and watch the boxers inside. Skipping, hitting bags, performing push-ups. There was always someone doing something. Today the boxers were numerous and Moshe's eyes moved towards a coloured man who was busy pounding away at a speedbag. There was a comfortable rhythm to his movements and the boy marveled at the boxer's ability.
A short distance from this man, two adolescents were engaged in a spirited sparring session and Moshe watched, mesmerized, as the two young boxers danced, jabbed, and blocked.
The thought of joining Lenny's Gym and learning to box had crossed his mind before, but he wondered how he'd pay for his membership - and if he had to pay for lessons on top of that? His allowance certainly wouldn't be enough to cover those kinds of fees.
Somewhat disappointed, Moshe watched the boxers for several more minutes before turning and slowly making his way to Hong's Drycleaning.
- 3 -
Summer dragged on. Slow and scorching. Entire days would pass with Moshe sitting on the balcony, watching the cars and people below. Other days, when it was too hot, the boy simply sat inside, the curtains drawn and the fan whirring steadily.
Marthe Silverstein would watch him while doing the dishes or the ironing, questioning why her son appeared so unhappy and wondering what she could do about it.
One afternoon, while having tea at Mrs. Braunfman's downstairs, an idea came to her: violin lessons.
Hepzibah Braunfman had a brother in London who was an accomplished
violinist. Normally Marthe had no patience for the woman's bragging about such and such a relative who owned a store in New York or a mining company in Brazil, but today she was all ears. For Hepzibah's brother Baruch had recently been accepted into the London Symphony Orchestra and was quickly making a name for himself across England.
"And even zo Baruch still vases the anti-Semitism," she explained in her heavily accented English, "he gets on very well. Makes a lot of money," she added, rubbing her fingers together.
"When did he start playing the violin?" asked Marthe, the wheels turning in her head. "Does it take many years to learn?"
"Oh," Hepzibah said, sighing and taking a sip of her tea, "father got him a viola when he vas seven or eight. Then he began to receive zee lessons from a neighbour...vat vas his name... Herr Schweizer! Herr Schweizer," she giggled, clearly recalling a memory, "he vas a very funny man. He used to vear zees trousers zat ver up to his chin practically. Oh, Herr Schweizer, he vas so funny.
But, yes,” the plump woman summarized, wiping a tear from her eye, “he used to teach my brother zee viola."
"And how about the violin?” Marthe asked, growing impatient. “When did Baruch begin to play the violin?"
Hepzibah looked at the ceiling as she thought about it. "I believe he was about nine…maybe ten years old…yes, ten I zink…when he began to play the violin. At this time he vas playing vith zee school orchestra."
Moshe's only eleven. Perhaps it isn't too late.
"Any idea how much it costs to buy a violin?"
Hepzibah Braunfman giggled and threw her hands in the air. "God, I have no idea, Marthe. Vat does a woman like me know of such things?"
Marthe Silverstein smiled politely and drained the rest of her mug.
"Yes, I think it's an excellent idea, meine liebe. Moshe will play the violin."
Friedrich Silverstein pushed himself away from the table and leaned back in his chair, a toothpick dangling from his mouth.
"Moshe Silverstein, professional violinist."
Moshe looked at his father. The man's face was all aglow, his eyes warm and lively. It had been awhile since he'd seen him so happy.
"Ah, my boy," he said, returning his chair to an upright position and reaching forwards so that he could tousle his son's hair. "You know our people make incredible musicians. The best in the world!" he added, slapping a palm on the table. "You watch and see! My Moshe will be the next Jeno Hubay!"
Two weeks later, as July drew to a close and the new school year beckoned, Moshe found himself seated in a springy vinyl chair beside his new violin teacher.
Mr. Lebowski, a tall and lanky Pole who could only hear with his left ear, was a former member of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and had been playing the violin for nearly fifty years. When the First World War broke out, he, along with his mother and sister, had fled to Canada. Now in his seventy-fifth year, Mr.
Lebowski was alone in the world, his only important possessions being an old Durro violin and his oversized, lethargic cat, Alojzy.
"And see? Now you use tremolo."
Moshe nodded, not understanding, but not feeling brave enough to ask what exactly Mr. Lebowski wanted him to do.
The elderly man handed Moshe the violin. "Now you try again."
The boy grimaced and took the violin, tucking the chin rest under his chin and gripping the neck. Slowly, and without an ounce of confidence, Moshe touched the bow to the first string and began to play.
"No, no, no! Here, let me have it! Watch again!"
It went like this, back and forth, for an hour, Moshe glancing at the clock on the wall nearly every minute, wondering how long he'd have to endure this torture.
Finally, when it seemed to Moshe as though the lesson would never end and that he would be stuck listening to Mr. Lebowski rile on about how he would “never cut it as a violinist”, the old Pole announced that the lesson was finished for the day. At this, Moshe paid him the two dollars his father had given him and left without a glance back, praying tomorrow's lesson would be better.
Every night after a lesson, Moshe's father would ask him what he'd learned and Moshe would tell him. The boy could see the pride on his parents' faces as he explained, in as much detail as possible, what Mr. Lebowski had taught him. Once in awhile he would demonstrate on the "dummy violin" (a block of wood Friedrich Silverstein had fashioned into the shape of a violin, the end of a broom handle serving as bow) and they would watch him "play", looks of awe etched on their faces.
"Some day you'll have a real violin, bärchen," Friedrich would say once Moshe had finished his demonstration. "And in ten years (the number of years changed each week), when you're rich and famous, you can take care of your mamma and papa. Hey, my boy?"
- 4 -
The last few weeks of summer passed quickly and before long Moshe was following his mother up the front steps of Fourth Avenue Middle School to register for the new school year.
"And I want you to just ignore the troublemakers this year. Okay, bärchen?
Just ignore them."
"Yes, mamma," though he felt he’d done his best to ignore Peter Carlson and his gang - to no avail.
"This is a new beginning for you," she continued as they stepped aside for a herd of stampeding first-graders. "I know you'll fit in here."
"Ew, smell Mushy's sandwich! Stinky, Jew bologna!"
James Cooy, with his pudgy chin and thick arms, stood just a few feet from Moshe's desk.
"It's beef salami," Moshe answered quietly, his voice catching in the back of his throat.
"Stinky Jew boy's going to stink up the whole classroom!" he exclaimed to laughter.
Fighting back tears, Moshe hurriedly wrapped up the remainder of his
sandwich and stuffed it into his bag.
"What's the matter?" the heavy-set boy demanded. "Jew boy not hungry anymore? Ate too much shit for breakfast?"
There were several titters from the other students seated in the room and Moshe buried his face in the hollow of his desk, pretending to search for something.
"Come on, Jew boy. I just wanna be your friend."
"Leave him alone, Cooy," came a voice from somewhere behind them.
"What was that Dinardo? Retardo. Is Mushy your boyfriend or somethin'?"
Moshe wanted so badly to look up and see which of his classmates was
Dinardo, but there were tears in his eyes and having the class see you blubbering on your first day was instant suicide.
"Nah. He ain't my boyfriend. But he's new. So stop picking on him - or you'll have me to deal with."
There was an outburst of oohs and aahs from the other students and Moshe, head bent practically to his knees in an attempts to hide his tears, waited nervously for what would happen next. But to his surprise, James Cooy simply scoffed, "you wish you could deal with me, Dinardo. Retardo. Dumb, little Italian."
"Say that again, Cooy," Moshe heard him reply, his tone dangerous and threatening.
James Cooy said no more.
"You can't let Cooy get to you."
Moshe turned around to see who the voice belonged to.
"Otherwise, he'll just keep on doing it."
Moshe nodded, eyeing the boy with the oily, dark hair that was stood before him.
"Pasquale Dinardo's the name."
"Moshe. Moshe Silverstein."
"You new in town?"
The boys turned and began to walk across the tarmac. It was getting on three thirty and kids were running for their buses.
"No. I was born in Ottawa. I just changed schools."
"Oh yeah? Where were you before?"
Moshe's stomach knotted. Did he tell this stranger he'd gone to Saint Mark’s?
What if he knows people there? What if Pasquale Dinardo has friends there
and he asks them about me?
He could just imagine it.
“Moshe Silverstein? Yeah, he used to go here. Kid was the biggest baby you
ever saw. Got beaten up every other week.”
"Just some other school," Moshe croaked.
His classmate eyed him suspiciously, but said no more about it.
"So...where do you live?"
"Really? Do you know Lenny's Gym?"
"I go there every weekend with my brother."
"Oh. Do you box?"
The boy grinned. "Sure as shit."
"That’s pretty swell."
"You ever tried? It's fun. And it keeps you tough. You should come sometime.
Maybe this weekend?"
Moshe felt the knot in his stomach grow tighter. What would his parents say about him going to a boxing gym?
"I don't know..."
"Ah, come on. It's fun. I'll give you the royal tour. Lenny's real cool. He's Jewish too, come to think of it."
"Yeah. Old guy. Tough as nails. Used to be a Golden Gloves champ back in the day."
Dinardo ran a hand through his wavy, black hair. "Yeah, but anyways, I gotta jet. Got some people to see."
Moshe nodded. "Sure."