Chapter 7 – Hudson School
Take Him, He’s Yours
(© SK Figler, 2020)
Henry sat in the lobby of a hotel in New York City. He felt lost in the big dark leather chair. It had soft armrests he couldn’t reach from the middle. Well, he could reach one or the other, but he couldn’t touch both at the same time.
Mother was gone to get cigarettes and to call Bela and Cousin Skippy up in their room, because they were late. They were her friends from home when it was Rockville Centre. Men and women stood all around the lobby or sat in chairs like the one he was in. They talked and laughed and blew smoke into the air and looked at their hands. One woman looked at Henry and smiled and blew him a kiss. He guessed she liked his new sky blue coat and tie and knickers that Mother bought him yesterday after they checked in, which is what they call it when they give you your room key. He stood on the chair and tried to see if there were any other kids around. He didn’t see any, but some people were looking at him and laughing. He sat down.
Bela and Cousin Skippy came out of an elevator. They were arguing. They walked toward Henry but didn’t see him yet. He waved at them and was about to crawl out of the big chair when Skippy waved back and ran toward him. Her tall shoes clicked on the floor until she ran onto the red and gold rug. She yelled, “Oooh, you handsome little man. My dreamboat. Just the guy for me tonight.” That got some people laughing again, and pointing at Skippy this time. She was very pretty and famous.
His face and neck got hot and sweaty. He tried to shrink back into the seat, but he couldn’t. He just had to take her kisses and hugs. He liked Cousin Skippy but not all that sticky stuff she did. Bela, walked up behind Skippy, put her hands together and looked like she was praying to God.
Skippy picked Henry up and sat and put him on her lap and hugged him tight. She kissed him all over his face. She said, “I could just love you to death.” He needed to cough because of her sweet smell and the long brown hair he was buried in, but she was squeezing him so hard he couldn’t.
Bela said, “Stop already. Your lipstick! His face looks like he’s been in a street fight.”
Mother was back, blowing gray smoke into the air. “Skip, look what you’ve done. It took me half the afternoon to get him clean.” Mother had scrubbed him so hard the wash cloth hurt.
“I couldn’t help myself. He has such perfect skin.”
Bela said, “What do you expect? He’s a baby.”
“I’m n-n-n-n-not a baby.” He made an angry face like a man.
“No, you’re right, Henry,” Mother said. “Only seven more years til your bar mitzvah.” Bela and Skippy laughed at him. He didn’t like being laughed at.
“I want kids so bad,” Skippy said. “Two boys, then maybe a girl to pal around with in my wrinkly, flabby, wire-haired dotage when nobody wants me on the runway anymore.” She looked down at Henry and seemed sad. “Ben doesn’t want any, even if we get married.”
“Take him, he’s all yours,” Mother said. “I’ll send his things.” She took another long puff. Henry looked at her, but she was mashing out her cigarette in the yellow metal thing next to the chair. Skippy squeezed Henry more. Bela rubbed his hair.
“I’ll take Henry to the Ladies and clean up his face,” said Bela.
“How are my lips?” said Skippy.
“Not bad,” said Mother. “Like the morning after. Some men like the look.”
“What is wrong with you!” Bela said to Mother
“Reminds me,” said Skippy. “I got the tenor sax for later. But I have to leave him a note.” She stood and set Henry on the chair and walked away with her long steps.
“Your face is a mess,” said Mother to her back, but Skippy was already clicking on the hard floor toward the place where people checked in.
“Don’t worry about her,” said Bela. “As pretty as she is, men don’t look much above her chest. She could have the entire band.”
“She stays away from the drummer, he’s mine,” said Mother. “I told her already.”
“Okay, I get it,” said Bela. “I’m Sadie the married lady. So Fanny Brice takes care of this darling young man while the single and about-to-be-single girls have fun with the big boys. At least I’ll get more sleep than you two and won’t wake with a hangover.”
Mother followed Skippy to the big desk. Bela helped Henry out of the chair and took him by the hand past the elevators into a Ladies. She sat him by the sinks and washed his face and pulled her fingers through his hair. Another lady clicked in and looked at them and said, “Lucky you.” Henry didn’t know whether she was talking to him or Bela.
“Let’s you and me go to the coffee shop,” Bela said.
* * * * *
“I can’t drink coffee,” said Henry.
“I bet you can drink cherry Coke or an egg cream.”
“Can I have both?”
“Try one at a time, okay?”
“Okay, but I’m also hungry.”
“You’re an expensive date. I hope you’re worth it.”
Bela looked at the menu. She licked her lips. Henry looked at the menu, too. He could read most of it. Mother always said not to pick the most expensive thing, which was okay because he usually didn’t like the most expensive things. A skinny waitress stopped at their table and looked down at him and said, “What’ll it be, Bub?”
“H-h-h-h. . .” He tried again, “H-h-h-h…”
“Ham and cheese?” the waitress said.
Henry really wanted a hamburger, but he nodded.
“Rye or wheat? American or Swiss? Toast or plain?”
All his air was gone. He tried to take in a lot, but he only got a little.
“I got other tables, dearie.”
“He’ll have rye toast, crispy-dark, with Gulden’s on both sides, and Swiss.”
“You know your kid, lady. What’s for you?
“I’m not his momma,” Bela said. “I stole him.”
“You got good taste,” the waitress said. “What’s for you?”
“I’ll have coffee regular, very hot, and a bowl of lettuce, small, no dressing. I’m trying to lose. And egg cream for my date, here.”
She walked away fast.
“What are you trying to lose?” Henry said. “People don’t try to lose things. They just have to find them again.”
“Weight, dahlink. Your mother doesn’t have to lose weight. Since high school she’s been lucky that way.”
“Why do you have to lose weight?”
“When you grow up you’ll know, sweetie.”
The waitress came back with the egg cream and the coffee.
Bela sighed. “I’d like a hamburger, too, with double french fries, but I’m not going to have it. Bring maybe some orange slices, with Melba Toast. You have Melba Toast?
“Can I have a cherry Coke, too?” Henry said.
“A man of certain desires,” said Bela.
“The way I like ‘em,” said the waitress, and walked away with the menus.
“When you grow up, pal,” said Bela, “you’re going to be tough on girls.”
“Why?” said Henry.
“Listen,” said Bela, “we have to talk.” Henry figured she’d ask him about Hudson School, which he didn’t want to talk about.
“Your mother is going through hard times. You know what’s going on, don’t you?”
“D-d-divorce, I guess,” said Henry. “Is th-th-that what you m-m-mean?”
She stared at Henry, said, “Oh, you poor kid.” She blew on the coffee and took a long drink, scrunching up her face. Maybe it was too hot.
“Yeah divorce, and all that means. A new life and all. You and Jacob will be part of it, but not all of it.” Henry stopped trying to take the paper off his straw. Bela took it and pulled off part of the paper and said, “Watch this. Look at the window.” Henry could see the two of them in the black window and the counter with the stools and their waitress. Bela put the straw up to her mouth and blew. The paper tube hit the window and dropped onto the table.
“Mother won’t let Jacob and me do that,” he said.
“Try to stay ahead of kids,” Bela said to herself, but Henry could hear. “What I’m trying to say is you boys have to understand it’s a tough time for your mother. Sometimes she’ll say things she doesn’t really mean.”
“Like in the lobby?” Henry said.
“Yes, like in the lobby. She loves you and Jacob very, very much and would not under any circumstance give you away. Even to me or Skippy.”
“So, why are we in Hudson School when she’s in Florida?”
“It’s complicated. The law and things. Let’s just say that Florida law is easier for what she needs to do.”
“What does she need to do?”
“Oh, boy. It’s the divorce thing. Didn’t she explain that to you?”
“No. She said Father would. It was his job.”
“He said he would, one of those days.”
“Which days? I don’t understand.”
“I don’t either. But that’s no different than most of the time.”
“Oh, Henry, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“No, I mean the situation you’re in. Hudson School and all.” She poked around in her lettuce and finally stabbed a piece and put it in her mouth. She chewed a very long time but the top of her face looked like she was thinking. He pulled off the top piece of rye and tried to take the cheese off, but it slipped from his fingers.
“Use your fork, Henry.”
“Another eating rule?” he said.
“Yes. Some don’t make sense, but they’re the rules. Henry, I have to ask you something else.” He tried to scrape off the cheese with his fork, but that seemed harder than with his fingers. But rules were rules.”
“Henry, how come, I mean, why do you have trouble speaking with other people but not with me mostly?”
He worked hard at scraping the cheese from the ham. He wished she would say something else, because he didn’t know the answer. He only knew that he didn’t have trouble with her or with Jacob, and that he had never thought about it, and thinking about it, maybe he’d start having trouble talking to them, too.
“Why does she say, ‘You’re just like your father.’”
“Your mother? She says that to you?”
“No, to Jacob. It makes him sad. I watch him, and I can tell.”
“I can well imagine,” said Bela. “I’ll talk to her about it.”
“Don’t say I said anything.”
“Of course not, sweetie.”
The waitress came back, put a big bowl of greens and carrots and celery with orange slices in front of her. She looked at Henry. “You finish that sandwich, hon, I’ll bring you another for free.”
Bela leaned over the table and said, “Henry, I have to ask you something very, very important.” It looked like she wanted to cry. “Henry, may I have a bite of your sandwich? Please?”
“Don’t take too much,” he said.