BY JUNE WOLFMAN
Copyright is held by the author.
Ruth gripped her Green Card in both hands. The card seemed flimsy considering all it could do and all it cost. Would they hand it back to her after inspecting it? In the government office, Ruth began to sweat. Sweat rolled down her back and sides, cold against her hot skin. She had handed in her official papers weeks ago. Now for the interview.
When you are short and dumpily and greying, Ruth thought, government people see you as a . . . nothing. You are a ghost almost. They seem to see right through you . . . as if you were barely there . . . as if your time was running down and you were probably feeble-minded. But Ruth knew her hair was grey before its time. She was but 44. Maybe that is best in life, she thought, let the government people not see her; let her pass like a harmless ghost.
Ruth snapped into the past, as she often did, while at the same time clinging to the present and desperately trying not to think back. She was on the line at the camp being sent to the right. She did not stand out as sick or old then. She did not stand out. The Nazi soldier pulled her by the arm to the right. To the right was life. Ruth dragged herself back into the present. Yes, she thought, bringing her labored breathing under control, maybe sometimes it’s better for them to believe the lie . . . the lie that there is nothing to see.
A few minutes later in the government office, a young woman with dimples named Mrs. Leonard called Ruth to her window. Medical care was discussed. The woman asked for the Green Card, then placed it carelessly on the desk next to her typewriter. It nearly fell on the floor, but the woman snatched it in time. Ruth had a stomach ache now. She needed help with medical care, but she did not want them to look into her situation too closely. She had lied about her nationality and ethnicity in her Green Card application. She didn’t tell them she was Jewish from Poland. When she told them that on two prior boat trips to Ellis Island, they sent her back. So now she was from somewhere else. She was always afraid someone would speak to her in Spanish, as it was a Spanish-speaking country on her Green Card. She pretended to be a little deaf.
The woman took out a form in triplicate and scrolled it into her typewriter. She typed the information from Ruth’s Green Card and then asked, “You have no medical insurance through your work?”
“No,” said Ruth loudly, as if she were hard of hearing.
“But you work in a hospital? I’m told they give health insurance.” The woman pushed her eyeglasses down to see Ruth better. Ruth pushed her own glasses down to eye the woman.
“No, no medical insurance,” shouted Ruth.
“You do not qualify, but you have a son?”
“Yes, I put his name and age on the form. He is a good boy. He goes to a science school. Passed a very hard test to go there,” Ruth forgot to yell.
“All right Mrs. Morales. Your son qualifies. You do not qualify.”
Ruth realized she was dismissed, but she made sure to get her Green Card back. She rose and walked on the beige, close-cropped carpet and looked at the walls, dirty with fingerprints and palm prints and with posters like, “Don’t forget to take a number when you arrive,” and “Bring all important documents!” Ruth noticed the ceilings were exceptionally low. They glowed white with florescent bulbs, bare, no covering. She realized she would have to do without the medical care that she needed. No money for the doctor.
All of a sudden Ruth felt an awareness of something like armour on her skin protecting her from the depression that was seeping in. It was as if her skin protected her from everything scary there. She closed her eyes and remembered her childhood home in Poland: a sprawling house, horses, her own car (which she could never seem to learn how to drive). She saw her father, a judge, coming home, wearing a yarmulke. Her mother came into view bringing out dish after dish of stew and potatoes and slaw and pickled things. It was all there: the huge windows in the house, the tiny crack in the oak front door. That is where she was really from, where she really lived. Her life there gave her a protection on her skin, like armour. Only so much sadness could penetrate. Ruth left the government office in a daze of memory, but she felt her home in Poland in and over her skin.
Back at her apartment, Ruth thought about a carnival and Ferris wheel at Coney Island. Ruth would take her son, Harry, pensive and smarty pants though he was. He was 13, so he would feel too old to go. But Ruth longed for the childish joy at Coney Island, and this was her one day off every two weeks.
It was a sweltering summer day. She had two fans going in the room. Harry would be at the library reading a book from the list she gave him, but Ruth so wanted to go to Coney Island.
Finally, Harry arrived home to their one-room apartment in Queens, his mattress on the floor against one wall, hers against the opposite wall, a desk and chair, and a small table and chairs by the sink.
“We will take the subway, not the bus,” said Ruth to Harry.
She began stuffing her flowered swim suit and Harry’s swim shorts into a bag.
“We will swim right by the lifeguard,” Ruth continued.
“It’s too hot to go,” said Harry.
Ruth shifted toward the sink. I will tell the lifeguard that Harry and I are only wading and cannot swim very well and could he keep one eye on us. We will have hotdogs and Coca-Cola. Ride the Ferris wheel.
“The subway will be like an arm pit,” continued Harry. “And you will put our money inside your shoe for safety. Then you will hand the smelly money to me to pay for food.”
“Bulbulka, there are thieves everywhere,” said Ruth.
At Coney Island, Harry did not want to put on his bathing shorts. He did not want to go on the Ferris wheel with her. He was in one of his moods where he looked at her as his nearly-past, and he was ready to move to his soon-future.
Ruth looked at Harry. He was born in New York. What kind of armour was on his skin? Would every sadness penetrate? He had that she loved him. He just had his bar mitzvah, free at the Hassidic place. He had that he was a Jew. He had that he was a smarty pants. He had stories from before the war and the family then. Will all of that encase him solidly?
They tried to kill her, but she was protected by a thousand Friday-night dinners with courses of food, rides on horses, embraces from her parents. Now she had her smarty-pants son who was picked for the science school, who was reading Grapes of Wrath and talked to her about her views on the capitalist conspiracies against the workers. Excellent, she thought. But her Harry, did he have enough armour over his skin? Did he have the sense that he had been protected throughout his youth, and therefore an assumption that he was unable to be defeated?
“Come with me on the big wheel!” said Ruth.
“Oh God,” said Harry.
“Come Bubbulkah!” said Ruth.
They stood in line. Ruth sweat in the heat. The sweat rolling down her back reminded her of the government office, and then the undertow of her memories came back and pulled her under. She was in a line. Her best friend was pulled left. Left. Left was death. She heard her friend tell her something urgently, but she could not make out the words. The words were lost. She was pulled right. She was pulled right, and she felt the armour on her skin.
“Hop in lady!” said the Coney Island worker. Ruth was sucked back into the present.
“Come Bubbulka and sit next to me,” Ruth said.
“Okay,” mumbled Harry, and he sat next to his mother on the Ferris wheel.
The wheel swung them up. Ruth could see the whole beach for miles in each direction. Harry gazed at the water. He grinned. Maybe this would be part of the armour on his skin?
Ruth looped her arm through Harry’s arm. Harry shrunk back. This was her great thing, this boy . . . this smarty-pants boy. He looked like his grandfather, though he would never know his grandfather.
The Ferris wheel sped up. Ruth called into the wind in Yiddish. Harry did not know what she was yelling. Ruth hoped the sea air, the view so far spreading out in front of them, being together — she hoped the moment attached itself, like armour, to his skin.
June Wolfman is a teacher and a lawyer. She is also in her second year of a Master’s program in Creative Writing and English. She published a short story on July 31 of this year entitled A Singular Man, in the web journal Fiction on the Web,