A corn muffin with honey on top? Good idea. A corn muffin with maple syrup on top? A great idea, though pricey. A corn muffin in my coffee thermos? I should have known better.
I sat down at my desk to contemplate one of my less industrious decisions in life and to wait for the teacher. Dodging thrown wads of paper while trying to down the brown chunky liquid, not successful. The thermos upended and landed square on Mr. Kantor’s freshly mended shirt. Mrs. Bernstein was going to flay my hide when she found out what happened. She’d also flay Aharon Bernstein’s hide for having thrown a wad of paper with a stone in it at the girl sitting on the other side of me, thereby causing my now corn muffin chunky coffee to seep down Mr. Kantor’s wardrobe.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Kantor!” I rushed to pull my handkerchief from my pocket, hoping forgiveness was in order if I helped out. Red built up around his hair line as I swatted off corn muffin crumbs and he glared at every other person in our one room school house. If he kept it up, he’d be the same shade of red as the smith’s forge down the street. That wouldn’t be good. Mr. Weinberg had already dealt with one heart attack this New Year, he would not be pleased to treat a second one.
“Ian Cimet, what is the meaning of throwing your offending breakfast at me this early in the morning! And the rest of you! What is all this paper all over my floors. Eliza, grab a broom and dust pan. Menachem, I saw you making your groups bits of ammo, you’ll be writing on the board when school lets out. One hundred times. ‘I am better than to follow my friends into delusional persuasions.’ Aharon, I saw your paper hit Ian. Don’t think I didn’t. Go, run home to your mother, tell her what you did, and come back here with a full set of clothes for me. We will be continuing lessons today!” Mr. Kantor sighed heavily in exasperation, snatched my handkercheif and proceeded to try cleaning himself while he got the first graders to the high schoolers all in on a full early spring cleaning of the school house.
I did not pity Aharon Bernstein, neither the blistering cold mile walk to his parent’s farmhouse outside on the other side of the hill, or the blistered butt and the sideways walk he possessed when he returned with a suitcase and luncheon for Mr. Kantor. I was sent to fetch firewood for the school stove and restock our rack in the classroom though, and that was cold enough work for me. I still had no coffee.
On my last trip, while others in the room were mopping and dusting, Eliza Ackerman stepped over to my side, her roll as sweeper over and whispered, “I-I wanted to say thank you, Ian, for keeping me from getting coffee all over me. Sorry you had to deal with Mr. Kantor yelling.”
“No worries, Eliza. Honest, I wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on,” I admitted, dropping the split wood in its holder. Shoving a few more sticks into the stove for good measure, I found Eliza still standing near me, chewing on the edge of her lower lip, her hands clasped behind her back as she watched the rest of the room get into the flow of cleaning while Mr. Kantor reviewed lessons with the younger children.
“What is it?” I whispered behind the woodstove. It wasn’t that Mr. Kantor was deaf to our murmurings, but with all the foot traffic, we could talk more than usual.
“Would you care to have dinner with my family tonight? As thanks? I mean, I would need to talk to mama about it first, but I can run back, your house is only a few miles from mine,” she rolled on the balls of her feet, causing the hem of her dress to swing back and forth over her boots.
“Really, Eliza, you don’t need to. It gets dark so soon out here, and I’m left to putting up Gertrude and Omah for my evening chores. If I were late getting back, they’d raise a racket to make the neighbors complain.” I had found blaming our family dairy cows for my inability to attend dinners an easy way to evade Eliza, Puah, and Devorah’s enamored efforts in introducing me to their families. I knew where that road went and I wasn’t interested. Not with any of the girls in my town.
Gideon Horowitz was the only one in my class that seemed to catch my fancy, and that was not a natural predilection to have, as was expressed vehemently in every church pulpit on Sunday that I had been subjected to. That being one in this town. Almost the entire rest of the class belonged to the synagogue. My feelings for Gideon was not something I would admit to anyone.
He occupied much of my scribbled charcoal drawings though. He had his eyes for Devorah and often talked of her while he sat as a model for me to practice. He had been the one to tell me to take my art and see if I could attend the University four towns over. With what money? I had asked him when he floated this idea one summer afternoon. He never faulted, instead encouraging me to go work with Mr. Walter’s at the chemist’s to make up posters for the town. Mr. Walter’s introduced me to lithography, and I found myself readily putting away funds for my University adventures well before I knew how to apply for admittance.
It wasn’t to say that I found all women unattractive in the same sense as I found Gideon attractive. I had seen the Sears catalogue at Christmas that my mother would spread out on the kitchen table for my older brother and younger sister and brother to admire with my father and I. This was the one time of year we would save much of the farm’s earnings for. Most of my classmates did not understand this infatuation with the holiday and I did not understand theirs, but we all understood the excitement of the Sears catalogue arriving at the post office.
There were a number of drawings of women in the catalogue that I did not find objectionable in the least. There were more men in them though that I found better to my taste and no one said a word if I pointed out the suit jacket or the tools associated with said individual for items that would be nice for father’s wardrobe or useful to our farm equipment.
“Will you two stop flirting with each other and return to your seats? Everyone else is finished!” Mr. Kantor reprimanded, driving Eliza and my attention from our argument of who was supposed to come to dinner and who was supposed to see to the family dairy cows.
“Sorry, Mr. Kantor,” Eliza and I said in hurried unison as I tugged the latch shut on the wood stove and we both slipped back onto our bench. Drawing out our drills from within our desks, the high schoolers began recitations. I was left to study my empty coffee cup, and contemplate last year’s catalogue, wondering where I would be this time next year to be reading it. This being my last year of school before applying to the University Gideon had pointed out to me.
Lunch was brief and at our seats as the driving sleet pelted our windows. Mr. Kantor’s attention had left him some time after we had finished with our questions on the subjective nature of Latin. He loved the language. We, as a whole, did not. He kept flicking questioning glances at the window the wind drove most prevalently against, watching the slick gloss of ice creep it’s way up the sash to see the window.
He had much to continue teaching us that afternoon, as he kept grumbling. I hoped he would push his way through, so that I could avoid a midafternoon walk ringed by Eliza, Puah, and Devorah, and receiving threatening glares from the rest of the boys in my grade level who all had eyes for the girls. University was sounding better by the minute.
“All right class, I am going to release you early.” Mr. Kantor’s pronouncement was buried under a torrid of thrilled yelling and the scratch and clump of feet and lunch baskets and slate tablets all being jostled about. He stared around in frustration while I waited patiently. How no one else had ever noticed that he would continue talking after this announcement after his three years of teaching here was beyond me, and him, obviously. “Silence!” he bellowed, drawing everyone into the chill threat of death their parents would bear down upon them if they heard word from Mr. Kantor about their misbehavings. “Thank you. As I was saying. You all have your chores at home to do. Due to the snow, I will also have you study the words you can find within your house and document it, bring it in to class in the morning for us to review your findings.”
He was come up with some kind of pig manure assignment to look like he was trying. We all knew it. So did he. Half of us who had access to paper and grease pencils would help out the other half who might not even have access to a proper wash basin. Some of us would advance our lives and go on to make something of ourselves in academia. Some of us were here until we could sign our names on documents so we could order fertilizer for our fields.
The sleet stung my ears. My empty thermos, tucked in my sack, clanked against the silverware at my back. Instead of heading home, I tracked around the back of the school house to the fire rick and brought in one more stack of wood while everyone else left. Eliza and Arahan ended up paired off, to her displeasure and his exuberant joy. I dragged in my load and deposited it in the school room, watching carefully for the others to find it too cold to hang around and stock me.
“Avoiding your fellow school mates, Cimet?” Mr. Kantor asked from his podium.
“I thought you’d like to have some more firewood for tomorrow morning and with it being early and all,” I deflected.
“You don’t get on well with the group here do you?” He persisted in this conversation.
“It’s not that I don’t get on with them, sir. It’s more that they’re families and mine aren’t quite the same, and that makes it difficult. I do wish that they would see that. Especially Eliza, sir. She’s persistent, but I can only imagine what her father would say if he found she was interested in a gentile.” I knocked the remainders of the paper and dust from the bin into a larger sheet of brown butcher paper and crimped it into a firestarter for the morning.
“It’s not that you are uninterested, it’s that you would keep them from that pain?” he mused. I shrugged. Let him think that. It was safer for me that way. To admit to who I was, that was not within me to do.
“I need to get home, probably. That or see if Mr. Walter has something I can do for him early. He had mentioned a new shipment needing new posters come next month. I could get ahead on that,” I mused, deflected, shut out the conversation that I’d rather not get trapped in. Easing back to the door I pulled on my hat and scarf. Touching the brim, I nodded to Mr. Kantor. “Have a good evening, sir. Arahon should be back to walk with you soon. Hopefully.” I pulled the door closed behind me to face the village in the valley of our mountains.