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Humoresque; a laugh on life with a tear behind it online

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[See page 40







Copyright, 1919, by Harper & Brothers

Printed in the United States of America

Published March, 1919


Daniel Frohman








"HEADS" 170






ON either side of the Bowery, which cuts through
like a drain to catch its sewage, Every Man's
Land, a reeking march of humanity and humidity,
steams with the excrement of seventeen languages,
flung in patois from tenement windows, fire-escapes,
curbs, stoops, and cellars whose walls are terrible
and spongy with fungi.

By that impregnable chemistry of race whereby
the red blood of the Mongolian and the red blood
of the Caucasian become as oil and water in the
mingling, Mulberry Street, bounded by sixteen lan-
guages, runs its intact Latin length of push-carts,
clothes-lines, naked babies, drying vermicelli; black-
eyed women in rhinestone combs and perennially
big with child; whole families of buttonhole-makers,
who first saw the blue-and-gold light of Sorrento,
bent at home work round a single gas flare ; pomaded
barbers of a thousand Neapolitan amours. And
then, just as suddenly, almost without osmosis and
by the mere stepping down from the curb, Mulberry
becomes Mott Street, hung in grill-work balconies,
the moldy smell of poverty touched up with incense.
Orientals whose feet shuffle and whose faces are


carved out of satinwood. Forbidden women, their
white, drugged faces behind upper windows. Yellow
children, incongruous enough in Western clothing.
A draughty area way with an oblique of gaslight and
a black well of descending staircase. Show-windows
of jade and tea and Chinese porcelains.

More streets emanating out from Mott like a hand-
ful of crooked rheumatic fingers, then suddenly the
Bowery again, cowering beneath Elevated trains,
where men burned down to the butt end of soiled
lives pass in and out and out and in of the knee-
high swinging doors, a veiny-nosed, acid-eaten race
in themselves.

Allen Street, too, still more easterly, and half as
wide, is straddled its entire width by the steely,
long-legged skeleton of Elevated traffic, so that its
third-floor windows no sooner shudder into silence
from the rushing shock of one train than they are
shaken into chatter by the passage of another.
Indeed, third-floor dwellers of Allen Street, reaching
out, can almost touch the serrated edges of the
Elevated structure, and in summer the smell of its
hot rails becomes an actual taste in the mouth.
Passengers, in turn, look in upon this horizontal
of life as they whiz by. Once, in fact, the blurry
figure of what might have been a woman leaned
out, as she passed, to toss into one Abrahm Kantor's
apartment a short-stemmed pink carnation. It hit
softly on little Leon Kantor's crib, brushing him
fragrantly across the mouth and causing him to
pucker up.

Beneath, where even in August noonday, the


sun cannot find its way by a chink, and babies lie
stark naked in the cavernous shade, Allen Street
presents a sort of submarine and greenish gloom, as
if its humanity were actually moving through a sea
of aqueous shadows, faces rather bleached and
shrunk from sunlessness as water can bleach and
shrink. And then, like a shimmering background
of orange-finned and copper-flanked marine life, the
brass-shops of Allen Street, whole rows of them, burn
flamelessly and without benefit of fuel.

To enter Abrahm Kantor's Brasses, was three
steps down, so that his casement show-window, at
best filmed over with the constant rain of dust
ground down from the rails above, was obscure
enough, but crammed with copied loot of khedive
and of czar. The seven-branch candlestick so
biblical and supplicating of arms. An urn, shaped
like Rebecca's, of brass, all beaten over with little
pocks. Things cups, trays, knockers, ikons, gar-
goyles, bowls, and teapots. A symphony of bells in
graduated sizes. Jardinieres with fat sides. A pot-
bellied samovar. A swinging-lamp for the dead,
star-shaped. Against the door, an octave of tubular
chimes, prisms of voiceless harmony and of heatless

Opening this door, they rang gently, like melody
heard through water and behind glass. Another bell
rang, too, in tilted singsong from a pulley operating
somewhere in the catacomb rear of this lambent vale
of things and things and things. In turn, this
pulley set in toll still another bell, two flights up in
Abrahm Kantor's tenement, which overlooked the



front of whizzing rails and a rear wilderness of gibbet-
looking clothes-lines, dangling perpetual specters of
flapping union suits in a mid-air flaky with soot.

Often at lunch, or even the evening meal, this bell
would ring in on Abrahm Kantor's digestive well-
being, and while he hurried down, napkin often bib-
fashion still about his neck, and into the smouldering
lanes of copper, would leave an eloquent void at the
head of his well-surrounded table.

This bell was ringing now, jingling in upon the
slumber of a still newer Kantor, snuggling peace-
fully enough within the ammoniac depths of a
cradle recently evacuated by Leon, heretofore im-
pinged upon you.

On her knees before an oven that billowed forth
hotly into her face, Mrs. Kantor, fairly fat and
not yet forty, and at the immemorial task of plumb-
ing a delicately swelling layer-cake with broom-
straw, raised her face, reddened and faintly moist.

"Isadore, run down and say your papa is out
until six. If it's a customer, remember the first
asking-price is the two middle figures on the tag,
and the last asking-price is the two outside figures.
See once, with your papa out to buy your little
brother his birthday present, and your mother in a
cake, if you can't make a sale for first price."

Isadore Kantor, aged eleven and hunched with a
younger Kantor over an oilcloth-covered table,
hunched himself still deeper in a barter for a large
crystal marble with a candy stripe down its center.

"Izzie, did you hear me?"

"Yes'm." '



"Go down this minute do you hear? Rudolph,
stop always letting your big brother get the best of
you in marbles. Iz-zie!"


"Don't let me have to ask you again, Isadore

"Aw, ma, I got some 'rithmetic to do. Let
Esther go!"

"Always Esther! Your sister stays right in the
front room with her spelling."

"Aw, ma, I got spelling, too."

"Every time I ask that boy he should do me one
thing, right away he gets lessons! With me, that
lessons-talk don't go no more. Every time you
get put down in school, I'm surprised there's a place
left lower where they can put you. Working-papers
for such a boy like you ! "

"I'll woik "

"How I worried myself! Violin lessons yet
thirty cents a lesson out of your papa's pants while
he slept! That's how I wanted to have in the
family a profession maybe a musician on the violin !
Lessons for you out of money I had to lie to your
papa about! Honest, when I think of it my own
husband it's a wonder I don't potch you just for
remembering it. Rudolph, will you stop licking
that cake-pan? It's saved for your little brother
Leon. Ain't you ashamed even on your little
brother's birthday to steal from him?"

"Ma, gimme the spoon?"

"I'll give you the spoon, Isadore Kantor, where
you don't want it. If you don't hurry down, the



way that bell is ringing, not one bite do you
get out of your little brother's birthday-cake

"I'm goin', ain't I?"

"Always on my children's birthdays a meanness
sets into this house! Ru-dolph, will you put down
that bowl! Iz-zie for the last time I ask you
for the last time "

Erect now, Mrs. Kantor lifted an expressive hand,
letting it hover.

"I'm goin', ma; for golly sakes, I'm goin'!" said
her recalcitrant one, shuffling off toward the stair-
case, shuffling, shuffling.

Then Mrs. Kantor resumed her plumbing, and
through the little apartment, its middle and only
bedroom of three beds and a crib lighted vicariously
by the front room and kitchen, began to wind the
warm, the golden-brown fragrance of cake in the

By six o'clock the shades were drawn against the
dirty dusk of Allen Street and the oilcloth-covered
table dragged out center and spread by Esther
Kantor, nine in years, in the sturdy little legs
bulging over shoe-tops, in the pink cheeks that
sagged slightly of plumpness, and in the utter
roundness of face and gaze, but mysteriously older
in the little-mother lore of crib and knee-dandling
ditties and in the ropy length and thickness of the
two brown plaits down her back.

There was an eloquence to that waiting, laid-out
table, the print of the family already gathered
about it; the dynastic high chair, throne of each



succeeding Kantor; an armchair drawn up before
the paternal mustache-cup; the ordinary kitchen
chair of Mannie Kantor, who spilled things, an oil-
cloth sort of bib dangling from its back; the little
chair of Leon Kantor, cushioned in an old family
album that raised his chin above the table. Even in
cutlery the Kantor family was not lacking in variety.
Surrounding a centerpiece of thick Russian lace
were Russian spoons washed in washed-off gilt; forks
of one, two, and three tines; steel knives with black
handles; a hartshorn carving-knife. Thick-lipped
china in stacks before the armchair. A round four-
pound loaf of black bread waiting to be torn, and
to-night, on the festive mat of cotton lace, a cake of
pinkly gleaming icing, encircled with five pink little

At slightly after six Abrahm Kantor returned,
leading by a resisting wrist Leon Kantor, his stemlike
little legs, hit midship, as it were, by not sufficiently
cut-down trousers and so narrow and birdlike of
face that his eyes quite obliterated the remaining
map of his features, like those of a still wet nestling.
All except his ears. They poised at the sides of
Leon's shaved head of black bristles, as if butterflies
had just lighted there, whispering, with very spread
wings, their message, and presently would fly off
again. By some sort of muscular contraction
he could wiggle these ears at will, and would do so
for a penny or a whistle, and upon one occasion for
his brother Rudolph's dead rat, so devised as to
dangle from string and window before the unhappy
passer-by. They were quivering now, these ears,
2 7


but because the entire little face was twitching back
tears and gulp of sobs.

"Abrahm Leon what is it?" Her hands and
her forearms instantly out from the business of
kneading something meaty and floury, Mrs. Kantor
rushed forward, her glance quick from one to the
other of them. "Abrahm, what's wrong?"

"I'll feedle him! I'll feedle him!"

The little pulling wrist still in clutch, Mr. Kantor
regarded his wife, the lower half of his face, well
covered with reddish bristles, undershot, his free
hand and even his eyes violently lifted. To those
who see in a man a perpetual kinship to that animal
kingdom of which he is supreme, there was some-
thing undeniably anthropoidal about Abrahrn Kan-
tor, a certain simian width between the eyes and
long, rather agile hands with hairy backs.

"Hush it!" cried Mr. Kantor, his free hand raised
in threat of descent, and cowering his small son
to still more undersized proportions. "Hush it or,
by golly! I'll"

"Abrahm Abrahm what is it?"

Then Mr. Kantor gave vent in acridity of word
and feature.

"Schlemmil!' 1 he cried. "Momser! Ganejl Nebich!"
by which, in smiting mother tongue, he branded his
offspring with attributes of apostate and ne'er-do-
well, of idiot and thief.


"Schlemmil!' 1 repeated Mr. Kantor, swinging
Leon so that he described a large semicircle that
landed him into the meaty and waiting embrace of



his mother. "Take him! You should be proud of
such a little momser for a son ! Take him, and here
you got back his birthday dollar. A f eedle ! Honest
when I think on it a f eedle!"

Such a rush of outrage seemed fairly to strangle
Mr. Kantor that he stood, hand still upraised,
choking and inarticulate above the now frankly
howling huddle of his son.

"Abrahm, you should just once touch this child!
How he trembles! Leon mamma's baby what is
it? Is this how you come back when papa takes
you out to buy your birthday present? Ain't you

Mouth distended to a large and blackly hollow O,
Leon, between terrifying spells of breath-holding,
continued to howl.

"All the way to Naftel's toy-store I drag him.
A birthday present for a dollar his mother wants he
should have, all right, a birthday present! I give
you my word till I'm ashamed for Naftel, every toy
in his shelves is pulled down. Such a cow that
shakes with his head "

"No no no!" This from young Leon, beating
at his mother's skirts.

Again the upraised but never quite descending
hand of his father.

"By golly! I'll 'no no' you!"

"Abrahm go 'way! Baby, what did papa do?"

Then Mr. Kantor broke into an actual tarantella
of rage, his hands palms up and dancing.

"What did papa do?' she asks. She's got easy
asking. 'What did papa do?' The whole shop, I



tell you. A sheep with a baa inside when you
squeeze on him games a horn so he can holler
my head off such a knife like Izzie's with a scissors
in it. 'Leon,' I said, ashamed for Naftel, 'that's
a fine knife like Izzie's so you can cut up with. All
right, then' when I see how he hollers 'such a
box full of soldiers to have war with.' 'Dollar
seventy-five,' says Naftel. 'All right, then,' I says,
when I seen how he keeps hollering. 'Give you a
dollar fifteen for 'em.' I should make myself small
for fifteen cents more. 'Dollar fifteen,' I says
anything so he should shut up with his hollering for
what he seen in the window."

"He seen something in the window he wanted,

"Didn't I tell you? A feedle! A four-dollar
feedle! A moosicer, so we should have another
feedler in the family for some thirty-cents lessons."

"Abrahm you mean he our Leon wanted a

"'Wanted,' she says. I could potch him again
this minute for how he wanted it! Du you little
bum you chammer momser I'll feedle you!"

Across Mrs. Kantor's face, as she knelt there in
the shapeless cotton-stuff uniform of poverty,
through the very tenement of her body, a light
had flashed up into her eyes. She drew her son
closer, crushing his puny cheek up against hers,
cupping his bristly little head in her by no means
immaculate palms.

"He wanted a violin! It's come, Abrahm!
The dream of all my life my prayers it's come!


I knew it must be one of my children if I waited
long enough and prayed enough. A musician!
He wants a violin ! He cried for a violin ! My baby !
Why, darlink, mamma '11 sell her clothes off her back
to get you a violin. He's a musician, Abrahm!
I should have known it the way he's fooling always
around the chimes and the bells in the store!''

Then Mr. Kantor took to rocking his head be-
tween his palms.

"Oi oi! The mother is crazier as her son. A
moosician! A Jresser, you mean. Such an eater,
it's a wonder he ain't twice too big instead of twice
too little for his age."

"That's a sign, Abrahm; geniuses, they all eat big.
For all we know, he's a genius. I swear to you,
Abrahm, all the months before he was born I prayed
for it. Each one before they came, I prayed it should
be the one. I thought that time the way our Isadore
ran after the organ-grinder he would be the one.
How could I know it was the monkey he wanted?
When Isadore wouldn't take to it I prayed my next
one, and then my next one, should have the talent.
I've prayed for it, Abrahm. If he wants a violin,
please, he should have it."

"Not with my money."

"With mine! I've got enough saved, Abrahm.
Them three extra dollars right here inside my own
waist. Just that much for that cape down on
Grand Street. I wouldn't have it now, the way
they say the wind blows up them "

"I tell you the woman's crazy

"I feel it! I know he's got talent! I know my



children so well. A a father don't understand.
I'm so next to them. It's like I can tell always
everything that will happen to them it's like a
pain somewheres here like in back of my heart."

"A pain in the heart she gets."

"For my own children I'm always a prophet, I
tell you! You think I didn't know that that ter-
rible night after the pogrom after we got out of
Kief to across the border! You remember, Abrahm,
how I predicted it to you then how our Mannie
would be born too soon and and not right from
my suffering ! Did it happen on the ship to America
just the way I said it would? Did it happen just
exactly how I predicted our Izzie would break his
leg that time playing on the fire-escape? I tell you,
Abrahm, I get a real pain here under my heart that
tells me what comes to my children. Didn't I
tell you how Esther would be the first in her con-
firmation-class and our baby Boris would be red-
headed ? At only five years, our Leon all by himself
cries for a fiddle get it for him, Abrahm get it
for him!"

"I tell you, Sarah, I got a crazy woman for a wife!
It ain't enough we celebrate eight birthdays a year
with one-dollar presents each time and copper goods
every day higher. It ain't enough that right
to-morrow I got a fifty-dollar note over me from Sol
Ginsberg; a four-dollar present she wants for a
child that don't even know the name of a feedle."

"Leon, baby, stop hollering. Papa will go back
and get the fiddle for you now before supper. See,
mamma's got money here in her waist "



"Papa will go back for the feedle not three dol-
lars she's saved for herself he can holler out of her
for a feedle!"

"Abrahm, he's screaming so he he'll have a fit."

"He should have two fits."

"Darlink "

"I tell you the way you spoil your children it will
some day come back on us."

"It's his birthday night, Abrahm five years
since his little head first lay on the pillow next to

"All right all right drive me crazy because he's
got a birthday."

"Leon baby if you don't stop hollering you'll
make yourself sick. Abrahm, I never saw him like
this he's green "

"I'll green him. Where is that old feedle from
Isadore that seventy-five-cents one?"

"I never thought of that ! You broke it that time
you got mad at Isadore's lessons. I'll run down.
Maybe it's with the junk behind the store. I
never thought of that fiddle. Leon darlink wait!
Mamma '11 run down and look. Wait, Leon, till
mamma finds you a fiddle."

The raucous screams stopped then, suddenly, and
on their very lustiest crest, leaving an echoing
gash across silence. On willing feet of haste Mrs.
Kantor wound down backward the high, ladder-like
staircase that led to the brass-shop.

Meanwhile to a gnawing consciousness of dinner-
hour had assembled the house of Kantor. Attuned
to the intimate atmosphere of the tenement which

13 '


is so constantly rent with cry of child, child-bearing,
delirium, delirium tremens, Leon Kantor had howled
no impression into the motley din of things. There
were Isadore, already astride his chair, leaning well
into center table, for first vociferous tear at the
four-pound loaf; Esther, old at chores, settling an
infant into the high chair, careful of tiny fingers in
lowering the wooden bib.

"Papa, Izzie's eating first again."

"Put down that loaf and wait until your mother
dishes up, or you'll get a potch you won't soon

"Say, pop-

" Don't 'say, pop' me! I don't want no street-
bum freshness from you!"

"I mean, papa, there was an up-town swell in,
and she bought one of them seventy-five-cent candle-
sticks for the first price."

"Schlemmil! Chammer!" said Mr. Kantor, rinsing
his hands at the sink. "Didn't I always tell you
it's the first price, times two, when you see up-town
business come in? Haven't I learned it to you often
enough a slummer must pay for her nosiness?"

There entered then, on poor, shuffling feet, Man-
nie Kantor, so marred in the mysterious and ceramic
process of life that the brain and the soul had
stayed back sooner than inhabit him. Seventeen
in years, in the down upon his face and in growth
unretarded by any great nervosity of system, his
vacuity of face was not that of childhood, but rather
as if his light eyes were peering out from some
hinterland and wanting so terribly and so dumbly



to communicate what they beheld to brain-cells
closed against himself.

At sight of Mannie, Leon Kantor, the tears still
wetly and dirtily down his cheeks, left off his black,
fierce-eyed stare of waiting long enough to smile,
darkly, it is true, but sweetly.

"Giddy-app!" he cried. "Giddy-app!"

And then Mannie, true to habit, would scamper
and scamper.

Up out of the traplike stair-opening came the head
of Mrs. Kantor, disheveled and a smudge of soot
across her face, but beneath her arm, triumphant, a
violin of one string and a broken back.

"See, Leon what mamma got! A violin! A
fiddle! Look! The bow, too, I found. It ain't
much, baby, but it's a fiddle."

"Aw, ma that's my old violin. Gimme. I want
it. Where'd you find"

"Hush up, Izzie! This ain't yours no more.
See, Leon, what mamma brought you. A violin!"

"Now, you little chammer, you got a feedle, and
if you ever let me hear you holler again for a feedle,
by golly! if I don't"

From his corner, Leon Kantor reached out, taking
the instrument and fitting it beneath his chin, the bow
immediately feeling, surely and lightly, for string.

"Look, Abrahm, he knows how to hold it! What
did I tell you? A child that never in his life seen
a fiddle, except a beggar's on the street!"

Little Esther suddenly cantered down-floor, clap-
ping her chubby hands.

' ' Lookie lookie Leon '"


The baby ceased clattering his spoon against the
wooden bib. A silence seemed to shape itself.

So black and so bristly of head, his little clawlike
hands hovering over the bow, Leon Kantor withdrew
a note, strangely round and given up almost sob-
bingly from the single string. A note of warm
twining quality, like a baby's finger.

"Leon darlink!"

Fumbling for string and for notes the instrument
could not yield up to him, the birdlike mouth began
once more to open widely and terribly into the
orificial O.

It was then Abrahm Kantor came down with a
large hollow resonance of palm against that aperture,
lifting his small son and depositing him plop upon
the family album.

"Take that! By golly! one more whimper out of
you and if I don't make you black-and-blue, birthday
or no birthday! Dish up, Sarah, quick, or I'll give
him something to cry about."

The five pink candles had been lighted, burning
pointedly and with slender little smoke wisps. Re-
garding them owlishly, the tears dried on Leon's
face, his little tongue licking up at them.

"Look how solemn he is, like he was thinking of
something a million miles away except how lucky
he is he should have a pink birthday-cake. Uh
uh uh! Don't you begin to holler again. Here,
I'm putting the feedle next to you. Uh uh

To a meal plentifully ladled out directly from
stove to table, the Kantor family drew up, dipping



first into the rich black soup of the occasion. All
except Mrs. Kantor.

"Esther, you dish up. I'm going somewhere.
I'll be back in a minute."

' ' Where you going , Sarah ? Won 'tit keep until ' '

But even in the face of query, Sarah Kantor was
two flights down and well through the lambent aisles
of the copper-shop. Outside, she broke into run,
along two blocks of the indescribable bazaar atmos-
phere of Grand Street, then one block to the right.

Before Naftel's show-window, a jet of bright gas
burned into a jibberwock land of toys. There was
that in Sarah Kantor's face that was actually lyrical
as, fumbling at the bosom of her dress, she entered.

To Leon Kantor, by who knows what symphonic
scheme of things, life was a chromatic scale, yield-
ing up to him, through throbbing, living nerves of
sheep-gut, the sheerest semitones of man's emotions.

When he tucked his Stradivarius beneath his chin
the book of life seemed suddenly translated to him
in melody. Even Sarah Kantor, who still brewed

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