Helen Bar-Lev was born New York 1942, B.A. Anthropology; in Israel for 40 years, 90 exhibitions of her landscapes, 32 of which were one-person shows. Poems and artwork in numerous online and print anthologies. Website at www.helenbarlev.com Publications include Cyclamens and Swords and other poems about the land of Israel, and The Muse in the Suitcase, both with Johnmichael Simon, illustrated by Helen, In Moonlight the Sky Will Slide with Katherine L. Gordon. Helen is Senior Editor of Cyclamens and Swords Publishing, former editor-in-chief of Voices Israel Annual Anthology. Global correspondent and contributing editor for SKETCHBOOK, A Journal for Eastern and Western Short Forms http://poetrywriting.org/
Summer in Babylon
It was summer and Roberta was sixteen, too old for camp and the idea of working as a waitress did not appeal. She needed money, needed to get away from her family’s one bedroom apartment on the sixth floor in Brooklyn, away from the squabbling and arguing. So she searched the wanted ads and applied for an attractive job as a “Mother’s Helper”.
The house was in Long Island, in Babylon of all places. It was not really huge, just five rooms, a basement, a sunken living room. A nouveau riche dream house situated in an area of other nouveau riche dream houses. It was all so new you could still smell the paint as you passed each house and the trees were so small they were obviously just planted. It still had an unlived-in feeling and Roberta sometimes felt she should tip-toe through the neighborhood so as not to disturb its eerie quiet.
She had a room in the basement which was fairly pleasant, a floral bedspread, a chest of drawers, a night stand and a lamp. Nothing in that room gave a clue to the wealth of the family. Oh, and there was a window that was so high up she could see only the sky and had to climb on the bed to open and close it.
The rest of the house was mind-blowing to Roberta, who was born and walked in the midst of brown and red brick six-or-so-storey houses all her life. The kitchen was creamy, from the cabinets to the counter-tops, and spacious. A counterpoint to their tiny kitchen in Brooklyn, always painted pastel-pink after fights every four years with the landlord of their rent-controlled building, who would finally agree to paint the apartment but not to change the colors. Their living room was pastel blue, the bedroom pastel green. The corridor which connected the rooms was white as was the bathroom and so it would remain until they left the apartment forever, when all the residents, seemingly at once, had saved enough money to move out and rent larger apartments in Queens.
This spacious Babylon living room was sunken, the vogue then. Everyone who was anyone had a sunken living room. But this one was declared off bounds with a velvet rope much like in banks or movie theatres. The furniture was enshrouded in clear plastic so that its white color glistened from underneath like a pearl seen through water. It was off-limits to the baby, to the family itself, it seemed. Only Roberta was permitted entry to dust the tables and the plastic covers. The wall-to-wall carpet was plush and white. A baby-grand piano, polished and unused, stood ornamentally in a corner, underneath its plastic protector.
George Lacks, the man of the house, had reddish hair, a pot belly, a Cadillac. He was an accountant and suffered from arthritic hands. Roberta figured he was no more than thirty-five. George never spoke to Roberta, and barely ever to his wife, Phyllis, a tall, blonde, stern, unremarkable woman who would never hear wolf-whistles on the street (Roberta never saw her go out, even into their gardener-tended fenced-in yard). Maybe George was Roberta’s secret ally, ashamed how hard Phyllis made her work? Why lose another fight? He needed his wife to open bottles and assist him with other things his helpless hands could not manage. She spoke with an inflection Roberta could not quite place – New England?
In Roberta’s family there were no accountants, only postal carriers, iron workers, truck drivers, one drunkard, and housewives. They all lived in one bedroom apartments and laughed a lot, between arguments.
No matter how she searched for it, humor was not to be found in that modern, expensive house. Her own volatile family, upper lower class even at the most optimistic estimate, the owners of a fourth-hand 1947 Nash sedan, at least knew how to succumb to boisterous belly-laughs on occasion, the more occasions the better.
Neither was there music. No radio, no television ever turned on, though they were there, big and expensive gadgets perhaps no one had figured out how to operate. At Roberta’s home WNEW was always playing its unenthusiastic popular music.
Roberta’s duties were varied and many. Too many. The wash, the dishes, take the baby for a stroll, dust, vacuum, polish, with especial attention to the unplayed grand piano. She had to strip the Lacks’ bed every day and wash the sheets, towels and all the clothing. The towels were cream-colored and monogrammed, his in black, hers in brown. GWL, (George Washington Lacks)? Probably William. PPL. Easy, Plastic Phyllis. Every Saturday morning Phyllis stripped the bed herself, saying, “I took the sheet off for you today” in a matter-of-fact tone (without going so far as to put it in the washing machine), while Roberta would make appreciative grunts, wondering how Phyllis was not embarrassed that she knew exactly when the Lacks couple had made hanky-panky, picturing in her mind how awkward and unromantic their love-making must be.
Phyllis served Roberta lunch of macaroni with cottage cheese and ketchup every day and paid her $10 per week, which would add up to $80 for the summer’s job. This was an admirable income for a sixteen year old in the 1950’s.
On her first day out with baby Alfred, Roberta met Lizzie, another Mother’s Helper. Lizzie was plump to Roberta’s thinness, black to her blondness, outspoken to her shyness. Lizzie’s hair had never been cut and cascaded down to her backside in wavy disarray. Her charge was Johnny, who was at that moment shrieking his lungs out. Alfred opened an eye, looked his way, and went back to sleep. The girls continued to meet almost daily and Lizzie lectured Roberta on standing up to Phyllis’ demands. All Lizzie had to do was walk the baby and play with him. There was a maid who did all the other chores and she was paid $12 a week, rather than Roberta’s $10, and served steak for lunch, every day.
Alfred was plump, blond, freckled and calm, a clone of George, and Roberta hated him. He was so placid she sometimes had the feeling that she was pushing an empty carriage. And what a carriage – the Cadillac of baby carriages with intricate pearl inlay for Alfred to contemplate should he so desire, lying back on his silken yellow pillow, underneath his matching yellow satin blanket. The hood, to protect his pale skin from summer’s sun’s ravages, had yellow fringes and his mattress adjusted into a seat. When little Alfred’s eyelids drooped she quietly converted seat into bed and continued their walk.
All the babies in Roberta’s family, all the babies in Brooklyn, black, Hispanic, white, Oriental, howled in distress and in laughter, but this one was as bland as the plastic-covered living room or macaroni and cottage cheese without the ketchup.
On an afternoon off, Lizzie and Roberta took a bus to Jones’ Beach. She’s sophisticated, Roberta said about Phyllis. She’s a phony, Lizzie spat out as they stuffed hot dogs in their mouths and washed them down with coke. Nobody is so sterile, she’s hiding something. Roberta told Lizzie that she had nick-named the Lacks, the Plastics.
Lying on towels, passing males eyeing Lizzie a lot more than Roberta, Lizzie related that she lived in Queens in a dumpy but private house with two stories and creaky stairs in a family of five sisters and brothers, three dogs, nine cats, give or take. No one much supervised the children and Lizzie was street-wise. She paused, held up a middle finger to a teenage boy who came too close. Roberta found her fascinating and frightening and waited for their meetings like a diver waits for fresh air.
Thus passed the month of July. At the end of that month, Roberta’s parents came to visit with two generous fresh bakery rolls stuffed with lettuce, tomatoes and roast beef, smeared with ketchup, a bag of potato chips, cream soda. She ate one sandwich and put the other away in the bedside cabinet. Coming from a frugal family, Roberta ate the second sandwich the next day even though a tiny, really hardly discernable voice inside her told her to chuck it in the garbage. She walked little Alfred and met up with Lizzie, telling her she felt unwell. Maybe it’s your period, Lizzie empathized, relating that she had had a lot of pain following an abortion last year. Roberta was too sick to feel shocked but knew she should. Until now her most adventurous sexual experience had consisted of some mild necking in a drive-in with a boy who had bad breath. Back at the Lacks’ she was incapacitated with the tummy pain. She told Phyllis who expressed distanced sympathy and gave her the evening off. She was in horrid pain all night, vomited, ached.
By morning she was better and decided she’d ask Phyllis for an advance on her salary, which was anyhow due in two days’ time, as she wanted to buy a birthday gift for her Aunt Happy (Harriet, but Happy really suited her). Phyllis was talking on the phone so Roberta sank down on the sunken-living room steps, waiting. “The little bitch got ptomaine poisoning… (Ah, so that’s what it was!) “from that stupid sandwich her idiot mother brought her and I just know she was waiting for me to take her to a doctor (Oh, no, it never crossed my mind), but I’m not going to throw away $10 for a doctor’s visit….”. Phyllis’ carefully cultivated New England accent melted away like a hot wax mask as she slipped down the rungs of academia into Brooklyn-ese. Stupid was now “stooped”. That had become “dat”. Roberta sat in silent shock, the unwitting eaves-dropper, bewildered, embarrassed, not daring to move, strangely ashamed for Phyllis if she should spot her.
All the crudeness, anger and arguments of her family had never cast Roberta in such a black light, and for all their poverty, when anyone needed a doctor, the $10 was pulled out of a sock or an old tea-tin, as though a guardian angel had left it there for emergencies. Her parents even found money to pay for her weekly clarinet lessons, and for a brother’s guitar lessons.
Roberta’s mind conjured up poisoned arrows and here she got up quietly, tip-toed across the plush white carpet, went silently out the front door, wondering how Phyllis hadn’t seen her sitting there. Maybe she saw her get up to leave. Not important now, as she was at the phone booth, phoning Aunt Happy, who snorted up less than a half-hour later (as she lived in Jericho, yes, Jericho, Long Island, not too far away from Babylon), scooped up Roberta, the rest of the pay due, and whisked her back to the security of a messy one-bedroom argumentative apartment in an upper-lower class neighborhood in Brooklyn where she cried for three days until the family succeeded in comforting her.
Roberta and Lizzie never met again, but Roberta thought about her for many years, her only life-line during that July in 1956. She didn’t even know Lizzie’s last name.
To the Lacks she gave no thought at all, except when she had an out-of-the-ordinary painful tummy.