Our neighborhood was organized around the corner grocery store, where the owner, Mrs. Jacoby, ran a tab for her customers. My mother was very grateful that she never had to pay the bill up front. What she needed to feed our small family never quite matched my father’s paycheck.
Mrs. Jacoby was a large, bustling woman with an enormous bosom, always dressed in an apron over her plain house dress. She and my mother were not exactly friends, but they were allies in poverty and the struggle to raise their children in the crowded tenement. She had a son, David, who was only a year older than me, but whose frailty and extreme shyness made him seem younger. He was what you might call a weakling, pale and undernourished, even though he must have had enough food to eat, with a mother who owned a grocery store. He spent most of his time perched in dark corners of the store, oblivious and unconcerned with the customers, lost in whatever world he created for himself. He never spoke.
When I was in the fourth grade, Mrs. Jacoby asked my mother if I would be willing to tutor him. For whatever reason, she thought I was the model child, or at least one who lived nearby and did reasonably well in school. I was very afraid of my teacher, and though I never earned A’s, I made sure to always earn the highest marks in Conduct. I was also afraid of the other students, especially the boys. Due to my good behavior, I was often assigned to monitor the class while the teacher stepped out. While I would never decline the honor, I could also never bring myself to do what was expected of me. My misbehaving classmates never had to worry about being reported while I was “in charge.”
When my mother approached me with the request to tutor David, she presented it as a foregone conclusion. Still, she must have seen my face contort at the prospect of spending afternoons alone with this strange, unpleasant boy, who I had no charitable inclination towards.
“Go ahead and do it for him,” she ordered me. “Be nice. Mrs. Jacoby is a nice lady. It won’t hurt you to do a good thing for her.”
“I can’t do anything like that,” I told her, “I can’t tutor anybody. He’s older than me. And…” I searched my limited vocabulary for a word that would express the depth of my discomfort. “And he’s repulsive.”
“You’ll do it. Think of it as a mitzvah. He is not the smartest boy, and he’s not well. It won’t take up much of your time. You know what we owe to that woman.”
It was settled. I could rarely deny my mother much of anything; she meant a lot to me, and we were closer than I would ever be to my father. I felt sorry for her in many ways that I could not yet articulate. She had very little, was in a bad marriage, and cried all the time. It troubled me, even though I didn’t understand everything that was going on, and never would.
David came to my house after school and sat next to me at the white enamel kitchen table, the center of action in the house. I learned later, from my mother, that the school wanted to hold him back, and he was unwilling to attend. He was ashamed.
He had a strange, pungent smell, due to illness or lack of hygiene. It was nauseating to sit so close, and I was overcome with disgust. I had classmates and playmates who had lice and rarely bathed, but this smell was different. It suggested something rotting inside him. Along with his pallor, it led me to understand that he was even more ill than I’d assumed. When the sun shined through the kitchen, I could see the blood coursing through his ears. His skin was so white and thin.
Math was not my strongest subject, but David was so far behind me that it barely mattered. I remember trying to teach David to write the number 8. No other number gave him as much difficulty. During our first session, we had to copy an arithmetic problem, and he looked at me blankly, like a dumb beast, and refused to pick up the pencil. I wrote the number on his paper and gestured for him to copy it. He stared at me and then slowly shook his head.
Revulsion hit me, along with instant shame. I would have to take his hand to help him write the number. Steeling myself, I grabbed his pale, clammy hand from where it was resting motionless on the table. He did not flinch. I pushed the pencil between his fingers and guided it toward the paper, pushing against his limp fist to form something roughly similar to a figure 8.
“There,” I said, “Now you do it.”
He did nothing. He didn’t speak or seem angry; he simply sat there, looking through me.
It became the most important thing to me to get him to write that number. But no matter how hard I tried, somehow he couldn’t connect the twirling lines to make them meet. Eventually he shook off my hand with a grunt, and I gave up. I wanted to prove to myself that it wasn’t my fault, that he could do it if I made it as clear and obvious to him as it was to me. I failed.
This was not an isolated incident. I spent more time with David trying to teach him the mechanical skill of writing numbers and symbols, and then performing the arithmetic on those numbers. I understood that there was something physical keeping him from the simple task of writing, but at nine years old, I had few ideas of what it was.
I don’t know if I felt sorry for David so much as sorry for myself, and frustrated by having to do something I didn’t want to do. I didn’t enjoy being with him or near him. My mother used all kinds of persuasive tactics to encourage me to help him, reminding me that we needed to stay on Mrs. Jacoby’s good side in order to keep eating, and so I did what I had to do to please her. It didn’t get very far. Eventually my mother told me that David wasn’t coming anymore. I did not ask why; I was too pleased to be released from the chore.
One day shortly after David stopped coming, Mrs. Jacoby came to visit with a huge box. My mother led her to where I was sitting in the kitchen, doing my own homework, and she held it out to me.
“Go ahead,” she said, “Take it, open it.” Unaccustomed as I was to receiving gifts, I didn’t know what to expect. I opened the box with crinkling tissue paper inside, and my anticipation increased.
I pulled back the layers of paper to reveal a blue raincoat. A raincoat was not the sort of thing my mother would ever have spent our money on; if it rained, you were supposed to do the best you could to run between the raindrops and get home. Here was a raincoat, a blue plastic garment, that I never would have dreamed of owning, and now it was mine.
As I was trying it on in front of the mirror in my mother’s room, I heard them talking in hushed voices, and I strained to hear. Mrs. Jacoby was crying.
“Something has to be done,” she was telling my mother. “He can’t go on being sick, or else… I’ll lose him altogether. I have enough saved…”
“But what will you do after?”
“I don’t know. If only Moe were alive, I’d be able to ask him what to do. I’m alone with this. He’s only a child. He’s my only child. If I were to lose him…”
This was all I heard before I shut myself in the bathroom, afraid of hearing anything else and ashamed of my eavesdropping. I looked at the shiny blue raincoat around me, overwhelmed that Mrs. Jacoby would think of me, after I was so unwilling to help her son, and in the midst of her troubles. It was profound guilt.
I don’t know what happened to David and Mrs. Jacoby after they left. The most I understand was that he went somewhere else to have a better chance of recovery. Either way, my mother never formed a bond with anyone else in our building, or our city, like the one she had with Mrs. Jacoby. She liked her despite her overwhelming problems, and perhaps she liked knowing that those problems weren’t hers.
As for me, I never recovered my secret shame over how David frustrated and repulsed me, but I did hold in my memory the one afternoon, several weeks into his tutelage when he did manage, just once, to form the number 8.