by Ronna Wineberg
Following is an excerpt from Ronna Wineberg’s debut novel, On Bittersweet Place, recently published by Relegation Press.
We had all come from Russia when I was ten. That is what I told everyone I met in Chicago, as if we’d decided to come here and we did, as if we’d planned our journey with excitement, packed our suitcases, and then boarded the ship. I said my old life was in the past. I couldn’t bear to tell the truth. That we—my mother and my brother, Simon, my Uncle Maurice and Uncle William—had crawled out of Russia like rats from inside the forest, on the damp dirt and prickly weeds, afraid if we were discovered, we would be shot like my grandfather had been. As if he were cattle being slaughtered by a shochet. “Drunken Cossacks. Petlurias. Peasants. They murdered him,” my mother had cried. “They hate us. Hate Jews.” She had dressed me in a red velvet dress and Simon in a red wool jacket a few weeks after my grandfather died, and we marched in a parade to show we believed in the Bolshevik government.
But still we weren’t safe. Cossacks roamed the streets. My uncles began to sell flour and sugar in Kiev. They rode on the roof of a train to the city, bought a loaf of bread, dug out the inside, and stuffed the money they earned there. They covered the money with bread, so they wouldn’t be robbed. We saved all the money we could, until finally we fled in the darkness, into the forest, leaving our white wooden house by the lake.
We slept during the day and pushed ahead at night, on foot and in a wagon. My mother bribed the guards at the Russian border. The Polish guards demanded money, too. We waited in Poland ten months while she and my uncles worked and saved. Then we sailed on the dirty, crowded ship that brought us to America, where I saw my father again.
I didn’t tell anyone that my father had left Belilovka in 1914. I was two years old. After he left, the war began, and we didn’t see him for eight years. I didn’t mention I had no memory of him. Or that my grandfather had owned a flour mill and a place for fishing on the lake. He employed three hundred peasants. On New Year’s Eve, he gave a party for them all. I didn’t explain that he was a learned and respected man, and that after the czar was overthrown, the peasants shouted, “Peace, land, and bread. Kill Jews and save Russia.” Our family lost everything. Eighteen relatives of my father’s and mother’s were killed, too, people I was too young to remember.
Nor did I explain that on our journey to Poland I had dropped my shoe and lost it. I cried so bitterly that the man who drove us in the wagon wanted to leave me in the forest with the wolves. I never told anyone that Uncle William had clamped his hand against my mouth to muffle my cries and convinced the man to let me stay. I didn’t mention we had to leave my grandmother and aunt in Belilovka. They came to Chicago on their own difficult journey. And I didn’t tell anyone that my parents argued loudly in Yiddish at night now. Or that my mother sometimes wept as she sat at her sewing machine in the small bedroom where she worked on the mending she did for pay.
I never explained this about my family. I never explained the past. I smiled instead.
It was enough that anyone who visited us saw that my parents, my brother and I, and my two uncles lived in a tiny apartment, crammed together like the sardines Uncle Maurice ate for breakfast. My family spoke with raw, choppy accents. In the evening Uncle William sang Ochi Chyornye and other sad Russian songs.
Once, and only once, I brought home a friend from school. She had blue eyes and silky blond hair. “This is where you live?” Mary Hall asked as we climbed the stairs in the dusty stairwell. I nodded as we walked into the dim square apartment entry. She gazed at the scratched wooden floor, at the yellowed photograph of my grandfather hanging on the wall, in his black coat and tall black yarmulke, with his long, dark beard. She inhaled the sharp scent of boiled cabbage and onions. She winced.
“Yes,” I said uneasily. “We live here.”
She glanced at the glass cup with the golden handle and the chipped blue porcelain ballerina. My mother had carried these with her from Russia. They sat displayed on the small wobbly table in our entry. Then Mary Hall stared down the narrow hallway that led to the bedrooms. Pairs of old shoes stood lined there, like tired brothers, one next to the other. She giggled. “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m laughing about. Let’s go in.”
“No, wait here,” I stammered. My face felt hot with shame. I ran to my desk to find the assignment for school she had asked to borrow.
“Oh, no,” Mary Hall said. “I’ll visit another time.”
But I knew she wouldn’t. I pulled open the door and watched her leave. I longed to be like her and the other girls at school, with their beautiful blond hair. They were lucky. Blessed to have grown up in one place. They had no problems. But I was nothing like them at all.
Every night, our living room was filled with landsleit—countrymen, who also came from Russia—and with my mother’s family. The room burst with conversation and noise. It seemed to me that my father had married not only my mother, but her family, too. He had come to Chicago in 1914 because his cousin lived here, but the cousin later moved away. My father’s relatives lived in New Jersey, and his parents had died before I was born, but my mother was the oldest of six, with three brothers and two sisters.
Evenings, I sat at my desk, the wide wooden board balanced on two crates. I tried to concentrate on schoolwork. But the noise interrupted me. My father had built Simon a desk, too, in the opposite corner from mine. Simon’s desk was usually empty. He was fifteen, two years older than I was, and he came home late every night. He did his school assignments in the bedroom, sitting on the floor. He insisted on being alone, although I begged him to let me join him.
While the landsleit talked and smoked cigarettes, I perched in my corner and planned my secret future. I would become a great artist, I vowed to myself, and find a grand love. He and I would run away together and live where it was silent and safe and beautiful. We wouldn’t argue like my parents did. We would earn money, and I could help my family. We would never set foot on Bittersweet Place again.
Truthfully, I didn’t know where I’d find this grand love. And I didn’t know if I could draw. But I was determined to try.
Uncle Abie Rubolsky, my mother’s brother, often came to our apartment. He was heavy, with a big belly and narrow eyes like slits. He loved to drink whiskey and schnapps. Aunt Ida, his wife, visited, too. Thin, with sunken brown eyes like craters and a small nose, she lounged on our old blue sofa, reciting poetry in a wobbly voice. She always carried a book, written in Russian or English. Aunt Feyga, who had stayed behind in Russia with my grandmother, joined us. She had scraggly gray hair and large uneven breasts that heaved when she laughed. My mother brought sewing into our living room and stitched clothing there and talked.
But my grandmother didn’t visit us. She lived with Aunt Feyga now and was old and tired. She never left her apartment at night.
Neighbors stopped by, too, like Mr. Usher Cohen, a short, sour man with an arrogant manner, a man who, my father said, was a great success in business. Mr. Cohen had small green eyes and wide, chapped lips. He was rich, and I envied this. He wore trousers and vests of fine wools and soft cottons. But he had only one hand, the left one. He’d lost the other in an accident in a lumber mill in Russia. Even so, he played cards at our apartment. I tried not to stare at his smooth right stump. He and Uncle Maurice insisted on playing for money. My father refused. Whiskey and schnapps and vodka, the snap of pinochle cards, the smells of onions and shmaltz rose in the rooms. Uncle William sang in his sweet, mournful voice. He wanted to become a singer. We were his audience.
In our family, each person was so different, one from the other. Sometimes I sat at my desk and looked around the living room. What was each person’s true nature? I wondered. What did they think in their hearts? What made Uncle Abie speak in a booming voice and Uncle William sing? Why did Aunt Ida always read a book? All of this made me question what my own true nature was and what kind of journey I’d have to take to find out. I wanted to put everyone and every object on paper. My father’s crown of wavy red hair. My mother’s sad brown eyes. Simon’s confident smile. The tall brass lamp with its bright white pleated shade, like a flapper’s skirt.
When I tried to draw Aunt Feyga’s plump face or the long, slouching shape of the blue sofa and its round, shadowy arms instead of doing schoolwork, my mother somehow knew. “Stop staring and making useless marks on paper, Lena,” she said, standing at my desk.
“They’re not useless,” I muttered. “They’re art.”
Uncle William was my mother’s youngest brother, and I loved him dearly, not only for putting his hand over my mouth on the wagon that terrible night in Russia, but because of the way he spoke to me and looked at me, with kindness, as though he understood the real me, my true nature, saw what was in my heart. Uncle Maurice had none of William’s sweetness.
In Russia, Uncle Maurice had worked in the lumber mill. He drank whiskey with Cossacks. His name had been Moshe Rubolsky there, but now that we lived in America, he insisted the family call him Maurice. “The name is French,” he explained. “In America, my name is Maurice Roberts.” His voice was deep, as if he were a radio announcer. His coarse brown mustache spilled over his lips. He wore his sandy hair slicked back. Uncle Maurice’s smile was wide, his teeth large and uneven. Those on the bottom were stained yellow. He brushed them often to try to polish them.
He went out with one lady friend after another. The women he brought to the apartment had big breasts and wore tight wool sweaters and touched my uncle’s hand.
My mother often looked at her brother with impatience. “Be a mensch,” she told Uncle Maurice when he stumbled into the apartment reeking of the same terrible smells, drinking with women instead of Cossacks. “Be a mensch to those women and grow up for God’s sake.”
But my mother loved her family, especially her brothers. One night she was talking to Uncle Maurice in the living room. I was at my desk. The others were in the kitchen. The living room was drafty, and the radiator clanked and spewed out heat.
“Reesa,” Uncle Maurice was saying. “I know how we can make money. You must trust me. I can lift us out of this awful life. I promise you.”
I glanced up. His eyes were green, the color of spring leaves, and his smile seemed to charm my mother and sometimes even me.
My mother frowned and shook her head.
“Make her listen to me, Lena,” he called out.
“She is listening,” I said.
“No. Make her do what I say.” He turned to my mother.
I went back to my history book.
“What’s the worry?” he said to her. “I’ll talk to Chaim. I have a plan. Aren’t you my sister, my blood? I want the best for you, for everyone. I want to help the family.”
“Stop your dreams, Maurice. Work at the laundry more. That is how you will help the family.”
“I’m going to do better things with my life than that.”
He worked in the family business, the Granville Laundry. My father and the other relatives worked there, too.
“I do not want to hear your stories, Maurice,” my mother said. She placed a hand on top of his. “You, of all of us, are made for this new country. America is like the finest piece of clothing and fits you perfectly. William has a soft soul, and for him, I worry. But you. You are smart. Strong. Brash. Use your luck.”
“Not luck. Skill, I have skill. Reesa, Reesa. You don’t see the world for what it is.”
“I see more than I want to.”
“So we have the Prohibition here? I bring you whiskey and vodka and schnapps when Chaim cannot get them—things you can’t buy in a store.”
“You do. And I do not ask where you find these things.”
“In America there is always a way to solve a problem. Even so, our father would never want us to live this life. Like beggars. Stinking beggars. He turns over in his grave. I hear him grumble at night. But enough. Let’s go to the kitchen for more vodka and schnapps.”
“Lena,” my mother said, as if she’d just realized I was in the room, too. “Go to bed.”
Ronna Wineberg is the author of On Bittersweet Place, which is her first novel, and a debut collection, Second Language, which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition, and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. Her stories have appeared in American Way, Colorado Review, South Dakota Review and elsewhere, and been broadcast on National Public Radio. She is the recipient of a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and residencies to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Ragdale foundation. She has been awarded a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She is the founding fiction editor of the Bellevue Literary Review, and lives in New York.